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Training Chest Without Trashing Shoulders

A common mistake I’ve made and many others make in lifting is training (sometimes over-training) upper body pressing without proper warm-up or mindfulness of technique and a focus on big barbell lifts for chest development and shoulder development.

When we think about exercises like the bench press, push-ups, or cable flyes we think of them as relatively low-skill exercises when, in fact, they require just as much preparation and focus as the squat, deadlift, or clean. These are simple moves; but simple does not mean we can just slap on 45’s and start cranking away reps.

In another post, How I Warm-Up for EVERY Training Session, I discuss the merits of a thorough warm-up for any workout and specifically how I structure my warm-up for optimal performance and injury prevention. Here are a few chest/upper body pressing day tips, tweaks, and moves that will ensure you sufficiently train the muscles and spare the joints.

Thoracic Spine and Scapular Mobility 

A simple, yet common, relationship in the body is that between hypermobile and hypomobile joints. In order for shoulder health, we need scapular and thoracic spine mobility. If our upper back and shoulder blades are stiff, stuck, or moving improperly our shoulders will try to compensate for that lack of movement leading to unstable, painful, and overused joints. Here are a few things to get the upper back and scapula moving well.

  1. Cat/Cow

  2. Kneeling Thoracic Spine Rotations

  3. Wall Slides

Mobility Pump Sets

In my programs I am all about efficiency; how can we accomplish a few goals in one set or exercise. Enter, mobility pump sets. Here I like to use a very light load on an exercise with a built in stretch for desired body parts. This is not a deep intense stretch, but a short “pulse” into deeper and deeper range of motion. Here are two I like for chest day.

  1. Single Arm Band Flyes

  2. 1/2 Kneeling Band “Rotation” Rows

I use bands for most mobility pump sets when I can so in the stretched position there is the least amount of load on the muscle.

Pressing Power and Stability

As mentioned in an older article, How I Warm-Up for EVERY Training Session, there are many benefits to adding in power exercises prior to strength or hypertrophy training. Power exercises will fire more muscle fibers and induce a phenomenon known as post-activation potentiation (PAP). You can read more about PAP HERE,  or HERE. The basic idea is that the force produced by a muscle is increased due to its previous contraction. How to apply this principle in training? Low load, low volume, high intensity, explosive movements prior to traditional strength exercises. For example, on a bench or pressing day I will do:

  1. Incline Plyometric Push-Ups: 3 sets x 3 reps

  2. Bent Over Ball Push: 3 sets x 3 reps

I like to super-set this movement with a stability exercise, for time and efficiency. The rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder, the SITS muscles, all have one common goal: keep the humeral head in the glenohumeral fossa, aka keep your shoulder in its place. One of my favorite ways to train this function is with crawls and plank variations. Here are a few I will do on a pressing day.

  1. Forward/Backward Bear Crawl

  2. Single Arm High Plank

  3. Swiss Ball High Plank

‘Platform’ Stability

Would you squat on a water bed? No. You shouldn’t press off of an unstable, jiggly surface either. In benching, specifically, our platform is our back. With regard to other pressing movements, a strong back leads to strong shoulders and better transfer of force from the lower body through the core to the upper; i.e. a landmine press where stability is built from the ground up. On a pressing day, I will always include some low load, moderate intensity, high volume back exercises to dial in my platform. Here are a few I have been using recently.

  1. Band Reverse Flyes

  2. Open Hand Face Pulls

  3. Standing Band Arrows

Generally speaking, the overall volume ratio for pulling:pressing should be 3:1. In addition to having 2-3 days of pulling exercises programmed in, front loading your upper body pressing days with 40-60 reps of pulling helps to solidify that ratio.

Ditch the Barbell Flat Bench (for now…)

There is a hard concept in training that I wish I learned when I was younger than 30. Are you ready for it? It’s very complex. You do not have to barbell flat bench, you do not have to barbell back squat, and you do not have to perform conventional deadlifts. Trainers and coaches constantly spout messages like training is not one size fits all, but somehow those three exercises make up the bulk of strength training programs. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with those exercises; it has been my experience with myself and training 100’s of clients over the years that they are some of the most complex movements to master, the most difficult to prepare for, and the most commonly associated with injury. Furthermore, they are not the best ways to develop certain muscle groups, according to some EMG studies provided at the end of this article.

Long story short, with myself and my clients I prefer to use more joint friendly exercises that seem to be more efficient at training the targeted muscle groups. In the case of clients working around injuries, I find that removing these exercises for a short time to focus on other things helps. For upper body pressing I stick to a few of these as staples.

  1. Slight Incline DB Press

  2. Slight Incline DB Squeeze Press

  3. Loaded Pushup

  4. Floor Press

  5. Standing Single Arm Landmine Press

Now, if you want to train for power lifting specifically and wish to compete in meets you MUST perform the bench, squat, and deadlift traditionally and regularly. If you want to train these lifts just because you like these exercises then that is great too, just learn to do them correctly and progress the movements intelligently.

Additional resources for some EMG studies. 

Hip Thrust vs Back Squat for Glutes

The hip thrust seems clearly superior according to this article. 

Barbell Flat Bench vs Other Exercises for Pecs 

Several exercises with dumbbells, cables, and bodyweight are superior to the flat bench for pec development. 

If you feel your shoulders are really banged up, frequently painful, click and pop a ton, etc, please go see a a health professional, chiropractor, or physical therapist to find out way and work together on a remedy. As always, train hard, and drop a line for coaching.

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