I've posted on this forum before, often to inquire about how to bench without shoulder pain. As of recent, I've discovered many ways for lifters who wish to bench heavy, but constantly feel pain. Since last year after tearing a pec and subsequently losing my health insurance, I've had to find ways to lift pain free again with my own research while using myself as a test subject.
Here are some tips that worked for me who for those who've felt pain but wish to continue benching. Aside from the obvious,i.e proper warm up of active joints in benching (John Rusin posted a great article on this which is definitely worth the read called "pain free bench" here at T-Nation), not jumping into maximal loads or benching like a moron, here are some tips:
1) Take care of the upper back, mainly the lower traps/external rotators.
When I tore my pec, the MRI showed two diagnosis: Total rupture of Pectoralis major,and tendenosis of the external rotators. Now, the first seemed to be of higher priority, and I successfully had my pec reattached, so after rehab and returning to push ups, why did my shoulder hurt so bad through my front deltoid and down my biceps?
Anyone who benches should all ready know this but the external rotators are comprised of the suprispinaus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. These muscles control movement of the scapula, which stability within this bone is of up most importance in benching.
My infra and suprispinatus were noted as the main affected muscles of tendenosis. I quickly read how the infraspinatus can be the cause of pain all through the arm and shoulder,so I got a tennis ball and got it all up in there like a wedgie. It's painful, but getting to those trigger points can really open up that area. If you can afford ART, do that instead.
After we've opened up the area, It's important to strengthen those muscles. Upper back can be trained before, during and after benching via rows, the use of bands, d-bells, kettlebells, etc with an emphasis on squeezing the shoulder blades, i.e. scapulae, together. The rotator cuff training, however should be done AFTER heavy training. I recommend Eric Cressey's list found here at T-Nation.
2) Switch to a Decline bench for a while.
I don't have a decline bench at my gym. No one benches decline there but that doesn't mean you can't. The decline allowed my shoulder to sit comfortably back and tucked into the GH joint. It also reduces the ROM of a full range bench,as your sternum is closer to the bar.
To perform this without a bench, simply slip some 45 plates under the front of the bench, or bench with your feet ON the bench, a tip I learned in John Gaglione's Bench press tips article here at T-Nation.
3) WIDEN your grip
People have said switching to close grip is much better for your shoulder, however for me this wasn't the case. Do this simple test. Stand up and put your arm out in front of you making two fists and bring them together, as if you're about to do an extremely close grip bench. Not the position of your shoulder.
Now, pull your arms out like you're doing a band pull apart and see how your shoulders open up and are much more externally rotated. This also allows you to really squeeze your upper back! many may say "well, isn't elbow flare i.e. the guillotine press, bad for your shoulders? If you're benching correctly, shoulders pulled down and upper back tight, there should still be an angle of the elbows relative to the body, of 45 degrees.
The bar should touch below the chest in order to do this correctly, and the elbows will remain under the bar, with no internal rotation. Start light on this exercise. It worked for Dave Tate!
4) Use a Thicker Bar when you bench!
I have really long fingers, and arms, the latter not being beneficial to benching. I found however, with a fatter bar, my shoulder pain decreased exponentially! I believe this is because with mylong fingers, the bar is much easier to keep stillin my hands. This has increased wrist, elbow and thus shoulder stability.
Plus it's much easier to grip a bar hard when your fingers aren't jamming into your hand! Some gyms don't have a fat bar. To remedy this, you can purchase Fat Grips which are essentially handles that attach to a barbell and provided a thicker grip for training. You can also wrap small hand towels around the bar and grip the bar this way. Make sure the towels aren't sweaty or slick, and are nice and tightly rolled, as losing your grip in a bench is not an option! Some gyms also have those little pads for people to squat without the bar pressing into their back. These can also serve is all else fails.
5) learn to Bench properly!
There are dozens of articles here at T-Nation so I won't touch on it here.
These little things have helped me return to benching heavy and pain free. If you have pain and can afford, see a doctor. These are by no means, scientific, but are based on my experience, which may differ from yours. If you're like me and can't afford a doctor visit or are uninsured, train smart, don't do things that hurt and try some of these tips. They might prevent an emergency trip to the E.R. along with a lightened wallet and short training career.