woman pressing barbell overhead

How To Prevent Shoulder Pain When Pressing

Whether working in a physiotherapy clinic, or simply working out in the gym, a lot of people will give me an insight into their symptoms of shoulder pain throughout pressing movements. The fact that people get shoulder pain when performing some of their favourite movements such as their bench press and shoulder press is very….dePRESSING.

There are two common themes that I see in these patients, and when we adjust these movements, we almost always make a change to their symptoms. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a wizard, and to say everyone’s shoulder pain completely disappears from these simple changes would be a complete lie. But the fact that we can reduce the symptoms in your shoulder muscles suggests that we are on the ball and we are on our way to making a long term change. So let’s get into it!

Elbow Position

Commonly when observing patients I will see them pressing with their elbows flared out to the side. Not only does that put our shoulder in a vulnerable position, but it creates excess stress in the shoulder joint that can predispose you to injury, like rotator cuff injuries. Therefore we want to change this position to having our elbows in closer to our body to reduce this risk on our shoulder joint. Check out the cues below that I use with patients during barbell and/or dumbbell pressing to make these positional changes.

Barbell Shoulder Press – Grip 

Try adjusting your grip to just slightly outside your shoulders. This will allow you to keep your shoulder joint in the most comfortable position to keep your elbows in close to your body.

Shoulder Press Elbow Position With Barbell

Barbell Bench Press – Bend the Bar in Half

Keeping your elbows in while bringing the bar down to your chest when bench pressing can be quite hard to teach. As you bring the bar down to your chest, try to bend the bar in half by retracting and squeezing your shoulder blades together. That will facilitate optimal elbow positioning. 

Barbell Bench Press Elbow Position

DB Shoulder Press and Bench Press – Wrists at 45 degrees (pinky finger facing in front)

As seen in the second photo, the wrists are turned in at a 45 degree angle. This makes it easier to keep your elbows closer to your side. 

Seated Shoulder Press Dumbell Press Movement
Elbow Position For Dumbell Bench Press

Shoulder Positioning

Keep your shoulder blades ‘back and down’. Almost imagine that you are trying to tuck your shoulder blades in to the opposite back pocket of a pair of pants. It is so common to see people at the end of their barbell bench press or dumbbell bench press roll their shoulders forwards. Keeping your shoulder blades back and down is going to result in your shoulder joint remaining in a more stable position, and in the long term is going to translate to you lifting heavier weights, pain free. What’s not to love?

Keeping Shoulders “Back and Down” on the Bench:

Barbell Bench Press

Bench Press Barbell Shoulder Position

Dumbbell Chest Press 

Dumbbell Bench Press Shoulder Positioning

Making these simple adjustments to your pressing technique is not only going to allow you to lift heavier in a more stable position, but you’re probably going to feel a better ‘pump’… as the kids call it these days. So when Monday comes along again and you’re training chest or shoulders, I want you to give these technique changes a go to see if we can get rid of that niggly shoulder pain!    

Can I continue to press?

Let’s assume any modifications necessary to your bench press have been made, but you are still getting a niggle in your shoulder joint; especially at the bottom of the movement as you try to press up. Never fear, we can still work with this!

Now don’t get me wrong, I love bench pressing as much as the next guy, but we may need to give your shoulder joint a week or two to calm down… but you can still press!

“So you’re telling me I need to stop bench pressing for a week or two….but I can still bench press?” Kind of.

“You’re a mad man”. Yes!

However, hear me out. We have identified that it is the bottom part of the movement that causes the most shoulder pain, so there is a simple solution. For a couple of weeks, we get rid of the bottom part of the movement, and implement a floor press instead.

As you can see below, I find it particularly easy to set it up on the squat rack. Although it limits shoulder joint range of motion, you can usually go quite heavy with this movement and it is particularly effective in working on your lockout while you are helping to calm your shoulder pain down.

Give it a go!

Barbell Press From Floor In Gym

Tips for continuing to press whilst dealing with niggling shoulder pain

Pressing movements such as the barbell bench press and overhead press are staples of any gym-goers routine, with the bench even having an international day recognising it every week. Unfortunately, due to how often pressing movements are undertaken, and often with non-optimal technique, they can be a common source of pain in the shoulder joint and rotator cuff muscles. Read on below to discover a few tips to train around your pain, whilst still addressing the underlying cause!

Train with a restricted range of motion

In the clinic we commonly see people complaining of shoulder pain during the bottom movement in the bench and overhead press. Whilst dealing with the underlying causes of the pain, whether it be strength or soft tissue restrictions, it is a good idea to keep training in a restricted range of motion.

For bench press, this can include using a variation such as a floor or board press. These two movements restrict you from going into the joint ranges which are typically painful, and allows you to keep some training load on the shoulder joint.
For overhead press, this can be achieved by a pin press or a landmine press. Set the safety pins up in a squat rack so the bar rests at a height that stops short of the range you get shoulder pain during a pin press.

Change your grip

Altering your grip can be a really simple way to continue to train pain free. Typically when we bench or overhead press we use a grip where our palms face away from us. If this grip position is giving you pain, try
changing and pressing with a neutral grip. A neural grip is when our palms face inwards at each other. This is typically a much friendlier position for your shoulder joint if it is a bit grumpy. It also drives more of a tucked arm position instead of flared out, which can help unload the shoulder joint. This grip is easy to change with dumbbells but can be a bit harder with a barbell. A possible change is to use a trap bar for both bench and overhead press (if your gym has one).

If this is causing you shoulder pain….

… then try this grip position!

Neutral Grip Shoulder Pressing Movement 1
If this is causing you shoulder pain….
Neutral Grip Shoulder Pressing Movement 2
… then try this grip position!

Pre-Activation/ Warm Up

If you read our previous blog on tips for keeping your shoulders healthy, you would have seen that we recommend warming your shoulder joint up properly before you lift. Before pressing, try some activation work of your rotator cuff muscles and shoulder blade stabilisers. Having a strong, active base to press from can help keep your shoulder muscles in a good position and stop certain structures getting overloaded and sore.

Try this simple Pre-activation circuit next time before you press:

1. Band pull-apart 3 x 15

Band Pull Apart Shoulder Exercise Start
Band Pull Apart Shoulder Exercise Finish

2. Band shoulder external rotation 3 x 15

Band Shoulder External Rotation Exercise Start
Band Shoulder External Rotation Exercise Finish

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