Last updated on October 23rd, 2022 at 04:46 pm
You can walk into any gym, at any time, and you’ll typically see the bench press area packed with enthusiastic lifters.
Let’s face facts, the bench press is probably the most popular exercise ever invented.
However, if you’re someone who benches regularly you may have noticed issues with your shoulders.
This could be aching and sore shoulders whenever you bench, or simply that your shoulder development seems to be lagging behind your chest.
So, I’d like to discuss the numerous bench press variations that are best for both your shoulder health and your shoulder development.
What Type of Bench Press is Best For Shoulders?
The bench press variations that are best for protecting your shoulder health include, close-grip, reverse-grip, 30-degree incline, decline, and board presses. Whereas, increasing the incline of the bench will be best for developing shoulder musculature, typically 45-60 degrees. However, the overhead press is better for both shoulder health and muscular development, plus it can also help to improve your bench press.
1. The Flat Bench Press is Terrible For Shoulders
The flat bench press is definitely one of the worst exercises going in terms of shoulder health.
In fact, while I’m bashing the flat bench press, it isn’t even the best exercise to develop the chest.
And yet, literally every guy who sets foot in a gym for the first time will head straight over to the bench press area.
Every Monday without fail seems to be bench press day in nearly every gym around the world.
Regardless of whether the bench press is actually a decent exercise or not, its allure increases in popularity with every passing year.
One of the main form cues as you set yourself to bench press is to retract your shoulder blades.
The aim here is to provide a stable base, protect your shoulder health, and help you to power through the movement.
However, the simple fact that your shoulder blades are pinned to a bench means they are unable to move naturally whenever you bench press.
What I mean by this is that whenever you move your hands your shoulder blades should move as well.
But, while you’re lowering a barbell towards your chest during the bench press, unfortunately your shoulder blades have nowhere to go.
And this is why I say that the flat bench press is terrible for your shoulders.
With that being said, there are bench press variations that are much better for your shoulders.
And this is true even if your shoulders are still pinned in the same position.
So, let’s look at some of these now.
2. Types of Bench Press Best For Shoulder Health
To be honest, pretty much every single variation of the bench press will be better for your shoulders than flat bench.
That is just how bad the flat bench press can be for your shoulders.
I’ll even go as far to say that there are many of us who shouldn’t be flat benching at all.
Basically, if you’re someone who feels a shoulder twinge even if you just look at a bench, it’s probably time to find something that’s healthier for your shoulders.
Anyway, here are the bench press variations you should use in order to protect your shoulders.
Close-Grip Bench Press
One of the worst things for your shoulders is allowing your elbows to flare out when you bench.
In fact, the same can be said for any pressing/pushing exercise.
When your shoulders flare out you put your shoulders in an unstable and vulnerable position.
This is generally why you’ll hear that you should “tuck your elbows” when you bench.
Admittedly, having a wider grip and allowing your elbows to flare will target your pecs much more when you bench press.
However, you’ll never achieve that prized chiselled chest if you ruin your shoulders in the meantime.
Close-grip simply means that your hands should be around shoulder-width apart or just slightly less.
Don’t take on too narrow a grip, as this once again can impact on your shoulder health.
Having your hands 12 inches apart should suffice for most people.
Decline Bench Press
You’ll experience shoulder flexion whenever you bench press.
Now, even though the normal range of shoulder flexion is 180 degrees, this doesn’t take into consideration doing so while holding a heavy load.
However, many people experience the symptoms of shoulder impingement when shoulder flexion reaches 80-90 degrees during the bench press.
By this I mean that their shoulders will light up, perhaps feel quite painful, and limit proper benching technique.
With that being said, the decline bench press will typically require 10-15 degrees less shoulder flexion than the flat bench.
So, even though your shoulders are still pinned to a bench, decline bench press is definitely healthier on the shoulders.
Reverse Grip Bench Press
The reverse grip bench press is typically used to target the upper chest and triceps to greater effect.
And one thing’s for sure, it definitely does.
In fact, it is estimated that you’ll increase upper pec activity in the bench press by up to 30% simply by reversing your hands on the bar.
It’s also true that the reverse grip bench press will fire up your triceps much more than the standard bench press.
Plus, simply by turning your hands around you provide much more protection for the shoulder joints.
The board press is probably one of the most underutilized bench press variations.
However, it does offer many benefits.
Board presses will limit your overall range of motion, which means that you won’t get squashed at the bottom of the bench press.
This is generally when your shoulders are most susceptible.
However, by stopping short of the chest you can protect your shoulders, as well as working the bench press movement pattern.
Plus, board presses are much better for tricep development too.
You also have the opportunity bench with more weight due to the limited range of motion.
In a way you can train your Central Nervous System to handle more weight during bench presses.
3. Types of Bench Press Best For Shoulder Muscular Development
Pure and simple, I wouldn’t specifically want to focus on the bench press in order to develop my shoulders.
Yes, the standard bench press, and the many variations, will always work your shoulders.
However, this is much more the front delts than your overall shoulders.
This is also why I believe that if you’re someone who benches regularly, there really is no need to train the front delts separately.
So, if you bench press every single week, and even more than once a week, then drop the front raises – you don’t need them.
With that being said, the most obvious way to incorporate more shoulder activation during bench presses is to use an incline.
There is much debate over the best bench press angle, but suffice to say, the higher the incline the more you’ll be hitting your shoulders.
For me, the perfect incline bench press angle is 30 degrees.
The 30-degree angle also happens to be better for your shoulder health than the flat bench.
Additionally, you can go through a greater range of motion, which means that there is the potential for better muscular development.
However, if you increase the angle to 45 or even 60 degrees you’ll hit the shoulders to even greater effect.
You’ll still hit your upper chest really well at both 45 and 60 degrees, but your shoulders definitely come more into play.
Plus, don’t forget that you’ll generally have to go lighter as the incline increases.
How to Incline Bench Press – 3 Golden Rules
4. Bench Press vs. Overhead Press
You’re never going to beat training the shoulders directly if you’re looking to increase muscle mass.
So, the bench press simply won’t cut it when compared to the overhead press.
I would also say that the overhead press is by far the better upper body pressing exercise.
In fact, the overhead press hits far more upper body musculature than the bench press.
And yet, it’s still nowhere as popular.
The bench press not only puts your shoulders into a precarious position, but it does little more than target the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
When it comes to pressing overhead, you’re obviously hitting the shoulders much more.
Plus, you’ll still hit the upper chest to some degree, but not the overall chest workout than the bench press offers.
With that being said, the overhead press brings your abdominals, obliques, spinae erectors, and even your traps and lats into the equation.
Additionally, you’ll actually find that regular overhead pressing can improve your bench press.
The same cannot be said the other way around.
So, if you really want to protect your shoulder health and increase shoulder musculature, then you must press overhead.
And don’t forget, it will improve your bench press as well.
So, as you can see, just about any bench press variation barring the flat bench press is best for your shoulders.
This means in terms of your overall shoulder health and indeed building muscle mass in your shoulders.
The flat bench press puts your shoulders in the most precarious position and can typically lead to shoulder pain/impingement.
However, variations such as close-grip, reverse-grip, decline, board presses, and even 30-degree incline, will be much better for your shoulders.
Obviously,.the greater the incline, the more you’ll work your shoulders while bench pressing.
But if you want to improve shoulder health and musculature then you must press overhead (and it will also improve your bench press).
Check out my review of Lee Hayward’s Blast Your Bench Workout Program. This is a 3-week specialization program aimed at increasing your bench press by 51lbs in just 3 weeks.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.