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QUESTION: I injured my rotator cuff bench-pressing, but I love it. How can I get back to benching as quickly and as safely as possible? —Sean O., Mattituck, NY
ANSWER: Rotator cuff injuries can be devastating to anyone who enjoys benching. By understanding the function of the rotator cuff and learning to protect it, you can make rotator cuff injuries a nonissue. The tendons of the four rotator cuff muscles grip the head of your arm bone and dynamically hold it in the socket during shoulder movement. If this mechanism fails, the shoulder becomes unstable, resulting in weakness and injuries. Once your doctor and physical therapist clear you to return to bench-pressing, it’s important to take these steps to protect your rotator cuff.
Ask your physical therapist to teach you some rotator cuff–specific exercises that you can do at home. Although it’s smart to warm up shoulders before heavy lifting, it’s important not to do rotator cuff strengthening prior to that lifting. If you fatigue your cuff before heavy lifting, the cuff may fail and injury could occur.
When you return to benching, the tendency is for your ego to write checks your body can’t cash. That’s why I call flat benching the “ego press.” all the injuries i see to the rotator cuff during bench-pressing are the result of these terrible “too’s.” Leave your ego at the door and give yourself time to recover between workouts.
Start with a stable, closed-chain exercise, like the push-up. Build confidence with this movement while you critically analyze your benching form. Keep your elbows at less than a 45-degree angle from your sides; use a shoulder-width grip (avoid a wide grip, as this puts undue strain on the rotator cuff); and line the bar up with your nipples or a spot just below. Also, avoid lowering your elbows below bench level until your range of motion improves.
One of the biggest problems I see with recreational lifters is that they focus too much on one movement, like the bench press. It’s understandable because people at bars don’t ask, “How much you pec flye?” They ask, “How much you bench?” However, to stimulate growth in the entire pec and maximize benching strength, it’s important to hit it from all angles. So do yourself a favor and try different chest exercises and bench angles.
THE DOCTOR IS IN: Victor Prisk, M.D., is a board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon, NCAA All-American gymnast, IFBB professional bodybuilder, GNC medical advisory board member, professional swing dancer, and avid CrossFitter.