- May 13, 2016
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Upper-Back Isometrics and Shoulder Pain
Strengthen your upper back with isometric exercises to eliminate shoulder pain when bench pressing. Here’s how.
The barbell bench press is the universal standard for upper-body strength, but it’s also one of the most injury-inducing exercises.
So what exactly gets injured the most when benching? Generally, the anterior part 50 of the shoulder. There could be several reasons for pain in that area, but one of the most common culprits is a lack of upper-back muscular endurance and stability.
The usual exercise recommendations (like rows, rear-delt flyes, and face pulls 15) don’t quite do the trick. Why? They neglect two major strength factors needed for a powerful and pain-free bench press: positional endurance and stability for the trapezius, rear delts, and rotator cuff muscles.
This is where isometrics come in. The upper back should act as a “catcher” for the barbell in the bottom position of a bench press. If performed correctly, you should almost feel like you’re rowing the barbell into your chest as you lower it.
Once you “catch” the barbell with your upper back at the bottom of the lift, you should be able to initiate the concentric or lifting portion without losing upper back tightness or letting your shoulder blades protract as they press.
Losing that stability and allowing the shoulder blades to protract, especially at the very top of the bench press, is where so many shoulder injuries occur because the head of the humerus is no longer centrated in the glenoid fossa (the ball is out of the socket). This puts all the stress of the weight on the shoulder joint and connective tissue instead of the pecs. This can cause impingements, strains, or tears of the rotator cuff muscles and anterior delts.
Here are five exercises to greatly improve your upper back positional endurance and stability and make bench-pressing injuries a thing of the past:
1. Retraction HoldThis exercise enhances the isometric strength of the trapezius, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi – the muscles responsible for shoulder blade retraction.
- Pick a Smith machine height that allows you to be at a body angle of at least 60 degrees.
- Walk yourself into the position to perform a bodyweight row. Engage your core, drive your heels into the ground, and keep your head neutral.
- Keep your elbows locked out and turned in (think about cracking the bar in half).
- Once in position with arms straight and shoulders completely protracted, pull the shoulder blades back as far as you can.
- Hold that position for 5-10 seconds and repeat for 2-5 reps per set.
2. Row HoldThis move takes the first exercise one step further.
- Complete all the instructions from the isometric retraction hold, then pull your chest to the bar and hold for 10 seconds.
- Visualize this position as a replica of the arm and shoulder position at the bottom of a bench press.
- Make sure the bar touches your chest in the same place the barbell would while benching. Try to pull your chest through the bar.
- Keep your traps down and away from your ears. Keep your elbows tucked in.
- Do three reps per set.
3. Rear-Delt Row HoldThis row variation targets many of the same upper back muscles as the Smith machine row hold but with a greater emphasis on the rear delts.
- Row the dumbbells up at a 45-degree angle away from your torso, as shown in the video. This angle of pull is where the rear delts have the highest amount of leverage.
- Drive the dumbbells up with the intention of “pinching a pencil” in the middle of your traps.
- Hold for 5-10 seconds and lower the dumbbells as slowly as you can back to the starting position.
4. Banded-A Iso HoldThis 45-degree isometric exercise trains the rear delts and upper, middle, and lower traps.
- Attach two bands to an apparatus that’s about mid-shin height.
- Loop the bands around your wrists and back up until you have sufficient tension.
- Hinge into position where your hands are just past your kneecaps.
- With elbows locked out, drive your arms behind you at a 45-degree angle.
- If you look at yourself in the mirror, your arms should form an “A” shape relative to your torso.
- Squeeze your upper back muscles actively and hold this position for 5-10 seconds.
5. Reverse-Band Pause Bench PressThis exercise helps you get your intentions right when lowering the bar to your chest on a bench press. Intentions? Yep. A great presser doesn’t let the bar fall to their chest but rather rows the barbell down into pressing position.
- Attach two moderate-resistance bands to the top of a power rack right over the barbell setup.
- Loop the bands inside the weight sleeves so that they have no chance of slipping off.
- Once you’re in benching position, notice the tension of the bands. This is what forces you to actively pull the barbell into your chest.
- Hold that bottom position for 5-10 seconds, then press the bar away without letting your upper back lose tension.