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More Pressing Issues: Bench Press Stress

The most popular exercise in any gym in North America is the bench press. It has variations: the close- and wide-grip bench presses, the incline press, the lesser-used reverse-grip bench press and the decline press.

The decline press can be set from a very mild angle—20 degrees—to a steeper angle, like 45 degrees or more. Choice of angle is the trainee’s decision, and that’s typically determined by shoulder pain or comfort. As I have addressed in this space previously, the bench press can cause a great deal of shoulder pain. Trainees seek alternative ways to perform it or a movement like it. The most common alternatives are dumbbell bench presses and incline presses. Many trainees find that they can use the incline press without shoulder pain—but only a few try the decline press.

Those who do decline presses and don’t experience the shoulder pain make it a permanent part of their chest routine. We don’t fully understand the reason the decline press hurts less than the flat-bench press. One thing may be what we’ve learned about the ligament in the back of the shoulder—the posterior capsule, or posterior glenohumeral ligament. If it’s too tight, the movement of the ball in the shoulder socket is altered and causes pain and injury. The force of weight in the locked-out position may stretch the posterior capsule. That would certainly feel better because the ball would move more normally in the socket once the capsule stretches—if it stretches at all.

I’ve written about the impingement of the rotator cuff, the biceps tendon and the fluid-filled sac, or cushion, called the subacromial bursa in the shoulder. Those three structures are often entrapped, or impinged, during certain movements like upright rows or lateral raises when the fronts of the dumbbells are turned down. You’d think the decline press could cause a little more impingement, but it doesn’t seem to. A very steep “decline press” would be a traditional dip, and the dip should certainly cause impingement under the roof of the shoulder. Most trainees, though, don’t complain of impingement-like symptoms from dips, although dips can cause other types of shoulder pain, which I’ve addressed before and will again.

Many trainees think the decline press targets only the lower pectoralis major. That’s partially true, but the middle, or sternal, pectoralis major is trained as well. The pec major is a fan-shaped muscle with attachments on the clavicle, sternum and along the ribs. Those three angles of muscle come together to form a tendon that inserts at the upper arm, or humerus.

Many trainees feel they have better chest workouts on the decline press than they ever did on the flat bench. It may be that they were able to keep the deltoid or triceps out of the movement a little more due to the angle of the bench press, thus enabling them to recruit the pecs major more.

When performing the decline press, you must touch the bar low on your chest. It will be very risky to try to touch the bar high on the chest closer to the collarbones. That’s an extreme stretch and places the shoulder in an awkward biomechanical position, which of course increases the risk of injury. Also, if you try a touch position high on the chest, you move into an impingement position, which will certainly cause inflammation and pain.

One last word of warning: Anyone who trains and who has high blood pressure should not perform the decline press. In the decline position, the head is obviously lower than the body, so more blood can move to the head. People who have high blood pressure are at more risk when they are straining while lifting with their head down.

Try adding the decline press to your routine. You may find it becomes a permanent part of your program.

Train smart; then train hard.


Editor’s note: Visit for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the books Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. “Doc” Kreis, D.A., and The 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008, or at


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