Pain-Free High-Performance Pressing In 10 Minutes

Christian Thibaudeau

Co-founder of Thibarmy, Trainer

Articles, Rehab, mobility & injury prevention, Strength and performance

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Pain-Free High-Performance Pressing In 10 Minutes

Pain-Free High-Performance Pressing In 10 Minutes

You know what sucks the most when it comes to training? Not being able to do things that you were once great at not so long ago. Or seeing your performance slowly decrease, often due to an injury that limits your training. The three lifts that seem to be the most affected are the bench press, the military press (pressing) and the squat. In my case it was the bench press, which used to be my favorite lift.

I’ve gone from bench pressing 445lbs to having trouble getting 295lbs to barely making 225lbs, to not being able to bench press more than the bar. And I was gaining strength in my squat, deadlift and back exercises so it wasn’t old age or another physiological element.

It turns out that my shoulder pain and inflammation caused some nerve compression, which inhibited the recruitment of the triceps, deltoids and biceps. This led to a pretty drastic atrophy of these muscles and thus, lousy bench press performance.

Thanks to Dr. John Rusin, I understood the need for proper workout preparation and it literally saved my bench press and upper body musculature. In just a few weeks I am now able to bench press without pain and my upper body is already showing very positive sings of improvements.

You don’t have shoulder problems? Well don’t wait until you do to apply the routine I’m about to show you. Had I applied it when I was bench pressing monster weights, I would likely have avoided the problem in the first place!

Pain-Free High-Performance Pressing In 10 Minutes

The activation procedure from this article will…

  1. Help solve shoulder problems preventing you from bench pressing or shoulder pressing pain-free
  1. Help prevent potential shoulder issues that could come to haunt you down the road.
  1. Improve performance by preparing your body for the heavy lifting ahead both by amping up the CNS, increasing the efficacy of the peripheral nervous system (improving specific muscle recruitment) and minimizing nerve compression.

It’s a 4 steps process plus one in-workout strategy that is to be done prior to every pressing session (if your main lift is either a bench press variation or an overhead lift variation) that should take you between 10 to 15 minutes. Well worth it considering all the good that it does.

Step 1 – CNS Activation

Dr. Philippe Croisetiere is a chiropractor I work with and he is specialized in the nervous system. One of his principles is that you can’t properly activate a specific muscle or region if the central nervous system is not already activated. So all those drills to “fire your glutes” or “wake up your rotator cuff” will not be nearly as effective if you didn’t activate the “computer” first.

Specific activation makes a muscle (neuromuscular junction) more sensitive to the neural drive. But if the main computer (CNS) is not efficient at sending the signal you won’t get much out of the specific work.

So the first thing to do (after a general warm-up to elevate body temperature) is to use an explosive drill to fire up that CNS. Any type of explosive activity will do. But I actually prefer to use either a jump variation or prowler sprints. We don’t want to use the upper body too much at this point.

2-3 sets of 5 jumps (box jumps, vertical jump, jumping with a KB, hurdle jump, etc.) or 2-3 20-30m sprints with a light load on the prowler is optimal to get that CNS revving up!

Step 2 – Prepare The Shoulder

 The first thing to do is to make sure that the shoulders are not stiff when you start the workout. That is the best way to have bad muscle recruitment and improper mechanics. You also want to increase blood flow to the area to “warm it up”. It will also start to increase the sensitivity of all the shoulder girdle muscles to the neural drive.

We start with a superset of two exercises: the band shoulder dislocates and weighted shoulder circles.

I like to use bands for the shoulder dislocates, as it’s much gentler than using a stick (which is often used by Olympic lifters). The band tension also creates some muscle activation which makes it more of an active mobility movement and I find it much more transferable to lifting exercises.

Always keep your arms straight and as you get better at it you can grab the band with a narrower grip to increase the tension. I recommend doing anywhere between 8 to 12 reps. Start slow at first but gradually go a bit faster as you get more comfortable.

BONUS TIP: If you feel a “sore spot” at any point in the range of motion I recommend doing slow partial reps or isometric holds at that position until the soreness subsides.

For the shoulder circles, I recommend using both smaller and larger circles, no need for a specific ratio, just play with it to get the most thorough effect possible. While you don’t have to go super slow, control the movement, don’t do a crazy windmill! Again, 8-12 reps per direction are to be done.

You do this first superset 2 or 3 times. I recommend 3 times for the first 3 weeks and as your shoulders become more mobile, 2 will be enough.

Step 3 – Improve Stabilization

The next drill is the bottoms-up kettlebell press. An amazing drill to improve the precision of the pressing mechanics and also to train your body to stabilize the shoulder. Years ago, I found that doing overhead work prior to bench pressing led to superior bench pressing performance, likely because it better prepared the shoulder.

With this drill you can get that benefit without having to use very heavy weights, thus avoiding fatigue that might decrease bench press performance.

Note that I’m still working on shoulder mobility. When I’m pressing with my left arm (the formerly injured shoulder) I don’t yet have a full range of motion, the press should be in a slightly more pronounced backward arc.

2-3 sets of 8-12 reps per arm is optimal, but don’t go to the point of feeling a lot of muscle fatigue, you should feel a slightly pump at the most.

Step 4 – Activate The Pectoral And Stretch Them

Because of “geared” powerlifters (using a bench press shirt), the common belief is that the bench press is mostly a triceps exercise and that the pectorals actually play a limited role. Understand that geared powerlifters wear a shirt that basically does most of the work in the range of motion where the pectorals are key.

So in their case, it is true that the pecs are a secondary muscle. For those of us who bench press without supportive gear, the pectorals are the most important muscle in the bench press.

If your pectorals are strong and activated, the CNS will rely more on that muscle to do the job. Which means that the deltoids will not be loaded up as much. This reduces the chances of a shoulder injury. The pectoral is a much stronger muscle that the deltoid, so becoming better at utilizing your pecs when bench pressing will lead to bigger numbers.

So prior to bench pressing we want to activate the pectorals (making them more responsive to the neural drive), but we also want to stretch them out to avoid pulls and tears. Stretching them in a loaded fashion is key, as static stretching will have no benefit to the bench press performance it might even decrease it.

The final preparation drill is a superset of the DB squeeze press and DB flies.

In the squeeze press you press two dumbbells against each other as you press them up. When using that exercise to build muscle we want to squeeze in as hard as humanly possible and go up really slow, but when using it as an activation exercise we want to use about a 75% effort when squeezing in and go up at a controlled, but not slow speed.

We want to “wake up’ the pecs, but not burn them out. You do 8-12 reps then immediately move on to the dumbbell flies, on which you gradually try to use a greater range of motion to stretch the pecs. Do 8-12 reps here too.

Step 5 – Start Your Workout And Use An Antagonist Action

 You are now ready to start your pressing workout. By following these steps you will have more stable shoulders, a stronger pectoral contraction (thus better stimulation) and an optimized muscle fiber recruitment. All of which will increase your performance, gains and safety.

But there is another thing you can do to improve your pressing work: utilize antagonistic exercises between sets of pressing. This means working opposing muscles between sets of bench pressing.

This can be done two ways. You could use a A1 / A2 pairing where you do the bench press variation as A1, rest 90-120 seconds then do an horizontal rowing exercise as A2, rest 90-120 seconds and go back to the bench press, etc.

Or you can use a “minor” exercise for the rear delts/rhomdoids between sets of bench press. Something like a band pull-apart or rear delts machine.

In the first example I’m using a fairly challenging back exercise along with the bench press. This has the benefit of making sure that the pulling muscles are not out of balance with the pressing ones and is better for building overall muscle mass. On the other hand doing a heavy bench press and a heavy rowing can affect performance on one of the two (or both) due to accumulated neural fatigue.

In the second approach, you will not get a decrease in bench pressing performance due to fatigue since we are using a minor exercise but you get the benefit of improving recruitment in those supporting muscles. But on the downside it will not build as much back mass as the first option.

So I would recommend the first option (Bench press / Rowing variation) when training more for hypertrophy (sets of 6-12 reps) and the second approach (Bench press / Rear delts, rhomboid minor exercise) when training the bench press for strength (sets of 1-5 reps).

Here are two antagonist exercises that I really like when bench pressing heavy.

The first one is the band pull-apart with external rotation. Note that in the first two reps I separate the pull-apart and the external rotation actions to show you what I mean by external rotation then I do the reps as you are supposed to do them.

The second exercise uses the pec deck machine where a rear delt raise fly with supinated grip is performed. This position will both stretch the internal rotators that get tensed from bench pressing and strengthen hard to get muscles of the shoulder girdle. As an additional tip, try to press in the handle with your pinky finger to get better activation.


10-15 minutes is really not a long time to invest in order to get a good improvement in performance, muscle recruitment (growth!) and shoulder health. Don’t wait until you have a problem to take positive measures to optimize your training. Apply these 5 steps and you will see a drastic difference in the quality of your pressing workouts and a faster progression.

— CT