I wanted to discuss this common compliant I hear from people at the gym all the time. People often ask me why their shoulder pops/cracks while bench pressing or overhead pressing. Although it may not be associated with pain, it can be quite frustrating and may have an impact on how much force you can generate on the bench press. It is important to address this issue rather than continue to bench or lift through the noise/pain. I am going to discuss the main causes of your shoulder popping while benching as well as ways to fix/prevent this issue from occurring.
Why does my shoulder pop/crack while benching?
The main cause is due to shoulder impingement.
Shoulder impingement can occur due to multiple reasons. The main reason for shoulder impingement is due to rotator cuff tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons). When one of the rotator cuff tendons become inflamed they can easily be compressed/pinched inside your shoulder joint. The rotator cuff consists of four muscles/tendons that all attach to the shoulder and allow the shoulder to move freely in various planes of motion. So if one of these tendons become inflamed there is an increased risk that this tendon gets compressed between your shoulder joint.
This can cause the “popping” sensation that you feel during the bench press. It is quite common for weightlifters to experience shoulder impingement due to the frequent use of the shoulders especially with overhead movements like shoulder press, lateral raises, benching, etc.
-Another cause is a tendon snapping over top of a bone. Usually tendons are in a stable position which allows them to glide and move smoothly along the bone, but at certain times the tendon can quickly move over top of a bone causing a “popping or snapping” sound. This usually is not an issue, but continuously having a tendon snap over a bone can lead to the tendon becoming inflamed due to the friction produced from rubbing on the bone.
-One other cause is shoulder arthritis. Osteoarthritis can cause the normal joint surface to become rough from wear & tear. Normally the joint has a nice smooth outer surface (articular cartilage) but with arthritis this layer is often damaged. So shoulder arthritis can produce a “grinding/popping” noise as your shoulder moves. This noise is from bone moving on another bone without a protective layer. Arthritis is sometimes painful, but the best thing you can do to help reduce pain is move the joint, which will help lubricate the joint.
How do I prevent my shoulder from popping while benching?
The first step to prevent your shoulder from popping while benching is warming up. I recommend people complete at-least a 5-10 minute shoulder warm-up before beginning the bench press. Usually on chest day (Monday), people go in the gym and head straight to the bench press and jump right into their sets. DO NOT DO THIS. This is why I see so many lifters have shoulder injuries or pec strains/tears. It is crucial that you warm up your rotator cuff muscles, and lubricate the shoulder joint before you begin bench pressing or performing any overhead movements.
I recommend warming up by moving your arms/shoulders around in a circle (windmill), upper-body stretches, jumping jacks, and even some push ups to get the joint lubricated and increase your blood flow. Then warm-up the rotator cuff by doing some external/internal rotation exercises with resistant bands or pulleys. Complete about 3 sets of 12-15 reps to get the rotator cuff prepared for some heavy bench pressing. I ALWAYS use resistance bands and perform a few sets of shoulder external rotation before bench pressing. Not warming up properly may be contributing to your shoulder popping during the bench press. Try incorporating this shoulder warm-up before starting your next workout.
The next step is checking your form. The bench press is a great chest exercise, but it can be dangerous for the shoulders with improper form. The bench press puts the shoulders in a very vulnerable position which can lead to injury. With proper form the shoulders can perform much better and are less likely to be put under abnormal stresses.
Things to consider with bench press form; retracting your shoulders, keeping your back against the bench, tucking your elbows closer to your sides, keeping the wrist in a neutral position, and keeping your feet flat on the ground. For example, look at this image. You can see how the elbows are tucked in closer to the sides, and the bar is going down towards the lower chest.
The red lines show improper arm position which puts your shoulders at greater risk of injury. The perfect “T” position puts your shoulders in a vulnerable position, and it is much safer to slightly tuck your elbows closer to your sides. Remember to bring the bar down towards the lower chest, because bringing the bar too high can put extra stress on the shoulders as well.
How do I fix my Shoulders from Popping?
Shoulder popping during pressing movements can be a result of poor posture causing abnormal shoulder biomechanics. With normal shoulder biomechanics the scapula (shoulder blade) is in sync with your glenohumeral joint (shoulder joint), but with poor posture the normal shoulder biomechanics can become out of sync. Most people who bench press and overhead press often have overly developed front deltoids and chest muscles compared to their posterior deltoids and back muscles. This in combination with texting and sitting all day long can cause a “forward shoulder” posture which is very detrimental to your shoulder biomechanics.
If you look in the mirror and notice that your shoulders are rounded forward this could be contributing to your shoulder popping during the bench press. For example look at this image, you can see how much the shoulders are rounded forward.
Normally the middle of your shoulders should be aligned with your ears. So take a picture of yourself from the side and check if your shoulders are aligned with your ears. If they are unaligned, this could be the reason for your shoulder popping during bench press, because forward shoulder posture does not allow the shoulder to move in the way it was designed.
So if you do have rounded shoulders and poor posture I recommend first starting with posture corrections. This means becoming consciously aware of your posture and correcting it throughout the day. This takes time and will be challenging at first, because your body is so used to having rounded shoulders.
Stretches to Prevent Your Shoulder From Popping
Next I recommend stretching and releasing your pectoralis major and minor. These are your chest muscles that are most likely tight from the years of having forward shoulders and poor posture. When these two muscles become tight they can dramatically disrupt normal shoulder biomechanics.
I recommend using a lacrosse ball or foam roller to release these tight muscles. You simply find the tight pectoralis major/minor muscles located in the front area of your shoulder/chest, and place the lacrosse ball, foam roller, or self massage tool in that area. This area will usually be tender in most people. Once you locate the tender/tight muscle you must maintain pressure on the muscle for 1-2 minutes and repeat this several times throughout the day along with stretching to release these chronically tight muscles.
After stretching and releasing your tight chest muscles, you need to restore normal shoulder biomechanics. This means moving your shoulders in the way they were designed to move. To restore normal shoulder mechanics you need to strengthen your posterior chain musculature primarily strengthening the middle/lower trapezius. These two muscles are very important in normal shoulder biomechanics and normal scapular (shoulder blade) rhythm.
If your shoulders are chronically popping during bench press these two muscles probably aren’t doing their jobs. The middle and lower trapezius muscle are responsible for maintaining proper shoulder motion during pressing movements. So strengthening these muscles may be the key to stopping your shoulders from popping during bench pressing.
Exercises to Prevent your Shoulder from Popping
The best way I find is easiest to strengthen the middle/lower trapezius is a resistant band. Resistance bands are the BEST way to provide linear resistance throughout the entire motion and they can be completed everywhere.
Here are 3 exercises that can be done to strengthen the middle/lower trapezius muscle. I recommend performing these 3 exercises every day to provide the fastest results.
Try to perform each exercise everyday for 12-15 reps each.
1. Find a resistant band that provide a decent amount of challenge. Put your arms in front and then pull both arms apart from each other until your arms are in a “T” position and make sure your head is forward, chest is nice and tall, and that you are squeezing your shoulder blades together. Try to slowly return back to the starting position. This is a great exercise for the middle trapezius muscle.
Hold the position for 3-5 seconds and then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat 12x.
2. The resistance bands can be hooked to the door or simply wrapped around a post/pole to allow you to row the bands towards your chest. This is a great exercise to strengthen your posterior chain (primarily the rhomboids & middle trapezius).
Pull the resistance band towards your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for 3-5 seconds and repeat this 12-15 times.
3. Last but not least. Is the “Y” position. This exercise is KEY to fixing a poor posture. I recommend doing these with the resistance band hooked on a door or post, or on a medicine ball for the best range of motion and proper positioning. First, find a good position where you are most stable and have a good stance. Then with your thumbs pointing up, raise your arms into a “Y” position while pulling your shoulder blades back and down.
Try to hold this position for 3-5 seconds and then slowly lower your arms back down towards the ground. This may be challenging at first but try to complete 12-15 reps.