Exercise Spotlight: Bands-Only Bench Press

Solve shoulder pain issues when pressing, with this smart makeshift

The most common complaint that I’ve encountered when dealing with lifters on pressing exercises is that of pain in the shoulders, and it makes perfect sense.

The stability of the rotator cuff will always be contingent upon how strong and developed the upper back is, coupled with overall pressing strength. For most people, forward posture and life as a whole causes an imbalance of strength from front to back, and this is made even more severe if a lifter decides to use vanity as the driving force behind their workouts. Then chest, abdominal, deltoid and arm movements end up dominating each training week, with key players like the glutes, hamstrings and entire upper back left hanging out to dry.

Before I share any smart “hacks”, I’ll preface this all by saying that if you’re not setting yourself up for injury-free life, it’ll never happen – no matter what tweaks you make to existing exercises. What I mean by that is simple: You should be programming pulling exercises much more than you program pushing exercises, especially if your shoulders bother you when pressing.  All four of your rotator cuff muscles originate on the scapula, and strengthening the upper back and all scapular muscles will be a game-changer to your shoulder health and pressing strength.  In conjunction with that, this modification to traditional barbell and dumbbell bench presses can be a game changer.

Enter the Bands-Only Bench Press

For this exercise (which is performed in a classic squat cage), all you need are assorted loop bands, a bench, and a pair of fat grips. I prefer loop bands to standard tube bands that are open ended, simply because the loops usually provide more options of thickness, and definitely can be combined to create much more resistance, which is a plus for heavy lifters.  Fat grips (see image below) are very easy to get a hold of  online, and are quite inexpensive also.  Setting the bands inside the grips allows for a very user-friendly ‘handle’ that won’t dig into the palm of your hand. It makes for a comfortable press.

The reason this exercise is so effective and minimizes shoulder pain is simple: The resistance gets stronger the further you push. Since there’s next to no loading at the bottom position of the press (which is the part of the press that places the shoulder in the most vulnerable position – and is the most painful portion for most shoulder clients), the lifter’s shoulders are spared, and the can instead focus on good positioning and maximum chest and triceps stimulation. Individual handles also allow the lifter to play with their wrist and elbow position through each rep, so they’re not bound to one internally rotated hand position the way they would be in a barbell bench press. This is always a plus. As you’ll see in the video, I’m also keeping the bench inclined. This allows the correct amount of stretch for my arm length. If I went flat, there wouldn’t be enough tension to pose a challenge to my muscles, since my reach wouldn’t stretch the bands as far.


Bands-Only Bench press: Coaching Cues

  • Loop one or two bands around the base of your squat cage on either side of your bench. Make sure they’re close together, and adjacent to the back of the bench – not too far ahead of it.
  • Gather the bands together and place the open sides inside your fat grips. These are your handles.
  • Set up the way you would in a typical bench press – the same cues apply.
  • Press the weight over the chest, maintaining control on both halves of each rep. Really stretch the bands and look for peak contraction in the chest muscles.
  • Aim for sets of 10-20 reps. Higher rep ranges are better in this case, compared to sets using traditional weights.

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