What Tendons Can Be Injured From Bench Pressing?

Man doing bench press in gym

One of the best strengthening exercises in powerlifting and weightlifting is the bench press exercise. Bench pressing hits multiple upper body major muscle groups throughout its full range of motion, primarily the chest, and can be done using either a barbell or dumbbells.

The barbell bench press is very safe if you warm-up and use a proper technique and reasonable weight for your upper body strength level, but the very idea of holding a heavy weight over your body while you're lying down for multiple reps can be disconcerting. Using too much weight also puts the tendons in your shoulders and upper arms at risk, including the tendons of your rotator cuff, bicep and pectoralis major.

What is A Tendon?

A tendon is the thick band of connective tissue that connects muscle to bone. The end of a muscle turns into very thick, but elastic, tissue that helps transfer force from the muscle into the bone. Since the tendon is trapped between bone, which doesn't move, and the muscle, which is pulling with a lot of force, it is susceptible to injury during strength training when the proper form is not used.

X-ray image of shoulder pain, shoulder ligament tendinitis, shoulder muscle strain

Rotator Cuff Tendons

Your shoulder is a relatively complex joint. It's fairly small but there are a lot of things that pass through it, like tendons, nerves and blood vessels. The rotator cuff muscles (subscapularis, infraspinatus, supraspinatus and teres minor) all sit on the shoulder blade. These muscles help keep the head of your humerus, the arm bone, in the shoulder socket. They are not meant to be very strong, which is why they are more susceptible to injury.

Of the four rotator cuff tendons, the most common injuries in weight training are found in the supraspinatus tendon, according to an article from the University of California Los Angeles Orthopedic Surgery. This little muscle's job is to raise your arm out to the side, away from your body.

Human Muscle Anatomy For medical concept 3D rendering

Bicep Tendon

The tendon of your rotator cuff muscles run from your shoulder blade and out into the arm bone. Going in the opposite direction, your bicep starts in your arm and attaches to the shoulder blade. There are two halves to your bicep muscle. One is shorter and attaches lower on the shoulder blade, one half is longer and attaches higher up on the shoulder blade. Both tendons are forced through the same narrow space in the shoulder that the rotator cuff muscles are.

The tendons that run through the shoulder joint, like the rotator cuff and bicep tendons, are very prone to overuse and inflammation, also known as tendinitis. It's easy for one of these tendons to rub against either the shoulder blade or the arm bone and become inflamed. These overuse injuries are very painful but they aren't as severe as a tendon tear. Thankfully, tendinitis is more common than a full tendon tear and easier to rehabilitate.

3d illustartion of human pectoralis major, part of muscle anatomy.

Pectoralis Major

The biggest muscle and tendon that you use in the bench press is the pectoralis major. There are two parts to this muscle as well, one originates from the sternum and one from the clavicle. Both halves join together to form one tendon that attaches to the arm bone. This is a much more serious injury than a bicep or rotator cuff injury because the pectoralis major is such a strong, important muscle. Thankfully, this type of tendon tear is relatively uncommon, according to an article from the Hospital for Special Surgery.

Avoiding Injury

Make some simple modifications to avoid chest and shoulder injuries when you're bench pressing. According to an article on the American Chiropractic Association's website on modifying the bench press to avoid injury, one of the best things that you can do is narrow your bench press grip width. By using a more narrow grip, you minimize the amount of rotation that your shoulder does during the bench press and puts more pressure on the triceps and elbows.

If you're vulnerable to major tendon tears, it's also advised that you avoid incline and decline bench pressing.

article on the American Chiropractic Association's website