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When I was doing a 5x5 based workout a year or so ago, I had issues when trying to push the weight on the overhead press. Even though the weight felt comfortable in the sense that I could do at least 5 reps with a minimum of a few sets, twice on separate occasions I pulled a muscle in my upper-back/neck which prevented me from working out again for 2-3 days before it healed.

I switched to doing seated press and haven't had an issue with it until recently. While doing a higher yet still comfortable weight on bench-press, I pulled the same muscle and am baffled as to how it could happen doing such an exercise.

My question is, what am I doing wrong on both exercises that could be putting so much strain in an area that isn't a main muscle for the workout (especially in the bp case)? And what could I change in my form to help prevent this?

Form description

I had a spotter on both instances, during ohp they didn't mention anything about my form being wrong, and I followed the head movement described for most ohp forms when lifting the weight up.

For bp, I arch my back and assume typical bp form.

Injury description:

Prevents me from turning my head left or right to the normal maximum degree without straining/pain in the pulled muscle area.

Below I've circled where I feel the most strain from the pull.

enter image description here

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I'd check your posture and shoulder mobility. – Dave Liepmann Apr 2 '14 at 22:36
    
This happened to me exactly as you defined doing 5×5 shoulder press. After x ray and MRI looks like I have a slipped disc in c6-7. If you have any issues going into your arm get checked out ASAP. Might want to get it checked out anyways – user15946 Jun 6 '15 at 18:45
    
Can you video yourself from a few angles and give a link here? Your form is easier to check and posture comments can be given much more effectively. – JJosaur 5 hours ago

This has happened to me a lot over the years. I found it was caused by tightness of the levator scapulae and middle and upper trapezius and a weak lower trapezius and serratus. All largely sorted through fixing muscular imbalances, using a mixture of self myofascial release and targeted resistance work on the weak areas. Release tension in pec major/minor, improve thoracic spine mobility and do lots of pulling variations and external rotator work. Once you're looser in your traps and levators, overhead shrugs with a barbell can be a useful exercise. It sounds like a lot, but just doing a little bit every day goes a long, long way.

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Can you give some exercises for the other suggested work areas? – JWiley Dec 7 '15 at 20:37
    
@JWiley You'll need to youtube them. YTIs are great for thoracic mobility / lower trap activation. Scap pulldowns great for teaching proper depression and downward rotation of the scapular, and is usually inhibited when someone has really tight upper traps. Facepulls and side-lying external rotation with dumbells good for improving external rotator function. Band pull aparts with a theraband are great too, aim for 100 reps per day, separate to your workout. Also invest in a foam roller and massage ball or lacrosse ball. Youtube self-myofascial release of pec major/minor and also your back. – jhoppe Dec 8 '15 at 0:52
    
@JWiley You'll find that by releasing tension in your upper and middle traps you will have better function of your lower trapezius which is a much weaker part of the muscle. And learning how to release tension in your pec major & minor will similarly help with the function of the external rotators of the shoulder. They may not seem related to your pain but improving all function of the musculature of the upper back will lead to less recurring niggles. – jhoppe Dec 8 '15 at 0:59

Looks like you've got a strain in your trap and rhomboid muscles as a result of a muscle imbalance. The first thing I would do is not arch my back when doing bench presses. Try keeping your legs up on the bench with your feet flat. Also, make sure you are lowering the bar to your sternum and not the upper chest. Otherwise, you may be offloading the workload to your upper shoulder/neck area. As for shoulder presses, I would not perform the press from behind my neck (if that's what you're doing) until you've worked on strengthening your traps. Try performing the shoulder press from in front of your neck.

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I don't do ohp any more, but seated press using dumbbells. When I was, I pressed in front of the neck. What you described for my bp seems accurate, I will try your advice today and let you know if it helps relieve the pressure. Can you suggest something I could use to help strengthen the trapezius? Also could you elaborate more on the muscle imbalance if you don't mind? – JWiley Apr 2 '14 at 17:02
    
Simply put, muscle imbalance means that your other supporting muscles are not as strong or as dominant. This can happen if they are not exercised as much as the other muscles. For strengthening the traps, you should look at possibly doing upright rows, or, some form of shrugs (barbell or dumbbell) – rrirower Apr 2 '14 at 17:06
    
I do rows and shrugs regularly in my workout, and don't think I have a muscle imbalance to a degree that would be a direct cause of the strain, more of a combined factor if anything. Is there a possible other cause that could be causing the strain? Thanks for all the information so far. – JWiley Apr 2 '14 at 18:03
    
Without knowing more, I would guess that exercise form is the most probable cause. – rrirower Apr 2 '14 at 18:08
    
@JWiley, "Can you suggest something I could use to help strengthen the trapezius?" - High pulls, Overhead Squats, Turkish get-ups, Handstands, Face pulls as some examples, if you need more let me know ;-) – mitro Dec 7 '15 at 10:56

Their answers hold weight... I've noticed the pull or tear when the weight was a little heavy or a lot heavy. Also every time you actually move your head forward or look down to do the weight, it's possible to strain or tear it. Keep good posture, eyes forward and head straight. Stabilize or don't use your neck while moving the weight.

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There can be many reasons for muscle spasms/pulls in the neck area, including (in no particular order):

  • Insufficient food: the muscles lack the glycogen stores required and overcompensate
  • Insufficient sleep: your nervous system is impacted when you are in a sleep deprived state, and I've had most of the neck spasm issues when in this state
  • Bad hydration: electrolyte imbalances can cause spurious pain signals or muscle spasms to occur.
  • Upper back weakness: the upper back and rear delts aren't doing their part to contribute to the lift and so you are straining to do the lift
  • Bad form: your spotters may not know what to look for or aren't really paying attention more than to keep the bar from crushing your neck

You may even have a combination of multiple factors going on at the same time. Don't rule out "Bad Form" unless you have a qualified coach tell you that your form is good. Someone who is spotting is just looking out for safety, not how to get more muscle into the bar.

I'm going to assume that the food, sleep, and hydration are all working good enough for the remainder of the answer, but please make sure they are not the issue.

Pressing Things Overhead

The different variations of pressing things overhead require your upper back to be engaged and transition the weight from in front of your head to directly over your shoulders. In fact, you should be able to draw a straight line from the center of the barbell, through your shoulder blades, and your mid foot. Your lower back should also be in a neutral position.

If you are not ending in this position, chances are the bar is remaining in front of you. Chances are also good that your upper back is not involved in the lift at all.

Bench Pressing Things

Refine your technique, but don't change it completely. There is a time and place for flat back with feet on the bench, but it is to isolate the arms if they are the weakness.

Arching your back is a good thing, but do make sure of the following things:

  • Your shoulders, butt and head need to be in contact with the bench (notice I did not say neck).
  • The bar will vary where it hits when in the bottom position, but it should be between the nipple line and the sternum.
  • The bar path should end with the bar directly over the shoulders and the shoulders remaining in contact with the bench (do not raise the shoulders). That means the bar will move a bit horizontally. It also means your upper back is involved to assist.

Recommendations

Take a little weight off the bar, and focus on the start and end positions. Also try to activate your upper back to help on these lifts.

  • Start with a weight you can perform the movement slowly, and focus on staying in the strongest body position at all stages of the lift.
  • Your progression will be to add more speed to the bar before adding weight. Each time you increase weight start over with a slow lift
  • Perform dumbbell front raises as an assistance exercise. Start with a weight you can do 3x10 with.
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I would recommend having a special focus on how you are positioning and moving your elbows in both exercises. During overhead pressing your elbows should be in the front and never at the side, during the bench your elbows should be closer to your body (closer grip is healthier). Both are causing more strain on the shoulder and the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder, if not done properly. In addition I do face pulls and Handstands (for time, ex.: 4 x 1:00) afterwards to assist my workouts and prevent injury.

Military Press example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6P7U176yhI (exercise at 2:36)

Bench Press example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4T9UQ4FBVXI

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