Angle at which you Hold or Grasp Dumbbells Can Make a Difference

A guy at the gym asked me if I had any ideas why doing bench presses using the Smith Machine bar was giving him shoulder pain. I told him that doing bench presses with dumbbells tended to give me shoulder pain, but not the Smith Machine. However, I suggested he try different grip widths, positioning of where the bar came down to his chest (higher vs lower on chest), weight used, and different bench angles (e.g., maybe adding one notch of incline could help..?).

Now it occurred to me that I too could try some of these variations when doing dumbbell presses to see if I could alleviate the shoulder pain I was experiencing.

Well, finally today, I tried some variations with my dumbbells that seem to make a difference. However:

  • they weren’t the variations I mentioned to the guy at the gym (probably because these variations are only relevant to using dumbbells, not a barbell)
  • I wasn’t using the dumbbells to do bench presses; I was using them as elevated grips on the floor for some downward slanting pushups (with my feet on a weight bench)

First, let me clarify what I was doing. I put on a 60 lb weighted vest and was doing downward slanted pushups with my feet up on my weight bench. Similar to the following, but (as I already mentioned) with the weighted vest and weight bench instead of a wobbly patio bench:


The other thing I was doing differently was putting my hands on slightly elevated dumbbell handles instead of flat on the ground. The dumbbells help to keep me slightly off the ground, which is helpful when I have the weighted vest on because it sags down slightly and tends to hit the ground before I get all the way down to the lowest position of the pushup motion; the slight elevation of the dumbbells alleviates the problem. I also kind of like having the grips because of the extra weight of the vest pushing me down.

In any case, I tried 3 different configurations of the dumbbells on the floor:







The linear configuration was the first one I tried, and–what do you know!–I experienced some of that same shoulder pain I experience when I do bench presses with dumbbells. It kinda makes sense because this is typically how I hold them when doing bench presses, though obviously I’m pushing the dumbbells upwards instead of pushing myself upward off of the dumbbells on the floor; it’s still the same motion relative to my shoulders.

The second configuration I used was the parallel configuration. I didn’t experience shoulder pain, but I didn’t like the feel of it as well; and it seems to work my triceps more than my pecs, when I’m really more interested in targeting my pecs when doing these. I probably need to experiment more with this particular configuration.

I then tried the third configuration pictured (“Angled/Triangle”). This was the winner for me! It felt like it was targeting my pecs more than the parallel configuration was, and–voila!–no shoulder pain. This felt like the most ‘natural’ configuration for doing the weighted downward slanted pushups of all. It makes me wonder if I can do a facsimile of this configuration when doing dumbbell bench presses to eliminate shoulder pain. I’ll have to test that in the future..

So in conclusion, suffice it to say that if you’re experiencing shoulder pain when using dumbbells–whether as handles for doing pushups or for doing bench presses–you should consider holding the dumbbells using these or other configurations to see if it makes a difference!

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