Shoulder Injury

Anyone who knows me understands three things about me: I like my music loud, my women with great butts, and heavy bench pressing. I’ll get to music and butts another time. Today we need to talk about pressing heavy weight.

My love of benching spawned from my love of football, which I developed at the age of ten. As a running back, it quickly became apparent to me that I needed speed and power in my lower body so I could outrun everyone and brute strength in my upper body so I could stiff-arm the oncoming tacklers. This philosophy led to many nights under a barbell pretending to be a mix between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Barry Sanders.

I had poor form when I was younger because I never had proper coaching, but it didn’t matter. Natural hormones pumping through my body coupled with less stress allowed me to heal quickly and grow fast. Unfortunately, as I got older, trying to keep up the benching volume while adding more big lifts to training sessions became difficult. In fact, three years ago I tore my left pec muscle and thought I would never bench press heavy again.

When it first happened I wasn’t sure what to think. As I was going into the concentric phase of the movement, it sounded like a wet towel ripped, and it didn’t hurt very badly as I was able to get the bar up to the pins. I knew something bad had happened so I immediately halted my workout.

If you’re working out and you think you hurt yourself you should:

  1. Stop all exercise immediately. Don’t “test” the possible site of the injury. You could easily do more damage.
  2. Write your symptoms down as they present themselves. A detailed account of what happened can help diagnose the problem and help determine treatment later.
  3. Do your own research and talk to people you trust, but definitely go to the doctor.
  4. Fight for imaging! Insurance can be a pain in the butt. They don’t always want to pay for things. Have a candid conversation with your doctor and make sure you work together to get the proper tests done.

elbow pain

The next day I woke up to a three-inch black and blue mark on my left bicep. That’s the tell-tale sign of a tear. While this sounds like a nightmare, I was lucky. Based on the relatively small size of the black and blue, the fact that I could get the bar up to finish the lift, no change in perceived structure, and no pain, I knew that it was a minor pec muscle tear. I had avoided a complete tear of the tendon from the bone.

Although I felt confident of my self-diagnosis, I took my own advice and went to the doctor, where he performed simple range-of-motion tests similar to what my physical therapist friends and I had done. We landed on the same conclusion: it was a minor pec tear, but there was nothing minor about that to me. Like you, I’m not the average person who doesn’t care about whether I can perform at a high level. I explained to the doctor that I was a performance coach and that lifting is a major part of my life. Although it seemed I had solid strength and very good range of motion, I wanted an MRI.

The MRI included imaging of my shoulder as well as my pec because of the site of the tear. The tech explained to me that the focus would be at my armpit, not right at my pectoral muscle. This ended up being advantageous as we were also able to rule out any tears in my shoulder and parts of my rotator cuff.

Knowing that my shoulder was good, it was time to get back to training. I wrote myself a program that was both realistic and manageable. I knew the hurdles would be both mental and physical. My exercise choice reflected that idea and I kept my expectations low.

man holding shoulder

1. Patiently get your confidence back

Right before my pec tear, I was deadlifting high three hundreds, squatting heavy, and doing pullups without a problem. I knew if I was going to get back there I had to show myself I could do the simple things well. The first thing I did was book five physical therapy sessions. This was for massage work only. I wanted to make sure that I had freedom in my shoulder. I didn’t want to test my range of motion in the gym. Hands-on work with a great therapist helps tremendously.

During my first month back to training I did pushups instead of chest pressing with dumbbells or benching with a barbell. I substituted pulldowns for pullups because I didn’t want to stretch my pec muscle too much too soon, and all overhead pressing was light dumbbell work coupled with rotator cuff strengthening.

This was a critical period. Simply not experiencing pain while consistently exercising 4-5 times a week showed me that I was healed. I had gotten confidence back in my range of motion and knew I could start to lift heavier. Regardless of the injury, you need to be mentally prepared to get back to exerting yourself. If you don’t trust your body you’ll never move forward, or worse, you could hurt yourself again.

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2. Traditional bodybuilding splits can be useful for reactivation.

My normal programming consists of full body training 3-5 times a week. However, splitting up muscle groups allowed me to take my time on each area of my body, rest longer periods between sessions, and get higher volumes of work in for each joint action.

This kind of training isolates the area in need. Ultimately, the body works as one unit to accomplish movement, but breaking down training into segments offers information about potential imbalances and weakness. After avoiding training for a prolonged period of time it’s possible that you’ll need to reestablish activation in certain muscle groups. The human body is really great at compensating. While I was “protecting” my pec and shoulder it’s feasible that my thoracic spine got tighter and my hips unbalanced. Doing splits for a few weeks helped me to get power back to where I needed it.

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3. When starting something new or reestablishing your strength, a linear program is ideal.

Nothing in life is purely linear. You never know what life is going to throw at you. However, building strength and getting to PRs require confidence, excellent technique, and momentum. In February of last year I began The 4-Week Guide to Starting Strength and it laid the foundation for me to compete in my first powerlifting event and hit squat (395 pounds), bench (290 pounds), and deadlift (450 pounds) PRs. At 34 years old, a body weight of 160 pounds, and recovering from a pec tear, I’d say it worked well.

The program is linear in that you simply continue to add weight to the bar every workout. This sounds daunting at first but the trick is to start at very conservative weights and nail the technique for every lift and establish consistency in training. This approach builds the momentum and confidence you’ll need to get to your personal best.

The volume at which you will squat, bench, and deadlift will help dial in your form. It’s really during this period and working out with Dr. John Petrizzo, a brilliant physical therapist and starting strength coach, that I started to view the bench press differently. Simple cueing such as “drive the bar back” and “push through the floor” helped me to focus more.

Regardless of what your goals are, you’re going to need a plan. Recovering from an injury or simply getting stronger requires confidence in your abilities. These abilities are developed with consistent activity and a program that allows you to see progress. Applying these three simple ideas to your personal habits can have a great impact on your recovery or future results.