A Pec Tear is one of the worst injuries a competitive lifter can suffer, and Ryan Crowley’s horror pec tear while attempting to break and incline bench PR has brought the conversation of lifting safety back into the fray.
Pec Tear Preface
We’ve already considered the importance of proper joint care to ensuring longevity, something we should all be aiming for as lifters. Here, in this first article in our new series ‘The Wrong Way To Get Ripped’, we’ll consider what pec tears are – with a specific focus on the bench press – and, importantly, how to avoid them.
We’ve also been running a series on proper nutrition, as part of which we’ve already discussed vegetable oil, soy , six superfoods you should be eating, four foods that will make you ugly and what to eat when you want to get big but are on a tight budget.
The role of nutrition is also central to our series on testosterone, to accompany our forthcoming book Reclaim Your Masculinity: foods that raise your testosterone, foods that lower it and the role of environmental chemicals (xenoestrogens) in the food chain that can upset your hormonal balance. Proper nutrition is necessary for proper joint care, especially the consumption of collagen-rich bone broth, and a difficult consideration when you want to get big but are on a tight budget.
If you want to build a massive bench press, we offer a dedicated bench-press programme, as part of a series on the ‘big three’ powerlifting lifts. The deadlift companion book is now available, and the squat book will be released soon.
Famous Recent Pec Tears
Ryan Crowley’s horrific pec tear
Ryan Crowley, in better times
A few days ago, while training with the monstrously strong powerlifter Larry Wheels, amateur bodybuilder Ryan Crowley suffered about as horrific an accident as a bodybuilder could suffer: a brutal pec tear.
While lowering 220kg (484lb) for an incline press, Ryan’s right pectoral muscle totally – and I mean, totally – detached from the anterior humerus; if you’ve never seen a muscle quite literally disappear in front of your eyes, I won’t exactly recommend watching the video of the incident, but that’s what you’ll see if you do. Luckily, Larry and two others were there to catch the bar, allowing Ryan to launch himself off the bench onto the floor, very obviously in huge discomfort.
You can watch the video here.
Video of the pec tear – viewer discretion advised
Luckily for Ryan, a Gofundme set up to pay for his medical expenses has already reached its goal, and with surgery to reattach the pectoral muscle complete, he can begin the long road to recovery. Such a devastating injury could easily cost a bodybuilder or lifter their career, and we hope that isn’t the case for Ryan.
You can view the aftermath here.
The aftermath of Ryan’s injury – massive bruising and water retention in the entire surrounding area
Of course, Ryan isn’t the first to suffer such an injury, nor will he be the last. The risk of injury appears to be elevated in cases like Ryan’s, when a lifter is going to train with somebody from another discipline (Larry Wheels is a powerlifter; although he has dabbled in bodybuilding recently).
The desire to produce content that will generate those all-important likes and subscribes means that people like Ryan are pushed into performing physical feats they may be ill-prepared for. It is unlikely that Ryan would ever incline press 440lbs normally during his chest routine. In fact, he would probably be working with much lower weights and in higher rep ranges, given that the emphasis in bodybuilding is on hypertrophy rather than strength.
That being said, pec tears aren’t just restricted to lifters who are trying to lift too much weight. Even powerlifters and strongmen who are used to pressing massive weights on a daily basis are prey to them as well. Brian Shaw has suffered from a pec tear, and Scott Mendelson suffered a particularly nasty looking tear when he attempted to break the world bench press record not that long ago.
Nor are pec tears even restricted to lifters. A wrenching movement of the arm can cause a tear, as appears to have been the case for NFL player JJ Watt. As a result, it’s quite possible to tear your pec falling over awkwardly, kitesurfing or snowboarding, as a professor of exercise science attests. [R]
In 2019, NFL player JJ Watt tore his pec during a game
For ordinary people, unlike weightlifters or sportsmen, a pec tear is not necessarily a terrible injury to suffer, because you can still go about your day-to-day business; although you will experience some pain and discomfort. For a weightlifter, though, even a mild tear will prevent you from training properly for a period of weeks and need some specific rehabilitation. A more serious tear will almost certainly require surgery, causing you to lose months from your normal training regime.
Other notable pec tears include John Cena before the 2008 Royal Rumble, Scott Mendelson during a competition, Welsh rugby player Jonathan Davies while making a tackle, and Sylvester Stallone in a bench press competition — who required almost 200 stitches to heal the massive injury.
So why do pectoral tears occur when bench pressing? And what can you do to avoid them?
What Is a Pectoral Tear?
The pectoralis major
The pectoralis major is the largest muscle of the chest, and is the primary muscle you develop when performing exercises like the bench press, guillotine press and dips, flyes, pushups and pullovers. In technical terms, the function of the pec major is to adduct and internally rotate the shoulder. The muscle is divided into sternocostal and clavicular portions, and attaches to the humerus bone in the upper arm, via a tendon.
The first case of a recorded pec tear was in 1822 and was described by a French physician called Patissier. [R] Although pec tears are not the most common form of weight training injury to occur – back injuries are acknowledged to be most common, followed by shoulder and knee injuries – they are generally thought to be on the rise. While the stereotypical gymbro is likely to skip leg day – and he really shouldn’t – a massive chest is so highly coveted that bench pressing in some form will be part of his routine, even if squats aren’t.
There are four types of pec tear that can occur.
- A tendon rupture off the humerus bone
- A tear at the junction of the muscle and tendon
- A tear within the muscle belly (i.e. the meat of the muscle) itself
- Muscle tearing off the sternum
According to the professor of exercise science cited earlier,
The most common cause of PM injury during a bench press is the result from too much tension on the muscle belly or tendon in combination with a forceful eccentric contraction or stretch reflex. It’s more common to have muscle belly injuries than tendon injuries because tendons resist tensile force better than muscle bellies. It takes more force to tear the tendon than the muscle belly and most PM injuries occur at the musculotendinous junction [R]
Bill Starr: one of the great popularisers of the 5×5
Muscle belly tears can occur in various grades, depending on how far through the muscle the tear penetrates. If you suffer a mild muscle belly injury, you can follow the Starr Protocol to get back to normal. This should take approximately three weeks. For the bench press, the Protocol would look like this.
Step 1: In the first few days, perform the exercise that caused the injury. Bench press with a very light load, usually an empty bar or even a light bar, for between 20-25 reps. Do three sets of 20-25 reps with a focus on achieving perfect form.
Step 2: Do the exercise the next day and every day, increasing the weight gradually and eventually decreasing the reps to 20, then 15, and then 10.
Step 3: Within three weeks, most people are back to regular training loads.
Whereas a muscle belly tear, unless extremely deep, will not require surgery to rehabilitate, the other forms of pec tear, such as that suffered by Ryan Crowley, usually will. It is generally acknowledged that surgical intervention in these cases leads to a much more positive outcome, and to a much closer return to previous levels of functioning and strength, than other forms of rehabilitation. [R]
Triple H suffered a pec tear in 2018 during a match, but continued wrestling
It’s worth noting, though, that no surgery is without risks. There is no guarantee that, if you suffer a serious pec tear, the surgery will be successful and you’ll be back to posting the same numbers. Complications, including deep or superficial infections, and also re-ruptures, are reasonably common. Re-ruptures, for instance, can occur at a rate of up to 20%. [R]
How To Avoid a Pec Tear
Here we’ll present a few very simple ways that you can lower the risk of a pec tear when you are bench pressing.
1. Check your ego at the door.
It was ego lifting that caused Ryan Crowley’s pec to tear. Instead of training in the manner he was accustomed to, as a bodybuilder, he chose to try to keep up with a lifter who trained primarily as a powerlifter and is accustomed to lifting massive weights on a daily basis.
While it’s possible to excuse Crowley on the basis that he was trying to save face on camera, it makes it no less stupid. He must have known he was asking for trouble. Indeed, there was still time for him to abort the lift when he had the bar in his hands: it was quite obvious, even if he got the bar down to his chest, that he wasn’t going to get it back up.
If you normally bench press in the 8-12 rep range and end up nowhere near failure, it’s not a good idea to suddenly decide you’re going to jump to a putative one-rep max because you feel like it, especially if you’ve never done it before. Even if a rep-max calculator tells you, on the basis of you 10-rep lift, that you can lift, say, 300, don’t think that you can. Your body needs to become habituated to heavy lifting.
If you’ve also had a layoff from training, it’s a good idea to build back up to your old numbers gradually, rather than jumping back in. Imagining that you can still bench 315 for reps after a two-year layoff is asking for trouble, as this testimonial from a Starting Strength coach shows. [R]
We offer a dedicated bench-press programme that will help you build a massive press, and a massive chest, in the safest way possible, following a sensible and sustainable progression.
2. Always warm up properly
Adequate warm up is essential to prepare the muscle and the tendon for heavier weights. It’s that simple. While it’s impossible to give a precise protocol that will suit every lifter – an older lifter, for instance, may need to take more time to warm up – as you train more and more you’ll get to know what it feels like to be properly warmed up. It can be said, though, without any hedging that jumping straight into a max set, whatever your experience level, is a very bad idea. You should always pyramid up to your working sets.
Ensure you are also properly hydrated when you enter the gym.
3. Watch your technique
There are also important technical ways that you can reduce the strain on the pectoralis major during the bench press. It was already noted that most tears occur during the eccentric (i.e. lowering) phase of the lift, so you should make sure that you control it properly. Don’t lower the bar too quickly, because this will increase the stiffness of the muscle and expose it to unnecessary strain. Bouncing the bar off your chest or heaving it may also place unnecessary strain on the muscle and increase the risk of a tear. A tight back and strong arch will help to reduce the strain on the pec at the bottom of the movement.
4. Always have a spotter to hand
It’s generally a good idea to have a spotter to hand when you’re bench press, or to bench in a power rack with the spotter arms in place, and this is certainly the case if you suffer a pec tear. What would Ryan Crowley have done if he hadn’t had Larry Wheels and two other bros spotting him when his pec tore? How would he have got himself out from under the bar? It’s beyond any doubt that he would have been in even more trouble than he was already in. Either he would have made the pec tear worse, or he would have injured himself further, in another way.
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