Bicep tears are one of the most common, yet gruesome, injuries a lifter can sustain. Bicep tears often occur while deadlifting heavy weights with a mixed grip or curling excessive weights as the bicep tendon is put under immense strain. A Bicep tear injury often requires surgery and can sideline a lifter for months of action as well as potentially ruin their career or “look” in the case of Calum Von Moger — although he is making a stellar comeback.
The Bicep Tear Preface
As part of our new series, ‘The Wrong Way To Get Ripped’, we’ve already considered how to avoid an horrendous pec-tear like the one Ryan Crowley suffered recently.
Here we’ll look at another kind of injury that attracts a lot of attention: bicep tears when deadlifting. Why and how do these occur? And should you avoid doing mixed-grip deadlifts as a result?
In our Gumroad store, we offer a dedicated programme for deadlifting, with the aim of building to a 600lb lift without steroids. There is also a companion book for the bench press. A squat book will be released soon to complete the trilogy. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about squatting, try our recent article ‘Squatting 101’.
Getting Ripped the Wrong Way: The Bicep Tear
An injury can potentially mean the end of a lifter’s career. Just ask Jean-Pierre Fux, whose career-ending squat injury we considered in our article on joint care.
Jean-Pierre Fux’s ego squat fail captured for posterity by Flex Magazine
In many cases, including Fux’s, bravado is the lifter’s downfall. In 2002, during a shoot for Flex magazine, Fux attempted to squat 675lbs – a weight he had never lifted before – without the aid of spotters. He went down – but didn’t come up. He spent two weeks in hospital as a result of the accident, which caused a tear to the vastus medialis of his left thigh and another to the patella ligament of his right knee.
Despite being spoken of as potential competition for Ronnie Coleman’s Olympia crown, Fux never competed again.
More recently, British bodybuilder Ryan Crowley suffered an horrendous pec tear while incline pressing with Larry Wheels as part of a shoot for a Youtube video.
Ryan Crowley at the moment his pec tore
While lowering 220kg (484lb), Ryan’s right pectoral muscle totally detached from the anterior humerus. Luckily, Larry and two others were there to catch the bar, allowing Ryan to launch himself out from under the bar.
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, but he has been dabbling in bodybuilding recently).
Again, ego is to blame. The desire to produce content that will generate those all-important likes and subscribes means that lifters like Ryan are pushed into performing physical feats they may be ill-prepared for. It is unlikely that Ryan would ever incline press 484lbs normally during his chest routine. In fact, he would probably be working with significantly lower weights and in higher rep ranges, focusing on hypertrophy (muscle growth) rather than strength.
Another kind of injury that often gets mentioned in association with lifting heavy weights is a bicep tear when deadlifting with a mixed grip (one hand over, one hand under).
A Common Cause for Bicep Tearing: The mixed grip for deadlifting
The mixed grip is usually employed in deadlifting when the lifter’s grip fails in the standard double overhand position; another alternative is to use the Olympic-style hook grip, in which the thumb is crushed under the fingers to tighten the grip, but many find this extremely uncomfortable or unfeasible if they have small hands. With a mixed grip, you can handle heavier poundages, because if the bar begins to slip down one hand, the other will catch it, so to speak.
Since the hands – and therefore arms and shoulders – are in two different positions, the strains placed upon them, and in particular the arms and shoulders, are different. With the supinated hand (the ‘under’ hand), greater stress is placed on the bicep, which is fully stretched.
The difference is more or less the same as the difference between performing a pull-up and a chin-up. The chin-up is considered a very decent arm builder as well as a back exercise. It should be noted, though, that in the mixed-grip deadlift the bicep is not contracting at all – or shouldn’t be.
Here, then, is where the risk of a bicep tear comes in when performing the mixed-grip deadlift.
But just how great is the risk? Let’s find out.
What Is a Bicep Tear?
Anatomy of the biceps, showing the three tendons attaching the muscle to the shoulder and forearm
In basic terms, your bicep helps you bend your elbow and twist your forearm. It is attached to the bone by three different tendons:
- The long head tendon attaches your bicep to the top of your shoulder socket.
- The short head tendon attaches your bicep to the coracoid process on the shoulder blade.
- A third tendon attaches your bicep to the radius, in your forearm.
When you have a torn bicep, one of these tendons is damaged or detaches from the bone. Any of these three bicep tendons can tear. Tears can be partial – the tendon is damaged but not detached from the bone – or complete – the tendon detaches completely from the bone. We won’t talk about tendonitis, which is irritation or inflammation of the tendon.
At the shoulder, the long head tendon is more likely to tear than the short head. This type of tear often starts as normal tendon fraying through everyday use, but can also tear as a result of an injury.
It’s likely that only one part of the tendon will tear in this injury. This means that you can usually continue to use your arm. However, a bicep tendon tear at the shoulder may damage other parts of the shoulder at the same time.
A bicep tendon tear at the elbow usually happens when the elbow is pushed straight against a heavy weight. This stress can tear the tendon from the bone, and usually causes a complete tear.
When you tear your bicep tendon at the elbow, your other arm muscles will compensate, so you’ll still have full range of motion. However, your arm will most likely lose strength if the tendon is not repaired.
Within the general population, bicep tendon tears at the elbow are uncommon. They happen to approximately 3 to 5 people per 100,000 per year, and are apparently less common in women than men.
It’s a tear at the elbow that you’re most likely to suffer as a mixed-grip deadlifter. But just how likely is it?
Bicep Tears during Deadlifts
Powerlifter Tom Martin showing off the results of a biceps tear at the elbow
When Tom Martin tore his bicep at a powerlifting meet in 2017, it wasn’t the weight he blamed but antibiotics. Yes, antibiotics. While this might at first sight seem an incredible claim to make, in truth it’s not actually as stupid as it might sound.
Some antibiotics are known to increase the risk of ruptured tendons, as this FDA warning shows. Martin had been taking antibiotics for weeks before the competition, and reported having joint and tendon pain throughout his body.
Indeed, the weight Martin was lifting when the injury occurred was also 14kg lighter than he had lifted a month before, making excessive overload of the muscle and tendon an unlikely cause of the injury.
While in the case of Ryan Crowley and his pec injury, excessive overload was clearly the cause, the mechanics of the mixed-grip deadlift make excessive overload of the biceps more or less impossible, at least if the lift is being performed with proper form.
Don’t let this bicep tear compilation make you think this is a common occurrence
Indeed, it’s worth saying that there isn’t any evidence that bicep tears are occurring at an elevated rate among mixed-grip deadlifters. There’s certainly no evidence that it’s an inevitability if you choose that grip style.
This is easily illustrated by an examination of what the bicep is actually doing, or should be doing, when you hold the bar with a supinated grip during a deadlift. When you hold the bar for a mixed-grip deadlift, the bicep of the supinated arm the bicep is actually at resting length, or at slightly greater than resting length. The bicep does not contract at all, and is not under an enormous amount of tension.
Indeed, even in exercises where the bicep is under much greater tension – heavy Yates rows, for instance – the number of bicep tears that occur is tiny.
Dorian Yates performing the heavy supinated barbell row that now bears his name
The notion that you should be doing heavy curls to strengthen your biceps for mixed-grip deadlift is therefore totally wrongheaded. There’s no reason not to have big biceps, which do play an under-appreciated supporting role in lifts like the bench press, but in the mixed-grip deadlift big guns won’t help you lift big weights.
One potential explanation for why bicep tears do occur is an unconscious habit, which may have been picked up in the early days of lifting, of contracting the bicep when trying to lift the weight. Essentially, the lifter is trying to use their arm, whether they know it or not, to lift the weight, in addition to the proper prime movers in the lift.
In fact, big guns may even be the problem – sort of. It has been suggested that the unconscious habit mentioned in the previous paragraph may also be a carry-over from performing heavy bicep exercises like curls and chin-ups through an incomplete range of motion. Over time, the bicep shortens and is in a contracted position when it appears to be at rest, thereby increasing the tension on it when a mixed-grip deadlift is performed. [R]
When performing the deadlift, the arms should be in a natural resting position, neither contracted nor hyperextended.
Another possible explanation is what is referred to as ‘regional interdependence’. Basically, strength, especially in big compound lifts, is not localised but spread throughout the body. If there are weak links in the chain, as it were, this can lead to injury. On this view, it’s usually the weakest link that breaks first, and that would be the bicep.
As one coach explains, using the example of a sumo deadlift.
‘If your hip mobility and hip mechanics are off, you don’t have enough adductor or groin muscle length to get into a deep enough sumo position such that you can keep a neutral spine and your shoulders over the bar, then your knees are going to be set back and you’re going to pitch,” says Chao. “That puts the bicep at risk. Think of the leverages: if the bar moves away from you, the leverage increases. So you can easily make the argument that while the bicep is the injury, the problem is the hip’ [R]
So Should You Worry About Tearing Your Bicep with a Mixed Grip?
In my opinion, the answer is no. You certainly shouldn’t let a few spectacular instances of bicep tears deter you from switching to mixed-grip once you can no longer hold onto the bar with a double-overhand grip.
Such spectacular examples are always going to draw and hold out attention, but they can very easily distract us from the simple truth than thousands and thousands of people perform mixed-grip deadlifts every day without ever suffering a bicep tear.
A better way to look at deadlifting safety would be to take a more holistic look at the movement and ask, ‘Am I likely to hurt myself if I follow incorrect form?’ the answer then is, of course, yes.
If this isn’t enough to put your mind at ease, the hook grip is another method used to increase pulling power and to lower the risk of bicep tears. Even by taking precautions, bicep tears can occur on the sports field with multiple professional athletes sustaining the injury.
As we caution always, whether in our articles or programmes, proper form is key. It matters more than the weight you lift or the number of reps you perform. This extends to developing muscular imbalances as well. We also always caution that becoming strong is a whole-body process, and you should not be skipping leg day, for instance.
Focus on form, adding weight slowly and in a sustainable manner. From little acorns mighty oaks grow!
If you’re interested in a dedicated deadlifting programme, with an emphasis on building up to heavy deadlifting in a sustainable and safe manner, we have our very own ‘How To Deadlift 600lbs without Steroids’. This programme will ensure you deadlift with proper form and will address any imbalances in your strength to ensure whatever weaknesses you have soon disappear.