You know what’s not fun? Suffering a significant injury after the age of 40. Like most of you, I’ve dealt with a number of sports-related injuries during my fitness career. These injuries can range from a sprained ankle while playing basketball to on-again-off-again tendonitis in shoulders, knees, and elbows. While these strains and pains should never be ignored, there is a wealth of information available to help guide any one of us through correct rehab and prehab modalities to ensure we can get back to the gym, court, field, etc.
As a strength and conditioning coach and a former collegiate athlete I pride myself on proper warm-up, cool-down, stretching, mobility, stability – basically anything that ends with “ility”. So, when I tore my pectoralis (pec) during a lifting competition last spring, I was both frustrated and positive that I’d be back on the bench in no time. All I would need to do was a little research and rest and I’d be good to go. I could not have been more wrong.
My doctor recommended a non-surgical approach, which would mean at least 6 weeks of no activity. This was the right thing. The pain was intense, so I had no intentions of hopping on the pec deck any time soon. During my first week post-injury I rested and devoted significant time to researching my options for resistance training and rehab for this type of injury. There had to be tons of information out there…right?
Well, yes and no. I was shocked to find the available advice to be incredibly divided. Articles and videos either advised extreme caution – essentially wrapping my upper body in bubble wrap for a year – or a total disregard for recuperation. Several non-expert videos even showed guys benching 225 lbs. one week after the tear! Just watching those videos made my chest hurt.
I decided I’d have to blaze my own path and find movements and strategies that would allow me to train and recover without significant pain or further injury. As a result, I was able to compete in a strength competition – including bench press – nearly 6 months post-injury. While I didn’t set any records, I was able to move weight effectively. More importantly, my range of motion and strength have sufficiently recovered enough to perform and enjoy all my favorite activities. These approaches might not be the magic bullet for everyone, but I’d like to think the following 2 strategies and 4 movements will help anyone in a similar position to recover as quickly and effectively as I have.
- Warm-up…no, really warm up
Once I began training push movements post-injury, it became clear I would now need roughly a 1:1 warm-up to workout ratio. My high school football coach used to tell us before a game to use the warm up to “get a good lather.” Sounds backwoods and simple, but I found working up a legitimate sweat and taking my muscles and joints through ranges of movements helped significantly when it came to reduced pain during training. Below is a sample of my typical warm-up prior to working sets of push movements:
- 5-10 minutes rowing machine, air bike, or jump rope
- Band Mobility Series – 30 seconds each side for all movements
- Band Pectoral
- Band Latissimus Dorsi
- Band Overhead Triceps
- Band Side Biceps Long Head
- Battlerope Series – move through 30 seconds on and 10 seconds off for 6 rounds. Choose movements that do not irritate or cause pain to the injured area.
- Junior Working Sets – I love to do light versions of the working set exercise as part of my warm-up. The one exception here is the Band Biceps Curl, which is used to fully prepare the tendons and insertion areas for push motions.
- 3 Rounds
- 10-15 Seated Back Anchor Band Chest Press (same movement is used during working sets)
- 10-15 Standing Band Biceps Curls
- 5 PVC Passthroughs – as tolerated based on pain (early on, I couldn’t get the pipe behind my head, so take it easy)
- 3 Rounds
- Lacrosse ball and mobility gun: your new best friends
One piece of advice most clinicians urge when recovering from a pec tear is utilization of mobility tools daily. While this is probably the least fun part of fitness, recovery in the form of breaking up scar tissue is highly effective at aiding recuperation and preventing physiologically altered chains of motion – which can lead to compensatory injury. Find a 20-minute window during the evening (for me this is during tv time), a wall, and a chair. Have your lacrosse ball and mobility gun at the ready. Let’s get to it:
- Lacrosse ball to pectoral wall lean – take moment to find the spot where the scar tissue is most intense. Lean in trapping the ball between your torso and the wall as tolerated and hold that position for at least 2 minutes. If you feel numbness and tingling in the fingers this a sign that it’s time to back off. Do this for both sides for at least 3 rounds After each round, hold a 60-second pectoral stretch using that same wall.
- Mobility gun: these have become exceedingly popular in recent years. Keep in mind, the goal of using this tool is NOT to punish the muscle by digging in as deeply as you can. That’s the job of the lacrosse ball. The point of this practice is to release fluid and tension with the goal of increased circulation. Complete 20 passes with the mobility gun over the pectoral with moderate pressure. Again, you’re going to do this for 3 rounds.
Note: these exercises are listed in order of my progression over the course of several months. I would not move to the next exercise until I felt zero pain while testing the movement.
- Standing Back Anchor Band Chest Press
This exercise was my only option for the first month. I found the ability to maintain tension while not stretching the pectoral at the eccentric portion was ideal. Be sure to keep your core tight, breathing regulated, and shoulders back and down. Your grip on the band should be based on the most comfortable position for your wrist.
- Svend Press (Plate Pinch)
Once my pain was lower and movement less restricted, I felt comfortable going from a “fixed tension” exercise (Standing Back Anchor Band Chest Press) to one that required strength and stability on multiple planes of movement. The challenge with a Svend Press is in keeping the plates from sliding and/or from falling to the ground, presenting vertical and horizontal tension. No need to go heavy on this movement. Be sure to keep those fingers and thumbs from sneaking around the edges of the plates (e.i. cheating).
- Lying Kettlebell Close Grip Partial Press
As part of the progression of load, I found this movement was the first that allowed me to add moderate weight through a (somewhat limited) range of motion. Feel free to use multiple grip variations for this movement. I prefer my hands on the side of the bell with the horns up, but you can also engage the primary pressing muscles by grabbing the horns for a neutral and/or slightly supinated grip.
- Narrow Grip Bench Press w/Bench Buddy
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve earned a return to the mother of all chest movements, but don’t let your ego take over. Use a Sling Shot or Bench Buddy no matter your starting weight on the bar. The assistance these devices offer at the bottom of the range of motion is a lifesaver for the stretching force place on the injured muscle. Keep your pacing steady and don’t feel frustrated if after one set you have to put this movement back in the bag of tricks. Listen to your body and don’t risk reinjury.