Pec Tears and Bench Press (WARNING!)

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If you are worried about suffering pec tears when doing the bench press then you are definitely going to want to watch this video. Recently, there have been graphic videos going around showing a bad pec tear suffered by bodybuilder Ryan Crowley. In this particular case, the tendon avulsed from the humerus leading to a long recovery and an uncertain return to previous physique levels. Are you the next in line to suffer a pec tear on the bench press however? We dive deep into the anatomy and biomechanics of the chest to determine that.

First, it is important to know who is even susceptible to tearing a pec in the first place. In general, the ordinary and rather sedentary person walking around does not ever suffer a pec tear. It is a muscle that has to be placed in extreme positions to incur injury. The two populations that this does happen to however are athletes and weightlifters.

Athletes who compete in rugby, football, boxing or even professional wrestling are often susceptible because of the high spontaneous eccentric forces that can be placed on their pecs during the actions of their sport.

In weightlifters, the overwhelming majority of pec tears come from one exercise and one exercise only – the barbell bench press.

Notice, I did not say the dumbbell bench press.

Why is that?

There are stresses that are unique to the barbell bench press that are not nearly as high in the dumbbell bench press that hold the key to determining the true vulnerability of the former and whether you need to worry about tearing your pec when doing it.

If you examine the bench press you can see that there are three components of it that place the chest muscle in a more stretched and potentially injurious state. They are the the abduction, internal rotation and extension of the shoulder joint. Whether you use dumbbells for bench press or a barbell, there is only one of those that can be altered depending on preference or mobility of the person performing the exercise. That is abduction.

There is no variance to the amount of shoulder rotation that you can apply to the shoulder. Theoretically, if you placed the shoulder in more internal rotation you would take some of the stretch off of the chest at the bottom of the exercise and perhaps decrease the risk of a torn pec, but this isn’t allowed. Introducing internal rotation at the shoulder under a bench load is a recipe for AC joint disaster.

The same happens with increasing the amount of shoulder external rotation on the bench press. This will only place your elbow out in front of the bar and significantly decrease your pushing power when performing the exercise.

The extension of the shoulder is not a determining factor in pec tears either. As a matter of fact, the amount of extension that you get at the bottom of a dumbbell bench press is greater than it is on a barbell press because the dumbbells can go deeper.

Abduction of the shoulder on the other hand is variable, mainly because it has a lot to do with grip width when performing the barbell bench press. With dumbbells, your hands start and finish very close to each other almost directly over your pecs (or at biacromial width). As the hands drop from this position, they allow the elbows to tuck at around 45 degrees to the body. On a barbell however, the hands are placed outside of acromial width (sometimes up to two times or more).

This is evidenced by the fact that the elbows will be hard pressed to be kept at the 45 degree angle to the torso and often times are more likely to be found at 60, 65 or even 70 degrees away from the body.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop bench pressing if you want to avoid a pec tear. Instead, you just have to make sure that your body is able to accommodate the stresses that your chest will incur when doing the bench press.

The first is to perform a pause bench press.

The next step in the progression to preventing pec tears is to perform a double pause rep bench. Stop once again a couple inches from the chest, lower to the chest and stop again for a brief pause before exploding the bar back to the top.

Next, the weighted pushup is an amazing way to increase your ability to perform a bench press without injury to the pecs.

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