How I Rehabbed a Pec Tear

I was just two weeks into my meet prep when I felt it during a set of bench: that sickening sensation of a pulled muscle. Oh, shit. You know what I’m talking about: that immediate feeling that something’s not right — followed by the sinking feeling you get when you’re facing a potentially long, uncomfortable rehab.

Although you may be tempted to push your return to training as fast as you can, I strongly suggest that you do the opposite. A slow, steady comeback is more likely to be successful in the long term! In the rest of this article, I’ll explain exactly how I go about the rehab process for minor injuries.

Keep in mind, though, that I’m not a medical doctor, and you should absolutely ask one of those for advice if you hurt yourself. These are just the things that I, personally, have found to work for me. That absolutely does not mean they’ll work for you, and I’m not even suggesting you try them — injuries are just too delicate to issue blanket prescriptions like that. Be careful, and be smart.

The First 24-48 Hours: Rest!

While it can be really tempting to immediately start your foam rolling, lacrosse-ball smashing, stretching and even resistance training, I try my absolute best to first give my injured area a little time to rest. In the long run, I know I’ll be healthier and stronger for it.

Ice and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, like ibuprofen and naproxen) have both gotten a bad rap lately. Many argue that inflammation is a good thing: it’s your body’s natural reaction to an injury, and it brings blood and nutrients to the injured area, therefore speeding recovery.

I’ve found, though, that I feel better if I just focus on being as comfortable as possible, at least at first, and ice and NSAIDs usually help to reduce pain I might be experiencing. Furthermore, in my experience, the body often overdoes the inflammatory response in the very acute phases of an injury, so reducing that a little bit isn’t a bad thing. I often use liniments, too (like capsaicin), but ice and NSAIDs are my go-tos for actual injury.

The key, of course, is to not overdo it. This is what I do:

• Icing for no more than 10-15 minutes at a time, 3 times per day
• Taking no more than 400 mg of naproxen or 800 mg of ibuprofen, 2 times per day

Again: keep in mind that I’m not a medical doctor, and you should always ask your doctor
about the healthiest options for you. These are just the strategies that have worked best for me. I’m going to keep stressing this point, because I really do not want anyone to misconstrue my rehab process for advice about how to rehab.

Weeks 1-2: Return to Pain-Free Movement

Too much rest probably isn’t much better than too little. At some point, I know my body won’t feel any more “healed,” even after a lot of rest. This is my signal that it’s time to get back in the gym. When I reach this point, I try to find the movements and weights that are safe and effective at healing my body, even if those aren’t the same ones that I know will make me stronger. It’s almost always better to work diligently at movements that can be performed pain-free than to half-ass squats and bench presses with light weights.

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Whether you’re rehabbing or not, how do you find the right movements to use? There’s no one right answer, but here are the guidelines I use to answer that question for myself:

1. Identify my pain-free range of motion. This is simple: I begin by just gently stretching the injured area. If I feel any pain, I avoid any further stretching of that kind. Now, if I feel tightness, that’s a little more complicated. Extreme tightness probably needs to be avoided, but mild tightness probably needs to be gradually worked through. Determining when to push and when to rest is tough, and only comes with experience, but when in doubt, I always err on the side of caution.
2. Experiment with machine and dumbbell movements that allow me to train with some resistance through that pain-free range of motion. Why machines and dumbbells? Machines, obviously, limit the motions you can perform, so I rely on them when I have a very small pain-free range of motion — that way, I don’t have to worry about accidentally overstretching and re-injuring the troubled area. Dumbbells allow a nearly limitless amount of motion, so I switch to them when I’m almost, but not quite, totally pain-free. They allow me to creep right up to that place where the injury starts to feel uncomfortable, without going past it.
3. Slowly and progressively train the range of motion. Each time I perform a rehab session, I try to get a slightly deeper stretch, put myself in a slightly different position, or anything else to train my body to move without pain. I try not to get hung up on adding weight in this stage. That’s for later.

Now, this section is labeled as “Weeks 1-2,” but depending on the severity of the injury, it might take several weeks or even months to regain a full, pain-free range of motion.

Weeks 2-6: Return to Pre-Injury Strength

Once I’ve got a full pain-free range of motion, I know it’s time to get under the bar again, and return to regular training. This is where most people screw up: they think they’re completely healed, they throw too much weight on the bar too quickly, and they end up right back where they started. This injury loop can go on for months, even years — I’m sure you know someone who’s perpetually complaining about injuries! In some cases, recurring injuries have underlying causes like severe imbalances or poor technique, but usually, they’re just due to impatience.

So don’t make that mistake! Always return to your pre-injury training levels slowly and carefully. I usually start out with about 50% of my pre-injury weights, and add about 10-15% per training session until I’m back at 100%. Of course, I only train a particular muscle group once or twice a week. It’s not going to do anyone any good to train every day and try to hit a PR bench two weeks after tearing a pec.

Oftentimes, this last stage is more mentally challenging than physically challenging. On the one hand, you want to get back to your best as soon as possible, but on the other, you might fear re-injury so much that you don’t allow yourself to progress at all. In my full-length article for this month, I’ll share some strategies that I use –– and that you can use, too –– for overcoming these mental roadblocks.

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