The following is a recollection of an incident that I suffered close to 12 years ago. It changed my approach to personal exercise and ultimately helped me carve my career in the fitness field. After this incident, I seriously contemplated entering the field of fitness as an instructor, and my thirst for knowledge grew simply because I wanted to understand how each piece of fitness ultimately added up to optimal health (health in the sense of feeling good, looking good, and living a strong life, both physically and mentally).

Back in 1996, I was a sophomore/junior in college. I was having fun and learning tons of academic information as well undergoing a lot of introspection. I was strong, and I was gaining some size. As an outside linebacker, I was small for the position (hence the “outside” position instead of the “inside” position), and I wasn’t a starter. So I made it a point to hit the gym four nights a week with my roommate. At the time, I weighed around 175 lbs, and my maximum bench was 315 lbs. It doesn’t sound like much, but I’m 5’6” in height and was pressing the same amount as some defensive linemen who outweighed me by 25 lbs or more.

I knew that I didn’t have the adequate height for stopping power on the field so my football career was somewhat limited. I simply enjoyed the camaraderie of the weight room and the sheer adrenaline that accompanied a university fitness center. There were girls working out everywhere, and they noticed the strong guys. The testosterone was so thick in the room that at times it could be sliced with a knife. Most classes had finished for the day, and dinner hadn’t been served in the university cafeteria yet. What better time to hit the gym? The place was always mobbed.
On October 30, 1996, most of the chatter in the university weight room was in regards to Halloween parties that were going to be held around campus. It was a Thursday, which was a big drinking night, so the plan was to hit the gym, go home, eat, shower, and hit the bar. This was the usual routine on Thursdays, but because of the next night’s festivities, the gym was packed.

With a crowded gym and everyone around me benching a maximum of 275 lbs, I wanted to hit my maximum of 315 lbs. On this particular night, my roommate didn’t work out with me. He had a group project, and his nerdy classmates wanted to meet on a drinking night. I figured that I would ask someone for a spot once I started hitting my near maximum numbers.

My typical set usually was:

135 X 10
155 X 10
185 X 8–10
205 X 6–8
225 X 4–6
275 X 24
315 X 1–3

That’s a lot of benching. It was a total of roughly 51 repetitions. However, just like every other guy raging with testosterone, I liked the pump. I liked slamming the bar back onto the racks, getting up off the bench, and watching everyone observe from the corners of their eyes. It was customary to try to “punk” or “psyche” people out in a gym. Some do it by wearing tight sleeved shirts while others do it by lifting heavy weights. I chose the latter. Again, I wasn’t a big guy, but I was strong, and I worked hard.

On this particular night, I was benching for reps with 255 lbs. My mind was on hanging out with my roommates after so I wanted to simply belt out a few heavy reps. I had Terry, a fellow teammate and defensive end from New York, spot me. He was a big boy and a scholarship player on a partial “free ride.” He was always perplexed at my work ethic in the weight room.

Lying on the bench, I had a strong grip on the bar. I looked up at Terry and told him that I needed a “lift off on three.” That simply meant that I was going to count to three, and once reached, he would help me lift the bar off the racks. It was customary to have a “lift off” after reaching the 225-lb mark in the bench.

As I lifted the bar off the rack with Terry’s assistance, the reps went as planned. The first rep went up without a hitch, and I had already planned that I would stop at four. If the fourth rep was strong, I would go to six. I never liked odd numbered reps and always (and to this day) finish my sets on even numbered reps. When I wasn’t following the basic football program to the letter, I typically decided how may reps I would complete (in the set) after the first rep was initiated.

My second rep went up easily. On the third rep, I felt a “pop” at the bottom as soon as I lifted up. Terry said that he heard an audible “popping” noise and reached down to grab the bar. When I heard the pop, I thought that I had ripped my shirt or shorts, but suddenly, the searing pain was overwhelming. I couldn’t lift the bar up. I had 255 lbs stuck in the bottom position until Terry’s big hands came down and helped me lift it up.

I sat up on the bench, and Terry asked me if I was alright. I was rubbing my left armpit area because it felt like someone had taken a bat and swung it into my armpit. I told Terry that I was alright, but he could see in my eyes that I was in pain and looking a bit flushed. As I stood up, I felt lightheaded and dizzy.

Terry helped me sit back down and went to get some staff members. I attempted to stand up on my own because I was feeling somewhat embarrassed. Remember, the benches are located in the middle of the gym floor and are pretty much under the spotlight. Therefore, I was under the spotlight (especially in front of the girls) and was feeling a bit defeated and embarrassed.

When approached by the gym personnel, I was asked a few questions and given an ice bag. I placed the ice bag on my left armpit and filled out some paperwork. I was getting many stares as I sat in the front office. Some lifters were coming up to me and asking me if I was alright. I thought that was courteous of them, but at the same time, I didn't know what I was dealing with.

After the staff followed the appropriate procedures for an on-site injury, they sent me home. I walked home to my apartment to find all my roommates and friends getting ready to go out. As expected, I sat home by myself in pain and constantly checked my arm pit. By this time, swelling had occurred, and it was feeling very tight. I took a shower to “wash away” all the nervous sweat that had accumulated on my body and applied more ice before going to bed. It was probably the earliest time that I had gone to bed in my entire college career.

I woke up the next day and discovered that my entire left arm from the biceps to the armpit was swollen and had formed a massive contusion. The bruising was colorful and massive. The tightness that I had felt the night before was more intense and more restricted.

My roommates had convinced me to see the campus physician, which I did later that day. The campus doctor was a great physician because he spent a lot of time with me and was very involved with the inspection of my pectoral region. He had presumed that I had a pectoral “strain,” but he stressed that I should see an orthopedist.

A few days later, I went to visit Dr. Richard Diana, a premiere orthopedist (and former NFL Miami Dolphin) in New Haven, Connecticut. He concluded that I had a pectoral tear and wanted me to be examined by a doctor who specialized in pectoral tears. He stated that not too many cases of pectoral tears were recorded in literature and that a specific doctor at Yale Hospital (also in New Haven, Connecticut), Dr. Scott Wolf, had conducted studies and presentations on tears of the pectoralis in New England. I visited Dr. Wolf two weeks later. By this time, the bruising had started to subside, and my arm was looking more yellowish. The tightening feeling had subsided, too. However, I was left with a very visible concaving on the axillary line of the chest cavity (basically my armpit).

Dr. Wolf conducted various tests with me, which concluded that I had a pectoral tear. He desired an MRI to confirm his findings. A week later, I had an MRI, and four days later, I was back in Dr. Wolf's office. He confirmed that I had ruptured the pectoralis tendon. He knew it was a tear because the concave along the chest wall was excessively evident to the naked eye. He stated it was a common symptom in previous findings. I knew something “bad” had happened because the pain was overwhelming and the weakness that I felt in that arm was pretty evident to me.

Dr. Wolf explained to me the surgical procedure to repair the torn muscle. It sounded quite terrifying and pretty evasive to my 20-year-old ears. He said that I could elect not to have the procedure done and simply modify my exercise program. He warned that I would have a noted weakness in the left side and that I should stay away from activities that would overstress the right side. He also mentioned that although I couldn’t tear the left side anymore than it already was, I could place the right side (good side) at risk.

Troubleshooting my pec tear

As the years have passed since that incident, I look back on how it changed my approach to my personal exercise program, my abilities, and my work ethic. Back then, I didn’t know what to attribute my injury to. But as time went on, I thirsted for more knowledge (the how's and the why's began to mount up) so I did some research and came to certain conclusions.

  1. I was lifting a lot of weight a lot of the time. I don’t think that I knew what the concept of “deloading” meant. I sure didn’t like the word “rest.” At the time, I figured that if I could lift heavy weights, I needed to keep lifting heavy weights so that I could continue to lift heavy weights. Does that make sense? The amount of volume every week, and sometimes twice a week, called for 50–100 repetitions of flat bench pressing. Talk about overtraining.What I know today: Deloading and continuously changing the volume amount is critical to keep tissue healthy and muscles fully recovered. Today, I change up muscle groups, have light days/heavy days, and follow more compounded movements to take the stress away from muscles that participate in single joint actions.
  1. I wasn’t just performing chest pressing. At the time, it was about getting bigger and stronger. So I accompanied the bench pressing with incline pressing, decline work, cable crossovers, flyes, peck decks, pull-overs, and tons and tons of other upper body exercises. I included tons of shoulder work such as military presses, behind the neck presses, upright rows, front raises, lateral raises, and shrugs. Over time, the repetitive stress on these joints caused an enormous imbalance in my anterior musculature versus the rear antagonists, which simply tore muscle fibers without letting them heal fully.What I know today: As I’ve gotten older, my goals have obviously changed. At times, I still want to walk into any gym and “punk” out a lifter, but I know that I’m not as strong as I was simply because I’ve had injuries that have prohibited me from maxing all the time. Therefore, my goals have changed and so has my exercise program. Instead of workouts consisting of five days, I’ve scaled back to just three lifting days and two days of cardio. Because I practice more intervals with my cardio work (highs and lows), I’m able to shorten my workouts and concentrate on my diet and rest. It also helps because I’m able to spend time doing things outside of fitness, which contribute to my life’s fulfillment.
  1. With the amount of shoulder work that I did with my chest work, I exhibited a terribly protracted shoulder girdle that portrayed me as a walking ape and also spelled disaster for my shoulders and surrounding muscles. At the time, I wasn’t overly concerned with my posterior chain muscles, and the amount of “mirror” muscle work always outweighed the amount of back exercises in my programs.What I know today: I understand the repercussions of a tight anterior shoulder capsule and how the movement pattern is affected by the condition of the surrounding joint structure. Today, I make it a point to give equal attention to antagonist muscle groups and concentrate on eccentric actions during lifts. I tend to pay close attention to the rotator cuff and scapular muscles as well as the core.
  1. Back then, I only used machines. If I wasn’t up to bench pressing, you’d find me on a Cybex chest press machine or a plate loaded Hammer Strength. Machines that were staples in my upper body workouts included the peck deck, incline or seated chest press, Nautilus pull-over, side raise machine, and shoulder press machine. I thought that these pieces were godsends at the gym, and for years, I always looked for these dinosaurs whenever I joined a facility. It was obvious that the loading pattern had taken its toll on the joint structure, and the pattern of load had weakened the fibers of the pectoralis muscle. The barbell (bench press) is just as guilty here because the bar’s bilateral property causes a fixed plane that the shoulder joint has to follow.What I know today: I understand that joints must be able to work in the range of motion that is allowed. I understand that injuries cause scar tissue and that will affect the range of motion in my muscles and/or that of my clients. Therefore, it is imperative that I utilize movements that allow my joints to move in the strongest plane and make corrections where needed. There’s no need to apply tons of balance boards and other tools. Simple free weights and body weight exercises will satisfy this. A word to the wise—if it shakes and quivers, it’s weak.
  1. Neither stretching nor mobility was in my repertoire. Mobility? Huh? I didn’t even know what that was. Stretching...hmmm... I knew what stretching was, but no one cared to do it. It was all about getting big. We didn’t want to be flexible. We wanted to be strong.What I know today: Injuries develop scar tissue. I know that because my left pectoral is filled with scar tissue. Scar tissue doesn’t carry the same tensile properties that muscle fibers do, and therefore, is inherently weaker and less pliable. Mobility work, especially in the scapular region, is important, and stretching (both static and dynamic) is detrimental to overall tissue quality. When I learned the importance of foam rolling back in 2003, I put myofascial release on my menu of exercise preparation drills. The kinesthetic “ball shaped knot” in my left chest wall has lessened, and the entire range of motion in my left side has improved dramatically.

Hopefully, this article will entrust in you a warning that injuries and mishaps can occur from training and performance. Today, it’s recklessly assumed that we can “prevent” injuries from occurring in athletes and active individuals, but I truly believe that injuries will occur. We can reduce the risks of injuries though and still benefit from lifting strong and hard!