Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Pectoral Tear - 15 Years Later: What I've Learned (Part 1)

This blog post has to be broken into 2 parts. Simply because this injury was a defining point in my life. I was only in the game of weight-lifting for a mere 4 years when I suffered a pretty devastating injury that would have made other weight-lifters give up and take up recreational drug use or basket weaving. Not me. I wanted to learn more about my injury, my body, and my muscles. This injury was a turning point for me, as it helped forge my desire to coach others in fitness and to always find a better way to train. Look for Part 2 this week as I explain what I possibly could have done better to avoid this injury and how I am doing now with a 15 year pec tear.


On October 30th, 1996 most of the chatter in the university weight-room was regarding Halloween parties that were going to be held around campus. It was a Thursday and that was a big drinking night, so the plan was to hit the gym, go home eat, shower and hit a bar with friends. This was the usual routine on Thursdays, but because of the next night’s festivities, the gym was particularly packed.

I weight-lifted in 2 gyms while in college. Some nights I lifted in the gym designated for athletic programs and other nights, I trained in the university fitness center. What was the big difference? The gym was mostly occupied by football players, baseball players and school athletes--mostly males. There was alot of testosterone in that place and was always guaranteed that a little Wu-Tang would be playing on the boom box. 

 The gym was filled with blood thirsty athletes. Weights and plates were thrown around; grunting was the norm; and all benching started at 225. This was prison yard weight-lifting. If you looked weak and felt weak, get out.

Other nights, I trained with my room-mate in the university fitness center. This place housed better looking equipment, more cardiovascular machines, and a nice stereo system. Only a couple of flat benches, but plenty of college females! And this was a huge motivator for many of the male lifters. As most male lifters I hit the chest and biceps almost routinely. It wasn't a big deal for me to perform some flat benching at least 3 times per week. My typical benching went like this:

135 x 10
155 x 10
185 x 8-10
205 x 6-8
225 x 4-6
275 x 2-4
315 x 1-3


As you can see, that is alot of benching. A total of roughly 51 reps. But just like every other testosterone kid at the time, I liked the pump. I liked slamming the bar back onto the racks and 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 people do it by wearing tight sleeve busting shirts, 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. While everyone around me was benching their max of 275, I wanted to hit my max of 315.

As I lifted the bar off the racks, the reps were going "as planned". The first rep went up without a hitch and I already planned that I would stop at 4. If the fourth rep was strong, I would go to 6. I never liked odd numbered reps and always (and to this day) finish my sets on even numbered reps. I was working with 275 and making it look easy. I felt strong and could feel some stares on me. Then on the 3 rd repetition, I felt a "POP" at the bottom motion as soon as I began to lift teh bar up. I was using a spotter for this set and he said he heard an audible "popping" noise and reached down to grab the bar. When I heard the pop, I thought I had ripped my shirt or shorts, but suddenly the searing pain was over-bearing. I couldn't lift the bar up. I had 275 pounds stuck in the bottom position--until my spotter practically performed an upright row to get the bar off of me.

I sat up on the bench and my spotter asked me if I was alright. I was rubbing my left armpit area, as it felt like someone had took a bat and swung it into my armpit. I told him 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 light-headed and dizzy. I was helped back down and some university fitness members came over. 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 I 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 alot of 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. So after the staff followed the appropriate procedures for a 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 I expected, I sat home by myself in pain, and constantly checking my arm pit. By this time, swelling had occurred and it was feeling very, 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 I went to bed in my whole college career.

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


The above photo was taken with a Polaroid camera (they were still big back in the 90s), but it doesn't do the swelling much justice.

My roommate's had convinced me to see the campus physician, which I did later that day. The campus doctor was a great physician because he spent alot 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 that he felt more comfortable if I was examined by a doctor who specialized in pectoral tears. He stated that not too many cases of pectoral tears were recorded in literature (remember this was 1996) and that a specific doctor at Yale Hospital (also in New Haven, CT) had conducted studies and presentations on tears of the pectoralis in New England. That doctor was Dr. Scott Wolf. I visited Dr. Wolf 2 weeks later. By this time, the bruising had begun 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.

Upon visiting Dr. Wolf, he had conducted various tests with me that concluded I had a pectoral tear and he desired an MRI to confirm his findings. A week later, I had an MRI and 4 days later, I was back in Dr. Wolf's office. He confirmed I had a 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 I felt in that arm was pretty evident to me.
Not my MRI film, but this is pretty much what it looked like
Dr. Wolf had explained to me the surgical procedure to repair the torn muscle. It sounded like a pretty evasive procedure to my young 22-year old ears and quite terrifying. He said that I can elect to not have the procedure done and simply modify my exercise program. He warned that I will have a noted weakness in the left side and that I should stay away from activities that will over-stress the right side. He also mentioned that although I can't tear the left side anymore than it already is, I can place the right side (good side) at risk.

Look for Part 2 of this blog post where I explain what I've learned from this injury and exercises I have included into my workout routine to help the site of injury.


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