If there’s one thing I know well, it’s how to train through an injury. I’ve gone through a full ankle reconstruction, ACL/MCL knee repair, and ruptured pec that left me black and blue from the chest to waist. Did those injuries set me back? Yeah. A little, but they didn’t keep me from training. And they certainly didn’t keep me from making gains. Fortunately, most of my injuries happened in my early 20’s when the learning curve for healing is at its peak. The most devastating injury I ever endured was a dislocated ankle. It dates back to my senior year in college, playing football at Florida State. A fumble behind the line of scrimmage lead to a pile up. When the dust cleared my ankle was rotated 180 degrees the wrong direction. My season and ultimately my career, was effectively over.
The injury occurred on a Saturday afternoon and by Monday I was in the operating room getting cut on for 3+ hours. The doctors gave me a 3-4 month recovery time and another 6 months before I would be back full steam to workouts and training. As it turned out, I was back in the gym exactly one week after surgery. Granted, I was on crutches and non-weight bearing, but I knew I had to get back to training.
In the first phase of training, I knew it had to be heavy, single leg movements for my healthy leg and basic dumbbell work for my upper body. For my money, there’s nothing better than dumbbell lifts to not only build brutal strength, but maintain coordination and maximum muscle contraction. On one leg, most of the work I was doing was flat and incline bench press; one arm dumbbell rows and lateral raises; factor in single leg bodyweight squats and heavy one legged leg-press and I was on my way to not only maintaining, but crushing my healthy body parts.
The end result had me back and stronger than ever when my doctor gave me clearance to get back to training full speed. Within two weeks I was hitting personal records in both the squat and deadlift. In fact, the deadlift videos can still be seen on YouTube where I hit triples with 700lb and a single of 765lb. Not too shabby for taking 16 weeks off from conventional heavy power movements.
Normally you would think that a blown out knee would be the other major injury in my life. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. With today’s science, they have ACL surgeries down pat. Not only was I lifting at max, but running full speed within 18 weeks from tear to thumbs up. Instead, my full pec tear was the worst set back in my career.
Like a big dumb idiot, well past any career in professional sports, there I was hitting extremely heavy numbers on bench press. Contrary to popular belief, pec tears can happen on equipment other than flat barbell. I remember the tear like it was yesterday; benching 385lb for a set that was supposed to be for 10 reps. To my left was WWE wrestler Bad Ass Billy Gunn and to my right was professional strongman, Brad “The Wolverine” Dunn. I pulled it off the rack and began to pump out reps. By the time I hit rep 5 I knew something wasn’t right. See, two weeks prior I had ‘tweaked’ my pec on a set of heavy dumbbell bench presses. I had 150lb in each hand and at rep 9 or 10 I felt a wiggle in my pec. I quickly dumped the weights and said a few, “mother fucker – god damnits” to myself.
As soon as the bar dropped on rep 6 of 385lb it was curtains. The sound of a t-shirt ripping reverberated through the gym. Billy and Brad ripped the bar off my chest. They knew it and I knew it – my pec was toast. Like an idiot, I decided to not see a doctor. I knew it was a pec tear and I absolutely knew that I didn’t want to go through a reconstructive surgery that would have me out for 6 months or more. Within three days of the injury my chest, rib cage, biceps, and stomach were black and blue. It was a brutal tear to say the least.
Like my other injuries I knew I couldn’t let this get the best of me. Being as that I’m not a pro athlete or competitive bodybuilder, there was no reason in my mind to take time off of work to get the tendon reattached. Unfortunately, with an injury of this magnitude and not seeking professional help, the outcome is what it is. I knew there was going to be time away from training chest. But what really happened was that I was forced to reevaluate my training on a level I had never done before. Unlike my leg injuries where I could just stop training one leg or the other; this required a lot more strategy to continue being successful and making gains.
In case you didn’t know, your pec muscle is in action in just about everything upper body exercise you can perform. It directly hits your pecs, delts, and triceps and indirectly it acts on the back and biceps. To think you can just avoid your pecs is a major stretch of the truth.
What happened with me is that it gave me a chance to bring up lagging body parts. Every lifter emphasizes chest from Day 1 in the gym. If there’s one muscle group we can afford to take 3-6 months off from the gym it’s chest. Once the pain subsided and I had full range of motion I quickly went back to training back, shoulders, and arms. All of the lagging body parts were finally getting their due. As it turned out, I would need a full 6 months to recover from a non-surgical complete pec tear. What happened? My delts finally started to match my chest. My arms got the long desired attention they needed. And my chest atrophied, but to be honest, it needed the rest.
Without all of my major injuries I never would have learned about my body the way I did. It made me stretch my creative training brain and think outside of the box to continue pushing new boundaries while hurt. From my view of the gym, the worst thing you can do when life gives you a setback is to stay out of the gym. Stay the course, even if it’s not what you’re accustomed to. Once you get back to full speed you’ll be better than ever!