What You Should Know to Help Avoid a Pec Tear

A torn pec can put an athlete out of commission for weeks or even months, and it doesn’t just happen to powerlifters. After coming second worldwide in the Open, Noah Ohlsen’s performance at the 2017 Reebok® CrossFit Games Regionals was seriously hampered when he tore his pec during a set of ring dips.

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, full prevention, and/or treatment of existing health problems. New strength training routines are best done under the supervision of a trained fitness professional. 

The pectoralis major is an important primary mover, but according to Stephen Chao, DPT, CSCS, a New York-based physical therapist, it isn’t meant to be a power- or load-generating muscle just by virtue its orientation.

“It evolved as a ‘mini glute’ when we were walking on all fours,” he says. “Now it helps bring our arms up in front as a flexor and helps our hands reach across us as an adductor, so you need to load very judiciously in pressing movements.”

Too much volume can play a key role in benching injuries, but there are a few form and mobility tips that can go a long way in preventing injuries and keeping your chest in peak condition.

Nail Your Bench

“Yo bro, you wanna get big pecs, you gotta flare your elbows to get more tension in your chest on the bench press.”

Well, yes, that does put more tension on the pecs, which is why it’s a great way to injure them. You’re asking them do so more work than they’re really designed to do.

“The cue of elbows in and bring the bar to the base of your sternum, rather than across the chest at the nipple line, puts your humerus in a more favorable position for pressing,” says Chao’s colleague Stephen Horney.

Keep the forearms in and perpendicular to the bar. This also helps the arms to rest on the lats. Another useful cue is to try and pull the bar apart, which helps with scapular positioning and engages the middle back muscles.

[For more form tips, check out our ultimate guide to bench press form.]

Use More Floor Presses and Board Presses

These bench press variations are a great way to add volume to your benching workouts without actually benching. You won’t go through full extension so your pecs are at a lower risk of injury, but you’re increasing volume and improving your neuromuscular connection so that you’ll have the pieces necessary to push big weight when the time comes.

[Learn 4 more benefits of the floor press here.]

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Watch Your Positioning In the Muscle-Up

Even though functional fitness athletes tend to eschew the bench press — or at least bench with less frequency — ring dips and muscle-ups can still cause a torn pec.

“I think a lot of people are popping forward way too early in the muscle-up,” says Chao. “If you’re popping forward with your hands close to your nipples, that’s way too early. That’s forcing your arm into extreme extension and external rotation.”

Chao recommends narrow grip pulldowns, taken all the way to the top of the belly, to help solve this problem.

“It’s probably not the dip portion they’re hurting themselves on,” he explains. “They’re likely overstretched by bringing the shoulders over the ring too early because their lats aren’t strong enough to pull themselves high enough.”

Lacrosse Ball on the Pec Minor

In addition to helping prevent knots in the fascia, which make the muscle less elastic, mashing the pec minor with a lacrosse ball can help achieve appropriate scapular positioning — that’s your shoulder blades — which is useful for preventing a pec major tear.

“If you loosen the pec minor you’re gonna have less trouble with the pec major,” says Horney. “And if you can get your shoulder blades closer to one another, then the humerus won’t have to go so far and the pec major won’t have quite so much load at the bottom of the bench press.”

[For 9 more scap mobility tips, take a look at our ultimate guide to scap health.] 

Dynamic Doorway Stretch

A lot of people do pec stretches the wrong way. Instead of just hanging out at the bottom of the stretch, Chao suggests slowly lowering yourself in and out of while firing the chest muscles you’re planning on using.

Foam Roller Thoracic Extension

The old T-spine on the foam roller exercise is a great way to improve thoracic mobility and ensure proper form during all the big three powerlifting movements, including the bench. Lay on the ground, prop the foam roller under your thoracic spine, and extend your arms over your head.

Blackburns

No bench? No Swiss ball? No problem. You can improve your scapular retraction by just lying facedown on the ground (prop a rolled up towel beneath your forehead) and stretching your arms out in front of you like Superman. Touch your hands together, then circle them around the outside of your body like you’re doing a breast stroke. Touch them together again at the small of your back and reverse the movement. Put 1-pound weights in your hand to make things trickier, but don’t try to max out on these.

Manage Your Lifestyle

Get plenty of sleep, eat plenty of Vitamin C, and perhaps most importantly, drink a lot of water. A lot of your muscle, ligaments, and tendons is comprised of water, so if you’re dehydrated you’re more subject to injury.

Chao adds that chronic usage of corticosteroids, antibiotics, or anabolic steroids can also lead to a higher risk of injury.

“Especially if you’re on that Vitamin S,” he emphasizes. “Anabolic steroids can cause the muscles to grow more than your tendons can, which is a recipe for a tear.”

[Learn more eat our complete guide to eating and training for ligament health.]

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Wrapping Up

As is usually the case with injury prevention, it’s important to take a holistic approach to your sport. To ensure optimal health of the pectoralis major, you need to not only focus on your shoulders, scapulae, rhomboids, and pec minor, you also need to pay attention to your fascial tissue, diet, and supplements.

Remember that the body works as a unit, and you’ll be able to train longer and harder. But make sure you see a trained medical professional if you suspect any potential problems.

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, full prevention, and/or treatment of existing health problems. New strength training routines are best done under the supervision of a trained fitness professional. 

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