Injuries. They are an inevitability of pursuing sporting achievements, with the exception of very rare and fortunate individuals. What makes an elite athlete or what takes some athletes to the next level of success isn’t necessarily avoiding injuries, but knowing how to deal with them quickly and how to progress beyond them.
I have written this article to provide some insight into the nature of my injury - a bicep tear - what caused it, and how I recovered from it. If you're reading this with your own injury - there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Competing before my injury
On December 14 2014, I was competing in the Gates of Hell strongman competition in Hobart. I even made the local newspaper! (This photo was taken prior to the injury!)
During the competition I was nursing a torn right calf muscle at the event, which occurred in November during plyometric and sprinting training.
The first event was a 270kg yoke walk over 30m, which I completed comfortably without exacerbating my calf.
The second event was the farmers walk, 80kg per hand, over the same distance. Due to the light-weight nature of this event, I was very cautious not to run with the weight, risking a further tear. I completed that event injury-free.
The third event was a one-rep log clean and press, where I managed a comfortable 115kg. I deliberately restricted my push-press and relied chiefly on shoulder and tricep strength to push the weight overhead; again, protecting the calf.
The fourth event was a one-rep deadlift, where I knew my calf would have no bearing on the event. The bar was not an ordinary Olympic bar (as you would expect to see in a gym), but an axle bar with knurling.
An axle is considerably thicker and brings grip and to an extent, bicep strength into the equation, which is often not a critical factor when attempting a maximum deadlift.
In other strongman competitions I have competed in, the deadlift event is either contested using an Olympic bar and no straps, or an axle with the use of straps allowed.
This was an axle deadlift where straps were not allowed; something which I was not prepared for and accustomed to.
However, that is the true nature of strongman in my opinion, that is, being able to compete in an event and perform feats of strength to which the athlete is either unfamiliar.
To make it exceptionally clear, while I have never competed in a deadlift event involving an axle and no straps, it was my decision to compete in it and accept the associated risks.
My opening attempt was 200kg, which I completed easily. To ensure I held onto the bar securely, I used a switch grip, i.e., one palm facing forward, the other backward while holding the bar. I very rarely used switch grip in training.
My second attempt was 230kg, which was slightly harder, but successful nonetheless. I felt no physical strains or problems anywhere in my body.
I opted for 250kg for my final attempt which I expected to complete without too much effort. My best deadlift to date at the time of the competition was 310kg, which I lifted in August 2014 using an Olympic bar and no straps.
How I tore my bicep
The 250kg weight came off the ground relatively easily, but I noticed that my left hand grip (palm facing forward hand) was beginning to struggle.
I finished the deadlift, locked the weight out and received the down signal.
As soon as I began to lower the weight, the grip in my left hand began to slip and in an effort to hold onto the bar, I slightly bent my left arm. This was simply a reaction to the failing grip but caused a nasty chain of events.
By bending my left arm, I generated a significant amount of stress in my left bicep which caused the distal bicep tendon attached to my forearm to withstand a load it was not accustomed or prepared for. As a result, the distal bicep tendon detached from the forearm.
I rapidly dropped the bar and I felt the bicep ride up my arm. My main bicep belly was visibly 3 inches higher than where it should normally be. It felt like a violent cramp and surprisingly at the time (but understandably in hindsight) it was not painful at all.
However I had seen enough YouTube videos of bicep tears from the bone, and heard enough stories to know what I might have done.
The St John’s Ambulance was on stand-by who promptly bandaged and iced my arm. If I had known exactly what the injury was there would have been no need to do this - just accept the injury and wait for hospital. I very quickly forgot about my recovering calf injury at this point in time!
It is well understood that a torn bicep tendon from the bone will never reattach and requires surgery to return to full function.
If I had chosen to take no action, I would never have use of my left bicep again and would rely on the brachialis muscle beneath the bicep to flex the arm in future. This would cause a long-term diminishment in bicep strength, cause my left arm to look very dissimilar to my right and would make twisting tasks difficult (such as turning door handles, opening bottles and ultimately grip strength).
I hoped there was a slim chance that I hadn’t fully torn the bicep and / or tendon to that degree. So I called my father back home (in Adelaide) who is a G.P. for his opinion. He strongly suggested that I was fully torn and also advised that I do not undergo surgery interstate and I should wait to visit a highly recommended specialist in Adelaide, Mr. Wicks.
By the end of the evening, I noticed some purple at the top of my forearm (where the tendon would have normally attached) and in the bicep. After 3 days, it looked like I had a tattoo sleeve. The majority of my forearm and the lower half of my bicep were totally purple.
Getting medical help
I flew back to Adelaide on December 17 and obtained an MRI scan on December 19. This confirmed that the distal bicep tendon was torn from the bone and that I would require surgery. I was very fortunate to see Mr Wicks, a highly respected arm specialist December 20. I was booked in for overnight surgery on December 23/24.
Mr Wicks performed a bicep-button surgery, which does not reattach the distal bicep tendon to its original location, but into the radial bone of the forearm. This ensured that unless extreme load is applied, this tendon reattachment will never tear again. It does however result in the bicep muscle structure having a slightly dissimilar appearance, as this tendon reattachment location is different. Considering that I am not a bodybuilder (and unlikely to ever be one, but who knows) this was of little concern to me.
Mr Wicks was confident that I would return to 100% tendon and bicep strength within 6 months to a year, and I would be able to commence light training involving the biceps within a month.
The plaster cast and bandages stayed on for 2 weeks (January 8) in which I was advised to lift nothing more than a coffee cup with that arm during that time. After this date, my arm was free of all dressing but I was advised to keep it in a sling for only 2 more weeks (January 21). Mr Wicks with a smile knew I wouldn’t do that and that I would carefully commence light training; he was right.
Recovering with a torn bicep - part one
Dec 27 – Jan 8
I left hospital Christmas Eve and spent Christmas Day with family, so I didn’t make any attempts to train or perform physical activity until December 27. Between this date and January 8, I was able to perform two Anytime Fitness (ATF) sessions and two sessions at Fuzzy’s Power Gym (FPG, a.k.a. my second home).
Fortunately, I am friends with the owners of Anytime Fitness Glenelg and Fuzzy’s Power Gym, so they were comfortable with me training there despite my injury. I explained to them before I commenced training which exercises I would be per performing and thus not furthering any risks of injury.
My program for these two sessions is provided below. It is very basic; high repetition work to get as much blood flow back into my legs and some assistance core work too.
I was able to use one hand to secure myself to machines which required me to hold on (such as the abdominal crunch machine). I purposely did not use the grip handles during leg extensions as I believe it can provide excellent core training without the use of hands, an exercise I regularly partook prior to injury.
- Leg extensions superset with seated leg curls
5 sets of 15 reps, 70-80% 1RM (or 7-8 RPE equivalent)
- Glute extension machine
5 sets of 10 reps, 70-80% 1RM (or 7-8 RPE equivalent)
- Seated calf raisers
5 sets of 15 reps, 70-80% 1RM (or 7-8 RPE equivalent)
- Hyperextensions superset with abdominal crunch machine
5 sets of 10 reps
- Warm down
20 minutes of static stretching of the lower body
Easy 10 minute treadmill walk
The two sessions at FPG were brief but difficult. Firas (owner of FPG) owns a safety bar, which I was able to safely use with only one arm.
The closest way to describe the nature of the exercise is a hybrid of a front and back squat; perfect for what I needed while being unable to perform either of those exercises.
A safety bar squat is illustrated below. I performed sets of 10 on 145 kg.
Recovering with a torn bicep - part two
Jan 9 – mid Feb
The plaster cast came off January 9, after which I was free to cautiously move my arm but no substantial resistance. I began to visit an Osteopath, Dr Casey Beaumont, who was very helpful in assessing and aiding the recovery progress.
For the rest of January, I continued with the training sessions as discussed earlier, but with the inclusion of very light and high rep upper body work. The following inclusions were made, written in the chronological order of their inclusion.
- Chest press machine
I used my right (uninjured arm) to start the movement, and introduced the left arm. Only partial range of motion was used (from lock-out to 45 degrees). Over the month of January, the range of motion and resistance was slowly increased. Sets of 40 reps, weight started at 5kg, increased to 20kg over time. RPE 1-2.
- Lateral raise machine
I was able to perform lateral raisers by placing my forearm beneath the padding through which the resistance acted. It put no force through my bicep at all. Sets of 10 reps, RPE 5-7.
- Pec fly machine
I was able to use this machine without holding onto the handles, by keeping my arms at 90 degrees and placed the handles onto my forearms, then contracting the pecs. I also performed this exercise facing the opposite direction to work the rear deltoids. Both variations put negligible strain on my arms. Sets of 15 reps, RPE 6-8.
While it was the bicep that was injured and operated on, my left tricep also suffered during the recovery phases. Besides some basic isometric contraction, I was not able to perform many exercises that would help strengthen and hypertrophy my triceps. Thus I ensured that I spent as much time shoulder pressing as soon as I could, with light weight and high repetitions.
I was able to squat in what seemed quite early in the recovery phases (January 31), as the bicep was under little stress in the high bar back squat position.
I waited much longer to perform front squats (my favourite squatting movement) as this can put the biceps under strain when the bar is rested on the shoulders and I did not want to risk the recovery process.
My first squat session went brilliantly and I was surprised how little I had lost. I started at 40kg and worked up to 210kg (as shown).
On February 2, I performed my first deadlift since my injury. A mere 40kg, but I was thrilled, despite being 270kg shy of my personal best.
I knew I was well on the road to recovery. It felt amazing to stretch the left arm out. I could have lifted more, but I am well aware that slow and steady wins the race and that there was very little to be gained by lifting more that day.
Once I developed some confidence in my left arm and I was able to swing it and lock it out, I commenced some athletic style training in addition to the resistance programs detailed earlier.
Jogging and medium speed running put no stress in my left arm at all and I started performing box jumps and standing long jumps again.
I was still very cautious, as the dynamic nature of the arm swing can introduce stress into the bicep. I started slow and gradually increased the arm swing without inhibition.
Recovering with a torn bicep - part three
Mid feb onwards
As time wore on, I was able to flex and extend my left arm without inhibition but under smaller load. I continued with my training at ATF and FPG, and included the following exercises in chronological order:
- Lat pull-down machine
I was very cautious with this exercise. I used my right arm to activate the movement on the first rep, introduced my left arm, and commenced very high repetitions under low resistance, in a similar manner to the chest press machine. Sets of 30 reps, weight started at 20kg, increased to 40kg over time. RPE 3-5.
- Tricep dip machine
The pushing phase of the movement was of little concern, but the negative phase put some load through my biceps. Thus I approached the negative phase with caution, and applied reasonable force through the triceps, front delts and lower pecs in the concentric phase. Sets of 8-10 reps, RPE 6-8.
- Preacher curl machine
I regarded this as the “graduation” exercise. I figured if I was comfortable performing light preacher curls in a controlled environment, I would be well on my way to being able to hypertrophy my biceps and accelerate the recovery. In the early phases, I performed the exercise using my right arm only and introduced the left arm almost as a guide, so that the right arm would withstand 70-80% of the load.
I started very light, with loads of 5kg over both arms and with partial range of motion (fully flexed to half extension). As time continued and confidence developed, I increased the range of motion, slowly increased the weight, and included the left arm more into the movement so that the weight was distributed more evenly between the left and right.
I performed very high rep sets, approx. 30-50 reps with very low resistance to start, and decreased the reps to 10-15 when the weight was increased.
After this point, where I felt comfortable with all of these assistance exercises, I was ready to commence all usual machines and most free-weight exercises in a commercial gym with light-moderate resistance.
I continued to increase the resistance with exercises that caused little bicep strain, such as back squats, safety bar squats and deadlifts. I have always loved the deadlift and I pursued it without fear of injury.
Being mathematically minded and the engineer that I am, I couldn’t help but track my deadlift progress and plot it against time. This helped show the magnitude of the recovery and at what rate it occurred.
Employing a double-overhand deadlift using switch grip is not an ultimate test of bicep strength, but it is a good indicator of arm extension capability and whether the bicep is relaxed enough to obtain a maximal stretch under load.
The following chart shows the rate of progress of the deadlift since the date of the operation (represented by 0 on the x-axis). I attempted my first deadlift on February 2 (as discussed earlier), which marks 40 days since the operation. Within an additional 40 days (80 days since the operation) I performed a 280kg deadlift (and just missed 300kg).
The 200kg deadlift, at 59 days since the operation, appears as an outlier. I recall on that day being very happy to pull 200kg again that I did not go any heavier and left it there. Despite this result, a trend can be observed.
The rate of increase decreased over time; meaning that the increase of weight per day was less as time went on. This is expected because in the early phases, big jumps would be predicted by returning to the exercise.
As time continues and I got closer to my personal best, the improvements came at a slower rate, as strength gains were required to return to heavier weight and the central nervous system needed to be reconnected with the movement, requiring greater power, explosion from the floor and confidence in the bicep to hold much greater weight.
Since I encountered Olympic lifting (2007) I have always enjoyed it and seen the merit in performing the power snatch and clean. I waited until late February before attempting a power clean on 40kg, which cause no issues.
By late February I power cleaned 120kg without any issues in the bicep, but it took some time to refine the technique and develop confidence to explode with the weight past the hips. An illustration of the power clean is shown below.
During early March I introduced some strongman events, being the log clean and press and the yoke. I adapted a cautious log clean technique to avoid stressing the bicep, by picking up the weight from the floor with straight arms (like a deadlift), put the weight on my lap and pulled it to me like the finish of a seated row and front squatted the weight up to the push press position. This worked well and I managed to clean and press a 132kg log later that month.
Supplementation during recovery
Throughout the recovery phase and also at the present time, I have had the following supplementation:
Intra-workout (top up from the Pre-workout):
- Waxy Maize Carbs
- BCAA Recovery (watermelon)
- Recuper8 (blackcurrant) (harder training days or competition days)
- WPI (strawberry) or Thermowhey (vanilla/chocolate)
- Muscle Food 101 (cookies and cream) (harder training days)
- Green Fusion & Wheat Grass (daytime drink with lunch, sometimes mixed with WPI in a blender)
- ZMA tablets (before bed)
I look forward to trying some of Bulk Nutrients’ new products, especially the Protein pancakes. I will keep everyone posted of how I add them to my current regime.
Current state, June 2015
Currently, my bicep injury is purely an afterthought and it has no bearing on my training at all. As of late, I have been focussing much more on Powerlifting training. I am currently in a high volume phase of deadlift, squat and bench press training.
Some of my sets of late include a 195kg/10 back squat (belt only) and 5 sets of 10 at 195kg deadlifts. I am aiming to compete in the GPC Melbourne Cup in August.
My longer term goal is to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics for bobsled. I couldn’t attend the training camp in Whistler Canada last year in February due to my bicep injury. This time I will take as much care of my body as possible, introduce a more athletic/sprinting training regime from October onwards and get myself on the ice and give myself the best possible chance of making the team.
I hope you found this entry informative and provided some insight into an injury and the nature of the recovery process. I will keep everyone posted about my Powerlifting prowess and my road to Whistler!
‘Till next time, train hard and smart!