The Truth About Pec Strains

Pectoralis major

Justin Ware and I were talking about pec strains the other day, so I figured this would be an opportune time to discuss how pec strains come about in the gym.

Now, keep in mind (as many are more than willing to note) I’m not a therapist, so I’m not going to discuss treatment strategies.  Rather, let’s discuss how pec strains come about in the first place, as well as how to avoid them.

The pec strains that I’ve seen over the years can typically be traced back to one of two issues:

1 – Poor programming which leads to overuse, and/or

2 – Scapular instability

Let’s discuss each a little bit more in depth.

With regards to programming, it’s like anything else – a lot of issues arise when you increase volume, intensity, or both, too quickly. Runners are notorious for this.

You see it time and again – little Johnny reads about the “blow up your pectacles” or “increase your bench 50 pounds in 2 months” and goes from 15 sets of bench in a workout to 30.  It’s amazing what the body can adapt to, but every body has its threshold.  All those stupid things you do over the course of months and/or years will come back to haunt you.

If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you already know that structural balance is important.  As well, you also realize that you have to be judicious when raising volume and intensity, so let’s look at #2 instead.

Scapular instability is another huge cause of pec strains.  You’ll see this quite often in bench pressing – you should be able to keep your scapulae retracted and depressed throughout the set.  If you are unable to do this, you’ve reached what many would call technical failure. This is a critical component of training that many overlook.

Your prime movers might be able to crank out more reps, but you lack the appropriate stability to do so safely and effectively.  Going beyond technical failure is where many pec strains occur – you exceed your body’s ability to appropriately stabilize your scapulae, and the pec gets overloaded.

This is why getting a hand-off is so important; you want to set up nice and tight through the upper back.  Not getting a hand-off often results in “pushing” the bar out of the supports, versus “pulling” it out.  This is a very subtle distinction (and one I stole from Dave Tate), but it makes a huge difference in your stability throughout the set. If you “push” the weight out, you often lose your scapular position and stability.  “Pulling” the weight out, along with a hand-off, keeps you in the appropriate scapular position throughout.

Injuries are a part of the iron-game; if you push things hard enough (and long enough), chances are an injury will crop up at some point in time.  However, smart training and adherence to basic principles will go a long way to keeping you healthier and stronger for a lifetime.

Stay strong

MR

(If you’d like more info on the bench press, check out the following articles: Defending the Bench Press and Yo, How Much Ya Bench?)

3 Comments

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  1. Mike,
    What are your feelings regarding dumbbell bench pressing and scapular stability? A lot of times guys will just sit with the bells on their thighs, roll back as the kick the bells up, and then begin pressing. Do you have any thoughts regarding set up for these, since you usually don’t get the upper back packed tightly into the bench before these as with the more elaborate abrbell bench set-up.
    While the loads used are lower than those seen with barbells, stress does tend to be cumulative which is why I am asking about DB bench set-up.
    All the best to you and the folks at IFAST in 2010!

  2. MR,
    I want to preface the following by saying that my post is in no way meant as a slight to Jason Ferruggia, as I always respect any coach who makes his livelihood working with clients in the trenches, and that goes doubly so for someone willing to speak his mind and not sugarcoat things..
    But I recently read something written by him where he basically throws the bench press under the bus.
    “Bench pressing sucks!
    I have discussed this issue with many of the worlds top shoulder specialists in recent months and they are all in full agreement.
    That’s not to say that you can never bench again. I know many of you will refuse to stop and I can relate to that mindset. If you get tested on the bench or compete in powerlifting, of course you have to do it. For the rest of you, who still love to press big weights and impress your friends and gym members I recommend you do so with extreme caution.
    Make sure your technique is picture perfect and you bring the bar down to the right spot while properly activating your upper back and lat muscles. Secondly, don’t use the flat bench for more than 4-6 weeks without switching to a safer version of a barbell press like an incline or floor press.
    The smartest route, however, is to get rid of this destructive exercise forever. ”
    That last sentence seems rather extreme, especially from a guy who still touts dips with few reservations and who seemed rather critical on his blog over Mike Boyle’s tossing back squats on the scrap heap. I figured he’d take more of an approach that he stated earlier in that quote, but that last line is particularly harsh by saying to get rid of it and broadly labeling the movement (and not the specific case of improper performance of that movement, oftentimes by contraindicated individuals) as destructive.

  3. strained my left pec muscle doing decline barbell presses. are declines worth doing? i did 4 sets of flat and inclines before declines….i increased my wt by 5 lbs each week but not sure if that was too much to increase. well i iced it and using heat now. im also taking vit c,zinc,vit d, vit e and vit a to help heal….

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