Bad Day on the Dumbbell Bench

Those who follow me on twitter (www.twitter.com/rickcollinsesq) or facebook (www.facebook.com/rickcollinsonline) or train at my gym know that in late January 2011, I tore my right triceps off the bone. The tendon was pulled out at the elbow, yanking out loose bits of bone and spilling what seemed like an ocean of blood within the tissue over the next few days.

I’m now recovering from the worst injury I’ve sustained in nearly 35 years of careful but extremely high-intensity bodybuilding. It wasn’t pretty, and it seemed to happen in an instant. One minute everything seemed to be going just fine and the next, out of nowhere, in a flash, everything suddenly went terribly wrong.

So, in response to the many questions I’ve gotten, here’s what happened. It was Chest night. I met my training partners and we started with our usual warm-up. I’d been having intermittent tendonitis in the right elbow and an extensive warm-up always loosened things up nicely. As flat barbell benching tended to unduly stress my elbow, we started with the much more comfortable flat dumbbell benching as our first exercise. I warmed up with 15 reps using the 50 pound dumbbells, then the 75s, then the 100s (I don’t consider the 100s a working set, having knocked out 32 repetitions with 100 pounders on a recent high-rep pump-out set as the last set of flat dumbbell benches). For my working sets, I did 120s for 15 reps, then 140s for 12, and was ready to skip the 150s (which I’d used without a hitch previously) and try the 160s for the first time.

Without a doubt, the hardest part of heavy dumbbell benching is getting into position. Some gyms offer special holders so that the dumbbells can be grasped from a position with both arms fully extended, and then the holders fall away when the dumbbells are lifted. Where I train, we use spotters to do the job. But lying back, while at the same time popping 300 pounds or more of dumbbell weight from on top of your thighs into a position with arms extended above your face, is an exercise in timing and acrobatics. As the trainer lays back and pops up the dumbbells, the spotter, close behind, grabs his hands or wrists and helps guide the dumbbells into place to begin. That extra hoist makes it easier to lay back, stabilize in position, and start the set.

My training partner went first. As he lay back, I helped hoist the dumbbells up and into position so he could knock out 6 or 7 reps. Then it was my turn. He positioned himself standing, slightly crouched, and I sat on the end of the bench, with the 160s on my thighs, ready to lay back flat while simultaneously hoisting the dumbbells into position with a little of his help. But that’s not what happened. Although he’s more than strong enough to do the job, a misjudgment as to where he stood prevented me from laying back – my head was stopped by his torso, putting me in a crunch position with my shoulders still not on the bench and 320 pounds of dumbbell weight halfway up. I couldn’t lie down, couldn’t sit up, couldn’t drop the weights to the floor because his arms were there trying to keep them in position. It seemed like forever but it was a few instants. With nowhere else to go, the dumbbells came in across my chest. Essentially, I did slow, controlled cross-the-body eccentric lying triceps dumbbell extensions with 160 pound dumbbells. The dumbbell in my right hand was headed to my face, but I was able to miss my face (although I very slightly chipped a tooth) and averted an even bigger disaster. But the right triceps tendon was sheared off the bone by the stress of the controlled descent, I would later find out. I knew something was wrong but actually did a few sets of pec deck flyes, partly to assess the seriousness of the injury and partly as a sheer test of will. But after a few sets I left the gym, and ten days later I was in surgery to reattach the tendon to the bone.

Life is about trade-offs, and hardcore training is no different. After decades of pounding muscles and joints, some wear and tear is inevitable. At this point, I’m like a car with 100,000 miles, LOL. The mild intermittent elbow pain, which I was treating with occasional NSAIDS as needed, ice, massage therapy, and rest was the reason, ironically, that I was focusing on dumbbell benching over barbells and machines as my first chest exercise, and my heaviest. Dumbbell benching simply felt better than the other exercises and is generally regarded as a less stressful alternative to barbell benching, especially for those experiencing some joint pain on the barbell bench. After all, you have much greater freedom to find “the groove” that feels right with dumbbells than with a barbell, and your hands can be much closer to your body at the bottom position of the movement, which feels more comfortable on the shoulders. You also require less overall poundage with dumbbells – benching 100 pound dumbbells is probably tougher than benching a 225 or 240 pound barbell. But there’s a trade-off: control. More freedom means less control. Compared to machines, which typically lock you into a limited plane of movement, dumbbells can go anywhere. More things can go wrong in more directions. Which is exactly what happened. The trade-off for less elbow pain was that in the off chance that things somehow went bad, unlike as with most machines, the weights wouldn’t simply fall safely back onto supports.

I’m not blaming anyone, including my spotter. Look, seeing those monstrous 160s flipping up into position is probably more intimidating to the spotter than to the guy actually doing the set. The pressure is high. I’m sure it’s natural to totally focus on the dumbbells, on grasping them, and on the timing – and not on how torso and my head might collide. In retrospect, it might have been better to have had no spotter at all, as I would have been able to lay down unimpeded on the bench, and if I couldn’t have gotten the dumbbells into position on my own I could have more safely let them fall to the sides. But we’d done the identical maneuver countless times before with very nearly the same weight, without any difficulties. In any event, once my elbow is healed, I’ll likely go heavier on exercises that are easier to spot rather than dumbbells.

Where do I go from here? Well, I missed only a week or so from the gym and have been training consistently since then, including heavy unilateral upper body training with my left arm. I will start physical therapy on my right arm in a week, and begin the process of regaining range of motion. The great thing about this type of injury is that a 100% recovery is possible.  I have no doubt I will be back, better than ever soon enough.  I sincerely and deeply thank my many friends both online and offline for being so incredibly supportive. You all ROCK!!!

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4 Responses to “Bad Day on the Dumbbell Bench”

  • Wow Rick, what a story! Glad you are back on your feet and lifting again and that there was no other permanent damage. I wish you a speedy recovery.

    I too like the dumbell bench. It has been almost a year since benching with a bar. After an AC (shoulder and collarbone) tear, ulnar collateral (elbow) tear and arthritis in both shoulders I decided to give up the barbell bench and standard shoulder presses dumbell or barbell.

    Now Arnold presses are the only exercise I do overhead, other than light weight snatches, but even then I don’t do snatches that often.

    There is no need to go overhead to exercise the chest or the shoulders. The problem with lifting this way is that it makes it hard to go heavy. You don’t see a lot of people doing heavy dumbell flys. As Rick can tell you, it is not easy lifting heavy dumbells during any lift… With the exception of bent rows and shrugs.

    Lifting heavy has its advantages, however, there are some disadvantaged. Including tendinitis and possible injuries. I think the trick is to put as much stress on the muscles with as little weight possible. For example, a cable crossover isolates the chest more than any free weight exercise.

    As a promoter of both heavy lifting and muscle isolation I think using a combination of both may help reduce possible overuse injuries. However, as Rick can attest, sometimes stuff just happens. The way we respond is what’s important.

    A True Alpha Male gets back in the gym and never misses a stride. Rick, you are truly an Alpha Male!

  • Rick Collins:

    You ROCK, Jordan! Thanks for your kind words, and your great info. Yes, I was back in the gym soon after the incident, even before the surgery, and then again soon after the surgery to reattach the triceps. I had almost no down-time. I’m still training upper body unilaterally (left side only) until I build the right arm back up a bit, and the approach has worked remarkably well both physically and mentally. I’ll be doing an article on my post-injury comeback training for a magazine I write for in the next two months.

  • Looking forward to it Rick, let me know when the article comes out. I think with your writing background and training experience you have a unique perspective to share with us. I am sure there are hundreds of guys out there that have had similar injuries and would like to hear what others went through and how they got back on track. I know bicep tears are common in strong men.

    I am just impressed that you are doing unilateral training, does it cause pain in the injured arm?

  • Rick Collins:

    As to your last question, Jordan, while I think most of us develop a pretty high pain tolerance over years of heavy lifting, this kind of injury looks worse than it feels. And I didn’t have any pain on unilateral training.

    Yes, torn biceps and triceps are not uncommon and I hope sharing my experiences will help others.

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