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When You Grow Up and Realize You’re Just Not Strong Enough

To commemorate my 40th birthday, I set the ‘grand goal’ of punctuating decades of powerlifting by hitting 500 pounds on the bench. Instead, I tore my pec from my chest and very painfully learned the limits of my power

Six years ago, I interviewed powerlifter and fitness entrepreneur Mark Bell. Bell, whose admitted steroid usage was one of the featured stories in his brother Chris’ documentary Bigger Stronger Faster*, described how tearing a pectoral muscle prompted him to develop the “Sling Shot” bench shirt, which was initially intended for his own personal rehab but later marketed and sold by the apparel company he founded. 

The bench shirt that resulted from his pec tear made Mark Bell a self-proclaimed “meathead millionaire,” but that wasn’t what stuck with me. What lingered was the certainty with which Bell said that on a long enough timeline, all serious bench pressers — individuals training with powerlifting pauses that keep the weight on their pectoral, with muscles often engorged past the load capacity of their tendons by steroids and other chemical aids — would tear their pecs. “If you’re getting up past 500 pounds and not watching your volume with this lift, or you’re getting older and not programming accordingly, it could happen,” he said.

And you know what? In my case, it did. On March 20th, under a barbell loaded with 430 pounds, I tore my fucking pec. Yes, I knew how to bail on the lift, so I got away safely outside of that tear. No, the amount on the bar wasn’t anywhere near a personal record, a “PR.” But as I iced the badly bruised area and awaited the instructions from my orthopedic surgeon, I kept wondering where I had gone wrong.

At the time I talked to Mark Bell, I filed his advice away, unaware of what the future held for me. This was fodder for future stories about powerlifting generally or the bench press specifically. It didn’t apply to me, no way. Sure, I powerlifted, but I had only ever been in a handful of actual competitions at the Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas. Previously, I had never benched more than 365 pounds on the competition platform and never benched more than 405 pounds for a single touch-and-go (unpaused) repetition in a workout. The same went for the squat and the deadlift — I moved a decent amount of weight, but always left something in the tank. I programmed loads of deload weeks into my quarterly workouts, reducing volume, changing exercises and reducing the amounts of the weights. After all, I wasn’t training for the Olympics. I merely wrote about strength sports and kept my hand in the strength work, nothing more.

That all changed as my 40th birthday, which will take place this May, began drawing nearer. I had always been young and always been big, at least relatively speaking; I was certainly the youngest kid and among the biggest kids in my high school graduating class of 1998. But now I was getting old, and I wanted to make one last run. I hadn’t gotten weaker, and in some areas, I was stronger than I had been in my 20s. So I decided I wanted to bench 500 pounds before I turned 41. 

I had interviewed record-setting powerlifter and Kabuki Strength co-founder Chris Duffin a few months earlier, and he told me how setting so-called “grand goals” related to powerlifting, such as squatting and deadlifting 1,000 pounds for reps, enabled him to enter middle age with greater confidence and a renewed sense of purpose.

Duffin’s advice stuck with me. For reasons that remain somewhat obscure to me, the 500-pound bench press became fixed in my mind as my own not-so-grand goal. In a world in which people lie routinely about their bench press, this perhaps sounds like a modest amount — doubly so with the world record for the raw bench (a bench press performed without a constrictive suit that aids with the pressing motion of the lift) sitting at either the official 782 pounds posted by American super heavyweight Julius Maddox or the 804 pounds that Iranian Daniel Zamani claims to have moved in the gym. I planned to take 500 pounds however I got it, ideally on a powerlifting platform somewhere, but perhaps even in the form of a touch-and-go rep in my basement — it just needed to be done. 

Me in 1999, age 17

I’d always boasted the potential to be a good bench presser, particularly as someone who benched a properly paused 315 pounds at age 17 while at a bodyweight of 190 pounds and whose system wasn’t inundated with performance-enhancing drugs. Even as I deprioritized the bench in favor of the squat and deadlift during my early 20s, I stayed comfortably in the mid-to-high 300-pound range for bench press reps well into adulthood. 

My plan of action made zero sense, but I believed it would work. It was a variant of the Smolov Squat cycle, with slightly reduced reps to account for the bench working smaller muscle groups than the squat. I would throw caution to the wind and bench more by benching less.

Everything else changed accordingly. Less deadlift, less back squat, fewer assistance exercises. Dead hang chest-to-deck chin-ups on the “active rest days” for some inexplicable reason. The usual grip stuff that I did, now supplemented with Iron Mind’s block and pinch grip trainers.

I started throwing real weight on the barbell, loads I knew I could tackle without a spotter (I keep the barbell uncollared during the bench, so I can dump both sides quickly if the lift goes south, a reflex that needs to be trained at some point in a trainee’s lifting career). It was remarkable that 370 went up for six sets of six reps. It was interesting to move 415 pounds for seven sets of three, more than I’d ever lifted before in my life. This was rarified air indeed! Finally, on a Day Four workout, 440 pounds went up 10 separate times, across 10 sets of one rep each. 

Even with the world record for this lift sitting somewhere in the high 700-pound range, let me tell you: 440 pounds still feels like a lot of weight, especially for a 245-pound man in his late 30s doing the lifts with reasonably good form. These rep schemes weigh on you. Your whole body aches. I’d try to pause as many of these reps as possible, despite that being an absolute worst practice when dealing with so much volume — because why not, huh? It struck me as a fascinating tour de force that held significance to me and a handful of other friends who care deeply about this stuff. 

About three months in, my body began to hurt. I mean really hurt. Was I going to follow this routine for 12 more weeks? Would I complete an infinite series of modified Smolov bench cycles, with no letup? Finally, on March 20th, I laid down on the bench for what would hopefully be the first two-rep set of 430 pounds, out of a planned eight sets.

What happened instead was likely the last rep of my bench-pressing career. On the eccentric phase of my first rep with 430 pounds, my left pectoral muscle spasmed violently, and the bar moved back down. I instinctively dumped that left side of the bar and then the right, before standing up and grabbing my pectoral muscle. The pain in the pec wasn’t actually that bad; what hurt was the armpit and shoulder area. Visual evidence indicated that the muscle tendon had either torn completely or partially off the bone. I took four 200-milligram ibuprofen and began icing the pectoral muscle, quickly falling asleep as I wondered what I — a father and primary breadwinner for a two-year-old — had done. 

Two days after the tear

I knew I needed to see the orthopedic surgeon as soon as possible, and I got there 48 hours later. The surgeon evaluated the muscle, squeezing it in various places. “Does it hurt when I do this?” he asked me throughout the examination.

“Should it?” I kept saying, now keenly aware that the pain I was feeling was perhaps different in degree but not in kind from the dead shoulders and throbbing pecs that 25 years of benching had bequeathed me. 

“We see these tears almost exclusively in male trainees, usually when the trainee is doing exactly what you were doing or posting or pushing up from the ground in some strenuous athletic activity,” the surgeon explained. “It’s different from what a lot of people are accustomed to — blowing out their knees or breaking a toe or something. Those can happen at any time, and they don’t debilitate or immobilize you in the same way. We’ll need the MRI to know for sure, but you probably didn’t so much tear the muscle itself as tear it off — or nearly tear it off.”

Surgery loomed on the horizon, contingent on the results of the MRI. Depending on whether I had suffered a low-grade tear or a high-grade tear, I was looking at somewhere between six weeks and four months of recovery time before I could even begin to do bench press-style movements. Oddly enough, most of the rest of my range of motion would be unaffected, except for the fact that my left arm would remain in a sling most of the time, though I could remove it from the sling to type or write, do some very basic physical therapy movements, and so forth. 

As it happened, I lucked out — the MRI showed a moderate tear of the muscle belly, but the tendon was intact. After analyzing the images, the surgeon advised against surgery. His instructions were simple: I was to cease ibuprofen usage in order to promote inflammation, a course of action which seemed to produce an immediate positive effect, and avoid upper body work for the next four to six weeks, eventually easing my way back into overhead work and then — far more cautiously — pressing work, if I wanted to return to the bench at all. 

“There could be some muscle wasting during the recovery, but we usually see that in older folks who are fairly sedentary, not active people like you,” the surgeon told me when he called with the news. “You may have some lingering dull pain for the rest of your life, but you’ll be okay otherwise. Given time, you could get back to where you were on the bench press, but at this stage in your training and your life, there are better ways to train that area. Work a grappling dummy, flip a tire, focus on the military press — all carry a far lower likelihood of pectoral reinjury.”

Commiserating with chiropractor Beau Hightower

Even as I processed this good news, I couldn’t help pondering what “lingering dull pain” means in this situation. Chiropractor Beau Hightower messaged me that he too had torn his pec, while completing a ridiculous series of low-weight reps on a day on which he had also repped 405 pounds. He never benched again. Retired pro wrestler B. Brian Blair, one of my childhood favorites and no stranger to either ultraviolence or bloody injuries, told me to wear that bruise proudly. Others from the meathead-verse of wrestlers and lifters I’ve covered for the past decade said similar things, told similar stories. Full recovery or not, it seemed as if I had reached the end of a stage on life’s way.

Brian Blair tells me to wear that bruise proudly, and Blair’s autobiography co-author (and MEL writer) Ian Douglass adds his two cents.

Growing up, I had always wanted to be like my football-playing father or Brian Blair, men who heard the roar of the crowd during their athletic heydays. Lifting weights connected me to that world, their world. But when my pec tore, I finally understood why I had put myself through so much grief chasing a 500-pound bench press that would earn me nothing and briefly impress only those people who didn’t know how much further I truly had to go to accomplish something great in the strength world. 

The pec tear one week later

Yes, as that bar descended one final, fateful time, I at last understood that it was my destiny, unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd, to sit in front of my mechanical keyboard and acclaim the strength feats of others. It was my lot in life, my end, to be a chronicler of the iron game, not a king of it.