This article may make for uncomfortable reading. It’s been included to illustrate why it’scritical that you’re always sensible and conservative in your training. No matter how experienced one may be, the rules of sensible training still apply. Properly done, weight training is very safe and healthy, but take liberties and it becomes a dangerous activity.
I’ve learned the importance of safety-first training through some painful and frightening experiences many years ago. Through foolishness I’ve been stuck under a heavy bench press bar without a spotter or safety set-up and stuck at the bottom of a heavy squat with no help or safety set-up, I’ve used appalling form to gut out final reps of sets, and I’ve attempted maximal lifting before conditioning myself to it. I’ve paid a heavy price for the foolishness, and so have countless others. Learn from our foolishness! – Stuart McRobert
I’ve bench pressed safely for many years. Since I first began training, I was good at this particular exercise, being able to bench press more than my bodyweight with very little training. Being an injury- free trainee most of my life had ingrained some habits, but not necessarily habits that would work permanently. As we age, what seemed fine in earlier years may turn out to be safe no longer. Previous success doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve been doing things properly. What the body could cope with during its youth is one thing, but an older body can’t necessarily cope with the same habits. Of course, if the training habits were sound from the start, then even an older body could prosper on the same methods used on youngsters. The safety or otherwise of a given training approach will really be tested if you try it when you’re much older. This is exactly what I did.
In January I started training “seriously” again. I started bench pressing anew following a few years of not doing it. I thought that my strength would come back quickly, like in the old days. The first day back I could perform only two reps with 85% of bodyweight. Within four weeks I was able to do ten reps with 95% bodyweight. My goal was to get some reps with 220 pounds, soon.
Late February, in a warm-up set with 60% of my bodyweight, I felt a pain in both shoulder joints, something I’d never felt before. I thought it was due to the muscles not being warmed up properly. I kept on adding weight and doing reps. The pain disappeared. First mistake: not heeding a warning sign.
The following week, March 4, 2002, I didn’t feel like training, but as it was scheduled, I “had” to train. Second mistake: not heeding another warning sign. Once again I felt chest-shoulder pain in the warm-up sets. This wasn’t soreness but pain in the joints as if it was in the bones. Next was a work set with four pounds more than the previous week, and then I’d finish with a single-rep set. After the final multi- rep set, I didn’t feel like doing the single- rep set. Third mistake: not heeding yet another warning sign.
But I did go for the final set, the single rep. I lowered the bar till it touched my chest, and I pushed it upwards, as usual. In the middle of the path, suddenly, my left arm started to shake and I heard a noise identical to cloth being ripped. The pain was terrible. I stopped the ascent and slowly lowered the bar until it touched my chest. I didn’t dare look at my shoulder. And to make matters even worse, Iwas trapped under the bar, severely injured, with no safety racks, and no spotter to help. A terrifying experience!
After a great effort I got the bar off by tilting it to one side. Then I collapsed on the floor and started to quiver—a vagal reaction to the pain. I was taken into emergency care at the nearby hospital. The next day my left arm was blue because of the broken capillaries, and lots of pectoral major fibers were torn—a very serious injury.
By May I could bench press with 30–40% of bodyweight. I was unable to do a chin or even hang from a bar. I hope that no surgery is needed to repair the damage. For the moment I need to train very carefully and see the evolution of the recovery.
Listen to your body, train safely, don’t be in a hurry to add weight before you can really cope with it. Use less weight and more reps, and get to your goal when your body is ready. You can’t rush strength increase. Safety is the priority. Getting injured will at best slow your progress, and at the worst may lead to permanent problems.
Progressive resistance training emphasizes the importance of going heavier and heavier to get bigger and stronger, but many of us (including me) have given exaggerated importance to it, and cut corners on form and safety measures. Now I can’t perform any chins, dips or even simple floor push-ups. I hope that within a few months I’ll be able to do them again. But recovering all of my former strength is another thing. My training may never be the same because of a few moments of recklessness.
“Fernando, things happen,” said the doctor who first examined me at the hospital’s emergency ward. Don’t forget this phrase, please. Things happen to all of us. But bad things don’t have to happen in the gym providing you follow the rules of sensible training.
I hope you don’t need a serious injury to be reminded of critical lessons of productive weight training.
In the back of my mind Idid know better, but Ilet foolish bravado, haste and lack of caution rule the roost. I knew I should have been much more cautious, and started with a far lighter bench press weight. I knew I should never bench press alone or without any safety set-up. Iknew I should heed warning signs, not ignore them. I knewI should never use low reps and singles when, in effect, Iwas a novice once again. But I wasn’t a teenage novice like when I first started training, but a middle-age novice. But despite all of this, Ibroke all these rules, and what a heavy price I paid.
Sensible training means caution and a conservative approach at all ages, but even more so in one’s mid-life and later years.
I’ve reported my painful and humbling experience to help you avoid making the mistakes I did. Don’t think that you can get away with breaking the rules of sensibleand progressive training. Train sensibly and safely, or don’t train at all.
Ahhh the good ole bench press. Not a matter of “if”,.but “when” you’re gonna do some pec or shoulder damage. Swapped out that particular exercise years ago.
It’s a sobering thought that as we develop more time under the bar, it doesn’t exactly make us any more resilient physically. We all have a certain fixed number of reps left in each of us. We all are but one set away from humility.
Glad to see you kept your excellent blog going all these years Connor.
Ain’t it the truth? Like you I’ve switched to heavy dips as the bench press is no longer a workable option for me.
Delighted to see you back writing again. Really missed your blog posts and training reviews!