I laid back on the bench and I went through the same set up ritual I’d done thousands of times before. My three warm up sets were complete and this was my first working set. I was preparing for a bench press contest, my first in almost ten years. My right shoulder was always sore but I learned to live with the pain. I really had no business benching heavy again but my thick head was in denial. I grabbed a random guy in my vicinity to spot me. I had 275 lbs loaded on the bar and this was going to be an easy double on my way up to 300. I took control of the bar after the liftoff and I started my slow descent. Just as the bar touched my chest I felt it. It was an obvious “POP” in my right shoulder. In my mind, it was a pop heard throughout the gym. I was frozen with fear and luckily my spotter realized something went wrong and lifted the bar up to the racks. I sat up on the bench, grabbed my shoulder and stared at the floor. My arm went numb and I knew something very bad just happened. Thoughts of Surgery flashed through my mind. A future of pain, pain meds, Physical therapy and dare I say it… “atrophy.” I instantly sunk into a deep depression.
An MRI showed that my supraspinatus tendon was hanging on by a thread. I had a small tear in my labrum, as well as some bone spurs. The tears occurred in an instant but the spurs had formed during years of grinding. The bottom line: I needed surgery.
One week after surgery I started physical therapy and I was back at the gym. I was following the program that my physical therapist set up to increase my range of motion and strength. Working your rotator cuff muscles is tedious, time consuming and boring but it will save you a boatload of problems down the road.
My surgeon gave me a thick nylon belt that wrapped around my waist with a smaller loop that wrapped my lower bicep. The belt secured my right elbow to my side so my right shoulder was immobile.
I couldn’t train in any way that involved my right shoulder but I certainly wasn’t going to use that as an excuse to give up on my training altogether. There was no way I was going to sit and watch so many years of effort just fade away. I could still train my legs, abs, lower back and the entire left side of my upper body.
Some people may believe that if they trained just one side of their body they would develop a strangely uneven appearance, but the body is an amazing organism. Our bodies strive to be symmetrical and this occurs through a phenomenon called Cross Education.
While the definite mechanisms of cross education are still unclear, the fact of its existence has been known since the 1800’s. Several theories involve motor pathways and neural circuits and delve deeper into science than I need to know.
Various studies have proven that unilateral strength training has a positive effect on the untrained side and that’s evidence enough for me. Not only may the untrained side retain strength but some studies have even shown the untrained side could increase in strength. Furthermore, an immobile limb will lose less range of motion if the opposite side is trained during a long recovery. Sadly, studies have never shown hypertrophy in the untrained limb but retainment of muscle mass is definitely possible and all you could ask for after an injury or surgery.
My Training Program
I couldn’t run but I continued my HIIT cardio training using an elliptical machine or a stationary bike.
I continued working my left side with machines, cables and dumbbells. One item in my gym bag of tricks that assisted me through this was my GlobeGripz. Working just my left side was awkward and using my GlobeGripz added comfort on all my pressing movements. I was also concerned that if my left side developed tendonitis, my training would be really screwed. So the Globegripz would save me some wear and tear. I also used them in both hands, further into my recovery, to find the angles that didn’t aggravate my shoulder.
I was able to work my back with single arm pull downs and cable rows and I used an assisted pull-up machine to perform one arm pull-ups.
Single arm dumbbell presses made up the brunt of my chest training. It’s not easy to get a single heavy dumbbell in place and I had to really drive my left foot into the floor to keep my balance on the bench.
I worked my left shoulder with dumbbell laterals and presses and I even threw in single arm dumbbell snatches for some dynamic work.
I could still work my forearms with wrist curls and reverse wrist curls and I could continue all my grip strength training.
I now found extra time to train my calves with seated calve raises and donkey calve raises.
I performed squats in a Smith machine using my left hand to secure the bar. My gym has a Smith style machine where the bar can flow back and forth as well as up and down. I like this machine because it’s closer to performing actual free standing squats. I didn’t want to put a heavy bar across my shoulders so I would do sets of high rep breathing squats, sometimes as high as 100 reps.
Let me admit to you that this type of restricted training is not fun. I had to really dig deep to motivate myself to get to the gym and get it done. My biggest motivation was the thought of what would happen to my body if I didn’t train. I should also state that my surgeon recommended no resistance training, that involved my right shoulder, until nine weeks after surgery but I’ve never been a good patient.
After four weeks I started working my right bicep with very light dumbbell curls and my right tricep with very light cable press downs. Again, I made use of my GlobeGripz to find the exact angles to relieve any pain.
After five weeks I stopped wearing the belt that secured my right arm and I was determined to regain my strength.
After six weeks I figured out I could use the Hammer Strength Iso-Lateral curl machine. The pads that support my elbows are elevated so there was no pressure on my shoulder. I could finally work my right bicep with some real weight. Hammer Strength also makes a similar machine for the triceps and that worked equally as well. Psychologically, I felt motivated to train again.
Eight weeks out I added lying tricep extensions with 15 lb dumbbells and at nine weeks I started doing planks in a fully locked out push-up position.
Ten weeks out I began performing chest presses with 15 lb dumbbells. My right side felt weak and would dictate when my set was done. A tendon heels at 5% each week and I decided to grab a pair of bells that were five pounds heavier with each coming week.
Twelve weeks after surgery I was back working all the muscles in my right shoulder. I managed to hold onto most of my muscle mass and I was feeling stronger every day. The past 3 months really tested me mentally and physically, but I felt like I succeeded and I was confident that I’d regain all my strength in a couple more months.
All Is Not Lost
Shoulder injuries are as common in any gym as sleeveless shirts. If you’ve been training for years chances are you’ve suffered some type of injury or as my mother would say “god forbid” that an injury is headed your way. Just know that there are ways to work around almost any injury if you have the willpower and the drive to persevere.
I discovered, the hard way, that retaining muscle after surgery is possible but keep in mind the old saying: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So check your ego at the gym door and remember that training smarter is better than training harder.
About the Author
Jim Vaglica is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Team Labrada Athlete, Jim competed on the Reality TV shows American Grit, hosted by John Cena, and Mark Burnett’s Expedition Impossible. He is a Police Sergeant with 16 yrs on SWAT and the Owner of JimVaglica.com