Pec tears can be a traumatic injury that can really setback your lifting progress. Pec tears are extremely rare, but do happen. The Pectoralis Major muscle usually tears or ruptures during movements such as the bench press. This is the most common mechanism for a pec tear, but they can also occur during other movements. Pectoralis tears have been becoming more popular due to sports such as Crossfit and MMA. In fact, the Crossfit games in 2017 saw 36 pectoral tears! Pec tears can occur during MMA with a forceful submission such as an ArmBar.
I personally have experienced a pec tear, and it was super frustrating. The most frustrating part was that I didn’t even tear my pec while lifting! I tore it while jumping off a ledge while swinging by one arm. It was stupid of me to catch myself from that height by one arm, and it simply was just too much for my pec to handle. After my injury, it was frustrating to find very little information online about pec tears. So in this article, I am going to be discussing how to know if your pec is actually torn, and what you can do about it. Although, a pec tear will take time to heal, it is not the end of your lifting career.
The Main Symptoms of a Full Pec Tear
First, I want to say that YOU will know if you fully tore your pec. You will instantly feel and hear the muscle tearing, and then the pec will retract and ball up. This is due to the pectoralis muscle fully ripping from it’s insertion point, your humerus or “upper arm bone”. When the pec fully tears it usually rips off the humerus, and balls up in the middle of the chest. The surrounding area will bruise almost instantly, and the area will turn purple over the next few days. The bruise will usually spread down the entire arm as gravity moves the blood down to your elbow. The main symptoms of a full pec tear:
- Instant sharp pain
- Tearing/Ripping Sensation
- Audible Noise “sounds like a washcloth ripping”
- Noticeable Divot near armpit
- Deep Bruising (purple from shoulder to elbow)
In my personal experience, I actually heard and felt my pectoralis muscle rip. It sounded like velcro, and then I instantly grabbed my chest. I knew I had torn my pec. I had severe pain, and then over the next few hours/days there was noticeable swelling. It took about 1-2 days for the dark purple bruise to appear. Although my bruise was only near my armpit. Once the swelling went down I could see a divot near my armpit. I suffered from a partial tear which did not require surgery. I was back to training in 2-3 months. Read below for details on a partial tear.
Use This Quick Guide to Determine If You Tore Your Pec:
1. Pec Strain
Also known as a Grade I tear. A pec strain is quite common, and is what the majority of people will have. A pec strain can occur while bench pressing, or any force that causes your pec to stretch to maximum capacity. A pec strain is when a small amount of muscle fibers have some micro-tears, resulting in some pain. The main difference from a strain versus a partial or full tear is that you will still have normal function. For example, you will still have the same amount of strength and motion of your arm/pec, but will have some pain.
The main symptoms of a pec strain is sharp pain at the time of injury, but the person usually can continue the activity. Mild tenderness and swelling may occur, but there will be no or minimal loss of strength/range of motion. With a pec strain there will be no visible damage to the pectoral muscle belly.
2. A Partial Pec Tear
Also known as a Grade II tear. A partial tear has more damage than a pec strain. With a partial tear a significant amount of muscle fibers are torn. A partial tear usually occurs from a large force such as a heavy bench press. A pec strain can progress to a partial tear if the individual continues lifting despite the pec strain.
The main symptoms of a partial tear is a sharp pain at the time of injury, and the person is unable to continue the activity. A partial tear will result in a significant loss of strength/range of motion.
For example, if a person experiences a partial tear during the bench press their arm will collapse with the weight, because they no longer have the strength to press it back up. Whereas, with a minor pec strain you will most likely still have the strength to press it back up, but you will have pain.
3. A full Pec Tear or Rupture
Also known as a Grade III tear. A full pec tear also called a pec rupture, is when all muscle fibers are torn/ruptured. This results in a major loss of function. A full pec rupture usually occurs during a one rep max on the bench press. The pectoral muscle can not handle that amount of workload, and tears under the pressure.
If you have a full tear/rupture you will have immediate severe pain and disability. You may also hear/feel the tear as it occurs. A full pec tear results in complete loss of muscle function. You will be able to feel a defect or mass near the armpit, and will see a distorted pectoralis muscle. The muscle may or may not retract, which will cause the pectoralis muscle to ball up towards the center of the chest.
How Long Will It Take To Heal?
This can be a quite frustrating injury especially for those who enjoy lifting weights, because a pec tear will require time to heal. For the recovery time, it will depend on the extent of the tear. Use the guide above to determine what grade tear you have. Pec strains and partial tears typically will heal on their own. However serious tears may require surgery.
- Grade I pec strains will heal on its own. It will take about 4-6 weeks before you can start to slowly ease back into lifting. You will need to avoid doing any movements with that arm for some time being to allow the pec to fully recover. The good thing is that a Grade I pec strain should heal fully in 4-6 weeks, and shouldn’t effect your strength.
- A Grade II partial tear will require more time to heal. Usually 8-12 weeks. A Grade II partial pec tear should really be evaluated by an orthopedic specialist. Depending on the severity of the tear, surgery may be considered. However, in most cases partial tears will not require surgery. I recommend visiting a Physical Therapist to help rehab your pectoralis muscle following a Grade II tear.
- A Grade III full tear/rupture will require surgery to re-attach the pectoralis muscle. The problem with a Grade III tear is that the muscle completely has torn apart or away from the bone. So it cannot heal by itself, and will need re-attached. Visit an Orthopedic Surgeon for an evaluation and MRI. Following surgery, you will need to visit Physical Therapy to regain your strength/range of motion. You can expect a full recovery 6-10 months after surgery.
- Resting. I advise people to avoid moving that arm for the first few days. At-least until the swelling goes down. Avoid any movements with that arm, especially lifting weights. A huge issue is that people think they just have a minor strain, so then they start to train again. DON’T do that. It will only make things worse, and it won’t heal.
- Ice. You need to be icing as much as possible. This will help reduce the inflammation/swelling. Ice for 15-20 minutes several times a day.
- Shoulder Sling. A shoulder sling would be a good idea. At-least for the first few days-weeks. The shoulder sling will help support your arm, and allow the pec to be in an optimal position to heal. I recommend just getting a cheap arm sling, it does not have to be anything fancy.
- Physical Therapy. I recommend seeing a physical therapist who can evaluate your pec strain. It is important to know the extent of the tear, and see if you need surgery. A physical therapist will help heal and rehab the pectoralis muscle quicker.
- Stem Cell or PRP Injections. These injections are becoming extremely popular for injuries like this. In some cases the stem cells/PRP injections can help heal the muscle tear. Ask your Doctor if they would work for you.
- MRI/Surgery. If you suspect you have a Grade II or Grade III tear, then you really need to get an MRI. An MRI is the best imaging available to see the extent of the tear. If you suffered from a full tear/rupture, then surgery may be your best option. Visit a physical therapist or orthopedic specialist to find out.
*Read my other article on How to Prevent Pec Tears.