Biceps Tears from Deadlifts?
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28 Jul 2010 20:44

Lots of trainees ask whether they can get a torn bicep from deadlifts. Actually there are three related questions which I will introduce one after the other:

Can I get a bicep tear from deadlifting?

Understanding the mechanisms of a muscle strain will help us figure out whether the deadlift is a culprit in biceps pulls. Most often, muscle strains happen when a muscle is actively lengthening against load - the eccentric action. Alternatively a strain can occur when the amount of tension developed in a muscle exceeds the tensile strength of the tissues. A muscle can be strained, of course, by the simple application of a mechanical stretch. Even then the muscle is developing tension.

When you deadlift, the biceps do not actively contract. They are at resting length and are not being stretched much beyond this length. In fact, they cannot be stretched much beyond resting length during the deadlift since to introduce this kind of stretch you would have to hyper-extend the shoulder. Even then the bicep cannot be stretched that much, relatively speaking. Since the bar is in front of you the shoulders cannot hyper-extend and the elbows are incapable of hyper-extension. So the bicep muscle is not contracting and it is not actively lengthening against a load. It is not developing a large degree of tension.

Will using an alternating grip be more likely to cause me to tear a bicep?

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This question usually refers to the perception that the supinated arm1 suffers a strained bicep or at least pain after deadlifting. One action of the biceps muscle IS to assist in supination of the forearm. So it would stand to reason that a bit more tension will be felt in the supinated versus the pronated arm.

However that does not translate to a bicep strain waiting to happen. The tension is not of the muscle shredding variety and there is no resistance to contraction. The forearm is being held in a suppinated position by the hand gripping the barbell and the elbows are not flexed. The biceps bracchi contribute to supination of the forearm but this action is much stronger if the elbow is flexed rather than extended as during the deadlift. You can check this for yourself by turning your palm up with your arm straight and then with your arm bent to a ninety degree angle. When you supinate your arm with elbow bent you will notice a very strong biceps contraction as compared to supination with the arm straight.

In fact, even though the biceps is capable of flexing the forearm with a great deal of force when the forearm is supinated, the only muscle that is really capable of producing supination in the fully extended position is the supinator itself. Nobody is claiming anything about supinator stress. Likewise nobody mentions that the stiff and uncomfortable feeling in the upper arm during deadlifts may not be coming from the biceps at all but from the brachialis, which is one of those hard working muscles that gets overlooked and problems in the brachialis can make it difficult to straighten the elbow, just as problems in the biceps can. People focus on the biceps, however, because that is the only muscle of the three they have heard of.

There exists an interesting dichotomy in claims about the affects of a mixed grip and it's tendency to promote injury. On one hand we have claims that the mixed grip causes problems at the shoulder girdle and back, ostensibly due to external rotation at one shoulder and a slight "torque" (rotational force) to the mid back because of the slight offset of the bar on one side. However, it is claimed that the supinated side sustains injury to the distal tendon through nothing more than the "sensation" these proponents have that there is increased tension on this side. Simultaneous with this view is the claim of injury to the shoulder. When, in fact, if shoulder pathology resulted as a result of the mixed grip it would be the proximal tendon since this part of the biceps is an integral part of the shoulder joint and is affected by pathologies of the shoulder.

With impingement, rotator cuff dysfunction, and/or scapula misalignment can come a chance of impingement of the proximal biceps tendon under the coracoacromial arch. This is much more likely to be seen in overhead throwing athletes and in terms of lifting, overhead lifting would be a much greater factor than using a mixed grip during the deadlift. It is hardly likely that shoulder pathology leading to a biceps tendon rupture could come about as a result of the single practice of using a mixed grip. Most injuries are the result of a domino effect of underlying pathologies that lead to acute injury. It is easy to blame activity without considering more base-line information such as population, occupation, overall exercise habits and other activity.

Should I alternate the pronated and supinated hand for each rep when using the alternating grip in order to protect against bicep pulls?

You should alternate the supinated and pronated arms. But not to protect from a bicep pull, necessarily. Using an alternated grip changes slightly the position of the bar relative the body and the action of the shoulders and upper back. Alternate the grip position to create balance about the shoulders and upper back. That ends the question and answer session. Now to figure out the why's and wherefores.

So Why This Talk about Deadlifts and Bicep Pulls?

Two likely answers come to mind. A foreshortened biceps is quite likely with many trainees owing to overindulging in biceps curls lacking full range of motion. Not to mention pullups done without full range of motion.

Many trainees habitually do bicep curls without allowing the elbow to completely extend at the bottom of the curl. Pullups and chinups are even more likely to be done this way and this is the origin of the so-called "deadhang" pullup whereby the elbow is allowed to completely extend at the bottom of the pullup, perhaps with a pause in this position to eliminate any "stretch reflex" or rebound. I would argue that there isn't really any other way to do a pullup but "deadhang". Anything else is either a partial pullup or some kind of gymnastics. That is personal opinion though and the fact is many trainees fail to use full range of motion in exercises that require elbow flexion.

The idea is that both electrical and tissue responses cause a muscle to become "foreshortened" relative to its normal resting length. The "fore" means the same as "pre". Repeated elbow flexion against heavy resistance without allowing the elbow to extend fully seems likely to cause one's biceps to become "short" or "tight". However it is unclear whether this is a true phenomenon especially through resistance training alone. We've all probably experienced the feeling of very tight and sore biceps after overzealous curling. We may even have been unable to fully extend our elbows during these times. But we've also found that the normal resting length returns after a day or two.

Considering the normal resting length of the biceps muscle and the position of the arm during the deadlift it is not likely that a correctly performed deadlift should result in a biceps strain. It could be, then, that trainees who experience biceps strains during deadlifts are not performing them correctly. In fact one of the most common mistakes that trainees make is to slightly flex the elbows during the deadlift and most trainees are not conscious that they are doing so. This, undoubtedly, could produce a biceps strain! The biceps, if flexed during a deadlift, must resist lengthening against a very great resistance. The tensions that result can be large and although a major strain is not likely due to the range of motion this is probably the origin of the bicep strains that are reported by some trainees. The solution is quite simple. Never flex your elbows during the deadlift.

So Biceps Tears from Deadlifts are a Myth?

No. This does happen. But it almost certainly happens from flexing the elbow during the deadlift. In essence the lifter is unconsciously trying to "lift" the weight with his or her arms. Although I cannot confirm this, it is possible that an elbow flexion habit during the early days of deadlifting, while the weight is still light, could be just the thing that is leading to acute pulls when the weights get heavy owed to the constant wear and tear on the biceps tendon.

There is a myth that this happens OFTEN. In fact, the myth doesn't just state that biceps strain from deadlifting are a common occurrence but that people are always getting "blown" biceps from deadlifts and "many biceps have been torn off during deadlifting." This is simply not true and such events are rare. It is the dramatic nature of the injury, usually seen during a powerlifting even when a lifter attempts a personal record. Sometimes there is visible evidence of the injury and a large lump and deficit appears on the arm. The catastrophic nature of such devastating injuries gives many a false sense that they occur more often than they do. It is quite possible, and even likely, that doctors, having seen just one badly torn biceps tendon that occured during a deadlift, could have spawned the myth of it being common, as such dramatic injuries can lead even M.D.'s to over-estimate the prevalence of such injuries.

It takes a heck of a lot of tension to blow a bicep. Torn off biceps are not "common" even when the biceps has a very active role let alone during deadlifts. Remember that many strength writers seem to forget about the thousands of others out there who are deadlifting on any given day and not tearing their biceps. This kind of information usually comes from doctors or therapists who have seen a lot of injuries and who write about training on the side. The memory of dramatic biceps injuries from deadlifts makes them falsely believe that this must be a common occurrence. When biceps strains happen during deadlifts, the majority are minor, requiring no professional intervention. And it is very unlikely that they are a result of proper deadlift technique.

The answer, again, is to relax the arms and keep the elbows extended. This does not mean "straight" or hyper-extended it just means the arms are relaxed into their natural position. The answer is NOT to do curls to strengthen the biceps. There seems to be a tendency to think that all problems can be fixed by making the muscle in question stronger. You cannot always bludgeon a body part into submission. Unless by submission you mean torn muscle tissue and tendons!

Most Common Bicep Injuries

It is important to note that the most common type of bicep tendon injury is a strain to the bicep tendon at the shoulder. The second most common type is to the tendon at the elbow. When people say that bicep tendon injuries of the elbow are common during deadlifting they leave out a crucial fact. Injuries to the distal tendon2 of the biceps account for less than 5% of all biceps injuries! And although these injuries do tend to occur during heavy lifting, it is when the bicep is actually being used, most commonly against an eccentric load. Let me make this very clear. These injuries tend to occur after a very forceful biceps contraction and elbow flexion. And this mechanism of bicep injury is similar for all acute biceps injuries, whether they be to the musculotendinous junction, a tendon tear, or an avulsion.

The elbow should not be flexed during the deadlift.

I have noticed that some people are trying to make a distinction between "bicep injuries" and "bicep tendon injuries" and making a lot of the idea that deadlifts are a 'special case' that puts strain on the tendon (apparently at the elbow). As stated, there is no real reason to think the forces are great enough to injur a tendon on their own but it may help to elaborate on tendons just a bit.

Many trainees picture tendons as being similar to ligaments. They are not. A tendon is a tough, fibrous band of tissue that is continuous with the epimysium of the muscle. Basically the muscle's epimysium becomes the tendon at the end. Tendons have great tensile strength but are less elastic than the muscle belly. This makes sense if you consider the job of a tendon. It attaches the muscle to the bone via the bone's periosteum. Its job is to transmit the forces generated by muscle contraction to the bone. So a tendon needs to have a lot of tensile strength to do this and, indeed, their tensile strength can be twice that of the muscle's. They are resistant to stretch but do have some elasticity. If you actually rupture a tendon you will usually hear a pop or snap and have immediate pain, not just bicep soreness a day later.

When biceps injuries do occur the sudden traumatic injury does not necessarily tell us much about the etiology. As stated above it is easy to assume that the activity associated with the injury solely to blame for its occurrence. It is very likely to be a result of cumulative degenerative process.

What About Deadlifting with a Strained Biceps?

That's a different can of worms since the properties of a recently strained tissue are different than a healthy one. First of all, even if you can do so comfortably even the slightest loss of concentration and absent-minded elbow flexion could cause a recent minor strain to become a big one. After a strain there is a quick deposition of non-elastic fibrous scar tissue. This tissue can withstand relatively little tension. Also the muscle response to tension changes when an injured area is present and when there is pain, which can cause an increase in resting muscle tension. During the early stages of recovering from a biceps strain let pain be your guide. If it hurts, don't do it. A slight discomfort is normal after even a minor strain and the presence of discomfort does not necessarily mean the movement should be avoided, but pain is a sign to skip it until another day. Ultimately there are no absolute rules and you have to learn to use your best judgment.

Those who have undergone surgery to repair a distal biceps rupture should tread with great care when returning to deadlifting.

Please see the comments below for an example of what I have explained here.

References

1. Magee, David J., James E. Zachazewski, and William S. Quillen. Pathology and Intervention in Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation. St. Louis, MO: Saunders/Elsevier, 2009. Print.

2. Morrey, Bernard F. The Elbow and Its Disorders. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 2000. Print.

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This page created 28 Jul 2010 20:44
Last updated 02 Dec 2013 20:39

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