Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Can somebody please remind me what is the distal biceps tendon for?

It is not every day that you wake up feeling physically like shit and feel elated about it, but that is exactly what happened to me this morning, after six months of mostly “meh” sensations. My legs were so sore I could barely walk, most of my upper torso was stiff and achy and not much mobile, my butt protested loudly when I asked it to maintain an erect posture (another part of me seemed to be maintaining an erect posture all by itself without much of me asking, which is always a superb indicator of your body being in top notch condition, no matter how much the limbs without a brain of their own protest) and getting to the kitchen to fetch me some breakfast was a hideous chore. And I was ecstatic about it.

Not because I am especially fond of physical discomfort, which if given the chance in abstract I would avoid as much as the next bloke, but because of what had caused such level of achiness and stiffness: for the first time in more than six months I was at the other side of “the threshold”. What threshold? you may ask, and why is being at a certain side of it of such value if it comes with such price? I’ll explain in a moment, but for my readers to fully understand the significance of the achievement I’ll need to go on a lengthy detour (in this blog! Go figure!) of how my training life has been in these last six months, since I tore my left distal biceps tendon from the bone in December.

Basically, every movement that required some tension on the arms was off limits, even those that you would expect to load only the triceps, but not the biceps (like bench presses, or jerks). I guess the reason was that even when it doesn’t has to contract to move the weight, the biceps acts as agonist of the prime mover, and thus has to recruit some fibers to decelerate that prime mover, and even that partial, half-assed, somewhat limp recruitment resulted to be painful as hell. So if look back at my training log from those early days, while I visited different doctors and went through various diagnosing devices, I see essentially all I did was squatting and, surprisingly, deadlifting, as it was not painful at all (given I used a double overhand grip, which forced me to substantially lower the weights I could use). And man, did I squat: front squats, slow reverse squats, jump squats and tons of low bar back squats (as I didn’t want to risk inadvertently unloading the bar on the bent arms, I settled on high volume, many reps with comparatively low weights). If in normal training conditions I squatted between 4 and 6 tons a week I was soon squatting well above ten tons, even twelve tons per week (not much more than squatting every day), with some longish sets of deadlifts judiciously interspersed.

In the meantime, the consensus between the physicians I saw was that I should have the tendon chirurgically reattached, as there were no doubts that it was gone for good:

(Admittedly, there was one dissenting doctor that thought that the tendon was still there, but I have to confess I can’t make heads or tails of any sonogram… when my wife was pregnant and we looked at the supposed portraits of our future kid I couldn’t distinguish his arm from his dick either, so it may be some defect in my visual processing system…)
As sonograms are somewhat crude and they don’t discriminate so precisely between different soft tissues (and the inner elbow seems to be a quite messy hodgepodge of different interlocked fibers), I went through a fMRI just to be sure of what was going on:

Somehow that cleared any lingering doubts in the doctors’ minds, as they could see as clearly as fresh water that the tendon was broken and surgery was the most advisable option if I wanted to lead an active lifestyle, and continue doing that lifting thing I seemed to enjoy so much.

So I settled in a “zombie” routine of lower body, maintenance training, while I waited for the nurse to call me for an appointment as soon as an operating room became available (something that has taken a surprising amount of time, which makes you wonder about the supposed advantage of private medicine –I am fully covered by insurance- over public one). But a funny thing happened. I occasionally attempted to go back to bench presses, to somehow slow down a bit the atrophy that I could see was taking over my pectoralis major. And when I finally found that I could press the empty bar without pain I started increasing the amount of reps. And when I reached 60 reps I started increasing weight…

In the meantime, I could not avoid toying with the idea of using this slowdown to straighten up a bit my cleaning technique, so interspersed some power cleans, also with the empty bar, focusing on keeping the arms straight, propelling the bar up with the hips and not involving the biceps at all (as any attempt to “row” the bar up with the arms was pretty excruciating). You probably know where this is going, in a few weeks I had exhausted the increase in total number of reps and had started to slowly and tentatively increase weights.

Which takes me to a couple weeks ago, when I was feeling a bit frisky after finishing ten sets of bench press doubles with 102,5 kg (about 225 pounds), a semi respectable number that wouldn’t have looked too shabby even when I had a “healthy” arm. The previous session I had cleaned 90 kg (200 pounds) for a double (btw, with as nasty a technique as ever, bending the arms too soon and keeping the chest too far forward for most of the 1st pull, which makes for a super-shabby transition to the 2nd one) and I wondered if a pull up would be feasible, just to check. With this result:

 Well, that was shocking. You are not supposed to do pull ups without a biceps tendon. How are you supposed to flex the arm against the weight of your own body? Now the pull up is tricky, as it involves less of the biceps and more of the latissimus dorsi. A good test of the overall biceps functionality would be a pull up (w hands pronated), and an even better one would be a chin up (hands supinated). More so with some added weight. So I attempted this:

Not only could I chin with 15 additional kilos hanging from my waist, but I could launch the bar from my shoulders and stabilize it overhead (something I couldn’t even dream of soon after getting injured; believe me, I tried). Damn! What else was I capable of doing, and had (may be unnecessarily) avoided these last months, becoming pitifully weak in the process? Snatches? Behind the neck snatch grip push presses (aka Klokov presses)?:

Check and check. Double damn, so was there something I couldn’t do? How much strength had I lost? I knew pretty well where I was from a squatting perspective (above 150 any day of the week, and in 160-170 territory after a couple of weeks of tapering) but there is a purest test of brute force: how much could I deadlift? What about 180 no belt and with heeled weightlifting shoes?

Well, 180 in such conditions (and it wasn’t even a grinder, although the form was a bit off) means I can confidently pull 200 with minimal tapering. Pity I already missed Spain’s powerlifting cup, as it would have been as good an occasion as any to make my competition debut. Probably next year.

Now seeing that I can do any move I can think off without pain, with weights close to my personal bests ever, am I still thinking in letting a physician make a small incision in my inner elbow, drill through my radius bone, make multiple cuts in a bunch of tissue that he identifies as the remains of my tendon (so it attaches to the bone), pass it through the hole and nail it on the other side? Nope, I don’t have the slightest intention of doing that. Right now it is full speed ahead to recover the strength I’ve lost after half a year of almost non-existent upper body training (more noticeable in any overhead movement, which were entirely absent). Afterwards, we will see.

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