T Nation

Lifting After Triceps Surgery



I have been lifting for about 10 years until a few months ago I tore my triceps tendon completely off my elbow on a set of heavy skull-crushers. I had the surgery where they drill holes in your elbow and sew the tendon back to the bone, did the physical therapy and now am out and plan on returning to lifting. My doc told me that I should avoid ‘extreme weights’ and lift light weights for high reps, while my therapist told me I should be able to gradually increase the weights and eventually lift heavier again. Prior to the surgery I was benching 400 pounds pretty regularly. I would like to lift heavy again in the future but obviously dont want to re-injure my tendon. My question is has anyone had this surgery and eventually returned to lifting heavy again?



I am fortunate to have never torn a triceps tendon. But I did rupture a biceps tendon in 2001, necessitating the bone-drilling type of repair you mentioned. So I have experience relevant to yours.

Frankly, I don’t know whether your strength will return to its prodigious pre-injury levels. I am confident that, assuming your surgery was successful, you’ll be able to return to training hard and successfully. And it’s on this topic (ie, your future training) that I’d like to comment. This is because there was, presumably, a fundamental flaw in your training style that led to your injury. That is, something about your training method led to the catastrophic injury you suffered (and I have a hunch as to what that was). And if you go back to training in the same manner, odds are that you will suffer another significant injury.

Looking back at my pre-injury style of lifting, it is painfully obvious what the flaw was: I was overworking my biceps, and this ultimately led to my catastrophic injury. Importantly, by ‘overwork’ I don’t mean I was doing too many sets of curls, or going too heavy on them. Rather, I’m referring to my bodypart split, which involved significant biceps stimulation every day. Day 1 was Back (heavy pulling) and Chest (heavy flies). Day 2 was Shoulders (heavy upright rows) and Legs (heavy RDLs). Day 3 was Arms (duh). In retrospect, it’s little wonder my biceps tendons ached for years before one of them finally gave way.

In this regard, I have a strong recommendation concerning how you organize your lifting: Set up your split so as to give your triceps (and biceps, for that matter) the maximum amount of time off that you can. Divide your exercises into those that involve the triceps vs those that involve the biceps. Note that this is not as simple as, say, ‘Chest day’ and ‘Back day.’ Whereas most Chest exercises do involve the triceps, some involve the biceps (eg, flies). Likewise, most Back exercises involve the biceps, but some are triceps-dependent (eg, pullovers; straight-arm pushdowns).

In designing your split, your goal should be to group all the triceps-dependent exercises on one day, and all the biceps-dependent exercises on another. You then want to ensure that your tris and bis get as much ‘down time’ as possible by not stimulating them at all during any other workouts. By doing this, you will allow your triceps and biceps tendons more time to recover, thereby reducing the risk of future injury. If you’re interested, I could expand upon the sort of split I’m taking about. Best of luck staying injury-free and reaching your goals.


Thanks for the response Eyedentist. Could you expand on the split you mentioned?

Yeah I agree with you. I think I was overstressing my triceps too much. Every week, heavy benching and skull crushers and close grip BPS. Ive already had someone tell me I should have been throwing in weeks where I did nothing but light weights to let my joints recover.


You’re welcome. As for designing a triceps/biceps friendly split, there are any number of ways of doing so. The chief factors to be considered are 1) how many times per week you’d like to work each muscle, and 2) how many days/week you’d like to train.


I think once a week would be good enough. I am avoiding skullcrushers from now on and just want to focus on bench and maybe the cable pushdown. The doc said it may take a year to be completely healed.

I have to ask you how did your biceps rehab come along and has your arm returned to 100% strength level? Ive heard biceps tears arent so bad as the underlying brachialis muscle does most of the lifting while the biceps themselves are more for turning the arm and lifting at odd angles.


Once a week is a safe way to begin. Just remember, when considering how much work your tris are getting, you have to account for every exercise that involves them. For example, if you Bench/Pushdown one day, but do Shoulder Presses on another day, and DB Pullovers on a third day, you’re actually working tris 3x/week, not 1.

You’re right that biceps injuries are not as bad from a functional standpoint in that the brachialis can do most of the elbow flexion on its own. That said, they’re still gawd-awful from an aesthetics perspective.

My biceps injury was a long time ago, so my memory of the rehab process isn’t great. I can say that the strength in that arm has long been equal to that of my ‘virgin’ arm. Ironically, my post-op biceps is slightly larger than the other one. I attribute this to the fact that the surgeon had to lengthen the muscle slightly (ie, stretch it) in order to complete the re-attachment. As you know, a longer muscle has more potential for size than does a shorter one–hence the greater fullness in the operated arm. (Hmm, maybe I should suck it up and tear all my tendons.)


Thats awesome you’ve regained all your strength. Im about 6 months out from surgery and have been doing only light presses with dumbells and barbells and feel like I might be pushing it too fast as it is, although Ive never really had any terrible pain or anything. It just feels real stiff. Still Im scared of popping those sutures out of my arm bone so I want to take it slowly at least until the 9 month mark or so.


Sounds like someone had a bad experience at Midwest ortho. Don’t worry, you’re not alone! They completely botched my shoulder diagnosis too after I went 3 times and kept getting or referrals. Turns out my bicep tendon was shredded and I had labral tears and an eroding shukder socket …



What exercise did you tear your biceps on? Preacher curl or bicep curl?


Neither. Was playing 4-square at a summer camp I volunteer at. I reared back and spiked the ball, and boom went the dynamite. Popped the tendon clean off.


Damn that sounds painful.

I tore mine on skullcrushers but I had also been doing jujitsu on my off days. I think I just stressed it too much and didnt give it enough rest.


Yeah, it was painful. Also, embarrassing as hell, tearing a muscle playing a kid’s game.