It just went ping……I wasn’t doing anything with it, honest!

April 9th, 2009 by Phil Brown

I attend a large chain leisure facility in Bangor, North Wales. It has a spacious, very well equipped gym, with a decent enough area for using free weights - that is, weights that are not attached to a pulley machine of some kind. Using dumbells and barbells is my preference since my body is then challenged to control the movement using not just the muscles I am primarily trying to train, but also many other muscles that help to stabilise the joints and limbs as I move through the movements of an exercise.

Accessory to the fact

These other muscles are the ACCESSORY muscles to the exercise I am doing. An example is the good old bench press. We men like the bench press for three reasons:

1. We can lie down.

2. We can pump up our manly chest muscles.

3. Its an easy exercise to get strong at and feel impressive.

However, many of us don’t take into account all the muscles involved in the movement of the bench press. Sure, we like to focus on the big pectoral muscles as we squeeze that bar up. And that focus is a good thing, since these are the primary muscles we want to affect. There are other muscles hard at work however and when it comes to an injury, it is rarely the big powerful pecs that get damaged in the bench press.

A pressing problem

The rotator cuff are a group of muscles that work to stabilise the shoulder joint during an exercise such as the bench press. It is these muscles that – in this movement – are working in an accessory role. Injury to these muscles can occur when the load placed on the pectorals and the shoulder joint is too much for these stabilising muscles to cope with as they fight against the more explosive powerful forces of the chest muscles. Rotator cuff injury is a common one in men overtraining and overloading their bench presses.

The “invisible” cause

A large percentage of people at most big gyms are not even aware of the accessory muscles in a movement. Hence, when they get injured, it is sometimes hard for them to identify the primary cause of the injury. In the case of rotator cuff injury from bench press, it is hard for people to make the connection between a shooting pain or ache down the upper arm (one possible symptom of rotator cuff tendon damage) and the heavy chest exercises they were doing the week before.


In other cases, someone may be doing an intense resistance exercise to work one muscle group.  Suddenly, they get a sharp pain somewhere they were not expecting. They might come to the massage clinic saying “It just went ping…..I wasn’t doing anything with it, honest!”

Hamming it up

I have an excellent example of just this. Me. This morning. While doing a resistance exercise focusing on my shoulder retractors and mid/upper back muscles. I got hurt. But not where I would have expected. Silly me. And I should know better.

I was doing cable rows. I love cable rows. I am good at them. I make sure to keep my lower back stable and smoothly pull through into my belly and squeeze my shoulder blades together. I have good form. I did not expect to get injured. I did not anticipate the sharp sharp pain. In my upper hamstrings. I was not TRAINING my hamstrings!

The sharp pain and nasty tightness occurred on the sixth or seven repetition of a set of around eight or nine. The reason is this:  as the primary muscles involved in the movement began to tire and weaken (my back and arms), I began to “cheat” the movement with other muscles. The hamstrings are HIP EXTENSORS.  As I sat with a flexed hip pulling a heavy weight towards me in a rowing fashion, my hamstrings were bravely stabilising me  AGAINST hip extension. They were activated and tight, but not moving, SO I DIDN’T NOTICE THEM. Then, when I started to “cheat” and moved my lower back a little into extension because I was tired, my hips extended a little and my already tight hamstrings cramped and got damaged.

This had never happened before! I wasn’t doing anything honest! It just went ping!

The “silent” partners

I had forgotten about the “silent” muscles in a movement. This meant that I had not stretched and warmed up my lower body before beginning the more intense phase of my workout. My hamstrings were ready to get injured due to some leg exercises they were still tired from a few days before, plus I had been spending alot of time sitting down working at a computer. In this position, the hamstrings are kept short for long periods. They need to be stretched and warmed up before exercise if you have spent a long period beforehand in one position.


Although I am not glad I got injured this morning, I can use it as a reminder of the following:

1. Warm up your WHOLE body before a workout. Make sure your muscles are warmed and stimulated ready for the more intense work to come.

2. Familiarise yourself with your different muscle groups and their roles in movement, so you know what the primary AND accessory muscles are in each of your exercises.

3.Make sure you are doing the exercise correctly and efficiently. Many injuries happen in very slight, everyday movements we make without thinking. Something goes “ping!”  in a muscle group that has been constantly worn out by overuse in imbalanced exercises.

4. Never think about one muscle in isolation. Although there are exercises in the gym that you can to effectively isolate a muscle (e.g preacher bench bicep curls) – you can never truly isolate one muscle, since your whole body is always using many muscles to stabilise you in a position or a movement.

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