We’ve all heard of the standard “RICE” method for treating injuries; Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. But what if complete rest is not the answer for all injuries? For muscle-belly tears, there is an old school, tried and tested “in the trenches” method to safely and effectively speed up the rehabilitation process of minor muscle strains and tears.
It was invented by Bill Starr, a pioneer of strength and power development during the 1960s and a true legend of Strength & Conditioning who popularised many effective training methods that were only scientifically validated years later. However, his rehab protocol will likely never be scientifically validated as it goes against conventional injury rehabilitation methods and would be a difficult study to carry out. Nevertheless it has proved effective time and time again.
It involves returning to low intensity activity as soon as the acute injury phase passes, and the initial bleeding and swelling begins to subside. This usually takes between 2-4 days. At that point the lifter will then resume training with an empty barbell (or sufficiently light weight) for 3-4 sets for between of 25-50 reps. Great emphasis is placed on perfect technique, and using a slow comfortable tempo (lifting speed).
The goal of these sets is to promote healing by increasing blood flow to the muscle and stretching it under gentle load and tension using light weights.
Stretching and working the muscle in this way promotes healing of individual muscle fibres that can contract as normal. As opposed to conventional methods that let the muscle rest completely where it will lay down a layer of scar tissue over the injury. Scar tissue cannot contract or stretch, and so this greatly increases the chance of re-tearing the muscle in the same place once normal training resumes.
The real magic of this protocol will be felt when the injury actually begins to feel BETTER as you lift and the sets progress.
I was (un)fortunate enough to experience this first hand. I was bench pressing 170kg, when on my 3rd rep I felt a definite “pop” in my left pec, thankfully I was able to press it up and finish the rep (I was training alone) I knew instantly I had sustained a pec tear, I also knew after some poking and prodding that the tear was in the centre or “belly” of the muscle (as opposed to a tendon) and so it would be possible to rehab using the Starr method.
Here is how I implemented the Starr method, and a typical example of how to do it yourself.
Day 1: Empty barbell (20kg) 3×20
Day 2: 22.5kg 3×20
Day 3: 25kg 5×20 (here I felt comfortable enough to increase my number of sets)
Day 4: 27.5kg 5×20
Day 5: 30kg 5×20
I gradually worked up to 40kg using this method, when the pain began to get worse during my set, and so I reduced the weight again and used higher reps (50) and gradually began increasing weight and lowering reps again until I was at 80kg x 10
After week 1 on the advice of my physiotherapist I also began gentle daily dynamic stretching of the muscle after my light barbell work.
After 2 weeks, I began using a slingshot twice per week which I found very useful to preserve strength and the CNS’s ability to handle heavier loads, whilst still almost completely deloading the pec at the bottom of the movement (For context I was unable to touch my chest with 80kg when wearing a slingshot)
I continued light and cautious bench press training for 5 weeks before returning to weights above 100kg. 7 weeks after my initial pec tear I bench pressed a lifetime PR of 200kg in competition, pain free!
This method can be successfully implemented with most muscle tears however there are some rules:
1. Wait 2-4 days after the initial injury before starting.
2. Start LIGHT, the pain should feel BETTER as you progress during your session, NEVER WORSE! If the pain increases, STOP!
3. This method will only work to help promote healing of mild muscle tears, it absolutely will not work in the case of a tendon or ligament tears, nor will it help joint pain.
4. During the first 2 weeks, do not do any heavy, or high intensity training of any sort, regardless of whether it hurts your injured area or not. This is to not excessively stress the body and to promote recovery and healing.
Note: I am not a medical professional nor has this rehab method been scientifically or medically validated. Use solely at your own risk and always seek professional medical help when dealing with pain and injury.