As most of you know, tendons are the tough fibrous tissue that connects our skeletal muscles to our bones. They take a real beating over many years of weight training. Depending on how much or little attention you pay to minimizing damage to them, you can either be pain and injury-free, living with the chronic pain and training limitations of tendonitis, or the worst scenario that unfortunately does befall many of us, muscle tears. Most 'muscle tears' are not tears of the actual muscle. They are detachments of the tendons where the muscles insert into a bone. When you hear about biceps tears, pec tears, and so on, in almost every case it's a tendon that tears.
If there is one phrase that speaks volumes about the proper way to treat your tendons, it's this:
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
It's really like so many other things. People only take interest in their tendons once damage has been done and they are looking for relief and especially in the case of bodybuilders, ways to heal them so they can resume training free from pain and limitations. Trust me, I get that, I really do! But here's the thing. Tendons, unlike muscles, have a very poor blood supply. They heal at an excruciatingly slow pace. You can certainly look into all types of joint supplements and treatments, but you will always, ALWAYS be far better off if you never damage your tendons in the first place. Let me give you some good examples of what not to do, taken from my own dopey days training in my late teens and throughout my twenties.
Back then, I was all about the numbers and how much weight I could lift. There is a real correlation between getting stronger and getting bigger, which was my real goal all the time. But at the same time, there are safer ways to go about getting stronger, and there are dumber, more reckless ways. These are some of the stupid things I did that all contributed to chronic tendon pain and eventually even minor and full muscle tears.
First off, warming up was something I had little use for. Not only was I far too impatient to get right to the heavy weights, I held the erroneous belief that any amount of warming up would sap precious energy and strength from the amazing lifts I was looking forward to performing in the gym. Only years later did I come to understand that warm-up sets actually prepare your muscles, connective tissues, and nervous system to perform at peak capacity. By skipping or rushing through warm-ups, which should consist of at least 2-3 sets of increasing weight from very light to slightly challenging and with enough reps to get the blood flowing in the working areas, I was actually preventing myself from doing as well as I could have. Needless to say, I was also subjecting my muscles and connective tissues to traumatic stress of having to move very heavy loads with almost no prior preparation. Bad, bad idea.
The other major training concept I subscribed to for many years was the 'reverse pyramid.' The standard way to progress through your sets is to increase the weight and decrease your reps. For example:
225 x 12
275 x 10
315 x 8
I had read somewhere that you could go heavier and thus reap more mass-building benefits by going right to your heaviest weight you could get for 6-8 reps after warming up, which I hardly did anyway. Pyramiding up would - you guessed it - sap your strength and not allow you to go as heavy as you could, and therefore not get as big as you could. Boy, that sure sounded right to me. In theory, the reverse pyramid made sense, yet it completely ignored the impact of repeatedly starting off with your heaviest weight would have on your connective tissues over time. And in the rare cases when I did do standard upward pyramid progressions, I would make crazy jumps up in weight; very often to the point where I was attempting to use weights I couldn't even get a single full rep with. As wise as some people seem to think I am now, believe me when I say everything I have learned has been thanks to making some of the most idiotic mistakes possible for many years.
In my case, the tendons that paid the heaviest price were the ones that connected my triceps to my elbow joints. This made sense, because I used to press as heavy as possible for chest and shoulders, went up to 225 pounds on skull crushers, and insisted on doing weighted dips with as much as four 45-pound plates hanging from my waist. The elbow pain started sometime in my mid-twenties and became progressively worse. The first thing I was unable to do because of the pain was overhead dumbbell extensions. Not long after that, laying triceps extensions with a barbell or even dumbbells were much too painful on my tender elbows.
Whenever tendonitis gets to the point where it's keeping you from doing specific exercises that could be very productive, you've now shot yourself in the foot. My triceps had already been a lagging muscle group before all this. Do you think being unable to do the most basic, productive movements like overhead dumbbell extensions and skullcrushers made it a little more challenging to make any gains in my triceps? I am sure it did. The same can be said on other cases. If someone's knee tendons won't let them squat or even leg press, they will have one heck of a time growing their quads.
Long story short, in the late summer of 2011 I fell while doing some MMA sparring and put my right arm down to break the fall. My triceps tore. A few weeks later when the orthopedic surgeon cut the arm open to reattach the tendon to the bone, he saw that it had already been partially torn for years as evidenced by the blunted ends that had retreated a couple inches up toward the shoulder, very different from the freshly torn, frayed ends of the rest of that tendon.
I'm not going to tell you what to do if you've already incurred severe tendon damage, because I'm really not qualified to discuss all the treatment options. But I can give you some guidelines that will help keep you from ever being in that position.
Warm up a lot! Warm up more than you even think you need to. I've never heard one person regret warming up too much, but I've talked to many who wish they had taken the time to warm up more.
Pyramid up in weight as your sets go on. If that means you can't go quite as heavy - good! This isn't powerlifting. Staying injury-free is so key in making progress as a bodybuilder.
Don't make outrageous jumps in weight from set to set, and especially if you think you want to try a weight you've never even come close to before. It's great to be psyched and enthusiastic in the gym, but you must temper that with some caution and common sense.
Finally, I don't feel bodybuilders should ever be going under 6 reps on a set, and a minimum of 8 is probably smarter. It's a lot of fun to challenge yourself and see how heavy you can go, but in the long run, you could very well end up regretting it. I went much too heavy many times, and I paid the price.
That's it. Take care of your tendons, and you can grow steadily and without pain. Treat your tendons without respect at your own peril, because they will teach you to respect them the hard way!