Rotator Cuff Tear from Butterfly Pullups

For no good reason, other than to learn a new skill, I made learning to do butterfly pullups one of my goals for 2011. If you’re not sure what I mean, these are butterfly pull ups (or sometimes called cyclic pullups, or butterfly kips):

So when an open skill session came up at the gym, I spent 1/2 an hour working on getting them. At the end of the session I could maybe 3 reasonable butterfly pull ups in a row and felt things had gone quite well. It was the following morning however, when I couldn’t even scratch my head with my left arm due to the pain my shoulder, that I realised all had not gone as well as I’d thought.

Still I’ve had shoulder tweaks before and always 4-6 weeks or rest has sorted it out, sadly not this time. I haven’t trained in 4 months now, and that sucks. I had to cancel a CrossFit Gymnastics cert I was booked on, and now with the Olympic Weightlifting cert coming up, things were not looking good. So it was off to the quacks to see what’s what. Long story short, I have a sub-surface / partial rotator cuff tear as diagnosed by ultrasound. This is not me, but a pic I found on the net which looks exactly like my ultrasound:

Partial rotator cuff tear ultrasound

You can see the tear as the black area above the humerus (upper arm bone) and below the rotator cuff (a set of 4 tendons that hold the shoulder in place). The main symptom is a lot of pain when doing a very specific movements, typically with my arm extended out horizontally, e.g. reaching to pick up a drink (curses!).

After showing the consultant the video above showing a butterfly pullup, he told me that the injury is very similar to those suffered by rock climbers who loose their footing and their weight drops onto their shoulders, which typically means I also may have a SLAP Lesion (Superior Labral tear from Anterior to Posterio) which is another kind of tendon tear. This possibility is supported by 2 other symptoms: a dull toothache like ache, and trouble sleeping when lying on my left side. This means I need an MRI to check for a labral tear too. A rotator cuff tear is bad enough, but a labrum tear would be seriously bad news that definitely requires surgery!

SLAP Lesion Labral Labrum Tear

The good news is that the rotator cuff tear is not full thickness (a bit of internet research (we’re all internet Doctors, no?) puts a name to it: PASTA Lesion, which means Partial Articular Supraspinatus Tendon Avulsion) and as the quack said, it’s “not a gross injury” so there’s no reason not to go on the CrossFit Olympic weightlifting cert. The chance to learn from coach Burgener (US Olympic weightlifting Coach CrossFit subject matter expert) and is not to be missed. However I doubt I’ll be taking part in many WODs and certainly not going for anything close to a max lift (not that 4 months of no training was going to help that anyway!). I’ll have to get myself back down the gym and workout what the hell I can / can’t do before next weekend.

In summary then, I’m rather unhappy about butterfly pull ups. I was just beginning to get my mojo back after last year and this has not helped. To be honest, had I realised the injury risk they posed, I probably would never have tried them. I’m knocking on 40 and have no aspirations for major athletic improvement. I train to not suck at life and getting injured makes me suck at life! So unless you’re a competitive CrossFitter (i.e. CrossFit *is* your sport and you have CrossFit Games aspirations) the butterfly pullup is just not worth the injury risk in my opinion.

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Ian Sturrock 22 June 2011, 8:03 am

    Gah, sorry to hear that, fella — hope you get better soon! If you need any assistance in drinking pints of beer for you in the meantime, just give me a shout.

    When is the CF Oly weightlifting session? Any places left? Does one have to have a standard CF cert to go on the course?

  • Colin McNulty 22 June 2011, 8:16 am

    Cheers Ian. Yes it’s sold out; they normally sell out within weeks of being posted. You can see all the certs here:

    http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/specialty_certs.html

  • Ian Sturrock 22 June 2011, 8:19 am

    Ta — yeah, found the link myself eventually. 🙁 I might give CF Velocity a shout and see if there’s a reserve list.

  • C.K. 27 June 2011, 4:24 am

    Colin, I had the same exact injury happen early last year…sub-surface / partial rotator cuff tears on both shoulders. I was sure it was the kipping on the pulls ups and read your story. I weigh bout 200lbs and was doing crossfit style training (pull ups dips sprint pushup jog back and repeat x5) 3 or 4 times a week. The stress on the shoulders got to me and now I can barley hang on a pull up bar without pain, throw a softball on weds. nights, etc. I still train quite a bit, but without my pullups. Any suggestions on a substitute for the pull ups or can I just go low numbers, slow old school pull ups…as long as there is no pain?

  • Colin McNulty 27 June 2011, 8:22 am

    Sorry to hear that CK. While it sounds like you were doing movements that come up in CrossFit, in a CrossFit style workout, CrossFit would never have had you doing the same workout 3-4 times a week, even for 1 week let alone an extended period of time.

    I’m not expert and am learning myself what I can do and what I can’t. Doing *something* is always better than nothing. However I intend on getting my tear fixed, so this will only be a temporary issue. What did your Doctor say, are you waiting surgery?

  • Tommy Blotkin 29 June 2011, 7:16 pm

    Hi, I’m sorry to hear the injury. I hope for your speedy recovery.

    SLAP tears and other issues from CrossFit staple exercises, are commonly discussed OUTSIDE of the CrossFit.com forum, which is extremely suppressive on this type of “dissent”.

  • Colin McNulty 29 June 2011, 8:17 pm

    Hey Tommy, thanks for the comment.

    I don’t really think I’m dissenting. I owe a lot to CrossFit and will continue to blow its trumpet. With any activity there’s the risk of injury, it’s a question of whether the benefits of doing it outweigh the risks. They still do, even with surgery and the need to do rotator cuff exercises for a year or 2, I’m still stronger, fitter and faster than I was by a long way.

    No one forced me to try butterfly kips, it was my own choice. The way I see it, it’s only by giving feedback, that people learn what’s what. What’s risky. What needs scaling. What needs careful coaching, etc etc. I see my post as trying to give back some knowledge to the communal whole, in the hope it may do some good. Just my tuppence anyway. 🙂

  • gym workouts 23 August 2011, 9:43 pm

    Ouch! That is so painful!

  • Cindy 18 April 2012, 3:24 am

    Hey Colin.
    I’m sorry to hear about your injury. A rotator cuff injury is bad enough – have had THAT experience myself and it took me ages to recover – but you really seemed to have got the short straw!!
    I’m glad you did post this article about butterfly pull-ups. I had no idea what a butterfly pull-up was so was wondering if it might help me develop my pull-ups. Pull-ups is something I really struggle with (previous rotator cuff injury & partial should re-con). I am seriously doubting if I will ever get a kipping pull-up, let alone a strict pull-up! The best I can manage to pull out of the bag is about 10 orange band pull-ups or 3 yellow before my pull-ups and I have to call it a day.
    Thanks for your comments. I hope you recover quickly and properly!
    By the way, I found a combination of hydrotherapy and physiotherapy (post partial should re-con) got me on the road to recovery and back into training much more quickly than my surgeon gave me credit for.
    Good luck!
    Cindy.

  • Colin McNulty 22 April 2012, 10:28 am

    Thanks for your comment Cindy, I’m glad you found something that worked for you. I’m actually 95% better now. Careful rehabilitative exercise with an eye for what does vs what doesn’t cause pain and I can do almost everything I want to know, though with some limitations. Either way, a lot better than the surgery route I think.

    Butterfly pull ups will not help you get normal or kipping pull ups. IMO they should be reserved for competitive (CrossFit) athletes for whom time and power output is all important. Before anyone attempts them, they should not only have a good strength base to be able to control movement through the full range, but also I think have good scores for strict and kipping pull ups.

    Having had a shoulder injury and surgery, I don’t know that you’ll ever be able to do kipping without assistance, but really I wouldn’t let that bother you. CrossFit for me is not about how fit you are or how much you can do compared to others, it’s about where *you* are, what *you* can do, and how much effort *you* put into the workouts.

    If 3 athletes all do the same workout, scaled to their own abilities, and are all equally knackered at the end of it, then relative to their own abilities, they’ve all worked equally hard (and if well scaled by their coach, they should all finish at the same time).

    If you need an orange band to get 10 pull ups, than that’s what you need to do; don’t be ashamed about that, just work on getting 11, then 12 etc. It’s you vs you, no-one else. Good luck.

  • Cindy 23 April 2012, 12:12 am

    Thanks Colin:)) Your encouragement is awesome:)) And I’m very glad to know that your are now 95% good! That’s a great effort on your part – WELL DONE! :)))

  • Jon 18 August 2012, 6:14 pm

    My left shoulder is busted up too from, I believe, butterfly pullups.

  • Colin McNulty 20 August 2012, 8:06 am

    Thanks Cindy.

    Sorry to hear that Jon. The shoulders are it seems the most likely place to get a CrossFit injury, and I know now that I’m certainly more careful of what I do. There are many causes, but butterfly pull-ups seems to be quite a common cause of shoulder pain / injury (along with kettlebell swings etc). I hope your shoulder isn’t as bad as it may seem at first.

  • Jon Griffith 16 September 2014, 11:33 pm

    Thanks for posting. I have come across many new CrossFit athletes who want to jump right into learning a cyclic pull-up before they can even do a strict. From what I’ve learned through trial and error, the only safe way to do them is to ease into them over a long period of time after building the strength to handle the movement. Hope your shoulder is in good order now.

  • John Barr 24 February 2015, 6:10 am

    I can’t agree with you more. I’ve been training for nearly 40yrs. My wife’s an MD and she confirms that pull ups are proven to be bad for the shoulders. I’ve got a bum shoulder from past injury and there is just no way I can do pull ups. There are other alternative exercise you can use that offer better control.

  • Jon T 28 February 2017, 4:36 pm

    I did the same thing, an MRI showed a partial thickness tear of my supraspinatus.

    I did regular (read expensive) rehab and substituted all Crossfit exercises that might aggravate it for a good six to nine months. Healing was very slow, it’s been 1.5 years, but I do most crossfit overhead exercises pain free. I like how the author pointed out it’s for competition (maybe like bounding box jumps?) and think more box coaches should advise the same way. I won’t mess with the butterfly again but I am happily crossfitting and staying in great shape. (Age 39)

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