Rock climbing is a great way to get fit and strong, but is also punishing on the body. Human bodies have not evolved to hang off overhanging walls by their fingertips, and climbers put so much strain on certain muscle groups – especially the fingers, arms and shoulders – that it can easily lead to injury. This post will look at common problems, and share some tips on how to avoid climbing injuries.
If you look after your body, then you can expect to be hanging off vertiginous walls well into your old age; hardcore climbers in their 60s are still scaling Yosemite’s El Capitan in a day.
TYPICAL CLIMBING INJURIES
The strain that climbers put on their fingers is intense, and popping or straining a finger pulley is one of the most frequent climber injuries. A pulley is a band of fibers that act as a small sheath, which holds the tendons to the bone. There are five pulleys in each finger, with the A2 pulley – located between the palm and the first knuckle – being the most commonly injured one. A certain sign of a pulley injury is hearing the pulley pop, literally, while pulling super hard, probably on a small crimp. If you can’t pull on a fingery hold without pain in your digits, you’ve probably hurt a finger pulley and should immediately cease climbing to allow the damage to heal.
The tendons in your forearms connect the muscle to the bone, and run all the way from the base of the elbow to your fingertips. All that aggressive pulling puts tremendous pressure on the tendons, particularly at the base of the elbow. Tendons do not strengthen as quickly as muscles, and injuries can occur when a weaker tendon cannot support a stronger muscle.
Tennis Elbow (lateral epicondylosis) is the term commonly applied to tendon pain on the outside of your elbow, while Golfer’s Elbow (medial epicondylosis) – more common among climbers – refers to tendon pain on the inside of the elbow.
There are mainly two types of injury. Tendonitis is when the tendon becomes swollen and painful, often from an act of intense and sudden overloading. Tendonosis is a chronic pain that is caused by the degeneration of tendon fibers from repeated strain over a long period of time. This results in a dull ache during use, rather than the acute pain of tendonitis. In both cases, the long-term treatment is to build balanced tendon strength.
Shoulders bear the brunt of the body weight while climbing overhanging routes. The most common climber injury in the shoulder is to the rotator cuff, the collection of tendons and muscles that surround the ball and socket of the shoulder joint. Climbing means a lot of pulling, and very little pushing. This imbalance can nudge the ball and shoulder socket off center, which can lead to injury. Rotator cuff injuries can manifest in a number of ways, including a sharp pain in the front, top, or back of the shoulder joint, or pain simply by trying to raise an arm. Climbers can train antagonist muscles to address muscle imbalances.
INJURY PREVENTION TIPS
TIP #1: TRAIN ANTAGONIST MUSCLES
As stated, climbers pull a ton and do very little pushing. A lot of the resulting imbalances are what makes climbers susceptible to injury, and these can be mitigated by strengthening antagonist muscle groups. Such exercises should be done to a degree that your muscles feel the strain, thereby making them stronger, but avoiding any sharp pain.
FINGERS, HANDS AND WRISTS
To counter the pulling on small holds, climbers should do exercises that extend the fingers upwards. For example, using the Metolius Grip Saver from this list of best gifts for climbers is a great way to pull fingers upwards against resistance. Developed by a doctor, the Grip Saver also works the antagonist muscles for the hand and forearm.
Building up the tendon strength on the inside and outside of the elbow will go far towards preventing Tennis or Golfer’s Elbow, as well as rehabilitating them after they happen. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use a handle with a weight at one end.
For Tennis Elbow, start with the handle in a vertical position with the weight at the top and your hand at the bottom, as if holding a ski pole. Turning your thumb towards you, slowly lower the weight 90 degrees to a horizontal position over five seconds. Use your other hand to lift the handle back to the starting point, so that you’re only working the tendon, and not the muscle.
For Golfer’s Elbow, do the same action, but rotate the handle 90 degrees in the other direction, turning your thumb away from you.
Another Golfer’s Elbow exercise is to hold a weight curled up in your hand, and slowly release it over five seconds. Again, allow your other hand to lift the weight back to the starting position. The hand should be positioned palm-up under the weight with the thumb alongside the fingers.
Exercises that focus on extending the shoulder muscles up and away from the body counters the pulling action that climbing demands. There are a number of ways to do this, but the simplest is to lie face down, and lift your arms and shoulders above your head. Try and lead with the arms, rather than the elbow, and concentrate on engaging the shoulders. A similar exercise is to stand facing a wall, extending your straight arms up above and behind your head for 10 to 30 seconds.
Other antagonist muscle exercises include push-ups and tricep dips.
TIP #2: IMPROVE YOUR TECHNIQUE
Poor climbing habits can exacerbate the chances of injury. There are a number of ways to improve technique, including:
1. Engage your shoulder muscles, rather than hanging off your bones, which puts undue stress on shoulder tissues.
2. Use open hand crimping, where possible. Closed hand crimping drastically increases the pressure on your joints, including your A2 pulley.
3. Climb with straight arms and low elbows, where possible. Bent arms, or chicken winging, puts a lot of stress on shoulder tendons, while high elbows can strain the tricep muscle.
4. Engage your core, and climb with your legs. Both will take weight off your more injury-prone fingers, arms, and shoulders.
TIP #3: DON’T DO TOO MUCH, TOO QUICKLY
Trying an explosive move that is a thousand times harder than anything you’ve ever done before is a sure path to injury. You’re basically stressing your muscles in a much more strenuous way than they’ve ever been used, which could lead to blowing a pulley, or tearing a tendon. Like all sports, the best way to improve without injuring yourself is to build performance in small increments. Similarly, it is also common to re-injure yourself by coming back from injury, and climbing like you’re just as strong as before the injury.
TIP #4: WARM UP PROPERLY
This is related to the previous point. Arriving at a crag and immediately jumping on your project is asking for trouble. Your body is cold, and not at all ready for maximum performance. Warming up properly goes some way towards injury prevention. The walk-in to the crag is often enough to get the blood warm, but dynamic stretches (stretching with movement) can greatly increase blood-flow and flexibility. Try some windmills and leg lunges. Finally, start on a couple of easy routes and then graduate to a moderate or two, before attempting your hardest route of the day.
TIP #5: POST-CLIMBING STATIC STRETCHING AND YOGA
Tight muscles after a day of climbing at your limit? Chronic tightness makes muscles weaker and more injury-prone, but static stretching and massage can loosen them. There are a number of static stretches that climbers should do, with the upper body usually the tightest, in particular the forearms. Hold stretches for about 20 to 30 seconds. But don’t neglect the lower body, either. Climbers’ calf and hip muscles are notoriously tight from standing on tiny dimples all day, or from stemming up vertical corners. Stretches should be done at the end of the day, rather than before a climb. Research suggests that static stretching before climbing might decrease power performance.
Yoga is also a popular and great way to stretch, loosening muscles and increasing flexibility. There are a lot of great poses that offer static stretches, as well as more powerful poses to increase strength.
TIP #6: REST AND RECOVER
Going for it and not giving your body enough time to recover can lead to chronic injuries. Often climbers need up to 48 hours to fully recover from a challenging session. If you’re sore or fatigued, take a day off. Or two!