There are a kazillion rock climbing injury prevention exercises. So, which ones should you focus on?
I think it’s best to do those exercises you like least and that feel most difficult. They will allow you to progress more and prevent rock climbing injuries better.
In this blog, I describe the exercises I believe bring you the most in areas of mobility, stability, strength, and regeneration.
Let’s dive right in.
Rock Climbing Injuries
Most rock climbing injuries occur in the fingers, hand, elbow, and shoulder. But with the advent of modern boulder gyms and the increase in popularity of rock climbing and bouldering, injuries like foot fractures and supination traumas of the ankle are becoming more common. These happen because of the “newbie syndrome”. This is the name for a phenomenon in new rock climbers that get injured because their bodies haven’t been accustomed to the demands of the sport yet. In this case the falls from boulder problems.
Another injury that’s on the up is knee injury due to the modern route setting that requires you to use the heel hooks more. This forces you to externally rotate the knee while flexing it strongly. The resulting sheer forces in your knee can easily lead to injuries to the ligaments, menisci, tendons, and cartilage. Even more so because training legs seriously is as common in rock climbers as polar bears in the desert.
I wrote an entire article about antagonist training for rock climbing recently. Antagonist or opposition training in rock climbing is the training of muscles opposite to the ones used in rock climbing. Namely, the pressing muscles of the upper body, the external rotators of the shoulder, and the extensors of the elbow, wrist, and fingers. Even though these all help to prevent injuries, rock climbing injury prevention exercises consist of a larger variety of exercises. Think of exercises focused on:
- Kinesthetic Awareness (having conscious control over muscles used for rock climbing)
Injury Prevention Exercises for Rock Climbers
Below is a list of 12 rock climbing injury prevention exercises that I’ve grouped by training goal. Obviously, this list could be endless, but I’ve chosen the ones that bring you the biggest bang for your buck.
Mobility: use light loads and many repetitions. Mobility exercises shouldn’t make you feel tired unless stated otherwise.
1. Pilates Roll Y-T-A
Lying down lengthwise on a Pilates roll is one of my preferred activities in the evening. For me, it’s the perfect way to chill out and stretch my chest muscles. Which not only get tense from rock climbing but also from standing over patients lying on the treatment table.
Do 30 reps of this exercise, 2-4 sets.
2. Foam Rolling the Thoracic Spine
Foam rolling your thoracic spine will help to release tension in the facet joints. These are the joints between your vertebrae, and you might hear a clicking or popping noise because of it. If you rotate left and right a bit, you’ll also mobilize the costovertebral joints. And of course, in the meantime, you’re massaging the muscles that run along the spine like the longissimus and the iliocostalis muscles.
I prefer to start by keeping my thoracic spine in a neutral and braced position. This is the most comfortable way, and you have the least chance of provoking any irritation in your spine due to (hyper)extending it. As things go, when you extend, the pressure in your facet joint increases. When you roll in this position you put even more pressure on which can cause pain and irritation. Yet, I do sometimes work these joints in extension when I do feel there’s some tension, I can’t seem to get rid of.
Now you might wonder, is it good to “crack your back” regularly? Doesn’t this cause hyperlaxity issues of any sort?
Even though I wouldn’t repeatedly manipulate any patient manually I do not see any issue with this happening on a foam roll as part of a mobility drill. In the case of the patient, there’s usually acute pain and severely reduced mobility. A spinal manipulation will then reduce these symptoms but is usually not the solution to the origin of the problem. These are often to be found in a lack of stability, strength, and movement deficiencies.
When you foam roll your thoracic spine however you don’t have an acute issue that needs solving. This means you are doing a general mobilization, which also means the clicking and cracking noises shouldn’t be the goal of the exercise. Just a pain-free and supple feeling back.
If you’re someone that has congenital hyperlaxity, I do not recommend this exercise.
Do 10-20 reps switching between rolling centrally and more laterally over your spine. Adjust the firmness of your foam roller to the irritability of your spine.
3. Elbow CARS
Elbow Controlled Articular Rotations (CARS) are a great way to move your elbow joint through its entire range of motion. I do this movement as part of my warming-up before climbing because I feel it activates the pronator and supinator muscles in the elbow joint as well as efficiently enhances blood flow in the elbow joint. You can however also do this exercise after exercise as a cooling down or anywhere else in the day. The beautiful thing is that you don’t need any tools and can do it anywhere.
Do 5-15 repetitions in each direction per side.
Stability: use loads up to 30% of your 1 repetition maximum while using 15-25 repetitions.
4. A-W-T-Y-I Pronated
The A-W-T-Y in a pronated position is a great way to activate and practice control of the scapular retractors. Important is that you don’t shrug your shoulders up but rather retract and depress them subtly using around a fourth of the maximum tension you could generate.
Do 3×15 repetitions.
5. Outies in 3 Positions
I never get bored of outies and I always find a new use for them. I use them for myself on and off but mostly I go for face pull because it’s a more complete movement. If you’re new to doing stability exercises for your shoulders or have a history of shoulder pain, then it might be a great idea to start with outies in various positions. Start close to your body and build up to doing them in 90 degrees abduction. Once you can do this comfortably with solid control you can move on to doing face pulls.
Do 3×15-20 repetitions. You can keep on switching between left and right so you don’t lose any time for breaks.
6. Face Pulls
Face pulls are a combination of a glenohumeral horizontal abduction, a scapular retraction, and a glenohumeral external rotation. Sounds complicated, but it’s just to say to this is a combined movement that involves many muscles relevant to rock climbers.
Try to keep your scapula depressed during this exercise and start slow, to feel what’s happening in your shoulder girdle.
Do 3×20 repetitions.
7. Serratus Push Up
With the serratus push-up, you train the serratus anterior muscle which helps move your scapula efficiently over the thoracic spine. A very important muscle for rock climbers. A deficiency in this muscle can have wide-ranging consequences in the upper extremity. Think of anything from shoulder pain to triceps tendinopathies to wrist issues.
Start with the serratus push-up against the wall and move into a more horizontal position when your strength and control are increasing. Always ensure that your arms are at a 90-degree angle to your upper body and keep your scapula’s depressed sliding them in a horizontal plane.
8. Scapula Pull Up
With the scapula pull up you mainly train your ascending trapezius which is very important in holding an active shoulder girdle when pulling and hanging.
You can do this exercise both hanging and with your feet on the floor. Even though I can do it with my feet off the floor I do it with my feet on the floor more often. This helps me control the movement better and do more repetitions.
Do 3×15-20 repetitions.
9. Hip Internal/External Rotation
There are a bunch of tiny muscles close to the hip joint you probably never heard about and will also never see. Unless you’re a hip surgeon or dissect bodies for a living.
Still, these muscles that have names like Obturatorius Internus, Obturatorius Externus, and Gemelli are very important for healthy hip function. And that’s why you should train them by doing hip internal and external rotations. I recommend doing this exercise with your hips bent 90 degrees and with a ball or your fists between your legs.
Focus on rotating in and out all the way holding 3 seconds, in the end, to ensure you’re generating tension in the extreme positions.
Do 3×20 repetitions.
10. Elbow Pronation/Supination
Elbow Pronation/Supination is one of these movements no one ever trains in isolation. And that’s why, if you’re a rock climber that feels his\her elbows often it’s a good idea to do these. Use something stick-like to add resistance and pronate and supinate repeatedly. This trains the pronator teres and supinator muscles and provides great blood flow to the elbow joint.
Do 3×20-25 repetitions.
Strength: volume and intensity change depending on the strength training phase.
11. ATG Split Squat
The ATG Split Squat is a variation of the split squat that focuses on bending the knee as far as possible by bringing it as far as possible in front of the toes. Since the range of motion and the distance in front of the toes is most important you can start with your front foot on a step to make it easier. Once you feel comfortable doing this movement you can progress to both feet on the floor. And after that, to add weight.
The pressure the bending of the knee causes prepares the knee well for activities that involve the knee over the toes. Which happens all the time when you climb.
Regeneration: volume and intensity are always low when doing regeneration exercises. The goal is increased blood flow to the targeted tissues. You should never get tired of regenerative exercises.
12. Minimals on Hangboard
Minimals on a hangboard are done by hanging 10 seconds on and 50 seconds off times 10. The goal is to use varying holds and grip forms while not loading more than 20-30% of your maximum intensity. This exercise increases blood circulation to the fingers and regenerates the tissues. You can do this exercise 2x/a day with at least 6 hours between training moments.