Guest blog by: Hank Greene
NSCA Certified Personal Trainer, Physical Therapy Aide, Ginger
Hurting yourself sucks. Most climbers have been there; icing the haggard appendage on the couch while Percocet induced facebook likes flow from your fingertips like lava, stoking the fire of your able-bodied amigos as they post pics of epic sendage. If you’re lucky, there’s probably a good story to accompany your injury – a huge throw, a sketchy top out, maybe a helicopter medevac. If you’re unlucky, the story probably goes something like this, “I was on my seven-bajillionth go on that dope green V-whatever at the gym, I stuck the dyno, felt a pop in my [insert bodypart] and its been hurting ever since.” Injuries like the aforementioned dyno are a result of acute trauma; meaning they’re caused by a sudden, one-time application of force. Injuries can also result from overuse, poor positioning, or a combination of one, two or all three of these elements. When we climb, the positions we put our bodies into puts a lot of stress on our joints and tendons. If loaded incorrectly, these tissues might not be able to handle the stress. However, if attention is paid to posture and shoulder positioning during a climb, much of this excess stress can be alleviated.
Shoulders in particular like to find themselves in poor positions, so for that reason as well as some slightly selfish ones, I’m going to focus on the multi-talented shoulder. Learning to implement ideal positioning at the shoulder is pretty straightforward, and can have a profound impact on one’s climbing ability. If you want to start practicing this regularly, or if all this talk about ideal shoulder positioning gets you riled up, and you’d like to geek out in person, lets hang out! I ramble about shoulders and get in touch with everyone’s friend Transverse Abdominus (street name: T.A.) quite a bit during my core conditioning classes (M/W 7:45-8:15pm starting January 1st), my Foundations I and II courses, and I’m super psyched to host another Injury Prevention class on December 14th from 7-9pm. Alright shameless self-promotion over, back to the issues with your tissues.
What is this “ideal shoulder position,” I speak of? Lucky for you, the ideal position of external rotation can be demonstrated by standing (or sitting) up straight, imagining that there’s a pencil between your shoulder blades (scapulae), and you’re pinching your scaps together to keep the pencil from falling. Lift your arms directly in front of you, make a fist and lock your elbows. Rotate your thumbs so they’re pointing towards the ceiling; you are now externally rotated at the shoulder (pictured below, ignore the arrow for now). This is an ideal position. Alternately, flip your thumbs towards each other then down towards the ground; you’re now internally rotated at the shoulder. This is bad.
External rotation gives us a mechanical advantage, which is easy to experience with the help of a buddy (or for the socially awkward, a desk, dresser or steering wheel works). Stand with arms straight in front of you, shoulders pinched, thumbs up (ideal position), and – keeping your elbows straight – try to swing your fists down towards the ground (in the direction of the green arrow above) while your buddy (maybe his name is Desk) resists this motion keeping your hands from actually going anywhere. Now, try the same motion, but internally rotate at the shoulder (thumbs down, not ideal) before you push. You were probably able to exert more force in the thumbs up/externally rotated/ideal position as opposed to the thumbs down/internally rotated/bad position. The ease of movement and shoulder stability that accompanies the pinched shoulder blades/externally rotated/ideal position, translate directly to climbing. Because shoulders are fairly important to climbers, the pinched-blades-thumbs-up habit is a good one to get into.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I like shoulders. Shoulders are fantastic, they’re like the swiss army knife of joints. Oh, what’s that? You need to reach your right hand way up overhead and grab that jug? No problem, shoulder’s got it. Oh, now you need to lock that arm off, cross your left arm through and grab that edge way out right? No worries, brah, shoulder’s on it. Shoulders have the capacity to make the seemingly impossible a little more probable. So, in short, shoulders are rad. By rad I mean that they have an extremely wide range of motion; they can rotate in and out, they can push and pull, they can adduct/abduct, and do pretty much any combination of movements (i.e. Mayan executing a textbook rose move pictured above, also the boring textbook graphic below). This wide range of motion is usually a good thing… Until it isn’t.
The plethora of movements and positions required of the shoulder during a rock climb can be what makes the climb challenging, engaging, and enjoyable. Unfortunately, this wide range of motion can also be a snake in the grass, especially when the shoulder is weak, in a bad position, or both. Even more unfortunate is that these positions are often unavoidable for certain sequences.
The gaston or the thumbs-down jam are both requisite movements for any so-called climber, and are frequently encountered. These moves, while different in that one is usually found on a face climb and the other is found in a crack, share one thing; they both require the climber to exert a lot of force through the shoulder while the joint sits in a less-than-ideal position (thumbs down/internally rotated). Don’t freak out, you can still throw those epic-gnar gastons or lock-off on that thumbs down finger stack without blowing your shoulder to smithereens, just remember that if gone unloved, your shoulder might not be as forgiving next time you put it in a bad position and yard on it. Which brings me to my next point, love thy shoulder.
Love your shoulders, people. Seriously. It’s like any good relationship; warm them up if they’re cold, cool them down if they’re hot, massage them after a long day of hard work, listen to them and acknowledge them when they’re telling you to stop doing what you’re doing… You get the idea (hopefully), but regardless of your relationship status, truth emanates from this analogy. Before climbing, you should always warm up your shoulders (and the rest of your body) with some light exercises like:
- Light rowing (500m in under 2:30, moderate resistance)
- Hanging Scapula retractions (hang from a bar and pinch-unpinch your scaps)
- Assisted pull-ups (work your way from 50% bodyweight to 75% then 90%)
- Small to large arm circles both forward and back (with or w/o 5lb weights)
- The humble jumping jack (it works for Sasha…).
This is your chance to get creative; any combination of movements that involves your shoulder and mimics the moves you’ll be making while climbing will suffice. Make sure to work through the entire range of motion and look for tight spots or restrictions. Once you’ve found the restrictions, its time to mobilize them with a few minutes of self-massage – I use a lacrosse ball or TuneUp Fitness ball - then some light stretching of the affected tissues, about a minute. I generally save deep massage and static stretching (always in that order) for the end of a workout, but sometimes its necessary to restore range of motion before a session. In the end, you know your body better than anyone else, listen to it, take care of it, and eliminate any minor problems before they snowball into season-ending injuries.
Thanks for reading.
Hank teaches Core Conditioning classes Monday and Wednesday nights at 7:45pm. He’ll also resume instructing the January series of Foundations I and II. Hank’s always available for private evaluation or tune-up sessions focused on technique, mobility, efficiency and strength - both on and off the climbing wall. Reach out to him at [email protected].*
*Knowledge bombs and game changers are consistently provided throughout each course.