Learn This: How to Warm-Up for Rock Climbing

Get your body ready to work hard for more efficient training
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Get your body ready to work hard for more efficient training

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of our print edition.

Photo: Andrew Burr

Photo: Andrew Burr

Compared to sending a project, the idea of warming up is exruciatingly boring, so much so that you might be tempted to skip the proper pre-climb procedures. But getting your body ready to send is an essential step. Not enough warm-up and you might end up with a killer flash-pump on that onsight burn, or worse, a season-ending finger injury. Overdo it and you might be too fatigued to effectively train or climb. If you don’t already have your own tried and true warm-up ritual, consider incorporating the below suggestions into your routine to prepare your body for success. Whether you’re roping up outside for a techy onsight at your limit or simply trying to leave the gym with intact tendons, these pointers will ease you into send-mode with confidence.

1. Get the Blood Moving

Ten minutes of walking, biking, or jogging gets the heart circulating blood around the body while simultaneously warming up the often-overlooked leg muscles. Most of the time, the approach to the crag will suffice, but for roadside attractions or gyms, try to spend at least five minutes on your feet, walking around to check out different climbs or saying hi to friends. Some light cardio improves circulation and starts delivering blood and oxygen to all the muscles in your body, stocking them with the fuel necessary to perform.

2. Loosen Up

The classic concept of stretching involves holding a certain pose for 15 to 30 seconds, but recent sports science research shows that this form of static stretching actually decreases muscle output. Instead, dynamic stretching with rotational movements offers more benefit to muscles by adding an element of momentum to flexibility and by simulating the types of strain muscles undergo while climbing. Biologically, dynamic stretches lube up the joints and tendons vital to climbing, which increases muscle performance and reduces the risk of injury. Static stretching is still useful on rest days or after activity as a supplementary tool to improve overall flexibility. We recommend a few minutes of the following stretches to kick off your session.

Head Rolls

These are especially good for steep climbing where you’ll be craning your neck to look up and for boulderers who will be falling and jarring their neck and upper back. Let your head completely relax forward, then slowly roll your head in a circle, five times in both directions. Make sure to keep it as loose as possible all the way around to really stretch and awaken those muscles. This will also help align the vertebrae in your back to prevent injuries.

Windmills

Keeping your arms straight, swing them slowly in a circle, making sure to rotate at the shoulders. Don’t just throw them around, but keep the circles controlled the whole way around. Go five times in both directions, one arm at a time. Now put arms straight out and do smaller, even more controlled circles (just a few inches around) forward then backward; do both arms at once. Shoulders are among the most commonly injured joints in the climber’s body and can be easily ignored when climbing easy routes, so this stretch focuses on your shoulder joints while sending blood to muscles in your forearms and tissues in your fingers.

Side Twists

Lie down with your feet on the floor and knees bent. Lift your upper body slightly off the ground with your hands on your stomach. Rotate your upper body slowly and deliberately from side to side, engaging your abs similar to the Russian twist exercise. This shouldn’t feel like a full-on ab workout, but this stretch will get your core engaged right off the bat. Aim for twisting to each side at least five times, rest a minute, and repeat.

Walking Lunges

These will get your entire lower body and core moving and ready to climb. Keeping your body upright, step forward with one leg and slowly drop down into a lunge until your lunging leg’s knee is a few inches off the ground. As you stand back up, smoothly step forward with the other leg and drop down into a lunge. Repeat until you’ve done about 10 lunges on each leg.

3. Pyramid Climbing

Now that your blood is pumping, your joints are limber, and your body is ready to work, it’s time to climb! While most people understand they need to start with climbs well under their limit, the best warm-up sequence actually builds in difficulty up to just under your personal maximum.

For both bouldering and sport climbing, the first problem or route should fall well within the climber’s ability. For instance, a V7 boulderer should start with several V2s and V3s, while a 5.12 sport climber might start with two laps on a 5.10. The goal of this first route is both to engage all the little muscle groups used in climbing and to mentally refresh good technique. If the first climb feels at all pumpy or strenuous, immediately drop down a grade. After resting about five minutes, get on a few problems or one route that is slightly harder than the first round: two to three grades under your limit for boulderers and a full number grade less for sport climbers. The V7 boulderer should work a V5, and the 5.12 climber should try a 5.11. Rest another few minutes—enough to fully depump—and get on your final warm-up climb of the day: something right below your limit that mimics the style of your project for the day.

V4 Boulderer Pyramid Warm-Up

Bouldering Rock Climbing Warm Up Pyramid

5.12 Sport Climber Pyramid Warm-Up

Sport Climbing Rock Warm Up

4. Rest

After this warm-up sequence, it’s important to rest properly, but be careful not to cool down too much, which will lead you to the dreaded flash-pump. Since boulderers spend much less time on the rock, a 10-minute final rest should suffice. Sport climbers should aim for 15 minutes.