The following is an excerpt from the online course Strength Training for Injury Prevention by Dr. Jared Vagy.
Signs and Symptoms
You’re right at the tail end of two days straight of projecting your latest crimpfest boulder problem. Tired and ready to throw in the towel, you nonetheless decide to give it one last shot. You aggressively move through the opening sequence, gripping each hold tightly like your life depends on it. You reach the crux, already shaking from fatigue. You throw for the next crimp and hear a loud POP! as you catch it. You manage to hold on and send the bloc. However, as you downclimb off the back of the boulder, you realize that you’ve just suffered some sort of acute damage. Chances are, it’s one of the most common injuries climbers face: a pulley sprain in your finger.
The muscles in our forearms attach to long, narrow tendons as they reach into the fingers. These tendons run through sheaths and are anchored by pulleys that keep the tendons gliding flush to the bones. There are five annular pulleys that sling around the bone, and four cruciform pulleys that form a cross over the bone to secure the tendon.
When you place excessive strain on the finger tendons, the pressure exerts an outward force on the pulley that may strain or tear it. You should be aware of movements that can increase stress on the pulley and potentially lead to pain and injury. Oftentimes, with a pulley sprain, there will be tenderness along the injured pulley, stiffness when bending the fingers, and pain when actively crimping and gripping. A pulley sprain can occur over any digit, but is most common over the base of the ring finger.
However, fear not. You can avoid pulley sprains by being mindful of your hold selection as well as by performing this targeted exercise to strengthen the antagonist muscles in the finger.
Movement Tip: Hold Selection
Dynamic moves to and from small edges, pulling too much with your fingers on small holds, and the repetitive use of full crimps can all increase stress on your pulleys. Try to perform large moves from small edges more statically and push with your feet instead of pulling with your fingers. To avoid injury, when possible choose an open-hand grip over a full crimp. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. The nature of the hold will determine the safest grip. If a crimp is needed, then first utilize a half crimp, then if it’s a must, use a full crimp.
Recommended Exercise: Child’s Pose Finger Lifts
Perform this exercise to improve motor coordination and strengthen the individual finger extensors in a weight-bearing position. Strengthening the extensors in the back of the finger helps to balance out the forces acting on the pulleys in the front of the finger.
- Start on all fours on your hands and knees, making sure your knees are under your hips, and your hands are directly under your shoulders.
- Rock back into Child's Pose, pressing into the ground with your fingertips. Spread your fingers wide on the ground, and then lift each individual finger off the ground, doing one hand at a time. Your fingernail should be traveling toward the ceiling; hold this position for 1–2 seconds before lowering. Do 3 sets of 5 repetitions on each finger.
- Be sure to keep all other fingers flat on the ground while lifting only one finger on each hand at a time.
- Take a 10-second break in Child's Pose.
- To up the challenge, come back onto all fours and perform another set in this position.
3 sets of 5 repetitions on each finger, on both hands, in either or both body positions.
None; can use tape to hold other fingers down if stiff or resistant to straightening.
For more injury-prevention tips like this one, take Dr. Vagy and Climbing Magazine’s new 8-week AIM Adventure U course Strength Training for Injury Prevention. You’ll learn how to avoid common climbing injuries by strengthening your shoulders, wrists, fingers, hips, knees, ankles, and abs. With the help of pro climber Sasha DiGiulian, Climbing Magazine and Dr. Vagy take you through world-class warmups, workouts, and techniques to strengthen your upper body, lower body, and core. Best of all, this 8-week course only costs $125, and you can take it over and over again.
Dr. Jared Vagy, a doctor of physical therapy and an experienced climber, has devoted his career and studies to climbing-related injury prevention, orthopedics, and movement science. He authored the Amazon best-selling book Climb Injury-Free, and is a frequent contributor to Climbing Magazine. He is also a professor at the University of Southern California, an internationally recognized lecturer, and a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist.