Warm-up Right: How to Prep Wrists and Fingers to Send

By Dr. Jared Vagy ,

Most climbers know better than just to jump on their project cold. A thorough warm-up increases blood flow, muscle flexibility, and body control. (E.g., a 2016 study of handball players by Andersson et al. showed that a comprehensive warm-up program can decrease injury rates by up to 28 percent.) In climbing, a complete warm-up includes four components, best performed in succession: Increase blood flow, improve mobility, target stability, and begin climbing.

Increase Blood Flow

Perform 5–10 minutes of aerobic exercise (jumping jacks, a run, exercise bike, the approach hike, etc.) to elevate your deep-muscle temperature, which makes muscles more adaptable and less likely to strain or tear. A simple guideline is once you start sweating, your body is warmed up. If you want to be scientific, warm up with a target heart rate of 50 percent of your max—subtract your age from 220 and divide by two.

Improve Mobility

Dynamic stretching—smoothly moving through a full range of motion, spending equal time in each phase—helps improve mobility prior to climbing. Perform the wrist and finger exercises on these pages for 6 minutes, alternating in 30-second blocks between the two stretches in each section above.

Wrist Mobility

Stephen Gross and Ari Kirsch

Instructions

  • A. Begin with your elbows bent and wrists flexed.
  • B. Extend your elbows and wrists down simultaneously.

What It Does

In the starting position, the tendons at the wrist lengthen, while the tendons at the elbow shorten; in the finishing position, the reverse occurs. This dynamic movement allows the tendons to glide safely and therapeutically, prepping the muscles and tendons to shorten and lengthen across the elbow and wrist with minimal strain. (This is opposed to static stretching, in which the muscles and tendons lengthen across both the elbow and wrist.) Start by performing the tendon glides at your side, and then, if you wish, at varying angles or in a similar sequence to your project.

Finger Mobility

Instructions

Perform the following hand positions in a rhythmic sequence.

Stephen Gross and Ari Kirsch

  • Straight Fingers: Straighten your hand.

Stephen Gross and Ari Kirsch

  • Hook Fist: Crimp your fingers down, keeping your knuckles aligned with your wrist.

Stephen Gross and Ari Kirsch

  • Full Fist: Roll your fingers downward.

Stephen Gross and Ari Kirsch

  • Flat Fist: Press your fingers into your palm.

What It Does

Increases flexibility of the finger muscles and tendons through a complete range of motion—the more dexterous, flexible, and prepared your fingers are, the more easily you can grasp tiny holds. If you want, progress the exercise into more complex movement patterns, like sequencing your project. This will help build muscle memory while you warm up.

Mobility Versus Stability

Mobility is the ability to move within a range of motion, while stability is the ability to control that movement. Climbers need both. A 2000 study by Doran et al. identified that over 40 percent of climbing injuries occur in the wrist and fingers. Thus, a proper warm-up will target mobility and stability in both areas.

Target Stability

The forearm and fingers contain two types of major muscle groups: Flexors on the palm side, and extensors on the back. Climbing overdevelops the flexors, which can lead to overuse injuries and weakness of the extensors, which help to stabilize the wrist and fingers. Given this imbalance, it’s important that we activate the extensors prior to climbing. To activate a muscle, you need to maintain a sustained pressure against light resistance. This encourages a brain-body connection to “wake up” the targeted muscle. (Note: You can also customize time spent on either Mobility or Stability. E.g., if you have stiff muscles and limited flexibility, do 4 minutes of mobility stretches and 2 minutes of stability exercises—or vice versa if you have loose joints and excessive flexibility.)

Wrist Stability

Stephen Gross and Ari Kirsch

Instructions

Loop a resistance band around both hands, with your elbows at your sides bent to 90 degrees. Keeping one wrist stable, perform small clockwise and counterclockwise rotations with your opposite wrist.

What It Does

Strengthens wrist extensor muscles to stabilize the wrist, taking stress off flexors.

Finger Stability

Stephen Gross and Ari Kirsch

Instructions

Place a rubber band around your fingertips while maintaining a straight wrist. Spread your fingers without bending your wrist. Hold, then let your fingers collapse. You can perform isometric holds at various angles to mimic different grips. Your hold times during the 30 seconds will vary based on your preferred style—they should be roughly the same duration you grip holds on rock (see chart).

What It Does

This exercise activates the extensor muscles in the fingers. These muscles support the finger flexors, which are overused during climbing. The increased activation and support from the extensors can help prevent flexor overuse injuries by more evenly distributing the load.

Style

Bouldering

Isometric Hold Time

5 seconds

Reps

6

Total Time

30 seconds

Style

Sport

Isometric Hold Time

6 seconds

Reps

5

Total Time

30 seconds

Style

Trad

Isometric Hold Time

Up to 10 seconds

Reps

3

Total Time

30 seconds

Begin Climbing

After you complete the first three steps of your warm-up, begin climbing gradually, with “high volume/low intensity,” and progress into “low volume/high intensity”—this lets the muscles, tendons, and nervous system adapt to the progressive demands of climbing harder. I recommend starting with two to three (high volume) easier climbs three numbers below your consistent upper grade (low intensity). For example, if you climb 5.11, warm-up on 5.8s; if you boulder V5, warm-up on V2s. This is also a great time to focus on technique. Hone your footwork, limit the tendency to overgrip, and focus on fluid body movement. Slowly begin to decrease the volume to one to two climbs of slightly higher intensity until you’re ready to hop on your project.

Dr. Jared Vagy (theclimbingdoctor.com) is a doctor of physical therapy, a professor at USC, and the author of Climb Injury-Free. He also teaches our AIM Adventure U course Strength Training for Injury Prevention.

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