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Gym Climbing

Belayer’s Neck Can Become a Chronic Problem. These 8 Science-Backed Methods Prevent It.

“Belayer's neck” is an all-too-common problem among climbers—especially with those extended belays—but it can be eased and even prevented with a few quick, simple-to-use, science-backed tools, tricks, and exercises.

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The key to the preservation of anything is minimizing excessive wear-and-tear. It’s why we switch rope ends after a fall, why we don’t (ethically) toprope through fixed anchors, and why we stop climbing when our fingertips get pink and bloody. Recognizing the signs and incorporating a few proactive decisions can go a long way to making our gear, and ourselves, last longer.

So, does your neck start to hurt after a long stint belaying your friend on a project? This will apply to you.

The Structure: Your Neck and Your Discs

In the classic 1996 movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise is heading to the airport when a young Jonathan Lipnicki, sitting in the backseat, asks him, “Did you know that the human head weighs eight pounds?” Even though it’s Hollywood writing, the kid wasn’t too far off.

The average human head weighs around 5–7 percent of your overall mass. Now with the averageAmerican adult male weighing 197.9 pounds, this will give you a head weight ranging from 10 to 14pounds. Don’t think 14 pounds is heavy? Try lifting a bowling ball marked “14” the next time you’re down at the alley. (Interestingly our dimensions aren’t too far off either—with the regulation bowling ball having a diameter of 8.5 inches, while the average human head clocks in around 7.7 x 6.1 inches.) (Source 1)

Your head sits on top of your neck, a column of seven stacked vertebrae . The vertebrae, named sequentially from C1 to C7, are separated by gelatinous sacks called “intervertebral discs” aka IVDs (“inter”= “between,” “vertebral” = vertebrae, and “discs” =   think, similar to hacky sacks); no IVD sits between your skull (which funnily enough we call C0) and C1, nor C1 and C2, but they’re there between the rest.

These IVDs are on average 3.8 to 7.5 mm thick, when healthy are made up of 70–90 percent water, and work like little shock absorbers, helping to safely distribute forces within your neck to prevent wear-and-tear and general breakdown of the bones. (Source 2 & 3)) Think of them like a piece of bubble wrap separating two dinner plates in a box. Or like that nice soft cushion between your bum and the wooden chair at your grandmother’s dinner table.

How good are IVDs at shock absorption? Pretty darn good. Apply pressure to the top of the head and it’s these IVDs that take on most of that weight—up to 60–70 percent in fact—which stop it from being absorbed into the bones. (Source 4) For a healthy neck to stay healthy, these IVDs are essential.

The Problem—Disc Degeneration

IVDs, unfortunately, can degrade over time. A lot of this is normal wear and tear as we age (more on that later), but there are controllable factors as well:

  • Hydration: Being predominantly comprised of water, IVDs can become “drier” due to reduced hydration levels, greatly reducing their ability to absorb force. Think of a sopping-wet sponge that always returns to its original shape versus a crusty, dry sponge that you can break apart.
  • Nutrition: Think of nutrients like microscopic building blocks that our bodies use to rebuild damaged material—a bad diet devoid of nutrients means less building material available for your body to repair itself.
  • Drinking/Smoking: We all love celebrating a good send – but both drinking and smoking severely suppress your body’s ability to repair.
  • Repetitive Forces Related to Work/Sport: Just like our gear, increased use over time means increased breakdown. A 2013 study found that those in a physically demanding jobs were 8.5 times more likely to have confirmed IVD degeneration versus those in sedentary jobs. (Source 5) And a 2003 study found that disc degeneration was significantly more common in elite/Olympic athletes versus non-athletes (75 percent vs 31 percent). (Source 6)
  • Looking Down and…Looking Up: Even though these are normal movements, too much of either can lead to cumulative strain. In non-optimal positions, the ability of our IVDs to absorb force and protect us becomes impaired.

Let’s use our hands as an example. Open up your hand in front of you. Take a finger, bend it backward, and hold it there. Even though this is a normal movement, how long do you think your finger could last before it started to hurt? How much force do you think it would take to injure your finger in that position? Probably not very much.

This same concept applies to our necks. When we stand with a perfectly neutral spine—think perfect posture, looking straight ahead with the shoulder blades pinched back and chin slightly tucked—the internal compression forces in our IVDs are minimal. Tilt your head backwards by only 15 degrees—as we commonly do when belaying—and the weight of your head alone increases the pressure inside of the IVDs by almost 25 percent. (Source 7) So how about tilting your head backwards 25 degrees, as when belaying an ultra-steep pitch? In this position, it would only take 50 percent of the normal amount of force to create   an injury vs standing with a neutral spine. (Source 8)

There’s also the problem of normal aging. Degeneration and loss of water within these discs can start as early as our late teens for some, and only progresses as we get older. It’s estimated that around 15 percent of teenagers with no neck issues or pain at all will have mild degeneration show up on an MRI; and this climbs up to nearly 90 percent in those of us over 60. (Source 9) And although this level of degeneration is normal, ultimately, more degeneration means less protective buffering ability.

The Solutions

1. Belay Glasses

The first, most obvious solution is belay glasses. Belay glasses allow us to stay out of these extended positions, taking the compressive strain off our discs, minimizing overall wear-and-tear, and helping keep our necks lasting longer.

You can also build thicker buffers by strengthening your neck and scapulae to help share the supportive responsibility. Three favorites are:

2. Head Nod and Lift

  • Lie on a firm, flat surface—I find the floor is best
  • Perform a small head nod—as if nodding “Yes”
  • Hold this head nod and lift your head until it just starts to come off the floor—hold here
  • Goal: 10-sec holds x 10 reps
  • Don’t force it—it’s a lot harder than it sounds
Head resting on floor
The starting position, with your head resting on the floor.
Chin nod
A small head nod—as if nodding “Yes.”
Head lift
Keeping the head nodded, now lift your head barely off the floor; hold for 10 seconds.

3. TIRs – Ts to Is to Return

  • Prop yourself up on a table/island/counter
  • Gently squeeze your shoulder blade toward your spine
  • The T: Perform a T—i.e., in a thumbs-up position, bring your arm up to shoulder height
  • The I: Move from a T to an I position—i.e., arm straight out in front of you
  • The Return: Come back to a T position, and then rest—this is 1 rep
  • Goal: 15 reps (each side) x 3 sets; add weight as needed
T position shoulder exercise
The T position, with your arm out at shoulder height and thumb up. 
I position shoulder exercise
The I position—move here from the T by bringing your arm straight out in front of you.

4. TRX Ts

  • TRX or rings work well
  • Rest on your heels, with your shoulders/spine/hips all in line
  • Gently squeeze your shoulder blade toward your spine
  • Perform a T or a reverse fly—control your way back to the starting position
  • Goal: 12 reps x 3 sets; add weight as needed
TRX Ts starting position
TRX Ts starting position: resting on your hells with your shoulders, spine, and hips aligned.
TRX Ts finishing position
TRX Ts finishing position—the arms out in a T, as if performing a reverse fly.

Hydrating/nourishing/sleeping/de-stressing enough to allow your body to heal and recover from day-to-daymicro-damage is also key. If you’re battling a neck injury or trying to prevent one, incorporate the following three, bigger themes on crag days.

5. Hydrate through the day

Pack a refillable bottle and make sure it’s empty at the end of your session.

6. Post-crag muscle work

Give the back of your neck some love via a post-crag massage—I like using a massage ball or gun. Get in there for 2–3 minutes/session; it might hurt, which is normal, but keep that pain tolerable

7. Sleep

On climbing trips, we all love to stay up late and hang—that’s where the memories are made. But make sure you’re giving yourself the rest your body needs to recover and repair .

8. Take a breather

Finally, when out at the cliffs, recognize when it’s time for a belay break if your neck is starting to get sore. Some pain is normal during sport, but keep it reasonable—I usually give my clients the rule of 2–3/10. Keep your soreness below that; anything more, and your risk of injury elevates. If you’re >3/10, take a break until it resolves and/or call it a day on belaying.

Adam Luu is a Registered Physiotherapist based out of Squamish, British Columbia, Canada. Find him online at or on Instagram @adamluu

  1. N Yoganandan et al “Physical properties of the human head: mass, center of gravity and momentof inertia” J Biomech 2009,42:1177-1192.
  2. N Yohanandan et al “Mechanics of the cervical spine part Cervical spine soft tissue responses and biomechanical modeling” Clin Biomech 2001,16:1-27
  3. LA Ferrara “The biomechanics of cervical spondylosis” Adv Orthop 2012:493605
  4. S Kumaresan et al “Contribution of disc degeneration to osteophyte formation in the cervicalspine: a biomechanical investigation” J Orthop Res 2001,19:977-984
  5. A Seidler “The role of cumulative physical work load in lumbar spine disease: risk factors for lumbar osteochondrosis and spondylosis associated with chronic complaints” BJM 2001,58:735-746
  6. A Ong et al “A pilot study of the prevalence of lumbar disc degeneration in elite athletes with lower back pain at the Sydney 2000 olympic games” Br J Sports Med 2003,37:263-266
  7. R Bayoglu et al “Twente spine model: a thorough investigation of the spinal loads in a completeand coherent musculoskeletal model of the human spine” Med Eng Phys
  8. MR Coakwell et al “High-risk head and neck movements at high G and interventions to reduceassociated neck injury”Aviat Space Environ Med 2004,75:68-80
  9. Okada et al “Aging of the cervical spine in healthy volunteers. A 10-uear longitudinal magneticresonance imaging study” Spine 2009,34(7):706-712