After four months of gym climbing, Jane, a self-taught climber, feels ready to push herself, eyeing an overhanging V3 at her local gym. Her first try, she falls immediately. Her second try, she makes it through the opening sequence to a dynamic move. Having seen other climbers dyno, Jane hucks for the jug, swings wildly, and loses her grip. She lands awkwardly on her left ankle, fracturing it.
Climbing-injury doctors and clinical researchers Volker Schöffl and Christoph Lutter have dubbed accidents like Jane’s—a hypothetical example that points to the recent trend of major injuries due to minor falls at bouldering gyms—the “Newbie Syndrome.” Until recently, indoor bouldering and climbing were considered relatively safe, with an acute-injury risk of 0.01–0.03 injuries per 1,000 hours of participation. In recent years, however, Schöffl and Lutter recognized an uptick in indoor-bouldering injuries, attributing this to the increase in problems with dynamic, parkour-like movement, coupled with a lack of general fitness—leading to poor technique—for new climbers. Novices often get lulled into pushing themselves before they understand the risks associated with dynamic movement and falls.
However, through a proper warm-up, foundational fitness with a focus on core strength, better flexibility, and an understanding about climbing (and falling/landing) safely, we can overcome Newbie Syndrome.
Injury prevention begins with a good warm-up, which will elevate your body temperature and improve joint mobility prior to climbing. Meanwhile, having a foundational level of cardio fitness and core strength will improve your form, protecting against injury.
Climbers often overlook the need to warm up, hopping right on problems and injuring themselves. However, taking the time to prep the body will reduce the chance of injury. So begin with 7 to 10 minutes of jogging, cycling, or jumping rope. “Follow this with dynamic stretches that target the trunk, thighs, calves, shoulders, and forearm/hand muscles,” says Mark Pugeda, a climbing physical therapist based in the New River Gorge, West Virginia. Pugeda suggests 10 to 15 reps of the yoga pose Upward-Facing Dog, forward and side lunges, upper- and lower-trunk rotations, and forward/side leg swings (see “Bonus Warm-Up” sidebar below). Finally, warm up on roughly 8 to 12 easy problems, no more than a number grade or two below your onsight level, as it takes the body approximately 120 moves to prepare the pulleys and tendons for the demands of difficult bouldering.
Strength and conditioning
Having an adequate level of strength, flexibility, balance, and joint stability encourages the proper form and technique that stave off injury. Additionally, having a strong fitness base allows for a longer—and thus funner!—session.
A stable, strong core helps you keep your body tight to the wall, allowing you to climb with greater control. Moreover, a strong core brings stability to the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine to help prevent back injury.
Remember, core strengthening means working the entire trunk. Varied exercises include supine leg lifts with a bent knee, V-ups, bicycles, side crunches, and isometric flexor chin tucks. As a general rule, you should barely be able to complete the reps on the final set of each exercise. You can do core training up to five times a week, but also take rest days.
Incorporate static and dynamic stretching multiple times a week and before climbing, to cultivate flexibility throughout the body and stability in the joints, especially the knee and ankle. Static stretches that target “climbing muscles” include wrist flexor/extensor stretch, hamstring stretch, and hip flexor stretch; dynamic stretches include arm scissors, windmills, and side-to-side lunges. Generally, static stretches should be three sets of 15- to 30-second holds, while dynamic stretches are one set of 15 to 30 reps.
To avoid injury, you need to understand the forces exerted on the body during falls and landings, and become fluent at assessing risk.
Consider the entire problem
Examine the problem’s angle, length, and hazards: How steep is it and what sorts of features does it climb—arête, corner, slab, or cave—and what does that mean for falling/landing? Will nearby climbers create a hazard? Where does the problem top out? What’s the likelihood of a fall from the top, and what would the landing be like?
Examine the individual sections
Now consider individual movements—the unique climbing positions. Will any single move expose your body to injury? For example, falling onto a stuck heel-toe cam can shred your knee, and micro-crimps can cause finger injuries. Ask yourself what existing injuries you may have and if you’re putting yourself at greater risk. Also consider dynamic moves and what would happen if you don’t stick them. Is there the potential for a swing or a face-down fall—and if so, do you want a spot?
Climbing in a controlled manner, with good body tension and a focus on precise movement, can limit your risk of injury. Move from hold to hold deliberately, focusing on each step of the process. Continually assess and back off if needed. If you feel uncomfortable with the fall, downclimb to a better position. Not only will this move you back to greater safety, but it also improves your footwork.
Stick the landing
In bouldering, where every fall is a groundfall, anticipate and control your fall, hitting the mat with your legs slightly bent and feet beneath you shoulder-width apart. In a well-executed landing, your ankles and knees should flex within their normal range of motion to absorb the impact, while your core tightens to protect your spine, and your chin tucks to protect your head. Also, rolling in the direction of the fall after impact lessens the shock—think “stunt roll.” However, don’t throw an arm out to “catch” your fall, as this is a common avenue to a sprain, strain, or fracture.
Bonus Warm-Up: Curls and Circles Circuit
This “curls and circles circuit” is a great way to warm the joints, moving each through its full range of motion and physiologically prepping it for rapid flexion and extension while climbing. Start at the fingers and work down to the ankles, doing 10 to 15 reps of each exercise both clockwise and counterclockwise—except finger curls—for the entire circuit.
- FINGER CURLS: Alternate from straight fingers to making a fist.
- WRIST CIRCLES: Make a fist and then roll your hands.
- ARM CIRCLES: With arms straight and to your sides, rotate your arms in a circular motion.
- HIP CIRCLES: Place your hands on your hips and roll your upper body.
- KNEE AND ANKLE CIRCLES: Bend over with hands on slightly bent knees; move your knees in a circular motion (your ankles will follow).
R. Bryan Simon is the managing editor for the American Alpine Club's Accidents in North American Climbing and is co-author of Vertical Aid: Essential Wilderness Medicine for Climbers, Trekkers, and Mountaineers.