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The Critical Role of Climbing Warm Ups and Stretches

"Not only will your warm-up help safeguard you from injury, it’s the single biggest factor in determining how well you climb on any given day."

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Climbing warm ups are crucial, and if you don’t do those, well, you’re crazy not to. They help you prevent injury, and with them, you will climb harder.

In climbing and any sport, you win some and lose some. As Robyn Erbesfield, legendary coach and founder at Team ABC, in Boulder, has said, “Number one is building great humans, celebrating who they are as a person and as a teammate.” No coach wants an athlete to feel less of a person because of poor performance. But … skip or skimp on your warmup? Now that’ll make a coach mad. Warm ups are training you can control perfectly. Be vigilant in warming up!

Bryan Sillorequez
According to the pyramid below, before any 5.12, you need to do routes including one 5.11d. Bryan Sillorequez on Sweet Pain (5.11d), a Red Rocks gem.

“Single biggest factor in determining how well you climb”

As the longtime climbing coach Neil Gresham (UK) has written here:

“Most climbers are lousy at warming up. Yet not only will your warm-up help safeguard you from injury, it’s the single biggest factor in determining how well you climb on any given day. Less capable climbers often outperform their peers simply because they got their warm-ups right that day.”

Gresham advises that one spend an “absolute minimum” of half an hour from starting your process to being prepared to climb at your limit, but that 45 minutes is optimum, and an hour about max, adding, “It is always better to do slightly too much than too little.”

Climbers need warm-ups even more than other mountain-sports persons. “Skiing and surfing, for example, rely on the large muscle groups,” Gresham writes, “where the injury risk is relatively low compared to that of hauling yourself up on your finger tendons.” Your fingers, elbows and shoulders take a beating in climbing, even when you do warm up. Give them a chance.

Here Gresham has divided the warmup into three crucial stages that apply across genres of climbing.

  • 1. Warm-Up
  • 2. Combine easy climbing with mobility exercises (focus on
    the arms).
  • 3. Build up the difficulty slowly.
You really hope Michaela Kiersch warmed up well on a route as fierce and well-named as Super Tweak. This Boone Speed route in Logan Canyon, Utah, was the country’s first 5.14b. (Photo: Boone Speed)

Getting ready to send

The disincentives, spurious that they are, to warming up in climbing are: inattention, lack of time, and … well, boredom.

This author, JP Whitehead, a Colorado Front Range boulderer (bouldering—with its hard, distilled moves—is a great strain on your joints and tendons) understands that. In “Learn This: How to Warm Up for Rock Climbing,” he writes:

“Compared to sending a project, the idea of warming up is excruciatingly 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.”

Chris Kalous Wild Iris
Chris Kalous on an airy 5.11b at Wild Iris, in the Lander region, Wyoming. (Photo: Wyatt Smetzer)

The article advises incorporating the following suggestions into your routine, with the important proviso that walking to a near roadside crag is insufficient. In fact, about a 20-minute uphill hike is perfect; you want to develop a light sweat.

From JP Whitehead:

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.

Bishop boulders
About a 20-minute approach is great for warming up. Ideally, a person builds a light sweat. Climbers head uphill in Bishop, California. (Photo: Sam Corum)

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.

Nina Williams boulder
Nina Williams finds generous holds to start out a day in Bishop, California. (Photo: Erin Phillips)

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 pyramid

 

5.12 Sport Climber Pyramid Warm-Up

sport climbing pyramid

 

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.

More info on different warmups for different grades

Neil Gresham writes here: 

The classic mistake is to listen to your natural instinct to save yourself by jumping from an easy warm-up route onto your target onsight for the day. The effect is a “flash pump,” which comes on like an express train and can end your day. If you get moderately pumped first in a controlled and strategic way and then rest, the pump you receive on your target onsight is much easier to control. You will also recruit more muscle fibers and prepare yourself for harder moves, as well as summoning the technique and mindset for the battle. However, getting the formula right for this process is one of the greatest tactical challenges in sport climbing. It is indeed too simple to talk about a primary pump when you really want a primary, a secondary and tertiary pump.

  • Your first warm-up route should be so easy that it does not get you pumped at all.
  • Your second warm-up route should get you 30 percent pumped, your third route should get you 60 percent pumped
  • Your final route before your target onsight should take you as close as possible, but not past, the point of peak fatigue. This final warm-up route should induce a higher level of fatigue than the average climber usually dares to allow. … This strategy (or a version of it) is essential for all climbers, regardless of the grade they climb or their state of fitness. What should vary according to current fitness levels is the number of warm-up routes. For example, if you are feeling very fit then do a total of four or five warm-up routes with a couple at 60 percent pump, whereas if you are feeling less fit then do three, but never any less for sport climbing.

A classic pyramid sequence for someone who is attempting a 5.12b onsight might be a 5.10c > 5.11a > 5.11c > 5.12a before trying the 5.12b.

Someone attempting to onsight a 5.10c might do a 5.6 > 5.8 > 5.9 > 5.10a and then finally the 5.10c.

An alternative for both the climbers if they were feeling unfit might be 5.10c > 5.11b > 5.11d for the 5.12b climber and 5.7 > 5.9 > 5.10a for the 5.10c climber.

Note: choose warm-up routes that mimic your target project. In other words, if your project is 30 moves, pick longer warm-up routes rather than bouldery ones, and vice versa.

One more for good measure

From Nina Williams, a Boulder-based climbing coach and leading climber, as written in Why Starting Off Slow Can Help Your Climbing:

“Any light physical movement prior to climbing is a good way to encourage blood flow and raise the body temperature. This can be achieved during the approach, or a brief jog followed by some stretching. Afterward, climbing-specific exercises will best prepare your tendons and encourage coordinated movement. Once you’re on the wall, spend at least 20 minutes climbing problems that are well below your ability level. Start at the very easiest level and work your way up, climbing between two to five V0s, 1s, 2s, 3s, etc. until you’ve hit your try-hard number. As you warm up, choose big pinches, positive crimps, and good slopers in addition to standard jugs. Look for fun, engaging climbs that you otherwise wouldn’t try. You’ll know you’re warmed up when your fingers and muscles feel responsive and you’ve broken a light sweat. Once you’re ready to go, climb one more warm-up for good measure.”

Nina Williams Michaela Kiersch
Nina Williams, pro and coach, on left, and Michaela Kiersch get ready to start the day. (Photo: Erin Phillips)

Further resources:

Steve Bechtel, a climbing coach in Lander, Wyoming, breaks warming up into these two phases:

A General Warmup

A Specific Warmup

See more here.

Video:

Dr. Jared Vagy and Jon Cardwell, pro climber and coach, on how to warm up fingers and wrists.