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Coach’s Advice For Avoiding Torn Shoulders, Blown Elbows and Twanged Fingers

The causes of climbing injuries often fall into predictable patterns, and are preventable by taking a few simple precautions.


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It was all going so well, you were making great progress on that next-level boulder project at the gym. You flowed through the lower moves, took the crucial left-hand crimp, built your feet, extended for the finishing jug and then …. twang! A searing pain shot up your forearm, your finger felt limp and lifeless. Game over. You didn’t see the injury coming and left the gym clutching an ice pack, wondering what you could have done to avoid the catastrophe.

Sometimes climbing injuries strike randomly, yet the more we climb, the more we are able to look back and see the patterns, key factors there were out of check, leading to injury. Where there are books and research studies done on climbing injures, and while our understanding of climbing injuries is increasing, little is proven when it comes to the relative benefits of the various prevention strategies. Some coaches and physios believe in certain preventative practices and others don’t. It doesn’t help that we all respond differently to training. A certain type of hold, move or training practice may injure one climber but not another, and whether you get injured can come down to variations in body-type or “externals’”such as sleep patterns, stress levels, nutrition, hydration, and so on. Ultimately, when you step forward to attempt a climb or exercise, you have to use your best judgment, and thus it’s good to be clued-in. It was once believed that the older climbers were more likely to get injured, but if senior climbers climb-smart and learn from experience, they won’t necessarily get injured more frequently than younger climbers.

Bear in mind that climbing isn’t one of those “no pain no gain” sports. When we climb we use small, potentially fragile muscles and tendons, which can be easily over-stressed. As such, it pays to develop a radar for the causes of common climbing injuries and to adopt key practices for prevention. Which include:

Train your antagonists

Climbing works the same chain of muscles repeatedly—namely the forearm flexors, biceps, and upper back muscles. Whereas the opposition (antagonist) muscles barely get worked, ie: forearm extensors, triceps, and chest. The answer is to train these muscles to prevent imbalances from developing. If we do this we also facilitate further strengthening of the “pulling” muscles simply because the body won’t allow grotesque strength imbalances to develop. Antagonist training will make us feel generally more rounded, robust and athletic, so just do it!. Key exercises are forearm extensors (using a rubber trainer such as www.thepowerfingers.com) and push-ups. You can add more benefit by using suspension straps (which also train the core and various stabilizing muscles), but the main thrust is to keep it simple and do, say, 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 20 reps 2 to 3 times a week. In particular working the opposing muscles will help to stave off elbow and shoulder injuries, and the forearm extensor work may also help to prevent finger injuries to a certain degree.

Margo Hayes using pushups to work the opposing muscles of climbing. Have a well-balanced body is one of the keys to avoiding injury. (Photo: Jan Novak)

Warm-up

Looking back to the 1980s and 90s, climbers were notoriously reluctant to warm-up, and this was also a period when injuries were rife. By the turn of the century, the Internet facilitated a better flow of information and a new breed of gym-based climber emerged. It was no longer considered un-cool to warm-up, and sure enough, the injury rate lowered. It’s impossible to prove a cause and effect —other factors are involved (holds became more user-friendly, training methods more sophisticated and so on—but I suggest that the increase of warming-up was a significant contributor. Strangely, things have circled around and now warming-up is once again taking a bashing. Some coaches have been championing research that suggest that we barely need to warm-up, but I’d suggest that this is baloney. If you want, you can find a research paper to prove anything. It’s hard to dispute that if you do a short, intense pulse-raiser (for 2 to 4 mins) before climbing (eg: skipping or burpees) you will promote blood-flow and generally feel more supple afterward. Add to this some dynamic mobility exercises such as arm and leg-swings (avoid static stretches) to prepare the joints for being worked through a range-of-motion. Then, when you start climbing, build up gradually through the grades over a sufficient time period (eg 25 to 45 mins) to acclimatise to higher load levels, rather than leaping from easy-to-hard. Ignore this advice at your peril. If you don’t warm-up and then twang your tendon then don’t come to me for sympathy!

Don’t make “One move too many”

It’s the title of a pioneering book on climbing injuries by Dr. Volker Schoffl, and it also describes one of the most common pitfalls. Bouldering is addictive and it is frustrating when we’re working a single move that is stopping us. It’s hard to walk away and easy to just give it one more go. But being unable to quit represents one of the most common scenarios for injury. When a move is proving particularly stubborn, take longer rests between goes and be prepared to call time before it calls you.

Be wary of higher-risk holds and moves

It’s important not to be fearful and to keep an open mind, however, experience tells us that certain moves should cause the red light to start to flashing more than others. Holds such as sharp pockets (especially if the fingers need to rotate), small, sharp crimps, big dynamic moves that load the shoulders, especially in a wide position, and deep lock-offs where the elbow is fully bent are ones you should be wary of. The message is not to avoid these moves, but to make sure you’re fully warmed up when you try them, and that you feel fresh and strong and ready to let go in a split-second if you feel a sudden strain. Have a test-go first where you don’t fully commit to the hold to acclimatise your tendons to the load.

Sports massage

A component of an overall approach to injury prevention is to visit to a sports masseur or do some self-massage sessions with a foam roller. Soft tissue massage relaxes and re-aligns tight, stiff muscles after a hard training session, and it may also serve to promote recovery. A further technique is Muscle Tension Release Therapy, (the use of a hard object such as a lacrosse ball to release trigger-points within the muscles). It makes sense to combine these effective techniques with static flexibility work on rest days as part of a wholistic routine.

Structure your training

Finally, many climbing injuries occur when climbers go too-fast-too soon, and fail to build up the load-level gradually, or they train hard too much without sufficient recovery. If you struggle to hold yourself back when it comes to training, then sit down and make a plan that includes adequate rest, or get one from a coach, as this is the best way to ensure that you train at a sustainable pace.

In conclusion, when we look back at our climbing, we see that injury is the biggest saboteur of progress and thus, the most important goal in training is not to get injured.

British all-rounder and coach, Neil Gresham has climbed 8c+ (14c) and trad E11 (14a XX). He’s written training articles for the Climbing magazine team periodically since 1997.

He offers personalized training plans at www.neilgresham.com