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Prevent Injuries Before They Even Start: How to Perform a Movement Screen

We are more susceptible to injuries the longer we climb. Follow this movement screen to understand when and how to push your training load.

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Climbing involves a variety of complex and variable movements, some of which may be unnatural and difficult for the body. This is true for climbers across all ability levels, whether it is your first time climbing at your local gym or you spend weeks on end on trips projecting 5.14s. Even within ability levels, we all have certain styles that are inherent to our body types, composition, and skill level. It is a highly dynamic and fluid sport with the inherent risk of injury, especially the more we advance and progress in the sport.

While injuries are hard to predict, one the most effective strategies to avoid injury is to establish a baseline for training and performance. Injuries are more likely to occur when someone overreaches beyond his or her body’s ability. One way to establish this baseline is through a movement screen. A movement screen is a quick and broad assessment of your movement capabilities that can help identify strengths and weaknesses that can then be used to guide best suited climbing styles, training, or prevent injuries. This article presents a climbing screen to help anyone who may just be starting out, is concerned about future injuries, or is looking for a general idea where to start training.

What this movement screen is not is a diagnostic tool for injury. If you are experiencing any type of injury, it is recommended that you seek out the expertise of a medical expert. A Physical Therapist is a medical expert that focuses on diagnosing and rehabilitating injuries and ailments. If you are currently dealing with an injury, I would recommend searching out the expertise of a PT, specifically one who is familiar and comfortable working with climbers.

Quick Notes Before Using this Screen:

This movement screen is a rough estimate of your baseline for these different tests, and so it is best to do this screen following at least one day of rest from climbing. Rest may not be a major factor when it comes to flexibility measures, but for strength and power tests, it is very important to make sure that your body is recovered from training or performance to avoid any injuries.

There are some tests that may require a partner to help, so find a training buddy, belay partner, or someone in the gym or at the crag who looks lonely—both of you can run through this screen together.

Lastly, it is important to make sure that you are properly warmed up before performing this screen. A proper warm up involves getting blood flowing to your muscles and increasing the pliability of your tendons and ligaments. It is recommended that you perform at least 10 minutes of low-level cardio (bike, light jog, arm ergometer, rower, etc.) to get your heart rate up, followed by some dynamic flexibility drills (shoulder circles, leg kicks, hurdles, tendon glides, etc.) and some low-level climbing (anywhere from two to three levels below your typical climb).

Once you are warmed up, you are ready to go through the screen. Use the form provided below to keep track of your scores and results for each of the different tests and measures.

What you will need:

  • Friend/belay partner/training partner
  • Dowel/broomstick
  • Tape measure/fabric measure
  • Stopwatch
  • 23 mm & 45 mm ledge
  • Pull up bar
  • Bathroom scale (digital preferred)
  • Vertical wall with holds

Keep track of your results using the worksheet provided

You can download the Screening form here: Movement Screen

Testing/Assessment

Flexibility


Thoracic Mobility

Purpose: 

  • Assess upper spine mobility and range of motion (ROM)

Test Procedure:

  • Start position: Sit cross legged about 30 cm away from a door frame, chest tall and straight back. Hold dowel/broomstick across your shoulder, crossing your arms across your chest to hold it in place.
  • Performing the test: Keeping your back and chest upright, turn to try to bring the stick as close to the door frame as possible. Make sure you are not compensating by slouching your back forward, bending to one side, or letting the stick come off your shoulders. Measure the distance from the doorframe.

Scoring:

  • Good: Handle/Stick is within 10 cm of the door frame
  • Fair: Handle/Stick is within 17 cm of the door frame
  • Poor: Handle/stick is greater than 17cm from door frame

Wrist Mobility

Purpose: 

  • Assess wrist flexor tightness

Test Procedure:

  • Start position: Place your hands flat on bench, flat box or cooler, with elbows straight, wrist in slight extension, hands flat on box and fingers pointing straight ahead.
  • Performing the test: Starting with your body weight behind your wrist, shift your body weight forward over your wrists as far as you can while keeping your elbow straight and your hand flat on the surface. The moment your hand begins to come off the surface or when you feel like you cannot go any further, measure the angle compared to the surface you are on (a rough estimate is fine as you are seeing if you can get to perpendicular). Return to the start position. Move your fingers to the end of the box/bench so just the very ends of your finger are hanging over the edge (the most distant crease of your fingers). Repeat forward motion, and measure the same angle.

Scoring:

  • Good: Can get forearm perpendicular or further to box with full fingers on box
  • Fair: Cannot get forearm perpendicular with full fingers on box, but can with fingertips off edge of box
  • Poor: Cannot get forearm perpendicular with fingers tips over edge of box

Shoulder Mobility

Purpose: 

  • Asses shoulder ROM and mobility

Test Procedure:

  • Start position: Standing, one hand on your low back and the other on the back of your neck.
  • Performing the test: Take the hand that is on your back and slide it up as far as it will go, as if you are reaching from underneath your shoulder blade. At the same time, take the hand that is on your neck and try to reach up and over your head down your neck to try to get your hands to meet each other. Have your partner measure the distance between your middle fingers.

Scoring:

  • Good: Hands are within one hand length (using the tester’s hands) of each other
  • Fair: Hands are within one and a half hand lengths
  • Poor: Hands are further than one and a half hand lengths apart

Hip Abduction from Wall1

Purpose:

  • Assess hip ROM

Test Procedure:

  • Start position: On a vertical wall, stand on two decent sized foot holds and place arms on two jugs that are about shoulder height and width apart.
  • Performing the test: Squat down to about half the distance from standing (half the distance from hip to foot hold). Once you are in the squat, do your best to bring your hips as close to the wall as possible. Measure from the front of your hip bone to the wall.

Score:

  • Good: <130 mm
  • Poor: >170mm

Adapted Foot Grant Raise2

Purpose:

  • Assess hip ROM

Test Procedure:

  • Start position: Place your feet shoulder width apart and 23 cm/ 9 in from a vertical wall. Place your hands  straight out onto the wall just outside of shoulder width apart.
  • Performing the test: Lift one leg high up on the wall underneath the same side hand as far up the wall as possible (right foot under right hand). Measure the distance from highest point you can get your toes to the floor.

Score:

  • Poor: Less than 103 cm
  • Fair: Between 103 cm and 108 cm
  • Good: Between 108 cm and 114 cm
  • Great: Greater than 114 cm

Lateral Foot Reach

Purpose:

  • Assess hip ROM

Test Procedure:

  • Start position: At a vertical wall, stand with your toes as close to the wall as you can and with your feet together.
  • Performing the test: Step to the side as far as you can with either leg straight out, keeping your chest upright. Keep your hips the same distance from the wall as when you started. Measure the distance from the inside of both heels.

Score:

  • Good: >150 cm
  • Poor: <130 cm

Muscle Strength

Ab Curl Up

Purpose:

  • Assess upper abdominals- rectus abdominus, internal/external obliques strength

Testing Procedure:

  • Start position: Lay on your back with legs straight on a flat surface. Place both your arms across your chest.
  • Performing the test: Brace your abdominals and lift your shoulders off the table slowly without interruption in the movement. Begin with hands placed across your chest. If able to complete with ease, repeat the same procedure but with hands on your head.
  • If cannot complete with arms across chest, then repeat test with arms straight forward.

Scoring:

  • Great: Complete full motion with hands on head
  • Good: Complete with hands across chest
  • Fair: Complete with arms straight
  • Poor: Unable to complete with hands straight forward

Leg Lowering Test

Purpose: 

  • Assess lower abdominals strength: rectus abdominus, internal/external obliques

Testing Procedure:

  • Starting position: Lay on your back with legs straight and back completely flat on level surface. Bring both legs up to 90 degrees, or perpendicular to surface. Cross your arms around your chest and engage your core to keep back flat on ground.
  • Test procedure: Keeping your legs straight, slowly lower your legs together, without letting your back come off the ground. Determine the moment your back comes off the ground and estimate the angle of your legs to the surface (best done using your phone or someone watching as your legs lower).

Scoring:

  • Great: Able to lower legs back down to table without back coming off table
  • Good: Able to lower legs back down 15 degrees without back coming off table
  • Fair: Able to lower legs back down 45 degrees without back coming off table
  • Poor: Able to lower legs back down 60 degrees or less without back coming off table

Rotary Stability

Purpose: 

  • Assess Rotational Stability and Core Strength

Testing Procedure:

  • Starting Position – On hands and knees with back straight. Hands are positioned under shoulders; knees positioned under hips. (Tabletop Pose)
  • Test Procedure – Starting with either side, lift same side leg and arm (same side superman). From this position bring the elbow to the same side knee (ex. R knee to R elbow). Repeat movement twice without putting hands and knees back down on ground and keeping back flat.
  • If cannot perform on same side, switch to performing diagonals (L arm to R knee). Repeat movement twice.

Scoring:

  • Good if you can bring same side elbow and knee together movement twice without losing form or losing balance.
  • Fair if you can bring same opposite elbow and knee together movement twice without losing form or losing balance.
  • Poor if cannot perform either.

Finger Flexor Strength3

Purpose: 

  • Assess finger strength

Testing Procedure:

  • Start position: Place a scale under a 23mm edge for this test. Ledge should be over your head and able to be reached with a slight bend in your elbow when standing tall. Measure your weight (in kg) and record that number (you will need it later for the calculation).
  • Test procedure: Start with testing your dominant hand in open grip. Once you have a hold on the ledge, crouch down by bending your knees so that your arm is straight. Keep your weight centered on the scale. Once you are in a position that your arm is straight, attempt to lift yourself with your single arm. Hold as much of your bodyweight as possible through the one arm. As you hold, watch (or have a friend) watch the lowest number on the scale. Hold for five seconds max and then rest. Repeat at most three times on each side with two minutes rest between measurements.
  • Calculate your score for each hand and position using the equation below. Compare to table of results.
    • [Body Weight (kg) – Best Score of 3 Trials (kg)] / Body Weight (kg)

Positions to Test: Open grip and/or crimp grip.

  • Extra Testing (Only perform if you are comfortable or have been training two-finger isometrics prior): Index & Middle fingers, Middle & Ring fingers

Men’s Results Table

Hand Position

Poor/Beginner

(5.0-5.9)

Fair/Intermediate

(5.9-5.11c)

Good/Advanced

(5.11c-5.13b)

Great/Elite

(5.13c-5.15b)

Open Grip

.55

.70

.76

.99

Crimp Grip

.57

.68

.78

.91

Index + Middle

.41

.50

.50

.67

Index + Ring

.39

.48

.56

.69

Women’s Results Table

Hand Position

Poor/Beginner

(5.0-5.9)

Fair/Intermediate

(5.9-5.11c)

Good/Advanced

(5.11c-5.13b)

Great/Elite

(5.13c-5.15b)

Open Grip

.50

.57

.66

.86

Crimp Grip

.53

.60

.73

.90

Index + Middle

.38

.45

.50

.59

Index + Ring

.38

.42

.51

.73


Muscle Endurance

Bent Arm Hang4

Purpose: 

  • Assess upper body and grip endurance

Testing Procedure:

  • Start position: Hands on, grasping bar comfortably outside of shoulder width, with wrists facing away from you. Elbows must be bent, and head must be above the pull bar. Should be in the same position as end of a pull up rep.
  • Test procedure: Hold the starting position for as long as you can. Time starts once you get above the bar and ends once your chin falls below the bar.

Scoring:

Male

Female

Poor

< 30 s

<15 s

Fair

30 s

15 s

Good

45 s

35s

Great

>60 s

>50 s


Max Repetition Pull Up

Purpose: 

  • Assess shoulder and upper body endurance and strength (grip endurance)

Testing Procedure:

  • Start Position: Grab a pull up bar with hands just outside shoulder width and inside of wrist should be facing away from you. Arms are straight and shoulders should be engaged.
  • Test Procedure: Perform a pull up, pulling yourself up to the bar. A full repetition occurs when your head clears above the bar. Return to the starting position. Complete as many pull ups as you can in an unbroken set. You may hang in between repetitions. Test ends when you cannot complete a full repetition or let go of the bar.

Scoring:

  • Poor: <5
  • Fair: 5-10 reps
  • Good: 10-15 reps
  • Great: >15 reps

Muscle Power

Power Slap1,6

Purpose: 

  • Functional shoulder power

Testing Procedure: 

  • On a 45 mm ledge, hang from both hands. Pulling through one hand, pull yourself up as high on the wall above the ledge (Tip: Chalk up the hand that is slapping so you can mark the wall and measure afterwards). Repeat twice per side with a two minute rest in between.

Scoring:

  • Poor/Novice (<5.8) – 38 cm
  • Fair/Intermediate (5.9-5.10d) – 43 cm
  • Good/Advanced (5.11a – 5.13a) – 76 cm
  • Great/Elite (>5.13b) – 90 cm

After Testing & Results

Now that you have completed all the tests, you can now review your results and see which potential areas you can improve and focus your training (look specifically at where you scored poor or fair). Here are some recommendations depending on what area you may want to focus on to improve.

Recommendations

Flexibility: 

Add a mix of dynamic and static stretching to your regular routine, especially post workout. The key to improving flexibility is consistency and spending adequate amount of time each day getting an adequate stretch. Limited flexibility may contribute to limits in reaching and performing certain moves but can also contribute injury risk. If muscles are limited in their range of motion, then they may not be able to produce appropriate forces or may lead to changes in body mechanics that may lead to injury elsewhere in the body. When incorporating stretching into training, the recommended time to increase tissue length is at least 60 seconds total (i.e. 1x60s, 2x30s, 4x15s).

Strength:

If you score low on core strength, consider adding in regular core stability and tension exercises into your routine. Your core is comprised of more than just your abdominals, so make sure that you have a good mix of abdominals, back, hips, and shoulder stability as all play a key role into overall core strength. You will also want to strengthen in positions similar to the types of climbs you perform. A good place to add in core is after your regular training sessions.

Finger flexor strength: Finger strength is highly correlated to climbing ability. It is also one of the areas that are most frequently injured in climbers. This is one area that is important to improve no mater what level of climber you are. If you are just beginning, continue to climb at comfortable routes. You can also supplement your climbing with finger flexor specific exercises, such as using resisted grip trainers or even tennis ball squeezes. Finger strength is an area that should not be rushed as the tendinous nature of finger flexors are more susceptible to injury than other, more muscular areas of the body. If you have been climbing consistently (at least 2x week) for a while (>2 years), then consider finger specific training, such as hang board routines or lattice training.

Shoulder Strength and Endurance:

Shoulder endurance is another area that is key in climbing ability and performance. General rotator cuff strengthening is a good starting point for beginners who may have scored poor-fair. Your shoulders should also be strengthened in a similar manner as you will experience in climbing. Pull ups, inverted rows, dead hangs and lock off are examples of ways to strengthen your shoulders in similar ways that mimic climbing and should be considered to supplement your climbing training. If you are already performing these types of exercises in your training, you may not be training at the appropriate load, so consider exercise progression to make it more of a challenge.

This movement screen was designed to give you better insight to your climbing level, and areas that you may need to improve on to help progress and help prevent injury. While this movement screen assesses major components of climbing, it does not assess one of the most crucial aspects of climbing, which is technique. While strength, flexibility, and endurance all contribute to your technique, another way to improve your climbing performance and help avoid injury is to look at your technique. Climbing partners, coaches, and PTs with experience may be able to help you assess and identify areas that are contributing to injury, which leads to a stunting of progression.

After adjusting your training, you can use this screen again to measure your training progress. Typical physiologic changes typically take six to eight weeks, so after consistent training, reassess in about two months to see how you are progressing.


About the Author

Jose Soltero

Jose earned his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Vermont in 2020 and has started working as an outpatient physical therapist in the Seacoast of New Hampshire. Jose started climbing in 2015, and became more serious about his interest during graduate school. His passion for both climbing and physical therapy were ignited as he saw the natural harmony between his studies of biomechanics and the sport. Jose loves working with climbers not just rehabilitate, but also progress and train to meet and achieve their goals. Besides climbing, Jose also enjoys hiking, road biking, running and any activity that get him into the great outdoors. He currently resides in Massachusetts and climbs/trains out of Metrorock in Newburyport, MA. To contact Jose with any questions or comments, please email him at jsolteroDPT@gmail.com.

About the Contributors 

Jared Vagy

Dr. Jared Vagy “The Climbing Doctor,” is a doctor of physical therapy and an experienced climber, has devoted his career and studies to climbing-related injury prevention, orthopedics, and movement science. He authored the Amazon best-selling book Climb Injury-Free, and is a frequent contributor to Climbing Magazine. He is also a professor at the University of Southern California, an internationally recognized lecturer, and a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist.

To learn more about Dr. Vagy you can visit theclimbingdoctor.com or visit him on Instagram @theclimbingdoctor

Jennifer Demyanek

Jennifer is a physical therapist, college professor, and rock climber in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine with a Doctorate degree in Physical Therapy. Jennifer is the owner of Onsight Movement, a private physical therapy practice located in Las Vegas, specializing in treating rock climbing injuries and improving climbing performance. She also currently serves as Adjunct Faculty at the College of Southern Nevada teaching Anatomy & Physiology.

Jennifer is an officer of the virtual Rock Climbing Special Interest Group as well as a member of the American Physical Therapy Association’s Orthopedic Section. She also holds a certification in Dry Needling from the American Academy of Manipulative Therapy. When not practicing physical therapy, Jennifer can be found outside rock climbing around the southwest or spending time with her husband, Dylan. You can contact Jennifer via email at jennifer@onsightmovement.com or by visiting www.onsightmovement.com.

Kevin Cowell

Kevin is a physical therapist, clinical instructor, and rock climber based out of Broomfield, CO. Kevin owns and operates The Climb Clinic (located at G1 Climbing + Fitness) where he specializes in rehab and strength training for climbers and mountain athletes. He found his passion for climbing in Colorado while attending Regis University for his Doctorate of Physical Therapy and has since become a Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach (CSCS), Board-Certified Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist (OCS), and a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy (FAAOMPT). 

You can contact Kevin via email at kevin@theclimbclinic.com or by visiting www.theclimbclinic.com. Also, be sure to follow Kevin at @theclimbclinic on Instagram for free rehab and strength training resources. 

References

  1. Giles D, Barnes K, Taylor N, et al. Anthropometry and performance characteristics of recreational advanced to elite female rock climbers. J Sports Sci. Published online August 18, 2020:1-9. doi:10.1080/02640414.2020.1804784
  2. Draper N, Brent S, Hodgson C, Blackwell G. Flexibility assessment and the role of flexibility as a determinant of performance in rock climbing. Int J Perform Anal Sport. 2009;9(1):67-89. doi:10.1080/24748668.2009.11868465
  3. Baláš J, MrskoČ J, PanáČková M, Draper N. Sport-specific finger flexor strength assessment using electronic scales in sport climbers. Sports Technol. 2014;7(3-4):151-158. doi:10.1080/19346182.2015.1012082
  4. MacKenzie R, Monaghan L, Masson RA, et al. Physical and Physiological Determinants of Rock Climbing. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2020;15(2). https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijspp/15/2/article-p168.xml
  5. Baláš J, Pecha O, Martin AJ, Cochrane D. Hand–arm strength and endurance as predictors of climbing performance. Eur J Sport Sci. 2012;12(1):16-25. doi:10.1080/17461391.2010.546431
  6. Laffaye G, Levernier G, Collin J-M. Determinant factors in climbing ability: Influence of strength, anthropometry, and neuromuscular fatigue. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2016;26(10):1151-1159. doi:10.1111/sms.12558