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This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of our print edition.
Climbing is a unique sport in that anyone new to it can just chalk up and do their best, learning and tweaking technique as they go. This is in contrast to any other skilled sport like golf, tennis, or gymnastics, where movement is trained and refined by coaching on a regular basis. Proper movement patterns are essential to success, and climbing without this foundation leaves you susceptible to overuse injuries and may keep you from taking it to the next level. As a climber and doctor of physical therapy, I’ve learned several rules that every climber should know to climb safely and efficiently, and using this information can help you correct dangerous movement patterns, reduce your risk for injury, and climb even harder.
5 rules to prevent overuse injuries
Each of these guidelines might seem pretty basic, but if you concentrate on doing all of them simultaneously, you’ll find that your body climbs more efficiently and smoothly, and you’ll get less tired on routes that you might have found challenging in the past. Each muscle, tendon, and bone will move separately but in harmony with the others to achieve a result that’s greater than the sum of its parts. At your next gym session, pay attention to all five of these to see which ones you need to focus on and which ones come naturally to you. Try to incorporate the ones you’re slacking on without losing the rules you’ve mastered.
#1: Don’t Hunch Over
When your body is aligned with good posture, the muscles can act more effectively and are less likely to strain themselves to get the job done. Good climbing posture is similar to seated posture. Keep your trunk upright, shoulders back, and shoulder blades gently squeezed together. This will create a powerful foundation from which to move, and it will greatly reduce the chance of shoulder injury by relying on your back and core instead of your easily tweaked shoulders.
#2: Bring Your Hips Into the Wall
Your center of mass is a point around which the weight of your body is concentrated and the force of gravity acts. That means the closer your center of mass is to your toes, the less gravity acts on your shoulders, elbows, and fingers (hence reducing risk of injury on all of these body parts). The way you move your center of mass closer to your toes (on steep or overhanging rock) is by bringing your entire pelvis toward the wall or by rotating one hip into the wall. You will climb more easily by not fighting gravity as much.
#3: Straighten Your Arms
As humans evolved into upright creatures, we began to interact with our environments with straight legs and bent arms. This is why it seems unnatural for climbers to bend their knees and straighten their arms while climbing. However, when you bend your knees and straighten your arms, your weight transitions into your powerful legs, where your body has the most strength. Try and make every move keeping straight arms, meaning you might need to do a few extra foot moves, including getting your feet really high to stand up. This will help reduce the reliance on your biceps and forearms, while decreasing the chances of an elbow injury.
#4 Push With Your Legs
The muscles in your legs are the largest in the body; they are developed to support your full body weight, and this is why they are so much bigger than your arms. When you push with your legs to move your body to the next hold, you are moving more efficiently than pulling with your arms. Always think first about pushing with your legs, and then only pull with your arms if you have to. Concentrating on using your legs will not only increase your endurance, it also will reduce the weight and stress you’re putting on your arms and fingers, making them less susceptible to problems.
#5: Climb Like You Crawl
Babies learn early on the most efficient ways to maneuver in their environment. They learn how to crawl by moving their right arm first then their left leg, and then their left arm followed by their right leg. Moving with this rhythm is the most efficient way to climb, and it’s what your body naturally wants to do. Any time you fight what the human form was designed to do, you open yourself up to a world of bodily problems and complications. Allowing your body to move the way it wants will greatly reduce the chance of injury from head to toe.
Change Your Movement
Building off the basic rules, take it one step further to minimize risk of injury.
The tendons in your shoulder slide through a narrow passageway and attach to the bones of your shoulder (collarbone, shoulder blade, and the smaller acromion). These tendons can become compressed when the space between the bones in this passageway is reduced, which can occur from repetitively moving your shoulder into a stressful position such as a chicken wing, where the elbow elevates above your shoulder. Crack climbing can be especially hard on the shoulders, specifically from the twisting motion of a jam that’s done under strain. When this occurs, the bones in your shoulder pinch down on the tendons, which can cause inflammation and pain.
Bad: Climbing like you have chicken wings (elbows up and out) can compress the tendons between the shoulder bones.
Good: Straighten your arms and drop your shoulders away from your ears to decrease compression of the shoulder.
Repetitive gripping of climbing holds can compress the joints and muscles in your wrist and lead to pain and injury. Certain holds such as underclings and slopers can position your wrist in even more extreme, awkward flexed positions, leading to further compression.
Bad: Flexing the wrist forward each time you grab a climbing hold can place an unhealthy, abnormal pressure on the wrist.
Good: Positioning your wrist as neutrally as possible (straight down below the hold, let gravity do the work!) can help minimize the pressure.
When you climb, you are constantly pulling and working the biceps muscles. These muscles overdevelop, and the opposing triceps become weak, creating an imbalance. When the triceps muscle group is stressed, this imbalance can cause micro-tears and lead to pain while climbing. Typically, when climbers don’t properly engage the triceps, the elbow joint is placed in an awkward and sub-optimal position.
Bad: Climbing with the elbow outward can strain the triceps muscle in the region of the elbow.
Good: Move the elbow downward and in line with the hand and hold to decrease the strain on the triceps muscle.
The muscles in your forearm extend into long, narrow tendons as they reach into the fingers. These tendons run through sheaths and are anchored by pulleys that keep the tendons gliding flush to the bones. When excessive strain is placed on your finger tendons, the pressure can pull the tendon away from the bone and sprain your pulley.
Bad: Closed-hand crimping, characterized by hyperextension of the final joint in the fingers, exerts maximal stress and should be used only when necessary.
Good: Open-hand crimping exerts minimal stress on the joints and tendons and is the best grip position. Some tiny holds will require closing your hand, but practice keeping your hands open whenever possible.
Dr. Jared Vagy, DPT, is a climber and professor at the University of Southern California. His book The Ultimate Climber: Prevent Injury and Peak Your Performance teaches you how to climb stronger without getting hurt.