Injury Prevention Quick Tip: Preventing and Strengthening Against Low Back Pain

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The following is an excerpt from the online course Strength Training for Injury Prevention by Dr. Jared Vagy. 

Low-back pain is more common than you might think among climbers. It starts as a nuisance— maybe only a pain you feel while driving to the crag or after a hard day’s climbing. Then it builds and starts to ache throughout the day, and eventually can limit your climbing. You have stretched, foam-rolled, and performed more crunches than you can believe, but it doesn’t seem to go away. What’s going on? Why do you hurt? 

It is best to think of low-back injuries as falling into two categories: flexion (forward bending) and extension (backbending). A simple way of looking at it is that flexion injuries compress the disks in the back while extension injuries compress the joints. Flexion injuries often present with pain while lying on your stomach, standing, or backbending. Meanwhile, extension injuries cause pain with sitting and forward bending.

By knowing which category of back pain you’re experiencing, you can better adjust your movement on the rock to minimize injury. Once you adjust your climbing movement to minimize stress on your back, you need to learn how to train your core in a neutral position to mirror how you use it while climbing. So don’t go out and do 100 crunches or superman backbends—these exercises compress your spine into the extremes of flexion and extension. Instead, try the following.

Movement Tip: Avoid Excessive Extension (Backbending)

rock climbing lower back pain injury Excessive backbending sasha digiulian

Excessive backbending can lead to compression of the facet joints in the low back, causing pain.

rock climbing lower back pain injury neutral spine sasha digiulian

Climbing with a neutral spine puts the back in a safer position.

Excessive backbending, especially on overhanging terrain, places the spine out of its natural alignment. Over time, this can lead to compression of the facet joints in the low back, causing pain with climbing. It is important to be aware of your low-back position on the wall, avoiding too much extension. If you are working overhanging routes or have a project in a bouldering cave, engage your abdominal muscles when you backbend to reach overhead. This will help reduce any compression of the joints in your back.

Movement Tip: Avoid Flexion (Forward Bending)

rock climbing lower back pain excessive flexion forward bend injury sasha digiulian

Highstepping with disengaged back muscles can cause the lower back to forward bend excessively.

rock climbing lower back pain neutral spine high step sasha digiulian

Highstepping with the knee rotated out, standing on the inside edge of the shoe puts the back in a more-neutral position.

Sitting watching your friends boulder, highstepping with disengaged back muscles, and bat-hanging can all cause the lower back to forward bend excessively. This can lead to excessive compression of the disks in the low back. Be mindful of any movement that occurs at your hips and pelvis because it also affects your low back. Adjusting your pelvis position on the wall can help destress the spine. For example, highstepping with your knee forward creates more low-back disc compression than if you rotate your knee out, straighten your spine, and use the inside edge of your shoe. You can also choose a lower foothold and make several intermediate steps instead of one large highstep. 

Recommended Exercise: Plank Double-Knee Drives

In climbing, we rarely use the core muscles to initiate movement, instead relying on them to control it. The ability to stabilize your trunk when only your legs are moving is an important part of establishing a strong “climber’s core.” In climbing, we often have to keep our midsection and arms completely stable while we fiddle with our feet, dialing in our footwork. This exercise challenges you to keep a stable core while your hips are both flexed and extended. Being able to maintain this core stability translates to climbing by allowing you more time to correct your footwork and improve your technique. This improves your chances for success on technical or overhanging routes, and can limit both the flexion- and extension-based overuse injuries that occur from fatigue and poor footwork.

Instructions

  1. Begin in Plank Pose, at the top of a push-up position, with your feet propped on an exercise ball
  2. Keeping your back straight, drive both knees up toward your elbows
  3. Bring your feet back to your starting position and repeat

Frequency

3 sets of 20 repetitions

Props

Exercise ball; sliders for level-up

Dirtbag Substitution

Use socks on a hard wood surface or paper plates on carpet

For more injury-prevention tips like this one, take Dr. Vagy and Climbing Magazine’s new 8-week AIM Adventure U course Strength Training for Injury Prevention. You’ll learn how to avoid common climbing injuries by strengthening your shoulders, wrists, fingers, hips, knees, ankles, and abs. With the help of pro climber Sasha DiGiulian, Climbing Magazine and Dr. Vagy take you through world-class warmups, workouts, and techniques to strengthen your upper body, lower body, and core. Best of all, this 8-week course only costs $125, and you can take it over and over again.

Dr. Jared Vagy, 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.

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