Injury Prevention Quick Tip: Preventing and Strengthening Against Shoulder Impingement

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

Try this: Reach your right arm across your body, then grab your right wrist with your left hand and press down toward the ground, rotating your right arm bone inward. Now try it on the other side. If this causes distress, you likely have shoulder impingement, a common cause of shoulder pain in rock climbers.

Why does it hurt to rotate your arm inward? In order to understand the answer, you first need to understand the anatomy of the shoulder. There is a narrow passageway in your shoulder between the scapula (shoulder blade) and the humerus (upper arm bone) called the subacromial space. One of the tendons of the rotator cuff (supraspinatus) slides under this space in the scapula and attaches to the top of the humerus. Shoulder impingement occurs when the subacromial space is reduced, causing the two bones to pinch down on the tendon. This can lead to weakness, decreased range of motion, and pain with overhead activity.

However, this diagnosis is not as grim as it may seem. You can prevent shoulder impingement by learning how to properly move while climbing and by performing a targeted exercise to strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuff and shoulder blade.

Movement Tip: Limit Chicken Wings, Mantels, and Thumbs-Down Jams

rock climbing chicken winging technique shoulder injury impingement

Shoulder impingement can occur from repetitively moving the shoulder into a stressful or suboptimal position. Be aware of triggering movements that place your shoulder in an impingement position, like climbing with the elbow in a chicken-wing position (as when you’re pumped), manteling over the lip of a boulder, and jamming cracks with the thumb down.

Recommended Exercise: Dual-Vector Shoulder Rotations (Internal and External) With Raised Elbows

Dual-Vector Shoulder Rotations Internal External Raised Elbows Physical Therapy Rock Climbing

This exercise strengthens the muscles that stabilize your scapula (shoulder blade) and that rotate your humerus (upper arm bone). The resistance of the band acting on your shoulder teaches it to remain engaged and stable while your humerus moves. This is critical for preventing chicken winging and can also improve shoulder stability while climbing.


  1. Tie an overhand knot at each end of a full-length resistance band.
  2. Place one loop through your arm and around your shoulder.
  3. Pass the other end of the band around a stationary object (behind you for internal rotations; in front of you for external rotations).
  4. Now grasp the other end of the band with the same hand.
  5. For internal rotations, rotate your hand so your palm faces down toward the ground; for external rotations, rotate your shoulder so that your hand is traveling back toward the wall behind you. In both cases, pull your shoulder blade back against the band’s resistance.
  6. Return to your starting position and repeat for 10 repetitions.


3 sets of 10 repetitions on each side, for both internal and external rotations


Full-length resistance band

Dirtbag Substitution

If you don’t have access to a TheraBand, use two sets of 4 feet of nylon webbing or a double-length runner.

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.