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You are powering your way up a difficult route and you reach the crux. The next hold is just out of reach. Then, you spot a far-off foothold that should set you up to snag the grip. You stem your foot out and lock in a solid heel hook, preparing to crank. You take a deep breath, tighten the muscles in the back of your thigh, dig your heel deeply into the hold, and reach for the next handhold. Your hamstring starts to tighten, and before you know it, it seizes up. Suddenly you are airborne. Not only did you blow the crux move, but you strained your hamstring muscle at the same time.
What could you have done to prevent this injury? By knowing the anatomy of the lower leg, some simple movement tips, and a strengthening exercise for the hamstring muscle, you can prevent the likelihood of a hamstring strain during a heel hook.
The hamstring muscles in the back of the thigh start at the bottom of your pelvis and insert below the knee joint. Their primary action is to bend your knee. The hamstrings are used while climbing for specialized moves such as a heel hook (shown below) in which you hook your heel on a hold and bend your knee to pull your center of mass into the wall. Not only do heel hooks pull you closer to the wall, they also help in increasing overall body tension, unloading the weight from the arms, and in extending your reach.
Injuries are common during a heel hook, since it recruits muscles that aren’t often trained while climbing. So, check out the movement tips and the recommended exercises below, demonstrated by professional climber Sasha DiGiulian, to dial in your heel-hooking technique and avoid the dreaded hamstring strain.
When heel hooking, you want to maximize the surface contact of your heel to the hold. Analyze the contours of the hold and look for spots where your heel will catch. Once you have targeted the spot you want to contact, tighten your gluteal muscles and press your heel into the contour of the hold. By first engaging your gluteal muscles, you can minimize the work needed from the hamstrings, which are more prone to cramping. Once your heel is stabilized, engage your hamstrings by pulling your heel into the hold. Maintain the pull until you reach your next handhold. To add some extra force to the heel hook, point your toes downward. This engages the calf (gastrocnemius muscle), which crosses the knee joint and can assist in flexing the knee.
Heel hooking is not just about having strong gluteal and hamstring muscles. You will often need to heel hook in varied positions that challenge your flexibility. Some heel hooks may be at your waist, chest, or even shoulder height. If you know the limits of your flexibility and are smart when choosing to perform these moves, you can minimize your injury risk. Adding hip-mobility stretches to your warm-up routine before getting on a route that utilizes heel hooks can free up your hip motion to allow you to access difficult heel-hook positions with less strain. The exercise below is a sample hip-mobility exercise you can use to warm-up prior to heel hooking.
Recommended Exercise: Hamstring Ball Curls
Perform the exercise below to improve and reinforce the movement pattern of heel hooking. This exercise engages your hamstrings muscles to increase your ability to perform a strong heel hook. In addition, by lifting the hips higher, it also strengthens the gluteal muscles, which can help take the load off the hamstring when heel hooking. To increase the challenge, try this exercise with just one leg.
- Start lying on your back with your heels propped on an exercise ball.
- Push both hips toward the ceiling; focus on keeping a flat back and not hyperextending at your low back.
- Keep your hips off the ground as you slowly roll the ball toward your butt.
- With control, slowly push the ball away from your butt as you fully extend your knees.
Vary the exercise by performing isometric holds to improve your heel-hooking strength and endurance.
3 sets of 15 repetitions
What It Does
Trains your gluteus maximus, hamstring muscles (semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris) and calf (gastrocnemius). These are the main muscles in the leg responsible for heel hooking.
You will need an exercise ball.
Prop your heels onto a bench if you don’t have an exercise ball.
Level-Up: Single Leg Hamstring Ball Curls
- Prop only one foot onto a Swiss ball
- Keep the other knee bent (easier) or extended (harder) and aligned with your hip
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.