Any system is only as strong as its weakest link, and for most climbers, that’s our shoulders. In fact, according to a 2018 study published in the journal BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, shoulders rank just after fingers as the most common site of chronic climbing injury. A lot can go wrong in a structure this complicated, says Lorena Butron, an occupational therapist and climbing-injury specialist at the Orthomotion clinic in Boulder, Colorado. “I see a lot of weak rotator cuffs, even on really strong climbers,” she says.
Among her climber clientele she sees everything from rotator-cuff sprains and strains, to full-on tears of the labrum, biceps tendon, and rotator cuff—all part of the complex nest of deep muscles, tendons, and ligaments that holds your arm in its socket. Butron says most shoulder injuries are caused by overuse (i.e., repeating a move ad nauseum and/or skipping rest days) or attempting hard moves without warming up. And most require weeks to months of recovery and, in serious cases, surgery.
Fortunately, recent research shows that a diligent prehab routine can dramatically reduce the rate of shoulder injury. The better news? It takes only 15 minutes a day, four times per week.
I. Understanding Muscle Imbalance
Unlike the adjacent big muscles of the rhomboids, biceps, pecs, traps, and lats, the small muscles of the rotator cuff—the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis—often go ignored until they’re too weak to support the force generated by their larger neighbors. The result: a dangerous strength imbalance. “The rotator cuff is the dynamic stabilizer of the shoulder,” Butron says. “If your cuff is weak, your shoulder is going to give.”
Recognizing an Imbalance
In addition to three simple self-diagnostic tests (see sidebar, p.89), there are also two big red flags. When you notice either on the wall, come down and try again when you’re rested enough to maintain good form.
Red flag No. 1
“If you’re chicken-winging, there’s definitely an imbalance,” says Butron, referring to the phenomenon of elbows creeping upward when a climber becomes fatigued. While this is common in times of great effort, it’s a dangerous position for the shoulders—and definitely a red flag early in a session.
What it means: The muscles around the shoulder blade are too weak to lock the shoulder down and inward, a position that protects the rotator cuff.
Red flag No. 2
You fall every time your feet cut on overhanging terrain because you can’t keep your shoulders engaged.
What it means: Your rhomboids, lats, and rotator-cuff muscles aren’t strong enough to support your body; you’re overloading your ligaments instead.
Open vs. Closed Kinetic Chain
There are two theories to weight training: The first is that weak muscles be targeted in isolation with machines and free weights—in an open chain. The second is to opt for full-body exercises in which all extremities contact fixed objects (the floor, a bar, TRX straps)—in a closed kinetic chain.
Research indicates that closed-circuit exercises could be especially effective for climbers, says Serhii Kozin, a Ukrainian boulderer and physical therapist with the H.S. Skovoroda Kharkiv National Pedagogical University in Ukraine. “Climbing is purely closed-chain work,” he says. And because closed-chain exercises distribute loads evenly, they reduce injury risk during workouts. They also create neuromuscular links that help train coordination and muscle engagement.
To test whether closed-chain exercises help prevent shoulder injury, Kozin et al. studied 84 climbers from 2019 to 2020. Forty were given a 15-minute routine of closed-chain (full-body, all-points-on) and eccentric-loading (slow, muscle-lengthening) exercises three to four times per week. The rest were given a strength-training program. After a year, the experimental group had roughly one-sixth of the shoulder injuries as the control group—and not one severe injury.
“When our climbing form breaks down, we overload certain tissues, and those tissues develop trigger points [knots] and micro-tears,” says Laura Schmonsees, a physical therapist and guide. The bad news: Some knots respond to stretching not by loosening up but by further contracting as a protective mechanism. Moreover, over time, tight pecs or knotted lats can force shoulders into a rounded posture, encouraging bad climbing form and worsening imbalances.
While you can reduce trigger points by staying hydrated and working antagonist muscles, your best bet could be myofascial-release via foam rolling, scraping, dry-needling, cupping, and massage. “Breaking up those restrictions in the fascia can help you recover faster,” Schmonsees says—and keep bad form from turning into chronic injury.
While these tests are best performed by a licensed PT, OT, or MD, you can also do them at home.
Test No. 1: Stand in front of a mirror with a 3- to 5-pound weight in each hand and lift your arms in a T, moving your shoulders evenly.
What you’re looking for: Asymmetry or weakness could signal supraspinatus imbalance or injury.
Test No. 2: Standing up, place both palms on your belly with your elbows pointing outward. Press your palms into your belly, keeping your wrists straight and static.
What you’re looking for: If you can’t press without bending your wrist(s), you may have a weak or injured subscapularis.
Test No. 3: Stand beside a doorframe, your elbow at an L by your side. Press into the doorframe with your outer forearm, and then release and lift your elbow in front of you to shoulder level, again forming an L. Now press your raised outer forearm against the doorframe.
What you’re looking for: If one arm feels weak or hurts in either of these engaged positions, you may have damage or weakness in your infraspinatus or teres minor.
Preventing Shoulder Injury with Closed-Kinetic-Chain and Eccentric-Loading Exercises.
Tools needed: Rings or TRX straps, dumbbell, bench, pull-up bar
To replicate the protocol featured in the Ukrainian study, do a single set of 8 to 10 reps of each exercise below, resting at least two minutes between exercises, four times per week. Although you can do these exercises as a light workout before jumping on the wall—just don’t push so hard that your shoulders burn—they’re best done separately. So if you climb in the morning, do your shoulder routine at night
1. Push-ups on rings
Assume a push-up position with hands on rings or TRX handles about a foot off the ground; your knuckles should face away from you. Put your weight on your toes and keep your back straight, core engaged, and neck in a neutral position (essentially parallel to the floor). Do a controlled push-up, squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping them pulled down along your back throughout.
2. Leg-supported pull-ups with scapular emphasis
Stand with rings or TRX handles about shoulder level. Pull up into the starting position: heels on the ground, arms straight and at a right angle to your torso (thus also at a 45-degree angle to the floor), back straight, and core engaged. Draw the shoulders away from the ears and squeeze the blades inward as if pinching a pencil between them. Maintaining this posture and keeping your heels grounded, do a controlled pull-up.
3. Internal dumbbell rotations
Rest your foream on the edge of a weight bench, wrist hanging. Grip the base of an eight-pound dumbbell such that it’s perpendicular to the floor. Rotate the dumbbell slowly inward and groundward, keeping the plane of rotation parallel with the bench edge; keep your wrist straight and shoulder engaged. When the dumbbell is parallel to the floor, relax your rotating hand and lift the weight back to its starting position with your free hand.
4. Pull-ups with scapular emphasis
Hold a pull-up bar with a wide grip—well past your shoulders. Perform a controlled pull-up, with your back straight, core engaged, and pelvis tilted forward, all while picturing pushing your shoulder blades into your back pockets. Your chin should reach above the bar. Perform a slow, controlled lower, keeping your shoulder blades engaged. Repeat as many times as you can with good form (goal: 5–20 reps).
IV. Warm Up the Right Way
One leading cause of shoulder tweaks? Attempting a big throw before your shoulders are fully warmed up. Before any climbing session, spend 10 minutes doing these three drills:
1. Shoulder dislocates
Hold a broomstick or dowel horizontally, at chest height, with both hands. Bring the dowel overhead and then down along your back. Repeat 10 times.
2. Wall Angels
Stand with your back against a wall and your arms up like football goalposts. Run your arms overhead, keeping your wrists, elbows, and shoulders in contact with the wall. Reverse the motion to your starting position. Repeat 10 times.
3. Shoulder Rotations
Tuck a rolled-up towel or shoe into your armpit. Find somewhere to tie off an elastic band light enough that you never feel a sense of burning or fatigue, then do five to 10 internal rotations and five to 10 external rotations, squeezing the scapulae back and down.
When the muscles surrounding the shoulder become tight, they pull the shoulder out of alignment, setting you up for injury and sabotaging your climbing form. To keep the shoulder mobile, Butron recommends these three stretches post-climb. Do three 15- to 45-second reps on each arm.
Stand in an open doorway or window with one elbow at a right angle and that same forearm resting against one edge of the doorway. Step forward to stretch your shoulder and pec.
Stand with your forearm against a doorway, elbow bent slightly more than 90 degrees at about ear level. Lean forward and rotate away from the arm to feel a stretch through the top of your pec.
On a climbing wall, find a jug around eye level. With your feet on the lowest footholds, grab the jug with one hand and sink down, arm fully extended, until you feel a stretch through your side and outer shoulder.
VI. Is your shoulder tweaked or just sore?
A little twinge pops up. Do you really need time off?
Schmonsees recommends clueing into these signs of real injury—and getting them addressed ASAP.
- Pinching in a joint at the end of its range
- Discomfort that persists despite warming up and stretching
- Sharp or acute pain
- Pinching sensations
- Pain that doesn’t improve after three days of full rest
Corey Buhay is a Boulder, Colorado–based writer, editor, and, after many sprains and strains, shoulder-rehab enthusiast.