Bare with me if this turns to rant while I try to keep this blog informative and interesting for you to read; it’s a subject that pressed my buttons when I started working in a climbing centre. My climbing buddies could probably actually write this blog for me, a result of me slipping into coach/physio mode before our own climbing sessions. But… touch wood, it seems to be working well for me as I am yet to be forced to take any time out of climbing resulting from an injury. I’d love to share with you a set warm up ritual that I do myself or tell others to complete before a session but the truth is that they’re purposefully different each time, to keep things fun and specific to the type of session that ensues. What we do know however, is that a three stage, session specific warm up is key to getting you from feeling that post work lull to feeling psyched for a hard session at the wall or crag. Watch out for the warm-up video tutorial coming soon!
I want to convince you that warming up is effective in enhancing performance and preventing injuries, that you do have time, and that 10 minutes warming up is more fun than 6 months out of action. I personally believe that if you don’t have time to warm up, you don’t have time for a climbing session.
There is good news however, for the prevalence of climbing injuries. Dr Volker Schöffl, who works with the German climbing team recently published a report on the number of injuries seen in 4 years in a popular German climbing gym (Schöffl et al, 2013). The total injury rates recorded (0.02 injuries per 1000 hours of participation) were significantly lower than the majority of other sports including surfing and football. However, the injuries that were seen most regularly were finger tendon and pulley injuries and shoulder pathologies. Schöffl concluded that some injuries are preventable and there is a need for further development of injury prevention in climbing.
The aim of a warm up routine is multifactorial: it allows both mental and physical preparation for the demands of a hard climbing or bouldering session, achieved through increasing blood flow to the peripheral muscles and improving the elasticity in the tendons and ligaments. Although mainly studied in the lower limb, it is proposed that a structured warm up can reduce the risk of injury by 50% or more (Brukner & Khan, 2012). The warm up therefore has 3 key benefits:
• Mental preparation to increase alertness and psyche for the session ahead
• Physical preparation to enhance performance
• Reduction in the risk of sporting injury
The structure: 10-15 mins, staged, progressive warm up.
Stage 1- The Pulse Raiser- 4-5mins
As the title suggests, the aim of stage 1 is to increase our pulse, or heart rate. This allows greater circulation of oxygenated blood to the muscles, increases body temperature and improves the lubricating and shock absorbing effects of synovial fluid in the joints. What does this mean for climbing? Increased range of movement and flexibility needed for those long reaches and high feet; increased neuromuscular coordination required for activating the right muscle groups for the right move or hold; and reduced friction in the tendons and pulleys for crimping and dragging. The pulse raiser should be a whole body movement, like light jogging or skipping and enough to feel a noticeable increase in body temperature, increase your breathing rate and maybe break a little sweat.
Stage 2- The Dynamic Stretch- 4-5mins
Ok, so now you’re warm but it’s time to prepare the body for the demands of climbing. A sport specific dynamic stretch is considered by literature to be the most suitable stretch for your warm-up routine. It allows increased blood flow to the working muscles and tendons and helps to reduce the risk of injury. A dynamic stretch allows the muscles and joints to be taken through their range of movements, increasing flexibility, without the performance limitations and hazards of a static or ballistic stretch, respectively. Building on stage 1, the dynamic warm-up also enhances neuromuscular coordination and reduces friction resistance in the muscles, tendons and ligaments.
In your dynamic stretch warm-up, aim to move each joint through its ranges in a slow, controlled and pain free manner while avoiding a static stretch. To give an idea of speed, it should take around 5-6 seconds to complete one movement (e.g 3 seconds into flexion, 3 seconds back to neutral). To keep it more systematic, start at the neck and move down the body or vice-versa. For the fingers, we suggest taking each joint in the finger (distal, middle and proximal inter-phalanges joints) through its ranges for 15 repetitions each and you may prefer to add some resistance by using a soft stress ball. For the shoulders and hips, try to keep it specific to climbing by mimicking certain reaches, turn-outs and flagging techniques for example. Repeat each joint range 15x and maintain the smooth controlled movements that mimic those that will be used on the wall.
Stage 3- On The Wall- 4-5mins
Final stage before you start really cranking hard! Stage 3 progresses the warm up onto the wall so it’s shoes on and chalk up! Gradual progression through the 5 minutes is key here. Start with the simpler moves on bigger holds and climb no harder than at least 2 grades lower than your max. Always climb back down and try to avoid long rests between each warm up route. If you find yourself waiting around, keep the muscles and joints warm by dipping back into stage 2. Another key piece of advice during the ‘on the wall’ warm-up is to create a mental tick list of all the moves you might use in your session, whether it’s a heel hook, gaston or even a dyno… try to find a very easy example of this move and perform it in a way that is controlled and well within your capabilities. This is often overlooked in the warm up routine and results in climbers going into their project problem without having warmed up the muscles and joints required for that particular movement pattern and load. Try to also tick off each type of terrain: slab, steep and overhanging.
So there you have your 15 minute, climbing specific warm up. It is likely that you will tweak it and adapt it to meet your own style of climbing or the type of session you plan to complete. Remember to warm-up again after stopping to chat or sit down for coffee and layer up for long rests.
Talking of coffee… There’s also good evidence to suggest that caffeine, the normal amount in a cup of americano is enough to increase alertness and vigilance. Perhaps this might be the best supplement for reducing the risk of injury on those busy evening sessions at the wall? (Spriet, 2014).
We aim to bring you warm-up videos soon so keep an eye out and follow our social media pages for regular updates on blogs and news. If you have any questions about your warm up routine or how to adapt it to suit your needs, drop us an email or pop in and see us at Highball Norwich.
Brukner, P and Khan, K (2012). Brukner & Khan’s Clinical Sports Medicine. 4th Edition. McGraw-Hill Education. Australia.
Schöffl VR, Hoffmann G and Küpper T (2013). Acute injury risk and severity in indoor climbing-a prospective analysis of 515,337 indoor climbing wall visits in 5 years. Wilderness Environ Med 24(3): 187-94.
Schöffl VR and Hochholzer T (2006). One Move Too Many… How to understand the injuries and overuse syndromes of rock climbing. Sharp End Publishing. USA.
Spriet LL (2014). Exercise and sport performance with low doses of caffeine. Sports Med 44: 175-84.