Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fixing Painful Shoulder and Hands of the Rock Climber

Rock climbing, particularly, bouldering is an amazing sport.  I've written before about the physical chess game that solving a bouldering problem can become.  How it improves proprioception and core strength and builds muscular strength and endurance.  It breaks out of the standard two dimensional activities that exercise often produces; biking, running, lifting.

It is a highly repetitive activity though.  With high repetitions comes a chance that without good technique, or technique that gets sloppy with fatigue, injury and pain can occur.  The two most common injuries I see in my clinic in Grand Rapids is shoulder pain and hand pain.

First, hand pain.  It can be hard on the hands to say the least.  It takes years to build up the tendon strength in your hands.  If you ever meet a serious climber, you will notice the fingers are thicker then your average athlete.  Until you make this adaptation, you may want to stay off finger hangs.  Tendons are the insertion of muscles though, so one way to make this adaptation is obviously to comb more.  Loose, healthy muscles, allow more volume of training/climbing.

I've posted a video previously about using a wine cork as a mini foam roller.  Just as a runner would foam roll quads/hip before and after running.  It's a great idea for climbers to foam roll the forearm flexors (with the wine cork) before and after climbing.  This helps to keep the flexor muscles, thus the flexor tendons loose and strong.

2nd, and more common problem is a painful shoulder.  Climbing is all pulling, with a bit of isometric holds thrown in for good measure.   Bad technique will find you shrugging up before reaching with the arm and pulling.  People naturally sense that the upper trap is a bit stronger on them, so they use it that way.  This is faulty mechanics.  This is also an easy go to, when fatigue sets in.

Proper technique should always try to keep the shoulder blade down and then pull.  This activates the lower traps and allows proper muscular activation.  When the upper trap raises first, the rotator cuff muscle, supraspinatous is shut off.  This should be the first thing to stabilize the glenohumeral socket.  Next, the infraspinatous/teres minor ends up trying to stiffen to keep the shoulder from turning into internal rotation.  This is a losing battle.  Over time, these muscles will shorten and become painful to the touch.  They will not offer any more stability.

Most athletes aren't aware that these muscle are shut off and keep climbing.  The next event in the cascade of ugly, is the biceps (long head) is recruited to stabilize the GH socket.  This is one of your major players in flexing.  You are now asking the simple bicep to do to much.  This over time will irritate the biceps tendon in the humeral groove.  This will get peoples attention.

I think push ups with a bit of extra protraction at the top are good additions to climbers programs.  Take a lacrosse ball and pin it on the ground with your shoulder blade.  Slowly grind into it.  It should hurt in a good way.  This will help keep that infra/teres group from binding down.  Exercises such as face pulls and band pull a parts are awesome additions.  This strengthens the rhomboids, lower traps and rotator cuff muscles.

Bouldering is an awesome fitness activity that the whole family can enjoy.  Pack a wine cork, lacrosse ball and small fitness band in your bag, next to your chalk bag and shoes.  Keep good pulling technique in mind and those shoulders and hands will stay healthy.

The pictures were shot by a buddy and awesome climber Ted Bingham.  He's a sweet photographer as well.  His email is


Lori Tsutsui said...

Informative - thanks for posting

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