Injury Prevention for Climbers: Warming Up
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
By Jonathan Washatka, PT, DPT, CSCS
We all want to climb harder, but your main goal should always be to not get injured.
Rock climbing injuries are no fun. Those of us who love being active are often forced to take rest breaks and stop doing what we love when we are injured. Perhaps those who are psychologically well-rounded have no problem dealing with an injury and a month or two away from climbing, but I’m definitely not one of those people. Whenever I get injured, not only am I sidelined physically, but my mental health also takes a hit.
I think a reasonable goal for all of us is to NOT GET INJURED (some of those injuries). It makes sense, then, that we would take preventative measures to avoid injury. As Benjamin Franklin noted, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (yes, this quote was originally applied to fire prevention, but I’m taking liberty (pun intended) with the quote and applying it to injury). Let’s go over some steps you can take for injury prevention.
Am I at risk for injury?
The bottom line? No. As climbers we are always at risk for injury but there is no concrete way to know if you, in particular, are at risk at any given moment. Let’s take a look at some of the popular tools for determining risk for injury in climbing.
One popular screening tool currently being used to determine if athletes are at risk is the Functional Movement Screen. This is a screen where the individual performs several movement tasks and is assessed by a rater. The idea is that if we don’t move well and perform well on certain movement tasks then we may be at a risk for injury. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a lot of success with this tool. A recent study showed this screen is not very useful in detecting future injuries. In fact, one person has argued that tests designed to predict injury will probably never work.
So screening for injury, while cool, may not be effective. But are there any general risk factors in climbing that may predispose someone for injury? Maybe! Rock climbing is a relatively new sport and there just hasn’t been much research done on it yet. A systematic review in 2015 examined some risk factors for injury, but many of the studies simply aren’t high quality (I won’t get into this to spare you the joys, and pain, of interpreting research). A few things it did find were that people who climb higher grades may get injured more, a higher BMI may be associated with higher risk of injury, and those who have a higher climbing intensity score (CIS = average grade of climbing x average number of climbing days per year) may be at a higher injury risk.
Does warming up prevent injury in rock climbing?
Other, non-climbing sports have been researched. A lot. For example, if you want to know about preventing an ACL injury, then the FIFA 11+ has got you covered. It’s a warm-up program for certain athletes and has been shown to help reduce incidence of ACL injuries. If you look at the warm-up, though, you can see how it makes sense for a soccer player, but not really for a rock climber. Now consider handball. There was a study recently published that tested a warm-up protocol to see if it had any effects on injuries during the season. It seems that it reduced risk of injuries in those that had a shoulder injury at baseline. The main point I’m getting at is that these other sports have had research published on protocols for injury prevention. When I scan research for such protocols regarding rock climbing, I can’t find a single one.
Can we generalize these programs to rock climbing and assume that since other sports have warm-up protocols that seem to have an influence on injury rates, then a warm-up protocol consisting of rock-climbing-type exercises will have a similar effect? Probably not. We really shouldn’t make generalizations and apply research conducted on one demographic to another. However, we may have no choice at the moment.
It’s always good to warm-up with different climbing movements like turning, reaching, dyno-ing, etc.
Does resistance training prevent injury?
That was my question, too, and still is. It doesn’t appear that there are any studies on injuries and rock climbers who strength train. I still advocate that rock climbers should be strong and engage in a resistance training program.
Where does that leave us?
So now that I’ve effectively put a shadow on the entire situation and made injury prevention strategies appear hopeless, let’s talk about what we should do. Just because there isn’t much research regarding rock climbing and injury prevention doesn’t mean we can’t use our brains to figure out a reasonable approach to injury prevention. Just know that from here on out anything I’m suggesting is not specifically backed by research but rather is my own opinion as a Physical Therapist.
Warm-up Protocol for Injury Prevention
In my mind, to have an effective warm-up, we should be doing movements that are similar to the activity in which we’re about to engage. This is why it would not be wise for use to use a soccer-specific or handball-specific warm-up. There are a bunch of warm-up protocols available on the internet for rock climbing, and these may be very good. I’m going to give a few suggestions as well. Above all else, I want you to really think about why you are doing the exercises you are doing and how they relate to climbing (I’ll freely admit, some of my thoughts have come from Eric Hörst’s most recent podcast on his website – check it out here).
Warming Up for Climbing
Increase your heart rate and body temperature
It’s probably a good idea to spend just a few minutes improving blood flow throughout your body and increasing your body temperature. I like to start my warm-up with five minutes on the treadwall – this gets me sweating just a little, has easy enough holds that my fingers aren’t having to grip too hard, and enables me to use full-body movements that can increase blood flow in general. Feel free to use anything for a few minutes – a treadmill, elliptical, rower, jumping jacks, etc.
Warm up your upper body
Choose a few exercises that engage your shoulders, elbows, forearms, and trunk in a manner that is climbing-specific. For example, you could do a set of pullups and scapular pullups, a set of shoulder external rotation at 90 degrees abduction, a set of wall angels, a set of push-ups or dips, a set of reverse wrist curls, and a set of ab wheel rollouts.
Warm up your lower body
Choose a few exercises that engage your legs in a way that mimics the movements you’ll need to utilize when climbing. For example, some calf raises, some wide knee squats for the frog leg position, some lunges or step-ups to loosen the posterior chain for high steps and other large steps, front and back scales, and whatever other movements get you loose in general. I love spiders (alternating, only holding a few seconds) and inchworms (keeping your heels down to stretch out the calves) for loosening my lower body in general.
It’s not the best idea to hold stretches for more than 30 seconds as part of your warm up – most general warm-ups no longer include static stretches at all. There’s some research that suggests holding prolonged stretches can acutely decrease your ability to generate force.
Warm up by climbing
As part of your warm up, you should incorporate some easy and moderate climbing. You could do this as you perform your other warm-up exercises or after. I like warming up early on the treadwall because it raises my temperature but also fits the category of climbing, so I save a few minutes of warming up. There are pyramid structures of warming up where you start easy and build in intensity, and this makes complete sense. You could structure your warm-up however you want to, but it should be progressive in nature until you feel ready for full, maximal climbing.
Warming up can be performed in many, many different ways. The above is just a template for how you can think about how to structure your warm up. The purpose of the warm-up is to prepare your body for climbing, with the ultimate intention being injury-prevention. I can’t say for sure if this will reduce your chances of injury. I really hope it does. And for now, it’s the best we can do until more research is done.
Can we prevent injuries in rock climbing? Probably, but we can’t say for sure yet exactly how to do so. I know I sound really wishy-washy with a lot of my statements, but I’m not going to say we have the answers to questions when we simply don’t. As I said earlier, we can use reason, common sense, and other knowledge to do our best to prevent injuries.
Some of the exercises referenced above:
Rather than filming the exercises myself, I just found some general examples of the exercises on various websites. If you have any questions about the exercises, feel free to reach out to me and I can provide more detail.
Shoulder external rotation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfLg2x4IxUY