You are 10 feet up, placing your first, maybe second piece of gear. The route is hard, but technically, well below your limit. You thought for sure it would be a straightforward onsight, until … the flash pump overtakes your gripping and pulling power, reducing you to a muffled “take.”
This has happened to me outside, in the gym, and even hangboarding at my office. Why? I was not warmed up properly.
I’ve been an athlete since as early as I can remember. I started to notice in high school that I always seemed to perform much better in the second quarter of whatever sport I was playing. In college, we would warm up for a solid 45-minutes to an hour before games. This made a huge difference and I seemed to avoid the athletic flash pump entirely.
What causes the flash pump while climbing?
When you start climbing, the body “shunts” blood to the muscles being used to supply them with more oxygen and nutrients. When you start climbing relatively hard without warming up, you create an instant and massive demand for oxygen and nutrients. This rapid shift in blood flow to a “cold” muscle can make your forearms feel like petrified wood. Because your body temperature has not yet been increased, elastin proteins in blood vessels and muscle tissues are not able to stretch as much when they are warmed. This greatly enhances the effect of the flash pump.
Think of it this way: If you were to put a rubber band in the freezer overnight and try and stretch it quickly the next morning, it will most likely break. Take that same rubber band out of the freezer and put it in hot water for 5 minutes and you can stretch it easily.
This analogy also illustrates why warming up and, in particular, increasing body temperature is crucial for long-term tendon health. It’s simple, cold tendons do not stretch well and are much more susceptible to rupture.
If you have been climbing for any length of time, it is likely that you have experienced the pesky “Climber’s Elbow” (also referred to as Golfer’s Elbow, or, if you are feeling fancy, Medial Epicondylitis). This condition is the result of a battle waged between the Biceps, who want the hand to supinate (or turn the palm upward) and the Pronator Teres, who want to pronate the hand (or turn the palm facing down). Over time, the tendon that “inserts” the Pronator Teres into the Medial Epicondyle (inner elbow) becomes damaged, resulting in inflammation and pain.
I had an epic with Medial Epicondylitis after my first season of climbing. I climbed mainly outdoors on relatively easy trad routes where you were more on your legs than fingers. During the following winter, I joined a gym, went 5-6 days each week, and climbed ’til I couldn’t during each session. This quickly resulted in debilitating elbow pain and a month off from climbing. Since that time, I’ve experimented with quite a few exercises and have finally distilled the few that I believe give the most benefit. Even better, you could outfit your van, or commune, with all of these items for maybe <$10, but definitely less than $20.
Do this routine before touching the rock/plastic and see how you feel.
1: 90-degree pronate-supinate
Equipment: ~5-6 foot PVC pipe, wooden dowel, or tree branch.
Hold the stick directly in the middle with your elbow at your side body and arm bent at 90 degrees. Rotate the stick 10 times so that your palm goes from facing upwards to facing the floor/earth. You should feel a light stretching sensation on the inside of your elbow as your palms supinates (faces the sky). Switch hands and repeat this process 2-3 times.
2: Shoulder dislocates
Equipment: Same as #2, ~5-6 foot PVC pipe, wooden dowel, or tree branch. Could also use a rope, rubber band, towel, shirt, long sling, etc …
Stand holding the stick in front of your hips with your hands facing your body. The hands should be relatively wide so that as you pass the stick overhead, you do not have to bend your elbows. With your arms straight, raise the stick straight out in front and then over your head, finishing with the arms extended behind your back.
The arms should stay locked out during the entire range of motion and the shoulders should not shrug up the ears as you pass overhead. If you need to, take a wider grip to achieve this range-of-motion. Repeat this over-and-back process for 10 reps and 2-3 sets during your warm up.
3: Rice bucket
Equipment: 5-gallon bucket filled 2/3 with rice.
I was introduced to this exercise during college. It is such a simple and effective exercise, no climber should be without a rice bucket. It also serves as a last-ditch reserve of carbohydrates in desperate times.
Fill the bucket roughly 2/3 full with rice. I use 3 variations of rice bucket exercises regularly, although there are many more if you are so inclined. I start by “kneading” the rice. Reach your hand in and squeeze a big handful of rice. I use this to get blood flowing to the forearm muscles and increase their local temperature.
After 3 sets of 15 kneads, I switch to the “crimp-claw.” With fingers straight, reach deep into the rice the then flex only the first and second knuckle. You do not close your hand completely. This is a much more “crimpy” feeling and you should feel these muscle start to activate. I do 3-4 sets of roughly 15 crimp-claws. I try and go until I get a light pump in my forearms and then switch hands before it becomes too great. You should recover quickly. If you get the mega-pump, do less.
Lastly, I work my extensors (the muscles on the top of your forearm, which extend your fingers) with a finger extension. Bring all your fingers and thumb together to a point. Stab into the rice then spread your hand as wide as you can. You should feel the burn on top of your forearm. Do 3 sets of 10 with each arm. This is great antagonist training and can be done as a cool-down/pre-hab after a climbing session.
4: Forearm massage
Depending on the day, I will either start or end with this exercise. If I am sore, I do it first, if I’m feeling good, I save it for last. Your call.
Choose your massage apparatus and find a hard surface. Counter tops work great, or, at my gym I use a plyometric box that is about chest height when I kneel on the floor. You want to be able to put a decent amount of pressure into your forearm flexors, so chose accordingly.
Begin by taking 10 light strokes up and down your forearms. Think of this as smoothing out the muscle fibers. Next, I spend time near my inner elbow. Tendons receive a very small percentage of blood compared to their cousins, the muscles. I try and get a little extra blood flow to my inner elbow tendons by focusing on the muscle tissue immediately adjacent to this tissue. Instead of rolling up and down, I drive the ball into the area and make little wiggles. Lastly, I go up and down the forearm in a zig-zag pattern. This goes across the muscle fibers and gets a little deeper. This is particularly effective after a climbing session to give yourself a deep tissue massage.
Go forth and warmup. It is my hope that these exercises improve your climbing performance, help prevent injury, and reduce instances of embarrassing takes.
Exercise cliff notes
1: 90-degree pronate-supinate
- 3 sets of 10 rotations
2: Shoulder dislocates
- 3 sets of 10 passes over and back
3: Rice bucket
- Knead: 3 sets of 15 “kneads” each hand
- Crimp-claw: 3 sets until you get a light pump (usually 10-20 reps)
- Finger extension: 3 sets of 10 each arm
4: Forearm massage
- 10 strokes up and down flexors
- 10 drive and wiggles near inner elbow
- 10 zig-zags up and down flexors
- Repeat massage as needed depending on soreness
Dan Vinson is a mountain athlete from Boulder, CO. He holds a degree in Human Science from Georgetown University where he was also a NCAA Division I athlete. After college, Dan spent 5 seasons working as a Wilderness Ranger and Wildland Firefighter. He is the founder of monkii.co and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist as well as a Crossfit Level-1 Trainer.
Editor’s Note: updated on January 5, 2017 to add author bio.
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