Background of The Climbers’ Project
Shoulder injury is the second most common reason a climber will miss days of climbing and training. A 2008 study on sport climbers in the UK reported that 13% of the 208 subjects interviewed missed at least one day of climbing due to preventable overuse injuries of the shoulder. These numbers don’t even begin to account for the masses of climbers whose shoulder pain limits them from training and climbing at the top of their ability.
In 2013 I designed a study called, “The Climbers’ Project,” where with my background as a physical therapist, I sought to determine what patterns of stiffness and muscle dominance specific to climbers predispose them to overuse injuries of the shoulder. Men and women from the Seattle climbing community with and without shoulder pain participated in the study, and were each put through the same shoulder strength and flexibility screening assessment.
I developed this movement screen based on current physical therapy and medical research on shoulder pain and dysfunction, as well as my background as a climber with on and off shoulder pain issues. The tests used in the screen were designed to be simple and informative so that trainers, coaches, MDs, and physical therapists could use it to identify impairments associated with shoulder pain.
The data collected from this study demonstrated clear differences in flexibility and muscle balance between the climbers with and without pain.
Hear how The Climbers’ Project began:
Overview of the shoulder complex
To understand the findings of the study you need to understand the shoulder. The shoulder complex is the most mobile joint complex in the body, and thus optimal function requires balanced strength and flexibility in the muscular elements that support, position and produce power through this part of our movement system.
Muscle function in the shoulder is influenced by patterns of use, posture, and pain. The function of the shoulder complex is influenced by the health and mobility of the following systems:
- ball and socket joint (glenohumeral joint)
- shoulder blade (scapulothoracic joint)
- rotator cuff (support for the ball and socket joint)
- scapular stabilizers (support muscle for the shoulder blade)
- rib cage (thoracic spine and ribs) and the neck (cervical spine)
Put very basically it’s a system of big muscles (pecs, lats, and delts) that produce force and movement, and little muscles (rotator cuff, spinal stabilizers, and scapular muscles) that produce stability and position the joint in their optimal alignment to transmit force.
If the balance between the force producers (big muscles) and stabilizers (little muscles) is upset then you can begin to have problems such as tendon injury, ligamentous sprains, and other repetitive strain injuries.
The analogy would be the car whose wheels aren’t in alignment. The issue doesn’t present itself immediately, but overtime and with repeated use, the poorly aligned tires wear down until “pop” —they blowout. In the case of your shoulder, you definitely don’t want to find out that your rotator cuff was set up to blowout while you’re clipping in high above your last piece of pro.
Findings in climbers with shoulder pain
The Climbers’ Project study revealed that climbers with shoulder pain had specific patterns of weakness, stiffness, and muscle imbalance in the shoulder complex contributing to the wear and tear they were feeling when compared to climbers without pain. Overall they had weakness in internal rotator of the rotator cuff (subscapularis) when compared to the external rotators (infraspinatus and teres minor). They had stiffness in the latissimus dorsi—a muscle use for the pulling up motion in climbing. They had weakness in a key scapular stabilizer (serratus anterior) in the overhead position where most of the shoulder loading occurs in the sport of climbing.
They also demonstrated weakness in a key set of cervical spine stabilizers, as well as impaired mobility in the neck and rib cage. This is an issue that results from all of the time we as climbers spend looking up from our belay stance, and how the nerves from the neck influence the control of the muscle of the shoulder.
Exercises to increase shoulder strength and stability
The findings from the study demonstrated that in order to climb longer and climb stronger, you need a balanced rotator cuff, balanced and mobile scapular muscles, and a balanced and mobile spine. How you go about achieving this goal depends on how your shoulder is doing when you are setting out to develop a program to achieve these goals.
Using the data from the study, I designed three levels of training tailored for climbers looking to manage pain/injury, prevent pain/injury, or enhance performance:
(The embedded videos are playlists, so scroll through the list to watch the whole series)
The Level I series of exercises was designed for climbers who have a history of shoulder pain and are looking to improve the balance of muscle length and muscle control around the shoulder complex. All climbers should start with the Level I series to learn the basic movements and principles applied in Level II and Level III. These are good exercises to perform prior to climbing. These exercises could be performed daily or every other day to allow for recovery from muscle soreness.
The Level II series of exercises are designed for climbers who have completed the Level I series for up to two weeks and are looking to prevent shoulder pain. These exercises are ideal for a person climbing without pain and who is looking to maintain a healthy balance of muscle length and control in the shoulder complex. These exercises can be done every other day to allow for muscle recovery.
The Level III series of exercises are designed for climbers who have completed the Level II series for up to 2 weeks and are looking to prevent shoulder pain and enhance performance. These exercises are ideal for a person climbing without pain and who is looking to maintain a healthy balance of muscle length and control in the shoulder complex. These exercises can be done every other day to allow for muscle recovery.
The importance of warming up before climbing
Warming up properly and budgeting time into you climbing routine for balancing exercises will no doubt serve you well in your climbing career. These exercises can be used to warm up before climbing and aid in the recovery process. Taking some time before you climb to warm up can improve performance and prevent injury.
Any of the level I or level II exercises can be used as a warm up if you keep the resistance light and you only lightly fatigue the muscles. I recommend that every climber take at least 5-10 minutes to warm up. Even a very simple routine can be good for waking up the complex system of muscle you use for climbing.
Try this pre-climbing shoulder warm up:
Climbing can be a high intensity anaerobic activity similar to sprinting. You wouldn’t get out of your car after a 2-hour drive and go into a sprint without warming up, but some how that same thinking doesn’t always cross over into climbing.
Muscle recovery and balance
Muscle recovery and balancing is even more important. If you’re only using climbing, bouldering, and climbing-based techniques you could develop patterns of muscle dominance that are detrimental to your shoulder. I recommend that you allow for 30 minutes after climbing to perform these exercises to keep your system functioning optimally. Successful training depends on goal setting and time budgeting.
Cardiovascular recovery after climbing
Another thing to be cognizant of is effective muscle recovery. If you’ve been training really hard and building up metabolites in the muscle groups used for climbing, light to moderate cardiovascular exercise can be helpful in recovery. Cardio opens up your blood vessels and helps to flush out your muscles. This helps you dump lactic acid, free radicals, and other metabolites that slow repair and recovery. This can be done right after a strenuous climb or training session or even the following day.
Icing to reduce and prevent inflammation
Besides warming up properly and doing preventative exercises, you may find icing to be beneficial in minimizing any inflammatory response that may be caused by climbing.
If you are dealing with a new shoulder issue, I recommend up to 20 minutes of icing up to 3-5 times a day. If you are dealing with an ongoing issue I recommend icing for up to 20 minutes after climbing.
Hot and cold contrast can also be helpful to chronic issues. Icing until the area is numb then applying moderate heat until the area is back up to it’s starting temperature, then repeating this cycle three times will help promote blood circulation around an injured area.
How to climb longer and stronger
As a climber, if you want to “climb longer and climb stronger” you need to work on refining the balance of you muscular system as much as you need to work on how powerful you are. The ability to train hard over long period of time to achieve your performance goals requires that your system can handle a lot of repetitive loading. Putting time into maintaining balance will pay off when you are able to train harder without injury, so you can get out and let your ambition be the only factors that can limit your climbing.
When should I stop climbing because of my shoulder to prevent further injury or for safety reasons:
- A detectable loss in shoulder muscle strength
- A detectable loss in shoulder motion
Any pain that progressively worsens as you climb
When should I seek help for my shoulder pain?
The following are good reasons to seek the help of a physical therapist or MD:
- Shoulder pain that persists longer than 3-4 weeks
- Shoulder pain that is associated with a detectable loss in strength, power, or motion
- Shoulder pain that limits you ability to raise your arm above the level of your shoulders
- Shoulder pain associated with audible clunking and crackling
- Shoulder pain that is associated with pain that radiates down your arm or into your hand
- Shoulder pain that increases with coughing or sneezing
- Shoulder pain that is constant and does not change based on positions of rest or activity
- Shoulder pain that increases with cardiovascular exertion not isolated shoulder strain
- Shoulder pain associated with a fever
To learn more about The Climbers’ Project, visit www.unionpt.com/community/theclimbersproject
Climb Longer. Climb Stronger. The Climbers’ Project.
Content derived from the The Climbers’ Project, including data and results from the associated study, is owned and copyrighted by Mitch Owens. All rights reserved.
Want more climbing content? Get our awesome climbing newsletter, delivered weekly.