Training for Rock Climbing: Do's and Don'ts
When most people think about “training for climbing,” they imagine doing a bunch of pull-ups, campusing, climbing on systems walls, and listening to aggressive ‘90s techno music. And yes, training for climbing will likely involve all of these elements.
However, when people embark on a new training program, they often get injured rather quickly. And naturally, these injuries negate the training program entirely, as they usually require time off from climbing or reduced climbing intensity.
Yet, training for climbing mustn’t lead directly to injury. In fact, it can be the deliverance from injury! However, in order to train properly for climbing—and stay healthy why doing it—you must understand why climbers get injured, and utilize this knowledge to train properly.
Climbing- and training-induced injuries are caused by a combination of factors:
a) Many training plans focus on climbing muscles and movements only, ignoring the “antagonist” muscle sets; this deepens the disparity in the strength between these groups, and causes imbalance and therefore undue wear and tear on the joints and connective tissue.
b) Most training-for-climbing plans are highly specific and ignore foundational strength.
c) Most dedicated climbers already carry a good amount of overuse trauma in (at least some portions of) their soft tissue.
d) Many climbers are very stiff around many joints; even if you’re a lady with very flexible hips, you might be extremely stiff in the shoulders and fingers. This stiffness, like muscle strength imbalance, causes excessive strain on joints and connective tissue.
So, those of you eager to start a new training program for climbing, but wanting to avoid injury—and therefore actually give yourself a chance to get stronger—would be well-advised to consider the topics within this article.
A: Pay Attention to Your “Antagonist” Muscles
Anyone considering a new training program for climbing should make it a top priority to train their “antagonist” muscles—those muscle groups neglected by climbing. Climbers who don’t train these groups develop serious, chronic muscle imbalances over time. These imbalances affect the joints where the muscles attach, and can lead to a host of injuries and other structural problems if ignored.
If you’re interested in starting a full-body training program right away—one that includes the antagonist and climbing muscle groups, you can safely proceed—as long as you are honest with yourself and make at least as much of an effort to train your antagonist muscle groups as you do your climbing groups. If you don’t (and you only train your climbing muscles), you’ll only increase your muscle imbalance and resulting joint strain.
For information on “antagonist” muscle training, read “Antagonist” Training.
B: Build a Base
Imagine a mixed martial arts fighter who never spent a day of his or her life in the weight gym, and then suddenly went into to a fight or sparring session with an adult opponent. How long would it be before this person was wheeled out of the gym on a stretcher?
With this image in mind, it’s easy to understand why undertrained bodies develop injuries; they’re simply not strong and well-supported enough to withstand the traumas and stresses of their sport. Though neither climbing nor training for climbing are as violent as MMA, they can nevertheless be just as damaging to certain parts of the body.
The trauma in our sport occurs when climbers are too weak and/or too tired to execute movements with control—therefore slamming their limbs onto holds, jerking their bodies from position to position, and stretching their joints in violent fashion.
As such, it’s imperative that long-term climbers build a strength base. Regularly following a serious, full-body weight (or body-weight resistance) training program not only increases body strength for better movement, but it also results in a healthy body full of well-supported joints.
For information on “climbing” muscle training, read “Training for Rock Climbing: Making a Plan.”
C: Don’t Exacerbate your Already Overly-used Muscles and Digits
Both rock climbing and climbing-specific training cause a lot of stress to the arms, back and fingers. As we all know, fingers are some of the smallest parts of our bodies—yet they incur the brunt of climbing’s intensity. And though the arms and back are much more substantial, they can only withstand so much abuse before they become inflamed or injured.
The ideas in this section are quite related to those in Point B. If you adhere to the principles of Point B, and spend an appropriate amount of time developing your overall musculature, two things will happen:
Unless you are a very strong individual, you should stay away from excessive campusing and similar training (such as systems wall programs). Those who lack the arm, shoulder and back strength to campus smoothly will shock-load their fingers during campusing sessions. If you’ve ever observed strong and weak persons campusing, you already understand how much more violent campusing is for the fingers of the weaker person. Likewise, strong people must abort their campusing sessions as soon as they grow tired and can no longer campus in control.
Similarly, if your training program involves huge volumes of pull-ups, you’re bound to end up with some kind of elbow or shoulder tendonitis or symptoms of bicep overuse. However, climbers can safely use campusing, systems walls and pullups to train—if they’re smart about it.
Those new to campusing (or who struggle to do it proficiently) can opt to do it on large rungs or even jugs on the climbing wall. This allows climbers to develop explosive power and precision movement without punishing their fingers too harshly. Pull-ups can be done in moderation or on rock rings; these non-static devices allow climbers to push their physical limits without causing joint strain by locking the elbows and shoulders into unnatural positions.
Joints and soft tissues are just as affected by stiff muscles as they are by muscles of imbalanced strength. If one or more muscles attached to any particular joint is inflexible, it will pull on that joint unnaturally and cause excessive wear and tear to the joint itself and all surrounding muscles over time.
A regular stretching program can solve this problem handily. Make sure to stretch the entire body, including the fingers and shoulders.
Those who weight train well and regularly already address many of their flexibility issues; weight training exercises done in proper form, and through the entire range of motion, serve as an excellent form of dynamic stretching, as they takes the joints through their full range of motion. Yoga also works well for this purpose—however, rock climbing weight trainers and yogis still have to pay attention to their finger flexibility.
Research by sports scientists has shown that the static stretching of muscles (i.e. the type of stretching done when you place your body in a position and hold it) weakens the muscles for a number of hours (even as much as a day or so!) after the stretching session. Because of this fact (and because it is best to stretch warm muscles), climbers should stretch as soon after their training session (and therefore as far in advance of their next training session) as possible.
Finally, if you’re an already very flexible person, you will likely want to avoid stretching in your super limber areas; yet, even flexible persons can still have stiff joints—so be sure to monitor your body’s flexibility over time, paying attention to all joints, including the fingers.
For more information on this material, see Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore and Strength Training Anatomy by Frédéric Delavier.
Stay tuned for more articles on these topics.
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© 2013 Christine Balaz Sjöquist
The information presented in this article and on this website are in no way meant to replace the advice of medical experts. Please consult with a physician before embarking on any training program.