These simple techniques can help you keep your muscles working at maximal capacity for a more successful climb.
By Ryan Halvorson
Among the many struggles climbers face, pump can be the most frustrating. You’re this close to sending the route you’ve been projecting for weeks, but the muscles in your arms and hands begin to tighten and suddenly you’re forced to use every mental tool you possess to maintain your grip on the wall.
While the pump is a non-negotiable element of climbing, there are tricks to delay or minimize its effects. Read on to learn five ways you can keep the pump at bay so that you can focus on the send instead of your failing muscles.
But first . . .
What Is Pump? When gripping something—like a series of holds, for example—for extended periods, the muscles in the hands, arms and shoulders undergo continuous contraction. This results in reduced blood flow, which prevents the muscles from functioning properly. If the muscles aren’t given an opportunity to rest and regain blood flow, they will lose strength altogether and send you swinging in your harness.
How to Prevail Over the Pump
Shake or Squeeze It Out. Spend any time in a climbing gym and you may notice that those scaling the walls with smooth efficiency take regular breaks to shake out one or both arms. This technique is commonly used among experienced climbers as the shaking motion promotes blood flow and gives overly contracted muscles a chance to relax. Intense pumps may require a more aggressive shake. But don’t wait until you can barely grip a hold before you squeeze or shake. Do it at the first sign of tightness to keep your muscles from giving in on you. Another option is the contract relax technique in which you make a tight fist and then relax the hand. Think of the muscles like a sponge; in order to draw the maximum amount of water into it you must squeeze it first.
Just Breathe. This may seem a silly concept because it’s obvious that you’re breathing when you’re on the wall. If you aren’t breathing, then, well, you’re probably not on the wall. But what a lot of people fail to account for is breath quality. How fully do you breathe while you climb? Muscle tissue relies on oxygen for recovery and performance. The deeper the breath, the more oxygen is delivered to the muscle tissue, which reduces pump potential. Next time you hit the ropes, take stock of your breath. Are you taking slow, deep breaths or quick, shallow ones? If you find that you’re incapable of controlling your oxygen intake, you might dial back the intensity and practice breathing on easier routes. Once you’re able to breathe more comfortably, then progress back to the higher grade. Not only will this keep the pump at bay, you’ll likely improve your climbing ability.
Wet Your Whistle. Do you drink water in between climbs? You should. Water is filled with oxygen, which is necessary for optimal muscle function. Research has also shown that athletes who keep themselves well hydrated are less prone to fatigue and muscle cramps. Another consideration along these lines is the electrolyte, sodium. Long, challenging, sweaty climbs lasting several hours may cause an electrolyte imbalance. This can lead to fatigue, headaches, and reduced blood volume. Some experts suggest adding in a pinch of salt to the water bottle to minimize electrolyte imbalances and keep you running at peak performance. Regular water should suffice for less intense, shorter duration climbs. But before you go gulping salt water, you may want to consult your physician to make sure it won’t cause harm. Excess sodium levels can have some dire consequences.
Push More, Pull Less. This is a technique problem that befalls many new climbers—It seems natural to think of climbing as a series of pull-ups instead of as a series of leg presses. And while the upper-body is an important asset to climbing, the emphasis should be placed on pushing with the legs instead of pulling with the arms. The reasoning is simple: The legs and hips dominate when it comes to muscle volume, strength, and power, which means the lower body can take a lot more strain before fatiguing and getting pumped. That’s not to say that the legs are immune from the pump, so make sure shake them out regularly, also.
Warm Up. Perhaps the most underrated component of all physical endeavors, the warm-up is also the most important. A warm-up is designed to increase blood flow and core temperature, improve muscle mobility and function, and more. So, why would you neglect the warm-up—and put yourself at a significant disadvantage—before tackling that 11a? Before putting on the harness, spend some time doing basic movements like jumping jacks, push-ups, squats, or your favorite yoga sequence to get the blood flowing, activate your muscles, and get you ready for a satisfying climb.