Rounded shoulders can have a significant impact on your climbing ability and put you at risk for serious injury.
By John Parker, CSCS
We’ve all seen the seasoned climber, stooped from years of hard climbing in the mountains. Although impressive physically, his strength has overcompensated, causing his neck to fall forward and his chest to cave in.
However, if climbing harder is the goal, the body must be in balance.
Since climbing is predominantly a “pulling” sport, it favors the climber with strong back and shoulder muscles. But a predominance on pulling movements can wreak havoc on postural alignment by limiting the climber’s range of motion. Over time, this may lead to a decline in performance and cause premature wear and tear on the muscles and joints.
In this article, I will discuss the dreaded “climber’s hunch” and how to address length/tension imbalances in the body.
UNDERSTANDING THE HUNCH
The climber’s hunch is neither aesthetically pleasing or performance oriented. As the neck shoots forward of the shoulders, additional pressure is created on the facets of the cervical spine. For each degree the head juts forward, the neck must support increased load based on the weight of the climber’s head. At 2 inches of forward head posture, for example, the climber’s neck and surrounding musculature may be forced to support double the weight of their head.
Forward head posture creates chronic muscle pathology in the climber. In addition to neck pain, shoulder girdle mobility suffers. Reduced shoulder mobility makes it more difficult to reach holds and stabilize on steep routes.
To better understand how rounded shoulders affect mobility, try this exercise:
While standing, let your shoulders round forward and the chest cave in. Now, reach your arms up and attempt to point the fingers toward the ceiling. Notice your range of motion and movement ability. How far can you pull your arms back without straining? How does the movement feel? Is it restricted or smooth?
Now, pull your shoulders down and back and repeat the movement. Notice a difference?
You might have noticed that you couldn’t reach your arms quite as high or as far back with rounded shoulders compared to when keeping them down and back. Now, consider how rounded shoulders might affect your climbing ability. If the chest is caved in, range of motion is diminished. This could be the difference between an onsight and a massive whipper.
In addition to reduced range of motion, slumped shoulders can create chronic pain in the chest, neck, upper back, and predispose the climber to injury. If we imagine the body as a system of levers, we can visualize length/tension imbalances effectively. A forward head posture likely means that the muscles of the neck (SCM, Scalenes), upper trapezius, chest (pec minor), and shoulders (anterior deltoid) are overly tight, shortened, and weak.
Conversely, if we look at the backside of the body, the muscles in between the shoulder blades (rhomboids), the lower trapezius, the rotator cuff musculature (infraspinatus, teres minor) and the shoulder (rear deltoid) are often in chronically lengthened positions, underactive, and weak.
The “Super” Muscles
As mentioned, climbing strength comes from the wing-shaped muscles of the back—the latissimus dorsi. Many climbers don’t realize the work that these “super muscles” do.
“The Lats are the Bridge. They are the bridge between the arm and the shoulder, between the shoulder and the hip, the arm to the hip, the upper body to the lower and the core of the body to both the upper and lower extremities. Simultaneously.” – Mark Reifkind
These large muscles help the climber to pull downward on small holds and ensure whole body balance. When these pulling muscles begin to overpower the pushing muscles of the front of the body, the climber becomes prone to the climber’s hunch. Since the lats adduct, internally rotate, and extend the arm, they must be diametrically opposed by the muscles that abduct, externally rotate, and flex the arm: the pecs, anterior deltoids, lower trapezius, and serrates anterior.
The bottom line is that strong climbing is synonymous with strong lats. However, if the lats are overly active and tight, they will pull the shoulders forward. This will round the shoulders inward toward the chest, and predispose the pecs and anterior neck muscles to cave in. If the climber does not actively balance their pulling and pushing muscles, along with working their postural muscles, they predispose themselves to injury and premature aging.
THE SIMPLE SOLUTION
Although the climber’s hunch is a common problem, there is a simple solution. The progressive climber’s training regimen must be supported by self-massage, strength training, and stretching. The exercise prescription presented below is for the climber already showing signs of a forward neck posture or for the climber looking to prevent potential problems.
After releasing the fascia surrounding tight muscle tissue using a lacrosse ball or other similar tool, the climber should use the strengthening exercises to support the musculature of the upper back and neck. Post workout, the climber should stretch to ensure proper blood flow and increase the recovery rate.
Important note: Before attempting any of the following techniques, check with your doctor, physical therapist, or personal trainer to ensure proper form. You should never exercise through pain. Smart training means smart recovery.
SELF MASSAGE – TO BE COMPLETED BEFORE CLIMBING
There are a few bang-for-the buck areas that deserve some attention before and after training. Using a foam roller and lacrosse ball are pragmatic approaches to provide pinpoint accuracy to address trigger points and tight areas in muscle tissue of the upper back.
Foam Roller Mobilizations – Thoracic Spine
Aggressive climbers develop stiffness in the upper back, shoulders, and chest. These muscles can pull the spine forward and inhibit its ability to rotate effectively. Using a foam roller can reduce spinal flexion and the climber’s hunch, and promote global extension in the upper back.
Place the foam roller horizontal to the body and lie on top of it at about mid-back level. Cradle the base of the skull using interlaced fingers while your back is in a rounded position and your butt is on the floor. Slowly roll up and down about 4 to 5 inches three or four times. Then, flex the spine laterally by bringing the left shoulder toward the left hip and then flex to the right to bring the right shoulder to the right hip. This movement should create some friction and warmth in the affected area. Repeat several times.
From there, inhale through the nose and begin to “crunch” or extend backward over the top of the foam roller as you exhale through your mouth. Relax the body fully as you drape yourself over the foam roller. You may feel the vertebrae adjust. After you complete the crunches, move the foam roller 1” higher toward your head and repeat the process.
Do 3 sets of 3-5 repetitions per vertebral segment.
As mentioned, the lats are chronically tight in most climbers. Releasing them with a lacrosse ball is an easy fix to restore mobility and increase pulling strength.
Place the ball in the meat of your lats. Supinate your arm to hit the transverse fibers of the upper portion of the lats.
Roll for 120”/side.
The infraspinatus is a triangular-shaped rotator cuff muscle in charge of stabilizing and externally rotating the scapula. It is often tight and grizzly in climbers and can cause a pinching sensation in the shoulder.
Place the ball in your rear deltoid at the insertion point of the infraspinatus. Engage in the “sleeper” stretch to gently massage this external rotator.
Make 10 rotations up and down/side.
The pec minor is a workhorse. If not released, this muscle becomes chronically tight and diminishes the climber’s ability to reach the arm overhead. It’s prudent to release this muscle before a workout and even before bed depending on the severity of its tightness.
To release the pec minor, place a lacrosse ball in the meat of the pec while standing in a door frame. Using the arm that is being released, make small circles back and forth to massage all the fibers of the pecs.
Roll for 60 seconds/side
STRENGTHENING – TO BE COMPLETED AFTER CLIMBING OR ON OFF DAYS
Half-Kneeling Kettlebell Bottom’s Up Press
Since climbing is dominated by vertical pulls of the arms, it’s prudent to train the arms’ opposing muscle groups. The half-kneeling kettlebell bottom’s-up press balances the climber’s body by ensuring that the glutes and core are locked in tight, hand grip is strong, and the shoulders receive a coordinated push.
To perform the half-kneeling kettlebell bottom’s-up press, assume a half kneeling position. Ensure that the rear glute is engaged. This should allow the navel to be drawn in and the core engaged. Grab a light- to moderate-weight kettlebell and position it so that the bell forms an extension of the forearm. With a tight grip, press the bell overhead. Pause briefly at the top. Actively pull the kettlebell back to the starting position.
Perform 3 sets of 6-8 presses/side.
Lower Trap Raise
A forward head posture usually leaves the upper traps overly tight and active. If we are to restore balance to the shoulder girdle, the lower traps must be strengthened to pull them out of their underactive, and weak state.
To complete this exercise, assume an athletic position with one arm resting on an incline bench. First, retract and depress your working-arm’s shoulder blade. Then, bring straight arms into a “Y” position relative to your torso. This movement should come from the muscles just inside and below your shoulder blade.
Complete 3 sets of 8-12 reps/side.
Rope Face Pull
The rope face pull is effective in contracting the entire upper back in a coordinated movement. At the apex of this exercise, your shoulder blades will be fully contracted along with the external rotators of the shoulders. This movement helps to open the chest, neck, and shoulders.
To perform the rope face pull, set up a cable pully station so that the cam is at chest level. Attach a rope to the cable pulley, sit on a bench with an upright posture and grab hold of the rope with the thumbs facing away from you. To start the exercise, engage in a rowing motion making sure to direct the rope toward your neck. At the apex of the exercise, the fists should be close to ear level and the shoulder blades should be closed.
Complete 3 sets of 15 reps.
STRETCHING – TO BE COMPLETED BEFORE AND/OR AFTER CLIMBING
Hanging Lat Stretch
The hanging lat stretch is fantastic for opening up the lateral line of the body. In climbing, every muscle in the body is supported by a strong core. This is why stretches that incorporate isolation and integration are so valuable: they help calm the nervous system which triggers the muscles to relax resulting in increased range of motion.
Start by grabbing hold of a hangboard or Olympic ring. If you are stretching your right side, begin to weight the right lat and obliques so that you feel a stretch from the armpit to the low back. Now, place your weight on your left foot as you bring your right foot away from your body. You should now be hanging from one hand but still supported by your opposite side foot.
Complete 2-3 sets of 30” holds/side
Pec Minor Stretch
Since the pec minor becomes chronically tight with climbing, sitting, and driving, daily stretching is advisable. When this muscle is lengthened, the shoulder blades can more easily depress into a “down and back” position.
To stretch the pec minor, lie on the ground face down. Place one arm to the side with the elbow bent to 90 degrees. Using your other hand to support, scorpion your non-stretching side leg over to the stretching side as your use your non-stretching arm to prop yourself up. You should actively drive your palm, elbow, and shoulder into the ground on the stretching side.
Complete 2-3 sets of 30-second holds/side
Triceps Insertion/T-Spine Opener
This stretch opens the long head of the triceps, the lats, and promotes extension in the thoracic spine. You will need a dowel rod and a bench for this stretch. Kneel in front of the bench with your hands grabbing the dowel rod in a supinated grip (palms facing up). Next, place both elbows on the bench while keeping your spine in a neutral position. Your hips should be directly over your knees, and your head in between your elbows.
Engage in a curling motion with the arms, weighting the elbows into the bench. You should feel a stretch in and behind your armpits and in your upper back below your neck.
Complete 2-3 sets of 30-second hold
It’s important to note that the climber’s hunch is not unique to climbers. With the pervasion of driving, computer work, and cell phone use, forward head posture has become the norm. We are at a crucial time to identify an impending health crisis caused by postural misalignment and length/tension imbalances. If we are to ensure graceful aging of our bodies, we must be pragmatic in our strength training, soft tissue work, stretching, and general awareness of the body’s positioning in space.