Keeping your shoulders healthy keeps you on the wall.
By John Parker, CSCS
Exploring movement and the sport of rock climbing both inside and in the great outdoors is nothing short of awe inspiring. Those walls have a way of making us feel small and enhances the connection we feel with our environment and our movement practice.
The climber develops a high level of ability due to constant changes in surroundings and the rigors of unpredictable and dynamic terrain. Although this training creates a robustness of mindset, strength, and endurance, the climber must also be cognizant of physical stressors that could harm the body.
Over time, these stressors can produce micro trauma to joints, ligaments, and muscles, leaving our bodies susceptible to injury.
Over the past 10 years as a strength coach, the majority of my clients’ pervasive injuries have involved the most mobile joint in the body: the shoulder.
The shoulder has many functions like helping the arm pull on crimps, jugs and slopers, press or push during a mantle, and stabilize the body while stemming.
The shoulder’s capacity for strength, mobility, and function is unmatched compared to our other joints.
Its musculature is capable of great sturdiness in almost every plane: sagittal (forward and back), frontal (side to side), and transverse (twisting motions).
With so much load and action to bear, over time the shoulder joint and surrounding musculature can accumulate stress from repetitive use or trauma. But, with proper maintenance we can improve our shoulder mechanics to prolong and enhance our climbing pursuits.
This article provides strength and mobility exercises designed to develop healthy shoulders for a sustainable climbing practice.
But first, it’s helpful to understand shoulder mechanics.
When we think of the shoulder, we typically think about the upper arm bone (humerus) attaching to the shoulder blade (scapula) in a shallow ball-and-socket joint (glenoid fossa).
The ball-and-socket anatomy provides the shoulder the greatest range of motion of any joint in our bodies.
We must also examine the joint—known as the AC joint—that connects the collarbone (clavicle) and scapula (acromion process). This is the joint that’s involved in a shoulder separation.
The scapula also connects to the ribcage; this is known as the scapulothoracic joint and is controlled by muscular attachments.
There’s a lot going on in these three connections of the shoulder, which highlights the need to spend time maintaining muscle, ligament, and tendon integrity to ensure healthy climbs. Any disruption caused by a muscle knot (trigger point), tendon inflammation (tendonitis), or trauma can lead to acute or chronic injury.
Next, it’s helpful to understand the muscular anatomy of the shoulder joint.
You’ve probably heard of the rotator cuff before when someone has endured a shoulder injury. The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles that originate and attach along the scapula and humerus. These muscles are necessary to stabilize the head of the humerus while the surrounding musculature helps flex, extend, abduct (lift the arm to the side of the body), and adduct the arm (return the lifted arm to a rested position).
The subscapularis is the biggest and strongest rotator cuff muscle and allows internal rotation of the humorous—imagine the arm’s entry position in the water during a surfer’s paddle into a set.
The supraspinatus allows abduction of the shoulder when raising the arm over head from the side—think of the arm moving into the overhead position or the shoulder keeping stable while carrying a heavy load.
The infraspinatus externally rotates the arm; this muscle comes into play during the beginning of a throwing motion when the the arm whips back before coming forward.
The teres minor is in charge of external rotation and transverse abduction of the humerus or bringing arms to the midline—imagine the arm’s exit position in the water during a surfer’s paddle into a set.
See the amazing shoulder joint in action here:
What Can Go Wrong?
A climber’s shoulder’s needs and uses are varied. Impact trauma from falls can result in rotator cuff tears or dislocation. Repetitive movements like overhead reaching and pulling can result in inflammation and tendon pathology. Even driving can cause an imbalance in the length of our chest, shoulder, and upper-back muscles.
Our ability to use our arms is dependent on the health of our joints, muscle tissues, and tendon and ligament strength and pliability. Further, adequate scapular mobility plays a direct role in the shoulder joint’s ability to move freely.
For optimal mobility, the muscles in our chest, upper back, shoulders, and rotator cuff must have adequate tissue length and be freed of excessive trigger points.
Building Healthy Shoulders
In case of chronic injury, tendonitis, or rotator cuff tears, we should approach training with specificity and see physical therapists or qualified personal trainers to address our issues. “Pre-hab,” which involves taking a proactive approach to injury prevention, can prepare us for impending accidents and reduce overuse potential, but serious injury requires medical attention.
You should see a qualified healthcare professional if injury symptoms don’t improve with adequate rest.
Now that you have a better understanding of how the shoulder works and why it’s important to take a proactive approach to shoulder health, here are several exercises that can help you live a pain-free life while maximizing return in climbing.
There are four variables that make up a general shoulder health program:
- Tissue Length
Engaging in these four pre-habilitation exercises will maintain joint health by producing adequate blood flow to the shoulder tendons and improving range of motion.
Like our great ape ancestors, the human shoulder blades help us hang and swing. By hanging on our bodyweight, tissues that surround the joint capsule are able to stretch out of any problematic compressed states.
Be mindful when hanging; if pain is present during any of these variations, place a foot or toe on the ground to reduce the load your shoulders must support. Also, while hanging is a static exercise, it’s important to engage the back muscles; aim to keep the shoulder blades back and down.
Try each hang for three sets of 30-60 seconds. The eagle grip is the most challenging variation for most people and should only be attempted after ease in the mixed grip develops. These hangs can be done in the morning and night, and before or after climbing.
Advanced only. Develop tissue strength through mixed grip before attempting Eagle Grip
Start with three sets of 10 repetitions for each of the following mobility exercises as a warm-up, or daily for maintenance. After successful engagement of these mobility exercises, the load and intensity can be increased for more robust changes.
Start with bodyweight-only on each exercise. As you become more comfortable, move up to light-weight resistance (like a soup can) and then progress to a heavier dumbbell when appropriate.
Wall Clock Rotations
Standing Thoracic Spine Mobilization
To improve strength, the shoulders should be trained at minimum of three times per week. Try each exercise for 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions.
(To perform wall slides, make sure low back is as fast as possible against wall. Keep constant wall contact with upper back, shoulders, head, elbows, and hands. Make a “snow angel” motion).
Stretching should be performed after your preferred outdoor activity. It can also be implemented during a morning or afternoon stretch based on tightness. Each stretch can be held for 1-3 sets of 30-60 seconds.
While stretching, actively press the stretched muscles into the floor (isometric contraction) to further your muscles’ ability to lengthen.
Start on stomach, arm out from body at 45 degrees, and roll onto side, emphasizing a stretch at the chest/shoulder.
Start on stomach, arm out from body at 45 degrees, and elbow bent to 90 degrees, and roll onto side, emphasizing a stretch at the chest/shoulder.
Rhomboid/Rear Delt Stretch
Start on all-fours, cross one arm under your chest and opposing arm.
Child’s Pose to Side
Intensify the stretch to the lats using this traditional yogic pose at a more aggressive angle.
As climbers, we’re blessed to be able to develop our physical skills in indoor and outdoor settings. Although we accept the inherent danger of our physical pursuits, it’s prudent to engage in training exercises that not only make us better at our sport, but prevent potential injury. Healthy shoulders allow us to continue our endeavors and appreciate a lifetime of climbing.
If you’d like more in-depth learning, John is available for one-on-one personal training. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.