You know you need to stretch to keep your body healthy and strong. Learn when and how to stretch as well as some sample exercises you can do before and after you climb.
By Matt DeStefano
Stretching is an important element of any climber’s physical health and ability to perform optimally. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of confusion out there about how and when to stretch, so I’d like to shed a little light on that for you here.
In this article, I’ll discuss the basic premise behind two common types of stretches—static and dynamic stretching—what they’re good for, when to do them, and some examples of each.
I can’t give you a set stretching recipe, but you’ll get some background information to make your own decisions on how to formulate a stretching protocol that works best for you.
There are many reasons to stretch with activity. However, two of the most common reasons are to (a) lengthen the muscles and connective tissue to become more flexible and allow a greater range of motion (ROM), and (b) wake up the neuromuscular system to prepare for optimal movement during activity (think muscle memory).
The path to increased flexibility is not a quick one so be patient and stick with it.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
- Static stretching is your typical stretch when you hold the muscle at a lengthened position for for a period of time (~30 sec) and then let the muscle relax.
- Dynamic stretching involves moving your muscle to end range, holding briefly (1-2 sec), moving it back to rest, and repeating the cycle for a number of reps.
That’s the main difference between the two, and there’s a time and a place for each, so let’s break it down a little further.
Here’s a very general guideline: Dynamic stretching is best done before an activity as a warm up, and static stretching is best done after an activity.
As a rule of thumb, you should aim to get some blood flowing to your muscles before exercising, and dynamic stretching is a good way to do that. Dynamic stretching also wakes up the neuromuscular system for optimal movement during your climbing session, or any other activity. Also, the more activity-specific or functional you can make the movements, the more primed your neuromuscular system will be to perform well during that activity.
Static stretching, on the other hand, tends to induce a relaxation response in the muscle, which reduces its ability to produce power.
A Scientific View of Stretching and Performance
Now, it’s time to get technical. It’s helpful to understand the concept of proprioception, which is our body’s ability to sense where it is in space. Proprioceptors are the class of structures in your body that send movement information from your muscles and joints to the central nervous system and tells our brain what movement has occurred and to what extent.
As humans, we tend to be creatures of habit and move in the same way over and over. But just because we do it all the time doesn’t mean it’s the correct way to move. This is where your proprioceptors come into play, and why dynamic stretching is important.
Our muscles have these amazing proprioceptors in them called muscle spindles that tell the brain how much a muscle has stretched. When your muscle is stretched to its limit, it may contract to keep it from going further, thus limiting your range of motion (ROM).
This is a protective mechanism designed to prevent muscle damage.
But the beautiful thing is that you can retrain these proprioceptors through stretching and conscious movement. Think of it like a thermostat in your house. When the temperature reaches a certain level, the heat or air conditioner turns on. But you can change the set point of the thermostat so that the heat/AC doesn’t turn on unnecessarily. Muscle spindles can be reset as well, allowing for greater ROM.
The best example I can give regarding “resetting” the thermostat in your body is someone who is recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery. After surgery, they can’t straighten their knee all the way. Initially, this is due to other things like swelling, etc., but over time, the body gets used to this slightly flexed knee as “terminal knee extension” or its most stretched position.
We know that your knee should go completely straight, but when the person tries to fully extend their knee, their brain freaks out because the reset muscle spindles now report that the knee is “hyper-extended”. In reality, the knee hasn’t reached normal extension, but because the muscle spindles have been reset to think that the flexed knee is in full extension, they interpret the straight knee as “hyper-extension.”
Again, by retraining the muscle spindles, we can reset the thermostat and increase our ROM. More on muscle spindles here.
When climbing, you may have a tendency to put your body in vulnerable positions that can, for example, put you at risk for shoulder impingement. Through conscious movement and dynamic stretching, you can help reset the improper movement pattern.
Muscle spindles are smart. When you consciously and dynamically move through a given ROM, the neuromuscular system works together to allow this as the new normal. Without this conscious effort, though, your body will revert to business as usual, and this is why some people suffer from overuse injuries.
Some ROM limitations come from issues like tight muscles and this is where static stretching comes into play.
Muscle and connective tissue (ligaments) may not have the length needed to perform certain movements. This is more of a physical barrier than a physiological barrier.
ROM limitations may be genetic in nature, but diligence and hard work can also help even the stiffest athlete increase their flexibility. When we need to push through stiffness by physically lengthening the tissue, static stretching is a good option.
The human body is an organism that will adapt to specific stimuli. By holding a stretch position for a period of time (usually about 30 seconds), you can alter the length of the tissue and increase your ROM. But it can take weeks or months to achieve long-lasting results.
Length of Time to Stretch
Muscle tissue and ligaments take different amounts of time to alter length. Muscle tissue responds much faster than ligament because it’s far more pliable and adaptable. For example, to stretch your pectoralis major muscle (the large muscle of the chest), you would hold the stretch for 30 seconds each side. Alternately, to stretch into your hip joint capsule, you need to hold the stretch for longer periods of time—more on the order of minutes-versus-seconds.
For you yogis out there, this is why Yin Yoga is better for stretching into the ligaments and joint capsule, and Vinyasa targets more of the muscle tissue.
The research is inconclusive about how long you should hold a stretch, but the accepted guidelines state roughly 30 seconds per stretch. Some research suggests stretching for a collective 30 seconds (15 seconds x2), but you should be good as long as you shoot for 30 seconds.
When To Stretch
With all that in mind, to improve your flexibility you need to incorporate both dynamic and static stretching into your routine.
But there’s a time for each one.
I mentioned earlier that dynamic stretching should be done before activity, and static stretching should be done after activity. The reason has to do with optimizing muscle function. Our muscles function by contracting the muscle belly and bringing insertion points closer to one another. To do this, “cross bridges” are formed inside the muscle when the actin and myosin heads overlap within the muscle fiber. But if the muscle is stretched too much before activity, then it cannot create sufficient cross bridging, and the muscle loses optimal power. This is called “passive insufficiency”.
For example, the latissimus dorsi (lat) muscle plays a huge role in pulling down during climbing, and to achieve this we usually need a considerable amount of power. If we were to statically stretch the lats before climbing, then we would enter into passive insufficiency and be less able to create enough power to climb at our optimal level.
By saving the static stretching for after climbing and keeping up with this practice for weeks, the muscle will adapt by lengthening. Over time, you will increase ROM while retaining optimal power generation. In other words, your muscles will be able to generate far more power through a greater range of motion which significantly increases your capacity to climb harder.
So, instead of stretching statically before climbing, move through some dynamic stretches to get the blood flowing and wake up the neuromuscular system. Save the static stretching for after the workout.
Note: For the true nerd inside you all, check out this in-depth video explaining muscle contractions.
One Reason to Stretch Before a Climb
There’s always an exception to the rule, right? When we climb, we generally don’t require a lot of power from our lower extremities, so statically stretching your legs and hips prior to climbing could be a good idea.
To help keep hips close to the wall while climbing, we need to open them. In addition, to hit high feet with precision and efficiency, we require flexibility from the lower extremities and stretching them statically before you climb can help you achieve this goal.
Now that you know the difference between static and dynamic stretching and when to apply each, here are some examples of stretches to do before and after you climb.
Click images to enlarge.
Dynamic stretches should be performed in the following manner:
- Assume the starting position.
- Move to the end position and hold briefly (1-2 sec).
- Return to the starting position and repeat for 10-20 repetitions per side.
D1 and D2 with TheraBand
These exercises are excellent for waking up the rotator cuff muscles to avoid overstraining the shoulders while climbing. I do these before every climbing session.
To wake up the posterior shoulder musculature and increase shoulder mobility. Helps you avoid shoulder impingement.
To open up the chest and increase ROM in pectoralis major. This increases your shoulder mobility considerably.
To glide the tendons and get the forearm muscles primed.
Open and Close the Door (For lower extremity)
These are good warm ups for the hips and lower extremity to wake up the neuromuscular system to ensure you have proper form on the wall. Keeping your hips into the wall will help avoid upper extremity injuries. Check out this article on finger injuries.
Pec Minor Release with Tennis Ball
Targets the pec minor muscle that also leads to rounded shoulder posture.
Static stretches should be performed in the following manner:
- Assume the stretch position.
- Hold the end range stretch for a total of 30 sec.
- Return to rest and stretch the other side.
This helps to stretch the shoulder external rotators.
To stretch the posterior shoulder muscles that tend to be tight on most people.
To stretch the forearm flexors that get overworked with climbing.
To stretch the lats, which are the prime movers in a pull up. They need extra love.
To stretch the biceps which also get overworked with climbing. Every time you pull on a hold you’re doing a bicep curl. Yikes!
To open up the front of the chest and avoid turning into a hunchback. It also helps to avoid shoulder impingement.
Pec Minor Release with Tennis Ball
Targets the pec minor muscle that also leads to rounded shoulder posture.
This stretch helps open up the hips and allows you to achieve better “hips into the wall” posture while climbing.
As a general rule, perform dynamic stretches before a climbing session, and save the static stretching for afterward. Think about the muscles you’ll use while you climb. If they need to generate power, focus on dynamic, movement-oriented stretches. Plus, you get the added benefit of neuromuscular activation, which will enhance your climbing ability.
Be smart out there and climb hard!