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Climbing Performance and Injury Prevention

A wise man once said, “The best climber is the one having the most fun.”

The Buddhist monk would tell us that the goal is the absence of suffering, so injury prevention is a good thing to consider! In terms of performance and lasting memory, the answer is elusive, but perhaps what we are all searching for is that moment of ‘flow.’

A breeze drifts past, a long outbreath punctuates the silence as the moment of commitment comes… Time seems to stand still and the next few moves seem to come from nowhere, what seemed so complex, intimidating is met calmly, purely and simply. We’re swinging on the glory hold at the end of the sequence we thought we could never do… It’s like someone else just jumped into the driving seat and hit the accelerator, settle: still a few moves left…breathe!

What just happened there..? Our monk would now smile wisely and suggest a return to store consciousness, our subconscious hard drive, relying on deeply ingrained belief to process learned movement patterns, and problem solving. The EEG machine may have shown us some modulation of Alpha and Theta brainwave activity, the slow drumbeat. (Read more about this in ‘The Human Trampoline’ ) Essentially we are looking at mind state and the connection to skilful and artistic movement choices. The bigger our repertoire for accessing both elements will decide on our performance, as well as our resilience to injury. The ‘one trick pony’ of power, or flexibility, or playfulness will eventually meet a hurdle that’s too big for it… Having the humility to back down and look at our weaknesses is the first step! Do you climb dynamically or statically? How about working on the stuff you don’t do so well..? Start at a level that lets you feel the detail…


State – Ready to Climb?

The background: quality nutrition, hydration, sleep, skin.

Check your breath, check your head, check awareness… what’s in the bag today?

Warm up deep core, warm up prime movers. Push, pull, bounce – neuromuscular recruitment; ready to try hard or ready to play? Stick with the program…


What lurks in the shadows?

The ‘deep front line,’ comprising of our psoas, diaphragm, pelvic floor connects to our breathing patterns, autonomic nervous system and deep stability mechanisms. It connects out to the upper limbs through the ‘functional lines’ of the pecs and lats. To apply power to a hold, the critical junctions are scapular stability and shoulder stability. We WANT to climb – all our intent is placed on that next move, there are ways and means to ‘get the job done’ – these compensations can become learned habits and in turn adaptions, issues…

Here are the classic climbing compensations, others are available…

Overgripping – finger, elbow, shoulder issues; neck and jaw bracing, abdominal bracing, lumbar bracing, long weak lats and locked short pecs, neck and back issues.This reduced elasticity through the system means less resilience when we start loading the system, perhaps presenting as pain at the compensator or further along the chain. The unexpected footslip which should have been absorbed through the long lines and a well hydrated body, finds the weakest link… So what can we do to avoid this..?


Show up

Amazing what you can do in 20 minutes. Breathe – Feel – Play – Load.

Be fresh

Strength training is maximal. Strength protects, but only when it’s fully there: muscle and neuromuscular gains come quickly. Tendon and ligament are slower to react as we need type 2b collagen changes, starting at 3 to 6 months. The full system’s elasticity will take 6 to 24 months to adapt, depending on what’s there already...

Work deep core and opposites

Commonly the extensor system or ‘back line’ – finger and wrist extensors, triceps, lats. If you climb quite a bit already your flexor or ‘front line’ gets plenty action and is most likely going to want open and lengthen it out – feel it with some movement: try standing lunges with ‘skydive position’ for arms. Don’t dump it in the lower back, keep it neutral. Shoulder blades down the back with a nice open chest. Pull your wrists and fingers back. Spring back up and feel your glutes work…

The same scapular engagement in plank and press up, don’t be afraid to lessen the load and feel more – use your knees, vary hand position, keep the belly breath, add leg movements…

Resisted extension for fingers and wrists, balance all that work you do in gripping. Look at some eccentric work – theraband, hammer drop outs, do them regularly if you are loading hard. The body doesn’t like surprises, give it the messages that let it adapt…

Schedule training in with your climbing, 3 strength sessions a week gives a good solid message. Mix power, power stamina and endurance. Periodising this with 3 or 4 week blocks can give a useful structure for building towards a specific goal, a climbing trip etc.

Power needs a longer rest, hangboard and campus board workouts can bring amazing gains but you need to rest longer afterwards, that might be 2 or 3 days if you’re new to it. We don’t add these maximal loads to young developing bodies, under 18’s: get the gains elsewhere first… Add your load gradually over a few months, start with feet on a chair or something. Gather your form, engage; no bouncing or jumping. Keep the neck and jaw loose if you can - we brace a lot here - don't make it your go-to method...

Try this if you’ve been hangboarding for a long time too – remember variety builds resilience… With this reduction in load, see if you can take the awareness to your belly breaths, good finger position, scapular engagement, neutral back, use your glutes to do hip thrusts, reaches with the legs. Hangs on good holds with knee raises, build the work up. More complexity is effectively more load too, taking away your ability to brace and compensate: take your time, keep the support and hold size comfortable to start with. If you can’t manage for 10 seconds it’s maybe too much like hard work for now, build it up … Load less, feel and play more!

Keep on moving!

If we’re doing our little pre-checks, feeling for quality of movement, little measures to performance, we’ll build good body awareness. Adjust your climbing and training’s intensity and volume to how you’re feeling, so that you’re operating within your ‘state.’

If this means that you have a change of focus: great, have a change in focus! Do some cross-training; yoga, pilates, dance, walk or run more… Light up your shadows, qualities you don’t use because you can rely on your strengths. This is where your biggest gains are…

Listen to your acute, sharp pain, it’s there for a reason, requiring rest, protection, maybe further investigation. A two week rest from high-end loading should be your first 'go-to,' slowly build it back if it's settling.

If it's not, find out more...

Chronic pain, a sense of ache, is not necessarily ‘game over’ for loading. We build sensitivity in these areas and worry about them more, but there will still be some healthy tissue there which needs to work to stay functional and keep its elasticity. Find what’s manageable, as a rule of thumb, it’s ok to have some pain which lasts a day or so after loading. If it’s 2 or 3 days settling, or just constant, we need to change intensity or volume, otherwise we’re losing the benefits of training and getting de-motivated…

Think of the controlled options: hangboard work with feet on can be good... Stamina and skills, not power: avoid all-out lunges, climb smooth, mid-range reaches, feet not arms, breathe more, feel more...

Further Information

There are some great resources out there, I would recommend the work of Volker Schoffl, Lattice Training and Dave Macleod as solid guides to the field of training and injury management. Have a look through the following links for some great advice.


Gimme Kraft - Matros and Huch – a great handbook for building power

Lattice Training – youtube video links

Dave Macleod – hangboard and strength training video links

Performance and Injury Prevention

Volker Schoffl is perhaps the world’s authority on climbing injury management. He was climbing at a high level alongside Wolfgang Gullich and Kurt Albert in the Frankenjura. He has also been an orthopaedic surgeon, specialising in upper limb and climbing injuries for more than 20 years. He has worked alongside the German climbing team and youth team over this time too, so has had an excellent view of long term issues and outcomes.

His classic ‘One Move too Many’ is still available with the new version currently in the pipeline…

He has kindly made a free download available for addressing common issues like training for opposition muscle groups and for injury management. Find it here:

He also has some great short videos for taping finger and elbow injuries:

Finger: A3 H-Taping for Pulley Injuries and Tenosynovitis

Elbow: Taping for Lateral and Medial Epicondylitis

Dave Macleod – ‘Make or Break’ and ‘9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes.’

Some great advice on training and self management from someone consistently hitting the top levels of climbing performance in several disciplines for quite some time.

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