Rock Climbing Conditioning: Injury Prevention and The Shoulder Girdle PDF Print E-mail

Rock Climbing Conditioning - Injury Prevention and The Shoulder Girdle

Column #112, 12th February 2011

Building a strong and balanced shoulder girdle is essential for climbers to reach optimal performance levels and prevent injury.† The high physical demands of climbing are such that the following conditioning steps ensure correct levels of muscle balance strength, flexibility, stability and posture.

6 Steps to Building a Strong Shoulder Girdle

1. Soft Tissue Health and Bodywork

2. Posture Exercises

3. Thoracic Mobility

4. Corrective Stretching Techniques

5. Rotator Cuff Stability

6. Muscle Strength Balance

Injury Prevention

Research by Schoeffl (2006) indicates that 80% of climbing injuries are upperbody and shoulder injuries are on the increase.† During a recent Climbing Conditioning workshop, this statistic was confirmed with the climbers in the room and by following the above 6 steps we were able to identify specific areas to target for enhanced function and climbing performance.

Functional Assessment

Before you start the above steps and really begin to make changes to your performance on the rock, you must investigate your needs to some degree.† This can be done through many methods and even just by your awareness of your body and your own needs analysis of your climbing performance.† Which areas need working on; flexibility, strength, endurance, pushing or pulling strength, stability, pain, recovery rates?

As a Corrective Exercise Coach, the assessments that I presented and discussed involved:

  • Posture
  • Breathing Pattern and Diaphragm Function.
  • Movement Screening
  • Flexibility
  • Muscle Strength Balance

Using the above, we can build a picture of function.† There is a great deal of information that we can gather and use to choose what conditioning steps to take.† Ultimately much more effective than following a random workout in a magazine or following a program that works for someone else and we hope will work for us.† Letís be honest, this is shooting in the dark and hoping for the best results.† The best way to be confident of the correct conditioning program is to do some level of individual assessment.

Assessment Examples

Posture: A common postural observation of climbers is increased thoracic kyphosis (increased curve of the mid/upper back).† This is most likely a combination of the demands and positions when climbing, but also the modern-day manifestation of desk-based occupations.† Either way such a spinal posture has been well documented in causing shoulder girdle dysfunction and rotator cuff injuries.† In simple terms, the shoulder joint is moved out of its ideal position and then we try and climb up walls, reaching all kinds of positions and under a lot of load and pressure.† In essence the shoulder joint is compensating due to a restriction somewhere else (upper back posture) and pain and injury may rise.

Breathing pattern is commonly omitted from health and performance assessments, yet it could be the most influential factor on your success of achieving your goals.† Acknowledge that the ability to breathe is your bodyís number one priority.† Therefore, if we assess the breath and identify a dysfunctional pattern, there will be little doubt that the body has produced some sort of compensation to accommodate it.† Maybe it has created a postural shift to improve the breath, or maybe a shallow breath is causing greater tension in secondary breathing muscles (neck and chest muscles), which leads to muscle weakness across the shoulder girdle.† Clearly we should be respecting and assessing the breath.

Movement Screening can involve a whole host of different functional and sport specific movements.† For the purpose of shoulder girdle function it can be beneficial to have a look at how you perform a seated rotation, a press up and a pull up.† An exercise specialist will be able to identify the quality of this movement.† Interestingly, during the workshop we commonly observed a rotation while doing a pull up, due to having a dominant side.† Do we really want these rotational (sheer) forces in the spine?† Press ups are often performed with poor postural technique and head position, so check this out too.

Flexibility tests could in theory be performed for every muscle in the body.† You would then be equipped with information on which muscles were the correct length and which muscles were tight and needed stretching.† In terms of shoulder girdle conditioning it may be a good idea to look at anterior and posterior shoulder, the lat, the pec and neck muscles.† Although, given that the bodyís tissues are fully integrated and connected to each other, even a restriction at the left ankle can cause dysfunction at the right shoulder!

Muscle Strength is most effectively tested using a structural balance method, taught to me by strength coach Charles Poliquin.† By looking at the strength of various pushing, pulling and remedial movements we can determine where our imbalances and strengths and weaknesses are.† In addition core function can be assessed to give valuable information on your movement patterns.

6 Steps to Building a Strong Shoulder Girdle

Following a thorough assessment you are now set to carry out the 6 Steps to Building a Strong and Stable Shoulder Girdle:

1. Soft Tissue Health and Bodywork: Your assessment will no-doubt have identified various compensations and engrained (plumbed-in) movement patterns.† The Bowen Technique is one method of bodywork that aims to enhance tissue health and circulation, release restrictions and re-wire the movement patterns.† Back to the blueprint.

2. Posture Exercises: Whether you have increased kyphosis, an imbalanced pelvis, shifts, rotations or tilts in your posture, there are many posture exercises that can help you, but remember we are asymmetrical beings, so arbitrarily trying to iron everything out to symmetry may be detrimental.

3. Thoracic Mobility: This step is specifically for climbers as it is often an issue.† Your ability to rotate through your mid/upper back is essential if we want the shoulders to be in an ideal position from which to be strong and free from the risk of injury.† Thoracic mobility exercises will get easier and easier with practice and quickly too if you combine them with all these other steps.

4. Corrective Stretching Techniques: The principle is that now you can stretch the muscles that are tight.† In fact these might be the muscles that are causing some of the postural issues and will compliment step 1.† Please refer to previous articles on advanced stretching techniques, where you will learn the virtues of using methods such as Active Isolated Stretching (AIS), Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) and Self Myofascial Release (SMR).†

5. Rotator Cuff Stability: Before you progress to loading the shoulder and body with loads of strength workouts, you need to ensure that the shoulder and rotator cuff has sufficient levels of stability.† There are many bodyweight and isometric (static) exercises that are effective and the occasional tool that can be useful (such as a flexi bar).

6. Muscle Strength Balance: Steps 1-5 create a fantastic foundation on which to build.† Now you can apply strength and conditioning training principles to enhance areas such as strength endurance, functional strength, muscle mass, metabolics, energy systems, power and speed.

Climbers Shoulder Girdle - Resources

Climbing Conditioning Workshop videos at

Free Registration for all the workshop resources.

Future Articles and Workshops to help Prevent Injury

Stay tuned for more resources, videos and articles on ways to prevent injury for climbers, including;

  • Movement Screening and the Squat
  • Climbing Injuries 101
  • Shoulder Girdle Function
  • Core Function
  • Holistic Approach to Prevention

Buy: FlexiSticks for Shoulder Stability Exercises

Jack Walton
Written on Friday, 24 September 2010 15:49 by Jack Walton

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