‘If only I skip this warmup, I’ll have an extra 20 minutes to climb hard – that’s why I’m here, right?’ A warmup can often feel like the only thing hanging between you and precious time on the wall. At an intuitive level, I’m sure you understand the basic benefits of a warmup, but I decided to write an article that details the overwhelming extent of those benefits. Hopefully you’ll feel encouraged to develop a comprehensive (but simple to follow) plan that suits you and your lifestyle.
Warming up before engaging in any form of exercise is critical for the prevention of injury, as supported by a growing number of academic studies in recent years. It also serves as the foundation of training – muscles, tendons and energy systems you involve in your warmup will be at reduced risk of overtaxing (and subsequent injury) and will adapt to the demands of your training more consistently.
In the context of this article, injury most commonly refers to two phenomena: strains and sprains. A sprain typically refers to tearing of the ligaments, bands of tissue that connect bones at our joints. Strains are associated with tearing or overstretching muscles and tendons, tendons being bands of connective tissue between muscle and bone. Your first line of defense in avoiding these kinds of injuries is through warming up and cooling down – this article will cover the characteristics of the former, with a follow-up article next week focused on the latter.
The crux of a good warmup is this: gradual integration of different muscle groups and energy systems. Climbing as a sport should involve the entire body – that means every muscle working in every way that it can. It can also mean an extensive warmup before each workout, but don’t be discouraged! A good warmup routine will eventually mean quicker recoveries, better endurance, and less latent tension in your muscles.
Now that you have a better understanding of the why, let’s break down the how:
1. Literally warm up your body. Muscles work better when they’re warm. In the words of Will Anglin (climbing coach and co-founder of Tension climbing), “warm = malleable and cold = brittle.” Brittle materials are more likely to acutely break, so it’s critical that you warm up your muscles and tendons towards malleability before stimulating them with heavier loads. Wear warm clothing before your session (this is somewhat dependent on season), and begin with low-intensity, full body movement until you break a sweat. These can include jogging, biking, jumping, and rowing. If you have time, don’t limit yourself to just one exercise – different exercises will prime different muscular groups so it’s helpful to ensure full-body activation here.
2. Foam rolling. Recent literature has identified foam rolling as highly effective in improving muscular flexibility (and remember, malleability) when done prior to physical activity, while retaining muscular strength – especially as compared to dynamic and static stretching (Wiewelhove et al., 2019). However, one should be careful not to conflate the three, as they all have unique roles in a complete training program.
Hit your major muscle groups with a foam roller after you’ve warmed up a bit. Here is a helpful video to get you started; everybody is different, so try to develop a routine that feels good for you.
3. Stretch. Dynamically. Dynamic stretching has been shown to have a positive impact on range of motion and flexibility while reducing stiffness. This can be combined with more mobility-focused exercises to ensure your joints are moving fluidly.
A cursory search of the web will give you plenty of resources like this video. The general goal is to make sure each joint feels warm – most importantly, hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers. Adding supination/pronation of the forearm with a hammer is highly recommended to get blood flowing through antagonist muscles around your elbows, as is some work with the tension band to ensure activation of the shoulders.
4. Stretch. Statically? The consensus on static stretching before a workout remains fragmented – it’s often advocated on an anecdotal basis, but the literature hasn’t offered much support for static stretching as a component of an effective warmup. More recently, a study by Takeuchi and Nakamura (2020) showed a decrease in muscle-tendon stiffness of the hamstring when stretched statically at a high intensity for 20 seconds, though this benefit appears to be somewhat sport and style-dependent. Climbers practicing highly static styles of climbing may benefit more from static stretching, especially short, high-intensity static stretches as a part of the warmup. It’s still unclear whether this benefit is redundant when combined with dynamic stretching, as a review by Behm and Chaouachi (2011) implies. For now, the general consensus is that static stretching is indeed useful for increasing range of motion and reducing muscle stiffness, but has greater effect when practiced in dedicated sessions outside intense workouts – in the morning on a training day, after training, and/or on rest days. Further, it’s likely that more shorter stretches reap the same benefit as longer stretches (duration > 60 sec.) while minimizing the detrimental impact on muscle strength (Kay & Blazevich, 2012).
5. Practice Falling. Bouldering is unique in its lack of mechanical precautions. The onus of responsibility therefore lies on you to prepare your body for the inevitable danger of falling off the wall. If you’re struggling with a persistent fear of heights, this part of the warmup can be as much a mental as a physical conditioner. You can find an empty spot on the pads for this activity or integrate this step with step 6. Simply practice your falling techniques from ground height, increasing elevation gradually. If you haven’t yet identified effective falling techniques to work on, there is a wealth of information online – like this video – or you can ask front desk staff to watch our orientation video again. Your goal should be to master, physically and mentally, the prospect of falling from the top of the wall, or any project you intend to work on. Preparing to succeed on that elusive last move also involves preparing to fail, as this is an inherently dangerous sport.
6. Easy Climbs. As you feel yourself loosen up, it’s a good time to integrate low-intensity, sport-specific movement into your session. Deliberate movement is key here as you’re priming your muscles for more demanding climbs. Watch your feet and your technique – habits you foster on easy routes will carry over to the rest of your session.
A good rule of thumb here is to shoot for 150-200 moves, or about 10 boulders, before ramping up.
Congratulations! You’re warm. But don’t jump on the V10’s yet, continue to gradually increase the intensity of your training session – this will help the delicate connective tissues in your lower arms and hands adapt to increased loads. The “ramp-up” (borrowing again from Will Anglin) also serves as a good opportunity to identify weaknesses and potential points of injury.
Be patient and happy sending!
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Iwata, M., Yamamoto, A., Matsuo, S., Hatano, G., Miyazaki, M., Fukaya, T., Fujiwara, M., Asai, Y., & Suzuki, S. (2019). Dynamic Stretching Has Sustained Effects on Range of Motion and Passive Stiffness of the Hamstring Muscles. Journal of sports science & medicine, 18(1), 13–20.
Kay, A. D., & Blazevich, A. J. (2012). Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 44(1), 154–164. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e318225cb27
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