Rock Climbing Stretches and Flexibility Exercises

Rock climbing stretching exercises to improve your performance and do away with rock climbing injuries for good.

by Brad Walker | First Published May 12, 2010 | Updated July 13, 2017

Rock Climbing Stretches and Flexibility ExercisesRock climbing is an indoor and outdoor sport with its own rules, grading system, equipment and technique. People now climb on purpose whereas it was old civilization that made their home on cliffs or rocky ledges for safety.

It became an athletic practice during the Victorian era when the exploration of the natural world became a trendy pursuit. Walter Smith changed the perception of rock climbing from hobby to sport when he climbed Napes Needle in the 1880’s.

The Dolomite Mountains in Italy, Elbe Sandstone Mountain in Germany and the lake district of England saw the beginning of rock climbing as a sport.

In the 1930’s, Emilia Comici was credited for new equipment such as belays and tag line as well as big wall climbing. Rock climbing became accepted as part of sport in the 1950’s.

Independent styles and grading methods were developed when more people started climbing and the nature of the climbing also changes with time.

Nowadays, there are many styles such as; ice climbing, indoor climbing, free rock climbing, etc.

Anatomy Involved

Although it may seem that a climber requires more upper body than lower body strength, with good technique most of the power should come from the lower body, with the upper body providing the ability to balance and stay close to the wall. Here’s a list of the muscles or muscle groups most used in rock climbing:

  • Forearm muscles: brachioradialis, pronator teres, flexor carpi, palmaris longus, flexor carpi ulnaris and flexor carpi radialis. Grip strength is very important in rock climbing and comes from the forearm muscles working as a unit.
  • Leg muscles: the real strength in climbing comes from the legs, particularly the quadriceps muscle. Other important muscles are the hamstrings, gluteals and calf muscles.
  • Shoulder muscles: deltoids and rotator cuff.
  • Torso muscles: pectoralis major (smaller role), latissimus dorsi, rhomboids.

Most Common Rock Climbing Injuries

Rock Climbing Stretching ExercisesThis sport carries the usual injury risk, such as overuse problems and minor incidents, but it is also much more likely to cause acute injuries due to falls, sometimes from significant heights. Both of the categories of injuries can be somewhat preventable through a careful training plan.

Rock climbing is performed by amateurs, weekend warriors and elite climbers alike. All are at risk of overuse injuries, which close to 40-50% of climbers can experience over time, some of the most common being listed here. Overuse problems in rock climbing are almost predominantly found in the upper body:

  • Climber’s finger: quite often the weight of the entire body literally hangs from one finger. Frequent climbers can eventually experience strain and tears and even complete rupture of the tendons and ligaments that mobilize the finger joints. Severity of this problem is often underestimated.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: this is caused by compression of the median nerve from inflamed swollen tendons travelling in a limited space at the wrist level.
  • Lateral epicondylitis
  • Shoulder impingement
  • Shoulder labral damage
  • Upper crossed syndrome: this is actually due to the fact that as in most sports, some muscles are used in a disproportionate manner, creating a muscle imbalance and tightness. It is best managed by an experienced sports physical therapist or sport trainer/coach who can prescribe customized strength and flexibility exercises to correct the problem.
  • Lower extremity: when a rock climber does develop a lower extremity problem it will often involve the knee joint. The athlete could also develop iliotibial band syndrome and hamstring strain, all these originating both from faulty technique and a deficiency in hip flexibility.

Acute injuries occur during rock climbing for a variety of reasons, including: improper physical preparation; adverse weather; and equipment failure. Various studies about climbing accidents in the Mont Blanc/Chamonix area, Yosemite, Grand Tetons and the Sierra Nevada indicate that the most common injury from a fall is to the ankle, which experiences the impact of a fall that is mostly with the body at vertical. Up to a third of fall injuries are to the lower body and occur in experienced lead climbers a good majority of the time. Aside from taking steps to prevent the fall itself, climbers are considering shoes that are being designed to better absorb the impact of a fall.

Injury Prevention Strategies

Rock climbing is a complex sport, thus requiring extensive knowledge and experience in many areas in order to perform climbs safely. Here are some areas to specifically focus on when preparing for rock climbing of any kind. This preparation allows climbers to move quickly through an extreme range of motion or hold a position without tiring too quickly:

  • Endurance strength: aim to be able to hold certain positions for a long time, possibly a few minutes. A climber may need to hang from a few fingers while looking for a foot hold or may need to reach for and hold a position while waiting for another climber to catch up.
  • Power strength: this is especially important for the lower extremity but it should be developed in the upper body as well.
  • Flexibility training: this is just as important as strength. The shoulders, hips, pectorals and latissimus dorsi need special attention. Certain key skills cannot be performed safely or at all without sufficient hip and shoulder flexibility. Some of these are: edging, stemming and manteling.
  • Rest between climbs.
  • Avoid climbing when tired or afraid. Practice mental skills.
  • Pay attention to proper nutrition and hydration.

The Top 3 Rock Climbing Stretches

Stretching is one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching won’t be effective. Below are 3 very beneficial stretches for rock climbing; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions below each stretch.

Rock climbing rotating wrist stretch

Rotating Wrist Stretch: Place one arm straight out in front and parallel to the ground. Rotate your wrist down and outwards and then use your other hand to further rotate your hand upwards.

Rock climbing adductor groin stretch

Squatting Leg-out Adductor Stretch: Stand with your feet wide apart. Keep one leg straight and your toes pointing forward while bending the other leg and turning your toes out to the side. Lower your groin towards the ground and rest your hands on your bent knee or the ground.

Rock climbing upper hamstring stretch

Standing High-leg Bent Knee Hamstring Stretch: Stand with one foot raised onto a table. Keep your leg bent and lean your chest into your bent knee.

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Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.