Tips for Warming Up and Preventing Injuries

 

Written by: Lewis Weatherburn 3rd Year BSc Physiotherapy student & Duty Manager at Highball Norwich

Following a recent trip to Manchester for the BMC’s climbing injury symposium, I thought it would make sense to do a little write up on some effective ways to warm up. Most people know they should warm up before climbing to prevent injuries but few really know how or the evidence to support it. So I’ll try my best to do both.

Warming up before climbing has 2 main purposes: to help prevent injury and to maximise performance. The latter may be achieved through the physiological effects of warming up or through mentally preparing for activity (getting psyched!).

There is no specific protocol for warming up to climb, but thinking of it in stages may help to tick all the boxes. The warm up process may take anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes.

First, Some Evidence:

Research*1 in the warm up and stretching for prevention of muscular injuries supports the following points:

  • A warm up and stretching protocol (discussed later) should be implemented prior to activity, ideally within the 15 minutes immediately prior to the activity
  • The warm up protocol should be tailored to the individual and the nature of the activity
  • The physiological benefits include: increased blood flow to the tissues and increased speed of muscular contractions and nerve transmissions
  • The physical benefits include reduced risk of injury and increased flexibility
  • The intensity of the warm up should produce a mild sweat without fatigue

 

Stage 1. The Pulse Raiser

The obvious starting place to any warm up is the pulse raiser. A pulse raiser can consist of anything that gets your heart going: jogging, skipping, jumping, cycling etc are all simple examples. Cycling to the wall is a great way to warm up, providing you don’t then sit for an hour or so with a coffee and cake once you’re at the wall (save it for after). Research1 suggests that an intensity of around 40-60% (VO2 max) is most beneficial, reporting that anything over this can result in early fatigue. During this stage, your muscles should begin to feel warmer and looser. It can also help with the mental preparation, taking your mind off work or other stresses and focusing on the session ahead! I usually spend 5-10 minutes increasing my pulse before moving onto stage 2, and my preferred method is skipping as it gets the shoulders warm too.

 

Stage 2. Climbing Specific/ Mobility

Stage 2 of the warm up process involves general mobility and movements slightly more specific to climbing. Although climbing might be an all body work out, research shows that the majority of bouldering injuries are in the shoulders and fingers2. The aim of this stage is to encourage blood flow to specific muscle groups, increasing the temperature and therefore the elastic properties of the muscles, tendons, ligaments and pulleys, helping to prevent soft tissue injuries when you’re pulling hard!

I therefore tend to start with the feet and work upwards, spending longer on the larger muscles groups required for climbing like the shoulder complex. Your legs will likely be warmed up quite well from the pulse raiser so I often focus more on mobility and balance for lower limbs.

You will notice that static stretches (20-30 second holds) are not included as part of this suggested warm up process. The latest research in sports medicine suggests that these types of stretches have little benefit before sports. It is recommended that dynamic stretches (where joints are taken through their range of movements without any static holds) are most beneficial and static stretches should be performed at the end as part of the cool down or between sessions to increase flexibility.

This is just a few exercises that you may wish to include in your usual warm up routine. By the end of stage two you should feel confident that you have raised your pulse and blood flow to all the muscles in your body. They should feel warmer and looser without feeling fatigued. Its time to take the warm up to the wall…

 

Here is a suggested list of exercises to perform as part of your stage 2 warm up:

  • Starting with feet shoulder width apart, bend knees, lift heels, straighten knees, heels down. Repeat this cycle 10 times. You can also try it in reverse.
  • ‘Open the gate’ (hips/groin warm up) – raise left knee up in front of you and take it outwards to the side and down. Repeat with right leg. And repeat with opposite motion (closing the gate) 10x each side.
  • Keeping legs straight, flex from your hips to reach forward and down with both hands. From this position reach further down and towards the opposite foot with alternating hands. Try to reach from the shoulder and rotate from the trunk. 15-20x each hand before slowly standing back up
  • In standing, lift left hand above head and complete circular motions with your hand as if cleaning a window at the highest point you can reach. You can then start to reach out to the side while maintaining the circular motions and reaching for the furthest point to your left. Repeat with the right hand. 1-2 mins each side.
  • Helicopter: Rotate both arms in propeller motions, in both directions. If you want to warm the brain up too… try one arm forwards and one backwards! 2-3 mins.
  • Reach forward with both hands, palms facing down and grasp the air with alternating hands as if digging in the sand. Quick grasping movements are a good warm up for fingers and forearms. Elevate your arms to different heights throughout with exercise. Aim for a few minutes or until you feel a warm/pumped feeling in your forearms (known as ‘flash pump’). This encourages blood flow to the more peripheral muscles and may help to prevent getting pumped so quickly on the wall.
  • Neck: Take left ear to left shoulder, and repeat on the right. Take chin to chest and slowly back up. 10x each direction.Keep these neck movements slow and controlled and try to avoid circular movements.

 

 

Take Home (Highball) Message…

A good warm up will help to prepare you for a good session both physically and mentally. Be patient in your warm up process; by taking time now you could save months of wishing you weren’t injured. Create a mental or even physical tick list to ensure you complete each step of the warm up process. If you don’t have time to do a proper warm up, you don’t have time to have a proper session, in which case you might want to consider a light training session. Once you’re warm, stay warm! When you rest, wrap up in some extra layers and if you still get cold, make sure you warm up again before jumping back on that project. Most importantly, have fun!

 

Stage Description Time
1 Pulse Raiser 5-15 mins
2 Mobility and Movement (off the wall) 10-15 mins
3 Mobility and Movement (on the wall) 10 – 15 mins (Approx. 100 moves)
4 #GetClimbing

 

BIG TIP: Once your warm, don’t get cold! The biggest mistake many people make is not putting layers back on in between climbs or when they rest and sit in the cafe with a brew. They then get cold and find it hard to start again, or worse still, pick up an injury. Look what the experienced climbers (not necessarily the best) are doing AND wearing to keep warm. Mittens are great for keeping hands warm! Get Warm, Stay Warm, Climb Well.

 

 

 

3. Progressive Wall-Specific Warm Up

Make sure you stay warm between each of these stages. I often find that star jumps or running/sprinting on the spot in short bursts keeps me feeling warm between each stage. I also shake my arms out above my head just as if I had finished a route, encouraging blood flow to the extremities and aiding any removal of lactic acid3.

At this stage in my warm up, I start to focus specifically on the type of session that I will be completing. For example, if I’m going to be climbing routes or training endurance, my specific wall exercises will be very different to those before projecting hard boulder problems or training power.

Some general points for this stage are as follows:

  • Controlled, fluid movements
  • Aim for approximately 100 moves (50 each side).
  • Attention to technique and movements on the wall
  • Precise foot and hand placements
  • Slow, controlled down climbs
  • Stick to very comfortable grades, most often problems that you have climbed before (you should not be struggling to top these warm up problems)

Working in a climbing centre, it’s very common (and painful) to see so many climbers jumping straight on to their project, only minutes after checking in. Being patient in the warm up process will help to prevent injuries and prepare you physically and mentally for a good session at the wall.

During this stage, I generally progress through each type of wall, hold, move etc. For example, starting on a slab with jugs and positive footholds and then move on to a couple of juggy problems on a vertical wall. From here I progress to slightly smaller, ‘mini jugs’ on a vertical wall. Next might be very positive edges/slopers/pinches on a slab and then a vertical wall. Progressing eventually to a juggy overhang. You get the point…

I think its important at this stage to try and include all hold types and moves in a comfortable and controlled way. If the aim of your session is to complete a 7C boulder project you’ve been working on that includes a gnarly crimpy undercut… only warming up on jugs on a slab may not prepare you for this type of climb and put you at risk of injury. Similarly, if my session is focused on hard routes or endurance training, this stage of the warm up may include some small made up circuits on the wall or 3 repeats of my chosen warm up problems, resulting in some slight forearm pump. If your project is a slab, on small footholds… include balance, precise footwork and most likely flexibility. In my head I often create a mental ticklist of each hold type and move on the wall and try to include it in my easy warm up routes, even if it means adding in a second or third colour. Yes, I even do some easy dyno’s in my warm up routine, because its an effective way to warm up the fast twitch muscle fibres and prepare you for those powerful problems. Remember to also focus on technique at this stage, making it habit will have benefits in your long term progression.

After 10-15 minutes of gradual, progressive bouldering, you should feel fully warmed up to get stuck in to your session. Only you will know when you’re feeling fully warmed up but following these gradual stages should help to give you structure to your warm up protocol. Try to make it habit at the wall, and make it fun.

 

 

References

1. Warm-up and stretching in the prevention of muscular injury. Sports Med 2007; 37 (12). Woods, K, Bishop, P & Jones, E.

2. Epidemiology of climbing injuries & injury statistics. Lecture by Volker Schoffl at the 3rd BMC Climbing injury Symposium, 2014.

3. Lactic acid and forearm pump. Larson, J. 2006. Available at: http://www.8a.nu/?IncPage=http%3A//www.8a.nu/articles/ShowArticle.aspx%3FArticleId%3D2108 Accessed 27.12.14

 

 

 

 

 

 

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