While climbing provides a rigorous workout for the pull muscles, it demands much less of the antagonist push muscles of the chest, shoulders, and upper arms. In the long term this could lead to tendinitis or other injuries, as these stabilizing push muscles may fall out of balance with their opposing pull muscles. The two most common problem spots are the elbows and shoulders. Let’s take a quick look at each.
First, consider how climbing constantly works the finger-flexor muscles of the forearms, yet does less to work and strengthen the extensor muscles on the outside of your forearms. As a result, many climbers develop a significant muscular imbalance and a susceptibility to lateral epicondylitis—a painful tendinitis on the outside portion of the elbow (also known as “tennis elbow”). As many as one in four climbers will eventually suffer from this affliction, although you can greatly reduce your chances by performing a simple preventive exercise. Reverse wrist curls with a light dumbbell will strengthen the extensor muscles on the back of the forearm. Perform this exercise, along with stretching of the forearm muscles, before and after every climbing workout; chances are you’ll dodge the elbow tendinitis bullet.
The shoulders are another common site of injury, especially among climbers with a preference for overhanging walls and steep, severe boulder problems. Climbs of this nature place great strain on the shoulder joint, and it’s the push muscles of the chest and shoulder area that help maintain stability. Of course, climbing does a poor job at strengthening these vital muscles. The upshot, for some unfortunate climbers, is that shoulder instability can lead to tendinitis, subluxation (partial or complete dislocation), or rotor cuff injury. Again, the use of a few basic exercises will help maintain balance and, hopefully, keep you injury-free. Push-ups, dips, dumbbell shoulder presses, dips, and internal and external rotation (of the shoulder) are five exercises I advocate for this purpose. One set of each, two or three days per week, is usually enough to keep the push muscles in condition to do their job. (Should you possess an existing shoulder injury, however, please consult a physical therapist for more appropriate rehabilitation exercises.)
Summary of Exercises to Do Two or Three Times Per Week
Shoulder Press – Using two dumbbells or a health club machine, perform one set of twenty to twenty-five repetitions, twice per week. Total resistance should be limited to between 20 and 40 percent of your body weight. If you plan to purchase dumbbells, I’d suggest women purchase two 10- or 15-pounders and men purchase two 20- to 30-pounders—there is no need to go much heavier.
Push-ups or light bench press – Perform one or two sets of standard push-ups, two or three days per week. The goal is twenty to twenty-five push-ups per set. If you can do more than twenty-five repetitions, increase the difficulty by moving your hands closer together. If you have access to a bench-press machine, follow the same guidelines as in doing the shoulder press. Keep the total weight less than 50 percent of your total body weight—go much heavier and you risk adding unnecessary muscle mass that will only weigh you down while climbing.
Dips – Dips are an excellent exercise for strengthening the many muscles of the upper arm, shoulders, chest, and back. Of course, the dip motion is similar to that of pressing out a mantle on the rock, so you have double the reason to perform this exercise twice per week. Many health clubs and climbing gyms have either a pair of gymnastics rings or a parallel-bar-like apparatus for performing dips. Similarly, you may be able to position two heavy chairs or even use an incut 90-corner of a kitchen counter to perform your dips. If you haven’t done dips before, you will discover that they are surprisingly difficult, especially if you do them on the rings. Initially, shoot for doing two sets of six to ten repetitions, but strive for the eventual goal of fifteen to twenty reps. In the meantime employ a spotter to help lift around the waist (reduce body weight) so you can achieve at least six dips per set.
Reverse Wrist Curl – This exercise is mandatory for all climbers, in order to maintain forearm muscle balance and prevent injury. Using a 5 to 20-pound dumbbell (start light), perform these wrist curls palm-down and with your forearm resting on your knee, a bench, or table. Do approximately twenty half-repetitions; that is, begin with your hand in the neutral position (straight), then curl it upward until it’s fully extended. Perform one set as part of your warm-up and two more sets at the end of your workout.
External Rotation – External and internal rotation (below) are two important, yet generally overlooked, exercises as they target the small muscles that stabilize the rotator cuff of the shoulder. To train external rotation, lie on your side with your bottom arm in front of your waist; place a rolled-up towel under your head to support the neck. Alternatively, you can bend your bottom arm up and use it as a head
Internal Rotation – Lie on your side with your bottom arm in front of your waist; place a rolled-up towel under your head to support the neck. Rest your other arm along your hip and upper thigh. Hold a 5- to 10-pound dumbbell in the hand of your bottom arm, positioning the forearm perpendicular to your body. Lift the weight up to your body and hold for a moment before lowering it back to the floor. The upper portion of the arm should remain in contact with the floor throughout the range of motion—think of the upper arm and shoulder as a door hinge that allows your forearm to swing “open and closed.” Continue in a slow but steady motion for a total of twenty repetitions. Do one set on each side. As you progress, increase weight in 1- or 2-pound increments, but do not exceed 15 pounds. Using heavy weight is not necessary and may even result in injury.