The shoulder is an often overlooked but very important part of a climber’s anatomy. Many people will focus on finger or forearm strength and forget about this crucial joint. Others are all too aware of their shoulders, having suffered injures, dislocations and even surgery. Taking care of your shoulders will help you avoid sitting on the bench and can even improve your climbing.
Disclaimer! I’m not a doctor and this information has been compiled from various sources during my climbing career. It is very important to listen to your body even while doing rehab or pre-hab. For more information contact a doctor or a physical therapist.
After two dislocations in 4 years, I am still learning how far I can push my shoulder and what situations I need to avoid. The following post will outline exercises I’ve used and some things that I have learned along the way.
Following my first dislocation my shoulder was in poor shape. I could barely lift 3 pound weights in the prescribed directions and took almost a dozen physical therapy appointments to get back basic movement. In a little over two months, I was climbing again but avoided many positions including gastons and right side dynos. I changed my climbing style to move statically.
Over the next four years I regained all of my strength and steadily improved as a climber. My shoulder was often sore and I still avoided certain right handed moves. I was careful about my shoulder but did not really spend as much effort as I should have to keep it strong. I incorrectly assumed that since I could climb without too much pain that my joint was doing well.
After moving to the Bay Area at the end of 2009, I was very motivated for climbing. I was set on building multi-day fitness for big wall free climbing in Yosemite and was really pushing my self by climbing many days at the gym in a row. This training worked and by February of 2010 I was in great bouldering shape but I had also gained a constant ache in both shoulders. I could tell that my shoulders were not keeping up and I was worried that I might end up dislocating my good shoulder (the left one).
One fateful trip my shoulder dislocated again. So over the last year I’ve worked through physical therapy now paying much more attention to how my shoulder felt, realizing my future, as a climber, would depend on it.
Starting off from any injury you must know your limits. You want to work towards decreasing pain and improving mobility. Strength comes next as you need to build up your muscles to take a greater share of the strain. If you have torn something (ligaments) your bones are no longer held in place as securely. Muscle can be adapted to take the strain and proper form when moving your shoulder helps. Surgery is also an option but I have no experience with that. I opted for physical therapy since I would have less down time from climbing.
One big thing I learned from my second round of physical therapy was safe positions for my shoulder. One safe position for me requires both active engagement of my back muscles and shoulder blades. Climbing requires having your hand over your head quite often. The risk in this position can be reduced if you pull your shoulder blades together and down. This position helps keep your shoulder in place and requires you to be actively thinking about the position of your joint.
When your hand is directly in front of your torso, you are often quite safe from shoulder injury. Once your hand comes even with the side of your body and extends further away to the side you increase your risks. When I lift weights out to the side of my body I make sure to to keep my thumb facing up. According to my PT, it keeps your joint in a better alignment and puts less stress on your body.
I do a mix of thera-band exercises and weight routines in the gym. My physical therapist told me I could do these just about every day. I assume this is because you are not causing a lot of impact on the muscles. It is important to start slow right after an injury. At first I could only do a handful of the following exercises. If you want to do shoulder training on a climbing day it is best to do them post-climbing. Doing a strength session before climbing will tire your shoulders out and put them at risk.
One important thing is to warm up your shoulders before completing any exercises. This can be with jogging or rowing or just a bit of stretching.
I do this in the mornings on non-climbing days or at night post climbing. This is a good place to start or a supplement to a larger routine.
Thera-bands come in different strengths. You should start slowly and work up as you get stronger. At home I do all of my exercises with a long thera-band girth-hitched to a door knob in the middle. This should leave two tails (one for each hand).
Stand facing door with arms straight forward (parallel to the floor) and then rotated downward so your arms become parallel with your body. Complete 2 sets of 15.
Next complete 2 sets of 15 of both internal and external rotation (Use links for photos). I find the external rotation much harder so I start with that one. I also will sometimes put a T-shirt or towel between my side and elbow to keep my arm in a good position. I use a more difficult band for the internal rotation. For comparison for I use both tails of the band from exercise 1 for my internal rotation.
This exercise requires an easier band than then ones above. You will need to attach the band above shoulder level. I attach it to the clothing rod in my closet. This exercise will seem easy at first but was very effective for me.
Face away from where the band is attached with your arm straight up. You should do this one hand at a time to insure quality movement. Keeping you arm straight rotate it down until it is parallel with the floor pointing forward. Complete 2 sets of 15 for each arm.
With the same band setup as exercise 3 take a small step forward. This should make the band tighter. Start with your arm straight up in the air. Instead of going all the way forward make a circle or box in the air. Push forward go right, back, left and repeat. It is important that the band is taut at all times. Do 10 circles and then reverse the direction. Do 2 sets per side.
I used this exercise at the beginning of physical therapy until I was strong enough to do push-ups. It is a similar motion but using a band. Go back to the first setup with band tied to a doorknob with two tails. Face away from the door knob holding a band in each hand. Start with arms parallel to the floor palms facing down (but make fist) with elbows bent between 45 and 90 degrees. Extend your arms fully making your arms midway between your elbows and hands. Complete 2 reps of 15. The point of this is to really extend your arms and use your shoulders.
As will all rehab exercises, you want to start with lighter weights and build up. You also should focus on doing the exercise with both sides since one injury usually implies you are prone to that type of problem. A doctor told me that I have loose joints which makes me more likely to dislocate.
Start with a 3 to 8 pound weight in each hand. Hold the barbells with your thumb pointing out/up and your arms along your side. Raise your arms along the side until they are at shoulder level parallel to the ground. Do two sets of 15 reps.
Start with slightly more weight than the exercise above. Instead of moving your arms out to the side you will bring them up to shoulder level in front of you. Thumbs still facing up. Two sets of 15.
This exercise uses a weight machine to do a standing row. Alternately you can do this with thera-bands if you do not have access to weight machines. Standing is a more active position and you want to focus on engaging the muscles between your shoulder blades when pulling back. See Video:
Here are some other links and videos I’ve found or had suggested to me for shoulder training and rehab. Some of these have further photos/instruction for the exercises listed above.