Crawling Beyond Gnarly Shoulders, Back to Feeling Strong

There’s no getting around the fact climbing’s tough on our body. Whether it’s hard bouldering or repetitive pulling on long sport pitches not many places get the battering our shoulders take. If you’re anything like us, we’d imagine you don’t want to be pulling on with gnarly shoulders, it’s not much fun and can down right suck if our shoulders get really bunged up.

If you’re interested in climbing hard, minimising injury and extending your vertical lifespan then looking after your shoulders getting them strong, stable and moving smoothly is a must!

Adding some exercises most days to integrate and improve our shoulder and spines ability to flex, extend and rotate with strength, control, good sequencing and decent range of motion has far reaching benefits on the rock:

  • Feeling looser and moving more fluid
  • A solid, stable base for training more strength and power to crank, slap and latch harder
  • Dissipating forces better from hard moves, repetitive pulling and funky positions
  • Increased movement options, faster reactions and more precision

This takes a significant toll off the rotator cuff, elbows, low back and wrists. On the rock it means feeling looser, more solid and confident in your shoulders to try hard on moves. Sounds good right?

Below is a glimpse of some key exercises we often use when coaching and rehabbing climbers. Just by doing these you’ll likely feel an improvement in your shoulders on and off the rock. The first 2 exercises are about improving shoulder, scapula and upper spine mobility. Like most of us, you’re probably carrying some minor restrictions or muscle imbalances. Attempting to force more range where there’s minimal mobility or poor sequencing to start with is rarely a good idea and sets up the potential for unhappy, sore, naggy joints. Getting more fluid mobility is a much better option.

Active all angles shoulder stretch (CRAC)

One of many techniques to improve muscle balance in the shoulder, get more overhead range in multiple angles, pull better and reduce stress on elbows and shoulders.

In a crawling stance put your arm up on a swiss ball or chair at shoulder height. Gradually drop your torso straight down through your arm pit leaving your shoulder and arm behind until you feel a comfortable stretch. Be sure not to collapse in the middle arching your back or letting your rib cage flare out.

(C) Inhale and gently (>50% effort) press your arm down into the ball (using your shoulder, chest, lat) for 5-10s.

(R) Then exhale moving as before melting deeper into the stretch for 5-10s.

(AC) Now intend to lift your arm off of the ball as hard as you safely can (using the back of your shoulder and shoulder blade) for 5-10s.

Repeat this cycle for 3-5 reps each side keeping your lower back as flat as possible throughout

You can use this position to explore a full range of shoulder angles and muscles – get into the deeper muscles like pec minor by bringing the ball under the shoulder, focus overhead with a straight arm, out to the side for more pec focus or anywhere in between you find lines of tightness.

An image showing a Pec Minor Stretch.

An image showing a Pec Stretch.

An image showing a Lat Stretch.

Thoracic sweeps

This is a great light mobility drill that targets and integrates multiple angles of shoulder mobility and upper spine rotation.

Lying on your side with your knees at 90deg, sweep your arm up overhead trying to draw a circle on the floor. With each rep try to draw a slightly bigger, smoother circle noticing when and how well your shoulder rotates. To have a lasting effect my suggestion would be 5-10reps each side most days. This sequence makes for a nice warm up pre climb to. Overtime adding a 1-2kg weight will help to mobilise, lightly strengthen the shoulder and increase your attention doing the exercise.

Brachiation (hanging/swinging)

Time to unleash your inner chimp (dynamic active hangs) and get your shoulders to move smoothly with skill once again as evolution intended. Climbing is a bit of a catch 22, the more we climb trying hard tension based moves the more we lose touch with swinging about fluidly.

Brachiation exercises are pretty awesome for building some serious scapula stability and fluid shoulder mobility. For some this will feel quite natural, but for others it can be tough to get your body moving smoothly. You may find you suck at first or don’t have the strength to hang for long enough. If so get into it most days to rebuild your hang strength (30s+) and rediscover your rhythm! Just imagine hang tough or those monkey bars and swings in the park and you’ll be halfway there. Remember once baseline strength is there swinging is more about timing and skill letting your shoulders and hands feel out the motion.

There’s loads of sequences to play with. Some examples are swinging side to side, front to back and twisting on the spot. Add releases and traverses to progress your skills along with mixing up grips. Get creative, just remember to stay active in your muscles and not simply hanging from your joints.

Crawling

A badass developmental movement pattern with supercharged motor learning and tonnes of carryover strengthening all the muscles and movements we need to support our climbing.

Crawling’s special powers are (a) Integrating the shoulder with the neck, core and opposite hip hitting those diagonal slings of the body. (b) Loading the shoulder girdle which is designed to safely handle a fair amount of load in a crawl position (making it great for rehab to). This means we can go pretty heavy and induce a good strength response in the muscle fibres (unlike light thera-band exercises).

Crawling is playful, tougher than you think plus the options are endless for variety and keeping things interesting – sit to crawl transitions, crawling forwards, backwards or sideways with strict neutral spine (without shifting your weight to the side or tilting the hips or shoulders) with knees up, down or weighted, progressing into multiple directions and then fully integrated twisting reptilian patterns.

If crawling is tough at first or you really want to focus on your low threshold stabilisers then use quadruped decompressions and lifts (opposite hand and knee).

Kettlebell Get Ups (plus prep exercises)

There’s not many exercises that offer the maximal vast returns of the get up. It strengthens the shoulders, core and hips whilst simultaneously restoring and training rolling, reaching and posting movements. These infant groundwork or ‘toddler patterns’ are the building blocks for more complex movements and have tonnes of carryover to climbing. That’s why the get up is often referred to as the king of shoulder rehab, has its origins in strong man training and is still used as a demonstration of total body strength.

It’s a tough exercise so mastering sit to crawl transition 2 and the bodyweight version first is a good idea if you are new to get ups. Kettlebell arm bars and rolls are also great stepping stone exercises to build the required shoulder stability and proprioception.

Keeping our shoulders strong and moving smoothly is key for any of us playing in the vertical world regardless of grade, age, discipline, indoors or out. Play with these as part of your weekly feel good climb strong practice and you’ll gradually increase your useable range of motion and likely feel a whole lot looser and way more solid in your shoulders.

If you truly want get hold of any of these recovery exercises and learn some others keep your eyes peeled for more content plus upcoming off the rock training workshops. The workshop covers the exercises, and more, in comprehensive detail plus you’ll have access to exclusive coaching videos reminding you of all the intricacies that really get you those accelerated, lasting results.

To keep up to date with news of our workshops please sign up for our newsletter below.

If you are carrying an injury or more severe pain these may or may not be the best exercises or starting point. For more individualised support we’d encourage booking in for a free consultation. It’s a chance for you to tell us all about your pain plus do some mini assessments to get a better idea of what’s going on and if we can help. Most importantly you can bounce any questions or thoughts you have to help you choose the best path moving forward.

Click here to get in touch and book a consultation.

Live healthy, climb strong,
Ross

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