Gnarly shoulders is one of the biggest challenges we face as climbers.
- feeling overly stiff or weaker than ‘normal’
- having to hold back on crux moves worrying about hurting something
- a nagging ache that just isn’t getting better
- or picking up an impingement time and again
Pulling on with any of that sucks. It’s damn frustrating and overtime, for most of us, can seep into our performance, enjoyment and passion for pulling on rocks!
A big contributing factor is the muscle imbalances and joint restrictions that pulling on again and again for hours, weeks and years creates. As climbers we often end up hunched over with a bound up thoracic spine, gnarly lats and shoulders that can’t externally rotate for s#@! These restrictions force the body to create funky compensatory movement patterns which:
- muffle proprioception screwing with latching holds and dead points
- limit range of motion and reduce power output so we can’t move as freely or pull as hard
- increase wear and tear making our bodies feel crap and exposing it to more injuries
If you’ve noticed crunchy noises, tingling, achy muscles, stiffness, crappy flexibility or less strength or power than normal then you’ve probably been moving around in funky repetitive ways (tissue overuse, muscle strains and compromised joint positions) for a while. That’s a problem because it’s potentially the start of a slippery slope of blowing things out left, right and centre.
Now we’re guessing you’ve tried to stretch (usually statically) and foam roll everything or maybe you’re reading this holding a yoga pose hoping it’s going to help. Yet all this ‘rehab’ doesn’t seem to make much difference, problems don’t get much better or you keep picking up the same old injury on repeat. Seeing little return for your efforts or not much change really sucks and yet we see it time and time again!
It’s time to ditch the aimless stretch and roll everything. It rarely has lasting effects and isn’t the best way nor our way to solve gnarly shoulders because…
A lack of flexibility or ‘trigger points’ is seldom is the problem!
Our brain and nervous system has far more control over our muscles and soft tissues than most people think. Like it or not our muscles and fascia are hooked up to a nervous system that gets to decide when and how much they stretch. So more often than not feeling ‘stiff’ or crappy flexibility is down to the nervous system being set on protect mode. If you’re subconscious brain is guarding no amount of static stretching or passive flexibility makes a damn bit of difference to mobility on the rock!
Think of a joints range of motion as a dark basement and you’ve forgotten where the light switch is. The movement potential is there but until you get some light you’ll probably explore very tentatively or end up avoiding using the room (or movement) altogether. If you do end up in the darkness you’ll likely be tripping on and banging in to stuff left right and centre aka injuries waiting to happen!
Welcome to Base Conditioning
Part of our solution is teaching a series of neuromuscular recovery techniques like contract relax stretching, mobilisations and corrective exercise to ‘turn on the lights’. Engaging and integrating both the nervous system and the muscle fascia system lets the motor cortex (brain) map or re-map movements that have been lost or got ‘foggy’. This is part of the initial phase of coaching what we call base conditioning which focuses on:
- Unloading stress on overworked muscles
- Restoring mobility in key areas used to pull on tiny edges or greasy slopers like the neck, shoulder/chest (specifically pec minor) and middle back (thoracic spine)
- Enhancing the kinetic sequencing and dynamic stability of your spine, shoulders and neck to flex, extend and rotate more efficiently
- Getting the primal movement patterns and strength levels needed for climbing up to scratch
All of which prepares the body to better handle and dissipate the forces and physical stresses of climbing meaning less gnarly shoulders and even more sends! It also lays the foundations to progress into more complex movement conditioning, max strength and power training to really take on that tick list or epic problem. Most importantly it shifts the nervous system from protect mode to performance mode. And living in performance mode means:
- Better posture, energy and blood flow accelerating recovery and reducing wear and tear
- Access to more useable range of motion on the rock to step up or reach that next crimp
- Feeling looser and free without stiffness or gnarled up muscles (plus way less foam rolling!)
- Even more power
- And most importantly less likelihood of picking up pains or injuries
Hands up who wants all that?!
How much better could your climbing get and as importantly body feel if you had some strategic, highly effective recovery techniques in your pull hard, feel good tool box?
Below is a glimpse of some key contract relax stretches plus a big bang mobilisation for your middle back we often use when coaching and rehabbing climbers. Just by doing these you’ll likely feel an improvement in your shoulders. For each stretch alternate between contracting and relaxing the muscle you’re trying to stretch for 5 seconds each and repeat this cycle 3-5 times. We’d encourage doing them most days for best results, and of course stop if you experience any discomfort.
- Sitting down hold the side of a chair or place your hand under your butt.
- Turn you head and lean your neck away from your anchored shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch down the neck and into the shoulder.
- You can apply a little pressure with your other hand but go light, it’s not tug of war!
- (C) Inhale and gently squeeze your hand into your butt.
- (R) Then exhale moving as before melting deeper into the stretch for 5s and repeat.
- You can also use this position to open up the front neck. Simply turn your head and lift the chin.
Chest Stretch (pec minor focus)
- Get into a 4 point stance with the shoulder supported on the ball and arm bent at 90 degrees.
- Drop the torso downward and rotate the trunk away until you feel a gentle stretch. As you drop allow the shoulder blade to move towards the spine.
- (C) Inhale and gently press your hand and shoulder against the ball.
- (R) Then exhale moving as before melting deeper into the stretch for 5s and repeat.
- If you have any discomfort in the shoulder try it without bending your arm.
- You can also use this position to get into the lat and pec major. Simply place your forearm on the ball instead and explore different angles above the head and out to the side.
Segmental Thoracic Extension
Caution: Don’t do this mobilisation if your rib expansion isn’t good. You can check by putting a tape measure round your chest and taking a deep breathe in. You want an increase of at least 1.5inches.
- Place the roller across your spine just below your shoulder blades.
- Cupping your hands behind your neck for support, inhale and gently extend back over the roller whilst looking up.
- Limit the movement to when you feel other parts of your body trying to move (like low back, neck etc.) or back muscles tighten.
- Then as you exhale let your back melt into the roller.
- Towards the end of the exhale return to start position doing >3 repetitions in any spot that feels restricted.
- You can work all the way up to the top of the shoulder blades moving up about an inch to the next vertebrae.
- Spinning the roller length ways along the back can be really effective in the upper vertebrae but take care as the neck can get aggravated. If in any doubt get a coach to teach you this one.
Recovery work is best done in the evenings and on rest days. As a general rule of thumb don’t stretch before climbing or workouts as it sedates the nervous system. Adding restorative (not painful!) self-massage and foam rolling can be useful to soften up hardened fascia and irons out trigger points but does little to create lasting change on its own. Think of it as opening a window of opportunity you can take advantage of.
Overtime you’ll gradually increase your useable range of motion and likely feel a whole lot looser and way more solid.
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.
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If you’re struggling with a more severe pain or injury and are seeking some guidance, or imagining just how strong you could be at the end of full base conditioning (answer – pretty damn strong!) then how about booking in for a consultation. It’s a chance for you to tell us all about your pain and it’s free of charge. Most importantly you can bounce any questions or thoughts you have to help you choose the best path moving forward.
Live the rock life,