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Simple warm-up for beginner and intermediate rock climbers

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Simple warm-up for beginner and intermediate rock climbers – contents

The importance of a warm-up for rock climbers

We often hear that the warm-up is the most essential part of the training session. When we engage in sports, our muscles and joints must be ready to perform optimally and avoid strains or sprains. A good warm-up prepares the body for physical activity and reduces the risk of injury. The body's core temperature increases and blood flow to the muscles is enhanced, which helps to improve their flexibility and range of motion.

In addition to reducing the risk of injury, a good warm-up improves performance. When our muscles are warm, they can contract and relax more efficiently, allowing us to generate more power and speed. Coordination and balance are positively affected - critical factors in many sports, including climbing. By taking the time to properly warm up before engaging in physical activity, we can ensure that we are getting the most out of our training sessions while also staying safe and injury-free.

Unfortunately, many climbers don't know how to approach the warm-up correctly and fail to reap the benefits of the first critical part of their climbing session. They often devote a minute or two to performing a few jumping jacks, pushups, and pull-ups, proceeding to hard bouldering immediately afterward. Such an approach may lead to suboptimal performance or injury, but it's also a missed opportunity to utilize the training time fully.

Why invest session time in a longer warm-up?

There are countless articles available on the web concerning the importance of warm-ups. In fact, I wrote an extensive review on the subject a few years ago 1. However, in this post, I would like to provide practical information regarding structuring a good rock climbing warm-up and which exercises to include.

One of the most important discoveries I've made during my climbing and coaching career is that climbers devote too much time to finger and climbing-specific training and insufficient time to prehab and general fitness development. The truth is that having a strong back and shoulders and being able to climb pain-free lets many climbers get away with much less finger strength and still perform on a high level.

Second, people train too hard and too often, not giving themselves enough recovery time. Do you really think it's such a great idea to boulder hard for six hours on Monday and hit the gym again on Tuesday to do some "light Moonboard technical climbing"? This example may sound exaggerated, but I've seen such cases, and they're not rare. That training regime could work for elite athletes, who have an entire team of PTs taking care of their recovery, but for amateur climbers, it's counterproductive.

I would argue that the warm-up should take about 20 - 30% of the session time.

For a long time, I've been a victim of this thinking myself, which resulted in nagging elbow and shoulder injuries, effectively stalling my climbing progress. The truth is that to improve, it's often sufficient to climb regularly and supplement it with prehab training, system board training, and a bit of hangboarding. Finally, what's critical is that you need to give yourself plenty of recovery time.

So what does all that have to do with the warm-up? Devoting the first hour of your climbing sessions to all-round prehab and strength exercises will not only help you eliminate any issues you may have with your posture or any potential strength deficiencies in your shoulders, core, and back, but it will also effectively shorten the time you spend on the hangboard and wall, preventing you from overtraining the forearms and fingers. While it may seem like an exaggeration, I would argue that the warm-up should take about 20 - 30% of the session time. So if you're aiming for a 3-hour session at the gym, you should devote 45 minutes up to one hour to warming up.

My favorite warm-up exercises

In the following sections, I'll list and discuss my favorite exercises for warming up before rock climbing training. Much focus is on shoulder mobility and strength because shoulder issues are prevalent in rock climbing and often prevent athletes from progressing. However, I also address core strength, pull strength, and elbow prehab.

Increase the heart rate and raise the body temperature (2 - 3 min.)

Start by raising your heart rate and breaking a little sweat. Marching on the spot is a great exercise to wake up and prepare for any training activity. You can follow that up with some Jumping jacks, and that's it - 2 or 3 minutes is enough to get you going.

Warm up your shoulders (2 - 3 min.)

Strong and healthy shoulders are essential for hard climbing. You must ensure that you have a full range of motion and are pain-free. If you have any postural issues or your range of motion is restricted, you're increasing the risk of getting injured.

Start by warming up and loosening your shoulders. Exercises such as the Windmill Arm Circles, German Arm Swings, or Advanced German Arm Swings will do the job just fine. A minute or two of arm swinging is enough.

Prepare your elbows and wrists (2 - 3 min.)

Once your shoulders are warm, proceed to elbow and wrist prehab routines. Three of my favorites are Elbow Rotations, Elbow Circles, and Circular Wrist Stretches 2. Adding these exercises to your warm-up will ensure you don't run into elbow or wrist trouble.

Address shoulder mobility and scapular control (5 - 10 min.)

The next step is shoulder mobility drills and scapular control. I put particular emphasis on this part of the warm-up because I've had shoulder problems throughout my climbing career. I usually begin with the Hanging Knee Tucks to open the chest and then move on to Shoulder Dislocates 34. You may use a stick or a resistance band for this exercise. Both ways are possible and can be used interchangeably. Next come the Zenith Rotations and Shoulder Blade Rotations 5. Another great exercise that will help improve your posture but is surprisingly difficult if you're not used to it is the Wall Angels. If your mid back is tight, it'll feel like you're crushing through concrete.

Next in line are Rotating One-arm Deadhangs. This exercise is essential because it mimics the strains your shoulders are subjected to when making dynamic moves involving cutting your feet. You'll likely get injured during system board training if you can't rotate your shoulders while hanging with one arm. If you are currently struggling with shoulder pain that's caused by impingement syndrome, add Shoulder Reaches to increase your subacromial space and improve scapular control.

Shoulder strengthening exercises (10 - 20 min.)

Okay, so we've warmed and loosened the shoulders, taken care of the proper ranges of motion, and reinforced the correct scapular motion patterns. Now, it's time to strengthen the shoulders. I typically begin with the No Money exercise, which is very easy to perform, even in an outdoor setting, and it should be the absolute minimum of what you do before any climbing session, whether it is gym climbing or a day outdoors 6. The following two exercises are the Dumbbell External Rotations and the Banded External Rotations, which hit the rotator cuff pretty hard 7. Still, they are my go-to methods for improving my shoulder stability and fixing shoulder pain.

Next, I move on to Dumbbell Shoulder Rotations. What's great about this exercise is that it addresses the full range of motion of the rotator cuff. The movement should be pain-free, so start with loads as low as 2 - 5 kg and learn the movement before you progress to 7 - 9 kg or more. Next on the list is the Kettlebell Bottom Up Press. This one does a great job of building shoulder stability and core strength.

If you aim to specifically strengthen the lower trapezius muscle, which helps with the upward rotation of the scapula and helps stabilize the shoulder joint during overhead movements, consider including the Quadrupled Shoulder Flexion with Opposite Arm Press exercise into your warm-up repertoire. Finally, I recommend adding a few sets of Ring Dips to your warm-up. This exercise will hit your triceps and chest and improve shoulder stability, effectively helping with strength deficits.

Incorporating these exercises regularly into your warm-up will ensure that your shoulders are healthy and strong, giving you a solid base for starting your training sessions. Depending on whether you're currently experiencing shoulder issues, you may do all of the above exercises or leave some of them out and focus on different aspects, like your flexibility. Of course, tons of other valuable drills could be recommended, including Lu Raises, Dumbbell Lateral Raises, Benchpress, Pike Push-ups, Dumbbell Rows, etc. Still, doing them in separate strength training sessions is better than making them part of your warm-up.

Core strength exercises (5 - 10 min.)

A thorough warm-up should include core strength exercises. Hollow Body Progressions are a great place to start - devote a few minutes to performing some of the exercises from the linked video. My next recommendation is doing the Seated Leg Raises. This exercise will likely feel challenging, so working on your weaknesses is always good.

No climbing training session is complete without a few sets of Push-ups, right? Well, not exactly, but I like to include them in my warm-up because they work many of the upper body muscles, including the chest and the serratus anterior. Moreover, you can do them anywhere, which is practical when climbing outdoors.

Last but not least, it's a good idea to complement Push-ups with the Superman Press-out. The routine can be done after every set of Push-ups, and it'll strengthen the often neglected back muscles, such as the rhomboids, and positively affect the rotator cuff 8. Still, Push-ups may not be the best exercise from a strict climbing perspective, so if you're interested in better alternatives, you may want to take a look at this video from Hooper's Beta.

Pull-ups (5 min.)

Finally, some pull-strength exercises. That took a while, right? Hopefully, you're so tired by now that the last thing you want to do is climb! I don't like to overly focus on doing pull-ups, but cranking a few reps before you hit the wall is always a good idea.

Here, we aim not to perform a pull-up recruitment or hypertrophy pull-up routine - this is better done at the end of the session or even on a separate occasion. However, at the beginning of the session, we still have full pulling power, so doing several sets of Explosive Pull-ups is a good idea. Focus on moving your bodyweight as fast as possible, and stop the set when you feel your power is waning. The great thing about explosive pull-ups is that they are more climbing-specific than weighted pull-ups, and moving the load fast triggers additional muscle recruitment. Alternatively, if you're advanced, consider doing Uneven Grip Pull-ups, or even Campusing on Big Rungs, keeping in mind that the moves should be explosive.

Finger recruitment (3 - 5 min.)

No matter what training session you're going for, warming up and recruiting your fingers is always necessary. The best way to do it is to start with easy hangs on big edges, such as 20 - 30 mm, and gradually increase the hang load or decrease the edge depth.

Start with one or two bodyweight hangs on a 20 mm edge, then reduce the edge to 15 mm and hang a few more times. Next, you may decide whether to add weight or go for 10 mm edges. The general idea is to start with easy hangs and progress to 90 - 95% of your max. Regarding hang times, for easier hangs, go for 10 - 15 seconds; for the more difficult ones, anything between 3 - 7 seconds is okay. To be time-efficient, hang while recovering from other exercises.

If you're unused to Weighted Hangs or don't have the required equipment at hand, choose Uneven Grip Hangs or One-Arm Hangs if you're strong enough. Alternatively, to vary the adaptation, you may also try Arm Lifting, which means using a portable edge to lift a heavy weight off the ground 9. If you don't have access to weights, you may fix the training edge to the floor or use a chord loop around your foot and pull isometrically. This way of warming up works particularly well in a crag setting.

Regular session warm-up - example exercise sequence

Now the question is how to put it all into practice - effectively sequence the exercises to get the most out of your warm-up routine. Below, I have listed the exercises in the sequence in which I like to do them before a standard bouldering or hangboard training session. It should take you around 35 - 45 minutes to go through the list.

Don't get intimidated by the number of exercises - you don't always have to do them all. For example, if you're only planning a hangboard session, it's okay to get fatigued during the warm-up. However, if the goal is to prepare for a limit-bouldering session, it's reasonable to shorten the warm-up and leave more energy for technically complex training. The setup below could even work as a separate general conditioning training session. As a rule of thumb, pick the ones you hate the most and try to improve.

  • Marching on the spot (1 min.)
  • Windmill Arm Circles (1 min.)
  • Elbow Rotations (1 min.)
  • Elbow Circles (1 min.)
  • Shoulder Dislocates (10 reps - 1 min.)
  • Hanging Knee Tuck (30 sec. hang)
  • Zenith Rotations (5 - 10 reps per side - 3 min.)
  • Shoulder Blade Rotations (2 min.)
  • Wall Angels (10 - 15 reps - 1 min.)
  • Rotating One-arm Deadhangs (1 min.)
  • Shoulder Reaches (10 reps per side - 2 min.)
  • No Money (10 reps. - 30 sec.)
  • Push-ups (15 - 20 reps - 1 min.)
  • Superman Press-out (20 reps - 1 min.)
  • Banded External Rotations (15 - 20 reps - 1 min.)
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Rotations (3 min.)
  • Kettlebell Bottom Up Press (8 - 10 reps per hand - 1 min.)
  • Push-ups (15 - 20 reps. - 1 min.)
  • Superman Press-out (20 reps - 1 min.)
  • Ring dips (5 - 10 reps - 1 min.)
  • Hangboard Bodyweight Hangs Easy 20 - 30 mm (3 reps - 1 min.)
  • Quadrupled Shoulder Flexion with Opposite Arm Press (10 reps per side - 2 min.)
  • Hollow body progressions (1 min.)
  • Ring dips (5 - 10 reps - 1 min.)
  • Hangboard Bodyweight Hangs Medium 10 - 15 mm (3 reps
  • Seated Leg Raises (1 min.)
  • Weighted Hangs/Uneven Grip Hangs/One-Arm Hangs, 80% max., 20 - 30 mm (3 reps - 1 min.)
  • Explosive Pull-Ups (5 - 8 reps - 1 min.)
  • Seated Leg Raises (1 min.)
  • Weighted Hangs/Uneven Grip Hangs/One-Arm Hangs, 90% max., 20 - 30 mm (3 reps - 1 min.)
  • Explosive Pull-Ups (5 - 8 reps - 1 min.)

Simple warm-up for beginner and intermediate rock climbers - summary

A good warm-up is vital to an effective climbing training session. Unfortunately, many climbers don't focus enough on the initial part of their training, which may lead to injury and neglect of essential aspects of their physical development.

You can't expect to address all the critical physical aspects required for climbing in 10 minutes. Going for longer warm-ups and leveraging them to perform prehab and strengthening exercises is a great way to ensure that you'll progress as a climber without injuries getting in your way.

It is efficient to use the warm-up to perform shoulder strengthening exercises, which are often omitted. No matter how strong your fingers are, the shoulders transfer the force to your core and propel you upwards. Shifting the focus of your training from the fingers to the shoulders and core can help you progress without overtraining and getting injured.

References

  1. J. Banaszczyk, StrengthClimbing – 9 Powerful Reasons To Warm-Up For Rock Climbers (Review), Dec. 04, 2020. (link)[]
  2. www.youtube.com/@GymnasticsMethod (link)[]
  3. www.youtube.com/@calimove (link)[]
  4. www.youtube.com/@SaturnoMovement (link)[]
  5. www.youtube.com/@TomMorrison (link)[]
  6. www.youtube.com/@HoopersBeta (link)[]
  7. www.youtube.com/@FitnessFAQs (link)[]
  8. www.youtube.com/@athleanx (link)[]
  9. www.youtube.com/@LatticeTraining (link)[]
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