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Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Up, Down & Breathing (Part 1)

Sunday, August 24th, 2014


By changing or manipulating one simple aspect of your climbing routine, you could potentially experience the following benefits:


  • Improved muscle power;
  • Quicker reaction times and movements;
  • Longer staying power throughout your climbing day/workout;
  • A reduction in lactic acid buildup;
  • Enhanced mind-muscle connectivity; and
  • Decreased risk of muscle/tendon tears and other injuries.

What climber wouldn’t want to experience these effects?

Given these advantages, it’s amazing to observe how many sport climbers and boulderers still shirk on the warm-up or do away with it entirely, despite the definite and well-understood physiological benefits of warming up before attempting to perform athletically at one’s peak.

What Happens During a Warm-Up

As explained in ACTION Personal Trainer Certification: 2nd Edition (Volume 2), performing a proper warm-up prior to harder exercise/training or an athletic competition provides the participant with numerous proven benefits.

Warming up gradually increases your heart rate and respiration, instead of causing a potentially dangerous spike in heart rate as your lungs and heart strive to provide your muscles with the oxygen that active muscles require. Gradually increasing your heart rate enables your heart to keep pace with your body’s increased demands due to physical activity — making for more efficient delivery of oxygen to your working muscles and an increased ability of the muscles to utilize that oxygen. As your warm-up progresses, your blood vessels dilate, allowing blood to pass more quickly through them, which enhances delivery of oxygen and nutrients. This increase in blood flow enables your body to more efficiently remove metabolic by-products of exercise, such as lactic acid, which can cause premature fatigue if it accumulates too quickly (as all climbers know!).

Your core temperature gradually rises as you warm up, with your muscle temperature rising to an average of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. This increase in temperature makes your body less viscous and more fluid, allowing for quicker movements in your muscles, joints and tendons. Less viscosity (think “gumminess” or “gooeyness”) makes for quicker neural transmissions, too — so your brain’s messages to your muscles travel faster, resulting in faster responses to external stimuli than you would have without warming up. Your muscles become more elastic. You also prime your mind for what’s to come by climbing easier routes or rehearsing harder moves one at a time as a part of your warm-up. And last but not least, by warming up, you decrease your potential risk of injury significantly, partially due to an increase in your mental awareness of your body’s status, along with the aforementioned physiological benefits.

Improve Your Climbing Performance By Warming Up Right

If you’re one of those climbers or boulderers who believes that warming up “just doesn’t work for you,” or that you perform best by not warming up at all — or you just can’t seem to have the discipline to stick to your warm-up plans despite your best intentions — you might want to reconsider this strategy. It’s hard to argue against the value of warming up when there’s so much scientific evidence backing its benefits. However, this doesn’t mean that your best buddy’s warm up is right for you. In fact, this is one of the biggest pitfalls climbers experience in creating an effective warm up; they try to use someone else’s warm-up protocol, it doesn’t work, and they decide that warming up is a bogus concept altogether.

If this sounds familiar, instead of giving up on developing your own warm-up routine entirely or thinking that somehow, miraculously, you of all people in the world have been blessed with a body that doesn’t respond to warming up or that needs no warm up for peak performance, take into account all of the benefits listed above and perhaps then, you’ll reconsider your relationship with warming up. The key is for you to develop a warm-up routine that works for you and your body — however long and whatever components that may entail.

By changing or manipulating one simple aspect of your climbing routine, you could potentially experience the following benefits:

Be careful not to get sucked into the all-too-common game of “I’m such an awesome climber that I can warm up on xx grade,” which can often lead to a total destruction of an entire day of climbing — or longer — should that “warm-up route” turn out to be way too difficult to actually be a warm-up. Keep in mind that the grade you warm up on at your home crag or on your better styles might very well push your limits to your maximum or beyond if you’re climbing at a new, unfamiliar climbing area or at an area that exploits your weaknesses. Your warm-up isn’t about crushing or climbing hard; it’s about preparing your body to do that in the future. In other words, it’s more than okay to say “take” on your warm-up to avoid sabotaging the rest of your climbing day.



When I was a kid, I ran 10Ks with my parents, starting at age 8. Yes, this has nothing to do with rock climbing — you’re right. But nonetheless, one of the first training rules I learned from them has stuck with me to this day. I’d finish a training run, and all I’d want to do is sit down or lie down. But Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me — they always, unfailingly, made me walk it out. I had to walk around for a few minutes before I was allowed to sit down. I never knew exactly why I had to do this, but the lesson stuck with me — you don’t just stop. You slow down gradually, and then you stop.

The more I’ve learned about training, the more I’ve come to understand about the whys of the whats I’ve always done — and of course, I’ve learned about the things that people got wrong. Things like static stretching prior to engaging in sports or training, which we all know (or should know by now) is a big no-no. Still, I was surprised to learn that many of the touted benefits of a cool-down after working out have little scientific backing.

Does this mean that cooling down is worthless or a bad idea? Not necessarily. In fact, the cool-down period following intense exercise provides you with one of the easiest times to capitalize on improving your body’s flexibility and promoting quicker muscle recovery via sound nutrient timing. I also personally believe that a reflective cool-down can provide you with a calming segue back into the real world, a time of lighter activity during which you can review the day’s successes and struggles, learning what you can from the latter to positively inform and help you plan out your next day of climbing or training.

But first things first — let’s talk briefly about what a cool-down isn’t likely to do for you.

Myths About the Cool-Down

Adding a sport-specific active cool-down to your climbing day or training regimen may not bring about the benefits that you expect. According to experts interviewed by Gina Kolata for the October 13, 2009 “New York Times” article “Is the Exercise Cool-Down Really Necessary?“, the majority of popularized notions of what a cool-down will accomplish have not been supported by scientific research. Cooling down after intense exercise has not been demonstrated to reduce muscle soreness or improve post-exercise recovery time. And as for the much-misunderstood function of lactic acid, a lengthy cool-down might actually be a counterproductive measure, possibly even robbing your body of a potential fuel source (lactate!) that can aid in muscle recovery. In fact, the build-up of lactate and other metabolites that accumulate during exercise doesn’t actually cause delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in the days following exercise, as explained by University of Maryland kinesiology professor Stephen M. Roth in the January 2006 “Scientific American” article “Why Does Lactic Acid Build Up in Muscles? And Why Does It Cause Soreness?

Potential Benefits of a Cool-Down Routine

When you warm-up, you’re preparing your body for the climbing day or training routine yet to come. Conversely, the cool-down period serves to bring your body and your mind gently back into your pre-workout or climbing state, gradually lowering your muscular and core temperature while also decreasing your breathing and heart rate. Think of it like an airplane flight — the warm-up takes you down the runway and lifts you off the ground. During the meat of the session or climbing day you’re airborne. The cool-down brings you back in for a gentle landing, during which you softly touch your wheels down on terra firma and coast down the runway, instead of crashing abruptly into the ground.

What you’re trying to accomplish from the sport-specific part of your cool-down — in terms of tangible physical benefits recognized as valid by researchers in the field — is avoiding blood pooling in your extremities. I don’t want to get too scientific mumbo-jumbo on you, but the basic idea is that when you’re exercising hard, your heart is pumping a larger volume of blood to your active muscles. They, in turn, contract, helping to return the blood back to your heart, as described in the LIVESTRONG.COM article “Does Abruptly Stopping Intense Exercise Cause Blood to Pool in the Lower Extremities?” Obviously, climbing uses muscles in both the arms and legs intensely, meaning theoretically, you could have blood pooling happen in both. Suddenly ceasing intense activity can cause blood to get stuck (or “pooled”) in your extremities, causing dizziness or even passing out. Slowing down gradually with easier activities that keep the blood circulating to your muscles can help reduce the strain on your heart and prevent dizziness or fainting.

How to Cool Down


The cool thing about a worthwhile cool-down is that it doesn’t have to take much time. When you lower off after your final hard redpoint effort or start to feel fatigued from trying hard boulder problems, don’t just take a seat and call it good. Instead, stay standing or walk around the area and do some light arm circles and wrist rotations. Once your breathing and heart rate have gotten closer to normal, you can cool-down with several easier climbing moves, boulder problems or even an easier route or two. If this isn’t possible or seems like too much activity/a waste of time, simply do some light dead hangs or pull-ups/assisted pull-ups. You shouldn’t have to try hard or breathe hard on these moves, climbs or during these exercises.

After you’ve spent anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes slowing things down, move into the second phase of your cool-down — stretching the muscles used during the workout or climbing day. The cool-down period provides you with the perfect time to try to improve your climbing-relevant flexibility. Since your muscles are already warmed up, you don’t have to warm up separately to stretch. Aim to spend at least five minutes stretching tight muscles to work on improving your range of motion for climbing moves. And lastly, before you stretch or in between stretches, ingest a recovery snack containing a 3: or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, as suggested by the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s October 2008 position stand on nutrient timing. You’ll want to consume this snack within 30 minutes of completing the intense portion of your climbing or training day to start yourself on the right track toward rapid recovery.

Summing It Up: Should I Cool Down?

Even if you decide to skip out on step one of the cool-down — the active and sport-specific portion involving climbing or climbing movements — you shouldn’t shirk on replenishing your body within 30 minutes of finishing your intense activity. This is part of sound sports nutrition and the most crucial component of your cool-down routine. Static stretching fits in well as part of the cool-down after an intense period of exercise, providing you with the opportunity to improve your climbing-relevant range of motion, which can in turn lead to better climbing performances in the future. Lighter sport-specific activities or even just walking around/hiking down from the crag can all provide you with the opportunity to avoid potentially detrimental effects of blood pooling after intense exercise. Establishing a 15-minute cool-down routine also gives you the time to review your climbing day and/or workout and to consider what you need to focus on during your next session.


My routine: It’s pretty simple – I start breathing deeply and rhythmically on the ground before I try any problem or climbing route. I work to keep that going throughout the route, and really strive to return to that baseline while resting on the route. I don’t hold my breath. And yeah, I shout sometimes when I’m trying a powerful move, too, and that also has to do with training breathing tactics and using them to your advantage.

I learned this lesson loud and clear (though it was one of those things that I’d “known I should do” for years) a few summers ago – I just needed the push from a partner and to see the results in order to make it a habit. My partner (Kevin) told me to start breathing like a freight train before leaving the ground on a longstanding redpoint project that I was consistently managing to one hang but couldn’t seem to put together; it was right at my power-endurance limit (meaning I could do all the moves by themselves, but putting them together was too much for me – not enough shakes plus too many lengthy, power-draining series of movements for me at the time – a classic sport-climber tale of woe, right?). Anyhow, when I actually DID the freight-train breathing, I was amazed at how much better and stronger I felt, not to mention how many more moves I could do in a row (and this ultimately contributed to me sending, I’m sure).

Lesson learned, correction made – and it’s stuck with me to this day. I breathe consciously before I climb, try to maintain the breathing rhythm during the climb, attempt to bring my breathing back to my established rhythm at the rests on the climb, and I focus on breathing to help me recover after the climb. More importantly, though – I don’t hold my breath when I do hard moves or sequences of moves. Ever.


As for the shouting, that somehow has worked its way into my repertoire, too. I used to never make noise when I climbed (aside from whining when I fell, of course!), but (curiously enough), the more strength and power I’ve gained and the more dynamic movements I’m able to try or do, the more I yell. It’s unconscious most of the time, but sometimes it’s somewhat or even entirely conscious and a bit angry (truth be told); this happens when the shout is an effort to override my doubting brain that’s trying to get me to NOT try the next move. The vocalization seems to help drown out the internal voices of doubt.

Developing solid rock climbing and bouldering skills includes learning how to harness every element of your being to contribute to your success on a given climb or problem. Beyond sound training of raw physical components such as climbing-relevant strength, power and stamina, climbers and boulderers will often spend hours refining and perfecting technical (not to mention mental and nutritional) aspects of their game. Training climbing technique involves such obvious areas as footwork and body position, along with more subtle components such as using your breathing patterns to support your athletic efforts both on and off the rocks.

Breathing Before You Start Rock Climbing

On the ground before you step onto a rock climb or a boulder problem, begin inhaling and exhaling audibly and deeply. While this may make you feel silly, you will laugh last when your oxygenated muscles can continue to perform at a higher level than they otherwise could as a result. According to The Diet Channel’s “Breathing Techniques During Exercise,” you can get a 1 or 2 percent increase in performance by using deep breathing techniques during exercise. This may not seem like much – but then again, it could be the difference between grabbing the finishing jug or watching your fingers open up before you have the chance to clip the chains or top out the problem. By preemptively starting to breathe more deeply than normal, you help your body avoid the catching up it would otherwise have to engage in if you waited until automatic heavier breathing kicked in.

Starting rhythmic breathing before starting up a climb has an additional benefit as well. By developing a conscious and regular breathing pace prior to beginning the climb, you are more likely to continue with this breathing throughout the climb. The more you make this a habit, the more it will become your normal approach to any rock climb or boulder problem. You will be less likely to hold your breath during difficult sequences, a practice which depletes your body of essential oxygen and reduces your performance potential — possibly increasing your risk of injury as well.

Breathing While You Climb

As you make your way up a rock climb or boulder problem, try to maintain your established rhythm of breathing through each move. At first, this may require conscious attention and feel awkward, but like any climbing technique, you can cultivate it to the point where it feels natural and habitual. Then, if your breathing becomes labored or heavier at a certain point while you’re climbing, you will automatically attempt to revert back to your normal breathing pattern as soon as you can.

Beyond this, when you reach a good resting place on any rock climb, part of the rest and recovery time that you spend before moving on up the route will involve paying close attention to the rhythm of your breath. A good indication that you are ready to continue climbing comes with the return of your breathing to your habitual breathing pattern that you have trained and become accustomed to. Similarly, when you get down from or come off of a boulder problem, wait for your breathing (and preferably, your heart rate) to decrease significantly before you try the moves or problem again.

When and Why to Consider Shouting

Yelling when executing a forceful punch is an age-old practice in many martial arts, such as karate. Similarly, rock climbers often will shout or yell when performing a difficult and powerful movement. When you exhale forcefully, it tightens the core muscles, providing you with more stability in your movement. Exhaling with force can also help you maximize your reach potential instead of abruptly stopping or slowing the intended motion as you hold your breath. Shouting during a hard move can also help drown the voices of internal doubt in a climber’s mind, providing an external stimulus to continue trying. And lastly, shouting (or even just a powerful, conscious breath out) provides a much more effective and potentially performance-enhancing alternative to holding your breath when you try a hard move, as it encourages you to continue breathing through the move and beyond.

Experiment with yelling when you’re attempting a powerful and explosive movement while climbing or bouldering to see if it makes a difference in your successful execution of that move. Try not to feel self-conscious about it. Practice incorporating shouting into your training for climbing, making it one of your climbing exercises. Seek out powerful climbing moves that push you to having to give 100 percent, and add a conscious yell.

Improve Rock Climbing by Breathing and Shouting

Cultivating solid breathing techniques can help you maximize your performance capabilities for your current level in climbing and bouldering. In other words, you might be able to climb or boulder harder without gaining any strength or stamina if you pay more attention to your breathing while you climb and train. Establish a habitual breathing rhythm that you begin on the ground before attempting any rock climb or boulder problem to help ensure continued breathing while climbing. Revert back to your rhythmic breathing during every climbing rest as much as possible. Use shouting during hard moves to help promote their successful execution. And most importantly of all, try not to ever hold your breath while you climb or train.

~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
Learn more about Alli

Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey