Alli Rainey on Flexibility

Using Stretching to Enhance/Improve Your Rock Climbing Performance

Too many rock climbers of all ability levels fail to consciously or conscientiously include stretching as a regular component of their training and climbing routines. This is an unfortunate area to overlook, since solid active flexibility creates such an obvious advantage for both sport climbers and boulderers. To put it simply, optimizing your climbing-relevant flexibility stands to enhance your climbing efficiency. Joints capable of functioning actively through a full range of motion (ROM) gain a climber access to many more potential body positions/solutions for every single climbing move, not to mention more resting positions. By improving active flexibility, a climber stands to increase his or her ability to reach and effectively use more handholds and footholds, thereby boosting that person’s ability to solve problems/sequences and send climbs. If poor flexibility limits the climber to one or two (or sometimes, zero!) relatively powerful solutions for any particular sequence, and that person lacks the strength to complete that sequence using those solutions, improved active flexibility might enable that climber to get through the very same sequence by utilizing a different, less strength-sapping solution entirely.

Why Should a Climbing Training Plan Include Stretching? Stretching might be the easiest outside-of-climbing training components to incorporate into a climbing or training routine. What other training component can a person do – and do well enough for it to be effective – in a few minutes prior to stepping onto the rock, while actually climbing a warm-up route, while hanging out watching a television show, or while talking to friends by a campfire? It’s just so simple to incorporate stretching into your pre- and post-climbing/training routines – so why not do it, really?

Before Climbing: Use Dynamic Stretching During Your Warm-Up Dynamic stretching involves actively moving your muscles in a controlled manner through sport-specific ranges of motion. You might already use a form of dynamic stretching to warm up for climbing without even knowing it, but you could probably stand to reap more performance benefits from pre-climbing dynamic stretching by focusing a little bit more on fully warming up every joint’s ROM. The simplest dynamic stretching exercise for rock climbers is one that many climbers already employ to a certain extent – climbing one or more pitches of submaximal terrain (or doing several easy boulder problems) that gradually warm up the body while putting muscles through the ROM (in a controlled manner) that will be used, often in a less controlled fashion, on harder efforts later in the climbing day. To take advantage of dynamic stretching more fully when you climb your warm-ups, focus on climbing your warm-up slowly and methodically while exaggerating climbing movements – swivel your hips more on each move, high step and rock up on several holds in a row, reach beyond each hold before settling on it, or sag more deeply into your shoulders while you’re resting on holds, turning your neck from side to side while you do this. To incorporate dynamic stretching prior to rock climbing, spend a few minutes performing hand/finger extensions, wrist flexes, shoulder circles, arm circles, side bends, squats, high steps and standing active reaches as part of your pre-climbing warm-up routine. For illustrations of many of these exercises plus more dynamic stretches, see Dynamic Stretching Exercises, by sports coach BrianMac. After light cardio, dynamic stretching on the ground and one or more warm-up pitches incorporating dynamic stretching on easier terrain, I’ll often use whatever hard project I’m trying as my final warm-up before having a real attempt on the same project, preparing my body for the exact movements I’ll be trying to perform in sequence by doing them in a controlled, singular fashion before attempting to put them together for the full route. Sometimes, I’ll do all the moves on the route from bolt to bolt before trying it; other times, I’ll focus on a particular sequence of moves that I feel like I need to “prime” my muscles for prior to trying the moves together. If this seems strange to you or like it might take away from my upcoming performance effort, think about how it makes sense in the context of how a gymnast would be likely to warm up the specific elements of her floor routine before attempting the entire routine as a whole. Don’t shirk on your warm-up. Warming up your body properly is essential for peak performance. At the same time, keep in mind that everyone’s body warms up differently, so what works for you might not be effective for your climbing partner, and vice versa. Work to develop a specific, sports-relevant warm-up routine incorporating dynamic stretching that works best for you as an individual.

After Climbing: Include Static Stretching in Your Cool-Down Static stretching moves muscles passively through their ROM while the body is at rest. When I was growing up, we always stretched passively before sports practices as part of the warm-up. These days, experts don’t recommend static stretching prior to exercise, since studies have suggested that static stretching prior to exercise significantly reduces muscle strength and performance, as explained by author Phil Page in “Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation,” appearing in the February 2012 issue of the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. Save static stretching for after exercise, but not because it will decrease post-exercise soreness – studies have shown that it doesn’t effectively do this, though I would personally swear that static stretching helps assuage my own post-climbing muscular soreness and stiffness. Additionally, many experts now believe that static stretching does not play a significant role in injury prevention. For climbers, extending maximal ROM might be the most important potential benefit gained from regular post-workout static stretching sessions, since “a static stretching program effectively increases range of motion over time,” as explained in the article “Static Stretching” on A regular static stretching routine may also enhance other relevant athletic performance parameters over time, as noted in an article appearing in the 2004 issue of the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. You could potentially see long-term ROM gains from as little as 5 to 10 minutes of regular post-climbing stretching done two or three times per week.

Summing It Up: Basic Stretching Pointers for Rock Climbers
  • Don’t stretch cold muscles. Warm muscles up with light cardio exercise before you stretch.
  • Use dynamic (active) stretching as part of your climbing warm-up routine to take full advantage of your functional ROM during peak performance efforts.
  • Dynamic stretching involves moving muscles through their active ROM in a controlled fashion.
  • Don’t do static stretches before you climb. Save static stretching for your post-climbing cool-down routine.
  • Hold each static stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, and repeat each stretch 2 to 4 times, as suggested by the American College of Sports Medicine.
  • During post-climbing static stretching, focus equal attention on stretching muscle groups most used in climbing as well as supporting/auxiliary muscle groups (often referred to as “antagonistic” or “opposing” muscles).

Read More:
Dynamic Stretching vs. Static Stretching, by Taylor Tollison
Stretching and Flexibility: Everything You Never Wanted to Know, by Brad Appleton
Why Are Warm-Ups Important?, by Patrick Dale
Is Stretching Useful?, by Alex Hutchinson

~Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador