Do you see your climbing buddy fatigue on the wall only to rotate their elbow away from the wall in what we call a ‘chicken wing’ position? This is the perfect example of how the body tries to provide your desired motion pattern even when it is too tired to do so in a safe and correct motion pattern. We see climbers clench their necks, arch their backs, and pull their knees to their chests to create motion in a system that needs a little support. Don't let it fool you, these cheats are BIG No-Nos unless you have trained to do them in a motion based pattern to assist with your stability (while keeping your body in a mechanically advantageous position). Today we dissect what is happening with each cheat and how your body can set you up for injury by creating this motion even though it isn’t in your best interests.
Remember all the big discussion about FASCIA? The covering over your muscles that ties one muscle into the next, this tissue can transfer 40%+ of its load to a nearby region.... AKA Cheating.
It is often my goal in my practice to point out how amazingly intricate the body is. Each region is built and designed for a specific use. If one area or region is needing additional help, another nearby body part can support and stabilize that region with applying additional load and tension.
Though this is a beautiful accomplishment for producing power and motion, this is also a challenging and common situation when it comes to solving major overuse injuries in the climber. The finger flexors cheat for an unstable or unflexible wrist. The wrist cheats for a stiff or rigid elbow. The elbow is loaded from below as well as above as the body attempts 'trickery' to master what you ask of it.
Back to the Beginning:
Cheating happens when you fatigue or push too hard.
We see the cheat mechanism in multiple examples of shoulder and hand stability. The neck can clench and cheat for the shoulder, supplying stiffness and stability via loading the tissues from above. The example for the elbow I choose to show today is that it can also create wrist stability by loading from the triceps into the wrist side-stabilizers (the Extensor Carpi Ulnaris Longus muscle belly). Highlighted below is the side stabilizer of the wrist, the ECU Brevis. Attaching on the elbow in a commonly painful location, it is assisted by the ECU Longus, a muscle belly that shares an uncommon attachment onto the same thick fibrous tissue (or septum) as the Triceps muscle. With this attachment, the triceps can apply an equal and opposite load to counterbalance the load from your wrist extensors (thus stabilizing the wrist).
The outside of the elbow is one of the most common regions affected by climbing seen in my clinic. Loaded from below by the muscles that open your hand and fingers, it also serves as an attachment for the muscles that provide side-to-side stability for your hand. When discerning which muscle is tugging and aggravating the elbow, it is important to know that this region is the attachment for the combined interface for many muscles. Forming as a set, almost all the important climbing muscles that extend the finger and wrist attach via one tendon, the common extensor tendon.
Focusing today on the pain that wraps around your elbow to the back of your elbow, it is my goal to point out that the side-to-side wrist stabilizers load into the triceps. With this said, strengthening your triceps will help stabilize and balance the wrist. The most important take away is that if you feel like you need to cheat, step back and take a break. You’re either climbing TOO hard OR not taking enough rest.
On your next day at the gym, pay attention to how you get up that wall. You just might prevent your next injury. Especially if you are plagued by a specific injury, watch to see how the other regions load into the area and what you can do to decrease this tension.
I bring this up because information is power. Ensure you are using your best mechanics while climbing to decrease your risk factors of injury. We'll delve into how that thumb is related to your wrist pain and pulley injury next time.