The Big 5 Climbing Technique Cheats & what to do about them.
We all do them when we get tired, or are on something too hard for our endurance or our strength. Technique No-Nos are a big part of sports and occur in every sport, not just in climbing. But today I'm diving into the 5 biggest positional cheats that you should avoid to ensure you don't injure yourself.
Positional cheats aren't something that is new. The body is VERY good at stealing power from a nearby area to give power to what is weak. This power can be stolen from anywhere else in the body, and it doesn't have to be even near the weak zone. So if you have an injury, first things first, let's check to see if it is YOUR positional cheat. How do we do this? Once healed, we evaluate to see if the area of injury tenses or contracts to give stability, strength or just assist the region you are loading.
Ok, so here are the ground rules before we get started. This is an exploratory game, and you are going to be kind to yourself. We WIN bigger when we work on our technique and our skills from a place of exploration and act as if it is a game. Because it is. First, we find any cheats you might have by paying attention to your climbing over the next week or two to see if you exhibit any of the big 5 I bring up. Then, we begin playing with doing the said "No-No" just a little bit less. I promise you, IF you keep it a fun game, you will improve quicker. Research shows that stress and perfectionism slow your progress, making the brain less elastic for learning, so keep it fun and work in a few minutes of practice every climbing session.
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.
Above: A perfect example of keeping the neck long, the tops of the shoulders relaxed, and the muscles between and below the shoulder blades recruited. Her wrists are nice and straight, but what is that?! I think I see the right elbow starting to chicken-wing out a bit. It COULD be my imagination, but I think her left shoulder is stronger than her right. Yes, if you look at her shoulder blades, the right one lacks stability and is slightly assymetrical. No big deal if she doesn't do this all the time, but if this is a daily thing, she could get injured without addressing it. Rings are a difficult and amazing addition to climbing, and the sure as heck show us where our cheats are...
Ok, I promised my big 5 cheats, the ones I see in my office that bring YOU in with pain. Let's delve through these and then observe in the upcoming weeks to see if you have them in your climbing. Catching an injury before it happens is where ALL the fun is. Ok, next we hit the cheat, give solutions for working on it at home that you can implement NOW, and discuss the long term goals of each. Let's go!
Watch for the Big 5 Cheats:
1. The Turtle: You know the person whose shoulders pop up as if to hid the head?!
In this "Cheat Mode" Loaded (with a cheater cheater pumpkin eater)...
The shoulder mistakenly lifts up towards the neck with using your arm or shoulder. This cheating occurs with the upper trap alone.
I see this trap cheat SO often on weak tired shoulders that it is absolutely my number one to have you check for. Today. Some of you do it with the most basic of shoulder exercises. Others, it only pops up when you are tired and fatigued. Regardless, if it is occurring, we need to be mindful so that we back down our adventure to avoid injury. Training this out is SO much fun, and it happens quickly (don't worry!) I'd say this is my FAVORITE goal to fix because it CAN be fixed so easily. Once you catch it, then we work on controlling it, and after a while, we can do it without focusing on it full time (and then it is automatic!!) Most athletes get 25% of the way into working on it and 99% of them quit. I challenge you to get this under control and go all the way because your CLIMBING is going to be amazing afterwards! WHY!? Because we know you are using your shoulder girdle more effectively. BOOM!
Ok, so to get things started, here is your test. (HINT, the test is also the treatment!!)
Step 1: Put the opposing hand on your shoulder (the trap muscle that sits on top, above your shoulder) and pick an easy weight to lift.
Step 2: Rotate your shoulder under load moving your elbow in, out, up, and feel for the muscle to tense or the shoulder to lift.
Step 3: Ask yourself...Is there a way to SOFTEN this muscle (the one under your fingertips), and perhaps teach your brain to "STAY OUT OF IT" so that it isn't used for this motion? Can you mentally soften it at rest and then keep it softer (maybe only slightly softer as a beginning) during the motion? The test is also the treatment! So be kind to yourself and give yourself some time to figure this out. It might take a few weeks of testing, fiddling, and working through different way of applying this process.
Remember, the job of the trap is to LIFT the shoulder up towards the ears. I'm expecting your motions for rotator cuff stability DO NOT use this muscle so it should be soft, the shoulder should stay down (not lifting up) and if it is popped forwards into a slouch, you can fix that too while you are at it. (Nasty bad habit). In this photo, she is touching his shoulder and ensuring he is controlling it properly. I'm happy to give you more guidance if needed!! Just ask!
The smaller the body type, the lighter the weight for the test. 12 reps of 3 with a 8-12 pound weight should work for a healthy climber (5.10-5.12), if you are new and of slight build, perhaps start at 5 lbs to 8 lbs.
The athlete above has a nice long relaxed neck, her shoulders are in neutral (not lifted up) and the only fix I would recommend is to keep her elbows in neutral (she is slightly hyperextended).
As a side note, if you have easily hyper-extendable elbows like the lady above, please try to not load them past anatomical neutral (don't go past straight). This is especially important when climbing.
The raised shoulder position lets us know you are recruiting a muscle that isn't needed. Then we delve into the why afterwards if it is not easily fixable on your end.
You see, the trap is recruited in shoulder shrugs but otherwise needed in almost none of your shoulder or rotator cuff training plans. Its a stabilizer, strong and unmoving when we are using the shoulder in most ways.
In the case of those who exhibit "the Turtle" or a shoulder raise upon load, this upper trapezius line of your muscle is so dominant, so controlling, that it often wants to grab and clench with every motion involving the shoulder. In doing so, it sets you up for shoulder instability and impingement. So, at the gym, practice keeping it soft and supple on your warm-up climbs and try playing the game of HOW SOFT, how relaxed, how un-used can I leave this muscle while I lift my arm, pull to the side, and do all things climbing. The answer my friend. A LOT. This might open up a whole new world for you.
2. The Wrist Side-Bend: Oh yes, this is way up on my list! It So those of you who cheat in this fashion, when pulling, side bend the wrist at the same time to create extra force (by using your wrist flexors in addition to your finger flexors). For these climbers, we need to step back and ensure you are keeping a light grip and climbing with as straight as wrist as possible throughout the pulling motion. In upper level climbing some holds require a stable held side bend while pulling, but if you are moving your wrist as you pull, you lose stability AND create tension of tendons grinding over bony bumps which means a whole lot more of inflammation, hot spots and tendon issues near the wrist. Something to focus on especially if you have wrist or forearm pain. The straighter you can keep your wrist under load, and the more you can create force and load with your feet, core and shoulders, the less your wrist should have to work.
I'm sure I'm speaking to the choir, but when we get tired, remind your wrist that its only job is to hold on, NOT create power. When we get to tired to do so, we need to re-evaluate our training plan (great on a double tired day on purpose) but on a volume day, when we might be training too hard it's time to dial our volume or grade back a bit. This cheat is a perfect reminder that you are done for the night if it just shows up to remind you of your fatigue level. Check, time to cool down. ;-)
Above: He MIGHT be just looking down, or he might be clenching his neck as he pulls with his left arm. So the question is, does he do it every difficult move, is he finding his feet, or is he pulling hard and accidentally, by bad habit, tucking his chin?!
3. The Neck Clench: I am SOOO guilty of this when I get tired! When pulling down, some of you (like me) have a bad habit of tucking the chin. This is my fail zone myself. And guess what, I suffer from neck pain as my weak link.
So where to look for this cheat in yourself? First we warm-up then we go test things that are hard for us. Think max rep pull-ups, hang board, overhangs, and moves at or near your limit at the end of a long night of climbing. We are looking for WHAT cheat your body does when you are pushing it. For some of you, testing this sounds scary, so skip it, but keep an eye out for it when you are climbing. Chances are that IF you are doing it, you (now that you are aware) are going to catch yourself doing it. It might be rare (which is perfectly fine and expected) but if it occurs every time you do a big dyno or pull up over that lip, we need to address it.
Image Below: If you are accidentally tucking the chin or clenching the neck on basic easy exercises, like this athlete lifting a 2-5 pound weight, you can simply straighten the neck (trying to keep the nose in alignment with the ear). Practice standing tall, maintaining good spinal length, and this likely will protect you from shoulder and neck injuries in the future. YAY!
The neck can add stability to weak or injured shoulders pushing at or above their strength levels. You might notice this on overhangs, on climbs at the end of your evening (or trip) and it is indicative that the shoulder needs some help (and that you are likely climbing too hard or too steep for its ability to stabilize itself). If you catch
yourself doing this, simply try not to do it, and back off your intensity and grade until you can climb without cheating, or in your case, clenching the neck. Then we make it a new habit, (floss that groove!!) until you can begin once again working up the grades again without the neck assistance. It might be a day, it might be 2-3 weeks but I promise you, IF this is you, this is going to save you some nasty neck tweaks
(especially on mantels while looking up) as the neck is just not suited for stabilizing the shoulder. Keep it fun, practice on! The goal should be 2-3 months of practice until you can climb hard without cheating with the neck.
3. The Chicken-Wing: In the chicken-wing, when pulling down, your elbow starts to wing out to the side, away from your body and ends up to the side of your hand (instead of directly below)
I'm sure you've seen someone else climbing and fatiguing on the wall only to rotate their elbow away from the wall in what we call a ‘chicken wing’ position? Ah, the chicken-wing. If I were to point to one technique cheat that I see in relation to elbow and shoulder injuries in my clinic, this is it. 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. If you've been climbing for weeks or decades, I'm sure you've felt your body go into this position to avoid wrist and finger flexors that are exhausted, destroyed, or pumped out.
4. The Low back arch/flex: When pulling down, or even doing a high step, the low back likes to cheat for weakness in the upper body OR tight stiff hips (that need help getting a bit higher). I see LOTS of low back issues due to abnormal mobility in the region because of this cheating. If you wonder if this is you, try to focus on keeping your low back locked into a nice strong neutral position with load. If it bends, stretches or extends, check to see if you can't eliminate some of that motion to keep it safe with a nice strong stable neutral position.
Ok, that's it for my top 5, did you have a few you'd like to add to my list?! Let me know and add to the comments below!
EXTRA CREDIT: HOW DOES CHEATING WORK? FASCIA!!
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 inflexible 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. I delve into this in my book Climbing Injuries Solved.
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.
I bring this up because information is power. Ensure you are using your best mechanics while climbing to decrease your risk factors of injury.