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Warming Up For Climbing

Climb Harder, Climb Longer

There are a lot of theories as to what constitutes a proper warm-up for climbing.

It seems as though every person has a different idea about what works best, from jumping jacks to pull-ups on tree limbs to doing the Michael Jackson Thriller dance. I’ve climbed with dudes whose warm-up routines begin at 6 a.m. with 45 minutes of calisthenics, followed by 30 minutes of jogging, followed by coffee, breakfast, and then five pitches of increasing difficulty—all before even trying their project!

I’ve also climbed with professional athletes like Chris Sharma and Dave Graham, whose “warm-up” often consist of little more than talking beta or maybe doing a lap on a 5.14a.

Warm up too much and you run the risk of overdoing it and being too tired to perform at your best. Warm up too little and you might get injured. Like everything else in life, warming up is a matter of balance.

But no matter who you are, or what grade you climb, there are some general guidelines that you might want to follow during the warm-up phase of every climbing day. Here are my suggestions:

Don’t stretch … get dynamic.

If you grew up in the era when it was cool to wear knee-high white athletic socks and Umbro soccer shorts to gym class, you probably had it drilled into your head that lots of stretching before exercise is a good idea. In fact, recent research suggests that static stretching (in which you hold poses for 30+ seconds at a time) before working out actually makes you weaker. This type of static or passive stretching isn’t bad in and of itself; it can improve long-term flexibility. However, it should be done on rest days or after exercise.

Instead, a good pre-climbing warm-up should involve a number of active or dynamic stretching maneuvers. This type of stretching incorporates movement, such as windmilling your arms in circles, in which you are gently bouncing in and out of stretched positions and focusing on limbering up joints rather than large muscles.

Four mandatory dynamic stretches for climbers are:

Squats

With your back straight and arms raised straight out in front of you, squat onto your haunches and stand back up.

Straight Leg Kicks

Swing each leg back and forth, as if you are gently kicking a ball. This isn’t a powerful movement, just a gentle pendulum to reach the maximum stretch point.

Windmills (each direction)

Windmill each arm in 10 circles, forward then back. Again, this is a gentle movement.

Torso Twist

Bend the knees and twist your torso back and forth—gently.

Fingers, Neck, Shoulders

In this order, these are the three most important parts to warm up for climbers. It’s obviously why you need to warm up your fingers, but many climbers don’t warm up their neck and shoulders, which often get tweaked from bad posture and the strain of constantly looking up at your partner that you are belaying.

Finger Flickers

Hold your arms out in front of your body. Make a tight fist and squeeze hard for one second. Now flick your fingers, like you’re flicking water at someone, and spread your fingers as much as possible; hold for one second. Repeat this 12 times.

Wrist Rotations

Hold your arms held out in front of your body, and make a fist. Moving just your fists, rotate them around in circles: 12 circles to the left, 12 to the right.

Now, repeat this same exercise only instead of using fists, make your hands into tense claws. 12 circles to the left, 12 to the right.

Neck

Stand with perfect posture and draw your chin into your neck five times. This is a very subtle movement that aligns vertebrae. Now, turn your head to the left and then slowly to the right. Look all the way up, and then all the way down. Finish by drawing your chin into your neck five more times. Repeat this whole sequence three times.

Shoulder Pass

You can use your stick clip as a warm-up tool for your shoulders. Extend the stick clip to about 5 feet. Grab it with a palms-down grip in front of you, hands slightly wider than shoulder length apart. Moving slowly, lift the stick up over your head and continue as far back behind you as you can go. Return back to starting position. Do this 12 times.

The First Warm-up Route

Always do one warm-up route twice to begin your climbing day. It should be easy. How easy? So easy that you can do it twice, back-to-back, without getting too pumped–if at all.

Lead it the first time; top-rope or lead it again for the second time. On your first time up the route, just climb and notice how you’re feeling. Do you feel uncoordinated? Are you tense? Are you nervous? Are you having a hard time finding footholds? Or do you feel great? Don’t judge yourself. Simply notice what’s going on and take stock of where you’re at.

After you lower down the route, reflect for a moment on that one main thing that felt off. Now, use this second lap as an opportunity to correct that one problem.

For example, if you noticed that your breathing was erratic on the first time up the warm-up, go up the route again and focus only on fixing your breathing.

Get Specific

Is your project short and powerful? If so, try warming up on an easier, but still powerful route. Another option is to get in a regular warm-up, but instead of climbing slow and steady, make quick, powerful pulls between holds to awaken those fast-twitch muscles.

Especially consider how crimpy your project is. If your project has some small edges, don’t just warm up on jugs. Do a route with crimping.

The Second Warm-Up

Having done that one first route twice, now you need a second warm-up that is hard. How hard? Hard enough to get you pumped. This route should be a grade or two below your max onsight level, or even right at it. So, if your best-ever onsight was 5.12a, then this second warm-up should be in the 5.11b to 5.12a range. If it’s a route you know well and do all the time, it can be in that upper grade range. If you’re at an area where you don’t know the routes well, err on the side of doing something easier. You’ll know if it’s a good warm-up if you don’t fall and you do feel slightly pumped afterward.

What Comes Next

Depending on several factors, you may want to do another warm-up, or you may want to try the project or goal of the day.

If you’re going to do a third warm-up route, it should be at a grade roughly one full number grade below your project. That is, if you are projecting a 5.13b, try doing a 5.11a first, then a 5.11d, and finally a 5.12b.

I climb on Saturday and Sunday, like most weekend warriors. In general, I find that on Saturdays I prefer to do three, maybe even four, warm-ups. Having not climbed outside all week, I try to spend some time reacquainting myself with the rock. I want to feel coordinated and like I’m just moving confidently.

Sundays—or any second day on—I don’t do as many warm-ups. I’m still “warm,” so to speak, from the day before. I’m also more tired; therefore, one or two easy warm-ups will usually suffice. That leaves me with enough energy for at least one good burn on my project.

Skip clips, skip having that last beer of the night, but whatever you do, don’t skip the warm-up.

Special thanks to Momentum Climbing Gym for use during the photo shoot.

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