An activity like rock climbing is a great way to shake up your normal exercise routine, not to mention it’s a thrilling and affordable full-body workout that can improve your overall strength, coordination and endurance. Whether you’re a seasoned climber or brand new to the sport, climbing is an intense and dynamic activity that requires proper shoulder mobility for maximum efficiency. The movements involved in rock climbing place a great deal of stress on the shoulders, among other areas, and can frequently cause overuse injuries and muscle imbalances if the surrounding muscles are not strong enough. These issues may result in limited range of motion, stiffness and pain around the upper extremities. As physical therapists, we work to educate our patients on how they can decrease their risk of injury while also improving efficiency. So what exactly do we mean when we say “shoulder mobility”?
The three main components for shoulder mobility include:
• The Glenohumeral Joint (ball-in-socket shoulder joint)
• The Scapula (shoulder blade)
• The Thoracic spine (upper back)
The Glenohumeral Joint
The glenohumeral joint (GHJ) is a ball-in-socket that allows your shoulder to move in all directions. If you’re a frequent climber, the muscles on the front of your body may become tight, pulling your shoulders forward and rotating them inward. As a result, the muscles on your back and your shoulder blades become weakened. It’s important to make sure that you have a good balance between muscle strengthening and stretching to improve your shoulder mobility.
When you raise your arm overhead, your shoulder blade—aka the scapula—should rotate upwards in relation to the shoulder joint. This movement is important for full shoulder range of motion. Muscles that assist with upward rotation are Serratus Anterior, Middle Trapezius and Lower Trapezius. If these muscles are weak and have difficulty coordinating together, your shoulder joint and shoulder blades can’t work together effectively.
The Thoracic Spine
Your upper back has a natural curve, but the rounding is often accentuated with poor posture due to the movements involved in climbing pulling muscles and joints forward. Obviously this hunched position is not ideal when it comes to posture and can unfortunately lead to muscle imbalances due to decreased thoracic extension. Thoracic mobility into extension is a key component for shoulder elevation.
So, what now?
To improve your climbing efficiency and to ensure that you’re not putting yourself at risk for injury, talk to a physical therapist today. They’ll address your strengths and limitations while providing hands-on treatment to improve glenohumeral, thoracic and scapular mobility, along with any other trouble areas. There are a lot of exercises out there that can help to improve your performance and ensure that you’re not at risk of injury; your PT can design a custom exercise program unique to you.