Most of our time climbing is spent with our arms above our head reaching, grabbing, twisting and pulling down on holds. This type of overhead movement puts great demand on the shoulders. As a result of this demand, the shoulders are one of the most commonly injured areas in climbing athletes.
As overhead athletes it is very important to understand shoulder mechanics as well as the strength and range of motion demands that overhead movement has on the shoulders. Especially if we want to maintain healthy shoulders for the duration of our long climbing careers.
There is very little information out there that is written with the climbing athlete in mind. I’m writing this post with the intention of helping climbers and coaches understand the finer points of shoulder mechanics for climbing.
Proper scapular motion is crucial to a healthy shoulder in the climbing athlete. A lot of climbers have been told to “Keep the shoulder blades down and back” while climbing or dead-hanging. But this is potentially injurious advice. If you lock the shoulder blades down while you raise the arms upward, then your humeral heads are on a collision course with the roof of your tightly compressed AC joints. Tendons, bursa, and your supraspinatus wait helplessly to be impinged. When the arms are raised overhead to reach, lift, or pull down, the shoulder blades need to rotate upwards with them. The scapula are designed to roll with the arms, in a coordinated process known as scapulohumeral rhythm. Bottom line, THEY NEED TO MOVE.
If you’ve ever been victim to the “down and back” cue read on to find out what you should actually be doing with your shoulders to keep them healthy.
WHAT IS NORMAL MOVEMENT OF THE SCAPULA?
Normal scapular movement involves the coordination of four key motions:
- Abduction of the glenohumeral joint.
- Upward rotation of the scapula.
- Posterior tilting of the scapula.
- External rotation of the scapula.
Normal range of motion (this can vary slightly person to person) is considered to be 120 degrees of glenohumeral abduction and 60 degrees of upward rotation of the scapula (about a 2:1 ratio of movement between the glenohumeral joint and the scapula).
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE ABOUT SCAPULA MOVEMENT?
- Stronger more efficient shoulders. Proper, coordinated movement preserves optimal length-tension relationships of the glenohumeral muscles so they can sustain their force production through a larger portion of the range of motion.
- Injury prevention of the shoulders. Proper, coordinated movement prevents impingement of the shoulder. Because of the difference in size of the glenoid fossa and the humeral head subacromial impingement can occur unless relative movement between the humerus and scapula is limited. They should move together.
“Pinch your shoulder blades.” “Squeeze your scaps together.” “Retract your shoulders back.” “Pack your scapula.” These are all common coaching cues given during climbing training and during scapular exercises that climbers do for shoulder health. The goal of all of these cues is essentially to get the climber into better posture/positioning.
As I explained above, if you lock your shoulders into position while your arms elevate you are likely limiting the normal protraction and upward rotation that occurs with arm elevation and the tendons, bursa, and your supraspinatus underneath your acromion process are going to be impinged.
Here is what that would look like:
The space between the top and bottom arrows is the subacromial space. You can imagine that if this person raised their arm over head that would reduce the space between these two arrows and would cause pinching of the rotator cuff muscle.
The truth is, you actually cause impingement every time you move your arm. Impingement itself is normal and happens in all of us. When it becomes excessive is when injury occurs.
Thing about this though, how many moves do you do at the climbing gym per week with your scapula potentially in the wrong position? That starts to add up.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
Given that the goal of these cues is better posture/positioning I would argue that a better cue would be to encourage thoracic extension. Extending the thoracic spine or cuing “chest up” during a pull-up, dead hang or climbing will help the climber achieve a better posture/position and an active shoulder.
Why? We must realize that scapula position depends on rib position, rib position depends on spine position (spine position also depends on pelvic position, but that is a whole separate post I’m saving for another day).
It’s all connected.
The alignment of the scapula will determine how much subacromial space we have. The less subacromial space we have the higher our chances of developing impingement over time.
Not picking up what I’m putting down?
Slouch in your chair and try to raise your arm above your head. Now sit chest up and raise your arm above your head. Get it now?
Below are some examples of how these cues would look when applied to the climbing while. Courtesy of the climbing Sensei himself, Rob Mulligan.
In the left photo you can see how Rob is keeping his shoulder in a good position by keeping his right leg turned out, driving through his right foot, keeping the core engaged and keeping his chest up and in thoracic extension, not by packing the shoulder.
The right photo is an example of how the shoulder and body position should NOT look:
-Relaxed mid back
-Lack of thoracic extension
-Overactive upper trapezius
-Loss of turnout
-Lack of core engagement.
Below is a good example of what this would look like as a static position while system training, resting, clipping, chalking etc.
Notice Robs turnout in the left photo and how he keeps his chest square with the wall by maintaining thoracic extension and core engagement. He is not exaggerating the shoulder position by packing the shoulder but rather using his mid back muscles to maintain thoracic extension.
The photo on the right highlights how this position should NOT look:
-Shoulder are not square with the wall
-Body sagging away from the wall
-Loss of turnout
-Lack of thoracic extension
-Lack of core engagement
Here is a side view of the same position to give you a better idea of how it would look.
***For more on these photos and to learn about one of the best ways to train these positions, check out Rob Mulligan’s excellent 3 part article on System Training. It’s the the ONLY good post written anywhere on the actual method of System Training and I highly recommend it. Two months of this type of training twice a week took my climbing from projecting V7/V8 to flashing or sending V10 in a few goes.***
Next time you are at the gym training or doing shoulder exercises think of the “chest up” cue and feel for yourself the difference it makes in your shoulder positioning.
If you have shoulder pain you need to SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP to figure out where the dysfunction is that is causing your pain.
At the very least get a diagnosis so you know what you are dealing with before wasting time googling symptoms and trying to self diagnose. It will save you time, money and suffering in the long run.
“The body is extremely complex and it is rarely possible for a non-medic to confidently exclude possible diagnoses. An example of this is nerve compression syndromes of the back and neck which mimic exactly the symptoms of elbow tendon pain.”