Climbing and the imminence of strength imbalances

At its core, climbing is essentially a functional movement body weight exercise. Every movement you make in during a climb is relying on your muscles to deal with the way your body moves in space, controlling the internal forces to produce efficient and effective strength.

While climbing does promote a total body strength increase, including important areas such as the core and lower back, there is a tendency to favor strength development in certain muscle groups over others. While a degree of total body strength is needed to perform at a high level, the fact of the matter is that the upper back and shoulders do the brunt of the work on any given climb.

This is an issue that I myself have problems with, and the vast majority of my back problems stem from a strength imbalance in my upper body. Climbing favor the upper and mid fiber traps which is the major muscle group the runs from the base of the skull, connects to the scapula, and runs down the spine to T-12. The lower fiber traps have a tendency to be thrown off balance by the overdevelopment of the upper/middle traps which can be seen as the lower corner of the scapula, sticking out from the back.   This can result in pain in the mid back, through the area of the lower traps.

Overdevelopment of the back and shoulder also has the effect of forcing the shoulder into a position of internal rotation. Take a look at the resting position of your shoulder in the mirror. If from the side, it appears that your shoulder is shifted forward, there is a good likelihood that the overdevelopment of the shoulder muscles is not being properly offset by the pectorals in the chest. This would once again put strain through the mid back and potentially cause pain or tightness.

Exercises that isolate the lower fiber traps and the chest are an important part of any climbing regime to keep the body balanced. Extreme strength imbalances can cause serious back problems. Resistance exercises that isolate the lower traps, pushups, isometric chest press holds and flexibility/mobility training directed at the shoulders are important to maintain a strength balance in the body.

Your body is a machine, it needs to have all of the parts in the right place to work properly.

Climbing WOD: the CRACK series

As a student, I am lucky enough to get free access to the climbing wall on campus. The wall was designed and built by local climbing guru Murray Toft back in the mid 80’s.  It was one of the first indoor walls in North America, and has changed little since it’s initial construction. The wall is a series of concrete slabs with features carved in, and limestone boulders strewn periodically across the faces. The cracks in between the slabs are designed to mimic off widths, chimneys, hand and finger cracks. The faces feature various cracks and pockets, and in recent years, some plastic holds have also been added.

This wall differs from most commercial gyms, as it attempts to more closely mimic real rock. It’s a great learning facility, but it’s not the best wall for pushing grades and there are very few taped routes. That said, with a little creativity, there are some really killer WOD’s that one can put together to build up to summer strength.

One thing that this wall offers is a wide array of cracks to work with. As someone who intends on doing a lot of crack climbing this summer, the indoor cracks are an indespensible tool. My partners and I came up with a series of crack workouts that will be guaranteed to burn you out no matter your crack climbing skill.

The crack workouts are as follows. Each crack sequence is done as many times as possible.

The Crack Baby:

  • Layback crack to failure, rest, Layback to failure again

The Crack Joke:

  • layback crack until failure
  • Easy finger crack until failure
  • Layback crack until failure

The Crack Addict:

  • Layback crack to failure
  • hand crack
  • Finger crack
  • Repeat hand/finger crack to failure
  • Layback crack to failure

The Crack Whore:

  • Layback crack to failure
  • Corner crack to S-crack
  • Hand crack
  • Finger crack
  • Narrow off width
  • Repeat 4 above to failure
  • Layback crack to failure

Yesterday I completed a Crack Addict, two lands of the hand crack/finger crack with three laps of Laybacking on either end. The day ended with significantly less skin on my hands. Tape is going to be my best friend for a while.

All of this crack practice is great. I’m heading on a week long season opener climbing trip at the end of the month, and hopefully I’ll be able to work some higher grade cracks this season.

Pulleys and Prussiks: Rope rescue practice day at the Uni.

Yesterday was rope rescue practice day at the University climbing wall. I’ve done a rope rescue course in the past, but rescue systems are one of those things you need to practice at. The individual aspects of a rescue system aren’t overly complex, but it’s the sort of thing that needs to be done with a careful order and the rescuer needs to remain methodical under stress. Having time in a controlled setting to go over the process of setting up systems, transferring loads and working through various scenarios is very helpful.

We did a bit of work with pulleys to start, and my friend Mara was patient enough to let me haul her up the wall. It’s been years since I’ve last set up a pulley system, so it took a rather long time to find the more effective way to begin hauling.  In the end, I found that the 5:1 was too slow, and little vertical gain was made for each pull. I ended up using a 3:1 with a Petzl Oscillante. Being a fairly light person, I attached a prussic from my harness to the pull end and used my body weight to pull the rope through the system. Once I figured out the 3:1 with the body weight prussic, it worked pretty well.

This was the first time I’ve ever used a commercially made pulley, and I was surprised at what a difference it made over a simple carabineer pulley. I bought my over pulley today at MEC (Cheap-y McCheaperson’s $10 Stubai pulley) which will be coming with me on all further alpine adventures.

We also did some practice tandem rappelling. The biggest problem I had with tandem rappelling was escaping the belay at the top. The mental process of working through transferring the load off the ATC, moving it to a prussik, and finally counter weighting the system with your own body weight took a while but I eventually worked it out.  While I was able to do it unassisted and without having to look up the sequence, it took quite a bit of hard thinking to work through the steps. Load transfer is definitely something I will be spending more time on in the future.

None of this stuff is particularly complex on it’s own, it’s just a matter of working through it slowly and carefully. With more practice, I know it will come along smoother and quicker.  There are tentative plans to do some more rope work in the coming weeks, so I should be able to get in a decent amount of practice before the outdoor season kicks off.

I’ve also realized that almost half of my locking biners have gone missing, and I do not have nearly as many slings as I thought I did. the MEC trip ended with a small mountain of new biners, slings and various other small bits of gear. If nothing else, I have enough gear to rescue a small village, and I suppose that’s some sort of accomplishment.