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Ive read that most climbers have a lot of muscle imbalances, including some that affect proper posture.

  • Is that true?
  • What muscles are imbalanced?
  • How do those imbalances affect posture?
  • How to fix those imbalances, preferably without specialised equipment?
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4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I'm super surprised no one has mentioned the major source of muscle imbalance in climbers: climbing is a pulling sport more than a pushing sport. This results in overdevelopment of upper-body pulling muscles (biceps and back) relative to pushing muscles (chest and triceps).

I personally have a friend who climbs 5.14 and yet has terrible back pain that keeps him from sleeping at night. That is, until we got in the weight room together and I had him start doing some bench presses for basically the first time in his life. We also did some squats to help strengthen his lower back, and some stiff-leg deadlifts for lower back and hamstrings (i.e. "posterior chain"). After a few weeks of this he started feeling dramatically better.

The suggestions in this answer to do more upper body pulling work are likely to exacerbate the issue of "climber's hunch".

The other suggestions in that answer about finger inflammation are good but incomplete. It is true that working the opposing muscle (same principle as the bench press above) is helpful. But you also have to realize that during climbing, you are working the forearm flexors (i.e. grip muscles) through only a very short part of their full range of motion (ROM). It's like if you did bicep curls, but you only ever moved the weight 6 inches, over and over and over again. That is what rock climbing is like for your grip. Try (gently!) applying pressure to your fingers while leaning against a wall with your hand out in front against the wall in a "Stop!" gesture. Gradually increase the angle to increase the ROM. Don't try to do an aggressive stretch and flex the muscles at the same time - that won't work. A little stretch, and a little flex is all you want.

EDIT:

I should add that these suggestions are not from "some quick googling around" but rather extensive personal experience with both climbing and physical training for sports (including training for climbing).

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In the wide group of people I climb with, the opposite is true. I'd have to agree with Liam - these days, climbing training is incredibly well balanced, with most folks combining a high degree of cardio workout with core strength, and isometrics, along with weights for extension and flexion.

Hunches seem to have been an issue earlier than ten years ago, when people didn't really recognise the wider fitness aspects, but now everyone knows the exercises to use - they are well publicised on the internet (and Berin's answer has a reasonable starter list)

The only real problems tend to stem from things like finger damage, rather than imbalance. Jamming fingers causes damage buildup that is very difficult to alleviate.

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In some quick googling around, the biggest issues I could find included:

  • Hunched shoulders -- suggesting upper back or general posterior chain weakness
  • Difficulty of spreading fingers -- the opposite of a grip problem, manifests itself as inflammation pain in the fingers.

The hunched shoulders I think are the more common issue that plagues a number of sports, not just climbing or bouldering. The good news is most of this can be addressed with common barbells and dumbbells. You might even get away with some body weight only exercises.

Fixing Hunched Shoulders

This comes from pulling yourself up while facing the rock, particularly if you don't hold yourself close to the face of the rock. It seems contradictory that a sport dedicated to pulling yourself up can result in hunched shoulders. One cause can be allowing your shoulders to shrug forward during "rests". You can see that when strongmen are pushing themselves on their farmers walks. The chest compensates to keep the shoulders in their sockets, which means more force pulling the shoulders forward. If you have gotten to a state where you are shrugging forward all the time, it's because you lack sufficient strength in the upper thoracic portion to keep the shoulders back even when you are relaxed.

Common exercises that can address this are:

  • Dumbbell reverse flies (targets the rhomboids and posterior deltoids)
  • Dumbbell front raises (targets the lats and rotator cuff)
  • Back extentions, rounded (targets the entire back, round at the bottom and raise up with the shoulders first ending in a sort of superman position)
  • Squats (hits the entire posterior chain, and strengthens your entire core)
  • Deadlifts (also hits the entire posterior chain and strengthens your entire core)
  • Any type of row (hits the upper back)

If you already have pronounced hunchback going on, I would start with the the following:

  • rounded back extentions body weight only 3x8-10.
  • dumbbell work (both listed above) at light weight for 5x20.
  • rows as heavy as you can and still pinch your shoulder blades together 3x8-10

The dumbbell work would be every time, and alternate the back extensions and rows. After that, squats and deadlifts will be awesome to build general strength and keep everything good.

Finger inflammation

The most common cause for a joint becomes inflamed is when you keep using it one way, and don't balance that work going the other way. For example, bench pressers who don't do any curls or pull ups tend to have inflammation in the elbows. Cyclists and runners who don't do anything for their hamstrings or posterior chain can have problems with their knees. The same goes for gripping small crevasses to support your whole body weight.

The good news is you don't have to balance the intensity of the work to get good results. You just need to get blood flowing through the joint with very high rep work (5x20, or any variation of 100 reps total).

To address the finger inflammation, use a rubber band around your fingers and open your hand enough to work against the resistance, but not so much that the rubber band rolls up on your hand.

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Thanks, great answer! Could you please elaborate a bit more on the hunched back problem? I cant get it how a sport thats almost all about pulling (or so it seems to an untrained eye) could have a weak back? I thought that pulling youreslf up/closer to the rock makes you develop a steel back... –  K.L. Apr 28 '13 at 13:33
1  
@K.L., usually that's the case. However, the weaknesses can be in the shoulder area itself, or due to poor climbing form. If during most of the climb your shoulders are forward the chest compensates to hold you up. If you are in the habit of retracting your shoulder blades to keep you tight to the face of the rock you probably won't have any problems. I imagine your lower back or lumbar portion would have no problems. It's the upper back or thoracic portion that can have weaknesses. –  Berin Loritsch Apr 28 '13 at 19:48
    
I'll add those details in the answer. –  Berin Loritsch Apr 28 '13 at 19:49
    
I'm a climber with a mild hunched forward posture. Part of the picture is that climbers tend to hang on their arms fully extended, to preserve their strength for the key moves when they'll need it. You will keep your shoulder blade engaged most of the time when you're doing this, but you're still moving around on a highly extended arm. I think this leads to things being stretched in odd ways. –  DavidR Apr 29 '13 at 17:14
    
also, Also, for all the pulling climbers do, the sport doesn't require them to maintain good thoracic posture (picture that in a pullup, you get a thoracic position automatically, as a function of gravity, whereas in a front squat / or a deadlift you have to exert muscles to maintain it). I think that lack of thoracic control (along with potential tightness in the pecs, which climbing also doesn't really do anything for) is what leads to the posture problem. –  DavidR Apr 29 '13 at 17:17

I've picked up this as it was mentioned on another SE site.

I don't think this is true. I do not think that climbers suffer from muscle imbalances, in fact this type of imbalance would be very detrimental to climbing ability.

Almost every climber I know has better posture than the average person. Most climbers work hard on posture, it's very important as part of climbing itself. The ability to maintain your balance and core rigidity under strain is key to lot's of aspects of the sport. The core muscles are probably the most important muscles you have when climbing and climbers generally understand that the key to this is balance (no point have a strong stomach if your lower back is weak, etc.)

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Climbing creates shoulder Imballances for sure. Particularly if you climb steep rock, or in the gum. Shoulder is the most unstable joint in the body. –  chad Jul 15 at 2:14
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climbing without any other exercise, sure, but this doesn't happen, chad –  Rory Alsop Jul 24 at 9:08

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