So you’ve been climbing for a while now and you’ve heard this murmur about stretching.
Maybe you chatted with someone about their shoulder injury and they said: “If only I had been stretching!”
Or maybe you walked past a competitive group of boulders and heard the all too common “I’m not flexible enough for that!”
As a former climbing coach, heed my advice — it’s time you started stretching before that rock over is actually too high. To that end, here is a visual list of 15 simple stretches for climbing.
Before we begin, here are 5 things to keep in mind while reading this article:
- Stretching too hard only tears muscle. You see improvements with easier stretching, more often.
- Not all stretches suit everyone. You must learn which ones work for your body and which don’t. I’ll explain later.
- These are static, post-workout stretches. Don’t do these before climbing. You must be warmed up.
- All these stretches are to be held for 30 seconds.
- It’s up to you to figure out how many sets you will do. I recommend starting with 2-3 sets each to get an idea of which areas feel tight and which feel loose, then customizing the number of sets from there.
In my experience, shoulders are what climbers injure most. Let’s look at some stretches to help prevent this.
Lie face down on the floor and extend one arm out to your side palm down. You then roll your body over the shoulder of the extended arm. Throughout all of this, you must think about twisting the inside of your elbow into the ground. This will open up the shoulder which keeps it in a much healthier position and really allows those pecs to be targeted.
Tight pecs are one of the main causes of that ‘hunched over’ posture you see so many climbers with. It is also often a contributing factor to many shoulder injuries. The pecs become so tight that the rotator cuff muscles around the back are far too strung out to do their job correctly.
This is one you might not have heard of before, but it’s great for stretching those muscles in between your shoulder blades if you get a very tight back. Hold one arm up in front of you with a 90° bend. Then cross your other hand under the elbow and try to bring it up so your palms are touching (they don’t have to be).
You should begin to feel a strange new stretch at this point. If you push your elbows out and roll your arms around the motion they are capable of, you will start to target the different parts of your trapezius and rhomboids.
Your lats are the bits that make your arms move downwards. You use them a lot in climbing. Here we’ve got 2 stretches to target different parts of your lats.
It’s very important to remember to have your shoulders activated. Don’t let your shoulder come up to touch your ear. Keep it down! Also, think about twisting your inside elbow in towards your center when carrying these out.
3. Lat Wall
This is a very simple stretch. Just find yourself a jug on the wall a bit higher than your head, grab it and then begin to lean away until a stretch is felt. You can then rotate around and find a particular plane where your muscle stretches the most and hold it there. Remember, keep the shoulder activated!
4. Lat Chair
Easiest one of the lot. Just begin on your knees, put your palms on a chair in front of you and then lean down into a stretch with straight arms. This stretch will open up your shoulders, which you should get excited about because tight shoulders are the reason everyone is better at yoga than you.
Worried about a finger injury or elbow tendonitis? Me too. These climbing forearm stretches will help.
I did say that not every stretch is appropriate for everyone, but in all my years I’ve never met a climber who didn’t have tight forearms. I’m not saying there aren’t any…but you should probably be doing these stretches after every climbing session. They will help keep elbow tendonitis and many finger injuries at bay!
5. Forearm Flexors #1
Simply placing your palms on the ground with your fingers facing away. Begin to lean forward over your wrists until you feel a stretch.
6. Forearm Flexors #2
Another quick variation to do as well. This time place your palms on the ground with your fingers facing towards you and then begin to lean back and away from your wrists. This stretch will also get your biceps if they are tight too.
7. Forearm Flexors #3
In this variation, you do the exact same as the first but you don’t lean as far forward and instead attempt to lift your palms off the ground. Some people are much more flexible in this plane than others, but everyone should be able to notice a stretch.
8. Forearm Extensors
Kneel and place your hand on the ground, palm up. Now ball your hand into a fist. Place your other hand on top of it, and lean forward while keeping your arm straight until you feel the stretch on the top of your forearm.
The forearm extensor compartment is often neglected. “But,” you say, “you only use your flexors while climbing, don’t you?” This is not the case.
It is a common phenomenon that a flexor will injure or tear because it’s opposing extensor is too tight. Runners deal with this often in the quadriceps: hamstring compartments. If one of your forearm flexors tears then that’s your finger screwed!
More flexible hips will allow you to put more weight on your feet in every angle of climbing.
This section may be towards the end but your hips are in no way less important than the other joints. When I’m stretching the joints in my upper body it’s all about maintenance. My goals are to keep the joints healthy to maintain strength and avoid injury.
When stretching my hips, on the other hand, I’m always looking to reach a new level as the more flexible you get here the more your climbing technique will improve.
Most people focus on building grip strength to climb harder, but you’ll be amazed to see the difference in your climbing when you’re able to step further and higher, rock deeper, and weight your heel more.
9. Wide Squat
This is one stretch you can also do before a climbing session to limber up if you just flow through the positions rather than hold them. First get into a wide squat position with your knees around 90°. From here the idea is to just feel around the range of movement you have and see where you’re tight.
Try leaning across towards each leg and then try to circle your hips from the center. If a spot feels tight, hold it.
(Unfortunately, my original video for this stretch included hip circles but was flagged for copyright by the producers of Magic Mike.)
10. Hip Flexors
I can’t emphasize the importance of this stretch. It should be done regularly by the entire population as it helps relieve a growing epidemic known as anterior pelvic tilt — a postural change that is greatly influenced by office chair life. Basically, if the pelvis was a bucket of water, many chair dwellers are always pouring water out the front.
To do this stretch, go down on one knee, put your hands on your hips with thumbs facing forward and then attempt to rotate your hips backward so that imaginary bucket is now pouring water out the back.
When doing this stretch, make sure that you are in a vertical position and the stretch is coming from hip rotation. If you lean forward you will change the stretch to the quadriceps compartment instead which will not catch the deep iliopsoas muscles you want.
Regularly stretching your hip flexors will strengthen your core and help relieve back pain by loosening the lower back and hamstrings.
Climbers can always do with a more flexible groin. The more you can open your hips the more you will be able to hold your center of gravity above your feet and reduce the load on your arms. It’s an integral part of climbing footwork.
Everyone also knows about your basic groin stretches but as it’s so important in climbing we want to take it a bit further. In this variation, you go onto hands and knees and straddle your knees apart. Then fall down onto your forearms and attempt to press your pelvis towards the ground. You should definitely feel a stretch here!
One of your more common stretches here but still very important. Sitting on the ground with legs stretched out either side, you want to begin to lean forward towards the ground.
The trick here is to think about your belly button moving towards the ground rather than your arms or head. That way you will keep your back straight and focus the stretch on the important parts. You can grab your feet to push further into it if need be.
I find I can sink significantly further into this stretch after holding for a minute or so. Take slow, deep breaths and sink down as you exhale. If your hip flexors are very tight it often makes stretching your hamstrings redundant so make sure you’re having a go at both!
Tight glutes are going to do their damnedest to stop you from lifting your foot high. You need to stretch your butt out.
However, the basic glute stretch of lying flat and pulling your knee up to your chest isn’t enough for climbers. These variations will help you work towards those higher flexibility levels.
This nifty little stretch is bloody great! If you’re ever on a problem and the heel hook is just a bit too high or close to your face then jump off and do this stretch for a bit. I have genuinely made people do this and seen it work instantly.
From your knees, move into a sitting position with one leg bent in front of you and the other extended behind you. Then attempt to lean forward over your bent leg. If this is a bit easy then you can straighten your front leg a bit to deepen the stretch. (The original video of me attempting to demonstrate this advanced variation and failing drastically has been cut due to self-esteem issues.)
14. Glute Wall
Begin by lying on your back with one foot up on a wall so that your knee has a 90° bend. Then you can put the ankle of the other leg against that raised knee and feel a stretch along the outside hip. To deepen this you can push your knee towards the wall slightly or shuffle inwards so the foot on the wall has a bend of over 90 degrees.
15. Tennis Ball Massage
This little trick is so useful I’m astounded it isn’t household knowledge. Grab yourself a tennis ball and put it between your back and the wall. You now have a self-massage tool that can target all those muscle knots you didn’t know you had!
It’s not just for your back either. Don’t be afraid to roll it around your shoulders and onto your chest too. Self-massage is an excellent tool to help maintain healthy muscles. I regularly massage my forearms.
Be aware not to get carried away though! It takes a couple of days to recover from a full sports massage so you’ll not be doing too well if you give yourself one of those every day. When massaging your muscles like this, it’s much better to limit your time on a knot to no more than 30 seconds and focus on doing it more often.
Note: I talk a little more about self-massaging in my climbing warm up and cool down routine.
Tips When Stretching for Climbing
Listen closely to your body and learn which parts are tight and which are naturally loose.
There is every possibility that some of your joints are extremely hypermobile and you are only damaging them with stretches. Or, your joints may be so tight that you are tearing muscles just trying to get into the positions.
This is one side of the coin. The other is that the stretches you are doing are genuinely the only thing keeping you from injury. I know that if I stop stretching my forearms I will notice elbow tendonitis within a couple of weeks!
Many of you will find both of these principles apply to different parts of your body to some extent. Figuring out which parts of your body are tight and which are loose is an asset in preventing climbing injuries.
For example, I do 3 sets of each forearm stretch minimum but only 1 set of the pec stretches. A couple of these stretches I won’t do at all because I’ve learned that those joints are naturally hypermobile.
This will take time to figure out, but it is infinitely important. There is no one size fits all in biology.