The Ultimate Climbing Warm-Up & Cool Down

Climbers are not good at warming up.

I said it, I’m sorry.

I’ve been around the world to many different climbing communities in many different areas and this is something I see consistently, especially outside.

The problem is climbing is just too fun. We’re always so eager to get on the wall that putting in that bit of time beforehand starts to feel very long very quickly.

And we’re always so bloomin’ wrecked by the end of a session that the thought of cooling down afterwards seems like an unfathomable odyssey. I’m especially guilty of this. After some sessions, anything but the fetal position is a bit much.

Unfortunately, most climbers come to a point where they realise their bodies are not the indestructible machines they once thought and this climbing business does start to take its toll.

So, like many climbers before you, have a little sit and a think. “What can I do to stop my finger from exploding next time?” or “My elbows are so sore I can barely prep my instant coffee, maybe I should do something about this?”

Warming up and cooling down are two of the BEST things you can do to help maintain your whole body as you beat and tear it apart attempting this climbing thing.

It’s not just for injury prevention though. Warming up will prepare your body to try much harder and produce more power than if you were to jump onto your project cold.

The idea of a climbing warm-up is to get blood flowing into the muscles. More blood in the muscle will mean more oxygen and nutrients to facilitate contraction. In addition, the blood will warm, loosen and moisten up the muscle tissue making it ready to deal with much more stress. A wet shirt won’t rip.

Cool downs, on the other hand, are more geared towards injury prevention in the long term. During exercise, your muscles will be collecting lactic acid and other by-products of energy production.

These by-products left in the muscle can build up into a gunk that leaves the tissue very susceptible to injury. And, if you’ve already got an injury, the gunk will do an excellent job of hindering its recovery.

The goal of a cool down is to flush all these by-products out so that they can be disposed of by the body. Then some stretching is added to loosen up any knots your muscles might have and keep the fibers at a healthy length.

What Makes a Good Warm-up?

Warm-ups consist of 3 main stages:

1. Raise
2. Activate and Mobilise
3. Potentiate

Simple enough. Let’s go through them one by one and talk about what each involves.

1. Raise

The goal of this stage is simply to raise your heart rate.

Doesn’t need to be fancy, all we are looking for is some form of low-intensity cardiovascular exercise.

This can be anything from running or cycling to rehearsing your favourite dance routine. If you run or cycle to your local gym then boom! You’re in the money.

When climbing outside, if the approach is somewhat arduous then that’s probably good enough too. Approaches aren’t all bad eh!

It really doesn’t matter too much so long as the cardiovascular exercise lasts between 5 and 15 minutes and your heart rate increases.

That said, there are a couple of exercises I prefer over others. Movements that also involve the upper body will help ready those areas for the later stages of warming up. (Though running a few laps around your gym may not be an easy or safe thing to do.)

Rowing

This is a great one to warm up if your wall has a rowing machine. The movement pattern mimics climbing brilliantly (retraction in the arms and extension in the legs).

You can also start off at a low level and build it up to something a bit more intense if it’s one of those really cold days. Unfortunately, not all walls will stock a rowing machine.

Skipping (AKA Jump-Roping)

This is my personal go to. You don’t need to rely on the wall having any equipment and you can do it anywhere. If you haven’t skipped before it can take a bit of time to learn but I found the learning process itself extremely fun.

I actually like to work with a weighted skipping rope while warming up. So long as the weight isn’t too much then it is still a good warm-up. That extra bit of weight helps strengthen the shoulders while you’re doing your essential warm-up.

Skipping and rowing have also both been shown to help IMPROVE SHOULDER STABILITY which is a massive plus in any climber’s book!

Your Own Personal Circuit

No equipment? No problem! You can always quickly whip up a little circuit of bodyweight exercises to perform.

Say, squats, push-ups, burpees, lunges and running on the spot. Do a minute of each with a minute rest afterwards.

2 sets of that and you’ll be ready to take on the world. And you don’t even have to go crazy hard, it’s a warm-up.

2. Activate & Mobilise

Now once our heart is going, we want to start getting our muscles firing happily throughout their entire range of motion. In this part of the warm-up, we want to limber up.

This involves dynamic stretches. A form of stretching where, rather than hold at the limit of muscle extension (static stretch), we want to carry out a motion that sweeps through the whole range of the muscle.

Why not static stretches?

Static stretches done before exercise have been shown to decrease muscle strength… That’s all the reason I need.

Dynamic stretches will again help bring blood to the muscle but they will also lengthen the muscles slightly and allow a greater range of motion throughout your session.

Here are 9 dynamic stretches to get you started.

Arm Circles

Shoulders are such a delicate joint in climbing it really is worth your while to spend a bit of time getting them working right before a session. Simply start off with small circles, increase slowly until full size and then decrease again slowly before reversing direction and repeating.

Horizontal Swings

More shoulder stuff — and these horizontal arm swings also stretch out your chest.

Swing your arms from held out by your sides to in front of you and then through to the opposing side. Then let them bounce back to the original position. You can do this with both bent and straight arms.

Thorax Twists

This one gets your core and spine going. Hold your arms up at shoulder height with a bend and then twist from side to side as far as your core will let you. Make sure to have your feet firmly planted so you are targeting your thorax.

Another version is to bend over forwards with your legs straight. Swing a hand to touch the opposing foot while swinging your other hand over your head at the same time. This one helps get your lats warm too.

Hip Circles

Do em! And look great while you’re at it!

Lunge Play

This is a great one for the hips and legs. Get yourself into a wide squat position and then simply lean across from leg to leg feeling around for stiffness. If you find a stiff part, bounce around on it for a few seconds before moving on. For an extra challenge, see if you can do hip circles in this position.

Leg Swings

Like the arm circles, you are using inertial force to literally force blood into the muscles on top of the normal things that are happening. Use a bit of wall if you need to balance and then simply swing your leg backwards and forward attempting to get it as high as you can each swing.

After this, you can then do the swings from side to side across your front.

Forearm Stretches

I really put a bit of time into this one and repeat a few times as it makes such a difference. Begin on your knees with your palms on the floor. The goal is then to circle around your hands, stretching your forearms slightly on each lap. You can then twist your hands so that your fingers are facing towards you and repeat.

It’s also a good idea to flip your hands so the backs are on the floor and you’re stretching out the other side of your forearm. After this, you can lift your palms off the ground while keeping your fingers on to give them a bit of a stretch too.

Foam Roll

Some studies have concluded that using a foam roller to warm up your muscles can also be effective since it “is more effective than static and dynamic stretching in acutely increasing flexibility of the quadriceps and hamstrings without hampering muscle strength.”

If you’ve got access to a foam roller then see if you can briefly roll out a few of the key muscle groups before climbing. Remember not to go to big on the rolling though or it will leave your muscles MORE TIRED.

Tennis Ball Massage

An alternative to foam rolling is to take a tennis ball and roll it over your muscles. Putting one between your back and the wall gives you access to rolling down many of the big muscle groups used in climbing.

Potentiate

We’re almost there. The aim of this stage is to mimic the movements we want to be doing in the session at a lower intensity.

If you know a thing or two about yoga then a few salutations in this section would go down perfectly well. I especially love holding the crow position a few times to get those forearms extra ready.

For climbers though there is a very very simple answer. Easy climbing! Finally, we’re on the wall!

However, it’s NOT a matter of 2 or 3 climbs and then you’re ready.

Depending on the intensity I’m planning for that session I could be doing light climbing for up to an hour. The slower you go, the less likely you are to hurt yourself.

I recommend low-level climbing for at least 20-30 minutes, but the main thing to understand here is that you should increase the difficulty slowly. No jumping from V1 to V8 right away. There should be climbs of almost every increment in between and they should be done at a rate that isn’t leaving you tired by the time you get there.

Warm Up Your Brain

One thing we draw attention to in our classes is that the potentiation section should be as much a mental warm up as a physical one.

As you try different movements and increase the difficulty, try to build in different techniques that require thought and precision.

The biggest thing to focus on by far is footwork.

When working through these easy climbs you should be making sure your footwork is pristine at every moment. I mean it!

Aim to place your foot perfectly on the FIRST attempt on every hold and if a foot slips I recommend you step off and start again. Be strict with yourself.

You can also start to build in more advanced techniques such as heel or toe hooks that require you to concentrate on placing your feet correctly.

Another good mental warm-up is to attempt an overhang where you must really focus on activating your core to make your feet stick. If they cut then get off and try again.

If you have a project to try that session then see if you can take more time practising some of the elements your climb involves. Got a toe hook crux? Get on a few easier toe hook problems.

After a warm up like this, you should be feeling strong and ready for a climb. When you’re properly warmed up, your chances of injury are much lower and you can feel it!

Often, if you’re looking to get on something hard outside, many committed climbers will go through this warming up process at their local wall before heading to the crag.

Cooling Down After a Climbing Session

So, what are we supposed to do after a session? Get a beer is the first thing that pops into my mind but actually, there are a few steps you can take to clear those toxins out of your muscles to leave them healthy and ready for the next session.

Light Cardio

You can use the exact same exercise (or dance routine) as you did for the warm-up but the intensity should be lower. We want to be doing this cardio at a very low intensity for 5 to 15 minutes.

This will get your heart to flush the by-products of energy production out of your muscles without stimulating them to produce more.

Static Stretches

After your cardio, this is the best time to carry out a set of static stretches. As I mentioned earlier, static stretches before a session will decrease muscle strength but if you carry them out afterwards they will help flush out the chemicals we don’t want and they will increase the flexibility of your muscles.

I’ve written an entire article on the best static stretches for climbers which you can find here.

Self-massage

Also covered in the stretching article, self-massage is an excellent little tool to leave your muscles as happy as possible after a climbing session.

The easiest trick is to roll a tennis ball across tighter muscles where you know there might be a knot or two. Foam rolling is also welcome here.

I also always like to give my forearms a rubdown. I feel it’s one of the best things to help leave my fingers strong and healthy for the next session.

There you have it, an extensive guide on how best to warm up for a climbing session and cool down after you’re done. If you’ve any experience with injury then you’ll know it’s worth the time!