If you’ve been hanging around the climbing world for a while I would bet good money that you’ve bumped into someone with a shoulder injury. Heck, you’ve probably had one yourself.
Shoulder injuries are some of the most common injuries climbers deal with — particularly amongst those who boulder. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Gosh, my rotator cuff feels great!”?
What you should take from this lovely piece of information is that you’re likely gonna get one of these trendy shoulder injuries somewhere down the line, and you should be thinking about things to help prevent it from happening.
Protecting against shoulder and rotator cuff injuries is what this article is here to help with.
Here I will go over a collection of exercises designed by a physiotherapist to strength and condition shoulders for the INTENSE forces that climbing will put upon them.
First things first. This is not a regimen you should be looking at if you actually have a shoulder injury!
If one of your shoulders is currently injured then you should be seeking medical help in order to specifically target the problem.
This guide is designed for helping PREVENT a shoulder injury, not to recover from one! You can use these exercises for shoulder rehab, but very late rehab. I do not recommend you try this if you are experiencing pain of any sort.
Another thing to be aware of — you really don’t have to worry about pushing yourself or improving at any sort of rate when carrying out these exercises.
It’s hard to explain, but I’ve always found that my shoulders feel more stable just from doing the workout rather than the strength and power gained from the training. The workout starts to leave your shoulders tonically activated in a healthy position afterwards. One of the exceptionally rare times I might actually say, “Gosh, my rotator cuff feels great!”
Stability is what we’re looking for here; a form of strength that comes from lower level activation. Power gains are just an added bonus.
I’m emphasising this point because with these more focused exercises you often compensate with the WRONG muscles if the weight is too high. It’s better to use a lighter weight and correctly target the muscles we want to work.
Also, pushing yourself too hard on a conditioning programme such as this one is not worth the chance of injury. And the increased stability of your shoulders should allow you to obtain more applicable power gains just from trying harder on the wall.
I normally carry out all of the exercises within a dedicated session. Remembering to warm up and cool down, I will complete the exercises back to back taking any rest I feel is necessary.
1. Abducted External Rotation Drop & Catch
This involves lying on your front on a bench with your arm perpendicular to your body. Then bend your arm 90° so that your fist is now facing forwards.
From here just drop the weight and catch it again before it hits the ground. Bring the weight straight back up to head height and go again.
The key here is to focus on ROTATING your arm to activate the rotator cuff. The best way to check is to make sure that your elbow is at the same height the whole time and is only rotating.
Drop and catches are more focused on the neural development of the shoulder muscles. The goal is to maintain activation as the shoulder tires.
These are done with a 1 kg (2 lb) weight and you repeat them until fatigue. You may only be completing around 20-30 reps at the start. The goal is to get this up to 70-100 and keep it there.
2. Abducted Internal Rotation Drop & Catch
Exact same idea but this time you lie on your back instead. You then lift the weight upwards a bit (by rotating your arm) and then flick it off to catch it on the way down.
Remember, keep your elbow in the same place throughout the movement to make sure the rotator cuff is being used.
3. Abducted External Rotation
These weighted rotations are what you would typically think of as a weights exercise. They involve many of the same rotations but you have a slightly heavier weight and your aim is to smoothly flow through the movement.
Same idea as exercise No.1. Start by lying on your front, arm held perpendicular with a 90° bend. Begin with your fist facing the ground holding the weight. You then want to smoothly lift the weight up to head height over at least 3 seconds. Then slowly bring it back down over the same amount of time.
If you are shaking during this movement then the weight is too HEAVY. The shakes are the rotator cuff failing and other muscles stepping in to compensate.
The key here is to maintain form and isolate the rotator cuff.
Many people will use the edges of the bench as leverage; this is not what we want. Try to make sure you aren’t squeezing your legs or arms against the sides as this will involve your core in the exercise and allow other muscles to compensate for the movement.
These exercises are to be done for 20 reps with a 3kg (6-7 lb) weight or less. Continue at this level for 2 months.
After 2 months you can add 1 or 2 kg (2-4 lbs) and complete 3-4 sets of 8 reps instead. But remember, it’s not supposed to be desperately hard!
4. Abducted Internal Rotation
Now the static equivalent of exercise No.2. On your back, perpendicular arm, 90°. The exercise begins with your fist holding the weight at head height and then slowly raising it up to point towards the roof. Again, the movement should be over 3 seconds and the same for back down.
5. Adducted External Rotation
In this exercise, you are lying on your side. Your arm should have a 90° bend again and your elbow should be resting on your hip.
The essential part of this exercise is to keep that elbow touching your hip throughout the whole movement.
With your fist holding the weight out in front of you, rotate it up so that your fist then points at the roof. Again, the movement should be over 3 seconds and the same for back down.
I find this movement particularly harder than the other 2 and will drop the weight to 1 or 2 kg.
6. Y’s on Gym Ball
Here you must lie with your chest on a gym ball and hold 2 weights out at a 45° angle. Your body should be in the shape of a Y… hence the name. With the weights resting on the ground and backs of hands facing the ceiling, the goal is to slowly lift the weights up to head height and then smoothly lower them back down.
I recommend carrying this out with 1 or 2 kg (2-4 lbs) and the sets/reps are the same as for exercises 3-5.
7. T’s on Gym Ball
Exact same setup as the previous exercise but this time your arms are held out by your sides as they carry out the movement.
8. I’s on Gym Ball
This time, your arms are held straight out in front of you. In this one it’s useful to think about your shoulders still being locked down. Basically, this means, don’t let your shoulders brush your ears. Think about pulling them back as you carry out the movement.
9. Tuck on Gym Ball
Now we’re onto the movements that are more focused on integrating your core into shoulder function.
With your shins on the ball and hands on the floor out in front of you, the aim is to rotate forward into a handstand position with your feet on the gym ball. As you rotate you roll the gym ball down your legs to facilitate this. When it reaches your feet you tuck your knees all the way into your chest.
Once in this position, roll back down and then even further to the point where the ball is at your waist and your arms are completely stretched out in front of you.
The aim of this exercise it to do it continually for a minute and build this up to 2 minutes. I find it helps to decide upon a number of repetitions that roughly take that amount of time in order to maintain motivation…2 minutes starts to feel very long.
Also, make sure that the movement is smooth and controlled throughout. You shouldn’t be falling or wobbling until the last few reps.
10. Pike on Gym Ball
This exercise is almost exactly the same except that when the ball rolls down to your feet, you keep your legs straight and bring them as close to your hands as you can. (As you can see from my demonstration, the emphasis is on ‘as close as you can’)
When at the peak of either of the last 2 exercises (in the assisted handstand position), try to think about leaning as much of your weight as you can onto your hands. Lean in such a way that your feet will slowly lift off the gym ball if you’re strong enough. This really weights the shoulders and helps develop them.
11. Side Plank
Often associated with targeting the core and obliques, side planks are also great at working your shoulder!
Again the goal for the side plank is to hold it for a minute and then build up to 2.
There are variations however which can increase the difficulty of this exercise.
Level one — the standard side plank — is with the forearm on the ground.
Level two involves rising up onto your hand instead. This increases the pivot angle and forces your shoulder to work more to stabilise.
Level three is mostly the same as level two but you hold your higher foot in the air. This destabilises your body further.
Level four is the same position as level three but your other hand now comes down and threads through the gap between you and the floor. As you come to the lower parts of this movement your torso twists around to face the ground. Repeat this movement smoothly throughout the entire time you’re holding the plank.
Remember to keep your legs locked out and strong. You want a strong chain of muscles right the way down your side.
12. Hanging Tucks
Now we’re really focused on climbing specific movements. With all of these hanging exercises, you need to make sure your shoulders are locked down. It’s something I talk about in almost EVERY article and that’s because it’s super important.
In hanging tucks, you simply hang from a bar and tuck your knees up into your chest.
As climbers though, we’ve really got to be strong in these muscle groups so the preferred movement is to rotate your torso as well so it becomes horizontal.
The goal again would be to repeat this movement for 1 to 2 minutes but I end up just doing this exercise until failure. It’s pretty hard.
13. Hanging Pike
Here the goal is to hang from a bar and simply raise your feet up to touch the bar with as straight as legs as possible. I say ‘as possible’ because not many of us climbers have the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast but your best attempt will still make a difference.
If this is beyond your capability then you can just raise your legs up to a horizontal L-sit position.
14. Windscreen Wipers
Windscreen wipers aren’t easy. They build upon the hanging tuck we did earlier. Here we want to tuck our legs in and rotate the torso until it is horizontal like in the advanced hanging tuck. Then you begin to rotate your torso side to side, drawing a semicircle with your knees.
To build upon this you can straighten your legs.
There You Have It
A shoulder-focused set of climbing exercises for strength and conditioning. It’s something you should be doing constantly to supplement climbing; it’s not a 6-week course you do just once.
Aim to complete this regimen twice a week and if your shoulders are significantly tired after the session, try to avoid any intense, shouldery climbing the next day.