Mobility is necessary if you want to climb for a long time, but it’s often forgotten as we focus instead on training harder. Get supple with these tips from the best-selling author of “Becoming a Supple Leopard”
Raise your hand if you, or a climber you know, has had shoulder surgery.
Can’t do it, can you? Raise your hand over your head, I mean. Because your shoulder joint is welded like a copperhead on an El Cap trade route.
Sorry, not you … me. I’m talking about myself, actually. Over the last four years, I’ve tasted the whole rainbow of shoulder pain. It comes and goes—on both sides. This pain has taken myriad forms, from a rather mild kind of pain, like when small-minded bloggers open-letter you to their 19-person audience, to the full-blown, knife-stabbing kind of pain that keeps you awake at night, during which time you’re free to look at Facebook to see who’s been “gas lit” now.
Little surprise that I have shoulder issues. My lats, like those of most climbers, are overdeveloped/overstretched; my pecs, meanwhile, are underdeveloped/tight. What’s even worse is that I’m a writer, which is a brutal and self-loathing way to make a living. It also means that I spend a lot of time hunched over a laptop, which compounds my already crappy posture/alignment.
Over the years, when my shoulders hurt, I’d do something expensive, like hire a big, hairy man to massage my naked body for 60 minutes. Or I’d squeeze into some booty shorts and take a vino & vinyasa yoga class. Whisky, ibuprofen, and “Game of Thrones” seemed to be just as effective. And while those remedies provided temporary relief, to be sure, the pain inevitably returned and my own slow, creeping slide down into the depths of mediocrity continued.
When your climbing levels go from mediocre to more mediocre, your motivation takes a hit and you start climbing less. So … I started lifting weights. That went well, except for two specific exercises, in which I couldn’t progress: strict shoulder press and bench press. It helped when I improved my form, but even then, I felt like I was doomed to ride the strugglebus for the rest of my life.
My basic, broad, totally unscientific hypothesis was that my shoulders, simply, were “injured”—tendonitis, labrum tears, etcetera, etcetera. In my mind, all of these conditions fell under the umbrella of “overuse”—which, I had always grimly assumed, was akin to a type of biological planned obsolesce. In other words, what I was experiencing was the inevitable fate of someone, anyone, who climbs too often and for too long.
I would only later realize that this is the same kind of thinking of the person who doesn’t know about oil changes and just drives his car till the engine explodes, thinking that’s normal.
I was nevertheless curious about why I was having such a hard time progressing in both strict shoulder press and bench press—two exercises that aren’t directly related to climbing. In fact, they’re opposite actions. If my shoulders were jacked from climbing (pulling), then why couldn’t I push?
Through research, I came to suspect that my shoulders lacked mobility—both full range of motion, and the ability to exert strength at those end ranges. I had never considered that flexibility might be the problem—being a lifelong climbing gumby, flexibility had never been an issue for me (or, rather, never used to be an issue for me).
This self-diagnosis set me off on a long journey of reading, learning, and experimenting—as well as a whole lot of self-massage and rolling around on hard rubber balls. Spoiler alert: my shoulders feel totally awesome now! I had no surgery, received neither blood transfusions nor prolotherapy, and had no far Eastern treatments involving dubious mushroom powders and stimulation of life meridians. I didn’t give up gluten or coffee, and I never took any trips to a chiropractor or a massage therapist.
I fixed myself in about 10-20 minutes a day over four to six months. Much more importantly, I learned a lot more about what it means to create stability through a range of positions, how to practice that stability through weight training, and why it’s so, so important to continue to maintain your tissues on a daily basis.
Thus far, I haven’t experienced any shoulder pain while climbing this year—which is amazing!
The beginning of the end (of my shoulder pain) was when I ordered a copy of Becoming a Supple Leopard. It’s hard to overstate how important this nearly 500-page, picture-filled book was to my recovery. Kelly Starrett, the author, is a physiotherapist and CrossFit coach who, with his wife, Juliet, co-founded San Francisco CrossFit, one of the first 50 CrossFit affiliates in the world. He’s also a co-founder of MobilityWOD.com, a treasure trove of videos and information about training, performance, maintenance, and mobility.
I reached out to Kelly earlier this year to do an interview for this site. Kelly is a tour de force of hilarious one-liners and no-nonsense advice delivered with the exacting authority of a commanding officer. Instead of just cutting and pasting our entire Q&A, I thought I’d take a stab at distilling some of the wisdom that he shared with me into more digestible ideas/topics. I also took a stab at providing some of my own thoughts about how some of this information might translate to high-end rock climbing, when relevant.
As Kelly stated, “If you give people the right information and don’t talk down to them, they’ll make the right decisions. We’ve been blown away by how smart people are at the application of all these things.”
It’s true. People really are smart. Sometimes, like me, it just takes them awhile to get there.
Training & Diagnostics
AB: Most climbers I know don’t lift weights—for a somewhat understandable reason, too. By themselves, deadlifts and squats won’t help you climb 5.14 or V12. Sorry, they won’t. You’ll see much quicker improvement from hangboarding, eating kale chips, and pounding BCAAs.
However, this common attitude misses a much more important point about incorporating formal strength-and-conditioning routines into your life. As Kelly explains:
The mistake in the realm of strength and conditioning is that we’ve always said to people, ‘Get Stronger.’ And you’ll say, “Well, I’m not a football player, I’m a climber.”
Hey, I climbed in the ‘90s. I understand the rice-cakes and diet-coke ethic.
If you’re a competent climber and just go about your day, you can’t always tell when your positions are being compromised because there is so much going on.
What I want to see from people is competency at the end range. When you are end-range limited, then you become really weak. As soon as you have to really reach, and you put that shoulder into a position where it’s easy to compensate, and you don’t understand how to create a stable position at that end range, it creates a whole host of issues like tendonopathies. It’s not the climbing, it’s you.
A really simple diagnostic tool is the formal practices of strength and conditioning, which is ultimately the truest, fullest expression of the physiology.
With a classic strength and conditioning, we can get people fitter, we can get them stronger … but that’s not really the point. That’s a side effect to challenging the robustness of positions.
It’s not how many pull-ups you can do. It’s, “Do you understand what your shoulder is supposed to do when you do a pull up?”
AB: It was revelatory to consider approaching weight training, not as a way to see how much I could possibly deadlift, but to use it as a tool to teach the body how to move in a way that won’t result in injury. It’s worth noting that there are many ways to skin this cat. Yoga and pilates, according to Kelly, can also be excellent ways to challenge and learn those “robust positions” so that they become second nature.
Overuse Injuries Are Your Own Fault
AB: I asked Kelly if climbing injuries are inevitable. He pointed out that there are two or three categories of injuries. The rarest type of injury results from “joint cancer,” meaning you have bad genes and your joints can’t hang together (literally). The next type of sports injury results from an accident—think taking whipper and impacting the cliff, spraining your ankle or jacking your shoulder. The third category of injury, and perhaps the most common one in the climbing world is the overuse injury. As Kelly explains:
An overuse injury, or a positional fault injury, is of your own making. You climbed all day long, then you sat around and didn’t do any soft-tissue work. And you did that four days in a row, and then on the fifth day, your shoulder ached. We often can’t connect the dots between cause and effect, and so we typically say that overuse injuries are normal. You climb for awhile, and then back off, and then climb more, and then back off. That’s bullshit, though; 98 percent of the injuries are really just preventable disease.
The problem is that most people don’t understand this. Or they don’t have a formal movement program where they’re training neuromuscular control, and they also don’t have full range of motion.
You might be surprised when you sit at a computer all day, slouched over, and then belay and then your neck hurts—but that’s why your neck sucks! You don’t have thoracic extension. You can’t put your arms over your head because of your rounded upper back. Your elbows are flared. No wonder you’re not powerful. Then you start to compensate on the rock.
At no point does your body stop healing. You have to do some pretty significant long-term damage to your shoulders where you need surgical intervention in order to find stable, pain-free positions.
AB: Kelly provided a number of diagnostic movements to check in on yourself and see where you might be limited. Some tests include:
Can you hang from a pull-up bar, with your hands close together, with a chin grip?
Can you squat all the way down with your feet together and your heels on the ground?
Can you do an overhead squat with a bar?
Can you support yourself in a dip position on the gymnastics rings, with your hands turned out to 11 and 1, respectively?
If you answer no to any of these questions, “it’s a good indicator that something more is going on,” says Kelly. And from there, it’s all about becoming curious about why your body can’t move through that full range. “And you better have a plan to restore that range of motion if you can’t.”
Difference Between Lack of Mobility and a Tear
Here’s a good indicator of something more going on: your shoulder aches 24/7. That’s different than, “I put my arm over my head and something hurts.”
On Icing Injuries
Warm margaritas suck, so save the ice for that.
Bottom line is that there is zero evidence to support icing. Zero. In fact, Dr. Gabe Mirkin—who coined the term RICE—came out two years ago and said, “By the way, we were totally wrong about rest and ice.”
The question is, do you think the healing response of the body is a mistake?
No, it’s not a mistake. The real mechanism we’re trying to address is pain through swelling. And the easiest way to manage that is to evacuate the swelling through movement: pain-free motion. We also use VooDoo flossing compression to address swollen tissues.
AB: VooDoo Floss is a 2-inch-wide rubber band, typically cut to about seven feet long, that you wrap around a joint or muscle in order to create compression. Then, by working the joint/muscle through its full range of motion for about two or three minutes, you can mobilize that area.
I’ve been using VooDoo Floss since I learned about it from Kelly’s book, and I’ve found it to be insanely effective for working through tight spots, helping with inflammation, and even with warming up and post-climbing recovery. On Kelly’s recommendation, I’ve been wrapping my forearms in VooDoo floss before climbing, in between pitches, as well as at the end of the day. I’ve found this to be helpful at staving off the dreaded flash pump, as well as aiding in recovery between routes. I keep a roll of VooDoo floss in my climbing pack. I use it to stretch, do shoulder passes-through, and floss my forearms. It weighs nothing, and it could always double as a first-aid bandage in case you sprain your ankle or something while you’re out frolicking in the hills.
For the common wrist, elbow, and finger injuries that climbers experience, Kelly recommends flossing with VooDoo bands. In order to wrap up your fingers, you’ll have to cut the VooDoo band into a smaller 1” x 12” (roughly) strip. I can also attest to the effectiveness of using VooDoo Floss for wrists and fingers. Recently, my wrist had been bugging me while hangboarding. And my fingers had been sore from crimping. Flossing both areas (three rounds of two minutes each) removed most the discomfort immediately. After a few more sessions, the pain/discomfort entirely went away. I was raised to believe that the correct treatment for a tweaked finger was ice and immobilization, so this runs completely counter to those ideas.
Here’s Kelly, with more background on why VooDoo bands will help with finger injuries:
One of the problems with the hand and wrist is that you have a lot of what are called retinacula. A retinaculum is a small band of tissue that keeps the tendon from bowstring. When we have swelling in those tissues from over use, a lot of time the pain and dysfunction in the joint is caused because of the swelling in such a tiny little space. The retinaculum basically traps fluid between compartments—each finger has three compartments, and there is a wrist compartment. Because you’re always dangling your hands down, it’s hard to evacuate that swelling.
One of the easiest things to do with a swollen finger is put your hand up by your head and wiggle your finger as much as you can. Five minutes of that, and you’ll see your hand get smaller. VooDoo floss the swollen finger and wiggle it around above your head and you’ll push the swelling out of the finger.
When Warming Up, Think Hard-Packed Earth, and Go Slow
People don’t warm up their forearms for climbing at all. And every move in climbing is full body weight. No other sports begins with full body-weight warmups. Gymnasts don’t just get out of bed and jump on the rings. Weight lifters don’t just start with heavy bars.
When you spray water onto hard-packed earth, the water bounces off at first until it gets saturated. Your shoulder joints, your forearms, are all the same way. You have to perfuse your joints with blood flow by getting the heart rate up. It takes a little while to sink some blood into that rotator cuff tissue.
Take the shoulders through a full range of motion. It takes a few minutes. VooDoo floss your forearms and take your hands through as many motions as you can. Put your forearms backwards, forwards, do some pushups.
Your Body Is a House. Stop Living in One Room
Climbing is like slow gymnastics. It’s really sustainable because the movements are typically a little bit slower. You can climb till you’re really old.
You have to learn how to be strong throughout the full normal physiological range, and not just these little windows.
If your body is a house, most people are living, cooking, and sleeping in the living room. You need to own the whole house. And it’s difficult to express all of these positions—unless you have a pretty full movement practice.
You ask climbers: what do you do? And they’ll say, “I run to get fit.” OK, but how does that express full hip, ankle, and shoulder range of motion?
AB: I’ll add here that it’s not just “run to get fit,” but climbers also get stuck in training routines, where they do the same things over and over again. They don’t lift weights because they’re afraid of adding bulk. They spend 3 hours hangboarding and do nothing for their legs and ankles. On the weekend, they project the same route every time they go climbing, doing this same moves over and over, and then spend all week doing the same hangboarding and training routine—then wonder why they’re in a plateau and they’re getting overuse injuries.
Consider whether you are living in one room and whether it’s worth exploring the rest of the house. Mix it up. Check in with your whole body. Those tight hips and bad ankles are probably holding your climbing back just as much, if not more than your fingers—yet how much attention have you paid to these areas in the last year?
You’re Probably Hangboarding Wrong
AB: In Supple Leopard, Kelly states that pull-ups are best performed in a hollow-body position, meaning, that your toes are pointed just slightly in front of your body, which allows you to maximize tension in your glutes and core.
Almost 99 percent of climbers I see hangboarding have their feet kicked up and crossed behind their backs. Most people default to this faulty position for pull-ups, too.
I was curious if Kelly would recommend the hollow-body position for hangboarding as well. His answer?
Why the fuck would it be any different?
When we cross our legs, it makes it impossible to engage your glutes and set your ribcage over your pelvis, putting you in an over-extended position. From this position, there’s no way to create stability in your shoulders.
I would much rather you point your toes because that’s a stronger position and requires greater control and connection between the upper and lower body. You might think that lower piece of meat doesn’t affect what’s going on with the upper piece of meat, which is bullshit. As we say around our house, you’re a system of your systems.
AB: Fair warning: doing strict pull-ups in this hollow-body position is way harder than it is with your legs crossed behind you. Note that this legs-crossed-behind-you position is also not recommended for doing dips.
Stop Resting Before Performance Days
AB: If there’s a CrossFit competition on Saturday morning, Kelly recommends his athletes rest on Thursday and do a light training session on Friday. I think this advice is really applicable for weekend warriors. Most weekend warriors seem to train Tuesday and Thursday, rest Friday, and climb Saturday/Sunday. But this might not be the optimal approach. Kelly:
One of the things that we find is that it’s easier to keep the diesel idling than to start it cold. Think about when you go on multi-day climbing trips. The first day kind of sucks. The second day is kind of better. If you’re a weekend warrior, rest Thursday, and go do some light bouldering on Friday afternoon. Do some hanging. Get your heart rate up. Do a little hiking. We’re agnostic about what kind of exercise you do, but I guarantee you’ll do better the next day.
Glucosamine, CBD Oil, and Real Solutions
AB: I asked, any thoughts on taking glucosamine?
I think that feels like a magic pill. Oh, you’re taking glucosamine? … How many servings of vegetables did you have today? Did you sleep more than 8 hours last night? Is your phone in your bedroom? How much water did you drink? Are you a stress case? Did you eat any protein today? Did you drink a diet Coke? Oh, and you think glucosamine is going to solve these problems? I don’t think so.
I will tell you that CBD oil is pretty miraculous stuff. It’s the non-psychoactive component of THC. You can’t get high on CBD, but it’s a pretty powerful anti-inflammatory.
AB: I haven’t used CBD oil myself, but Steph Davis swears by it and uses it on swollen hands after crack climbing.
One of the things I appreciate most about Kelly is that he always thinks about the big picture before addressing the micro problems. So often, we choose to zero in on the micro issues while ignoring the big picture. Often times, those big lifestyle changes are the ones we most need to make, but they’re the ones that we choose to ignore while seeking quick, easy solutions. You’ll be fighting battles forever if you have no strategy for winning the war.
Tools and More Resources
I’ve tried a ton of the mobility tools on the market, everything from the cheap ones you can get at Target to the homemade variety. The tools offered by Mobility WOD come at a premium priced, but I have to say, they’re totally worth it. (Note: I was not paid to promote these products.) My problem with other tools is that they’re just not quite hard enough to really dig into those tissues. All the Mobility WOD tools are made of really hard plastic and for some reason, they just work much better. My top three recommendations are:
More versatile than a foam roller, much harder, and far more effective. My favorite torture tool, and great for opening up the upper thoracic.
The 120mm Supernova is softball-sized, and, after the Battlestar, it’s my second favorite mobility tool. I could roll around on this thing all day.
I have the 80mm Supernova, too; however, I find it to be pretty comparable to a normal lacrosse ball, which is way cheaper.
Like I said, a roll of these compression bands should be in every climber’s pack.
Check out MobilityWOD.com for a ton of videos from Kelly. Daily MWODs are available at a monthly subscription. I subscribed, thinking I’d watch a bunch of videos in the first month and then cancel the subscription; however, months later, I’m still finding the content here to be useful and educational. I like having the ability to go online and search for a troublesome body part on the site and find at least one or more videos that will give me some ideas and strategies for combatting that pain-spot.
Finally, thanks to Kelly for taking the time to speak to me, and mostly, thanks for helping me fix my janky-ass shoulders. Kelly is working on a new book that will provide tips and tactics for airline travel, which I, for one, will be looking forward to.