Climbing with incorrect shoulder movement can lead to elbow and shoulder injuries. It can also be a factor in wrist and finger injuries. But do you know what bad shoulder movement is and can you spot it in yourself or those around you? This article aims to help you recognise poor shoulder movement and to show you how to correct it.
Can you tell in which photo the climber is not using her shoulder correctly, and where she is going wrong?
The answer is photo B. In this photo we can observe some indicators of incorrect shoulder movement.
- In picture B the climber has raised her right shoulder to towards her ear indicating an overuse / dominance of the muscles on the top of the shoulder (the upper trapezius and the levator scapula). There is loss of the gap that between the ear and the shoulder can be seen in picture A.
- Commonly when there is an over dominance of the upper trapezius, the larger muscles in the middle of the back between the shoulder blades that should be used when pulling are not working correctly (middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids). Note the lack of muscle tension indicated by the flatness between the shoulder blades in the mid back in picture B, and compare this to muscle contraction between the shoulder blades in the mid back that can be observed in picture A
- As a result of muscle imbalances between the top of the shoulder and those lying between the shoulder blades there is an increased load placed on to the elbow, wrist and finger joints which can increase the risk of injury in these joints. This can be observed in the angle of the elbow joint. In picture A the elbow is more parallel angle to the wall compared to picture B. The less parallel the elbow is to the wall the more load being placed through the joints of the arm, and also onto the small muscles attaching at the front of the shoulder creating pain and injury in these areas.
- What cannot be observed in the photos above due to the angle they were taken, is the rounding forward of the shoulder occurs in the faulty movement pattern above. In climbers the pectoral muscles are often tight which causes the shoulders to round forward. This puts the muscles between the shoulder blades on a stretch weakening these muscles and also loads the smaller muscle of the shoulder leading to injury.
These faulty movement patterns are seen in climbers of all levels. They can occur due to muscle imbalances gained through climbing or other sports involving the upper body, but frequently arise from postural changes due to work practices e.g. those who work at a desk.
The shoulder joint is formed by the arm and the shoulder blade which need to be in correct alignment and to be moving correct to avoid injury. Muscle imbalances around the shoulder affect the alignment of the shoulder and create a faulty movement pattern which leads to injury. To prevent injury we need to;
- Re learn correct movement patterns for the shoulder
- Correct muscle imbalances by stretching those that are tight, and strengthening those that are weak.
Correct Movement Patterning
The incorrect movement pattern is when the shoulder blade rises in a combination of towards the ear and rounding forward on the chest when pulling on a hold. The more under pressure you are the more likely you will slip in to a poor movement pattern. The correct movement is when the shoulder blade moves downwards on the ribcage while also drawing back towards the spine. Correct muscle patterning can be relearned but many find it hard to get it initially. With perseverance it eventually does click. Learning to move the shoulders correctly means using the bigger muscles in the back which can help early onset of pump, and also help improve pulling strength and power. Compare the photos below and note the more relaxed climbing form of the climber climbing with good shoulder movement versus the tension in the body of the climber climbing with poor movement.
Good shoulder movement needs to occur in all aspects of climbing – core work, finger boarding, pull ups, as well as on the wall. Correct movement patterning while training will apply then to movements when on the rock or plastic.
The pictures below show a climber in a position used for the plank and push up. In the first picture (C) the climber is engaging the muscles between the shoulder blades keeping the shoulders away from the ears. In the second picture (D), the climber’s shoulders are raised towards the ears.
The two pictures below are applicable to finger board work, and also the pull up start position. In the second picture (F) the climber with tension through the small muscles of the upper shoulder and not using the larger muscles between the shoulder blades as shown in picture (E).
Steps to Learn Correct Shoulder Movement
Follow the steps below to learn how to use your shoulder correctly. When you start to get the hang of it, spend time while climbing practising good shoulder movement. Try to get it right on easy routes initially or when warming up then try to remain conscious of this movement when climbing at your normal grade.
- Check your shoulder movement – have a friend video you climbing, doing pulls ups or on a finger board then slow down the frames and see if your shoulder position is similar to those in the pictures above
- Start to gain control over shoulder blade via the clock exercise
- Get the lower and middle trapezius working with the arm raised and the theraband exercise
- Practice assisted pull ups
- Practice climbing with correct movement
The clock exercise teaches you how to control your shoulder blade. In this exercise you try to move your shoulder blade to varying positions on the clock. For each of the movements return to the shoulder to a normal resting position.
- 12 : raise your shoulders directly upwards towards your ears
- 6: drop your shoulders down to the floor
- 9: draw your shoulder blade directly back to the spine
- 3: draw the shoulder blade around the side of the rib cage
Most people will find drawing the shoulders up to the 12 and 3 positions easier than the 6 or 9 positions because this faulty rounded forward posture is often found in climbers. When you can master this shoulder movement, try to master the more subtle movement of moving to the other positions on the clock e.g. 7
Wall Shoulder Retraction
The goal of this exercise is to re learn shoulder movement and programme this movement into the brain. Doing it incorrectly defeats the purpose of the exercise. Only do as many repetitions as you can do with good form. Do not be tempted to advance the exercise too early.
- Stand in front of a wall with the palm on the wall at head height.
- Draw the shoulder blade in a back and downward direction towards the spine.
- Release. This is one repetition.
- Do up to 20 or 30 repetitions of this exercise but if you start to fatigue and lose form stop the exercise.
- If you can do 20-30 repetitions of the exercise with excellent form with your hand at head height then raise it to above head height. Perform one set of 10 repetitions at head height. This will refresh the correct movement patter in the brain. Then perform a second set of 15 repetitions with the arm just above head height
- As you progress gradually increase the height of the hand until you can do it with the arm almost straight on the wall. Perform one set of 10 repetitions at head height, then perform a second set with the arm just above head height, perform a 3rd set of 10-15 repetitions with the arm almost straight
Shoulder Girdle Strengthening With Therabands
This exercise aims to replicate arm movements in climbing but with the added resistance of a theraband. Start off with a light theraband until you can do the movement correctly. Increase the resistance of the theraband to challenge the body to perform the correct movement when under stress.
- Fix the theraband overhead.
- Grasp the theraband and pull it towards you squeezing the shoulder blade in a back and downward movement as you pull on the theraband (7pm on the clock)
- Keep the top of the shoulder away from the ear and keep your core engaged as you perform the movement
- Do this exercise in front of a mirror to watch your shoulder movements. Your shoulder should not rise towards your ear as you pull on the theraband. As you pull concentrate on pulling your shoulder blade towards your spine, and also downwards.
- The arm and the shoulder blade should move smoothly together. A common error is to move the shoulder blade and then pull with the arm or vice versa.
- Choose 3-4 different positions to pull on theraband e.g. stand 1m to the right or left of the band. This will help to replicate climbing on holds that are not directly above you.
- When strong in these movements try doing the exercise while standing on one leg to challenge shoulder stability
Assisted Pull Ups with Good Movement
To perform a pull up correctly the pull up movement should be initiated by a downward and back to the spine movement of the shoulder blades. As the pull up continues, the shoulders should not be allowed to rise towards the ear.
To practice the correct movement in pull ups, perform assisted pull ups with both hands on a bar and both feet standing in slings or on a step.
Practice the initial downward and backward movement of the shoulder blade first. When you master this then continue to perform the full pull up movement with assistance ONLY AS LONG as you can keep your shoulders down. If your shoulders rise towards the ears then just focus on performing the initial movement for a while longer.
To advance the exercise, use less assistance with the slings or a step until you can perform a pull up with good form unaided.
Video of correctly performed Pull Up
Video of incorrectly performed pull up