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Warming Up for Rock Climbing With Will Anglin

Will Anglin, co-founder of Tension Climbing and head coach at Earth Treks in Golden, Colorado, explains the proper way to warm up before a climb.

“Warming up” has become a ubiquitous part of sports performance and is widely accepted as a way to increase performance and reduce injury rates. As a coach, route setter, and climber, I spend a lot of time outdoors and in the gym watching people climb. One of the most prevalent mistakes I see, time and time again, is a climber either not warming up at all or not warming up nearly enough. Done properly, a full warm up takes AT LEAST 30-40 minutes and can even take up to an hour or more. And that’s not a bad thing. Embrace it. Enjoy it.

I like to break a thorough warm up into four sections:

Actually Warm Up (2-10 min.)

Literally. Warm. Up.

Before you do anything else, it is important to raise your body’s internal temperature. Muscles have an optimum temperature that they like to work at and if you don’t heat them up, you not only reduce their efficiency, you also increase the risk of injuring them. Imagine taffy, silly putty. When it’s cold, you can snap it apart easily in chunks. But heat it up in your hands and try to do the same thing, and all of a sudden you find yourself juggling a malleable mess. Those are your muscles, tendons, etc. 

Warm = Malleable
Cold = Brittle

I like to do some sort of exercise that incorporates my whole body like jumping rope, Burpees, or scrambling across talus for a few miles. The key here is to do something until you trigger your sweat response. If you don’t start sweating, you haven’t warmed up (unless of course you have some sort of medical condition).

If you’re out climbing, the approach itself can potentially satisfy the requirements for the “Warm Up” section. Additionally, if it is cold outside, make sure to monitor your body temperature and keep yourself moving around on the ground during your session and between attempts to keep yourself from cooling off too much and having to start up again.

Dynamic Stretching (5-10 min.)

Static stretching continues to be a contentious subject among coaches and trainers, but you would be hard pressed to find someone who won’t agree that some form of dynamic stretching or movement of the major joints prior to vigorous activity is not a bad idea. A quick web search for “dynamic stretching” will give you more than enough options. My favorites are arm circles, and leg swings. Choose 5-8 dynamic stretching exercises that address all of your major joints like hips, knees, shoulders, elbows, and back. Then also make sure to prep your wrists, ankles, and fingers. Focus on activating the muscles around those joints and don’t just swing yourself around willy nilly. That would be silly.

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Easy Climbing (10-20 min. / 8-10 boulders / 3-4 routes / 150-200 moves)

“Easy” is a relative term of course, but even the strongest climbers start off on the wall by moving around on climbs near or at the bottom of the grading scale. Not only is this an important way to prime your body for more difficult climbs, it is also an incredibly important time to focus on your technique. Every hand placement, foot placement, and move you do reinforces your habits to some degree. Start your session out right by using this time to focus on your breathing, accurate hand and foot placements, and smooth and confident movement.

I like to climb however many boulder problems it takes for me to feel like I am moving smoothly and accurately. Sometimes it takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes 30 minutes, and sometimes my brain and body are too fried and I just go do something else.

Ramp-Up (15-30 min. / 5-8 boulders / 2-4 routes / 50-100 moves) 

This is what I see most people skip out on, but I find it imperative for a good climbing or training session.

The ramp-up is a purposeful and attentive selection of boulder problems or routes of increasing difficulty that lead you either all the way to, or just below your maximum level. By “purposeful and attentive” I mean: choose climbs that will prime all of your different movement models, or specific movements that reinforce the focus of your climbing/training/practice session. If you’re getting ready to try to send your project that is short, powerful, incorporates a lot of core tension, and has a crux gaston move, then your ramp-up should focus on short powerful boulders that incorporate these ideas and movements. If you’re are getting ready for a day spent focused on training power endurance, then these climbs should be increasingly resistant and fatiguing. If possible, these should be boulders or routes that you have climbed before, but it is not necessary.

I frequently run into the issue of not having access to skin-friendly climbs for my easy climbing portion or my ramp-up when I am out at the boulders or the crag. Sometimes there are decent easy and ramp-up climbs, but they are sharp and require the skin that I need for the project I am working on. In these cases I use my Flash Board from Tension Climbing, a portable wooden hangboard that I use for pull-ups, core exercises, and hangs to take the place of the easy and ramp-up climbs without wasting skin.

The most consistent pushback I get from climbers when I suggest they do this is that they think they are going to be too tired afterward to accomplish their goals.

My answer is: You won’t. And if you are, then we’ve got some work to do when it comes to your overall work capacity and fitness, in which case this “warm up” becomes an effective training day.

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To summarize, here is a warm up checklist for your next climbing session:

1. Increase Body Temperature
  • Full-body exercise
  • Sweat!
2. Dynamic Stretching
  • Hips/knees/ankles
  • Core
  • Shoulders/elbows
  • Wrists/fingers
3. Easy Climbing
  • 10-20 minutes
  • 8-10 boulders
  • 4-5 routes
  • 150-200 moves
4. Ramp-Up
  • 15-30 minutes
  • 5-8 boulders
  • 2-4 routes
  • 50-100 moves

About the Author

Will Anglin is co-founder of Tension Climbing, head coach at Earth Treks in Golden, Colorado, and a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

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