Climbing and yoga both put a ton of load on our shoulders. As climber, yogis and/or both, it is important to be conscious about moving intelligently. With a bit of understanding regarding mechanics and anatomy, movement becomes safe, strengthening, and restorative instead of potentially abusive and damaging.
In this post, we'll focus mainly on the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is in charge of keeping your humerus bone (upper arm bone) stable in the shallow cup that it rests in. It is comprised of four muscles (infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis, and the supraspinatus). The infraspinatus and teres minor are both mainly in charge of external rotation. Impingement is common in people with weak external rotators, and can be avoided by practicing external rotation.
The Importance of External Rotation
To understand external rotation, bring your arms in front of you, palms down. Rotate your arms so your thumbs and biceps point up, triceps down. This is external rotation of your humerus bone. You probably feel your shoulder blades firm on your back body. Also feel how you can engage the muscles between your shoulder blades, your rhomboids and trapezius. Keep the external rotation/keep the arms where they are, and rotate at your wrists so your palms face away from you (as if you were to push something away). Want to take it to another level? Contract your triceps!
Imagine you are in tabletop pose, hands and knees, or imagine you are in a plank position, or in downward facing dog. This external rotation in the upper arms is imperative to keep in any pose (with few exceptions) in which you are weighting your hands. This is the main way to prevent your rotator cuff from wear and tear during your yoga practice.
Now, let's feel internal rotation, which your subscapularis controls. As you sit, come into external rotation with your arms in front of you. Now rotate your elbows out, biceps toward each other, and triceps up. A gaston, or thumbs down jam, right? We do these movements in climbing all the time! Try engaging into your muscles in between the shoulder blades while holding the internal rotation. It is not as easy to access these muscles!
This is a bit besides the point, but also is a great point for hanging on holds, or hanging on the hangboard.
External rotation is not only necessary while on your hands in yoga practice, but it is also necessary to maintain while climbing (unless forced to internally rotate as mentioned before) and especially when hanging on the hangboard. The last rotator cuff muscle is the supraspinatus, which mostly assists the deltoids in lifting the arms out to the side.
Yoga can be incredibly therapeutic for your shoulders. It is a great way to both stretch and strengthen the individual rotator cuff muscles, which inevitably keeps them healthy! Check out the video at the top of this post to take a close look at which poses stretch the individual rotator cuff muscles and which strengthen them.
Want to learn more? Check out these resources for expert advice:
Hang Just Right: Shoulder Maintenance for Climbers (Black Diamond). This is a great article that explains why external rotation is imperative to use and understand.
"When I watched Babsi climb and train, I saw her hanging slightly “loose” as she rested while climbing at the gym and training on the hangboard. Her upper arms rotated subtly inward while her shoulder blades scrunched slightly toward her ears. She wasn’t using the muscles of her shoulder girdle to optimally position her arm in relation to her shoulder blade, and her shoulder blade with her spine. It became clear that a habitual, almost undetectable, sub-optimal movement pattern led to pinching of the joint space, and irritation of the biceps tendon at her shoulder."
About the Author
Erin Ayla is a lifelong athlete who has been practicing yoga since 2004. As a kid, she was a high-level competitive gymnast, then a freestyle snowboarder as well as a dedicated yogi in her early 20s. Athletic and creative movement has always been an anchor in her life. At age 26, she walked into a top-rope gym. At that time she was still searching for a lifelong sport to dedicate herself to, and the instant she began climbing, she knew she had found it. She is now a dedicated yogi and climber based in Estes Park, Colorado.
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