Wellness: Shoulders that Send

Catapulting up rock faces, jugging up severely overhanging cliffs and traversing thin, precarious ledges… sounds like acts that require the super powers of Spiderman, yet mere humans routinely crank off these moves.

Jimmy Martinello climbing at Nordic crag in Whistler, BC. May 2012.
Jimmy Martinello climbing at Nordic crag in Whistler, BC. Todd Lawson photo.

Many rock climbers, however, routinely put forth tremendous feats of power, endurance and mental tenacity only to be regularly denied their projects. Why? It has nothing to do with being bitten by a radioactive spider; more likely it’s because they’ve neglected their shoulders. Read on, wall-scalers, and maximize your human sending powers.

There are four main components to strong, healthy, crux-destroying shoulders:

By Dr. Carla Cupido Hon.B.Kin.,D.C.

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  1. The Scapula (a.k.a., Shoulder Blade)

The scapula connects your arm to your body and functions similarly to a door hinge. If the hinge is firmly attached to the wall, the door can open and close perfectly. If the hinge becomes loose, the door gets floppy and unstable, just as your shoulder does when your scapulae aren’t fixed firmly to your body.

The scapula connects your arm to your body and functions similarly to a door hinge. If the hinge is firmly attached to the wall, the door can open and close perfectly.

The scapular stabilizers are the primary reasons your hinges remain secure. These include the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids and serratus anterior muscles. Without these muscles, we are left with one very small joint holding the scapula in place, which means these muscles need to be strong and know when to engage or contract at the correct time. Unfortunately, they are commonly neglected in training or are trained with incorrect contraction patterns.

 

  1. Rotator Cuff Muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis)

The rotator cuff muscles are also important. The rotator cuff is made of four muscles which function together to secure the head of the arm bone (ball) in the socket (which happens to be part of the shoulder blade). Weak rotator cuff muscles will make for a sloppy ball-in-socket, decreasing power and increasing injury risk.

 

Jimmy Martinello climbing at Nordic crag in Whistler, BC. May 2012.
Todd Lawson photo.
  1. Movement Patterns

The key is to first beef up those scapular stabilizers and then fire up your rotator cuff, as this completes the circuit between your torso and your arm. If the SS muscles are weak or not engaging optimally, your rotator cuff muscles don’t have a hope of protecting the shoulder joint through any overhead movements – especially fast and/or powerful ones. If you want to stick like the spider, young grasshopper, you must therefore master the shoulder pack.

The key is to first beef up those scapular stabilizers and then fire up your rotator cuff, as this completes the circuit between your torso and your arm.

Shoulder packing – engaging the scapular stabilizers to position your arm bone firmly in the socket – is attained by drawing your shoulder blades away from your ears and pulling them towards each other on your back. This pattern disables the wrong muscles from overworking, helping to stabilizing the shoulder complex. Shoulder packing can be very challenging for people to grasp and it often takes considerable cuing from a health professional, but it will change your climbing forever when you nail it, and it will help minimize neck, shoulder, and chest tightness. Shoulder packing is an exercise as much as it is a technique you must master. (Note that not all climbing moves allow for a packed shoulder due to body and rock positioning; this means overall strength and conditioning are that much more important for these moves, especially if they are dynamic or power moves.)

 

  1. Mid-Back Mobility

If mid-back mobility is lost it throws your shoulder complex completely off. Be sure to work on maintaining freedom of movement through your back with chest opening exercises (of which there are many, so check in with a health professional equipped with this knowledge). An open chest and good mid-back mobility might be the difference to sending the next grade this season. Otherwise your best bet is to climb to the highest peak you can, and hope a radioactive spider sails in on the trade winds from Japan.


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