Common Weakest Links of the Shoulders Among Climbers – Part 1

Natalie Snyder PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS

Female Athlete Specialist

July 15, 2021

Hey climbers!

            Do you ever feel like you are hitting a plateau in your climbing game and seem like you’re not able to climb harder or improve your grade?  Do you ever notice your shoulders feel so weak and fatigues out early?  Do you ever wonder what exercises you need to focus on to get your shoulders stronger?

            I started climbing shelves, ladders, monkey bars, playground rings, and jumping off the diving board at age of 3.  For sure I was destined to be doing something so great with my arms and shoulders as a NCAA diver and recreational climber.  Both sports create immense amount of load upon the shoulder joints.  I was falling from 10-meters and landing onto my hands overhead, and now climbing up the hand holds on the wall or ceilings.

            My near career-ending injury from diving has taught me what it took to rehabilitate the shoulders to be able to withstand high loads again when I returned to diving.  Experiences of my own and helping other climbers’ shoulder weakness has taught me what it took to train the shoulder stability to withstand high gravitational forces of the bodyweight dynamic moves.

            With clinical experiences of treating intense shoulder rotator cuff and labral injuries, the patients have taught me what was crucial to appropriately progress the patients to return to their functional tasks, recreational activities, and elite sports.  Shoulder is a complex joint, amazing for how much freedom it gives us yet so scary as it can be easily become unstable.

            Did you know that one scapula, or shoulder blade, has 18 muscles attached upon it? Think the shoulder joint as a combination of the scapula movement and humeral, or upper arm, movement.  You can’t have one without the other.  Those 18 muscles must be trained to create a balance of strength and stability with neuromuscular neural firing pattern that creates the movement of arm raise so smooth, full, and pain-free.

            When I look at other climbers warming-up on the easiest routes, I can immediately tell which climbers are beginners, intermediate, or advanced.  It gets a whole lot easier when they wear tank-tops or are shirtless.  Hint: look for the muscular definition of their mid-back and posterior shoulder. 

            I look for the scapular depression and retraction (shoulder squeezes), the upper-back flattening with scapular spread, and posterior deltoid with rotator cuff in external rotation. Those are the common weakest links among climbers who are having difficulty with shoulder feeling unstable, fatigue, and feeling they’re not making any progression.  It all starts in the mid-back, where the scapula moves.  Then the entire arm and hand follows.  See the pictures below. 

            I am passionate for training my shoulders stability deliberately to climb better!

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