Warm-up exercises for climbing: Silvio Reffo’s advice

Athlete of the La Sportiva team and professional physiotherapist, Silvio Reffo reveals some tricks and secrets for our training sessions, and how to avoid injuries related to sport climbing.

The evolution of the species has seen man abandon the trees to acquire an upright position, and therefore, the upper limbs, if initially accustomed to hanging from branches, with the acquisition of an upright position ,have assumed an essential and prevalent role in the manual dexterity of the functions of daily life. Therefore, climbing is a bit like returning to being apes, without, however, still having sufficient load capacity in the structures of the upper limbs to carry out the climb. So, how should a person approach this sport, what should he avoid and what should he focus on instead?

Adopt a progressive load strategy

First of all, we must try, as far as possible, to reverse the course of evolution and readjust the body to this vertical gesture. Progressive loading appears to be the key to increasing the body's ability to absorb mechanical stress. If we are going to evaluate the adaptation time of the different structures of our body, we must consider that the muscle takes about 3 weeks to adapt to the load, instead, the tendons and ligaments from 3 to 6 months. An increase in the sudden load can trigger an acute inflammatory reaction of the structures involved.

Climbing and training when rested is important to avoid injuries

Another fundamental factor that has been seen to be related to injuries is the lack of rest. Adequate rest, after each loading phase, allows the tissue not to overstretch, therefore, training is very important, but climbing and training rested is even more important! It may seem trivial, but pre-activity warm-up is a great way to prepare the body for strain. A little general activation, a few exercises with elastic bands for the shoulders and fingers, before getting to terms energetically with the grips, should be a consolidated habit in the practice of any climber.

Silvio Reffo

Stretching exercises: before climbing or after?

Muscle stretching is essential to avoid excessive shortening of the competitive muscle and other injuries, but, contrary to what is the common "knowledge", it should be performed after sport. If you wanted to integrate this practice before the activity, you should prefer dynamic stretching rather than the classic static stretching. Dynamic stretching refers to a stretch position achieved with oscillatory movements which is maintained for a few moments, and then returns to a normal muscle shortening position, all repeated for about 15-20 cycles. This execution does not alter the contractile capabilities of the muscle, but prepares it to stretch and shorten, thus preventing the possibility of injuring it while stretching.

How to warm up before starting to climb

Another negative consequence of the repetitiveness of the gesture is the increase, hypertrophy, of the flexor musculature at the expense of the antagonist. Here, a program to reinforce the antagonists, at least once a week, is essential to avoid muscle imbalances. The antagonist muscles to be strengthened are, in particular, the rotator cuff, the scapula stabilizers, the triceps and the extensors of the thoracic tract. They are not exercises that aim to prevent injuries, but good "general fitness" can definitely improve your performance, even at a functional level.

Time spent on warm up and main phases

The time spent on warm up should never be less than 30 minutes. For convenience, we can divide this time into three main phases:

1) GLOBAL WARM UP PHASE (between 5 and 10 minutes)

During this first section, which will last between 5 and 10 minutes, we will try to increase the body temperature, as well as the heart and respiratory rate, in fact all those parameters that improve activation and muscle function . Very useful, in this sense, are: light running,  exercise bike, skipping, jumps and circling of the arms on the spot or a brisk 10-15 minute walk on easy terrain to reach the crags.

Silvio Reffo warmup


In this section, it is good to use an elastic band or weights to perform exercises for the opposing muscles and all those put to the test during the climbing gesture.

Climbing exercises for the shoulders

The main feature of this articulation is undoubtedly mobility. In fact, it represents the segment with the greatest possibility of movement of the whole body. In climbing in particular, it is very important to warm up and pre-activate the muscles of the rotator cuff (which are the most important stabilizers of the shoulder) and the scapulo-thoracic muscles, in order to restore the appropriate fascial and muscle agonist-antagonist length.

Climbing exercises for the wrists

A good stabilization of the wrist allows a better fixation of the fingers during gripping, also helping to prevent inflammation in the elbow. For this reason it is good to perform simple flexion-extension movements, against resistance. More specifically for climbing it is advisable to vary as much as possible the type of grips used and not to fossilize on the use of too specific training tools such as the beam and the pan gullich, and be progressive in the warm-up phase by using large grips from the first and then gradually decrease in size.

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One exercises with elastic band warming the shoulder-thoracic muscles

Climbing exercises for fingers (10 minutes)

A good finger warm-up can be done with balls or a spring, so that the flexors of the fingers can be contracted and released alternately. This section can last 10 minutes.

Is it important to use tape for fingers?

And what about the tape for your fingers? Scientific research has shown the uselessness of this aid to prevent accidents, therefore, its use must be as pragmatic as possible. The fingers, like all anatomical structures, need to be stressed with the right load and frequency, while the tape used systematically does nothing but "remove" training. It makes sense to use it, therefore, to support a finger, perhaps when you are tired and want to make the last attempt of the day, or as a system to cover very annoying cuts and wounds when climbing. The tape, on the other hand, is fundamental when recovering from an injury to support the finger and therefore be able to gradually increase the load.

Silvio Reffo warmup2


Now it is a matter of starting to climb with very low intensity, first on "generous" holds and then, gradually, decreasing the size. If we are on a cliff or outdoors, a small portable joist can be very useful, so you can warm your fingers well, before trying harder routes. Obviously, when we start climbing it is good to be progressive on the difficulty too. If the previous phases are very common to any type of climbing, the latter phase differs greatly from the discipline that will be carried out.

Does the warm up change on the basis of the type of climbing we are going to do?

If we are warming up to try a climbing project on the crags, it is best to first climb on medium intensity routes, but with similar movements and inclinations, to be in top shape when we attempt the actual climb

If, on the other hand, we are warming up for bouldering activities, in which much more intensity is required in a very short period, it is good to carry out passages of strength and explosiveness, to prepare the muscle quickly for such functional requests, typical of this type of activity.

Why it’s important not to insist on the same prehension 

It is important to remember that to prevent overloads it is advisable to change the climbing style often, trying not to focus exclusively on one type of prehension. In fact, involuntarily, we tend to focus on the type of climbing most congenial to us, some on the notches, some on the holes and some on the flat surfaces. It is well known, however, that climbing intensely on the same prehension increases the mechanical stress of the same muscles, thus increasing the probability of injury

Stretching after climbing

At the end of the training session, when the muscle is in a shortened state due to the contractile work it has done, it is necessary to do some traditional stretching, for 1-2 minutes, in order to bring the same muscle back to a correct muscle length. It is not necessary to dedicate hours to the practice of stretching, but those 15-20 minutes at the end of the session are sufficient to  "train" our body in unbelievable ways. Do not forget among these also the specific stretching exercises for flexors and extenders of the wrist and fingers, thus bringing the contractile unit back to a correct length and flexibility.

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One specific stretching for flexors and extensors of the wrists.

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Traditional stretching 


Do not forget that among the secrets to reach the goals there is also the choice of the right type of shoe for your climbing level. Read here how to choose the one that’s right for you. 

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