Prevention is better than cure: Silvio Reffo explains us why (and how to)

Climber and physiotherapist by profession, Silvio Reffo shares some valuable tips on how to train properly before climbing and thus avoid muscular strains.

Climbing, like any other sport, is not free from injuries and muscle overload.  But who is most likely to suffer from these injuries?  Scientific research agrees that, newcomers to the sport are the most likely to develop muscle overload and injury.  

Strange but true, if you think that professionals spend hours and hours hanging on their fingertips, with overload, without the support of their feet, and yet they are not at the top of the ranking for the most injured. Why is this? The evolution of the species led humans to abandon the trees to acquire an upright position, therefore the upper limbs, if initially prepared to remain hanging, with the acquisition of the upright stand, have assumed an essential and prevalent role in the manual skills of everyday life.  Climbing is a little bit like returning to being monkeys, having however lost the load capacity required to perform the climb. So, how should a newcomer to the sport act, what should he avoid doing and what should he concentrate on.

First of all we must try as far as possible, to reverse the course of evolution and  readapt our body to this vertical gesture.   The progressive load seems to be the key to increasing the body’s ability to absorb mechanical stress.  If we evaluate the adaptation time of the different structures of our body we see that the muscles take about 3 weeks to adapt to the load, while the tendons and ligaments from 3 to 6 months.  A sudden increase in load can trigger an acute inflammatory reaction of the structures involved.

Another fundamental factor that has been related to accidents is rest times. A proper rest, after each loading phase, allows the body to avoid overstress, so training is very important, but climbing and training,  after the correct resting times , is every more so!

It may seem obvious, but a pre-activity warming up session is a great way to prepare the body for the physical effort.  A little general warm-up, a few exercises with rubber bands for the shoulders and the fingers, before getting to grips with the holds, should be part of every climber’s routine.

Another important aspect is the choice of training equipment. Very often I happen to see in the newcomers in the gym, hanging from the beam or hanging board. But are these tools really useful to inexperienced climbers? Absolutely not! First of all, they create an excessive overload in inadequately prepared subjects;  moreover, the strain will certainly be much greater than the level of the climb that a beginner will face. So, initially, I recommend taking advantage of the time available to increase and improve the body’s motor system and movements, solely through climbing, initially leaving aside all the “torture” tools that are to be found in modern climbing gyms.  

Another way to prevent overload is to constantly change one’s style of climbing, trying not to focus exclusively on one type of grip.  In fact, unintentionally, we tend to concentrate on the type of climbing most congenial to us, be it the notches, the holes or the svasi. However, it is well known, that climbing intensely on the same holds increases the mechanical stress of the same structures, thus increasing the probability of getting hurt.

Moreover, another negative consequence of the repetitiveness of the gesture is the increase of hypertrophy of the flexor muscles, to the detriment of the antagonist ones. So a program to strengthen the antagonist muscles at least once a week is essential to avoid muscle imbalances.  The antagonist muscles to be reinforced are, in particular, the rotator cuff, the scapula stabilizers, the triceps and the thoracic extensors. Although these are not exercises designed to prevent injury, a good “general fitness” can definitely improve performances, even at a functional level. 

Last but not least, stretching. Muscle lengthening is essential to avoid excessive shortening of the agonistic muscles, but on the contrary to what is common “knowledge” it should be performed after sports activity. If you want to integrate this exercise into your warm up activity you should opt for a dynamic stretching, rather than the classic static stretching.  

A conscious attitude is essential, both for newcomers to the sport and for those who have been climbing for a long time because, as the saying goes prevention is better than cure.

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