Avoid Climbing Injuries by Climbing Smart

9 Tips to Avoid Climbing Injuries

Tape your fingers and hands to avoid damage, cuts, and scrapes when you're jamming cracks. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Climbing is an intensely physical sport. You go climbing and you will use almost every part of your body—hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, spine, pelvis, knees, ankles, and feet. It is easy to get injured while climbing from overusing your musculature and by accident.

Overuse Leads to Injury

Most non-traumatic climbing injuries are from overuse. It is natural to be sore after a climbing session at the indoor gym or at the cliff, especially if you are just starting out climbing or are climbing after a long layoff. The muscles that you use when you climb are often not easily exercised at a weight gym, so when you go climbing, take it easy and don’t overdo your workout or you will set yourself up for injury.

Fingers, Hands, and Elbow Injuries

The most common climbing injuries are to the fingers, hands, wrists, and elbows since those are the body parts that are used for pulling when you are climbing and are most vulnerable to damage and injury. Before training for climbing became a science, climbers trained by working out on the pull-up bar, lifting weights, and using apparatus like the famous “Bacher ladder,” a ladder of plastic pipes suspended between two pieces of rope from a tree branch that was invented by the late John Bacher. By working out in these ways along with climbing, it is easy to injure yourself and have long-term nagging injuries like tendonitis or inflammation of the elbow, commonly called “tennis elbow.” The only cure for these injuries is to rest the damaged body parts and not climb until there is no residual pain.

To prevent climbing injuries, follow these simple precautions:

1. Taking It Easy

Take it easy. Don’t push yourself to failure every time you go climbing. If your muscles are fatigued, then continuing to climb by doing laps on a route can cause injury by straining the muscles and tendons. Likewise, if you are working on a hard project, make sure you rest long enough between burns to recover before trying it again.

2. Support Your Tendons

Support your tendons. Tendons, which are connective tissue that attach muscles to bones, are particularly susceptible to damage and injury by climbing. It is easy to hurt the tendons in your hands, especially if you climb in an indoor gym and on crimpy edge routes outside since your hands are pulling your weight. Use strips of tape to support your finger tendons and avoid crimp routes in the climbing gym.

3. Take Rest Days to Recover

Take rest days. It is not good to climb hard every day. Your body isn’t made for that kind of vertical punishment, so if you are on a road trip, take regular rest days. A good road-trip schedule is to climb for two days and then take at least a day off. If you are doing intense climbing workouts like bouldering sessions or working hard routes, then consider taking two full days off afterward to allow complete recovery.

4. Cross-Train and Do Other Sports

Cross-train and do other sports. You don’t want to be just a climbing machine so cross-train by hiking, running, weight lifting, doing yoga, mountain biking and road cycling, skiing and snowboarding, and maybe play some basketball or ice hockey. Cross-training will make you a complete athlete and develop other muscles that will help you climb better.

5. Vary Your Climbing Regimen

Vary your climbing regimen. Don’t get tunnel vision and climb only hard routes. Climb on lots of different kinds of rock types and make lots of different kinds of movements. Learn to jam cracks Improve your footwork by climbing slabs, which saves your elbows from wear and tear. Make bouldering a habit by having regular sessions with your buddies so you can push yourself but also rest between problems. Likewise, don’t train all the time.

6. Avoid Extreme Climbing Moves

Avoid extreme moves. Some types of climbing movements are more stressful to your body than others. If you are young and strong, then sometimes you might indulge in risky moves simply because you can. As you age, though, those same moves can tweak your fingers, strain your elbows, and cause rotator cuff injuries in your shoulder. Extreme moves that can cause problems include dynos or leap from a lower hold to a higher one because of the torque placed on the elbow and shoulder.

7. Use Big Holds

Use big holds in gyms. Yep, we like ours holds big, especially in climbing gyms. If you climb a lot at your local indoor gym, avoid routes with small finger holds and you will avoid finger injuries. It’s easy to tweak a tendon or muscle when you’re climbing in a gym because most gym walls are either vertical or overhanging so most of your body weight is on your hands and arms. Some route setters in gyms equate difficult routes with small holds, thinking “Okay, I’m gonna make this route hard by using crimp edges.” Big mistake since these are the kinds of holds that lead to long-term nagging finger injuries. If you are going to the gym for training, use big holds whenever possible. Good route setters will incorporate jugs and big holds onto hard routes by simply turning the hold from its prime position to one that allows the climber to have to be creative when using it. Also, ask your gym to make some training routes with big holds on steep walls.

8. Feel Pain? Then Quit

Quit if you feel pain. If you feel pain in a finger, elbow, or shoulder, quit climbing immediately. If you’re on a top rope, let go and lower down. If you have any sign of injuries, such as pain or an ache, then immediately stop climbing. Don’t continue by climbing easier routes. If you feel a pop in one of your fingers, that’s a bad sign. Again, stop immediately. Don’t go by the old adage, “No pain, no gain.”

9. Take Time to Heal Tendon Injuries

Torn tendons are no joke since they can take a year or more to heal and rehabilitate. If you have any thought that you might have torn a tendon, then see a doctor, preferably a certified sports medicine specialist, and follow his advice. Tendons do not heal quickly since they receive meager blood flow when compared to muscle. A small tear or rupture can take months to heal so even if you feel better after a couple weeks, don’t go climbing and risk permanent damage.