The Science of Warming Up

Everybody instinctively agrees that warming up is important. To my surprise however, people often choose not to prepare their bodies for training or climbing. Asking why, I often hear it’s because they’re not professional athletes and they ‘just climb recreationally’. Yet climbing requires our bodies to adopt moves it wasn’t designed for. Fingers particularly need easing into it. Recreational climbers should think of making climbing a sustainable sport to avoid injury, thus never skipping the warm up. Professional climbers too need to be aware that even the hardest training won’t pay off without getting the body sufficiently warmed up. If you don’t warm up, forget about high performance at competitions or red-pointing routes at your limit.

If warming up was never your thing, don’t worry. Just fifteen minutes is enough to climb safer and with greater results. It’s not a vain promise, it’s a science.

It may be a cliché, but the body is like a car. Every Formula 1 fan knows that drivers never race cold engines. Raising the temperature allows the highest efficiency and prevents seizing.

As early as in the fifties studies had proven that warm muscle contract faster and with higher intensity. They’re also less likely to fail under high resistance. Even warming up under a hot shower can raise the muscular endurance level by as much as 9%. Lowering the temperature below the resting norm results in dramatic loss of endurance and power. Move around, raise your pulse. Swap that strappy top (showing off your sculpted chest) for a more sensible long-sleeve.

One of the reasons to warm up is to prepare our nervous systems for what’s going to happen. The brain picks up motoric schemes or, to put it simply, the way we move; and automatically gets the body ready to perform in these specific ways. Treadmill, spinning or skipping are good ways to gently raise the pulse but 15 minutes of running is not an efficient way of warming up for climbing. The warm up needs to be similar, that is transferable, to the exercises performed in the main part of our training.

To give an example, here are some useful exercises sufficient to prepare you for an indoor climbing session:
 Dynamic movement with body weight resistance: lunges, jumps, squats, gentle dynamic leg stretches.
 Traversing on easy terrain.
 Easy climbs or traversing on various holds, including small holds.
 Strength based exercises with little resistance: using a fitness station, free weights or rubber resistance bands. Biceps, triceps, lats, delts and pecs all can be warmed up or even trained with bands.

Some examples of dynamic movement with body weight & theraband resistance: lunges, jumps, squats, gentle dynamic leg stretches

Correct alignment, necessary for injury prevention and good climbing technique can only be achieved when the body is not tired. It is the warm up that’s the right time to ensure you’re moving correctly, with intention and precision. This applies to climbing and other exercises as well. Make sure your posture is straight, your shoulder blades are back, and your knees don’t wobble when lunging, etc… Warming up also increases joint mobility. Give yourself a chance at staying on the wall for that difficult move in the main part of your session by making sure a tight shoulder or hip is not going to cause you to fall. Trying to force your body into tricky positions or moving on very steep terrain without warming up, is just a waste of energy that will lower the quality of the whole session.

Scientist have been racking their brains over that one for quite a while now. It’s been said many times that static stretching leads to lowering the muscles’ ability to create power. More recent studies suggest however, that it isn’t as harmful as previously thought, but it’s not all that beneficial either. The same studies also suggest that dynamic stretching actually makes the muscles more capable of generating power.

By no means should this prompt anybody to aggressively try to increase their mobility. Twists, arms or leg swings should be fully controlled and never abrupt. The force of inertia shouldn’t cause any movement outside of your comfort zone. Also, forget about the so called ballistic stretching (forcing your body beyond its normal range of motion with a series of bouncing moves).

It’s worthwhile using the warm up as a time for simple injury prevention exercises. Performing these every time before your main training is a good way of ensuring regularity, which is key to achieving results. Most common injuries to climbers are related to fingers and wrists. Shoulders too are common injuries, so it is safe to say that most climbers will benefit greatly by strengthening shoulders. Stabilising the rotator cuff using resistance bands is easy, but like most preventive exercises, boring. The sooner you realise that what’s at stake is years of happier climbing! Consult a professional (a physiotherapist or even a good personal trainer will be able to help) about whatever aches and pains in the body you have, and get to know what to do, just for a few minutes every time you climb, to aid healing or prevent future damage.

Try and develop a regular routine before you climb. It’s especially important when climbing outdoors, since temperature plays such an important factor.

Now that your warm up is impeccable, remember to cool down after a session with some gentle stretches from head to toe. Take time to care for your body and it will reward you with better results and years of happy climbing.