The last time I walked past a mirror, the term “climber’s back” came to mind. Am I on the way to developing a climber’s back or another postural deformity?
Lots of climbing without any antagonist training is probably not ideal…?
For the sake of your (and my own) health, I have immersed myself deeper into the subject of “postural deformities and overloading caused by climbing and bouldering“.
Postural deformities due to climbing and bouldering
- Climber’s back
- Problems with the Neck – cervical vertebrae
- Lower back (posterior pelvic tilt)
In the following chapters, I will discuss each of these postural defects and address both the cause and the solution (concrete exercises) of incorrect posture.
Postural deformity # 1: Climber’s back
Causes of climber’s back
Climber’s back is caused by muscular imbalance due to unilateral (over-)use of some muscles.
This means that the main muscle groups used for climbing become stronger and stronger, whereas the muscles least used are or become weaker. This leads to:
- Protracted shoulder muscles
- Shoulder blade disfigurement
- Arms and palms pointing backwards when standing. A healthy positioning would be: palms pointing inwards.
These three points lead to what is known as “climber’s back” which, as previously mentioned, is not only a bit odd to look at, but also damaging for the climber’s general health.
Muscle groups – climbing & bouldering
The main reason for incorrect posture is due to the misuse of the following muscles:
- Latissimus dorsi muscle
- Pectoralis minor muscle
- Subscapularis muscle
- Teres major muscle
- All of the Abdominal muscles
As far as movements are concerned, in climbing / bouldering we mostly:
a.) pull ourselves up against the wall
b.) build up tension (in so as to not to fall out of the wall)
c.) pull ourselves upwards
Besides the core muscles, the “pulling-muscles” are strained when climbing and can therefore cause postural damage.
Compensatory muscle training to avoid climber’s back
Compensatory muscle training aims to stretch the strong muscles or to build up the weaker, less used muscles through strength training.
- Build up the antagonist muscles
- Stretching the agonist muscles
The 3 best antagonist exercises for climbers
These exercises should form part of every climber’s/boulderer’s standard training. By doing so, you stabilise (potentially protracted) shoulder blades, pulling them back to their natural position. This counteracts the climber’s back.
If you train these muscles well, they ensure that the muscles surrounding your shoulders and back are well-balanced and prevent the shoulders from protracting.
Rings – a perfect training tool for climbing and bouldering.
– Ideal for balancing training
– Affordable (Amazon*)
– Easy to use
– Full body training
– Power and stability
This exercise works wonders.
You train your inner back, otherwise known as the erector spinae muscle group. If you perform this exercise regularly, your shoulders are pulled back and your posture improved.
Good old push-ups…
Simple yet so effective. Doing a push up will offer the perfect compensatory movement to those otherwise performed when climbing. Push-ups can be done in various different ways and, although the classic push-up is indeed a great exercise, you should try out as many different ways to do them as you possibly can.
You can find detailed descriptions of movements and many other exercises on:
“Antagonist Training Climbing | 20 Best Exercises“. Additional the 6 most important stretching exercises for climbing & bouldering.
Doing a “superman” trains all of the extensor muscles in the back, especially those in the lower back and upper inner back.
The climber’s back is counteracted, the body straightens up, the shoulders and shoulder blades are pulled backwards. Ideal compensatory exercise for climbers.
3 Best Stretches to Combat Climber’s Back
1. Chest muscles
The pectoralis minor muscle pulls the shoulders forward and downward. To reduce tension in the muscle as well as the strain, I would recommend none other than the following exercise:
All you need is a rope or a towel. In addition, this stretching increases the range of motion of the shoulder.
2. Using a towel
- This exercise increases the mobility of the entire shoulder joint.
- Parts of the chest and back are also worked.
- Use a rope, towel or belt as an aid.
- Stretches and increases range of motion.
3. Abdominal muscles
Classic yoga poses for stretching the core muscles.
Contracted core muscles pull the entire body into a hunched position. With this stretching, the tension is reduced, and the body straightened.
Watch out for the lumbar vertebrae!
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Postural defects of the cervical vertebrae
Causes – Postural deformity climbing
Hyperextension of the cervical vertebrae when bouldering (when you are looking up to secure your route) can overstretch the muscles surrounding the vertebral joints. This prolonged (over-)use irritates cartilage as well as joint capsules.
Tension in the neck
The neck muscles try to balance the load and react with tension. These tense muscles can in turn lead to other side effects such as headaches.
Vicious circle of postural deformities
If you already suffering from a postural defect, i.e. the climber’s back, this means that the cervical vertebrae are in a state of constant hyperextension. The hunched back and protracted shoulders means they need to be (over-)stretched in order to position your body back to its “natural” state.
This could lead to further damage including a slipped disc in your spine.
Countermeasures – Postural damage in the neck:
1. Prism glasses to help with postural deformities
Prism or belay glasses are an absolute must for all those suffering with problems of the cervical vertebrae and who do a lot of climbing.
It takes a little patience to get used to these glasses – but it’s definitely worth the effort.
These special belay-glasses* will protect you from irreparable posture damage.
For me it was one of the best investments ever.
2. Compensatory training for bad climbing posture
As described above, the aim is to strengthen the weak or supporting muscles. Here you will find the best exercises to strengthen the neck muscles.
Strengthening the neck muscles
Here you will find simple but very efficient exercises to strengthen the neck muscles. With this you are sure to prevent postural deformities.
Counter pressure in all directions:
Theraband neck + shoulder girdle
I recommend the blue Theraband – it is perfect for a real workout.
- The 30 Best exercises
- 3 Training Plans
3. Trigger points and massage for a better posture
Those unable to get a professional massage regularly, are dependent on helping themselves. In the course of time, I have found some useful tools for massaging climbing specific trigger points.
Here are my 4 favourite tools for trigger point massage.
4. Upright posture to combat climbers back
Be sure to maintain an upright posture throughout the day.
Both the back and cervical vertebrae must be consciously raised and straightened.
Install some kind of reminder
Especially if you are sitting in front of the computer (like me right now) it helps if you have a constantly visible reminder in front of you. I have drawed a big smiley face with an upright posture on a whiteboard right in front of me. A simple method which does work!
5. Stretching combats bad climbers posture
Here I have 3 more exercises for mobilising and stretching the neck and back area.
Stretch – lats and neck
- Super save and durable
- Soft catch
- Best bang for the buck
Lower back (Anterior pelvic tilt)
A common cause of poor posture in the lower back is imbalance between the muscles around the hips.
An imbalance occurs between the performing muscle and the respective antagonist muscle. The simplest example is biceps (arm flexor) and the drive (arm extensor). If one of these muscles is much more defined than its counterpart, it can lead to posture problems and pain.
This is exactly what happens with “Anterior pelvic tilt”. The tense muscles or muscles with high muscle tone overstretches the hip flexors, causing hyperlordosis.
At the same time, the antagonist muscles with low muscle tone cannot compensate for this overstretching movement. The result is that the hip is tilted forward.
Muscles with strong tension or high muscle tone
- Hip flexors (including psoas major muscle, iliacus muscle, iliopsoas muscle and rectus femoris muscle) The hip flexors, when tensed, pull your hip forward/down!
- Lower back extension (erector spinae) The contracted lower back extensors pull your hips backwards/upwards!
Weak antagonist muscles
- Buttock muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus) Weak buttock muscles do not pull your hips sufficiently backwards/downwards!
- Anterior thigh or leg extensors (ischiocrural muscles) Weak leg muscles do not pull your hips back/down sufficiently!
- Core muscles. Weak core muscles do not pull your hip sufficiently forwards/upwards!
a.) Stretch the strong, “contracted” muscles and lower the muscle tone.
b.) Strengthen the weak muscles and correct the forward tilting of the hip.
There are many different exercises for the respective stretching and strengthening. In the below I will show you my favourites.
To correct postural problems, you need patience and above all perseverance. Find the “right” exercises and perform them regularly to get rid of back pain.
Stretches to fix “anterior pelvic tilt”
Strengthening exercises to combat “anterior pelvic tilt”.
Strengthening of the abdominal muscles
Strengthening buttocks and leg curl
Strengthen buttocks and leg flexors
Often it is not the weak abdominal muscles (especially for climbers) that are the problem, but the leg flexors and buttock muscles which are much too weak.
Now heavy and muscular legs are not necessarily beneficial for climbing, but if you have absolutely no ass in your pants, you will most probably have to deal with postural issues.
I therefore recommend all those susceptible to anterior pelvic tilt to include both buttocks and leg curls in the weekly compensatory training to keep your body healthy and in balance.
3 tips to prevent posture problems
Tip 1: Adopt an upright posture
The best tip in my opinion!
Take an upright position as often as possible. Build elements into your life that remind you again and again to stand or sit upright. This could be a picture, a drawing, a post-it note, a rubber band around your wrist, etc…
Little effort, great effect
Every time you take up the upright position, you train exactly those muscles which are weakened and need to be trained.
So, you can use your everyday life to train… at the same time boring activities suddenly take on a whole new meaning and you can strengthen your body several times a day and effectively prevent postural problems.
Tip 2: Compensatory / Antagonist training for climbers
In order to prevent postural deformities and overloading, regular compensatory or antagonist training is absolutely necessary.
If you climb a lot and only climb, sooner or later you will put unilateral strain on your body. The earlier you start with a compensatory training the better.
Strengthening and stretching
Compensatory training involves strengthening the antagonist muscles as well as stretching the heavily used muscles and does not need to be tedious or time-consuming.
Tip 3: Prism glasses and posture when belaying
After having purchased a pair of prism glasses my neck pain is gone.
Climbers often spend a lot of time looking upwards.
This inevitably leads to problems with the cervical vertebrae. Prism glasses eliminate this problem completely, allowing you to fully concentrate on climbing.
Maintain an upright position
Similar to Tip 1, it is important to keep an upright posture when securing your route. Prism glasses help you to do so in a position that does not negatively affect your posture and at the same time improves it overall.
Is climbing good for the back?
Overall, climbing strengthens the entire back muscles and is incredibly good for the back. The postural deformities discussed here affect climbers who climb often, for many years and have developed unilaterally trained muscles due to the lack of antagonist training.
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Does Climbing help with back pain?
For all those who go climbing occasionally, this sport is a real blessing for back and posture. For “non-climbers”, the problem of bad posture is not due to too strong, but to too weak muscles.
The modern person has atrophied back muscles due to the frequent sitting posture.
In principle, regular climbing and bouldering is incredibly good for posture and healthy for the back.
- Unathletic people use climbing to strengthen the back muscles and improve posture. (Therapeutic climbing)
- Ambitious athletes use climbing as a compensatory training to their respective “main sport”.
Enough with postural problems… let’s go climbing!
Climbing and posture – Further questions
What is therapeutic climbing?
Therapeutic climbing (climbing therapy) is used by physiotherapists in orthopaedics, physiotherapy, paediatrics and sports therapy to treat physical complaints and imbalances. Furthermore, it is used by psychologists in psychotherapy or as a support for behaviour therapy.
When is climbing-specific compensatory training advisable?
Compensatory training is advisable right from the start, depending on the extent of the training. In any case, experienced climbers should engage in regular compensatory training in the form of antagonist muscle training and climbing specific stretching.