Standing at the base of a steep route at your gym, you scan the sequences. Wide stemming moves, heel hooks and big step throughs. You start to think maybe the route was set by a Cirque du Soleil performer.
But you’ll give it a go. You stretch out your hips and shoulders, tie in and blast off. Then you reach an awkward transition to the roof. Your spine arches as you reach overhead for a small hold out on the lip. As your body bends back toward the roof, you’re stretched to the limit. The next hold is just inches away, but across your body and with your opposite hand. You slowly reach toward it, fighting stiffness and resistance, cursing yourself for skipping yoga class and being one inch too short.
Just as you are about to grab the hold, your feet pop and you’re off. If only you were more flexible.
Flexibility is essential for climbing. It’s what allows your body to adapt to the climbing wall. Most climbers know the benefit of flexible limbs (arms and legs) but forget about the importance of a flexible trunk (spine). Flexible limbs can help you reach farther and step higher, but a flexible trunk allows you to twist your body into difficult positions.
The trunk moves in three planes: sagittal, frontal and transverse.
• Sagittal: Forward and Backward
• Frontal: Side to Side
• Transverse: Rotation
The planes of sagittal (forward/backward) and frontal (side to side) spinal motion are relatively common in climbing movement. They occur when you arch your spine backward while transitioning to a roof, flex your spine forward during a high step, or bend your body to the side when locking off and reaching overhead. Transverse plane motion (rotation) is also common with climbing movement but used most often in twisting positions, such as rose moves, cross throughs, and step throughs. In these situations, good spinal rotation can free up additional possibilities for hold selection on the wall and allow you to reach farther and across your body. Since these rotational movements often place your arms, legs and spine in contorted positions, spinal mobility can also decrease your risk of injuring your upper or lower body while climbing.
Here, Brooke Raboutou demonstrates three exercises to improve your spinal flexibility and rotation for climbing. Perform the exercises for three sets of 30 seconds daily.
Thread the Needle Stretch
This stretch is most helpful to improve your spinal flexibility when you are performing a rose move (a reach-through so complete it turns your torso outward) or any other type of cross-body reach. In a scenario where you are hanging onto a hold with your right arm overhead and the next hold is to your right, having the spinal flexibility to reach your opposite arm across your body may help prevent straining your shoulder. The more you can move through your spine, the less likely you are to tweak your upper body during awkward reaches.
This stretch is most helpful to improve your spinal flexibility when you are reaching or transitioning to a hold on the opposite side from where your feet are facing (say, both feet and one arm are pointed to the right, and the left arm has to reach left); or during inside or outside flagging. Imagine that you have your left foot on a hold with your outside edge, your right foot flagging on the wall, your right arm side pulling, and you need to reach the next hold on the left side of your body. This stretch improves your spinal flexibility to help you rotate left to reach the leftwards hold.
Side-Lying Rotation Stretch
This stretch can improve your spinal flexibility during a step-through move. It allows your spine to rotate, bringing your center of mass closer into the rock wall while you step through.
Utilize the Range of Motion
Add an exercise to the end of your stretching routine that utilizes the motion you just gained from stretching: for example, sit-ups with elbow-to-opposite-knee reaches or a drop-knee lunge with a full-body rotation. You can even perform the same stretches described in this article in a dynamic manner by moving in and out of the positions in a controlled manner rather than statically holding the stretch. The key is to utilize the motion that you just gained from stretching. Be creative with utilizing the range of motion gained. The closer your follow-up exercises are to simulating climbing, the better the carryover.
All photos by Stephen Gross