A warm-up to save your shoulders

The most frequent injuries in rock-climbing are injuries to the upper extremity, specifically to fingers and shoulders (Schweizer & Bircher, 2012). Shoulder injuries are often overuse injuries which can stem from too much or too frequent stress on the shoulder joints or from poor posture and shoulder movement disfunctionality due to muscle imbalances. While there are many great resources to address these problems in a more holistic way (start here), this article focuses on a good warm-up to get your shoulders ready for action.

I started to read a lot about shoulder injuries and how to correct deficiencies and imbalances when I injured my left shoulder in autumn 2015. This injury dragged on for a considerable amount of time and I can still feel that something is not quite right sometimes. This means that I’m extra careful with my shoulders and that I always warm-up thoroughly. I am using this particular warm-up for about 6 months now and my shoulders are feeling better than ever.


Here it is:

This warm-up routine only addresses the shoulders. It is still necessary to raise your pulse through some cardio, to warm-up your fingers, your legs and so on. It is thus only part of my warm-up routine albeit a very important one.

1. Step

I start by doing some arm circles similar to the ones shown in this video:

I do them in both directions and also in opposite directions. After about 10 rotations in each direction you want to proceed to the next exercise.

2. Step

This is a actually a complex of exercises using a resistance band (thera-band is popular). I learned about these exercises browsing the bodyweightfitness subreddit on reddit. They have this as part of the warm-up for their recommended routine.

First you start with some band pull-aparts. Resistance is not so important, focus on good form and do about 10 easy reps. You then do straight-arm overhead pull-downs and proceed to straight-arm chest flies afterwards. The chest flies feel especially good as you can really work on scapular protraction when you bring your arms forward (I couldn’t find a video for these. Wrap the resistance band around your upper back and bring your straight arms together in front of you, make sure to push at the end in order to protract your scapulae). After you have completed about 10 reps each, you go on and perform some shoulder dislocates. I like to do a few full-rom dislocates first and then spend some time on going slowly back and forth in the range that I find most difficult.


Use a light resistance band. You shouldn’t struggle to do these.

I use much less resistance and go all the way down with my arms.



3. Step

This is everything I do to warm-up my shoulders if I am climbing afterwards. Of course, I won’t start to crank through hard shouldery moves right afterwards. A progressive warm-up on the wall always follows. However, if I am at home and warming up for a strength-training session, I do 4 more exercises. These exercises are not pure mobility drills and they have some cross over into strength training. The first two exercises are lateral raises and front raises. I use resistance bands for these as well, but you could also use dumbbells if you prefer. The resistance is a bit higher on these. Ideally, you’d aim to complete one set of 8 to 12 reps. It is still part of the warm-up though, so make sure that you can comfortably complete all reps without compromising form or coming close to failure.

Next up is an exercise that I love because it is simple and elegant yet very challenging: The bottoms-up Kettlebell press. Holding the bell upside down teaches you good technique in the regular KB-press and takes you through the right movement by default. You have to stabilize the weight in your hand and over your head which activates all those tiny muscles around your shoulder joints (including the infamous rotator cuff). For me, it is awesome to feel how my shoulder blade moves along my ribcage during the movement and I always feel great after having done a few of these presses. As the two exercises before, you could treat this one as a simple strength move and try to add as much resistance as you can, progressing every workout. However, if you dial down intensity and volume, it can be a great primer for other overhead work like pull-ups or hangboarding. I do one  set of about 10 reps with a weight that I can manage quite easily.

At last, I perform some straight arm lat pull-downs (as recommended in this article). They activate the lats and make me ready for some heavy overhead-work. Again, do about ten easy-ish reps. If you don’t have a cable-machine at your disposal (I don’t), you can use a resistance band and attach it somewhere above your head (hangboard, pull-up bar).


So this is it. This is my complete shoulder warm-up. It has evolved over time and it works very well for me. You can give it a try and see what you get out of it. Also drop me a comment with your favourite shoulder exercises if you like.





Schweizer, Andreas, & Bircher, Hans-Peter (2012): Injuries to the upper extremities in rock-climbers, Sports Technology, 5:3-4, 77-89.


Featured image courtesy of flickr-user Mazda Hewitt, licensed under Creative Commons.


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