Belaying: the unlikely cause of injuries

Sometimes you get tweaks and niggles or light injuries and it is obvious where they come from. Say you took a weird fall while bouldering, landed awkwardly and wake-up with a stiff neck the next day. In that case, it is very obvious were that stiff neck came from.

Sometimes, however, it is a bit different. There’s some little tweak that flares up from time to time and you actually have no idea where that tweak is coming from.

Today, I want to talk about one of those ‘unlikely’ causes of small injuries or soreness that you can’t really wrap your head around: belaying.

Disclaimer: This is not a post on how to belay. If you’re not sure how to belay, get lessons from an experienced instructor. Safety always comes first!

The obvious tweak you can get from belaying all-day is belayer’s neck. It is caused by looking up all the time and usually presents itself with pain and stiffness in the neck. You can resolve this issue by wearing belay-glasses. There are also some exercises to strengthen your neck muscle and postural cues to avoid belayer’s neck (outlined here by Jared Vagy).

Another thing that happened to me recently was some sort of shoulder soreness from belaying. At first, I wasn’t sure where it was coming from but I soon identified my belaying technique as the root cause. I had pain in my right shoulder and the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint were very stiff.

For a few months now, I have been climbing with my girlfriend more regularly and as she dislikes bouldering, we’ve been going to an indoor rope-climbing wall. She exclusively topropes and wants the rope to be fairly tight most of the time. I have found that when I pull-in rope and try to keep the rope tight (I use a Grigri by the way), I often find myself in an awkward position with my arm pulling backwards and sideways with the elbow flaring out (away from my body) while I’m looking up. This motion is basically yanking on my rotator cuff and it was the cause of the stiffness I experienced.

Usually, I exclusively belay lead climber which means that I don’t really have to pull-in a lot of rope. Therefore, this is less of a problem with lead belaying.

There are two things that I did to fix this condition. First, I paid more attention to my arm when belaying. I try to keep my elbow close to my body and avoid flaring it out in order to reduce stress on my rotator cuff. Secondly, I push the rope into the Grigri with my other hand (holding the rope above the belay device) and subsequently have to pull less with my right hand. This has also helped a lot!

Sometimes, I also switch to a tube-style device for belaying. This is actually a really good solution for me because I’m left-handed. With the Grigri I have to use my right hand as the brake hand because there’s no other way to operate it. With my ATC Guide I actually use the left hand as the brake hand (belaying with an ATC was also the first belaying technique that I learned when I started climbing). This gives my right hand a rest and I can alternate between the two devices if I want to alternate hands (Don’t alternate hands if you’re right-handed and don’t use a tube-style device if you weren’t taught how to use it).

The lesson here is that you should pay attention to unlikely causes of injuries and soreness. Sometimes it is not even climbing related but could be something like the position of your mouse-arm at work.

When belaying, pay attention to your posture and observe carefully if any motion that you’re doing feels a bit awkward or likely to induce soreness. Keep your elbow close to your body when pulling in rope in order to avoid stress on your rotator cuff. Remember that safety always comes first. I could correct my belaying technique without making any sacrifices in safety. Make sure that any correction you make does not impede safety!



Wataaah Pocket Holds

Finger injuries all the way!

It’s Tuesday again and it’s time for another blog post! I haven’t actually climbed much last week because I stupidly injured my finger while hangboarding (as you may have read). The only climbing I did was an easy traversing session last Wednesday and very light route-climbing yesterday. Otherwise, my week was focussed on rehabbing the injury.

For those who have not read last week’s entry: I sustained what I believe to be a flexor tendon strain in my left ring finger while hanging in a 3 finger open-hand grip from the hangboard. It was initially quite painful, I didn’t have full ROM and bruising occurred in my palm but things have gradually gotten better.

Actually, I was lucky because this seems to be only a very minor strain. While holding small-ish holds last Wednesday was a little painful, I had no pain climbing yesterday. Furthermore, pressing my palm to the floor (like in a push-up position) caused pretty bad pain last week but I could happily bust out some push-ups this morning.

However, the finger is not totally fine yet. I do have less strength in that finger when using it in an open-hand grip and I feel like I could easily tweak it again if I’m not being careful. Trust will also be hard to regain.

My rehab regime consisted mainly of using power-putty and rubber bands. A key insight was that moving the finger and causing heightened blood-flow reduced the pain, increased ROM and made movement smoother. When I would wake up in the morning – not having moved my fingers for about 8 hours –, the finger felt like a rusty hinge and movement was generally more constricted. As soon as I’d do some tendon glides or similar, this would improve. Movement functioned like lubricant to make the rusty hinge open and close smoothly again.

Another tool I used, and continue to use, are these pocket grips from Wataaah:

You can thread some cord or a sling through the hole in the top and then attach weight to that sling in order to progressively load the finger. I used the mono-pocket to load my ring finger individually in an open position and the two-finger pocket to do a curling motion with my ring and pinky finger in it. This is a really great tool and my finger has progressively grown stronger again. Holding weight only with my injured finger felt very insecure when I started out but it has gotten more and more solid throughout the week. I usually performed 5 or 6 holds for about 10 seconds and 3 sets of 5 to 10 ‘curls’ about once or twice a day. Just make sure to increase the weight very slowly if you want to use something similar to rehab an injury like this.


Collateral ligament injury

I have another lingering finger tweak that I didn’t tell you about. It is some form of pain to the left side of my index finger at the pip-joint. It doesn’t occur all the time and mostly flares up when the finger is bent sideways or twisted in some way. This is what I believe to be a collateral ligament sprain. It has persisted for more than 6 months but the occurrence of pain and intensity varies. It doesn’t really impact my climbing and the pain generally doesn’t occur while climbing (because I don’t do finger cracks). Though very frequent climbing has made it overall worse in the past.

About three weeks ago I stumbled upon an article by Jared Vagy (The Climbing Doctor): Collateral ligament sprain (in climbing). He proposes two simple exercises to strengthen your finger muscles and rehab the sprain (see link). I have done these exercises for the past 3 weeks and my finger is much better. While the injury is not completely gone, it is notably more stable. I performed the recommended exercises almost every day although I didn’t follow a strict set and rep-scheme. Note that performing the exercises might cause slight pain in your finger (it does for me) but it should get better a few hours afterwards (that’s my experience).

Another thing that has helped was to stop taping my finger. I used to tape the finger with the H-tape method as you would do for pulley injuries. This gave me more stability and I thought it would be good. I noticed, however, that the tape somewhat constricted blood flow and that my joint would swell up and be more painful after a long climbing session. I tried climbing without tape and this has made my condition much better and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything because of not using tape. Injuries are strange things sometimes… 🙂

Alright, that was it from my bleak world of finger injuries. I hope you are all well out there and I wish you a great time climbing!

I’ll test my finger on a trip to Maltatal this weekend and I’m confident that I can at least climb some easier routes.

Cheers (and as always, click the follow-button if you like what you see)!

Photo by flickr-user Mazda Hewitt, licensed under Creative Commons

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 Continue reading “A warm-up to save your shoulders”

Avoiding climber’s elbow: an update!

About 4 months ago, I wrote a blog post about my elbow troubles and how I rehabbed the onset of climber’s / golfer’s elbow. The exercises were succesful and the pain went away pretty quickly. The responsible climber that I am, I made the resolution that I’d continue to do the exercises at least once a week. Although I’m usually pretty lazy with this stuff, I managed to stick with it. The results were good and despite my high training volume and the increasing intensity, my elbows feel really good and there is no sign of any tweaks.

So I wanted to share my experience with you and show you a few more exercises that I used as my elbow prehab program.

This is a video by Dr. Julian Saunders who created the original elbow rehab program that I followed:

I continued to do the eccentric curls once a week. I feel like they’ve worked really well. Mind that you don’t have to do these with a lot of weight. I started with 4,5kg for the eccentric wrist curls and I’m at 8kg now. It’s important that you increase the weight slowly. I also don’t think I will go much beyond 10kg.


Another video I recently discovered is this one:

I’ve been doing these exercises alongside the eccentric exercises from the Saunders video for the last few weeks. You can feel quite a nice stretch around your elbow when doing the exercises. It also feels pretty good for the wrists. I did these when ever I felt like my elbows needed additional attention, usually when I increased training volume or intensity. I also performed finger extensions with a rubber band.

I feel like my elbows don’t like change a lot, so whenever I do a lot more than I did before, or I do more intense stuff, my elbows are starting to get tweaky. I can keep that at bay with the aforementioned exercises, as long as I stick to doing them regularly. It’s better to start early than to wait and let it get worse. Once your ellbows are in a significant amount of pain, it’s much harder to get rid of it.


Be smart!

Fighting elbow pain

I have to admit, I was pretty pissed at myself when my elbows were in pain last Sunday and I knew that I did something stupid. I thought the training was over before it even began. Yet, here I am and the pain is almost completely gone. Boom! And the even better news? I didn’t have to lay off the climbing. I climbed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and on top of that I did weighted pull-ups and ring-dips on Wednesday. Pretty heavy regimen! Continue reading “Fighting elbow pain”