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The Climber’s Stiff Neck!

July 27, 2023
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Neck pain is very common in climbing – especially for those on the ground belaying. The harsh position of neck extension with our stability muscles switched off can aggravate symptoms. But what about the climber’s neck while climbing?  As they focus solely on reaching the next bolt or gear placement, dealing with the constant psychological battle of height and falling, they are less likely thinking about their neck position and the correct muscles to activate around the shoulder.

Many climbers that I see in the clinic are stiff in the lower cervical spine, have dominant levator scapulae/upper traps muscles, and show weakness in shoulder blade control. This can result in the feeling of dragging oneself up the rock face, as these limitations can affect shoulder blade mobility and we are, therefore, forced to use our ‘tight and weaker’ superficial muscles.

The picture above shows a trad climber reliant on his upper traps and levator scapulae, which as a result is further stressing the lower cervical spine in slight extension. As the grade of the climb becomes harder or the climber fatigues, their posture becomes worse, and performance is affected negatively.

At Seven Summits Rehab and Health, we aim to identify these weaknesses in climbers and to then strengthen the correct muscles. In doing so, the climber does not need to constantly think about posture corrections, as they will automatically be in a better position due to improved stability and muscle memory, thereby leaving them free to activate the stronger climbing muscles.

The takeaway here is that mid – lower trapezius muscles are vital for climbers to target, as these will prevent incorrect rotation of the scapula and resist the pull up into the neck. An exercise to bring into your strength work is the single arm row, but completed with a sling or TRX to challenge oneself further. Leaning back with a straight arm on the TRX puts you in a weaker position and mimics the reaching arm while climbing. Focus on isolating shoulder blade retraction first, which will bring in lats and trapezius (our priority) and watch out for the hitch of the shoulder as the upper traps take over (which we do not want). Focus on approximately 5 good reps of each arm with good control back to neutral, which you can see here.

This should translate well onto the climbing wall – with a better neck position, increased awareness of scapula retraction, and a stronger latissimus dorsi and trapezius activation. The result will feel like you are dragging yourself up the wall less, as you have better control with a strong initial straight arm pull resulting in better technique.

We offer climber assessments at Seven Summits Rehab and Health, which dives further into neck and shoulder complaints, and measures strength imbalances to give you a greater understanding of the direction to focus on whether you are a boulderer, sport or trad climber. Each of these areas requires different mechanics to focus on, so if you are interested in improving your performance, you can book in here for a climbing rehab session.

For now…find your strength in the right muscles to improve your climbing mechanics!