Rock Climbing Conditioning: Advanced Stretching Techniques

WHAT is the best type of stretching, how often should I stretch and when is the best time to stretch are common questions I get asked by climbers.

WHAT is the best type of stretching, how often should I stretch and when is the best time to stretch are common questions I get asked by climbers.  At a recent climbing conditioning workshop I had the opportunity to answer these questions and demonstrate the effectiveness of using the right stretch at the right time.  Read on to find out more about PNF, AIS and SMR techniques.

Advanced Stretching Techniques to Prevent Injury
The below diagram (and the previous article in this Injury Prevention series) illustrates that to stay injury free and to reach our performance potential, we must ensure a foundation of a full functional profile.

functional trainer, jack walton, health pyramid
functional trainer, jack walton, health pyramid

Achieving a full functional profile may include working on:
:: Postural Alignment
:: Muscular Balance – Strength
:: Muscular Balance – Flexibility
:: Movement Pattern Screens
:: Core Function
:: Joint Function
:: Pain-free
:: Hydrated tissues
:: Breathing Pattern
:: Quality Sleep and recovery Rates
:: Healthy Digestion
:: Hormonal Balance
:: Low stress and physiological load
:: Low toxicity and balanced Detoxification systems
:: Strong Immune health
:: High energy levels

In addition to this article there are more advanced stretching resources at your disposal including a video of the workshop and presentation slides too (see below).

Importance of Flexibility for Climbers
Whilst there are many factors to be potentially worked on, flexibility is an important one and will be focussed on today.  In short, flexibility is important for everyone, but like most things, balance is key.  This means that too much and too little flexibility can be detrimental to health and performance.  If we are too flexible it can mean that our joints are unstable and are susceptible to injury.  If our flexibility is limited and we are ‘tight’, then again we are susceptible to injury when we attempt to move in a full range of motion, especially at speed during sports and moves on the rock such as ‘dynos’.

When there is tightness, there will also typically be compensation somewhere else.  For example tightness in your abdominals causing a rounded back posture may lead to compensation and excessive loading of your shoulders to reach the next hold.  This sort of compensation can cause direct trauma and overuse injuries over time.

The optimal level of flexibility is individual to you, but achieving a certain level will mean that you perform at your best on the rock.  From clinical experience I have found that the way many people approach flexibility is to either do too much or too little.  The good news is that you will have some muscles that need stretching and some that don’t.  Only stretch the muscles that need it and you can achieve muscular balance.  As an analogy, consider the spokes on a bicycle wheel.  When they are at the right length and tension then the wheel has structure and integrity.  If we arbitrarily go and lengthen (stretch) some of these spokes (muscles) then the wheel will lose shape, balance, stability, structure and integrity.  In addition, there are some muscles that respond to stress by tightening up (tonic) and some muscles that respond by lengthening (phasic), making our stretching decisions more important.

“Create the correct length and tension in your muscles to achieve true balance.”

Getting tied up in knots
Stretching is often a major topic of debate.  It is often misunderstood.  The idea that we should stretch for the sake of it being part of a routine is typically detrimental.  It should be carefully programmed, just like any exercise training and conditioning that you do.

What type of stretching is best?  For how long and how often?  When is the best time to stretch?  All excellent questions and the answer is one of complex-simplicity.  Put simply, it depends.  The stretching technique used to improve mobility of the joints will vary from person to person, sport to sport and across many other factors.  This notion should be empowering and provide answer as to why stretching may not have made any difference to you in the past…..even after hours and hours of dedicated work.

To add complexity to the topic, it really does matter who, why and when.  One type of stretching may be suitable for improving the mobility of one individual, yet be responsible for poor results of another.  Lets look at some advanced stretching techniques:

The Static Myth
Key to this discussion is that there is no evidence that static stretching actually increases dynamic performance.  In fact, it could be damaging to some joints.  Considering that we all move dynamically in our daily and athletic activities, this is important to take on board.  Static stretching is really like treating the soft tissues of the body like plastic and trying to stretch them longer.  Clearly we are not quite that simple and methods that engage the neuromuscular system may be more effective.

Remember that improving joint mobility is specific to you actually performing a controlled movement.  Like reaching backwards, up and around an over-hang, or simply being able to bend down to the floor to pick something up.  This principle relates to the fact that active flexibility stretching techniques are most likely to be most beneficial.  Your body will be educated into being able to produce the movement successfully.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation - PNF
So lets look at some effective techniques that I use daily in the clinic and athlete conditioning settings.  That said, before carrying out any stretching it is important to perform flexibility assessments.  PNF stretching involves moving a joint through to its full range of passive movement (practitioner, or yoga rope).  For example lying on your back and a practitioner raising your straight leg up to stretch the hamstring.  At this natural end point the muscle will feel moderately stretched.  Next the stretched muscle (hamstring) is contracted lightly against an equal opposing force (practitioner, or yoga rope) for 12s.  On relaxing, the joint is taken through to the end range again, which may be further than the first stretch.  You will need to be taught this technique to use it effectively, but the aim here is to indicate that this technique can modify the neuromuscular processes to increase flexibility in the muscle.  Something that static stretching does not do and probably because the central nervous system is at the heart of all movement.

Active Isolated Stretching - AIS
Aaron Mattes developed this technique and applies and teaches it with fantastic success.  It involves actively moving the joint through a movement for around 8 to 12 repetitions.  For example you could be on your back raising a straight leg to stretch the hamstrings.  At the top/end of the active movement, an additional small stretch is applied by a practitioner or yoga rope for 1.5-2seconds, before returning to the bottom/start to repeat.  Again the nervous system is heavily involved as the technique works with a mechanism called ‘reciprocal inhibition’ enabling the agonist and antagonist muscles to work together creating balance and a flexible range of movement.  For example the Quadriceps and Hamstrings on the front and back of the thigh. 

If you can learn and implement even just these two techniques instead of just static stretches or non at all, then you are well on your way to enhancing your climbing performance.

Self Myofascial Release – SMR
In this case the method for improving flexibility is not actually a ‘stretch’, but it is most certainly worth mentioning.  Here, flexibility will be improved by releasing the tissues around the joint including fascia, tendons, muscles and ligaments.  Myofascial Release is best performed by a trained therapist, however foam rollers may have a use in maintaining tissue health between sessions.  Using the foam roller on a muscle can identify a tender or tight spot that may release when the pressure is held for around 30-45seconds.  The key is to carry out the technique appropriately and avoid the most tender areas or using a rolling-pin action.  Effective, regular use can reduce tension and knots allowing for stronger, freer movement.

Advanced Stretching Resources
Climbing Conditioning Workshop videos at www.youtube.com/user/FHealthPerformance
Free Login to www.functionaltrainer.co.uk for all the workshop resources.

Future Articles and Workshops to help Prevent Injury
Stay tuned for more resources, videos and articles on ways to prevent injury for climbers, including;
:: Movement Screening and the Squat
:: Climbing Injuries 101
:: Shoulder Girdle Function
:: Core Function
:: Holistic Approach to Prevention

Next Climbing Conditioning Workshop – 26th January 2011
You are invited to attend the Climbing Conditioning Workshop – Build a Strong Shoulder Girdle on 26th January 2011 at the Durham Climbing Centre.  Book Your Place:
£10 Entry (includes evening’s climbing) | 7.00pm to 8.30pm
Durham Climbing Centre: Unit 2 St John’s Rd | Meadowfield Industrial Estate | Durham | DH7 8TZ
info (at) durhamclimbingcentre.com | 0191 3789555 | www.durhamclimbingcentre.co.uk

‘Functional Trainer’ provides Climbing Conditioning Workshops, Corrective Exercise Coaching, The Bowen Technique and Metabolic Typing ® Nutrition.  www.functionaltrainer.co.uk.  Contact 07792761324  jack (at) functionaltrainer.co.uk

 

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer