Posted on November 11 2013
Your climbing is going well, you are starting to get strong and push your grade, with your added strength and technique you are able to hang those little crimpers that much longer. You have even considered doing some training, got yourself a fingerboard and tried to pull up on one finger. But one day you wake up with a pain at the elbow joint it seems to be on both arms, its not to bad but you are certainly aware of it. You decide to take a day or two off from going climbing, and the pain eases off. Great news lets get back to the wall you think, however once you do the pain quickly returns and after a couple of sessions it is worse then it was, you have climbers elbow my friend.
The good news is you are not alone, every climber I know has got elbow pain at some point in their career, I certainly have. It is most commonly caused when one set of forearm muscles are developed out of proportion to the other set. There are 9 muscles which act to close your fist and grip objects like climbing holds, and there are 9 muscles which act to open your fist and spread your fingers. As climbers we only really work those closing muscles, which eventually creates an imbalance, this inconsistency in strength means the joint tendons are pulled unevenly and the result is pain. Luckily solving this problem is pretty simple, you just have to work the antagonistic muscles. There are a few ways you can do this, firstly take a light dumbbell (1.5 - 2kg) and holding it in your hand loosely, roll you wrist upwards, keep doing it until you start to get a slight pump in the top of the forearm, around 30 reps is probably good. Another good option is to use a exercise rubber band , which you put under your foot grip in both hands and again rotate the wrist upwards. However the best solution I have found is the Metolius Grip Saver. In the interest of fair disclosure we do sell them on this site, but they have genuinely removed the problem for me. They are a ball with an elastic band through the middle, the band has a loop for each finger and the ball offers resistance when squeezed. You use it by putting finger through each loop, and alternating between squeezing the ball then stretching the hand out wide. You keep going until you feel a slight forearm burn. It targets each finger so works all of the muscles evenly, solving the problem. The only time I don’t recommend using them is when you have a finger injury.
The other less common problem is that the tendons are not developing as quickly as the muscles. This generally happens when you are new to climbing, or have taken a long period out of the sport and are coming back into it. The only sure fire way to stop your tendons being damaged by rapid growing muscles is to take your time and not rush up the grades. However this is easier said then done for most of us. So here are a couple of tips to help you reduce the chance on injury. Firstly do the exercises mentioned above, don’t wait until you have pain, do them from the beginning and make sure all joints and tendons are under balanced strain as they are designed. Secondly warm up properly before every work out. We have some articles coming about warming up and training but the basic principles of a good warm up is that it should be dynamic, active and as close to the sport you are about to do as possible.
So for climbing that means, something like doing some star jumps, skipping or jogging on the spot to get the blood flowing round the body (or a solid approach walk to the crag). The some dynamic arm movements, rotting you arms to loosen the shoulders, rapidly opening and closing you hands to loosen the forearms, maybe some hip rotations. Then getting on the wall as soon as possible, with easy traverses, and short simple boulders, nothing hard just performing the movements with minimum strain, us this time to focus on techniques such as foot placement. That is pretty much it start your session easy and go from there.
Do not stretch before you climb, particularly your fingers and hands. When you stretch you put little tears in the muscles and tendons which are weak points. Climbing puts massive strain on your fingers, probably more then they were designed to take, so the last thing you want to do is create areas of weakness before you climb. After the session is finished then stretching is good to realign tendons, and relive tightness.
If all else fails then the final solution is of course to rest, take a week off and allow the body to heal itself, you will be a better climber in the long run if you can listen to your body and rest appropriately.
Climbers elbow is a common problem that can be solved easily, ideally you can catch it now before you get it and have a climbing career without elbow pain. If you already have it, a few days of using a Grip Saver and you will see a whole world of difference.