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Shoulder Pain from Bouldering. What Should You Do?

Stefanie | July 17, 2017
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Shoulder pain is bothersome and, in addition to sore wrists, is often an unfortunate side effect of bouldering. Carlos and I were all too familiar with shoulder pain ourselves. In this updated blog post, I share how we dealt with it and what I learned about this topic at a yoga workshop yesterday.

"What kind of crazy move is that?! Is that even healthy?? I better not try that ..."

Do you sometimes find yourself thinking this about bouldering problems?

I do.

With pockets on overhangs, for example.

Or with problems that can clearly only be solved with diagonal jumps. Without shoulder training, shoulder pain is basically guaranteed in those cases.

The risk of shoulder pain is certainly higher with bouldering.

shoulder pain bouldering
What a move! I felt too short for this one. This is a typical boulder problem that challenges your shoulders, if they are not prepared.

But shoulder pain can also be caused by climbing. Or by yoga. Or by sitting at a desk all day.

It can manifest as a sudden pain in the shoulder or as a slight ache that grows stronger over time.

The shoulder joint is very flexible and is only supported by a small bony structure, making it susceptible to pain and inflammation – especially in case of high strain and a lack of counterbalancing exercises.

Our experience with shoulder pain

For Carlos, it happened when he was faced with two very distant horizontal holds while climbing.

With a sudden "Plop!" the pain was there.

For me, the pain didn’t come on suddenly, but gradually. Through an unfavorable mix of monotonous desk posture and frequent Vinyasa yoga sequences with too many Downward-Facing Dog and Plank poses in the morning.

2 steps that helped us relieve shoulder pain

Shoulder pain is very individual. If you’re experiencing problems, it’s best if you seek a medical/therapeutic evaluation.

However, these two steps brought Carlos and me relief:

  1. Taking a break
  2. Stabilizing counter poses

Take a break

A break doesn’t mean stopping completely but omitting all irritating factors. So adapting climbing, bouldering, and yoga accordingly:

You may have to avoid these activities completely for a while. In that case, I recommend asking your doctor which exercises you’re permitted to do (and which ones work for you).

The risk of a prolonged break is that you’ll start to lose muscle tone. This further exacerbates the problem.

Stabilizing counter poses

In addition to opening and passive stretches, counter poses ideally include strengthening exercises for the rotator cuff.

A TheraBand works well for strengthening exercises.

We use several exercises from the book "One Move Too Many" by Thomas Hochholzer and Volker Schöffl. We highly recommend this book for other climbing and bouldering-related injuries, as well.

You can also find shoulder exercises in the well-structured and straightforward article Climbing Shoulder Injuries – Exercises and Tips by Gabriella Frittelli on ukclimbing.com.

Just take a look at the exercises and give them a try. Even if you don’t have shoulder problems right now, these exercises can help prevent problems from developing in the future.

Here are 2 exercises that work for Carlos and me:

051715_Yoga_Übungen
Like in yoga, a straight, firm stance is important for a stable execution. The left forearm goes outward, then slightly inward again. I do the exercise 10 times and then change sides.
051715_Yoga-Übung
Alternate between pulling the ends upward (slightly below shoulder height) and releasing them. I find this exercise quite strenuous. As with yoga and climbing: It doesn’t work without proper breathing.

Yoga modifications for the shoulders

At a yoga workshop focused around the topic "shoulders" yesterday, I once again learned that two things are incredibly important:

  1. Stabilizing the shoulders
  2. Alignment during yoga: Having a stable alignment is more important than the form of the pose.

Let’s look at what you can do during yoga to protect and stabilize your shoulders:

  1. Stretch your arms to the side or back instead of upward.
  2. In Child’s Pose, don’t stretch your arms all the way forward. Leave them bent or keep them next to your body while extending them back.
  3. Avoid jerky movements.
  4. Alignment principle: "Plug in" your upper arms.
  5. Exercise: Roll your shoulders outward, then relax them.

Stretch your arms to the side or back instead of upward

In case of acutely sore shoulders, I recommend leaving your arms down in poses like:

Stretch your arms to the side or back instead, leaving your upper hand at your hip in Triangle and in side stretches.

If you stretch your arms back instead of to the side in Warrior III, you create a slight opening that can feel great for your shoulders.

bei Schulterschmerzen: Arme nach hinten statt zur Seite
Better than stretching your arms out to the front: As a counter pose to everyday life, extend your shoulders and arms back and turn your palms outward as an added option.

Arms in Child’s Pose

The same principle applies to Child’s Pose: Relax your shoulders. Let go of tension. Don’t overstretch them.

Avoid jerky movements

A classic that sounds too easy, but is still something we often forget:

Be careful when you move your arms. Breathe first, then follow up with the movement.

A lot of soreness in the shoulder area develops from inattention, rushing through movements and poor alignment.

Alignment principle: "Plug in" your upper arms

"If there’s one thing you won’t forget, it’s plugging in," the workshop instructor, Verena, said yesterday.

To understand what exactly that means, it’s best if you give it a try:

  1. Stretch your arms forward.
  2. Turn your palms inward, facing each other.
  3. Then slightly push your upper arms back as if you wanted to plug your arm bones into the socket.

To test the effect: Stretch your arms all the way forward until your back is rounded. As if someone were pulling you from the front.

Do you notice the difference in stability?

In plank poses on all fours, always remember to "plug in" when you’re stretching out your arms.

Exercise: Roll your shoulders outward, then relax them

This exercise is simple and effective. It relaxes and stabilizes your shoulders.

How it works:

  1. Stand up straight and let your arms hang down loosely. Turn your palms inward.
  2. Inhale: Pull your shoulders back slightly while turning your arms and palms outward.
  3. Exhale: Repeat step 1.

Duration: I usually repeat the exercise 10 times, then take a break and do another round. Listen to what feels good for your body.

In summary

Because of the shoulder’s anatomical structure, the fact is that shoulder injuries represent a real risk in both climbing and yoga.

Stopping before it’s too late, mindful movements and modifications in yoga are just as important as targeted training to strengthen the shoulders.

If you’re already experiencing shoulder problems, I recommend testing which exercises work for you and how they make your shoulders feel. When doing the exercises, take the time to assess what’s happening in your body.

Omit everything that doesn’t feel good and puts strain on your shoulders.

In addition to the article by Gabriella mentioned earlier, you can find a few more interesting articles on the topic under the links below:

From physiotherapist Gabriella Frittelli: Climbing Shoulder Injuries – Exercises and Tips

From climbing coach Robin O’Leary and physiotherapist Nina Leonfeller: Injury Management and Prevention: Shoulders

From climbing coach and author Eric J. Hörst: Shoulder Injuries and Prevention

Do you do strengthening and counterbalancing exercises for your shoulders? If yes, which ones?

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