Margo Hayes showing us her best Keita Dohi… possibly before Keita Dohi himself.  Photo: Jennie Jariel

Research > Syntheses > Climbing Mobility > “A Framework for Climbing Mobility”

This article is a framework for you to consider along with professional advice, and should not be used on its own. Find a climbing-specific Physical Therapist or a Strength and Conditioning specialist. I’m indebted to Jared Vagy DPT “The Climbing Doctor” for his review.

Increasing Climber “Fit”

Mobility “priming” can aid your ability to “fit” a move within a single session.  This series of posts will get into specifics about how to prime mobility, as well as some more advanced case studies associated with slab/volume climbing and trunk mobility.

In fact, mobility not only helps with creating action — it can help you “perceive” other climbing options. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this post can pair with my write-up on How Climbing “Affordances” and “Motor Learning” won the Dominion River Rock Competition, which details “perception-action” coupling.

First, an overview:

  • Mobility is commonly thought of as flexibility combined with muscle performance. In the research literature it’s often referred to as ACTIVE RANGE OF MOTION, or AROM.
  • In climbing, think of this as being strong near your end ranges-of-motion, or Near ENDROM.  I am not the first to introduce this concept. 
    • The online book Adjunct Compensatory Training for Rock Climbers recommends that climbers should “try to keep a highly active neuromuscular control of this range of motion by strengthening your muscles at the edges of mobility and by implementing functional movement patterns.”
    • The Climbing Doctor (Dr. Jared Vagy) makes extensive use of strengthening and mobility in his Rock Rehab Pyramid.
  • The goal is two-fold: TRANSITION and ENGAGE
    • TRANSITION a limb or part of your center-of-mass (CoM) to a location on the wall which does not sacrifice how you “ideally” pull or push into your anchor points. 
      • “Ideal” pressure is defined by your body’s positioning in relation to the size, slope, granularity, and direction (angle) of an anchor point (e.g. hold). 
      • We can use mobility to manipulate how we “fit” into a space that allows us to maintain pressure we would otherwise need greater levels of finger performance (e.g. colloquially strength, power, and endurance) to control.
    • ENGAGE the appropriate musculature in Near ENDROM effectively, but also safely.

Final note: this analysis was based on performance-related characteristics, rather than injury-related characteristics. However, there is significant overlap.

Brief Overview

A potential framework. I’ve found the left side to be quicker, with the right reserved for emphasizing specific techniques. Additionally, note the ‘and/or’ since using both may be beneficial for some.
  1. RAISE: warm-up using climbing-specific patterns or cardio;
  2. On the mat, CHOOSE how you prime your ability to hit Near ENDROM for a targeted climbing ROM skill;
  3. STRENGTHEN your muscles near ENDROM;
  4. On the wall, EXPLORE your targeted climbing ROM skill in progressively (starting with moderate) more challenging circumstances to integrate the primed musculature and joint ranges-of-motion into the climbing environment

If you’re pressed for time, do a quick 3-5 minute activity to increase your heart rate and warm your muscles, do some dynamic stretching (see the case studies for more info on some potential recommendations as to where), then explore ENDROM. You should still get some muscle activation without the strengthening phase and static stretching / foam rolling take a while. If you’re not so pressed for time, consider trying the right side of the figure.

“Raise” Climbing

This comes from the first part of the RAMP warm-up protocol (see research section).  Basically, get your heart pumping a little using some easy-to-moderate quick, but deliberate (in terms of technique), climbing for 3-5 minutes.  This has a range of effects, including a slight improvement to mobility (by raising muscular temperature above ~35° celsius by a few degrees after 10-20 minutes — which this entire protocol should equal or exceed), increasing oxygen delivery, improving energy system production mechanisms, and facilitating the central nervous system’s ability to handle complex body movement.

Important: This step is not supposed to test range-of-motion. A non-skill specific way of approaching this would be some light cardio, jumping jacks, biking, etc. Knowing whether you’re fully warm is hard. I use time with an elevated heart rate as an indicator, as well as knowledge about where stress occurs in climbing (e.g. fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hamstrings, calves) and run each through progressive levels of intensity starting from easy and progressing slowly throughout the warm-up.

The Primes: Dynamic Stretching OR Static Stretching (with or without Foam Rolling)

You need to hit each phase for each intended joint you want to influence within a short period of time.  It may be helpful to think of foam rolling and stretching (dynamic or static) as a prime with a “window” for improvement – the improvements in range-of-motion will only last for a short period (5 minutes).  I usually recommend 1 set of 30 seconds of stretching just under the point of discomfort (POD).  The window of ROM improvement will likely last between 5 (foam rolling) and 30 (stretching) minutes based on my reading of the research (Smith et al. (2018) and Behm et al. (2015)) — see the research section for more. Also see the research section for conflicting evidence of the effect of foam rolling on stretching.

Note: I use “foam rolling” because this is primarily where I focused my search. However, a LAX ball, arm aid, or even theragun may or may not provide the same effect. Additionally, a future project will attempt to better differentiate the different types of tissue pliability and distinct stretching lengths or intensities.

Which to choose: Dynamic or Static

Dynamic stretching can be a performance enhancer, and is likely quicker.  The only reason I prefer static stretching is for those who aren’t deliberate in exploring their ROM during dynamic stretching — such as holding greater hip flexion during a knee hug.  Additionally, static stretching may be slightly more effective at improving ROM, but this is debated (for more on this debate, see the mobility research article). 

In general, I’m not hugely concerned about the potential negative impairments of static stretching (note: unless speed climbing is part of your athlete’s session) assuming that we keep to (1) specific muscle groups, and/or (2) we keep it under the 60-second threshold.  It also may affect challenging dynamic movement, at which point a compromise may need to be made between AROM and power. If you’re short on time EITHER do (1.  Dynamic w/ strengthening – recommended, or 2. Low intensity static stretching – I have reservations). Something I have not considered is whether static stretching followed by dynamic stretching may improve or decrease performance.

Because research is so important to this section, I recommend going to the “The Specifics” under the Mobility Research article.

How to Strengthen Near ENDROM

Arabella Jariel showing Margo how the Keita Dohi gets done. Note the use of the ponytail as a force dispersal mechanism – perfect for ridiculous mobility show-off moves designed to destroy your spine. Photo: Brennan Robinson

All my personal techniques were taught to me by a PT (Physical Therapist) or an S&C (Strength & Conditioning) specialist.  Find Near ENDROM and hold for 3-to-10-seconds at that position.  I find Near ENDROM usually by either facilitating Near ENDROM carefully with a hand (e.g. knee hug to chest), allowing gravity to settle my weight carefully into Near ENDROM (e.g. knee flexion in child’s pose), or using a partner for support (e.g. partner hamstring stretch). 

Note: I never actually go to full end range-of-motion to the point of pain.  STRONGLY ADVISED: invest in a session with a PT or Strength and Conditioning specialist to get you started. 

“Climb Mobility”

Take your “mat” work (stretching + strengthening) to the wall and emphasize the active ROM (AROM) in the climbing environment starting with easy-to-moderate and progressing through slightly harder moderate situations.  Eventually you may want to increase the difficulty of the skill challenge – which doesn’t necessarily mean the difficulty of the grade.

Which muscles?

See the case studies – which stretches you use should be specific to the skill you want.  Concerns about performance decrements with the lower body (e.g. hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, and groin) are low (unless you’re a Speed Climber) and as a result, longer duration stretching may be warranted.  On the other hand, anything with the trunk should likely keep to a 60-second threshold.

The Climbing Specific Joints for Near ENDROM

It’s important to note that many of these movements act as a chain.  It’s very possible that something in the chain other than what’s mentioned is limiting you, which is exactly why you should SEE A PT OR S&C SPECIALIST!  When you’re ready – READ ON for some skill-specific case studies with mobility recommendations.

See case studies on slab/volume climbing and trunk mobility.
See select research on the topic of mobility and climbing.