Most injuries while climbing involve the trunk or upper body. In fact, only about 5-10% of climbing injuries involve the lower body. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the possibility of leg injuries…ESPECIALLY if you have had a history of problems with the lower body. Let’s take some time to talk about the hamstrings (muscles on the back of your thigh) and how there is a possibility of “pulling” that muscle group. Here’s a breakdown of ways to limit that possibility and keep your hamstrings in top shape!
Strengthening is one of the top ways to avoid injury. Specifically building strength in your hamstring muscles will allow them to generate more force and be less likely to be overexerted, causing injury. A basic hamstring curl is a great place to start. It can be done in many ways, but laying on your stomach is a great one. While on your stomach, bend your knee to at least 90 degrees (you can go further if you like, but going past 90 will not incorporate as much hamstring usage). Then return to your starting position. Be sure to go at a steady pace throughout the movement. If this is too easy, add an ankle weight to up the challenge!
Laying on your back, you can do a bridge to strengthen several muscle groups including the hamstrings, as well as the glutes. Working on your glute muscles, that lessens the need for reliance on hamstring strength for certain movements. Once you are laying on your back with your knees bent, create a bridge by lifting your hips off the floor. Try to get your shoulders, hips, and knees in a straight line. Lower the hips back to the floor and repeat!
Stretching is also key to avoiding hamstring injuries. In order to stretch the hamstrings, you can sit on the floor with your legs straight out directly in front of you. Keep your back straight and lean toward your toes until you feel a stretch. If this method is too aggressive, try sitting on the edge of a chair with your back straight and one leg out straight. Lean in as with the previous method. Feel that stretch and hold! Thirty seconds is a great guideline for the stretch duration. By keeping the muscle in a state where it’s able to reach its full array of length, you can generate more force by being able to more easily reach optimal positions.
Now that you’ve spent time with these exercises, you are ready to get to climbing, but before actually hitting the rock walls, a warmup is important. This gets the blood flowing, and muscles ready for use, and lowers injury risk. There are many ways to go about this. If you are climbing outside, you’ve likely got a hike to approach, which is a good start. If climbing in a gym, walking to the gym, biking to the gym, or hitting a few minutes on the treadmill at an easy pace are options. Incorporating some dynamic movements like bodyweight squats and walking lunges will further prepare your body. Once you decide to hit the wall, start off with some easier routes at least 1-2 levels below your maximum skill.
The last strategy I’m going to cover is being mindful of the techniques you actually use while climbing. The riskiest move for a hamstring injury is the heel hook. By placing your straight leg up on a ledge or a hold, the requirements of the hamstrings to lift your body are quite massive. Repeatedly using such a maneuver greatly increases your risk for a hamstring problem. Be careful when using a heel hook. Know your limits and don’t do it if it doesn’t feel right!!
If you do find yourself having injured your hamstring, consult a physical therapist as soon as you can. A 2016 study by Schoeffl, Lutter, and Popp showed that out of 17 climbers with knee injuries, 15 got better and returned to climbing with ONLY physical therapy treatment. This included several who not only strained but actually tore their hamstring. There is a great chance physical therapy can help you get back to climbing again. If you have more questions about anything you read in this post and want more info, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out on Backcountry Physical Therapy’s social media pages. Be sure to check back on the website for more blog posts and follow us on social media for helpful tips to keep yourself pain-free!