It’s been a long day, and you’re just completely wiped. You were at the wall doing some leading or top roping for hours. You had a blast, but you are worried about how sore your arms and legs are going to be tomorrow. As you lay your head down on your pillow, you notice that those aren’t the areas that bother you. Your neck feels really tight and a few sharp pains pop up as well. This isn’t at all what you expected to happen. This is also a very real scenario that we should explore further. Climbing itself also may not have been the biggest culprit behind this pain. Belay technique can make a huge difference in how your neck responds to a day at the crag.
The posture most people naturally default toward is one where your shoulders slump forward and your upper back goes into the same position along with it. As your upper back slumps forward, your head and neck have to move further and further into extension (where your head is in a leaned-back position) to get into the same spot they were before. This completely takes your spine out of the neutral alignment where it should ideally be at rest. Pay attention to how you position yourself on a belay, and I bet that you will often find yourself getting lazy and drawing your shoulders forward. The more neutral you can keep your posture, the more efficient your body will be. Those pulls to draw in the slack on the rope will require less energy.
As I mentioned, if you have poor posture that hunches your upper back, your head and neck extend too much just to get to a point where you aren’t looking at the ground. Now imagine how much is required to get you to be able to see 50 feet up a rock wall! Further, imagine staying in that position for a period of time while the climber ponders a difficult move. This happens several times throughout the route. This goes on for 10 or 15 routes for the day. You’ve spent hours staring straight above you with your head cocked back. When you are in a position that forces you to stare straight up the wall, your muscles along the back of your neck and at the base of the skull are in a shortened position that causes them to tighten up. Tightness will cause pain along those same muscle groups and inhibit your range to move your neck.
Your best bets to help avoid this are to fix your posture and make sure you are positioned in a good spot. Practice drawing your shoulder blades together to keep your shoulders back and your chest open. Throughout the day, do a check on yourself. When you are sitting at a desk, driving a car, or standing in line, stop and assess your posture real quick. Find a better position and try to stay there as long as possible. The more you can work on the endurance of those postural control muscles, the easier it will be to stay where you need your shoulders to be. Make sure you stand a little bit away from the wall so that you don’t need to always be looking straight up to see your partner. This will limit the amount of neck extension needed to belay him/her. Start by shifting the gaze of your eyes toward the top of your head as far up the wall as you can, and then use neck extension as needed to see the rest of the way. Alternatively, consider using belay glasses to change the way you spot your partner on a belay.
Following these quick tips will decrease your chances of having a sore neck from belaying and make your climbing trip more enjoyable. It can all be helped with just an improvement in posture and position. If you want more info, please email me at email@example.com 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!