How to Beat the Dreaded Pump
“Ow! My arms are tight. I wanna climb higher, but I can’t hang on much longer!” – Me
What I’m describing in the quote is what’s commonly known in the climbing community as the dreaded forearm pump. This isn’t what Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to do. This kind is what climbers wish to avoid.
What is Forearm Pump?
Forearm pump or “pump” as it’s normally called, is according to Natalie Berry of UKClimbing.com, a “sensation of engorged, swollen tightness in your forearms.” Another way to define pump is the feeling of fatigue in your forearms after climbing a longer problem or route. Often painful, it’s somewhere on the scale from numbness to a severe ache. As you might have guessed, feeling pumped isn’t fun at all.
What Causes It?
When pump occurs, it means your arm muscles aren’t getting enough oxygen-rich blood. Instead, according to Climbing Magazine writer Brenden Blanchard in his 5-part series “Learn How to Train: Local Endurance for Climbers,” it’s having trouble reaching your forearms, which creates the fatigue. The blood helps muscles create the chemical adenosine triphosphate (ATP) efficiently. ATP is required to release muscle fibers after they’ve contracted, so if there isn’t enough ATP available, your muscles can’t relax. That’s why your hands have a hard time opening and closing when pumped.
Once the muscle fibers lock up, they squeeze tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in the forearms shut. If the blood doesn’t enter your muscles, they lock up, and you fall. Afterward, it takes time for the arms to recover.
How Do You Prevent It?
Now, that you know what happens when you experience pump, what can you do to reduce it? Here are some ways to help keep it at bay.
- Shaking Off
Breathe In and Out
Breathing is essential to climbing well. Taking slow, deep breaths won’t only decrease your pump but also calm yourself in tricky spots. Shallow and rapid breathing can make anxiety worse. Sometimes climbers forget to breathe (it does happen) when stressed on a hard crux. Poor breathing prevents the muscles from getting the oxygen they need to perform. The more air they take in, the better off.
Finding a Good Resting Spot
Finding a place to rest while on a problem or route will help you recover. Learning to Climb Indoors author Eric J. Hörst explains that before you start climbing, you should look where good rest stops will be and body positions to keep you stable while resting. Finding them beforehand will save you time and your arms.
Another practice to keep in mind during resting is hanging with your skeleton. Professional climber Johnathan Siegrist says to do this, have your arms extended straight above you and not at an angle. Doing so is hard and tiring to do. Try to prevent over-gripping while resting because this can lead to more strain on the arms. Also, make sure your feet are supporting your weight.
Siegrist also mentions good heelhooking or toehooking can take the weight off your arms and give you an opportunity to shake them off. If possible, use your feet more often. As I’ve pointed out before, you have larger muscles in your legs, and they won’t give out before your arms do.
“Shaking It Off”
There’s a technique Hörst mention in his book called the “G-Tox.” It uses gravity to help speed up recovery from the pump. It involves alternating (about every 5 seconds) position of the resting arm between the normal hanging-at-your-side position and a raised-hand position above the shoulder. In other words, you throw your arm up and down plus shaking your hand while resting.
On his website “trainingforclimbing.com”, Hörst states the G-Tox technique makes gravity aid the circulatory return to the heart. The universally known “dangling arm” shakeout does allow the blood flow to the forearm resume. However, the flow of “stale” blood out of the forearm is sluggish due to the arm position below your heart. In Hörst’s opinion, the G-Tox works better for flow.
This technique may not be apparent but controlling your pace as you’re climbing can help curb pump. Writer and climber Georgie Abel remarks in her article “How to Avoid and Manage Getting Pumped While Rock Climbing,” “make sure that you’re moving quickly and efficiently through hard sections and taking more time on easier terrain. Holding on to bad/small holds for too long is a surefire way to get yourself pumped.” The best climbers don’t climb unusually fast or slow. It may take a while to figure out but it’s worth it in the long run.
Ain’t Got Time for Pump
Thankfully, if your arms do start feeling pumped, there are ways to ease the pain. As mentioned earlier, shaking out the hands while resting does benefit me on long or overhanging routes. I’ve found stretching my arms after bouldering helps but they’re already pumped, it hurts to do. So, use caution, so you don’t injure yourself.
I hope this information helps your climbing as it has mine. Until next time, happy bouldering!