How to Avoid Climber’s Back
As I continue to climb, I’m becoming more aware of how it affects my body in both good and bad ways. Climbing can be hard on your back muscles and spine. With time, it could lead to mediocre posture. There’s a name for this actually; it’s called climber’s back or climber’s posture.
What’s Climber’s Back?
Climber’s back is identified by having a rounded upper back and hunched shoulders. One looks like she/he is a hunchback. It’s caused by resting on the wall or rock and letting your shoulders slump forward for extended periods of time. I haven’t seen anything that directly affects boulderers, but I can see where this can be a problem for them also. However, imagine a climber resting and sitting in a harness. Letting the back be in this position can start causing an unnatural degree of kyphosis.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, “kyphosis is a spinal disorder in which an excessive outward curve of the spine results in an abnormal rounding of the upper back. The condition is sometimes known as ‘roundback’ or—in the case of a severe curve—as ‘hunchback.’” However, the thoracic spine (that’s the middle curve of the spine) should have a natural kyphosis between 20 to 45 degrees. Postural or structural abnormalities can result in a curve that is outside this normal range.
Why is this bad? A limitation in the thoracic spine can often lead to back pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain. Also, having an unhealthy posture in general.
Climber’s back affects the back muscles too. The back muscles involved are the latissimus dorsi (aka lats), rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius. According to Ashley Edwards and Kate Evans, writers for Gripped Magazine, the primary muscles you use while you climb are your lats. These muscles, located along the sides of your back are “wing-shaped” and allow you to pull down.
When climbing, you’re pulling and building the major back muscles. Minor back muscles, like the rhomboids, aren’t producing the same strength. So, what’s happening is that you’re overdeveloping your lats but not the rest.
The chest muscles tighten to keep your shoulders safe when active and compensate the back muscles. These help to protect the shoulders by pulling them back. Climbing provides a rigorous workout for the pull muscles but demands much less of the opposing push muscles of the chest (specifically the pectoral muscles), shoulders, and upper arms.
The pectorals are a set of chest muscles connected to your upper arms and shoulders. Their function is to internally rotate and extend the arms which happen to be opposite of much of the climbing movement. When you strengthen your pectoral muscles, they counterbalance those lats you develop while climbing.
As mentioned earlier, if you don’t take care of your back and chest, you can develop back pain down the road. But it’s not just back pain, neck pain and tightness in the chest muscles can occur. These problems could lead to shoulder impingement and a decrease in quality of your movement.
How Do You Prevent It?
Since we know now what causes climber’s back, what can be done to avoid it? Here are some actions you can take to help your back and posture.
Be aware of your back when resting in your harness while climbing routes. Straighten your back as you hang. Don’t slump your shoulders. I haven’t seen anything for prevention while bouldering. I’m not an expert at this all, but I would recommend sitting or standing straight during resting periods on the ground or mat. Doing so can’t hurt. I’ll also mention if you’re in a good resting position on the wall or rock, check your posture so that you don’t have rounded shoulders.
Stretching before and after climbing helps your muscles out a lot. Some recommended movements I’ve seen are the downward and upward dogs. In general, yoga is good for supporting your body while releasing tension so, this makes sense to incorporate. For yoga, I already practice downward dog but not upward. I might consider including it in my routine.
Back in Motion Physical Therapy Clinic suggests using foam rollers or lacrosse balls to target the back and chest plus the tissues. They help muscles relax and let go of tightness. I haven’t used either of these before, but I’m thinking about trying out the foam roller.
Specific exercises can develop lesser worked back muscles and the pectorals. Push-ups and planks (front or side) are useful because they stretch the chest. Any other practices that push the shoulder back can be used to strengthen the other muscles. I include push-ups and planks in my training, but it might be good to add a few more.
I hope you find this information helpful for your climbing and recovery. With having this knowledge now, I’ll be checking my back when I’m resting on the routes and after bouldering. I don’t want a bad back because of climbing and poor posture in the future. Until next time, happy bouldering.