Climbing-Specific Body Tension:
A Systematic Approach for Assessment & Progression
Kevin Cowell, PT, DPT, OCS
The crux move is steep, you’re toeing in on a small foot chip, and holding your breath as you go for the next hold. You stick the pinch move and use every ounce of effort to maintain body tension on the wall but gravity wins. Rest, re-assess, and try again.
Everyone has experienced failure to generate body tension. Often times it leads to chalk kicking up from landing on the crash pad or maybe your climbing partner questioning why you keep swinging off the wall when you go for the same “reachy” move without success. If body tension is the limiting factor then how do you train it? The simple answer is climbing, but sometimes gyms are closed, seasons prevent you from hopping onto your project, or you just need that extra 10% of “Sharma” strength to keep you on the wall.
Body tension from a functional perspective can be described as a balance of generated internal forces from several muscle groups working in unison to meet or exceed external resistance (like gravity).1-4 Climbing-specific body tension is both an outcome of functional skill and strength.5-6 Skill comes from quality time spent on the wall where body awareness and tension are fine-tuned in specific, functional patterns.5-6 Functional strength is developed when a series of muscles are fired in concert and generates force specific to the functional task. Understanding the areas of limitation in developing body tension in functional positions can prove valuable for both strength improvement and injury reduction for climbers. 1-6
Core strength and stability is often associated with body tension and climbing.6,7 The core is designed to absorb, resist, and overcome forces from various planes of motion and distribute those forces to optimize body position for specific tasks.6-9 However, exercising the core in isolation may neglect training deep trunk musculature and other muscle groups used to generate movement and tension on the wall.6-10 For example, body tension is key to keeping your feet on the wall on a steep route.7-9 The neuromuscular ability to “try hard” and recruit tension in your hamstring, hips, low back, and shoulders can be just as important as the engagement in your core. A multi-modal approach to sport-specific strength training has the potentially to more valuable than isolated core exercises when it comes to developing climbing-specific body tension as well as injury reduction.7,8,10,11
Below is a functional strength and performance test (Modified “Bunkie” Test) that examines the strength capacity of the core, deep trunk musculature, and other critical muscle groups of the upper and lower body used to develop body tension.1-4 The assessment consists of 5 specific testing positions that challenge aspects of body tension associated with climbing (minimal equipment required).1-4 The systematic approach is designed to as an assessment and exercises to highlight areas of strength as well as identify areas asymmetries, weaknesses, or limitations that may benefit from strength training modifications that can be associated with improved body tension while climbing as well as sport-related injury reduction.1-4,10-13
About The Author
Kevin is a physical therapist, clinical instructor, and rock climber based out of Boulder, CO. Kevin owns and operates The Climb Clinic (located at G1 Climbing + Fitness) where he specializes in neuromusculoskeletal performance rehab for climbers and mountain athletes. He found his passion for climbing in Colorado while attending Regis University for his Doctorate of Physical Therapy. Kevin is a Board-Certified Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist and recently completed extensive training where he awaits to become a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy (FAAOMPT) – Expected June 2020. He has had the opportunity to assist at courses teaching clinicians dry needling and spinal manipulative techniques as well as serve as a healthcare provider at the Boulder World Cup in Vail. Kevin takes any chance he gets to climb outside and adventure in Colorado with his wife, Maddie, and pup, Kota.
Email: [email protected]
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