By Steve Bechtel

I like to go to competitions. I like them for many different reasons, but mostly it is to watch people as they prepare to compete. See, the vast majority of pre-event activity is nothing like the way we prepare for training. At bouldering competitions, we see all kinds of craziness, and pre-climb rituals, and few of these things can actually improve performance.

I’ll talk about climbing in a second, but first I will talk about race-day preparation at a 5k. It goes like this: Show up early in shorts and a T-shirt (it’s always cold at the beginning of these races…I think it’s a law), sign up, drink some Gatorade, and then stretch for 20-30 minutes until race time. Five minutes before the gun, walk over to the start, do some more standing stretches, and then RACE!

Well, we could critique this strategy until the cows come home, but what we’re really looking at is a bad result and an increased chance of injury. See, we are just now learning that stretching pre-run (especially if you don’t normally stretch) can make you slower.

Most scientists and coaches agree that stretching is beneficial to athletes. But stretching before activity is no longer recommended by sport scientists. In the past, athletes warmed up for activity with static stretches, then some general activity to “get the blood flowing”, and finally with some sport-specific drills. The general purpose of a warm-up is to get the body ready for activity, and to increase performance. Interestingly, several studies have shown that stretching a muscle before performing power or strength related movements can cause greatly reduced power production. Some findings put this decrease in force as high as 30%.

So how does this happen? It is suggested that neural inhibition and increased muscle-tendon compliance lead to a reduced force transmission from the muscles to the skeletal system. It is also possible that stretching a “cold” muscle causes acute trauma in the muscles, resulting in a temporary reduced capacity to perform.

Based on these findings, the obvious answer is to stretch the muscles after they are warm and after difficult exercise has ceased. Stretching is an ideal part of a cooldown. The warm-up should consist of general warm-up, specific warm-up and then exact range-of-motion activity.

I rarely stretch statically, and I never stretch before a bouldering comp. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like reducing your power output by 30% isn’t such a good idea right before a competition that requires it. OK, so most of the people stretching out on the mats aren’t even stretching the primary movers, instead, they’ve decided that today is the day to get a month’s worth of stretching in. Whatever. It’s still a bad idea.

Here’s a better idea. Do what you always do before a hard training session. 30 minutes of easy bouldering? Fine. Nothing? Super. Eat a Big Mac and do 100 reps on a BD donut? Even better. The bottom line is that performance improves if it mimics training. Better yet, how about adjusting our training to improve comp-day performance?

There is generally no argument that bouldering requires a high degree of strength and power. Sure there’s a lot of other stuff involved, but I’ll bet on the strong guy over the guy with dancer’s sensibilities any day. So a good place to look for a warm-up is in a strength and power sport that uses the whole body for maximum bursts of athleticism. Like wrestling. Like weightlifting. Like sprinting.

Unfortunately, climbing is not worth a dime to anyone, so research is limited to lame little grad studies like “Hand strength of rock climbers compared to sedentary individuals,” or “Factors influencing osteological changes in the hands and fingers of rock climbers.” Instead, we have to extrapolate and experiment and guess what might work.

Here’s a good bet on a better pre-climb ritual, for both competition and training.

  1. Get a general warm-up. Think hiking to the crag. 10-15 minutes of nice, easy activity. Sure you think it’s a waste of time now, but wait until you are 50. You’ll wish you’d listened to me when you’re hanging out at Mt. Rainier instead of Hueco Tanks.
  2. Move to a more specific warm-up. Grippers, hangboards, easy climbing, pull-ups. Whatever it takes to get good and ready to climb. This should take about 10 minutes.
  3. Ease into it. Sure we’ve all heard about the guy who “never warms up” or sends hard off the couch. That ain’t you. Here’s a quick test: Were you in the movie “King Lines” or did you pay to watch it? If the answer is the latter, take it slowly.

So dump the pre-climb stretches, stretch all you want afterward, get real with your warm-ups, and realize that if you are “training” but have not improved in the past 6 months, you’re doing it wrong.

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