You might have watched a climber navigate their way around a vertical wall, or over pendulous boulder and wondered how they manage to make it look so easy. Brooke Raboutou has broken world records on the leading bouldering and sports climbs competitions, utilising her physical skill and mental determination at just eleven years old. Another young female climber to top records is Sasha DiGuilan, who successfully completed a 5.15d graded climb, which many others had tried and failed. It is captivating to watch climbers use such dexterity and rapid thinking to scale what might seem to be an impossible manoeuvre.

The grade of a climb varies from country to country but is usually established on the level of complexity and risks identified of the climbing route. The grades are rated between 1 and 5; 1 being flat, and 5 being either vertical or near vertical and there is a separate grading system for each different feature of rock climbing. The level of technical difficulty, how much power and endurance is needed for manoeuvres, the degree of commitment and the level of skill needed to protect the climber will all have their own grading systems. By looking at Sasha’s grades, we can see that she not only completed the highest level of technical difficulty (d), but also navigated a sheer climb, at level 5.

Free, aid, adventure and athletic are different types of climbing and are all listed under style. Meanwhile, mountaineering, rock and ice climbing are normally related to method, programs, grades and setting. Indoor climbing is not categorised as a style, and includes bouldering, sport climbing and top roping.

Indoor climbing has found a new popularity over the past 15 years, attracting beginners and experienced outdoor climbers. It offers a form of climbing that is available at any time of the year, whatever the weather. Even though indoor climbing can’t fully replicate the same range of terrain to practice the skills required for outdoor climbing, it is useful for those wanting to improve their technique.

A climbing gym is put together by bolting artificial walls which indoor climbers use for top roping, lead climbing and bouldering. Top toping involves a climber scaling a route, supported by an anchored rope from above, and belayed below.

Due to the thick crash pads and pre-planned route, indoor climbing is more predictable than outdoor, but still both physically and mentally challenging. Total concentration is essential, along with the ability to plan accurately, although making mistakes outdoors can be much more significant, and even lethal.

In my own experience working with both indoor and outdoor climbers, and having taken part in the sport myself, I can understand the appeal it has. The physical requirements for the different forms of climbing include strength, flexibility and balance, and this is influenced further by the kind of setting you are in.  I love the exhilaration that goes with training outdoors, but on those not so fabulous days when the rain is pelting down, it is rather nice to have the indoor climbing walls.  Both have separate challenges, the outdoor is less predictable but the indoors allows you to choose what you to focus more specifically on what you need to work on.  It is a bit like training for a marathon, you cannot just train on a treadmill, there are elements that are missing from running outdoors as is the same with climbing.   

Rock climbing can cause injuries, from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) in the fingers, elbow and shoulders to serious trauma injuries from incidents like falling.

A client of mine landed on his feet incorrectly, causing a complex fracture to his left fibula which resulted in surgery, with pins to encourage the bones to knit together which were removed after a few years. To create a better relationship between the fibula and tibia a treatment goal was developed by increasing the glide between the two bones, assisting the reduction of scar tissue in the surrounding area. Regular maintenance massages help avoid enduring stiffness, and this client is acutely aware of the difference it makes when he misses a monthly massage, or forgets his flexibility workouts. He finds that his body noticeably stiffens, giving way to additional difficulties due to the lack of fluidity in his movement.

Other injuries common to climbing are related to overuse and overstraining, particularly in the fingers and shoulders. Finger fitness is essential and specific to climbing, more so than in any other sport, because climbers need to be able to support the weight of their body when pulling themselves up.  Injuries often result from poor holds, accidents with ropes or feet slipping which can overstrain and rupture ligaments, specifically pulleys (These are ligaments that hold down and compress the finger flexor tendons onto the finger bones). The fingers that are affected are usually the ring and middle fingers. 

Pulleys can be used to assist force transmission and sliding of the two finger flexors. Pulleys range from A1 to A5; pulleys A2 and A4 are extensions of the bone and play a major part in maintaining tendons to bones, modulating force transmission during finger bending. A1, 3 and 5 however, are extensions of cartilaginous flexor plates. Without an A2 or 4 pulley, substantial or permanent control loss can lead to months of recuperation, subject to the level of damage. However small the injury may be, it is important that a climber abstains from climbing until the pain has completely dissipated. Attempting to break through a pain barrier simply increases the potential for further damage, meaning a longer recovery time and increased likelihood of future injury. 

A regular client of mine, James, has been working with me for around seven years. He enjoys regular on and off-road running, cycling and swimming during triathlons. There have been a variety of conditions we have resolved together, however, recently injuries around his shoulders began to develop that perplexed me. I had not known that he had taken up indoor climbing, despite being asked in his assessment if he had changed his training, he had forgotten to tell me about his new hobby. Not only did he report anterior shoulder pain, there also began a very distinct shoulder girdle imbalance. When asked what movement caused pain, he mentioned climbing which corrected my initial assessment as being related to an issue in how he positioned himself on a bike. It emerged that the pain was exacerbated by specific hand positions when he was climbing. This was validated by witnessing his changing shape, unlike a runner, cyclist or occasional swimmer; he was cultivating noticeable strength in his upper traps, arms, supraspinatus and deltoids. Due to the lack of stabilisation work for his shoulder, there was a strain on the rest of his body causing the long head tendon of the biceps to come under considerable tension.

While a key goal of mine was to decrease the tension in the overworked muscles, this required shoulder stabilisation work that wouldn’t concede flexibility to ensure long-term results.

Typical strength work might include; Scapula Rhythm Pulls, Serratus Alphabets, YTWL, Shoulder Setting, Plank Arm and Leg RB, with additional focus on the integrity of the thorax in extension.

It is recommended to include active stretches in home care for overall flexibility and mobility. This can be done either as an element of your pre-climbing routine, or a regular part of training. Both capacities enable a climber to benefit from increased strength and efficiency and acts as a preventative to potential injury. I would advise including such shoulder mobility stretches such as Towel Roll Thoracic Extensions, Pec Major and Minor, Rotator Cuff, Levator Scapulae and Latissimus Dorsi into homecare, to name a few. 

Home care is essential for clients in order to achieve best results. To encourage clients, I use a program called I can send a video of which exercises or stretches I recommend, which not only serves as a reminder, but also gives advice on how to correctly execute the movements. I find that clients enjoy the updated format, as written exercises on paper give much more room for error and misunderstanding. The instructions are clear, concise and easy to understand for the client and saves me time previously spent repeating exercises that have not been correctly done in home care.

I would also advise not overloading clients with too many tasks in one session. Keep the list of “things to do” at two or three exercises. After the client has perfected the latest sessions, you can build on these each week.

I believe rock climbing would be a fantastic Olympic Sport and recommend watching the IDSC Climbing World Championships Gijon 2014 finals, to see if you agree. It is an excellent example of indoor sport climbing and demonstrates a expansive range of styles and technical skill levels.

If you’re interested hearing or seeing more from me, you can sign up for my free Massage Monday Video subscription

Terminology Corner

Belaying refers to a number of techniques that control the tension of a climbers rope to limit the distance of a fall.  This can be applied by the use of a partner applying tension at the end of a rope when the climber is not moving and giving it more slack when they continue climbing. 

Bouldering is when a climber ascends boulders or small outcrops, often with climbing shoes and a chalk bag or bucket.  Usually, instead of using a safety rope from above, injury is avoided by using a human spotter who can direct them to a crash pad.


McKenzie, L., PhD, The Center for Injury Research and Policy (CIRP) in the Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, 1990-2007.

Wyatt, Jonathon P., McNaughton, W. Gordon, Grant, T.,Patrick, A Prospective Study of Rock Climbing Injuries, British Journal of Sports Medicine1992-93

Wright, D.M., Royle, T.J., Marshall, T., Indoor Rock Climbing: Who Gets Injured., Br J Sports Med 2001;35:181-185 doi:10.1136/bjsm.35.3.181

Susan Findlay
Susan Findlay

My name is Susan Findlay and like most of the people I teach, I came to sports massage & remedial soft tissue therapy by way of a journey.

My journey began with classical dance and gymnastics back in my home country, Canada. When your body is the tool that you work with, you learn to take notice of it and it was this interest in the human body that led me to retrain as a nurse.

After working for the NHS, I made the choice to be my own boss. Still in the health and fitness field, I worked with GPs and health centres, setting up different schemes for a range of clientele. Holding 20+ classes a week and running multiple health programmes, I discovered a love of teaching and enjoyed the rewards of helping clients reach their goals.

I retrained in 1996 and gained a Sport Massage and a Remedial Soft Tissue Therapy qualification that helped me to bring all my skills together. This eventually lead me into teaching and writing a book.  As life would have it my focus evolved into becoming a specialist in oncology massage, long before it was trendy and not considered a contraindication.  I now teach a program nationally that offers certification for therapists to offer a much needed and appreciated therapy.  

Although I am the director (and senior lecturer) of NLSSM, I have never given up the practical side of the profession and I still run my own clinic in both North London & Wales. 

Keeping up with the real world helps to keep me inspired and that helps to make me a better teacher.

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