Protect Your Shoulders This Winter

Although many spectators and beginners may view rock climbing as one of the most dangerous sports out there, the truth is that you are far more likely to get severely injured playing rugby or bouncing around on a horse. That being said, climbers are vulnerable to injuries in several major areas of the body, and it’s important to protect yourself against any incidents that could see you couch-bound during sending season. We sat down with Kirsten Wicomb – the in-house biokineticist at CityROCK Cape Town – to discuss one of the hotspots for injury amongst climbers: the shoulder.

The shoulder is an incredibly complex joint that can be put under immense strain during climbing, particularly if you fancy yourself a boulderer. When tackling a route or problem, we are using our shoulders (along with our back, arms and other muscles) to pull ourselves upwards – and if we push too far outside our limits, the tendons, cartilage and ligaments in our shoulder joint are going to suffer. 

Here, we break down four of the most common shoulder injuries, the symptoms thereof, and what you can do to prevent injury and keep climbing strong.

Rotator Cuff Tears 

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles within the shoulder that bind together as tendons. These muscles are called the infraspinatus, supraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor.

Together, these muscles cover the head of the humerus bone on the upper arm (not to be confused with the humourous funny bone). Rotator cuff tears are a fairly common climbing injury that can be caused by a fall, general wear and tear due to ageing, or overly aggressive manipulation of the shoulder (such as pulling too hard on a hold). 

Symptoms include: 

– Pain at the front of the shoulder that carries on down the side of the arm
– Pain when sleeping on one side
– Weakness of the arm
– Snapping or clicking sensation

To prevent damage to the rotator cuff, you can perform a few basic exercises with a resistance band or small dumbbells to strengthen the relevant muscles:

External Rotations

  1. Attach the resistance band to a secure anchor at belly button height. 
  2. Stand perpendicular to the resistance band and grab it with your outside hand. 
  3. Keep your elbow at your side then move the band away from your body by squeezing your shoulder blade in towards the middle of your back. 
  4. You can place a towel between your elbow and your hip to help stabilize your elbow. 
  5. Slowly return to starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.
External Rotation

Internal Rotations

  1. Start in the same position as above with the resistance band secured to the side at belly-button level. 
  2. Hold the band with your inside hand and bend your elbow at 90 degrees. Keep your elbow at your side while moving your hand towards your stomach. 
  3. Slowly return to starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.
Internal Rotation

Shoulder Abductions

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your back straight, holding a small dumbbell in each hand. 
  2. Slowly raise your arms out to the sides by 90º until they are parallel to the ground.
  3. Lower with control, and repeat. 
Shoulder abduction using the dumbbells

Shoulder Raises

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your back straight.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your knuckles facing forwards.
  3. Slowly raise one arm in front of you by 90º. 
  4. Lower with control, and repeat on the other side.
Shoulder raises also known as forward raises

Shoulder Subluxation 

Subluxation is a partial or incomplete dislocation of the shoulder (i.e. the ball joint in your shoulder partially pops out). Sometimes it can return to its original position on its own. In climbing, subluxation is usually caused by dynamic moves or other extreme maneuvers that place significant stress on the shoulder. 

Symptoms include:

– Pain in shoulder
– Range of movement is limited
– Acromion and humeral head are separated by a large gap
– Swelling
– Paresthesia (pins and needles) in your arm

Unfortunately, there are not too many specific exercises you can do to avoid subluxation. However, as with the prevention of all injuries, warming up is your best friend. Try not to ‘shock’ your muscles and ensure that everything is sufficiently warm before you hop on a tricky route. It’s also important to make sure that you are not climbing too aggressively; try to use your legs, core and balance to move yourself up the wall with precision and control, rather than wildly throwing yourself around and relying solely on your upper body.

Shoulder Impingement 

A shoulder impingement, also known as “swimmer’s shoulder”, occurs when your rotator cuff catches or rubs against the acromion – the outer edge of the shoulder blade. There is a natural space between the rotator cuff and the acromion within your shoulder called the bursa. As you lift your arm, the bursa becomes smaller and your rotator cuff can become caught inside. Over time, the rotator cuff becomes irritated by the rubbing of the acromion, eventually leading to a shoulder impingement.

Symptoms include:

– Mild but ongoing pain in the arm and shoulder
– Pain that varies between the front of the shoulder and the side of the arm
– Pain can get worse at night
– Weakness in the shoulder and/or arm

One of the best ways to prevent shoulder impingement is to ensure that your posture is correct throughout your daily activities – avoid slouching, keep your shoulder blades back and your head up. It’s also important to climb with technique and control, rather than relying on upper body strength alone. To improve your posture, you can try:

Rotator Cuff Combo

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold one end of a resistance band in each hand.
  2. Bend your elbows at 90º with your hands shoulder-width apart; The resistance band should be tensed, but not stretched to the max.
  3. Slowly rotate your arms outwards by 90º, keeping your elbows at your sides and your hands at the same height.
  4. Slowly return to starting position, and repeat.
  1. Secure a resistance band to a point in front of you at belly button height.
  2. Grip the band with one hand and raise your arm so that your elbow is bent at 90º with your forearm and fist pointing straight ahead.
  3. Slowly move your hand upwards and rotate your arm by 90º.
  4. Return to starting position and repeat on the opposite side.

Wall Slides

  1. Stand in front of a wall, with a gap of roughly 30cm between the wall and your body.
  2. Lean back and position yourself so that your knees are slightly bent, and your shoulders and lower back are against the wall. 
  3. Place your hands above your head with your arms bent at 90º and the back of your hands against the wall.
  4. Slowly raise your hands upwards, until you can feel your shoulders, back or hands lose contact with the wall.
  5. Slowly return to starting position, and repeat.
Arm Slides on Wall


Tendonitis occurs when a tendon is severely inflamed, usually because it has been overused. Because climbers are constantly using their shoulders to pull them up the wall, it is worryingly easy to push the tendons too far. This is even more likely when climbers rely solely on upper body strength rather than utilising proper technique. 

Symptoms include:

– Shoulder is tender
– Small amount of swelling due to inflammation
– Dull ache especially if moving the shoulder
– Sometimes will hear a click or snapping in the shoulder when moving it

As mentioned previously, warming up is your best friend when it comes to protecting your body from damage. Make sure to stretch your shoulders before and after climbing and, again, try to rely on technique rather than brute strength. You could consider signing up for a techniques course or talking with an experienced climber to find out how to improve your performance so that you can climb with more precision and control. 

Dynamic warm-up exercises to try include:

Dowel Flexion and Extension 

  1. Hold a broomstick or similar apparatus in front of you, with your hands just over shoulder-width apart.
  2. Slowly raise your arms until they are above your head, and then return to starting position.
  3. Repeat.
  1. Hold the same apparatus behind you, with your hands just over shoulder-width apart and your fingers at the bottom.
  2. Slowly rotate at the shoulder to move the apparatus about 10cm – make sure to not over-extend your arms.
  3. Return to starting position and repeat. 

Towel Stretch 

*Here, you can use a towel, yoga strap or any other inelastic cloth.

  1. Bend your arms behind your back, with one at the top and one at the bottom.
  2. Grab each end of your towel or strap with your hands, and gently pull your hands apart for a gentle stretch.
  3. Relax and return to starting position. Repeat.
Towel stretch (yoga strap and inelastic cloth also work)

Playing on the walls is incredibly fun and undeniably great for you – but nothing is worth an injury that traps you on the couch for months. Warm up, cool down, take it slow, and be safe!

Looking to give your body the best? 

Make an appointment with CityROCK’s in-house biokineticist. 

Kirsten Wicomb | CityROCK Cape Town

Cell: 060 316 5604

Shandré Pretorius | CityROCK Johannesburg

Please contact me on my cell to book a session at City Rock.
Cell: 082 688 7946



  1. I had a rotator cuff injury I acquired while I bouldered at City Rock because I didn’t properly warm-up my shoulders. I consulted with Kirsten to help with my injury as I had a lot of pain in my right shoulder. Thanks to the 6 week rehabilitation program Kirsten planned for me post consultation, I am now back climbing, my shoulders are feeling stronger and I am more confident than before the injury. I also received an amazing post rehab work-out plan, to continue to strengthen and build my shoulder.
    You only have one body, so if you’re injured at all, I highly recommend finding help for your injury and Kirsten is a great expert to go to.

  2. “…This is even more likely when climbers rely solely on upper body strength rather than utilising proper technique.”

    Seriously disagree here. I’ve struggled with shoulder tendinitis for years and have been told that it’s because I have WEAK shoulders. A genetic predisposition combined with any substantial volume of climbing or single hard move with muscles ill-adapted makes this a serious issue. Your exercise suggestions are great but it’s not poor technique that does it. It’s imbalance and weakness in specific areas.

    Thanks for the good read peeps.

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