Scientific relevance of the shoulder girdle in climbing
In nearly every climbing move and position, the shoulder girdle (in conjunction with the core) provides stability for the body. The strength and power of the shoulder girdle are especially important when performing moves that lack good foot support and shoulder girdle endurance is absolutely critical for sustained overhanging routes .
One recent study investigating physical and physiological determinants of rock climbing performance and ability found that shoulder power and endurance are what primarily determines maximal climbing for both males and females, even more than finger and lower arm strength . Additionally, in testing shoulder girdle power using explosive pull-ups, studies have shown strong correlations between explosive pull-up performance and climbing ability [3-4] and furthermore, that boulderers outperform lead climbers in shoulder girdle power .
In testing shoulder girdle endurance, the most commonly used test has been the bent-arm hang (measuring time to failure) . It’s been shown that advanced climbers have a greater time to failure during a bent-arm hang compared to both lower grade climbers and non-climbers who exhibited similar performances [5-6]. Another study found that there’s a stronger relationship between the bent-arm hang test and climbing ability in females compared to males and especially apparent in lower grade climbers . This suggests that training shoulder girdle endurance may have a bigger influence on climbing ability in beginner females than advanced females or males. Additionally, it’s suggested that one-arm hangs may be more suitable for training elite climbers shoulder girdle endurance as they are able to perform two-arm hangs for a very long time .
These previous research studies provide us with clear evidence that the shoulder girdle is important in climbing…but what exactly is the shoulder girdle? What structures make it up and how do they contribute to our function and climbing?
What is the shoulder girdle?
The shoulder girdle (also known as the pectoral girdle) is a set of bones that connects the upper limbs to the axis of the body. The two bones that make up the shoulder girdle are the clavicle (or collarbone) and scapula (also referred to as the shoulder blade). Adding in the proximal humerus (the top part of your upper arm) makes what is known as the shoulder complex. There are several ligaments that stabilize the joints of the shoulder girdle and key muscles that attach to and move the aforementioned bones.
Shoulder girdle muscles and their function
It’s important to note that there are other muscles of the shoulder that are also important for climbing strength and stability (i.e. deltoids, rotator cuff), but the focus here is specifically on the muscles of the shoulder girdle. Look out for a future blog post on this topic!
Understanding the shoulder girdle muscles can help in improving understanding of where the muscles are located on the body, when these muscles are active, and how to strengthen them as it relates to climbing. The muscles of the shoulder girdle include: the rhomboids, trapezius, pectoralis minor, levator scapulae, and serratus anterior. Each muscle’s location and function is briefly described below.
Rhomboids: This is a group of muscles formed by the rhomboid major and rhomboid minor muscles. Their shape resembles a rhomboid (a type of parallelogram). The rhomboids are deep shoulder girdle muscles located at the upper back that help with upper body posture and are responsible for scapular retraction. This is when the scapula slides superiorly (upward) and medially (inward) along the trunk (see image above). You use your rhomboids in pulling movements, which is of course extremely relevant for climbing.
Trapezius: This is a large muscle located at the upper back that resembles a trapezium shape (consisting of three parts: upper, middle, and lower). The trapezius (casually referred to as the traps) is responsible for pulling the shoulders up (i.e. shrugging motion) and pulling the shoulders back during scapular retraction. Stabilization of the scapulae and facilitation of neck movement are also functions of the trapezius. If you’re reaching for the next hold (especially with elevated shoulders), you’re likely engaging your traps.
Pectoralis minor: This muscle is a thin, triangular-shaped muscle located at the upper part of the chest. It is mostly relevant for scapular stabilization and movement, specifically protraction of the scapula. The pectoralis minor (or pec minor) also assists in reaching the arm forward — another relevant movement during climbing. When the scapula is fixed, the pec minor is described as an accessory muscle of respiration (when breathing is deep and forced), helping to raise ribs 3-5 and expand the thoracic cavity when breathing in.
Levator scapulae: This is a long and slender muscle located on the back and side regions of the neck. As the name suggests, the function is to elevate the scapulae. The levator scapulae retracts the shoulder girdle at the scapulothoracic joint (junction of scapula and thorax), stabilizes the scapula to support vertical alignment of the head and neck, and also works with the rhomboids and pec minor to produce downward rotation of the scapula. It also prevents depressing of the shoulder girdle when carrying heavy loads. In mantling and reaching during climbing, you’re likely using your levator scapulae for stabilization.
Serratus anterior: This is a fan-shaped muscle located at the lateral (outer side) wall of the thorax (consisting of three parts: superior, intermediate, and inferior). The serratus anterior is an antagonist muscle group to the rhomboids and are responsible for protraction of the scapula. It is known as the “boxer’s muscle” because it pulls the scapula forward and around the rib cage (scapular protraction) when someone throws a punch. The serratus anterior also plays an important role in the upward rotation of the scapula when raising the arms overhead, which is key for climbing.
Exercises to work the shoulder girdle
The serious consequence of having a weak shoulder girdle is that you’re more at risk for injury when performing moves that are demanding and shoulder intensive. Without active stabilization from strong surrounding muscles, the shoulder girdle is less protected. Furthermore, scientific research clearly indicates that a strong shoulder girdle is key for peak climbing performance [1-7].
Below are four excellent exercises that engage the muscles of the shoulder girdle. The focus here is simplicity and effectiveness. These exercises do not require equipment (with the exception of pull-ups), meaning they can be performed anywhere. Additionally, each exercise targets multiple shoulder girdle muscles so that you get a bigger bang for your buck. In performing the exercises, remember that this is a simple outline and reps and sets can be adjusted to your own training. Always remember to stop the exercise if you feel pain and consult a medical professional as needed.
Prone I’s, Y’s, T’s & A’s
Prone means to lie flat, facing downwards. This exercise can be performed on the ground or on a medicine ball. Try 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps each. Each repetition involves lifting the hands up off the floor and then back down. Weight can be added, but the exercise should not feel hard. Adjust as needed.
Shoulder girdle muscles targeted: rhomboids, trapezius, levator scapulae
I position: Straight arms, thumbs pointing up, hands raised directly overhead.
Y position: Straight arms, thumbs pointing up, hands raised diagonally overhead.
T position: Straight arms, thumbs pointing down, hands reaching out to each side.
A position: Straight arms, thumbs pointing down, hands raised back and upwards.
This exercise can be performed with the assistance of a wall or without. Make sure to push through the shoulders and engage your core. Try 1 set of 3 reps of holding a handstand for as long as you can. Rest in-between reps 10-20 seconds. Adjust as needed.
Shoulder girdle muscles targeted: trapezius, pectoralis minor, serratus anterior
This exercise is a push-up variation that engages your shoulder girdle more than standard push-ups. At the top of the standard push-up position, push the upper back further towards the ceiling (additional protraction). This will be a very slight difference in position. Hold for 2 seconds, then retract the scapula and move back down to the bottom position of the push-up. Try 1 set of 10-15 reps. Adjust as needed.
Shoulder girdle muscles targeted: serratus anterior, trapezius
Standard & scapular pull-ups
The common pull-up exercise can be adjusted with the scapular variation which engages your scapular stabilizers more than standard pull-ups. Start in a standard pull-up position, nearly passive hanging (shoulders shrugged). Bring the scapula downwards and together (depression and retraction). Hold for about 1 second (you should feel your chest lift slightly) and then move back to the starting position. Try 1-2 sets of 5-10 reps. Adjust as needed.
Shoulder girdle muscles targeted: rhomboids, trapezius, pectoralis minor (standard pull-ups), levator scapulae (also targeted in scapular pull-ups)
Our shoulder strength, endurance, and stability are absolutely critical for climbing [1-7]. One recent study assessed MRI scans of 31 males who had been climbing for over 25 years and found that there are significantly more abnormalities within the shoulder (labrum, long biceps tendon, and cartilage) in climbers compared to non-climbers, as well as a high lifetime prevalence of shoulder pain (pain in one or both of the shoulders at some time in the past) in climbers . Fortunately, no climber in the study had to stop climbing because of shoulder pain. These findings are a reminder to us that the demand on our shoulders during climbing is high and a better awareness of our shoulder girdle is very beneficial for climbing in a safe, healthy, and strong way.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to be kind, stay healthy, and climb happy.
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