I have seen a lot of my climbers come back into the clinic recently. After a full summer of hard climbing, I guess the body needs a little help. I have also seen a few new climber clients come out of the climbing gym in the past few months, all suffering from tendonitis at the outside of the elbow (known as lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow, or climber’s elbow for rock climbers).
I believe this is happening because the grip strength needed for climbing over-develops the muscles on the front side of the forearm while no extra strength is developed on the back side of the forearm. After a few months of regular climbing (once a week or more) a substantial imbalance can develop. With all this extra force pulling the wrist forward all the time the back side has that much more work to do to perform daily tasks such as using a mouse and keyboard, swinging a hammer, or pulling files out of a filing cabinet. If you do any task that uses the back side of the forearm repetitively in your work or studies, and have such a strength imbalance, you are increasing your chances of getting climber’s elbow.
The best thing climbers can do is to proactively avoid the imbalance altogether before experiencing pain. It’s not necessary to stop climbing altogether, but to perform regular exercises to strengthen the back side of the forearm before or after every climbing session.
Posterior wrist curls are a great option. My favorite option to strengthen and rebalance is to wrap a cord or rope around a piece of broom handle or something similar and tie the other end to a weight of some kind. You would then alternate rolling the wrists to rotate to broom handle to raise and lower the wrists.
If you are already starting to experience pain at the outside of your elbow or in your forearm, it’s important to seek professional help. A massage therapist or physical therapist is your best option. You need more specific guidance regarding exercises as well as some hands-on manual therapy.
If you catch it quickly enough, you might be able to stop it from progressing by taking a few weeks off climbing while slowly improving the strength balance in your forearm. Left untreated, climber’s elbow (tennis elbow) can worsen quickly and take you out of climbing for much longer.