Climbing through pain.

We all want to do what we love. However sometimes pain gets in the way and what do we do? We push on. We try to ignore the pain because we want to participate in whatever we love. I experienced this many times as a rock climber. I grew some what addicted to the sport and when it came climb day there was no way I wanted to let pain get in the way.

I fell in love with Bouldering. For those that don’t know what that is, you pretty much pick the hardest way up a rock or boulder and attempt to climb it, with fold out safety matts, and spotters (other climbers) beneath you to help you should you fall. The climbs usually consist of hard moves, finger holds that are hard to hold onto some fine and finicky and some large that require full body power. A great full body workout. I don’t know what it is about bouldering but perhaps is is just like any activity that pulls you away from your worries and into the present moment.

robsawyerAs I became stronger and the climbs got harder I more frequently began running into pain. I would push on through the pain and climb sometimes to the point where I would have to take weeks off because I had gone too far and was injured. I massaged the crap out of my painful areas but always the same issues would return. By pushing through the pain I was only re-enforcing the painful pattern.

Pain is a message that there is a problem, but it doesn’t tell you exactly where or what that problem is. Pain for me as a climber was constantly in my elbows. At the medial epicondyle to be precise. This is commonly referred to as medial epicondylitis or tennis elbow. The pain told me there was a problem, but it didn’t tell me exactly what that problem was. By finally looking at this issue from a full body perspective it became possible to see WHY my elbow was hurting all the time, and why treating only the elbow was not getting me anywhere.

Lets consider some foundations for movement, that will help you understand why you might be running into a constant pain or problem.

Stability should come from the centre first. Proximal stability, distal mobility. There is an old saying ‘you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe,’ meaning that you would struggle to generate force from an unstable platform, or hit the target with precision. If this is the case and stability is not coming from the centre first (to create a stable platform), a compensation must take place. If the body is missing stability where it needs it, it will make up for it somewhere else (the elbow perhaps?). Same goes for mobility. Or at least it will try…

Climbing consists of precision and force generation of the limbs. A climber knows that it is easier to climb if possible to keep feet on the wall (for greater stability centre engagement) than feet off the wall (less stability centre engagement). With feet on the wall, the extremities can anchor into the core (stable platform) and are capable of greater force generation and precision. With feet off the wall (unstable platform) force generation is achievable, though somewhat harder.

Also important to consider is that when there is a perceived instability in a joint, the body may compress that joint, or another joint nearby as a strategy to create stability.

So for example if there is instability in the R shoulder and your hand is gripping a fine rock ledge, and in order to reach the next hold with your L hand you must pull down on your R arm… But the stability isn’t there, so the body may choose to compress the elbow to make up the lack of shoulder stability.

The same can be said for a golf or tennis swing. If force is not being generated from the centre for whatever reason, your clever brain will come up with another way to achieve what you are asking it to achieve over and over. The Internal and External Abdominal Obliques are important drivers in rotational movement patterns and if they aren’t doing their job effectively it is not uncommon to see compensations throughout the whole body, even at the elbow 😉

The Latissimus Dorsi with its connection to the core via its attachments at the thoracolumbar fascia and the humerus is a very important muscle to consider when assessing issues with the arm as it ties the shoulder to the core. Inhibition of this muscle can result in global compensations leading to potential issues in the jaw, neck, shoulder, elbow, back, ass, hamstring, calf, the foot, yes the whole body! (note my lack of Lat definition in the image above…)


Inhibitions in grip strength can create compensations along the kinetic chain. If you have had the experience of struggling to open a tight jar you may have noticed this. If the jar is easy to open, you twist it open with ease. If it is hard to open you may begin to recruit muscles up the kinetic chain by holding your breath, clenching your jaw, making an interesting face, rolling your shoulder forward, hiking your shoulders etc. It is great that the body is capable of this, but if it is relied upon it can become a problem.

If stability is not coming from the centre and instead coming from your elbow what do you think might happen? When you repeat this pattern over and over and over what do you think might happen? We drive the signal in deeper. Ouch.

One may perceive that the problem is the elbow, and it very well could be. But it goes deeper than that. We must find out ‘why’ its the elbow. The elbow pain is likely just the messenger. If you keep pushing through pain, work with someone who can assess you form a full body movement pattern approach to find out why, for greater results.

By learning that the body is fully integrated, and that nothing is of isolation it becomes possible to see that elbow pain can be linked to the brains inability to co-ordinate a movement with stability where it is required first.

It can take work to re-coordinate movement patterns and sometimes this means time away from pushing hard at the activity you love, or pushing through pain. For some that might not seem possible if they are a professional in competitive sport. But imagine if your rehab sessions involved finding out why something hurts, and gave something back to the area of the body that is craving stability, rather than just taking away the stability it is relying on. There is a way. This will increase your performance.