I need some tips/pointers; I've been climbing for around six years, although I’ve had injury related breaks in this time. I keep finding I reach a point where my inflexibility becomes a limiting factor. At the moment I feel strong(ish) but there are certain moves I can't seem to make. I'm around 5'5'' but can't touch my toes, in fact nowhere near. I simply can't put my foot up there. I have pretty muscular legs for a female, and seem to rely on strength, like men, but without the height benefit. Can you recommend any good exercises and/or stretches I can do to help increase my flexibility?
I like this question, it shows you have a good handle on where your weaknesses lie and that it’s not just about getting stronger.
I learnt pretty quickly from my experience on the International comp scene, that flexibility is key to being a better climber. I would regularly see people doing the splits and other toe curling feats in the isolation zone and that was the guys and the girls.
We don’t have a great culture of stretching here in the UK, especially in the North but as well as it helping you climb hard, it will prolong your chances of being active into old age. Stretching helps to keep the body mobile, improves circulation and you feel great after doing it- unless you push too hard and hurt yourself, which is obviously not what is supposed to happen!
So to address your issues. I had my own ideas but I also consulted a friend, Pat Horscroft, who is a yoga teacher.
You seem to have two things going on here.
1. A lack of flexibility in the hamstrings and the glutes (bum)- possibly lower back too. If you have strong thighs, you could have tight quads, hindering you when you need to bend your knee to do a high step.
2. It sounds like you might need to do some strength training in your lower abs/hip flexor area.
Because without the strength to use your flexibility it’ll be a bit useless.
So my advice is twofold:
For the hamstrings;
Stand by a wall with your feet about a foot away. Leaning your bum on the wall, try and gently bend at the hips to lower your upper body towards your toes.
If you don’t get on with this one, you can sit on the floor with your legs together straight out in front of you. Again, try and bend at the hips- not bring your head down towards your knees therefore just bending your back- and rest your hands wherever they lie. This might feel extreme at first, don’t worry if you don’t appear to move anywhere, just by repeating this every day, you will make gains.
To loosen your gluteals;
Probably best to do this before the hamstring one.
Lie on your back and bring your knees to your chest, clasping them with your hands.
If this feels easy, cross one knee over the other and do the same thing- you should feel this in one side of your bum. Swap knees and do the same on the other side.
For help with high steps;
You can practice lunging. The front leg is bent at 90 degrees to the floor but the knee is above the foot not further forward than it.
The back leg is out straight behind you.
You are trying to keep your back straight.
If you can’t visualize the position, then go to this link to see a picture of the pose.
It is highly likely that you won’t be able to get down this far but this is what you are aiming for long term.
You can also put your foot up on a chair for example and then bend your standing leg and try to drop your knee down towards the floor. A fairly powerful stretch, so don’t overdo it.
To gain strength;
To be able to lift your leg onto a hold takes abdominal strength.
There are various exercises you can do.
One to start with is to stand on one leg (hold something so you don’t fall over) and bend the raised leg and lift it up to your chest 5-10 times.
Do the other leg, and then repeat for 2-3 sets.
If you have a bar, hang from a bar and do it, straight and bent leg to make it harder.
With all the stretching it is important to be warmed up first, try and get your blood flowing before you start. Some jogging on the spot or skipping, you get the idea.
Then to get the most out of the stretching it is important to breathe deeply, in through the nose. And you will find you will be able to push a little bit more with the out breath. Don’t push on the in breath.
Ideally you want to hold the poses for more than 5 seconds, it can be up to 2-3 minutes! It is important to hold them long enough so that you relax in the position and then you can start to gently stretch with the breath.
Never bounce or push so hard that you are outwardly (or inwardly) grimacing. This will probably tear something and will put you off doing it again.
Lastly, it might be an idea to either find a yoga class, or buy a book on stretching and rope a friend in to do it with you. It’s quite hard to stretch on your own unless you are highly motivated.
So, I hope this helps and don’t expect big results straight away but if you do it regularly, I guarantee you will reap the benefits.