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I love rock climbing and I try to go to my local gym and boulder as often as possible (usually 2-3 times a week). But it's really hard for me to climb for any extended period of time because my arms get pumped very quickly. Sometimes my arms will start getting pumped after just 3-4 easy routes while I'm warming up.

So really I have a couple different questions:

  • What should I do before climbing to increase the amount of time I can climb before my forearms start hurting?

  • What should I do when my arms get pumped and I want to continue climbing? Usually I'll take a short break and bend my hands forwards/backwards like in this picture:

    enter image description here

    and it definitely helps. I'll also shake my arms which seems to help too. Are there other stretches/workouts that will help me get over it?

  • Is there a certain point where I should stop climbing because of pumped arms, instead of pushing through? (To avoid permanent damage) Where exactly is that line?

  • This is weakly related but might be of interest for you: outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/7824/… – Wills Apr 24 '17 at 14:59
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    What is "pumped"? – endolith Jul 6 '17 at 16:13
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    @endolith It's a tight throbbing feeling in your upper forearms that you tend to get when you overuse your arm muscles quickly. IME, this usually occurs in the side of your arms facing your palm, but I don't know if that's true for everyone. It makes it really hard to climb because it makes it significantly harder to use your finger strength because all your finger tendons run over the sore part of your arm. – DJMcMayhem Jul 6 '17 at 16:27
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Answer:

What should I do before climbing to increase the amount of time I can climb before my forearms start hurting?

There are plenty of opinions on what to do before climbing, stretching is old school, warming up is new school, easier climbing with a slow progression towards your "problem" for the day is cool too. Nothing but climbing, and often, is going to allow you to climb longer, as in, the only way to get better at climbing is to climb.

What should I do when my arms get pumped and I want to continue climbing? Usually I'll take a short break and bend my hands forwards/backwards like in this picture?

I do push ups, surprisingly it removes the PUMP from my forearms better than anything else. Just plain old regular pushups. This doesn't work in TRAD climbing for obvious reasons, but indoor climbing it has allowed me to keep going when I should have quit an hour before.

Are there other stretches/workouts that will help me get over it?

Yes, HERE is a good one.

Is there a certain point where I should stop climbing because of pumped arms, instead of pushing through?

To each his own on this one. Only you know your body that well. However, I would note that climbing is a self correcting sport, once you have reached the limit you will not be able to "push" through it, you wont be able to hold the wall anymore.

Where exactly is that line?

You will not be able to grip the wall anymore. This is a good time to stop for the day.

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    Your answer would be improved by pulling in some information from that link into your answer in case the link goes down. That being said I enjoyed the information in the link but I didn't see any specific stretches/workouts to do in the link. It was more general tips. – Erik Feb 1 '17 at 22:12
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    I agree you can hardly get permanent damage from climbing pumped, but it obviously increases injury risk, as you get less precise. And you can get into overtraining, which will not actually do damage, but decrease your fitness. However in my personal experience this is not an issue for forearms. It is the kind of muscle sore that is the most intense but goes away the fastest (unfortunately the same is true for loosing, but not building finger strength). – imsodin Feb 1 '17 at 22:42
  • A way to avoid getting pumped in the first place is to space out your climbing more. I've noticed that when I climb alone, I get bored of resting and decide to just climb, while if I'm talking with people I rest more and end up able to do more climbs than I would have alone. If you have more self-discipline and can just force yourself to rest for longer, that would work as well. – fyrepenguin Feb 4 '17 at 4:05
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Avoiding Pump:

Warm up, warm up, warm up. To avoid serious arm pump you need to do at least 15 minutes of EASY climbing. That's 15 minutes of you doing what you feel is exceptionally easy, even if that means doing traverses back and forth across the wall, or climbing up and down a step ladder. You want to activate your muscles and get the blood flowing so you can displace any lactic acid that will build up when you start to climb hard.

The best warm up I ever had in my life was when I was in university taking a sculpting class. I spent 8 hours straight carving a plaster sculpture of my fist then went climbing right after. There was nothing I couldn't hang onto. Hours or carving had warmed my arms up so well that it felt like they would never fatigue, I was pulling on some of the hardest crimpy holds to hang onto and never got close to getting pumped all night. It was amazing.

Similarly, there's an event the University Climbing Club does called "The Everest Challenge" where teams climb the elevation of Everest on the climbing wall in 24hours. All the teams get to the point where they feel like they could climb indefinitely. They climb the easiest routes the whole time, and after about 30 laps they're pretty warm and keep going all night.

The point is that warming up needs to be slow and easy. You can't rush it, you need to take the right amount of time to get yourself ready for climbing.

Another tip for preventing arm pump is to relax when you climb. Don't try to juice the holds, find a good stance and focus on your balance so you can take a lot of the weight with your legs instead of with your arms. People with bad technique pump out way faster than climbers with good foot work.

Treating pump:

If you feel yourself start to get pumped: stop climbing, relax for a bit, and let your arms hang while you gently massage them or swing them around to try and get more blood flow through them. You need to treat the pump before it gets bad, then perhaps spend some more time gently warming up.

Stretching isn't the best thing for arm pump, stretching is better for arm fatigue, which is different. For pump you will have more success rubbing, kneading or shaking your forearms to help clear the lactate.

One thing I would do in bouldering competitions when I started getting pumped, was to run lines on the floor. Arm pump is caused by lactic acid build up in your arms, so increasing blood flow will aid in clearing that lactate, and upping your cardio is the easiest way to get your heart pumping and get that blood flowing.

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    I just read the first sentence and immediately hit the upvote button - I sometimes warm up less than I should and my arms get pumped right away on the more difficult routes/problems. (Of course, I second the rest of the answer, too.) – anderas Feb 4 '17 at 10:09
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What you can do before a given climb is to warm up, which may involve climbing something easier. I've definitely noticed that I pump out more quickly if I hop directly on a route at my limit, compared to climbing one or two easier ones to warm up.

For getting rid of pumped forearms, I've had good success with a technique that a physiotherapist friend showed me:

  • hold your arm relaxed in front of you, with the hand half open
  • place the thumb or knuckles of the other hand on the inside of your wrist
  • press down hard and slide the thumb or knuckles slowly down until you've reached your elbow. Slowly means: take more than 5 seconds to complete the motion
5

There is a climbing training technique that's been written about extensively called ARC (Aerobic Respiration and Capillarity). From the article:

Aerobic Restoration and Capillarity, or ARCing, is a training approach to develop aerobic endurance by encouraging vascular development. In the world of climbing, the goal is to climb for 20 to 40 minutes without surpassing your “anaerobic threshold.” Many articles say this is no more than 30% of your maximum strength.

Brendan explained, “You can change the physiological make-up of your forearms to better increase endurance. ARCing improves the capillary density of your forearms so you can get more oxygen and take away more waste products from your muscles, increasing your ability to stave off the pump.”

As described, the idea is that for ~30 minutes you're climbing continuously. No no-hands breaks, no hopping off the wall. This forces you to work easy-for-you terrain either via a down climb, a quick hop on the autobelay or more normally a long traverse.

ARC training can be quite boring, so a good thing to do at the same time is other technique specific activities. Silent feet, glue hands, etc. You'll get the ARC training done along with technique drills.

ARC is a staple of professional climbing training, and forms the bedrock of The Self Coached Climber and the Rock Climber's Training Manual. The latter especially dedicates a lot of pages towards understanding forearm physiology, but even just the basic examples provided in the referenced article above can get you started.

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Stretching is always a good idea before and physical activity, but there's really nothing you can do to stop the pump before climbing.

On days you aren't climbing you can specifically workout your forearms. The stronger they get, the longer you can climb before getting a pump.

In my opinion, once the real pump sets in, you're pretty much done climbing any hard routes. If you're not worried about cleaning any of your projects and just want to climb around on some jugs, shake it out and climb through the pump.

One trick that my old climbing coach always did for us at competitions is when you're feeling the pump, get someone to DEEPLY massage your forearms with their thumbs. It can hurt a little when done right.

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(Hopefully this doesn't apply to you but I think it is a needed reference.)

Anyone suffering from unusual or extreme "pump" needs to be aware of functional compartment syndrome, also known as chronic exertional compartment syndrome.

Excerpts from the book One Move Too Many by Hochholzer and Schoeffl, emphasis mine:

Stress related pain in the forearms during difficult climbing is a given factor. If the pain is very intense and does not decrease (or actually increases) after a day or two of rest, the climber may be suffering from functional compartment syndrome.

The pain is characterized by a feeling that the forearm might be about to pop! In other words, you feel really, really, pumped. An especially strong indicator is if the pumped sensation comes quickly during the work out and at climbing levels way below where your peak has recently been.

Chronic compartment syndrome is an increase in the muscle size without an increase in the volume of the muscle fascia (the membrane that encases all your muscles). When the muscle increases in size it needs to fill space.

Functional compartment syndrome occurs when the muscles grow faster than the fascia through high intensity training (hypertrophy). Highly trained athletes can also experience the syndrome when an infectious disease has compromised their immune system. The diagnosis is difficult and many doctors do not expect to see in the forearms.

Therapy for the syndrome is the stretching of the muscles, massage, ice, and hot and cold showers. Also, nonsteroidal antiphlogistic drugs like ibuprofen help to reduce the swelling. If all of these forms of therapy do not help, a surgical procedure where the fascia is split needs to be done.

One of the authors of that book required that surgery so he writes from experience.

See also the April 10, 2012 weblog of Pamela Shanti Pack:

Over a particularly obsessive winter of mixed climbing and bouldering I developed chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS) in my forearms. I thought I was getting pumped and needed to train more but the more I trained the more painful my forearms became. Finally, it got to a point where I needed help prying my hands off my ice-tools and I started having difficulty with fine motor skills. And the pain was excruciating. I decided it was time to see a doctor and ultimately consulted four surgeons.

CECS is a serious condition that involves increased pressure in a muscle compartment. It can lead to muscle and nerve damage and problems with blood flow. My diagnosis was confirmed by measuring the pressure in the compartments of my forearm using a needle attached to a pressure meter which was inserted into the compartments. My compartment pressures exceeded 35 mg Hg. After conservative approaches to treat the CECS failed (anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, sports massage) my surgeons agreed that because my case was so severe I had two options: quit climbing or have a fasciotomy.

...

I opted to quit climbing due to the considerable risks and scarring involved in the surgery as well as questionable long-term prognosis. I was especially concerned about scar tissue causing more damage. My climbing “retirement” lasted for approximately two months when I discovered that wide crack climbing — due to it’s full body nature — is less forearm intensive for me than sport-climbing, ice-climbing and/or bouldering. And so I was able to continue climbing in this style. I am able to boulder, sport-climb and climb finger cracks to a very limited extent as well. I still have problems with the CECS and avoid training my forearms as much as possible.

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I'm going to drop this here for others researching this. I've been climbing on and off for 7 years starting in my late 20s. Seasonally I get out of shape, then train up for fall trips. So, I have dealt with both increased injury risk due to age as well as going from out of climbing shape to some sorta shape multiple times over. Please take this is as both anecdotal and coming from someone who isn't young and didn't start young :D

First, I think it's important to understand that your body and you do not agree on the definition of an "easy" route. After you train sufficient volume your arms will almost never feel pumped; usually just progressively more tired. I find this to be the case after warm up even for very strenuous problems.

Often what we want to be doing and what we should be doing when climbing are not the same. Progressing in climbing requires more than just practice. It requires training and rest.

What should I do before climbing to increase the amount of time I can climb before my forearms start hurting?

Build a better base. I understand you want something on the spot, and warming up is that thing, but you are getting pumped on "easy" problems. You should focus on volume. Start by climbing AND down climbing every V0 in the gym. Then every V1. Then every V2. In that order. This volume is crucial and exactly how trainers ramp up newbies for marathons and cycling centuries; you need to put in the miles and forget the intensity for now.

What should I do when my arms get pumped and I want to continue climbing?

Take as long a break as necessary to get back to a spot where your arms aren't super tight. In my experience, when my forearms are super pumped, they do not stretch/extend well AT ALL. If I tried to do push-ups like another here suggested I would probably tear something; my wrists would not bend back that far.

Is there a certain point where I should stop climbing because of pumped arms, instead of pushing through?

If you can't get the pump down I would recommend going to much easier climbs or call it quits on the climbing. For me, climbing with my forearms in this hyper-tense state puts me at risk for strains and tendinitis. Build the base!

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Recovering from Pump

You already mention you shake out your arms. I read an article suggesting an improvement on the standard "shake out each arm by your side" technique.

In Slowing the Pump Clock1 Eric Hörst describes a technique called "G-Tox":

There is a more effective method for accelerating forearm recovery, however, that I call G-Tox. It involves alternating the position of your resting arm between the normal dangling position and an above-your-head position

He recommends spending 5 seconds with your arm above you then 5 seconds with it by your side. An additional article Effectiveness of “Dangling Arm” and “G-Tox” Recovery Techniques2 by Luke Roberts attempts to test the technique:

It is concluded that performing the g-tox technique during recovery from rock climbing does accelerate forearm recovery in comparison to the traditional dangling arm shake-out.

After a 2-minute recovery period, climbers using the dangling-arm recovery method experienced a 2% gain (recovery) in hang grip strength, while climbers using the G-tox experienced an 18% increase in grip strength.

  • Ooh, I really like that tip. I'll frequently do something like that on the very top of the wall right after I finish a route. Hang from the top with one hand, while dangling my other arm, and then switch arms back and forth. – DJMcMayhem Sep 25 '18 at 16:15
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Yes stretch is good.

Relax and stop thinking about your arms.

When you have a foot holds just breath and relax. Watch, a good climber will chalk and look around. If there are three arm moves they will plan them, do them, and rest.

You need to let the the arms relax and get some blood flow.

If you watch like black belt jujitsu they will go like 20 minutes and not even tired.

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