Extend Your Climbing Career with Proper Maintenance

It began somewhere around late summer or early fall of 2011, I believe. I woke one day to find that my wrist just didn’t want to move the same way. My thumb could barely move, and when it did, there was stiffness and popping. It never had done that before. “What the heck is going on?” I thought.

There was no hyperextension, no fall, no impact – at least not anytime recently. I’d fallen on it while skateboarding so many times back when I used to live on my board, but this had never happened. It had been a very busy storm season, working lots of overtime, but the wrist hadn’t been aching or anything. It was as if this affliction came out of nowhere, or at least that’s how it seemed to a young mind that only sees what’s right in front of it.

As it turns out, cycles to failure do not just apply to our ropes and hardware.

Braces and bandages: Being injured is unpleasant at best. When it happens, healing and prescribed treatments should be followed. The only thing better is prevention.

What I was experiencing was my first musculoskeletal injury. I didn’t know this at the time. It was not clear to me that repetitive motions and overuse could cause these kinds of problems. Sore muscles, aching joints and even a little stiffness I could wrap my head around, but relatively painless, limited range of motion and weakness? It didn’t make sense. It was worrisome to a young arborist who had already decided to make tree climbing his life’s work.

I finally saw a doctor, but there were no answers, no real ones anyway. You’re better off breaking something than “bending” it in the eyes of Western medicine. That is, of course, my opinion. After some X-rays and an MRI, it was braced up and I was off to the physical therapist, then given paperwork and silly little exercises that seemed to affect my patience more than my wrist. Eventually the problem faded away.

Not long after, maybe a year or more, there was quite a pain in my shoulder. Terrible aching, weakness, that same fear creeping in with it. I thought, “Is this how my career in the canopy ends? Should I retreat to management or some other branch of arboriculture, like so many before me when that first debilitating ailment has hit?”

Once again, doctors with their vague diagnoses offered little – have surgery or live with the problem. I didn’t like either option. It was at this point I caught a notion. I’m not sure how or from where, but I thought to myself, “If there’s a problem with the joint and/or connective tissue, well, I’ll just fortify all the muscles around it.” Thus began my journey into self-education and experimentation.

Books: Many schools of thought on stretching and warming up for action exist. Do some reading. Find what you feel works best for you. Many things on the internet are shiny and new, but don’t let that outshine the tried and true.

This is my story, my experience, nothing more. I am no expert on the subject matter. What I can tell you about is my logic and what I think I know, based on results as they pertain to me.

So, I started learning about the anatomy and physiology of the areas that gave me trouble. What muscles were there, what tendons, ligaments? What was up the river from that, and down the river from the same spot? Once I had a general notion of who the key players were, it was time to ask the next level of questions. What makes this movement happen, what orchestra of anatomical chords are plucked to pull down the fall end of my line, or when thrusting that hitch up to capture my progress? From there I began to dissect all the common everyday motions I make. So many pulls, pushes, thrusts, bends, twists, leans, grabs, etc. An ever-evolving thesis to this day.

I’ll spare you the details, the trials and tribulations of years past. The methodology I’ve landed on is simple. Identify the frequent motions performed. Look at what muscle groups and connective tissues are involved directly, as well as those that affect or are affected or engaged in a secondary way. Pay close attention to how the movement is executed, that is to say, be sure the posture is correct. Poor posture or sloppy motion under load or while fatigued may throw off the entire system and its proper execution of the action.

Body-work equipment: A variety of tools are out there to help with muscle release, from simple and
general to specialized and complex. Customize your set to tackle your trouble areas.

Then it is time to decide if the muscle, the group and/or the connective tissues need to be stretched, strengthened, massaged or rested. The tricky part about that is figuring out which and when. Let us take a look at a common example, bending and/or twisting at the torso. These movements are frequent in tree work and the source of many complaints. The muscles directly involved include many more than those that flank the spinal column. This is where reading up on the anatomy and physiology comes in. One must identify what is involved with the motions.

Let’s say the area becomes sore or stiff and you only do stretches or exercises that target one muscle. You may be missing all the other key players involved or the actual main culprit. In reality, there may be a dozen muscles or other body parts directly involved and a dozen more that are a secondary part of the action. Maybe that sounds daunting, but it’s a bit like working on your chain saw. The first step is understanding how it works, then we learn what parts there are and what each one does. Finally, when we have a problem, we troubleshoot.

So the lower back is not just the paraspinals. The glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, quadratus lumborum, abdominals and psoas are all heavily involved with actions such as bending down and lifting things. Your chain saw isn’t cutting well. First, I look at the chain and the rakers, check for burrs on the bar and ensure it’s not bent, take a look at the sprocket, etc. Similarly, if my lower back hurts, I think about what I did that day. I do a little work on my hamstrings. Did that do anything? No? On to the glutes. Still nothing? Hip flexors are next, then quadratus lumborum, psoas and so on.

Large Port-a-Wrap: Cross training to strengthen is a powerful tool. You don’t necessarily need a gym or even pricey equipment if you learn the

If stretching, resting and body work do not yield the result I was looking for, then I do a bit more research about the area. I may try different motions at work to mix it up, spread the workload. I may switch to strengthening exercises instead of stretching and body work. One of the more important tools for me has been an analysis of how I am carrying out the action. With bending and lifting, for example, was my spine properly aligned throughout the motion? Did I engage all the muscle groups involved? Or was I tired, forgetting to use my core, forgetting to not let my back hunch at all, forgetting to keep my scapula down and flat, etc.?

Correct form and posture every time throughout the entire range of motion is key. Also, how you carry your body when you’re not working can have an effect. Do you sit at the computer with your back hunched, your elbow on the table and your chin in hand? Do you sit on the couch with your neck bent straight down staring at your phone as you scroll around with hands in the same position? All these things can have subtle but real consequences for your body. And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Let us not forget what is upriver or downriver from the area in question. I’ll give you another example. Just a few years back I was getting some aggravating tennis elbow. It wasn’t hard to tell why. I had been doing a bit more pruning than usual. This particular type of pruning involved countless cuts in thick trees. In short, I was excessively using the muscle groups involved with chain-saw and handsaw cuts, even more so than usual.

I tried stretching all my grip muscles, triceps and biceps to no avail. Massage didn’t seem to help, either. From there, I went on to strength training, exercising both the major and minor muscles, tendons and connective tissues. My elbows and forearms still hurt. This led to a search for answers. Since I couldn’t really mix the motions up very much, I took a long, hard look at what else was involved secondarily. The shoulders! It turns out the final piece of the puzzle was hidden in the tendons that connect from the shoulder down into the arm muscles. Body work on that area and upriver from that area into the pectorals finally brought relief.

Lifting: Concentrate on your posture and proper engagement of all muscle groups directly and indirectly involved in your work.

These days there are myriad options for getting yourself warmed up or wound down from long days of work – yoga, CrossFit, foam rollers and hot- or cold-based treatments, to name just a few. I personally take elements from everything I see that I find works for my body and the specific motions I seem to repeat day in and day out. One stretch may feel more effective than another, even though it targets the same muscle or muscles.

How do you find these things? In a sea of information buried in an ocean of misinformation, it can be tricky. Science-based publications from reputable sources about the basic mechanics of it all are not too hard to come by. It is the internet, with its trends and influencers, that can become the most confusing. I found myself researching content from professional, new-age physical therapists and people involved in sports medicine. Many of them offer comprehensive programs and educational material, for a fee of course, but I can’t think of many things worth investing in more for an industrial athlete. They often share just enough content for you to get a sense of whether their approach is going to be beneficial to you or not.

Warmups are not a daily occurrence. Post-work stretch sessions are not necessary for me every day. My reactionary, targeted-readjustment, multidisciplinary body-work routine doesn’t come off the shelf all the time. But this is just what is working for me. It’s hard to say what people should do. So I don’t. We’re all different, with variations on the same theme. I merely suggest that in order for an industrial athlete to keep performing at optimal levels for years to come, routine maintenance should be performed.

Rope walking: When possible, I switch to techniques that use large muscle groups to stave off fatigue. All photos courtesy of the author.

You can’t run your saw without touching up the chain, tending to the bar and blowing out the air filter. If you don’t do these things, eventually you’re going to have a problem. On the same note, you can’t run low-grade pump gas and old motor oil forever. Eat nutritious food. Hydrate constantly. Sleep regularly. Combat stress and anxiety. All these things are important forms of routine maintenance that affect how you work and how the work works you.

Professional athletes live their lives doing everything they can to ensure they operate at peak performance levels for sports that only occur on an occasional basis. You are an industrial athlete who performs full time, at minimum, every week, and for many more years than any pro athlete. You are the ultramarathon runner. Treat yourself accordingly.

I, for one, think it’s not enough to just follow the fitness fad du jour. Figure out what works for your body, how it moves and what it has to do. Stretch it, strengthen it, relieve tension in it, feed it, hydrate it, rest it in whatever way works best for you. But you must discover this and customize it for yourself. The duration of your career depends on it.

Lawrence Schultz is an ISA Certified Arborist and an ISA Certified Municipal Specialist working as a contract climber in the San Francisco Bay area of California. This article was based on his presentation on the same subject during TCI EXPO ’21 in Indianapolis, Indiana. To listen to an audio recording of that presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online at tcimag.tcia.org and, under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click view Digimag, then go to this page and click here.

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