Conditioning Warm-Ups for Climbers: Preparing for the Jerks and Jolts of Climbing Life

Inverted Dead Bug may sound like something for your PHC tech to deal with, but it is actually a conditioning exercise that might benefit your climbers and all your staff. All photos feature and are courtesy of the author.

I’m thinking, “One more leafy branch to cut before I can start chunking the large sections of limb back to the trunk. The branch is just at the full extension of my reach. I probably could reposition myself for better leverage, but then I would just return to this spot after that cut. I don’t want to waste time and energy.” I grab hold and make a little undercut with my handsaw. It is a good-sized limb above some landscaping. As I cut down from the top, I eye the fence and the little landscape archway for the vines. I play the motion through in my mind. I can see the swing and the release point. Suddenly, the branch brakes free. It is heavier than I had anticipated. Pulling hard, I swing the branch until I know the tail will clear the archway and I let it go. The tail hits the grass and the butt end lands on the lawn with a flat “thud.” Perfect! Everything went smoothly.

Most of us in tree care read that account and wonder what the point is, because it’s such an ordinary event. Why even mention it? But there is a part of that experience that lasts about a half-second that is very critical to long-term life in tree work. What is it? It’s that split second when I was hanging onto the branch to swing it out and clear the landscaping. In that split second, I exerted great force on the muscles connecting the arm to the body and the fingers to the forearm.

These split-second moments of exertion happen many times every day for climbers and other tree workers. Maybe it is holding onto a rope that suddenly hits tension with a little more weight than expected. Maybe it’s when you flip that chunk of wood over so the skid loader can pick it up. Regardless of the situation, there is a common condition – it’s a short amount of time with a high level of physical exertion. 

You can develop many good habits in how you work, such as good posture and other positive mechanics for going about your work. These things are very important to minimize muscle-related injuries. However, we cannot totally eliminate all the moments of high, physical strain. These moments happen day after day and month after month. So, how do you keep them from turning into nagging muscle injuries or even longer-term damage? You form daily habits to prepare your body for what you might experience.

There is, virtually, an endless supply of resources online and in print about how to stay healthy and fit. The overload of information can actually make it more difficult to gain the information we need, because we don’t know where to start. For the purposes of this brief article, we will focus on 10 different exercises to prepare your muscles for the regular stresses and surprises of climbing. I call these conditioning warm-up moves for climbers. They are intense enough to engage and activate your chosen muscles, but light enough to stay free from fatigue. This activity is one part of a holistic approach to staying healthy and fit.

Something I use to remember how these exercises fit into the bigger picture of life health is the acronym SHARP. SHARP stands for:

S – Stretching and warm-ups
H – Hydration and nutrition
A – Active movement
R – Rest
P – Perspective

These conditioning warm-ups are part of the “A” of SHARP. Please note that it is important to complete some type of warm-up and stretching before doing conditioning warm-ups, especially if this is part of your morning wake-up routine. (See sidebar for more on SHARP.)

I am using 5-pound weights in the session pictured for a light level of resistance. Plan to do each of these motions in repetitive fashion for 30 to 60 seconds before moving on to the next motion. I have tried to give each motion a simple descriptive name.

Conditioning warm-ups for climbers

Squat with Arm Thrust – This motion engages your large muscle groups and shoulders for a whole-body warm-up. For the squatting, keep your core tight, back straight and weight in your heels.

Squat with Arm Thrust engages your large muscle groups and shoulders for a whole-body warm-up.

Reverse Butterfly – Back muscles are often neglected in workouts and warm-ups. The back is covered with glands that help other muscles function effectively.

Reverse Butterfly works the back muscles.

Butterfly with Leg Lift – Choose a position with your lower back either arched off the floor, doing only the lower three-quarters of the leg lift, or pressed tightly onto the floor, doing only the upper three-quarters of the leg lift. The key is to keep your vertebrae stationary during this motion so your muscles are doing the work and protecting your back.

Butterfly with Leg Lift strengthens back muscles.

Dead Bug – This is great cross-core motion and shoulder work. Move the right leg and right arm in unison up and down. Move right and left sides opposite of each other.

Dead Bug works core and shoulder muscles.

Inverted Dead Bug – This is the same motion as Dead Bug, but you are using gravity to engage the opposite direction of the muscles you were just using. This also activates the muscles in the lower back. If you want a higher level of difficulty and to engage your core stabilizer muscles more specifically, you can do this motion from the plank position.

Inverted Dead Bug works the core, shoulder and lower-back muscles.
If you want a higher level of difficulty and to engage your core- stabilizer muscles more specifically, you can do this motion from the plank position.

Pushup – Good, old-fashioned pushups. Sorry, no pictures for this one because I assume you are familiar with this already. Pushups are so popular because they are very functional. This activates the core, due to the plank position, and the arms/shoulders and pectorals.

Reclined Rotator Cuff – Lie flat on the back with arms going straight out from shoulders, forearms at 90 degrees. Gently roll the forearms forward and backward to reach the ground in each direction. I am demonstrating this with my head raised to decrease the pressure on the shoulder torque as my forearms come forward to the ground. You may need to do this, or your flexibility may allow you to lie flat with your head back. The important part is to listen to the resistance you are getting from your muscles and respond accordingly.

Reclined Rotator Cuff, obviously, works the shoulder and rotator-cuff muscles.

Arm Raises/Palm Down – Holding weights out in front with palm down, you may lift at the same time or use an alternating motion of raising and lowering them. Next, lift arms straight out to the right and left sides. Keep the core tight with good posture.

Arm Raises/Palm Down works many muscles, including the shoulder and the core muscles.

Arm Lift/Hammer Fist – Same motion as Arm Raises/Palm Down, but the palm is rotated 90 degrees from where it was. This engages different muscle groups in the shoulders and forearms.

Tricep Extension – Step a foot back and tighten your core to protect your lower back. Maintain good posture. Keep the shoulder-to-elbow portion of the arm stationary. Move hands from behind the head to straight up. Keep your core tight.

Tricep Extension addresses both the triceps and the core muscles.

Extra move for interest: Back Roller

The muscles and glands in your back are connected to so much of your body and the proper activation of muscles. Including some time rolling out your back in your warm-up and stretching time, or in your active-conditioning warm-up, will be time well spent. You can cross your arms over your chest or hold them behind your head. I like using the roller pictured because the groove in the middle allows me to work the muscles on both sides of my back without putting excess pressure on my spine.

Back Roller works the muscles and glands in your back that are connected to so much of your body and the proper activation of muscles.
The groove in the middle of this roller allows working the muscles on both sides of the back without putting excess pressure on the spine.


You can’t avoid moments of high strain on your muscles, but you can build in good habits of preparing your muscles for these moments each day. Routines like this will help you enjoy tree climbing for many years. Health and fitness aren’t just about working out. Remember SHARP to make sure you keep the big picture of a healthy life in mind. Stay sharp – and enjoy tree work!

SHARP, the Movie

SHARP is the focus of a mini video series, “Stay SHARP – 5 Branches of Tree Worker Health and Fitness,” I am developing with TCIA. Each piece of SHARP will be highlighted. These videos will be released progressively over the next three to five months. Watch the introductory video below.

SHARP is an acronym to help remember what things one needs to be intentional about for longer-term health.

S – Stretching and Warm-ups: Each day you need to have a small warm-up and stretching routine to work fluid through your lymphatic system to help your muscles be ready to respond and work together.

H – Hydration and Nutrition: We all know we need to stay hydrated, but be sure to know the key times to be drinking water, such as 1) the night before, and 2) the first thing upon waking up in the morning. When it comes to nutrition, make sure you are focused on getting enough of the right stuff (complex carbs, proteins, good fats and electrolytes.) If you do this, you will easily spot when you start eating poorly. Plan to stop eating at least three hours before you go to sleep.

A – Active Movement: This section is for conditioning warm-up moves that will prepare you for the work waiting for you the rest of the day. These will be broken into four main categories: 1) climbers 2) bucket operators 3) ground workers and 4) seated workers.

R – Rest: Rest is the essential part of any productive work lifecycle. More time and effort spent working do not always lead to more production or more profit. Being intentional about rest keeps these things in harmony.

P – Perspective: This is about mindset, identifying what you believe and how it affects your life and work. What you believe determines your thoughts, what you think determines your decisions. Your decisions determine your actions, what you act on determines your experience. Experience determines your life. So, what you believe determines how you experience life. Want to change something about your life? Identify what you believe, and you will be able to change your life.

Jonathan Corbin is a Certified Arborist, a CTSP and owner and operator of My Tree Climber, a two-year TCIA member company based in Goshen, Indiana. He has been running his one-person tree business for 15 years, and regularly works with other tree companies on bigger jobs.

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