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As much as I love rock climbing and bouldering, I used to get arm pumps pretty often. And I do try to go to the gym and boulder gym 2-3 times and climb on the weekend outside. But no matter, my arms pumped quickly, so at one point I decided I need to work on this. And with these tips, I do better. So If you get arm pump when rock climbing or bouldering after just a short 3-4 routes for warm-up too, keep reading these tips will change your climbing life. In general, the more you climb and the more often and longer you climb, the better and the less arm pump you will get. There is a clear connection between the amount of training and arm pump, and if you keep training it will get better. But in the short run, there are some really good techniques to keep in mind to help you fight arm pump. In this blog post I’ll focus on these three aspects:
- You can prepare before climbing to climb without arm pump as long as possible
- To get rid of arm pump when you’re already climbing and it happens to you
- Rest and recover from arm pump and when to stop climbing
What is arm pump: A quick look at some biophysics
If you’re new to climbing, you may be wondering what arm pump even is and how it affects you as well as the causes. Arm pump feels like a cramp in your forearms with intense tightness and from a biophysical perspective, arm pump is a condition that you will suffer from when you exercise your forearms for a continued amount of time. Its causes are complex but put in easy words: Arm pump comes from lactic acid build up in your forearms when climbing. As the swelling of muscles increases, blood flow decreases as the contraction of the muscles traps blood in the hands and forearms. And because of the decreased blood flow, there is a lactic acid build-up.
How to prepare before bouldering or climbing to avoid arm pump
Warm-up. You’ve got to warm up, this is my number one tip. All the people I know who have regular arm pump issues are not doing correctly and enough warm-up. It’s not enough to just 5 jumping jacks and an easy warm-up route. That’s not a proper warm-up, it’s an insult to your body.
Do a good and long warm up
A good warm-up should consist of 15 minutes of easy movement. It should include at least 5 minutes structured exercises and then 10 or more of doing REALLY easy stuff on the wall. Do traverses, go back and forth across the wall. Climb a ladder, do easy routes with extended arms and focusing on leg word. The goal here is to keep blood flowing into your muscles and activating your central nervous system and tissue. You also want to stretch your tendons and ligaments. Doing this helps you replacing lactic acids building up when doing challenging climbing.
What you notice is that people who spent their day job working their forearms (think carpenters, stonemasons, even construction workers), rarely suffer arm pump when climbing. So warming up and keeping your arms active during your job is key to. Include some bends and stretches every now and then, do some pull-ups while on lunch break. You will thank me for it later. When you’re finished with warm-up do at least 3 easy routes of climbing. Warming up has to be slow and easy. If you rush it, then you’re not benefiting from it.
Relax while climbing
You need to relax. When you climb you need to calm down. Many people overgrip like crazy and suffer arm pump after the first route of the day. No need to, climbing is fun. If you’re going top route or even lead, climb to a safe height in your first height and do a deliberate (BUT SAFE!!) little fall, to get rid of the adrenaline. Adrenaline makes you overgrip and tighten up, which leads to arm pump immediately. So relax. It’s all good.
Work on finding a good stand and improve balancing, so you hold most of the weight with your legs. This even works in overhangs, if you know how to squeeze footholds with your toes and have good hip technique. Bad technique means lots of arm pump. Good footwork usually helps to reduce arm pump.
How can you tread arm pump while bouldering or climbing
Even if you’re already climbing, there are things to reduce arm pump when it happens. These 3 methods worked really well for me.
Take a break
Works wonders. Relax and take some deep breaths. Give your arms a well deserved little massage, let them hang down for a while and get the blood moving through them. Blood flow is critical to treat the arm pump when it occurs. It’s never too late to treat it, but the best thing is to listen to your body for the first signs. When you feel your arms tightening up, take a break, and take care of it. After relaxing, do some more gentle warm-up exercises for about 5 minutes. Then continue climbing.
Shake arms, even when on the route, and do the G-Tox method
Another really effective way to get rid of arm pump is the G-Tox Method. Alternate between resting arm hanging to your side and holding it above your head. Cycle 5 seconds each and keep doing this for a minute or two. You can even do it while not climbing but recovering. It’s super effective and beats just hanging and dangling arms, as was shown in some field studies.
Don’t focus on stretches to reduce arm pump when climbing
When it comes to arm pump, plain static stretches are not the best thing to do. If you want to get rid of arm pump when climbing or bouldering, better do some rubbing, shaking and gentle massages. It will help your arms to clear of lactate build up. For pump you will have more success rubbing, kneading or shaking your forearms to help clear the lactate.
Surprisingly, the push-up is like a silver bullet for arm pump. After you take a break, do 10 to 20 push-ups. If you don’t believe it try it. It will help you. Don’t focus on slow movement, just do them quick and dirty. There is a reason for the effectiveness of push-ups for reducing arm pup too: A push up will transport lactic acid away from your arms into the core due to the way your body moves. It increases blood flow too, which is usually reduced after climbing with arms overhead.Push-ups obviously won’t work when you’re on a big wall trad route, but for bouldering and sport climbing its awesome. Stretches work too.
Run short sprints when resting on the ground
Basically running lines on the ground is more of the stuff that makes push-ups work to reduce climber’s arm pump. Arm pump, like discussed, is caused by too much lactate. And you can get rid of it by increasing blood flow in your muscles. Running around is like cardio and gives you instant blood flow increase because it makes your heart pump faster. Do 5 short sprints of 10 yards with some seconds pause in between and feel the effect immediately.
My secret weapon: Knuckleslides
Another effective trick to get rid of arm pump while climbing is what I call the “knuckleslide”. Never heard of it? I just made up the term, I read about it online, it came from a physiotherapist, and I tried it and can confirm it’s effective. It goes like this
- Place one arm in front of you, with elbow and forearm 90-degree bend, so your fingertips point up, and hold it really relaxed. Leave hands half-open, without any tension.
- Put the knuckle of the other hand on your wrist. Note: Put the knuckle on the side of your wrist facing you.
- Slowly slide down until you reach your elbow. It should take 5 seconds at least
ARC is a climbing training method which is really interesting, read about it some more in detail. For ARC you need to keep climbing for 20 to 40 minutes continuously. You’re not allowed to take any hand-off breaks or go off the wall.
ARC will improve the capillary density of your forearm, this way you increase the oxygen capacity and transports waste products like lactic acid away. It will force you to do traverses etc., to keep climbing for so long. Combine it with techniques like silent feet, extended arms or glue hands. I’ll write an article about these too, so stay tuned.
Should I stop climbing at some point when my arms get too pumped?
There is no real danger from climbing too pumped. But at some point, you will not be precise anymore and might not even be able to grip a hold at all. And yeah, if you can’t grip the wall anymore it probably becomes dangerous and risky. It’s best to stop climbing when you’re too pumped and you’re doing things like unsafe trad routes, highball boulders, etc. But that’s kind of obvious right? Best to stop then, but otherwise, feel free to keep going. The worst thing happens is you lose grip and take a fall.
Conclusion: Prepare well and treat arm pump and keep climbing longer
Arm pump when climbing sucks, especially if you want to keep going to send your project route or just finish a great day of training. The proper gripping technique, warming up and just being relaxed is vital to avoid arm pump. But even if you feel arm pump occurring, it’s not too late, you can still use the discussed methods to get rid of it!
Read my other articles about quick DIY hangboard setup, why climbing pants are great for training and how to become a stronger climber by doing more bouldering.