No matter how long you have been climbing, you must have experienced the tension and stress of arm pump that keeps you incapacitated on the wall, unable to untie your eight figure knot, or has you shaking out your arms to no avail.
Fortunately, there are many strategies that can help you prevent or get rid of arm pump. We will look at them in detail, right after we explain what arm pump is and what causes it.
By the way, if you like this post, be sure to also check out our 50 rock climbing tips for beginners and intermediates.
What is Arm Pump and Why Does it Happen?
When climbing a challenging route, your brain is continuously sending signals to your forearm muscles to contract. For the muscles to relax after contraction, energy is required. But since the brain keeps sending signals for the muscles to contract, that energy is converted to ‘contracting energy’ rather than ‘relaxing energy,’ and while in contraction, the muscle cannot produce more of the ‘relaxing energy.’ It’s then difficult to keep climbing because our muscles can no longer contract, even though your brain is telling them to.
Because of the increased blood flow and limited oxygen in the muscles, the circulation is not good enough, and that’s why the forearms become rock hard, swollen, tight, have a throbbing feeling, and their movement is restricted.
Generally, when we do strenuous exercise and breathe intensely, our body requires energy production faster than it can deliver oxygen. So it goes from producing energy aerobically (using oxygen), to generating energy anaerobically. To do that, it produces lactate, a metabolite that breaks down glucose in the muscles to produce energy when oxygen is limited.
As the muscles continue working, lactate is increased and accumulated to keep producing energy. Due to high lactate levels, the increased acidity in the muscle cells hinders the metabolic pathways from producing more energy. This is a defense mechanism of our body to avoid permanent damage from extended muscle contraction and exertion. It forces us to slow down so that our body can deliver more oxygen and recover. During this forced recovery period, the lactate and other metabolites are cleared.
The body can rely on energy produced solely in this way for about a minute before it has to stop to recover. So you understand how important it is to be able to manage to some extent these metabolic energy systems so that arm pump doesn’t prevent you from sending a route again.
Note on lactate: There seems to be a lot of confusion on whether the body produces lactate or lactic acid and whether lactate causes muscle fatigue or the pump’s burning sensation. Some of the metabolites cause the burning sensation you feel, but it’s unclear which and if lactate is one of them. Even though the scientific community still doesn’t know enough about the specific issue, forearm fatigue is caused mainly by local and transient chemical changes. However, studies indicate that lactate is a favorable substance and not the cause of fatigue or burning.
Is Flash Pump Different than Arm Pump?
Ever went at the gym or the crag and ran straight to your project only to regret it after the first few moves?
The term ‘flash pump’ is used to describe the pump you get if you start a climbing session with harder routes too soon, without warming up. You’re even more prone to it if climbing in cold conditions. The capillaries (blood vessels that bring nutrients and oxygen to tissue and remove waste products) are in a resting state, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase too fast, causing a kind of traffic jam. You’ll know it’s a flash pump if you feel you can’t climb after it, even for a whole day.
The flash pump happens more rapidly than the arm pump and feels deeper, and it’s definitely more difficult to manage. Even if we try to recover from it by stretching or warming up after it happens, it will take much longer than if it was just a regular arm pump. But we can still take advantage of our session by focusing on easier routes.
Everyone will fall prey to the normal arm pump, but the dreaded flash pump can be easily avoided. Read on to find out how.
Can Warming Up Help in Avoiding Arm Pump?
Sometimes it’s tempting to skip climbing easier routes and go directly for your project at the beginning of the session when you are fully rested and are at your maximum capacity. But as we talked about, by rushing in and maxing out on your first climb, you can cause flash pump and pretty much cut your session short.
So warming up is your best chance to avoid arm pump, and especially flash pump.
Warming up will prepare your muscles for what’s coming, by waking them up and fine-tuning them before you get on harder climbs.
Try to do at least 15 minutes of climbing that is very easy for you to activate your muscles and get the blood flowing. Warming up also affects the thickness and ease of blood flow in the muscles. This way, your body will not go directly into anaerobic energy production, and you will work more on endurance.
If you manage to pump your muscles while warming up (to a controllable level), you will definitely avoid flash pump. Your initial warm-up should not create any pump at all, and then as your warm-up progresses, the pump you create should grow gradually. However, you should not get passed the threshold that will make you feel fatigued.
Our heart pumps the blood that carries oxygen through the body. Sufficient oxygen in the muscles helps prevent pump. So getting the blood flowing in your muscles before starting a climb by warming up definitely helps in avoiding arm pump.
Some more tips on warming up for avoiding arm pump:
- Spend time traversing and doing easy climbs perfectly.
- While warming up, focus on your footwork and technique. Place your feet with intention and keep this mentality in your whole climbing session.
- Between climbs, take sufficient rest and warm up again before trying a harder route.
- Warm-up your wrist flexors by stretching and massaging them before and between climbs
What Should You Do When You Start Feeling Arm Pump?
If you start feeling arm pump and it’s very intense, it’s probably flash pump, so in that case, you need to stop climbing and take rest until your muscles recover, maybe even take the day off.
If while you are on the wall you start feeling the beginning of arm pump and it’s still manageable, get to a position where you can rest without taking the arm pump to its threshold, and try the following for short term recovery:
- Relax your mind and breathe slowly and deeply
- Instead of over gripping try to loosen your fingers to decrease tension in your forearms
- Shift your position to alleviate weight from your upper body to your lower body
- Let each arm in turn hang and gently massage, rub or knead your forearm to help lower the lactate. You can do this by using other parts of your body, like your knees. You can also shake out your arms to increase blood flow (more details and techniques to do this in the next section of the article).
However, taking the right decision to avoid arm pump and get more out of your climbing session while staying safe depends a lot on your body awareness. Do you have enough energy to finish the climb efficiently without getting to your threshold? Have you spotted a good rest point where you can recover enough to continue climbing? Or is the best option coming down and taking the time to recover, since if you don’t, you won’t be able to control the pump?
How to Avoid Pump When Climbing: 15 Strategies
1. Focus on your technique
Keep your hips close to the wall and concentrate on your footwork and balance to build confidence. Train on vertical walls and slabs to learn to trust small footholds. Using your feet and legs more will take the load off your arms so that you don’t use them excessively and tire them out.
2. Straighten your arms
Try to keep your arms straight as much as possible as keeping them bent in a mid-pull up position exhausts your forearm muscles rapidly.
When the arms are straight, there is less overall muscle contraction, blood flow is better, and your body relies more on your joints and skeletal system rather than the muscles.
3. Climb efficiently
Economy of movement is critical in minimizing the intensity of muscle contraction and preserving energy, delaying muscle fatigue.
The pace you develop, especially over harder climbing, is crucial in expending less energy. It’s more efficient if you can get through more challenging movements at a faster pace, and take your time on the easier parts of the route to recover until the next tricky part.
4. Relax your grip
Continuous strong gripping increases lactate build up and tires your forearms. Try not to full-crimp when you can, as it requires more muscle engagement and creates unnecessary tension. Instead, try to use open-hand or half-crimp whenever you can, but in general, try to limit the amount of gripping actions.
5. Be proactive in your recovery
Don’t just wait to feel pump or burn to recover on a route. Flick your fingers and flex your wrists as you reach for the next hold. While you climb, your wrists are always in extension, which obstructs blood flow in your fingers and forearms, which can contribute to your forearms swelling.
Be proactive in doing these movements whenever you get the chance as they will help blood flow and won’t let lactate and the fatigue in your forearm muscles pile up until you can’t handle it.
More oxygen in your body means you can climb more before your body starts relying on anaerobic energy production. So it will take longer for the body to build enough lactate to reach the threshold that leads to arm pump. Breathing slowly and deeply also helps to relax your mind and body so that you don’t overgrip or tense your body unnecessarily, thus delaying tightness and swelling in your forearms.
7. Plan your rests
Spend some time to read the route, even to look at the next moves while climbing. Spotting rests on the route and planning your movements will help you conserve your energy as you won’t have to figure everything out while on the wall.
Use anything you can get. You can’t always find a good hand rest, so learn to spot and use kneebars, heel-toe locks, toe hooks, bat hangs. Make the most out of the wall or rock to delay arm pump. Efficient resting while on the route will make all the difference in finishing a hard route.
8. Shake it out
Shaking out your arms helps diffuse the build-up of metabolites before they affect energy production and blood flow. Look for a rest spot like a large jug hold where you only need one arm to stay on the wall. Hold the rock with one arm and rest the other arm by letting it hang and shaking it out, and switch arms after a minute or so (depending on how comfortable you are). You can do this until you feel the pump has gone down sufficiently to continue climbing but make sure the way you are positioned is not pumping you more.
G-Tox shakeout method: Eric Horst suggests an adapted approach of the traditional arm shakeout that involves alternating the position of your resting arm between the normal dangling position (below the waist) and above your head, gently shaking the arm for five seconds at each position. The G-Tox method claims to accelerate the flow of blood back to the heart due to gravity, helping the flow of ‘old blood’ out of the forearm. So circulation is better, and recovery is faster.
9. Endurance training
You can train for forearm endurance by using a pull-up bar, as well as power grips. Favor climbing more routes that are easy for you and progress gradually.
ARC (Aerobic Restoration and Capillarity): ARC is a training method to develop aerobic endurance by encouraging vascular development. How it works for climbing is that you need to climb for 20 to 40 minutes continuously on easy terrain, maintaining a slight pump, but not going over your anaerobic threshold. You will be using around 30% of your maximum strength, just enough to raise your heart rate, staying in the aerobic zone.
This helps to teach your body to recover on the wall and between climbs, as well as allow you to climb longer before you start getting pumped, by training the muscles to work while staying below the lactate threshold.
ARC keeps the blood flowing by keeping the capillaries clear and thus improves the capillary density in your forearms (more veins). It increases oxygen capacity and improves the process of removing waste products from the blood.
You will need to start doing ARC gradually so that you don’t get pumped out. So five or ten minutes for the first times you try can be enough.
10. Strengthen your core
By incorporating some training to strengthen your core (like variations of planks), you will be able to stay closer to the wall, especially in overhang routes, and you won’t have to rely as much on pulling yourself up with your arms and tiring out your forearms. It also helps balance on slabs and vertical routes, taking the load off your upper body.
11. Massage your forearms
Massage your forearms either between climbs or while on the wall (rubbing them on your knees is one way to do it). Doing that helps lactate to reduce and improves blood flow and circulation in your muscles.
12. Warm up and don’t let yourself get cold between climbs
Warm-up to get your blood flowing, prepare your muscles, and learn to climb with arm pump and control it. Involve some cardio in your warm-up routine and try to train with all types of holds and grips. Don’t just focus on your hands. Cover as much range of motion as you can. Scroll up to read more on why warming up is so important.
13. Climb regularly
The more you climb, the more your physiology will become accustomed to the muscle engagements it needs to climb, and the less often you will experience a pump. Train with different ways of crimping and positioning your body and feet. By experimenting often, you will have more experience in conserving energy and recovering on the wall, thus becoming a stronger climber.
Becoming dehydrated, apart from exhausting you faster, causes lactate to build sooner according to this study, and reduces your energy production. So drink enough water before climbing, and take sips during your session as well.
Consume potassium and magnesium (a study indicates that it may reduce lactate levels) daily, and carbohydrates before exercise to have a higher stock of energy to consume, thus delaying muscle fatigue.
When Should You Stop Climbing Because Your Arms are Too Pumped?
If you feel you are starting to lose your grip and you run the danger of falling because of your arm being pumped, it’s a good time to stop and take a break depending on how intense the pump is.
It also depends on what you are climbing. If you have difficulty keeping a grip on a trad route, the danger is different than just trying to finish a bouldering problem in the gym.
Assess the risk you run by staying on the wall or the rock with pumped arms. Be more aware of how your body feels and what you have to do to be safe. For example if you have to set up an anchor at the top but you can’t even hold on to a jug it may be a good time to come down.
If you can’t get the pump down, you can either continue your session with easier climbs, or just call it a day.
Climbing Pump Recovery: How to Relax Your Arms After Your Session
If you finish your session on a pump, you definitely will feel the need to do something to get rid of it. So here are some suggestions for pump recovery:
- This study shows that active recovery is more efficient than passive recovery in eliminating fatigue and reducing lactate levels. Doing push ups or running lines after your session or when you are taking a long break will help raise your heart rate and increase blood flow in your body.
- This study agrees that active recovery works best, and argues that easy climbing is better than staying static or walking to reduce lactate levels and pump. Another suggestion is walking while exercising the forearm muscles.
- Stretching after your session helps the muscles recover and gain flexibility.
- Massage, rub or knead your forearms to help circulation to facilitate a reduction in lactate and recovery from the pump. You can even use a foam roller.
Wrapping Things Up: Key Takeaways on Combating Climbing Pump
During rock climbing, when the forearm muscles are overworked and forced to continuously contract, especially without warming up properly, we can get arm pump. Depending on how intense it is, it can affect our climbing session, our whole day, and even the days after.
It can even affect our safety, especially outdoors. It can cause us to fall or obstruct us from doing essential things like tying or untying the rope.
There are several things you can do to prevent and get rid of arm pump, and they mostly boil down to increasing blood flow and improving circulation.
To wrap things up, here are some of the most effective suggestions we shared:
- Warming up
- Endurance training for forearms, ARC method
- Proper hydration and nutrition
- Development of good climbing technique and footwork instead of relying on the arms
- Breathing and being able to relax on the wall
- Route reading, conserving energy and recovery on the wall
- Shaking out arms, G-Tox method
And most importantly, developing body awareness will help you in so many things, like recognizing when you are starting to cause a pump, when you need a rest, and if you need to warm up more. So when in doubt just relax for a bit, breathe and see how your body feels!