I first felt finger stiffness when I climbed mid-intermediate grade walls. I ignored it at first thinking it was just sore muscles and that I’d recover in no time. But I observed my fingers took more time to recover. And it started to bother me when it became a recurring condition. So I did some research to find out more about it.
Your fingers feel stiff after rock climbing because it is adapting to the high stress you put it through. The stress causes a little bit of damage to your flexor tendons and pulleys. Which then triggers your body’s natural repair mechanism causing finger swelling. Keep in mind that your tendons and ligaments recover slower compared to your muscles. Climbing hard too often can cause cumulative damage to your fingers. Let’s see what this means and what you can do about it.
Basic hand anatomy and movement
Fun fact! Did you know that your fingers DO NOT have muscles?
Yes, you read that right. Your fingers are made only of bones, tendons, ligaments, nerves and skin. And they move by activating your palm and forearm muscles.
There are 2 basic movements that each of your fingers are capable of. It is important that you know basic finger biomechanics. This will help you figure out ways to prevent injury and make them stronger.
You flex your finger when you curl it. Your forearm flexor muscles contract and your flexor tendons move to curl your finger. Each finger except for your thumb is made up of 3 small bones. And your flexor tendon is attached to these small bones and joints by pulley tissues.
You regularly pull with your fingers and put a high amount of stress on them when you climb. And this stress is magnified even more when you hang on difficult rock holds like crimps and pockets.
You extend your finger when you point it straight. Your forearm extensor muscles contract and your extensor tendon move to straighten your finger.
There is a lack of finger extension movement in rock climbing. This means that your extensor muscles and tendons don’t experience the same level of stress as your flexors.
Possible causes of finger stiffness
Finger stiffness from rock climbing is linked with the “flex” movement. And climbing hard too often damages certain parts of your fingers. I will be listing below the most common body parts that could be causing your finger stiffness.
1. Tight Flexor Forearm Muscles
Your forearm muscles are usually the first to feel “pumped” when you climb. It is common that your fingers feel weak or sluggish when your forearms get tired. There is no need to worry about this because it is just regular muscle pain.
2. Inflamed Flexor Tendons
This happens when you overload your fingers over a significant amount of time. Take note that your tendons heal slower than your muscles.
Too much inflammation can lead to tendonitis. You get this injury when your tendons can’t recover fast enough with the workload you are giving it.
A bad case of tendonitis can lead to “trigger finger”. Climbers I’ve seen with this condition have reduced finger range of motion. Their fingers are so stiff that they can’t make a fist. This happens when a part of your flexor tendon swells too much that it doesn’t fit the flexor pulley anymore.
3. Pulley Injuries
If you feel finger stiffness but your forearm muscles and tendons are fine, then it’s highly likely that your flexor pulleys have damage.
The easiest way to check for this is to put a bit of pressure to each segment of your fingers. Rock climbing pulley injuries are most common for your middle and ring fingers.
Your flexor pulleys are ligaments. And ligaments heal slower than tendons and muscles. A little bit of swelling and pain is okay because it means your ligaments are adapting to get stronger. Too much of it though means that your hands aren’t getting enough rest.
Overloading your ligaments too often over a significant amount of time may lead to a pulley tear. And it may take you several months to recover from a complete tear according to science journals. Yikes!
Ways to reduce finger stiffness
The primary cause of finger stiffness are your climbing habits. Finger injuries accumulate through time and there is no quick fix for it. You can however change your training process so that you make your fingers stronger and not lead to injuries. As the old age wisdom says “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”.
1. Do NOT climb 100% everyday. Your tendons and ligaments heal much slower than your muscles. Climbing 100% of your capacity everyday will just lead to finger injuries that could’ve been prevented. It is better to frequently train at 70% to 80%. Doing so will allow your tendons and ligaments to catch up with its natural recovery.
2. Rest your hands. Get enough rest for your hands! Again, your tendons and ligaments don’t recover as fast as your muscles. Don’t expect them to be “okay” the next day just like your muscles.
3. Massage your fingers. Massage helps improve blood circulation. And blood delivers oxygen and other important nutrients to your fingers. This will promote faster recovery for your tendons and ligaments.
4. Exercise full range of motion. Exercising your fingers’ full range of motion helps balance the forearm muscles. This will also reduce tightness from your flexors. And help maintain the dexterity of your fingers for work or other activities you might have.
The most basic exercise you can do is the “close-open”. Close your hands to make a really tight fist to exercise your flexors. Next is you open your hands as wide as you can to exercise your extensors. Repeatedly close and open your hands.
You can also do antagonist muscle training. The idea is to have dedicated exercises for your extensors. What I regularly do are “wall finger flicks” and the “rice bucket” method.The most basic exercise you can do is the “close-open”. Close your hands to make a really tight fist to exercise your flexors. Next is you open your hands as wide as you can to exercise your extensors. Repeatedly close and open your hands.
You can also do antagonist muscle training. The idea is to have dedicated exercises for your extensors. What I regularly do are “wall finger flicks” and the “rice bucket” method.
5. Strategically tape your fingers. Strategically using sports tape on your fingers help reinforce your flexor pulley ligaments.
Research says that you can reduce flexor pulley tears by taping near the A3 pulleys. I’ve tried it on my middle fingers and it worked! I’ve noticed that my A2 pulleys are much less inflamed and painful after a hard climb.
We’ve learned that our fingers have no muscles and are made of tendons and ligaments. They are stronger than muscles but take longer to recover. We get stiff fingers when we regularly overload our fingers without giving them enough rest.
Getting sore forearms is normal but it can get serious when your tendons or your pulleys become inflamed. This could lead to injuries like trigger finger and pulley rupture.
We’ve also learned that we can reduce our finger stiffness and prevent more serious injuries. All it takes is enough rest, change of training habits and proper care.
I hope this article was helpful to you! You can also read how I spent my 20 hours of active rock climbing time and use it as a guide. If you enjoyed reading this, then share it with your friends! And if you enjoy reading more content like this, then subscribe to my mailing list. Have fun rock climbing! Be good at anything fast and be a rad rookie! 🙂