Part 1: The warm-up

Interview, photography

We reached out to Julia, a physiotherapist and climber, to chat about the importance of warming up and the role it plays in injury prevention. This is part 1 of our interview: warming up.

Julia Smigelskis interview form 02 - Part 1: The warm-up




First of all, Julia, thank you so much for chatting with us. We’ve been pretty keen to talk to you about the world of physiotherapy and climbing. Especially since the Epic TV video interview with physio Klaus Isele on working with Adam Ondra while projecting Silence.


But before we get into the nitty gritty, could you tell us a bit about yourself: what led you to study physiotherapy and to specialise in climbing?

Sure! I’m from a tiny town on the outskirts of the Alps in Germany, but grew up in Pretoria, South Africa (SA) from the age of 6. And I must say that I’m a proud Pretorian. That’s where I started climbing; at the Barn climbing gym. The crowd there played a huge part in why I chose climbing as my sport, and as a matter of fact, it’s their fault I’m a Physio today.

I made that decision whilst on a road trip to Rocklands. I have always been interested in the human body and how it moves. I wanted to study something that helps people with niggley joints and muscles as well as optimise performance.  I went to Austria to study, mainly because the plan had always been for me to study abroad and work on my German. I  actually changed my mind about working with Athletes for a time,  simply because other medical fields caught my interest. After graduating, I worked in a rehabilitation hospital in Austria, treating the older generation with hip and knee replacements, strokes etc. which I enjoyed a lot!

However, at heart I am a South African and together with my husband, we decided that we wanted to return to SA pretty soon after leaving. The road back was a long one. The Health Council doesn’t make it easy for health professionals coming into the country and I had to do a number of exams in order to get my accreditation, as well as the community service year working in a government hospital in the Drakensberg. Once I returned to Cape Town, I started my own practice. Shortly thereafter the Bloc 11bouldering gym approached me and I have really loved working closely with the climbing community ever since.


And specialising in climbing-related physiotherapy?

It’s a little tricky to specialise in climbing, as there aren’t many specialised climbing physios out there yet. Luckily that is changing. Physiotherapy is all about continuous learning and I’m very excited about a course I’m doing in Germany in a few weeks time, which will focus on physio techniques for climbing injuries. And because there isn’t a recognized specialisation yet, I generally concentrate on the principles of OMT (Orthopaedic Manipulative Therapy), which are all based on anatomy and physiology, and adapt them to climbing. It helps that I climb myself and that I’ve spent a lot of time watching my husband and other strong climbers over the years. Understanding the demands climbing has on our joints and muscles can be complex, but it helps if you can visualise the move that patients injure themselves on.

Before we get to injuries (watch out for part 2), I’d like to start with the practice of ‘warm-ups’.

We’ve seen some climbers (not guilty … okay maybe sometimes), who start climbing without really warming up, OR, who warm up by doing easier boulder problems.


What are your thoughts on warm-up routines?

Funny you should ask. I recently looked into the climbing-related research regarding warm-up and was surprised to find that no-one has actually found a link between warm-up and injury prevention. That being said, there’s science and there’s just common sense.

I strongly believe in the importance of a proper warm up. Especially considering that most of us spend a couple of hours sitting before hitting the gym (outdoors we at least get our heart pumping with the walk-in).

Increasing your circulation is important because blood flow is essential for transporting oxygen to our muscles and warm muscles and joints are less likely to be injured (something to do with elasticity, heat, friction etc., but I won’t bore you with technicalities ;)).

Another important aspect of warming up is pre-activating the muscles that our joints need to protect them. These muscles have to fire in a millisecond when they’re needed and research has shown that they’re more capable of doing that if we wake them up before they have to perform under pressure. With regards to climbing, that’s focusing on your rotator cuff (which helps stabilise your shoulder joint) and performing hops and skips for ankle and knee stability.

Another body region we can’t neglect is our hands. Again, warming up the soft tissue structures is essential. You can use a stress ball or a rice bucket, general mobility drills and climbing on larger holds first – definitely no crimps on cold hands!


Those are some really important pointers, thanks Julia. Could you perhaps tell us how you warm up?

I’d always suggest doing some kind of cardio work pre-climb – as simple as doing some jumping jacks or a few minutes of skipping rope drills. I usually follow these with some general movement drills, using the physio ball, to get all the joints in my back moving.

After that I focus on pre-activating the rotator cuff with a Theraband and I end it all off with a few repetitions of grab-twist-release in the rice bucket. After all of this I’ll get on a few easy problems and assess how I feel after that.

After climbing I like to do some stretches (though to be honest I neglect these far too often). I focus on forearm and pec(toral) stretches and I roll my ITB and glut muscles whenever I feel like they’re tightening up.


Oh! I’m glad you brought up rolling. I’ve seen lots of climbers using foam rollers. Could you fill me in on the use of them: why are foam rollers good to use and what are some essential tips for for climbers who want to use it?

Yeah, foam rollers are quite “in” right now. Again, there’s some controversy about how and why they work and there are different applications. In recent years, we’ve started paying more attention to fascia. This is a thin layer of connective tissue that covers our entire body, links our organs, surrounds our muscles and stores energy. Rolling supposedly helps to influence the metabolism of the fascia and increase blood flow to muscles. Some use the roller very fast, this technique is used for warm-ups while slow rolling is used for recovery, similar to getting a sports massage.

From personal experience, I know that it works and I love to give rolling as a self-management tool to some patients. It is important to realise however, that rolling doesn’t have a permanent long-term effect as far as we know at this stage. It’s a useful tool to assist with your own regeneration when you need it. I do believe that some people overdo it. Again, our body needs time to adapt to the input we give it, so rolling 3-4x a week should be enough.

We filmed Julia doing some of her warm up routine and post-climbing maintenance for you to get an idea of what she does. Remember to include some sort of cardio-related activity before you start your routine!


The Video