Health & Wellness @Planet Granite

For this article in our Health & Wellness series we reached out to local physical therapist and athlete Caroline Bourcier.

With over 25 years of experience in the fitness and physical therapy fields, and a life-long athlete herself, she really has seen it all! Many members of our community have worked with her and raved about their experience. 

We contacted Caroline to get the scoop on shoulder health. 

How can we tell if we have an imbalance in our shoulders? 

 ** The information in these articles are submitted by various professionals in the industry who are not employed by or representatives of Planet Granite.   If you have an injury or more questions regarding the topics addressed on our blog,  please consult a qualified medical practitioner.  Before beginning any fitness program, you should have a complete physical examination by your physician.**

 The 4 Tests Every Climber Needs to Pass…
So You Can Climb Until You’re 80

Guest Post by Caroline Bourcier, MSPT

As a physical therapist I see a lot of climbers with shoulder injuries, especially in those above the age of thirty. Given the demands climbing places on the shoulder I’m always surprised when a climber is surprised that their shoulder is beginning to hurt.  Let me explain why…

The shoulder joint is persnickety – it requires balance to stay happy.

Specifically, the shoulder requires three things to stay injury free:

  1. Balance of strength in the posterior musculature relative to the anterior musculature
  2. Balance of flexibility/mobility in the muscles and connective tissue from front to back
  3. Sufficient coordination and timing of muscle recruitment in the arm and shoulder blade

Let’s break these down and see how this applies to you…

Test # 1

 Stand up and let your arms dangle at your sides. Now look down.

  • Which way are your palms are facing?
  • Do they face your thighs, your butt or somewhere in between?
  • Is one arm rotated inward more than the other?

Test 1
If they are facing anywhere but towards your thighs, you might be setting yourself up for an impingement.

Because climbing strengthens the lats and the pecs (both strong internal rotators) disproportionately, not only can these muscles become tight, their antagonists- the external rotators –can easily be overpowered.

In a shoulder with tight internal rotators, as you raise your arms above shoulder height, you have less space under the acromion for the rotator cuff and bursa. Done repeatedly, this can cause the supraspinatus (rotator cuff) or the bursa to be pinched and become inflamed. Chronically, it can cause tears in the rotator cuff.

Test # 2

Reach your left hand behind your back, touching the top of your right shoulder blade.

Can you reach your shoulder blade? If so, do you have any pinching or pain on the top of your shoulder?

Now reach your left hand behind your back as in the picture on the right and touch the bottom of your right shoulder blade.

  • Can you reach your shoulder blade?
  • Do you have pain in the front or the back of your shoulder?
  • Is your movement symmetrical in both shoulders?

Test 2
These two tests require full mobility of your shoulders to their end ranges of motion- flexion and external rotation in the first example and extension and internal rotation in the second.

Keep these flexible and you’ll ward off rotator cuff impingement, biceps tendonitis and chronic labral tears (keep reading to find out how).

If you have pain or pinching in the top or front of your shoulder you may want to consult with a physical therapist to have them mobilize your joint capsule.  Normal joint mechanics are essential to long term health and injury prevention, especially in the shoulder.

Test # 3

Place your right hand on top of your left shoulder, then raise your right elbow as high as you can towards the ceiling.

  • Do you have any pain in the top or front of your shoulder?

Test 3

While the first two tests are looking for ideal mobility to prevent impingements and other injuries, this test is more sensitive and suggests a problem may already exist.

If this reproduces a familiar pain that occurs during or after climbing and has persisted for more than two weeks, you should consider seeking out professional advice.

 Test # 4

Test # 4 With your right elbow bent 90 degrees, grasp your right wrist with your left hand.

Keeping your elbow glued to your waist, push your forearm outward to the right, resisting with your opposite hand.  Do this with a maximum effort.

  • Does it feel weak or painful?

While this is not a perfect test, it is a quick look at your posterior rotator cuff muscles. The importance of keeping these muscles strong should never be underestimated.

Almost every shoulder problem is helped by strengthening your external rotators!

The Bottom Line

Whether it’s your shoulder or any other body part that’s giving you grief, the best use of your exercise time is to:

  1. Strengthen what’s weak 
  2. Stretch what’s tight

It really is that simple.

We tend to want to do what we are good at and avoid those things we are not good at.

But it’s working on our weaknesses that makes us well-rounded athletes and keeps us injury free.  Oftentimes, just adding a 10 minute routine to the beginning or end of your climbing can keep you injury free – through the decades…




Schedule your 1st appointment with Caroline during the month of June
and receive a special 20% OFF discount! 



ABOUT – Caroline Bourcier, MSPT is the owner of Thrive Physical Therapy in Mill Valley, CA.  She has over 25 years experience in the fitness and physical therapy fields and is a former competitive and life-long athlete.

She is passionate about all activities in the outdoors, helping athletes stay young and injury free, and raising money and awareness for the Breast Cancer Fund.

She can be reached at (415) 497-6557 or if you have any questions about aches and pains that are slowing you down.