Your body is a machine. A finely-tuned burl-monster that crushes crimps into dust, alters the forces of gravity with every dyno, and mantels so hard the wall topples over. Or something like that, right? Like any machine, your body needs a proper warm-up before performing its mind-bending feats of strength. I mean, you can jam your foot on the accelerator straight after starting up your car, but your rig would go a lot faster a lot sooner if you let the engine warm-up a bit. It's science. Brought to you by my years of derby racing experience. Which never happened. I made it up. Never mind. Everyone has their own warm-up method (or lack thereof, which is no bueno), but a lot of common warm-up practices — like static stretching before any activity — might actually be hurting your performance. When you stretch idle, cold muscles, you create micro-tears in the muscle fiber that weaken the strength of that muscle. You may notice that you become a little more "flexible" after stretching, but it's only because you have accustomed your body to the pain of that particular stretch. If anything, stretching is best done as a warm-down activity, when you're done with strenuous activity, and your body will have the proper time to heal the micro-tears, and strengthen the muscle.
So to become warm and agile before your climbing sesh, dynamic stretching becomes the name of the game. Dynamic stretching is basically stretching performed while the targeted muscle is in use. By stretching while that muscle is engaged, you increase the blood flow to the area for a healthier, more natural stretch that is more geared toward the activity that you are about to perform.
Here's a little step-by-step, in sequential order, of some exercises to try next time you're warming up in the gym.
A lot of warming up is just convincing your blood to start going to the places where you need it. More blood = more oxygen and more heat, which in turn = mo' bettah. Your muscles become supercharged, and able to withstand harsher loads than they previously were. So you may look a little ridiculous (but hopefully everyone will be doing this after reading this article!), but start swinging your arms in wide arcs around your shoulder joint. Careful to not deck someone while you're doing this, your insurance company may not cover you for warm-up related b*$#% slaps. Take it slow, and don't force your shoulders into a range of motion they are not yet comfortable with. Do these for about 30 seconds to a minute each direction, or until you feel your muscles begin to heat up.
Traverse (or easy circuit climb)
If it's not too busy in the gym and you can find the space, try doing a brief 5-minute traverse, or begin climbing on one of the easier circuit routes. Intersperse using a bad hold every so often between grabbing jugs to prepare your fingers and tendons for activity. Make sure you're not just doing static, robot climbing. Swing around a bit, make some dynamic moves, and really get your shoulder and hips moving. Take your time, move with purpose, and pause and sit on good holds, to further loosen your shoulder joints.
Wrist and Finger Stretches
Make sure your fingers and wrists are warm before beginning to stretch them. Stretches like the one pictured below are common, but can actually weaken and tear your tendons. This video actually features some really great, more gradual stretches to get both your fingers and wrists warmed-up. Don't forget your thumb!
Start from the bottom, and work your way up
Finally, start on a grade that is very easy for you, and gradually work your way up on problems or routes of increasing difficulty until you reach your target grade. I usually like to do four routes as my warm-up and always like to finish on a route one number grade below what I will be projecting, and gauge how ready I am by how I am feeling on that particular route. If the crux of that route felt hard, then I run on another route at a similar grade until I feel in top form. Be careful to not get flash-pumped, however. There's no shame in bailing on a warm-up route because you're starting to get too pumped. Flash-pump is incredibly hard to fully recover from, and the only thing I'll send on a flash-pumped day is the drive to the gym. Which 8a won't even let me list for some reason ... it's the small victories, OK 8a? Jeez.
Make sure to maintain your warm-up throughout your climbing day. If you take an extended break and feel your body begin to cool down, do some arm swings, or some quick dynamic moves on the wall to get the blood flowing again.
While a proper warm-up can help avoid injury, it can't prevent it entirely. Practice caution while climbing both during and after your warm-up, and remember while my recommended warm-up below may be effective for some, it might not be exactly what works for you. So try it out, and let me know how it works for you!