HAM Radio 101

Stretching and Cautions About Lifting for Ham Radio Antenna Season

As I’m writing at the end of March, antenna season is about to get underway in many parts of North America, including for the author. (Those of you in the southern regions have probably been working on antennas all winter!) While there are a lot of articles and books about safety and rigging gear for working on antennas and towers, there isn’t a lot about preparing the actual climber— you! That’s the focus of this article, to help you be ready.

Whether you are young or old, launching yourself off the couch or out of a desk chair and into a climbing harness is a great way to hurt yourself with muscle strains, back spasms, or a lot of soreness in general. It’s also a good idea to check your safety gear through the winter months so it can be replaced or repaired if needed. Getting prepared will save you unnecessary difficulties on and off a tower, and there’s no time like the present, so let’s get going.

Before Antenna Season

IMPORTANT—If you have any kind of chronic injury or weakness, get together with a physical therapist or personal trainer. Describe what you’ll be doing and ask them about an exercise and flexibility program for that kind of work. Occupational exercise for tower or construction work will work for hams on towers, too. Let your doctor know what you’ll be up to as well—no surprises, particularly if you are middle-aged or older!

Exercise is important throughout the year. The weekend before your first climb is a little late to start! If you expect to be climbing, moderate exercise throughout the year is just good practice. Emphasize exercises that work on your legs, back, and upper body.

  • Walking is always good exercise. It builds stamina and is especially good for your feet and legs that do the most work in climbing. While walking, wear your climbing footwear to keep it flexible and adapted to your feet. If anything pinches or rubs, get it fixed now.
  • Work on your legs by climbing stairs whenever you can. At the gym, use a stairstep machine. Supplement the stairs with lunges or squats. You won’t be able to do much tower work if your legs can’t lift you all the way up and hold you there.
  • Shoes and feet are your foundation while aloft. While I know several hams who like to wear lightweight shoes, most wear some kind of light work boot. Choose a tread that won’t slip off a rung. Steel-toed boots protect your feet against falling or slipping metal. A steel or fiberglass shank supports your feet against that narrow rung, too. The following cross section is one of many at heddels.com/2017/11/the-cut-down-all-the-shoe-cross-sections-we-could-find/ to give you an idea of what to wear. Note that the tread on this boot has a gap that will fit around a round or angle rung.
  • Your back will be bending and twisting while you’re at the top of a tower, so make sure your exercise program includes back health. This is a particularly good opportunity to involve a therapist or trainer in selecting torsion and bending exercises.
  • Standing may not seem like exercise, but it is. Spend some time in a standing position to find out if your feet and ankles are ready for tower work where you may be standing on a tower rung for hours.
  • Hand strength is necessary during the climb and while working on the antenna system. Use a pair of squeezable hand grips to work on both the muscles and toughen the skin on your palms to avoid blisters.

Head and Neck

You’ll be tipping your head back more than usual while looking up (and down) the tower or tree. As we age, the blood vessels in our neck and skull can become less tolerant of being compressed as our head moves around. Looking up to clean gutters, work with holiday lighting, get on the roof…or doing antenna work are common sources of visits to the ER. We look up, compress blood vessels, reduce blood flow to the brain, and pass out! The resulting fall can have serious consequences.

Before setting foot on a ladder or tower, put on your climbing gear and hard-hat, then stand on a forgiving surface like grass and move your head all around, especially tipped back as far as it will go, then side to side and tipped forward. Repeat several times. If you feel dizzy or weak at any point, don’t climb and get yourself checked out.

On Climbing Day

OK, it’s game time, so make sure you are ready, just like an athlete before a game. Reserve some prep time for stretching and flexing your muscles and joints. Maybe have your whole ground crew participate.

  • Legs and Feet—Hamstring muscles will do most of the work as you climb, so stretch them well. Work your ankles and calves, too.
  • Back—Bend forward and backward, remembering that you will be essentially in one position while working at the top of a tower. Make sure your stretches include twisting and bending side-to-side as well.
  • Upper Body—Trying to maneuver an unwieldy Yagi, long vertical array or mast will put a heavy strain on your upper body. Work your shoulders and arms to get loose.
  • Head and Neck—Repeat the head rotation and tipping exercises mentioned above to be sure you won’t experience difficulties aloft.

If you aren’t familiar with stretching programs, here is a good set of simple exercises from the Mayo Clinic that everyone on your crew can do in a few minutes.

Finally, in case of trouble, be sure everyone in the crew knows to call 911 and have a plan to respond. If there is a climber in your crew, they should have their climbing harness on while you’re on the tower.  Use your phone or handheld ham or FRS/GMRS radios for communication with those on the ground.

Don’t forget the sunscreen and visit the bathroom before heading up the tower!

During the Climb

  • Take It Slow—It’s not a race! That first climb of the season can be a challenge until you get your “tower legs.” Climb a couple of tower sections, rest, and repeat. Pay attention to your body if it is trying to tell you something is wrong. Your hands or arms might cramp up on a first climb. Stay attached to the tower with a lanyard at all times.
  • Stay Balanced—Don’t climb with heavy tools or gear clipped to one side of your harness. Try to balance the load between both legs and arms so one or the other doesn’t get overly tired. An unbalanced load also stresses your back.

Lifting and Working Aloft

  • Use Pulleys for Lifting—Once you’re at the work position, attach a work pulley and rope to the tower. Use the pulley instead of the “Armstrong” method of lifting everything by hand, which will wear you out quickly. Mount the pulley above your head so you don’t have to lift anything into final position. Make it easy to clip a tool bucket or other materials to the tower without having to lift or hold them in position.
  • Avoid “Lift-And-Twist”—Trying to lift a heavy load while turning causes a lot of back injuries. If you can, rely on the ground crew to pull the lifting ropes so that all you have to do is guide the load into position. Using a block pulley at the bottom of the tower will keep the lift rope against the tower face and out of the way.
  • Secure the Workpiece—Have a plan about what will happen when the antenna or other materials get to the top of the tower. Use slings and carabiners to position and stabilize a heavy load so you can work on it without having to support it at the same time—the aggravating “three hands” situation.
  • Stay Hydrated—You’ll go through a lot of water doing all that work in the wind and sun. Take a bit of a sports drink every 30 minutes or so to replenish water and electrolytes.
  • Avoid Cramps—Along with dehydration, cramps can also happen because you will be climbing and working with your hands and arms overhead or above your heart. Take time every so often to “shake down” your arms and hands to keep blood flowing. Loading a muscle without relaxing it can also lead to cramps, so keep your legs moving around with a shake or two as well.

Heading Down

  • Remember, You’re Tired—After a long work session aloft, it can seem like a trivial thing to climb back down, but you’ve expended a lot of energy. Your body has gotten used to standing on the tower. Start by flexing and getting your muscles ready to go the “other way,” particularly your legs that you’ve been standing on without a break for quite a while! Work slowly and carefully, climb down slowly, and don’t let fatigue overcome good judgement. Accidents happen more frequently when tired.
  • Slip Safety—Lowering tools and materials can be just as dangerous as lifting them. They can “get away” from you, leading to rope burns or worse. Take it slow and use friction to brake a rope so that descent doesn’t depend on raw muscle strength to control the speed. Remember, you’re tired!

Once down you will be tired, but you were careful and took your time, so it’s time for a break. Have someone help you out of that harness that seems heavier than when you started! After all the gear is stowed away and you’re relaxing, consider taking a couple of ibuprofen or other pain relievers to help reduce swelling and soreness, too. Welcome back to Earth! 

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