Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training for Rock Climbing
Rock climbing has a reputation of being this crazy and dangerous sport that draws adrenaline junkies and masochists like moths to a flame. But, do you know how to strength train for rock climbing? [if you are having pain while rock climbing or have an injury, read our complete guide here].
Did you know that the first guy to climb half-dome in Yosemite used sap on his bare feet for friction and wooden sticks drilled into the wall to hold himself up? Think about that next time you find yourself at the top of a route wondering if your anchor that’s made of two 25kn stainless steel bolts will hold.
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With the help of modern day engineering, climbers have greatly increased the safety and accessibility of rock climbing, both indoors and out. Alas, the era of homemade rope and monkey’s fist trad gear has passed!
The time of standardized and rigorously tested climbing gear is upon us. This has opened the sport up to an increasingly immense number of serious athletes that want a great workout without the danger of sketchy gear. As a result, more athletes are pushing the boundaries of what climbers previously thought was impossible.
To make your life easier as a climber, whether you’re new to the sport or are a seasoned athlete, I have compiled my favorite training tips formed through years of experience both competing, researching, and coaching the sport.
This seems counterintuitive and crazy. Why on earth would you practice climbing up a wall by climbing down it? Isn’t downclimbing reserved for scared newbies and people who don’t trust their spouse to belay them? (talk about trust issues!). No and no.
Downclimbing is part of old school rock climbing. This is when you essentially free-soloed up a route then back down. You downclimb when you didn’t want to trust some hemp rope and a hip-belayer to catch you even though you had gear on.
Downclimbing is great for many reasons:
Endurance: To downclimb a route, you must climb it first. That means before you even start to downclimb, you are already at least a little bit tired.
Priming your muscles during the climb up is important because downclimbing forces your body to perform the “negative” movement involved in climbing. These “negative” movements are the controlled eccentric loading of your arms and legs as you lower yourself down.
Downclimbing actually is more strenuous on the muscle fibers than concentric motions, so take it easy at first!
Technique: If you haven’t figured this out yet, rock climbing requires a ridiculous amount of technique.
Downclimbing is to climbing as backstroke is to freestyle. There are many general principles you can take from one and apply to the other. It teaches you the importance of center of mass, accurate foot placements, and looking ahead (or below) for complex sequences.
Confidence: Whether you’re a boulderer, sport climber, trad climber, or top-rope tough guy, the day will come when something goes wrong and you’re put in an uncomfortable situation while on the wall.
Your rope could get snagged, you may drop your gear, your belayer could get hit with a fallen rock, or you might just boulder way too high by accident. Always have a plan so you aren’t completely freaking out on the wall.
Downclimbing requires different techniques that every solid rock climber needs to know. Do yourself a favor and practice this skill while you have complete control over your environment. So when s*#& hits the fan, you have the confidence and experience to get yourself out safe.
I’m not talking about that double shot of whiskey you pounded right before that tinder date in hopes of making it any less awkward. I’m talking about rapid fire climbing the same route – or two routes next to each other – back to back without rest.
Not only will doubles chisel your forearms and turn them into those of a Greek god’s (or goddess’s), but it‘s a great time saver too!
You get a greater pump on and you get adequate rest while belaying two routes in a row for your partner. You can do the same route back to back or two routes that are next to each other.
Sport Climbing “Shuttle Runs”
Have you ever played basketball or have been in any gym class where you were forced into a modern-day form of torture known as “Suicide Runs?”
Sport climbing shuttle runs are their vertical counterpart.
It is the mother of all endurance exercises for climbers. Choose an easy route (5.6-5.9). Climb up to the first bolt, clip it, then downclimb to the starting holds without touching the ground. Immediately climb up to the second bolt, clip it, then return to the starting hold. Repeat this for every bolt on the route without touching the ground.
You can do this on top rope if you choose 4 or 5 points on the route to act as your checkpoints. Throw one of these into your program on endurance days and watch your endurance improve dramatically.
Don’t Ignore The Core
Core training is essential in strength training for rock climbing. Not only will it strengthen your abs, but it could also help increase your endurance.
Here are some exercises you may follow:
Hanging Pike-Ups: Hopefully, after looking at this exercise, you can see why they are important for climbers to master.
Imagine hanging from an overhung wall and you lose your feet. Hanging pike-ups make it much easier to get your feet back up there!
Remember: ALWAYS engage your shoulders when hanging from a climbing hold or a bar! This will build a strong foundation of muscle for your shoulders and reduce the chance of a shoulder impingement.
Begin by hanging on a bar with your shoulders engaged. You shouldn’t look like you are “shrugging”. Squeeze your abs and raise your legs straight up towards your face. If you have any history of low back-pain or disc herniation, I suggest only bringing your feet up parallel to the floor at first (as shown below). Repeat for five sets of 10.
Hanging Hold Touches: These are a great way to build dynamic core strength.
Below, I show how to perform these in a gym setting with a partner and a foam roller. You can also do this on an overhung bouldering wall by tapping each foot on a hold instead!
Hanging from the bar with your shoulders engaged, have your partner hold up a foam roller in different locations in front of you while you tap the end of it with each foot. A good pattern for your partner to move the foam roller is either in clockwise or counterclockwise circles. Your partner can also follow a “Z” pattern. Either way, make sure you evenly work both sides of your body.
Push-Ups: In a sport that involves pulling motions over and over, it’s important to work the antagonist muscles to reduce the chance of injury caused by imbalance and instability.
Start in a straight-arm plank position with your abs and glutes squeezed tight. Make sure your hands are right below your shoulder and slightly wider.
Lower your chest toward the ground WITHOUT ARCHING YOUR BACK INWARDS!!!! This is perhaps the most common mistake I witness in athletes –even strong ones. Repeatedly arching your back towards your belly button puts a tremendous amount of stress on your intervertebral discs. Force yourself to keep your abs braced and lower back rounded slightly out.
Pull-Ups: This one should be somewhat obvious. Pull-ups help you strengthen the muscles required to pull yourself up a wall, and can be done in countless ways. Wide, narrow, offset, single-arm, and towel pull-ups are all great variations to try on a pull-up bar.
Make sure to use a variety of methods to attack as many small muscle groups as possible. Additionally, you can try hopping on that hangboard to get pockets of varying depths involved.
Plank Knee-To-Elbow: If planks are becoming stale for you, try out this variation. It engages your obliques and builds isometric core strength and endurance.
Doing this from an elbow plank is the more difficult version, so I recommend that you start in a straight-arm plank as shown below. Your hands (or elbows) should be directly below your shoulders, your entire core should be squeezed, and your glutes should be tight.
Remember to keep your lower-back rounded slightly outwards, like you’re trying to push your bellybutton through your back. Now, bring your right knee to your left elbow and hold it without letting your feet touch the ground. Keep your hips low and try not to round your spine too far outwards. Hold this for 15-30 seconds then switch knees.
Weight Strength Training for Rock Climbing
Weight training can help build and strengthen your muscles, which you need for climbing. Try following these exercises and see what they can do to your performance.
Single Leg Heel Raises: This one is great if you plan to jump on some outdoor routes with long pitches.
Start with no additional weight at high reps. Balance with one foot on a raised platform (I like using a 35 lb plate) with just the balls of your feet on the surface and your heel hanging off. You may need a wall or rack next to you for support. Lower your heel towards the ground then raise it as high as you can into the air. Do this slowly for about 20 repetitions per set. When this becomes easy, add weight!
Remember, climbing long routes takes endurance, not brute strength, so don’t hold a ton of weight and bust out only after a couple of reps. Five sets of 20 is a good amount per session.
Shoulder Press: This is a great complementary exercise for pull-ups. Once again, we are looking to strengthen climbing’s antagonist muscles.
Grab a dumbbell for each hand and lift them so they’re in line with your shoulders. Make sure your palms are facing forward and your elbows are out wide. This is your starting point.
Keep your core braced as you extend your arms above your head until the dumbbells are directly above the shoulders and your arms are (almost) straight. Go back down to you starting position to finish the rep.
You can do these either standing or sitting. My preferred method is to sit on a stability ball and alternate one arm up at a time while the other stays at the shoulder.
Bulgarian Split Squat: Bulgarian split squats are amazing because they incorporate so much of your body into a single exercise.
Not only is it a hamstring workout, but it hits your quads and core as well! Your quads are what help you keep your feet on the wall on those tough overhung routes when you have to dig your toe into the holds.
Begin by placing a dumbbell on either shoulder and supporting them with your hands to keep them from falling. Alternatively, you can hold them at your sides. Place the top of one of your feet on a raised surface like a bench, then hop the other foot forward.
Bend your back knee to bring it closer to the ground as you keep your weight in your front foot’s heel. Lower yourself down until your front foot is about 90 degrees then return up. Do eight on one leg before switching to the other. Perform five sets of 8 on each leg.
Proprioception is how your body knows where it’s at. It’s how you can send your hand away from your body to catch a ball or grab a climbing hold with precision.
This is important in climbing because being precise with hand and foot placements saves energy. As we all know, our muscles have a finite amount of energy before it starts to shut down and get difficult to hold on to the wall.
Watch some of the beasts like Puccio or Sharma and see how accurate their placements are. By not being sloppy, they are saving their energy for when it really matters. This is what separates the beginners from the advanced climbers.
Blinking: Try this as you climb up or down a route. As you are climbing, look at your next foot hold. Before moving your foot to that hold, try closing your eyes all the way until the foot is on the new hold. Repeat this for every foot hold up a route. Next, try it with the hands.
A climber typically only looks at a hold for a split second before moving pass it or throwing a limb onto it. This training technique forces your body to pay attention to the location of the hold and how the muscles move to find it in space.
Foot Stabbing: Stand on the ground, about an arm’s length away from the climbing wall. Make sure there are plenty of low foot chips to use.
Slowly begin leaning forward until you get to your tipping point and feel like you’re falling over. Immediately stick a foot out to any of the foot chips on the wall to catch yourself. Pay attention to how close your foot was to landing right on top of the foot chip. You will be surprised by how difficult it is to consistently get your foot to the right position on the hold.
My father once said “If you don’t use your brain, you use your back.” That is a funny way of saying work smart not hard. To perform at a high level, you need to train for it.
Football players don’t just scrimmage all day for practice, they go through drills and strengthen specific skills that improve their overall gameplay. Rock climbing is not an exception!
Add these training tips to your workout program and become a more conscious athlete. Rock climbing is an incredibly challenging sport –both mentally and physically. These tools will help you become stronger, safer, and more confident climber.
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