Climb Stronger: Workout Routines for Strength, Power and Endurance
Climbing and bouldering are sports that will punish you if your body is not up to the challenge. If you find yourself 50 or 100 feet up on a rock wall without enough strength and endurance to continue, your options are limited.
Whether you are climbing Mt. Everest or an 18 foot bouldering wall at the local climbing gym, proper training is essential for optimum performance and maximum fun! Sure, climbing in itself is a workout, but it is important to develop a supplemental workout routine to increase muscular strength and endurance, and enhance cardiovascular conditioning.
For the best results, we have to consider the principle of specificity in choosing exercises and designing a workout program.
Power for Dynamic Moves
Holding on to and getting over a steep overhang requires focused strength, power, and muscular endurance. Coordination and flexibility are also key. To get stronger, a combination of heavy lifting, isometric contraction, and whole body movements is needed.
Keep in mind that heavy lifting doesn't have to mean heaving heavy barbells off the floor or over your head. You can be 'lifting heavy with bodyweight alone, and while some muscle building is inevitable, your goal here is not to build muscle.
For more power, we will perform lower repetitions with lighter resistance, but at maximum possible velocity. For muscular endurance, we will incorporate interval training with extended isometric holds.
Passive vs. Active Hang
Barbell Wrist Curls
Isometric Strength/Muscular Endurance
- Dead Hangs w/ Active Shoulder:
Active shoulder means to engage the shoulder blades by pulling them down and back. Start with bodyweight only and increase the resistance by wearing a vest or holding a dumbbell between your knees.
Progress the exercise by varying the grip from overhand to underhand, or using only one, two, or three fingers. You can also try an alternating grip, with one hand over and one under.
Eventually, the climber should be able to go from hanging to full range of motion pullups and back again using a combination of grips.
Advanced trainees can try using a doorframe edge or a fingerboard to better simulate the actual climbing experience.
Muscular Endurance (wrist flexors/extensors)
- Finger Rolls/Wrist curls:
To do finger rolling, sit on an end of a bench or stool and hold moderately heavy dumbbells (a weight you can control) at your sides. You can also sit on a bench and place your elbows on the end of the bench between your legs while holding a barbell, palms up (See the video at right.)
Extend the fingers as far as possible without dropping the bar, and then curl them back up. Use a heavy enough weight for 5-8 repetitions, holding the contraction for several seconds at the top for each repetition.
These should also be done as reverse forearm curls with the palm facing down to develop the brachioradialis and wrist extensor muscles.
Pull-ups are a time-honored and movement specific exercise for developing upper back strength. In any type of climbing, generating power from the upper back is important for assisting the legs and core muscles in dynamic movements. Do the exercise with a two to three second isometric hold at the top, then execute explosive pull-ups for 3-5 repetitions.
Always use perfect form and initiate the movement with the ‘lat’ muscles with your shoulders engaged. During power sets, never go to failure; stop the set if the form breaks down or the movement slows down.
- Bench Press/Push-ups:
Used for improving absolute strength and power, the bench press is an excellent upper body exercise. Do it powerlifting style and contract the lats as the bar is lowered to the chest. Use lower reps (3-5) and one can reap excellent strength gains without building excessive muscle mass.
Push-ups can be executed in the same manner as the bench press, but also in endless variations. When doing pushups, think in terms of 'pulling' your body to the ground (see video at right.)
Try the following as a circuit as a complete workout routine for the chest, shoulders, and triceps:
- Scorpion pushups
- Spider pushups
- One-leg pushups
- Hindu pushups
- Divebomber push-ups
You can also add plyometric clapping push-ups or 'quad hops' on your hands and knees. Both exercises help develop power and fast reflexes.
Dips: If you are only going to do one pushing exercise to supplement your climbing, dips are the one you should choose. This exercise simulates the vertical pushing climbers often find themselves doing with their bodyweight. Perform with dip bars, between two chairs, using bike racks or anything else you can find.
If bodyweight dips are easy for you, meaning you can perform 12-15 repetitions without too much effort, add weight to the exercise and do fewer repetitions to increase your strength.
What types of cardio are ideal for climbers? It is tempting to say 'anything,' but if you want to choose an activity as specific to climbing as can be, look for a Versa-Climber or the Jacob's Ladder.
The Versa-Climber is a superior piece of gym equipment if you can find it. However, if this is not available, try bodyweight crawling intervals or 'crawling' using a Lifeline Power Wheel. Bodyweight crawling includes:
- Bear Crawls
- Crab Crawls
- Tiger Crawls
In addition to climbing specific cardio and intervals for increasing anaerobic capacity (short term high energy,) a general form of cardiovascular exercise is always a good idea. Ideas include:
and of course, climbing!
Work the System
The upper body doesn't work without the support of the core and lower extremity muscles. Be sure to train both to maximize your potential. Try this short bodyweight routine, doing 20 seconds of each exercise, and resting 10 seconds between each. This is 1 round. Work up to 3-5 rounds, resting 2 minutes between each.
- Standing toe raises (on a curb or raised surface if you prefer.)
- Front, back and side lunges
- Jump Squats
- Split jumps
Continue by hanging from a pullup bar and doing:
- Hanging Leg Raises
- Hanging Knee Raises (Try to touch the knees to your chest each time.)
The hanging leg and knee raises are great for climbing because they mimic the tension and movement of hanging during climbing so well.
Other good core exercises for climbing include:
- Double leg raises, straight up and down and side to side.
- Reverse crunches, bring the knees up as far into the chest as possible.
Increase the difficulty of these exercises by wearing ankle weights, a weighted vest, or a weighted backpack. For floor exercises, try holding a dumbbell between the ankles as well.
There are numerous effective core exercises you can add or substitute to the above, just be sure to maintain a strong and balanced core, as it is vital to climbing strong.
Finish your routine with stretching. A climber must be flexible. If you know yoga or have access to classes, go! You will become more flexible, which will make climbing easier, and relieve stress.
The exercises and training equipment available to today's climber are impressive, but nothing can totally replace the actual experience. Climb as much as you can, and develop a climbing workout routine to enhance your abilities, not drain them. Include a regular heavy workout for low repetitions to maintain or gain strength, and emphasize increasing your power and endurance.
To recap, include the following exercises in your climbing workouts:
- A pulling exercise such as pull-ups, working up to using less than 5 fingers or hanging on a finger board. Use a combination of timed isometric holds and explosive movements.
- A pushing exercise which develops strength and explosive power. While dips are an ideal choice, bench pressing and plyometric pushups are also effective.
- Bodyweight intervals which include abdominal/core exercises and plyometric leg exercises; jump squats, reverse crunches and planks are good choices for these.
- A daily flexibility routine. Examples include yoga, pilates or the "relax into stretch" program from Pavel Tsatsouline.
Supplement your climbing days with the right routine and you will grow stronger and last longer on whatever wall you happen to be on!
For details on working various muscle groups, read through the following:
- How to Build Strong Back Muscles
- Great Workouts to Build Chest Muscles
- Best Home Workout for Building Pectoral Muscles
To find a good pullup bar for your home gym, read this hub:
Learn more about interval training here:
Read about important basic yoga poses here:
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