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5 Rock Climbing Exercises for the Indoor Rock Gym

Updated on February 8, 2015

The best way to train for climbing is on the wall

I taught Rock Climbing classes at two local Rock Climbing gyms in North New Jersey for three years. The best way to train for climbing is by climbing! These climbing based exercises provide structure and motivation to keep on the wall and keep on climbing towards being a better, stronger climber.

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The five exercises are

In order of ease:

  • Traversing
  • Down-climbing
  • Laps
  • Straight-arm climbing
  • Campusing


Traversing is typically done as a warm-up and cool-down exercise in rock climbing classes. Traversing is climbing across the wall instead of up the wall. The general rule of thumb in rock climbing gyms is that your feet should not go higher on the wall than the highest start hold. This keeps your feet typically 4-5 feet off the ground at most. The goal of traversing is to give the climber a safe opportunity to warm-up the muscles and practice what may be vexing her. To benefit the most from traversing, follow a few simple guidelines.

Guidelines to get the most out of traversing

  • Your body must face the wall. Don't cheat by taking large, swinging steps across the wall.
  • Don't cross your feet or "step-through". This forces you to stay on the wall longer and make more moves, since you can't cover as much distance without crossing your feet.
  • Choose holds that challenge you. Working on pinches? Under-clings? Tiny footholds? Make a conscious effort to pick those types of holds as you see them across the wall.
  • Practice switching/matching feet. Take the opportunity to practice toe-on-toe matching and switching of feet. Traverse the entire wall left to right, where your right foot can claim new holds, but you can only put your left foot on the hold your right foot is currently on. Get good at switching feet before you need the skill.
  • Don't traverse the same way twice. Did you use that hold last week? Try something different this week!

In the end, the best advice is to treat traversing as an opportunity to improve your climbing muscle memory.

How many different ways could you traverse this gym?

By English: Lance Cpl. Rebecca A. Lamont [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By English: Lance Cpl. Rebecca A. Lamont [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source


Down climbing is as it sounds. Once you've made it to the top of the wall or route, climb down instead of jumping down or being lowered. Down climbing provides three core benefits to rock climbers, one obvious and two not-so-obvious.

Down climbing improves strength and endurance
This is the most obvious benefit. Down climbing a route means you're putting in twice the amount of effort per climb. Your body strength and grip strength must be engaged, on the wall, for twice as long as before. How can you train for a 100 ft climb, when you only have 50 ft walls at the gym? Down-climb each route. The endurance you build up will be invaluable later in your climbing career.

Down climbing uses different muscle sets and motions
The first non-obvious benefit of down climbing is that is expands your muscle memory and coordination skills. The body builds up a set of motions that it has practiced, much like a toolbox. Going up the wall requires one set of muscle motions and is one set of tools added to the toolbox. Going down the wall require a different set of muscle motions and adds a second set of tools to the toolbox. This enhanced toolbox will be invaluable as you progress as a climber and are faced with an increasing variety of difficult movements.

Down climbing forces mental route-mapping
At the gym, try climbing up a particular route, usually marked by colored tape, then try to climb back down on the same route. Did you find yourself struggling to find the holds you just used? Do you remember where they are and what hand or foot was on it? This mental route-mapping, or sequencing, is critical for difficult climbs where messing up your sequence can make the route much more difficult. However, it's hard to get new climbers to take the time to sequence easier routes, because they can often make it up on the fly and figure it out. Down climbing forces newer climbers to remember the route. It is more difficult to find the tape-marked holds when they are below you and you are down climbing after you are already tired.There just isn't as much room for error.

Downclimb or climb laps on rope for safe, effective training

CC BY-ND 2.0. Used Unaltered.
CC BY-ND 2.0. Used Unaltered. | Source


Naturally what follows down-climbing? Climbing back up! If you have a patient partner on top-rope this can be an extremely efficient way to train for longer climbs and build up endurance and strength. One up-climb and one down-climb is equal to one lap.

How do you train for a 100 ft route, if your rock climbing gym only has 25 ft walls? Do laps.

Doing laps has the same benefits as down climbing, but focuses on tiring you out. The goal for doing laps is to keep climbing until your technique suffers. Getting tired is not reason enough to stop, push forward until your technique begins to falter. Never push to the point that you risk injury. Incorporate on-the-wall rests into the climb. Shake out one hand, then shake out the other, then keep climbing. In climbing classes laps are often done at the end of the class, as a last training hurdle before training time ends.

Muscle will always tire before bone

CC BY 2.0. Used Unaltered.
CC BY 2.0. Used Unaltered. | Source

Straight-arm laps

Straight-arm laps are a variant of standard rock climbing laps that focuses on training body positioning technique. If, while doing laps the first part of your body to tire is your arms, then consider doing a few straight-arm laps. Straight-arm laps are as they sound, climb up and down the wall without bending your arms. Through body positioning and shoulder movements, you can ascend and descend the wall without bending your arms and pulling your body. Instead the source of your ascension is from pushing with your feet, and your arms serve mostly as stabilizers. Start on on an easier climb, 5.7 or below, and focus on climbing up and down without bending your arms. It will feel awkward at first, but it will become more natural in time. This is a continued benefit to your climbing ability, since hanging on bone (straight arms) is easier than hanging on muscle strength (bent arms). Bones don't tire out.

The first minute of the video below illustrates some benefits you can get from learning how to climb with straight arms.

Climbing with straight arms.

Video by Nicholas Llewellyn. Creative Commons.


Campusing is climbing up the wall without using your feet. This seems impossible to the beginner, but trust me, it is something you will be able to do! Many gyms provide "campus boards" or "hang boards" for climbers to train on. Some even provide rope ladders with wooden rungs that climbers use to train campusing. Campusing focuses on controlled, explosive motion and uses muscle strength to propel yourself forward.

The benefit to campus training, besides strength training, is the mental aspect of knowing that you have, many times in the past, made that explosive move and stuck it. Even if your local gym doesn't have any equipment specifically for campusing, all you need to do is find a set of very easy to grab holds. For a beginner, focus on explosively pulling yourself up on the holds, without reaching for anything. Try this once of twice every time you go climbing. After building up some strength and familiarity with the motion, try reaching up to another hold as you pul yourself up from the one you're on. Eventually you'll be able to scale that ladder without using your feet!

How do you train?

Leave a comment and let me know how you train to be a better climber! Have these exercises helped? Is there a training technique you used to climb harder routes? Share the knowledge, from one climber to another.

Thank you for reading, be safe, and climb on!


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