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Rock Climbing Exercises

Updated on February 23, 2013

We’ve all seen that shirtless guy with the washboard abs—every gym has at least one or two. But don’t be tempted to go pump a lot of weights so that you can go and climb without your shirt. Chances are these guys have earned the right to take their shirt off by working hard on the wall, with only some supplemental lifting of iron. Plus, the important thing is to impress with your climbing ability, not just by flexing your muscles as you fall.

The most important exercise for rock climbers is climbing—why spend too much time doing anything else?

  • Rock climbing works the entire body, and requires muscles often not targeted by a traditional gym workout.
  • Simply building impressive looking muscles in the pecs or thighs will be detrimental to your climbing; muscle is heavier than fat and climbing is much easier when you’re at your lightest.
  • Climbing requires a high strength to weight ratio.

Keep in mind that if you are trying to improve muscle, do not climb if you are still sore from a previous workout. Your body needs time to recover and regenerate muscle fibers that were torn during the workout.

Some activities compliment climbing, such as

  • running-- running will develop your cardiovascular system, making it able to deliver oxygen to your muscles more efficiently,
  • and yoga-- yoga will build core strength, improve balance, flexibility, and focus.

However, if you are stuck at a plateau in your climbing, don’t despair. I’ve compiled some exercises that target most climber’s weakest areas and listed them below.


Hand and Forearm Strength

There are not very many activities in which you must support your entire weight on your hands for extended amounts of time, so it makes sense that hand or forearm strength are usually a climber’s weakest link. All the muscles that control the tendons in your hands are actually located in your forearms, so when we talk about ways to improve your hand or grip strength, we really mean forearm strength.

Rock Climbing Strength Exercises for Grip

It’s fairly easy to improve your grip—simply keep a stress ball and a band in the car, in the living room, or work place. If you have a chance to multitask while you are driving or watching TV, you can use the stress ball and the band to exercise your hands. The purpose of the stress ball may be obvious—you squeeze it repeatedly to improve your grip.

But the band is just as important. The band goes around the outside of your fingers (thumb included) to provide resistance as you stretch your hand open with fingers wide apart. This way, you work both sets of muscles in order to prevent the overdevelopment of the squeezing muscles, which can lead to injury.

Always work both hands evenly.

Using the Hang Board

Most outdoor gear stores will have a couple types of hang boards to choose from. Some are installed easily above the door frame and some hang from a solid structure.

To improve forearm strength with a hang board, you must

  • hang from your fingers with straight arms UNTIL COMPLETE MUSCLE FAILURE. That means that you don’t let go, even if you feel that you can’t hang on for another nanosecond. Keep holding on until you fall (for this reason it’s a good idea to have a mat or some couch cushions below you…).
  • Shake out and repeat three more times.
  • Practice both with and open grip and a crimp, but never place your thumb over your forefingers (a.k.a closed crimp) in these training situations. It leaves you prone to injury and it won’t improve the strength of your fingers.

You can also employ the hang board for pull-up variations.

Rock Climbing Exercise Equipment; Hang Boards


Campusing focuses on forearm and grip strength and refers to climbing a route with no feet, or doing a series of exercises on a campus board.

Indoor Rock Climbing Exercises

Are you a true outdoor sport or trad climber stuck in the gym for the winter or a rainy stretch? Well don’t skip a beat—make the most of your time in the gym with these simple climbing exercises. Improve your strength and technique.

The Benefits of Traversing

A very effective exercise for rock climbing is to traverse across a flat or overhanging wall.

  • Set a goal for how long you want to stay on the wall-- start with around ten minutes and add a few minutes each time.

Traversing for long periods of time allows you to practice all aspects of actual climbing (because you are climbing) while building up your endurance. If you are feeling strong, choose harder holds and more difficult moves. If you are feeling spent, use jugs and take a moment to shake out before continuing. The important thing is to stay on the wall.

Traverse With Pasted Feet

The goal here is NOT to campus, so find a flat wall with a multitude of jugs. Traverse across the wall using only friction for your feet. You will need to push into the wall with your toes and concentrate on balance and control. Where will your feet need to be in order to stay balanced and reach to the next hold?

Rock Climbing Weight Training

Trad climbers are used to carrying the extra weight of a gear rack, but you may get some funny looks if you are leading on a bolted gym route with a set of nuts and Helium Friends clipped into your harness! To make up for the weight you can wear a weighted vest while climbing sport routes in the gym.

Even if you aren’t ballsy enough to lead trad, if you are an advanced climber you can still use a weighted vest to build muscle and endurance.

  • Most people suggest a basketball weight vest for climbing because it allows for a full range of movement, but even still, the extra weight will change your center of gravity.
  • Make sure you increase the weight slowly and incrementally.
  • If you have mastered the hang board, try hanging with the weight vest.

If you don’t like the weight vest, you could try a weighted belt or ankle weights. The ankle weights will really get your abs working!

Climb With Your Eyes Closed

Climbing with your eyes closed can help you better read routes, trust your feet, and improve focus and body awareness.

  1. Try this first on an easy boulder problem with which you are familiar.
  2. Ask a friend to watch you climb the route.
  3. Then ask him or her to watch you as you climb with your eyes closed, and to point you back in the right direction when you go off course.
  4. When you finish, open your eyes, re-orient yourself, and jump down.

When this becomes easy, try climbing with your eyes closed on harder problems, and problems with which you are not as familiar.

Great Video with More Creative Climbing Drills

Works Referenced


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    • sgiguere profile image

      Stephanie Giguere 5 years ago from Marlborough MA

      Good question! Women aren't better climbers than men-- we just climb differently. Often out of necessity women learn technique more quickly than men, because we don't have the sheer upper body strength that most men do. That doesn't mean that men never learn to use their legs and conserve energy. They have to in order to be good and competitive.

      There are specific men's and women's divisions in climbing competions, and in roped competitions, they always have separate routes. I have heard two theories to this: that the women's routes focus more on balance than strength, and that women's routes are usually just easier than mens. I'm not sure how I feel about the latter comment. I don't climb at that level so I can't test it out for myself!

    • eHealer profile image

      Deborah 5 years ago from Las Vegas

      Hey Siguierge, I heard that women were better rock climbers because they used their leg more and conserved energy. Not that you don't have to use your arms, of course you do, but is that true?