Climbing is a sport full of diversity of muscle use, critical thinking, and experience. Whether you are just starting, an avid gym climber, or you enjoy weekend adventure outside, you may be looking for ways to improve your climbing.
Finding workouts that not only strengthen critical muscles to push past grades is essential. Overuse is a common occurrence, especially amongst climbers just starting in the sport. We are going to take a look at a few workouts that will build up the necessary strength to improve your climbing but will prevent injury as well.
Personalize Your Climbing Specific Exercise Plan
One of the best ways to improve your climbing is to climb more. Now, this should be done with some caution. If you are a beginner that is lacking in fitness overall, you will benefit most from integrating a workout routine that is not climbing based. Sticking to a base program of strength training, stretching, and cardio/aerobic exercise is the best way to prevent injury as you prepare your body for more climbing when it is ready.
A common misconception is that to be a better climber, you need to be stronger. That is not true at all. Climbing is a combination of strength and technique. Your overall strength and flexibility will only get you so far as you need to have the appropriate technique and mental stamina to push you further.
Jumping straight into hard physical training is a sure-fire way to get an injury. You have to give your tendons time to catch up to your muscles. You may be physically strong on a muscular level, but your tendons take much longer to build proper strength. If you already have a good base of strength in climbing-specific muscle groups and have built up connective tissues over time, then you will be ready to start a workout regime that is climbing-specific.
Once you’ve begun to move past a base-level of fitness, you should then start to look at your climbing goals. Decide for yourself how much time you can devote each week to training and climbing. After that, think about the reasons behind wanting to improve your climbing ability. Are you trying to move from gym climbing to outdoor climbing? Are you planning a trip to a certain climbing destination? Will you be bouldering, trad climbing, sport climbing, alpine, etc.? These are a few questions that can help you determine the type of workouts you should focus on. For example, a boulderer will work more on power, while a multi-pitch crack climber may want to focus on technique and endurance.
Workouts to do While Climbing
The workout options listed below are most effective when you can stick to a routine and follow it. They can be completed in a climbing gym or outdoors, but they are most often done in a gym. Throw in some Mantas True Wireless Earbuds and get to it.
It doesn’t matter the type of workout you are doing, spend a few minutes getting warmed up. Warm-ups become increasingly effective in preventing injury as you climb higher grades or pursue harder workouts.
Some activities to include in your climbing warm-up include:
- 10 minutes of cardio to get the blood circulating. Biking, jump rope, jumping jacks, jogging, etc.
- Choose dynamic stretching with plenty of rotational movement. Head rolls, windmills, walking lunges, side twists, shoulder, and hip circles, etc.
- Pyramid Climbing. Starting with a few climbs below your grade limit and build your way up to that. For example, if you’re pushing 5.11 at your highest climbing grade, start with 5.9 or lower. Climb two of those routes, then move onto a low grade 10, then onto a higher grade 10. The key is to increase the difficulty without struggling. You shouldn’t be getting pumped or falling off of any of these routes. This progression will give your climbing-specific muscles a warm-up without making them tired.
Pushing your boundaries of endurance in climbing is among the best ways to improve your technique as well. As you begin to get tired while climbing, you should start to depend on your technique versus your physical strength. Do this by choosing a route of moderate difficulty to you and staying on the wall for specific periods (no hanging or one hand rests either). There should be a few technical movements on the route.
You can choose the time period based on your current ability level. For some climbers, this may only be 10 minutes. Other climbers may push 30-minute stints. The goal here is not to do as many repetitions as possible, but to keep moving and be on the wall the entire time. Slow, precise movements and placements of hands/feet will help you hone in on technique. This focus on placement can be amplified by combining downclimbing into this time.
You can do this on the top rope, auto-belay, or traverse a bouldering wall. Be sure that you are doing these exercises within the restrictions of your gym rules and are respectful of other climbers around you. It is not recommended to do this during peak gym hours.
As you progress in this endurance exercise, you should begin to notice that your focus on technique becomes natural, your body movement should flow more easily, and your body weight will be over your feet more often.
Power workouts can easily be done while bouldering. This is great because if you don’t have a rope partner one day, you can focus on a power movement exercise. These types of exercises will be short bursts of activity at your climbing limit, not above. Pushing power moves above your threshold over and over is an excellent way to get hurt.
Usually, a 10-foot boulder problem will suffice here. You will want problems that vary in style. So, look for a problem or multiple problems with variations in movements like big reaches, small crimps, overhanging movements, pinches, etc. You don’t want to be making the same power move over and over in this workout. The more variation in your movement gives you more diversity in muscles worked.
Also, keep in mind that you will need more recovery time in between sets here than during endurance. You should also give yourself more recovery time between workouts. Limit power specific workouts to once or twice a week.
A combination workout of power and endurance will come with time and as you progress in your climbing. This can be done by climbing challenging sport routes back to back or linking boulder problems at your limit. While this stage of training will take time to get to, it is easy to plateau here. It most closely simulates redpointing or an onsite on real rock. Don’t be afraid to take breaks from this workout and focus on just one or the other. Too much focus here can lead to injury.
Just as you warm-up before your workout, cool down is essential as well. Most cooldowns will help to lower your heart rate and give your muscles time to stretch. Many warm-up exercises can be used to cool down as well.
Doing exercises outside of the act of climbing is often overlooked. However, it is the key to staving off injury and keeping overall health in check. Cross-training for climbing will help you isolate muscles that oppose the ones your use often while climbing. It will also improve your flexibility and endurance.
Some great cross-training exercises include:
- Swimming, running, biking, basically any cardio
- Push-Ups (of all varieties)
- Core exercises like planks, Russian twists, leg raises, etc
- Wrist Curls
- Thereaband Exercises
This is not an all-inclusive list. The main take away from these examples is that you should focus on variation and antagonistic exercises. Antagonistic exercises are the ones that focus on muscles opposite of those used when climbing to prevent injury and to correct and muscular imbalances. Primary areas to focus on include your shoulders, fingers, and knees as these get used intensely when climbing.
Finger strength workouts are just as important. However, we did not cover these here as this article is best for beginners and intermediate climbers. As you become more advanced and your tendons are stronger, you can start to isolate exercises to your fingers.