High Performance Climbing

Core Training for Climbers

Let's get this straight - "core" does not mean abs. The core consists of all the muscles between the top of your thighs and your shoulders. These muscles are used for a variety of jobs, from breathing to helping you sit upright, to linking the muscles of the arms and legs in the "kinetic chain." This connection is what we're concerned with training. The core is critical to climbing not so much in initiating movement, but in preventing it. So out go the crunches, forever, and in come 21st century core exercises.

Most climbers who do exercises like crunches do them to get rid of the fat on top of the belly muscles. At our gym, in fact, we often get new members coming through the door complaining of a “weak core” when what they really have is fat on top of a perfectly strong set of muscles. If getting rid of the fat is the goal, there are better ways than crunches. A study from the University of Virginia showed that you would need to do 250,000 crunches to lose one pound of fat.  That’d be about 700 crunches every day for a whole year. Compare that to a well-designed fat-loss plan, which usually results in a steady loss of one to three pounds per week, and you can see why crunches are a bad idea.

A second common reason people do crunches is to “strengthen the lower back.” In fact, I’ve heard of more than one doctor prescribing just this movement for low back pain. Stuart McGill, author of Low Back Disorders, Second Edition and Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance is a world-renowned expert in back health. He explains that the flexing movement done in the crunch isn’t how we normally use the abdominals. These muscles are used to prevent or slow movement in the torso, creating stability for the limbs. In fact, his research shows that the crunch’s isolated trunk flexion actually damages the discs of the lumbar spine. Needless to say, I don’t recommend my athletes visit crunch-prescribing doctors.

This is not to say that the core — lumbar spine, muscles of the abdominal wall, quadratus lumborium, and the back extensors — should go untrained, it’s just that it needs to be trained correctly and for the right reasons. It’s great to look good and to perform well on the rock, but the number one goal of training should be injury reduction.

Rock climbers need to be concerned with four major categories of movement to train the core effectively for our sport. They are:

  • Anti-Rotation - Preventing the torso from rotating under load.
  • Stability - Plank-type, static hold exercises.
  • Dynamic Stability - Movement of one limb or a pair of limbs while holding a static position.
  • Torso / Hip Flexion  - Movement at the hip or shoulders with the upper limbs fixed.

We frequently "pepper" a climbing workout with these movements, putting a set or two in between boulder problems. If you're interested in gaining strength in the core, allowing lots of rest between the movements is critical. Building the ability to resist fatigue in the abs is not an indicator of increased strength. If core endurance is a weakness, like when your hips start to sag away from the wall as you work up a steep route, pairing the exercises together into circuits might help. Stay away from high-rep training, but instead keep the loads high and do more circuits.

A good core endurance set might look like this:

5 rounds with 2 minutes' rest between rounds.:

60 sec elbow plank or side plank

30 sec + 30 sec anti-rotation hold with band or cable

60 sec plank / pull combo, switching hands every 10 reps

10 reps of knees-to-elbows

As always, I think most climbers interested in training are over-strong and under-skilled. A careful assessment is critical before you decide that your core is in need of work. Just because you've enjoyed a few too many post-climb beers does not mean you need core work. Fat loss is all about nutrition and improving your metabolism.

I've got a couple of nutrition articles in the works that I hope to post in the next couple of weeks. Until then, make sure you're doing your core work for the right reasons.