Alex Bridgewater Toes to Bars, Photo by Mei Ratz

by Charlie Manganiello SFG II

Does your butt sag and feet pop off on cave problems? Ever try a dyno or thrutch for some reachy move and struggle because you can’t get your foot high enough on the hold you need? How about those times you go to make the big move and you end up short because you lack the strength in your legs to get you there?

Yeah, me too!

Let’s first talk about what doesn’€™t help:

Pull-ups until your elbows burn.

Campusing up some jug line in the cave your bros are psyched on.

More pull-ups.

Campus board workout, but only after a hard two hour mega session on your projects.

Even more pull-ups.

There is nothing wrong with pull-ups and campus board sessions when applied appropriately, but more than likely you are already really good at pulling. If I was a bettin’€™ man, I would guess the real weak link is your hip mobility, as well as the strength of your trunk (AKA The Core). When I say trunk I mean the whole midsection, front and back. This includes your hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and abs. Most climbers probably have a decent six pack to show off due to a few sets of situps and crunches, but neglect the backside. If you don’t strengthen the posterior chain (hamstring, glutes, lower back) it’s like having a foundation poured for a house where the front half is concrete and the back half is mud. The mud can hold, but when the force gets strong (i.e. cave climbing or balancy moves where you need to keep your hips into the wall) the house will lean or collapse, just like when your butt sags and your feet pop.        

Let’s do a quick drill I do with young climbers. Take your right hand and squeeze your left bicep. Now take your right hand and squeeze your right quad and hamstring. Which muscle group is bigger? Which is stronger? If your answer is biceps you’re in trouble! Yes, this seems obvious, but often climbers forget your arms primarily keep you on the wall, while your legs are driving you UP the wall.

One more drill. Besides being too pumped or lacking finger strength where, in our body, do we fail climbing? Correct! We lose tension in the kinetic chain through our trunk. Our hips collapse, the butt gets sleepy, and we fall off the climb.  

If we strengthen the hips and trunk we will be much more explosive in our movement and keep the tension we need so we don’t do the dreaded butt sag on our project. Or even worse, the dance you do with the rock when you try to high-step and it looks like all you’re doing is kicking the wall for no apparent reason. “If I could just…get…my…foot…a little higher…sigh…fall.”

I know what you’re thinking. “€œCharlie, I train my core all the time, this is old news.”€ My guess is you’re doing it wrong or choosing poor exercises to accomplish your goal. Let’s take a look at some exercises that will get the job done that you probably haven’t been doing.    

The set-up will be three lifts and three mobility exercises. You’ll do this for 4 weeks 2 times a week. Remember we are just strengthening a weak link, not training to be the next big power lifter. Climbing is very sport specific. We only need to be “€œstrong enough,”€ so keep the weight at 75-80% of your max. If you don’t know your max there will be some trial and error involved. I recommend starting light and then once you learn the lift you can start increasing the load. It’s very important to find the right load for you. If you go too light you won’t see any gains and if you go too heavy you’ll end up injured.

Kettlebell Front Squat

People always ask me what ab exercises they should be doing. One of my answers is the front squat. This exercise has a lot of bang for your buck. Not only is it a knee dominant (quads) movement pattern, it also lights up your trunk as you hold the weight and stay tight so you don’t collapse forward. Your feet must stay planted on the floor at all times. Your heels must not lift at anytime during the lift. You’ll squat down so you’re just past 90 degrees and then explode back up. Remember to lock out completely at the top. If you find yourself collapsing forward at the hips, your hip flexors are tight. Work on making them more mobile before loading up the front squat.  

Hip Flexor Stretch

Keep your entire body square and moving as one unit. Remember to fire the glute (The side with the knee on the floor) then relax. Repeat.    

Kettlebell Swing

We call this the island workout, just like “€œwhat would your island CD be?”€ This is the island workout because if there was only one workout I had to do for the rest of my life, it would be this. The kettlebell swing is a hip hinge (hamstring) movement. This “ballistic” loads the hamstrings momentarily at the bottom of the swing, then as you explode through your hips you’ll make the kettlebell float momentarily at chest level before you load the hamstrings again. In addition, if done correctly, your trunk, lats, and grip get worked in the swing.   

Remember this is NOT a squat. Hips are above the knees and shoulders above hips. Your feet will remain planted on the floor at all times. Always maintain a neutral spine. The knees track the toes and think vertical shins. When loading the hamstrings the kettlebell handle passes above the knees and as close to your crotch as possible, this will prevent the squat movement. You will crush the handle with your grip, and think about breaking the handle in half by externally rotating your humerus’€™. At the lock-out think of being in a vertical plank. For more on the swing, check out this great article.

Frog Stretch  

It’s best to do this on a mat to protect the knees. Hold each position for a several seconds and move back in forth.

Seated Straight Leg Raises

The traditional sit-up is fairly easy for climbers, and this is why they don’t see any gains from their 100 sit-up workout routine every morning. It’s because the hip flexors are being over-engaged each time they sit-up, allowing the abs to sleep on the job. The seated straight leg raise keeps the hip flexors from engaging and your 100 sit-up burner turns into 5 reps.  If you’re like me, this will feel pretty hard, mostly due to tight hamstrings. Always keep your legs straight and never compromise your spine, keep it neutral. You’ll want to make your back look like the letter “€œC”€ to get your legs high, but fight the urge. You’ll sit back away from the rack to perform this lift. Remember to tighten the glutes, your abs, and quads each lift. Think slow controlled movement. Don’t forget to stretch out those hamstrings!    

Pink Panther Drill

Lift your knee as high as you can and hold it there for a second. Now place both hands on your knee and press down hard and resist by pressing up with your knee. After a few seconds, when you have built up good tension, let your hands slip away and your knee will raise higher!

The Program

3x

Front Squat – 5

Hip flexor stretch – 3 reps on each leg

3x

Kettlebell Swing – 10

60 seconds frog stretch

3x

Seated Straight Leg Raises – 5

Pink panther – 3 reps on each leg

You can feel free to do this as a stand alone workout or mesh it with an existing one. You can also mix this up with one of your favorite hangboard workouts. Remember start off easy and increase the load gradually. At the end of each workout you shouldn’t feel worked or tired. Maybe you broke a sweat and feel a little tired, but never exhausted! If someone were to walk in the gym they shouldn’t be able to tell if you just finished your workout or are just starting it.

Once your hips begin to open up and your trunk gets stronger, you’ll notice a huge difference in your climbing. You’ll have more leverage on those big moves because your butt isn’t sagging and high steps won’t feel like you’re trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.  

Remember, just because you have a six pack doesn’t mean you have a strong core.

Stability versus balance, an upside-down pyramid

By Steve Bechtel

…or “why you should stop doing everything else until you get this.”

Mobility and stability is probably the most important training a climber can do away from the crag is to injury-proof himself. This can include a whole host of treatments, but for the average joe, it means training joint mobility and stability. Before we get too far into this, let’s make sure our terminology is understood. To the average person mobility and flexibility are synonymous. Likewise, we often see confusion between balance and stability. These terms are not synonyms. Here are the definitions:

Stability: This is the tendon, joint, and muscle action needed to hold a joint in position.

Mobility: Mobility is a joint’s ability to move through its full range-of-motion. It requires correct muscle action on one side of the joint and flexibility on the opposite side to be considered full mobility.

Flexibility: This term simply defines a muscle’s ability to lengthen.

Balance: Balance is very specific, and refers to the ability of a body to maintain position in an unstable environment. Picture it like this: A pyramid is very stable, and balanced. Flip it over, and you might be able to balance it, but it’s far from stable.

“The results are reduced injury, improved range-of-motion, and improved core function.”

OK, so balance training is fun (i.e. slackline) but is in large part a waste of time, unless it is very specific to your sport. Sure standing on a big physioball while doing biceps curls looks cool, but it’s not going to make you very good at anything except standing on a ball doing curls. Likewise, flexibility training can be great, but what you really need is mobility – there’s no point in doing the splits if you can’t press out of them.

Let me harp on the slackline a little bit more. Sure, Timmy O’Neill is a great climber and he is also good on the slackline, but one is not the result of the other. He might also be good at writing poetry, but that probably doesn’t contribute a hell of a lot to his climbing, either. All balance training needs to be mode specific or it doesn’t work.

At our gym, when we implement stability and mobility training (especially with our adult athletes) we see results. The results are reduced injury, improved range-of-motion, and improved core function. Because no one wants to do mobility drills as their primary activity, and since getting climbers to do anything except drink beer and slackline after climbing is next-to-impossible, we’ve adopted a habit of doing this training pre-session and between work efforts in training (i.e. between burns on problems).

As climbers, our first thought is to just climb to get better at climbing. Maybe we throw in some stretches occasionally (much like the 20 push-ups we do each week in some vain hope of balancing out the 3000-odd pulls we did). The key is to make a good assessment of whether your mobility is keeping you from climbing efficiently, or if you are bordering on injury. I argue that climbing itself rarely causes deep tissue injury; it’s almost always poor movement and tissue quality. Look at it this way, if you can keep from being injured by doing a few simple mobility drills, you can then climb more, and you will get better.

There are a ton of mobility drills out there. The general rule of thumb is to spend the most time on the ones you don’t like. You probably already know where you’re limited, but if you’re not sure, go through a Functional Movement Screen to figure out where you need the most work. This seven-step test takes just a few minutes and can mean adding years to your career. If you want a true assessment of your movement strengths and weaknesses, I suggest a trip to Los Angeles to visit with Dr. Vagy (www.theclimbingdoctor.com).

If you’d rather just wing it, get online and look up mobility drills for the joint(s) where you need the most work. Below is a list of the ones we use daily in our gym:

 

Frog With Hip Rotation

Kettlebell Arm Bar

Wall Slide

Kettlebell High Windmill

Overhead Squat

Shoulder Dislocates

Prying Cobra

I considered typing out explanations of these, which never works, so instead I inserted videos. Remember, it’s the ones that you hate that you probably need the most, so skip anything that seems easy.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, 98% of the people that are campusing these days would be better served to dedicate that time to a mobility program. I realize that it’s not going to happen, but who needs a long career anyway?

Justin Iskra, Zach Snavely Demonstrate the Brettzel Stretch in Climb Strong Class, B&W

by Steve Bechtel

If you want to see the damage that a desk job can do, teach squats to a group of adults. Many of us spend our days sitting at a desk, drive in a car for an hour or more, sit on the couch for a couple of hours, then curl up in bed…with our hips at basically the same angle. Those of us that are active might throw in an hour of weights or time in the rock gym, but it’s hardly enough to balance the time spent in the seated position. As we sit, our hip flexors (primarily the iliacus and psoas major) are held in a shortened position, while the hip extensors (glutes in this case) are held in an artificially lengthened position. Luckily, hip mobility drills can help.

Over time, this position becomes “normal” for our hips, and we begin to hold a similar position even while standing, relying not on our bones to maintain erect posture, but the muscles of the back.

Postural problems aside, a lack of hip mobility creates problems for the athlete. Like the group of adults I mentioned above, most of us are unable to do a normal range of motion squat once we pass adolescence. This is a fundamental human movement, and being able to effectively use that range is critical to success in climbing. The deep squat pattern isn’t the only one we’re talking about, either. We also need “turnout”, we need the ability to high step both inside (in front of the body) and outside (to the side of the body), and we need to be able to fully extend, such as in tip-toe long reaches.

Just like shoulder mobility, hip mobility needs to take a priority spot in your training. Treating this training just like any other exercise is the only way to see forward progress. Yes, you can dedicate whole sessions to it. Yes, you can take Yoga classes. But in my experience, people who are willing to dedicate time to Yoga aren’t the ones who need help…it’s rare for a very immobile person to take up a passion for mobility, much as it’s rare for a fearful climber to suddenly take up headpointing on grit. For most of us, the mobility work needs to “sneak” into the program.

 

“Treating this training just like any other exercise is the only way to see forward progress.”

I suggest doing mobility as a “third” exercise in a group that includes a big primary movement and a supplemental movement. For example, you could do a set of 3 heavy deadlifts, 5 front levers, and a hip mobility drill. Over the course of one workout, the mobility serves as active rest, and will get trained for several minutes each day…all without feeling like you’re “wasting time” doing it. If I asked you to do 10 minutes of hip mobility at the end of a session…you’d have somewhere you needed to be instead. You can also hit the hip mobility drills in the midst of a bouldering or route session. I suggest doing a couple of problems, then a hip mobility drill, a couple more problems, then shoulders, etc.

The basic prescription is to do mobility one day per week for each decade of your life. You’re in your thirties – do three days of mobility. In your fifties, do 5.  By doing several one-minute sets of mobility drills within the framework of your normal training, this is pretty easy to fit in, and will pay off big dividends in the end.

Frog With Hip Rotation

Kneeling Hip Flexor

Pigeon

Tug of War Squat

Prying Cobra