Alex Bridgewater Pinch Block Hang, Photo by Mei Ratz

In the old days, training “specifically” for climbing was almost unheard of. You either just climbed or you were one of the few climbers who trained in the weight room and did some door jamb pull-ups. Over the years, things changed. As climbs got hard and more physically challenging we sought out ways to beat the pump, many of which derived from the tricks of old time strongmen and gymnasts.

Exercises such as dumbbell work, rope climbing, and even nail bending found their way into climbers’ routines. In the 1980s, climbing-specific training devices began to hit the market. The Metolius Simulator, various grip devices, and even rudimentary climbing walls appeared all over Europe and North America. By the end of the 1990s, we were all training on steep walls covered in plastic holds – converting our training into almost a perfect mimic of the sport.

Knowing the value of specificity in training, defined as patterning training after the movement and metabolic demand, many of us plunged full-on into “climbing to climb” as our sole form of training. Although this is a general rule that represents a good step forward in the sport, I think we may have stepped too far. There are a few reasons that non-specific movements should still be used by climbers:

  1. Too much strength and conditioning that mimics the sport increases risk for overuse injuries. If we only train the forearms by gripping small edges in a static position, we lose all the benefits of flexing, extending, and rotating the wrist. These benefits include decreased elbow strain, increased blood flow, and a general increase in strength.
  2. Too much work strengthening one group of muscles can cause an imbalance if the antagonists are not trained. We see frequent shoulder and elbow injuries in climbers who get really good at pulling, but neglect the pushing/extending antagonists. This problem can affect any joint in the body, but climbers primarily see these problems in the joints of the arm – shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
  3. On the same token, we frequently see climbers’ finger strength and pulling strength level-out in what’s called a “hard plateau,” where no amount of focused strength training can increase force production. This is more often than not due to an under-strong antagonist. If there is a large imbalance in muscle strength around a given joint, the nervous system will effectively hold back the strong muscle to prevent injury or bad movement. For example, simply strengthening the extensors of the forearm can be enough to jump start your grip strength again.

 

I’m not going to tell you to stop your specific training, but I suggest adding some of the following exercises to your climbing strength plan. By doing flexion and extension at the wrist, finger extensions, and doing some “crushing” movements, you’ll increase your general hand strength and might see some nagging problems drop away.

 

Wrist Curls

The wrist curl is the most basic forearm flexion exercise. With the forearm supinated and a dumbbell in the hand, work from full extension (wrist open) to full flexion (wrist closed). Move slowly and in control for 8 to 10 repetitions. Begin each set with your “strong” hand, and follow it with the “stronger” hand.

If you are moving 50 or more pounds in these sets, you could experience wrist pain. In such a case, consider switching to the Heavy Finger Roll, which can best be done with a barbell in a power rack. For this exercise, you’d roll the bar down to the tips of the fingers, then back up to full flexion. Although not technically wrist flexion, it serves our purpose of training the muscles through a full range of motion.

 

Reverse Wrist Curls

This time you’ll place your forearm on the bench in a pronated (palm down) position. Holding a lighter dumbbell than you used in the Wrist Curl, work from a fully flexed to a fully extended position. Understand that you’ll still be working the flexors to hold on to the dumbbell, so give yourself plenty of rest if you are combining this with other grip exercises. Use the same 8 to 10 rep rule here.

 

Crushing

Those little donuts are nice for warming up, but they won’t do the trick to make you stronger. For crushing to be effective, you’ll need to train with progressively harder resistances. A few companies make spring-loaded grippers, the best for climbers are the Captains Of Crush Grippers from Iron Mind. Select a resistance that you can close (touching the handles at the end of each rep) for 5 to 10 reps. Alternating hands, perform as many clean reps as you can in each set. Once you can do 5 sets of 10 reps, reward yourself by buying the next harder gripper.

 

Finger Extensions

There are a few good elastic extension devices on the market, but the best bang for your buck is going to be a 1cm rubber band. Placing all the fingers and the thumb inside the band, extend outward to a full spread of the fingers. If you can do more than 10 reps, add a second band or get a thicker one. Occasionally, climbers will complain about this exercise straining their little finger. These climbers clearly need stronger pinkies! Although cheap or free bands are widely available in the grocery store, you can buy a nice set of progressive bands, also from Iron Mind.

 

Wrist Rotation

You need a small sledge hammer, probably in the 3 to 6 pound range. With the elbow held tight to your side, rotate internally until the handle of the hammer is parallel to the floor. Return to the top, then rotate externally until you reach parallel. On my hammer, I have wrapped tape around the handle every few inches so that I can change how close to the head I place my hand, and can thus adjust resistance. 5 reps each direction is the proper number. Of all the listed exercises, I caution you to be conservative in your progress in this one. This exercise is unlike any climbing exercise you’ve ever done, and too-rapid an increase in load can cause undue elbow pain.

 

The exercises above should be done 2 or 3 times per week and can be inserted into almost any other workout. By embracing some non-climbing grip strength training, you’ll guard against injury and you’ll see your finger strength start going up again. Remember, it took you a long time to build the imbalance, so be patient in pushing things back the other way.

 

A second good option is to pick just one exercise per month and work it into every training session. Twice per year, you could then insert a general grip phase (ideally along with a big strength focus) and really see the strength of your lower arm improve.

 

 

We’ve been experimenting with substituting some of the non-specific work above with a normal hangboard routine. Although our highly unscientific research is still being tested, the general gist is this: Instead of doing 4 positions on the hangboard for 3 sets of 8 seconds each, we back off to 2 positions on the hangboard for 3x8sec and add in Heavy Finger Rolls for 3×8 and Reverse Wrist Curls for 3×8 on each side.

 

The athletes that have completed this protocol for a full 12 sessions are testing out with similar gains to the ones doing strictly edge hangs. This begs the question “how much pure hangboarding do you need to do?” It follows that doing some non-specific work may help reduce the risk of overuse injuries in the fingers, and may have other benefits as well.

Combining Hangboard and Weight Training for Maximum Climbing Strength

 

Introduction

Everything about training for climbing is complicated. It is an exercise in compromise – focus on power and you lose endurance, too much time getting your fingers strong, and your redpoint grade drops. Over the years, there have been many creative solutions proposed to solve this problem. Many programs are more or less stolen from training plans for other sports, which presents a whole host of issues.

 

The one thing that continues to surface both in the gym and on the rock is that the stronger climbers both avoid injury and send quickly. This is of no surprise: all facets of fitness are derivatives of strength. What is power? Strength times speed. What is endurance? Strength divided by time. The bottom line? The stronger you get, the better everything else gets.

 

So what’s the problem? There’s only one, but it’s a big one: Strength training takes time, both to execute and to recover from. The recovery is the biggest issue. In fact, people who stall out strength training frequently get everything else right – load, volume, frequency – but they under-recover. Why? Because the overload we experience in strength doesn’t “feel” like hard exercise. The sets are short, the cardiovascular component almost nonexistent, and there is never any nausea.

 

In order to get stronger you need to really overload your system. If you really overload your system you need to rest a lot between efforts. If you rest a lot between efforts, you get bored and start the next set too soon. The solution? Find something productive to do between sets.

 

Heavy strength training and finger strength training are almost an ideal marriage. The high total body loads of the strength sets tend not to affect the finger strength sets and vice versa. However, simply alternating between the two can still result in too little rest. In order to address this issue, we add much-needed mobility work between these activities, and the result is an ideal mixture of effective training and an efficient use of time.

 

The Integrated Strength template consists of three exercises done in short “circuit” fashion: a finger strength set, a heavy resistance set, and a mobility exercise. These circuits take about 5 minutes each. We have found that three rounds of this circuit, about 15 minutes, is the ideal training duration. By building three different circuits, you can create an effective and quick training session that clocks in under an hour.

 

Training: Where Are You Going?

Too often, we are either in the mode of training for something big or doing nothing at all. We ramp it up for a couple of months, send the route, and then hang back and take stock of our achievements. Even worse, sometimes we opt for long-term difficult training programs that look fabulous on paper, but we never seem to execute. But what if there was a better way? What if your underlying goal in training was to develop a readiness for the sport that you could carry with you at all times.

 

Whether we like it or not, we can only be driving hard part of the time. As the old maxim goes, “If you are always training hard, you’re never training hard.” What a program like the one suggested here can deliver is a solid foundation on which to build specific fitness. A two-day per week base of Integrated Strength sessions will marry well with a bouldering phase, a high-volume alpine training phase, or even a peak redpoint phase, all the while allowing you to continually push the juggernaut of strength forward.

 

There may even be long periods of the year where you do next to nothing on the rock or in the mountains. This minimalist program will keep you fit enough to get back to shape quickly when the opportunity arises. Strength coach Dan John talks about “park bench” and “bus bench” workouts. You’re on the bus bench when you are going somewhere, on the park bench when you’re not. Integrated Strength makes an excellent holding-pattern session – a park bench workout – when you are not quite ready to lock horns with a project. When it becomes bus bench time, you simply increase your training loads, reduce the hold size on your hangboard sets, and get going.

Finger Strength

By now, most climbers understand that stronger fingers are a benefit in climbing. Simply climbing to gain this strength, though, can result in uneven loading, can allow you to avoid certain difficult hold types, and isn’t regular enough an overload to elicit optimum improvement. The tool of the trade is the hangboard. The training for optimum finger strength includes repeated sets of isometric hangs.

 

We get into trouble when we go too hard or too long on these boards; the very thing that makes you strong so quickly can also injure you. There are several terrible hangboard training programs out there, and there are some very good ones. Even the good ones can lead to trouble, mostly as a result of trying to hurry through the sessions or progress too quickly. A good starting point is to perform 3 sets of 10 seconds in three different hand positions. This workout is so simple and safe that you should stick with it for as long as possible – at the very least ride it out until you no longer see any improvement from it. We will use this set and rep plan in some of the examples below.

 

When training finger strength, specificity is an important consideration. You want to train both the hold types you use most frequently and the ones that give you the most trouble. A look at any popular hangboard, and you can see that the variety in possible hold combinations is almost endless. Don’t get sucked in. There is nothing so special about a particular protocol that makes it “the best”; in fact, the best program is probably to change programs every couple of months! Pick three positions, and train them exclusively through a 4 to 6 week phase. Keep your goal in mind: do you want to be trained or entertained?

Resistance Training

The stronger you are, the easier everything else in sport becomes. Although for years I insisted that climbing was different from other sports, the fact is that all sports are different from other sports. The common link? The human being. Climbers must generate force the same as everyone else. Yes, we do so by balancing strength with focus, route reading, and fear management, but the mastery of tension forms the base of all we do.

 

We have to do very sport-specific training, just like every other athlete. But at the core of training, we still find the fundamental human movements. Like it or not, the best way to develop those movements is in non-specific environments. We simply can’t generate enough force in climbing specific positions to progress to our full athletic potential.

 

Although the movements can be divided up a few different ways and can feature subsets, most coaches agree that training the four basic movement patterns give the biggest bang for the buck. Those movements include the Upper Body Press, the Upper Body Pull, the Hip Hinge, and the Squat.

 

These patterns are the most useful because they force you to use several muscles at once to produce force. This is both efficient and effective at producing high levels of hormonal activity – which is half the reason we do them.

 

In this program, we focus on three of the four movements. Our movements include the Hip Hinge, Upper Body Press, and Squat. Why no pulling? Well, because you are probably overloading the pattern already. More importantly, though, the Hip Hinge is going to be a big pull, and the finger strength sets also represent a pull…enough!

 

This training plan integrates well with bouldering or route climbing, where you’ll be pulling all day long anyway. Remember, the goal of most training is not to improve the things at which you are already elite – it’s to shore up the things that are holding you back.

 

There are many exercises that are appropriate for climbers in each movement pattern, but there are a few that are better than others. The big key is to select exercises that you know, that you can do in your facility, and that you can progress correctly. The patterns and suggested exercises are as follows:

 

Hip Hinge:

  • Deadlift
  • Kettlebell Swing
  • Single-Leg Hip Thrust (bodyweight option)

 

Squat:

  • Single Leg Squat
  • Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
  • Rack Squat

 

Press:

  • One-Arm Kettlebell Press
  • One-Arm Push-Up
  • One-Arm Kettlebell Bench Press

 

Full details for these exercises are available below. It is critical to perform the exercises correctly: if you don’t know them, don’t do them. Find a good strength coach and invest some time and money in learning correct form and loading.

Mobility

Mobility is simply the ability to use a joint through its intended range of motion. For the most part, our knees and elbows aren’t a problem. The shoulders and hips, especially in adults, are an issue. As a general rule, if you can’t hold both arms straight above the head without arching your back, your shoulders are too tight. One of the effects of building massive strength and power in the back and shoulders without maintaining mobility is to get tight – so tight that you are effectively shorter when you reach high above your head.

 

Immobility in the hips is also a problem. If you can’t do a full squat with your heels on the ground, or can’t get your hips within about 3-4 inches of the ground in a frog stretch, you are probably not going to maximize your body-positioning ability.

 

The difficulty with mobility work is that it is boring and it’s hard to tell if you’re getting better. There are two relatively easy tests you can do that will give you a good indication how you are progressing. The first is the hip test I alluded to above.

 

Hip Mobility Test – Frog Stretch

  1. Assume the frog stretch position, with the feet placed against a wall. Your shins should be perpendicular to the wall (right angle at the ankle), and your thighs should be parallel to the wall (right angle at the knee).
  2. Bearing most of your weight on the elbows, lean “forward” onto the arms and move the knees as far apart as possible. Realign the legs to get your right angles again if necessary.
  3. Once you have relaxed into the stretch, look at how far your hips are from the ground. A good measure is to take a fist and place it on the ground below your pubis – the bottom part of your hip bone that sits right above where you go potty.
  4. If your hips touch the fist, your mobility is probably pretty good. More than two fists away from the ground, and you’ve got some work to do.

 

Shoulder Mobility Test

  1. Measure the length of your hand from the tip of your middle finger to the distal crease at the junction of your palm and forearm. This is the wrinkle closest to your palm.
  2. Next, make two fists, with the thumbs tucked inside. Reach over your head and back with your left hand, and behind your back with the right. Try to get the fists as close as possible together along the spine. Have a partner measure the distance between the fists.
  3. Repeat the same test on the opposite side, right hand over the top.
  4. Compare these numbers to your hand-length measurement. If either side is greater than your hand measure, you might have a shoulder mobility issue that should be addressed.

 

The Integrated Strength Session Format

Training sessions should be simple and logical to follow. I prefer to under-program the training and let my athletes add-on more at the end than to over-program and risk them not finishing the workout. In the integrated strength sessions, we program three hangboard exercises, three strength exercises, and three mobility drills. These are grouped into small circuits that are each performed three times. For example, in one circuit, you’d do an edge hang, a set of squats, and a prying cobra. This group would be done three times before moving on to the next group.

 

The pacing of this session is its beauty, you move slowly and deliberately between the three exercises, and the movements and load are different enough that each exercise serves as an effective “rest” from the other two. For most climbers, each circuit takes about five minutes, and thus each group takes about fifteen. Including a good warm-up, the session takes about an hour. That being said, there is no reason to hurry through this…going heavy is more important than going fast.

 

The basic format looks like this:

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Hangboard Position 1

Hip Hinge

Hip Mobility

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Hangboard Position 2

Upper Body Press

Shoulder Mobility

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Hangboard Position 3

Squat

Hip Mobility

 

There is little reason to add more groups, rounds, or sets. The volume is high enough to make you stronger but low enough to keep from tapping you out for the week. If you need a little more work, consider adding some easy bouldering or route laps at the end of the session. If you are in the weight room (and can’t climb right after the session), consider adding a barbell or kettlebell complex.

 

Below are three session formats we’ve used successfully with our athletes:

 

Integrated Strength 1 (10 second Hangs)

This is a standard, easy-to-implement program that can be done in most good gyms.

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Open Hand Hang, 2 Arms x10 sec

Deadlift x3

Frog x60sec

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Pinch Block, 3” x10 sec per side

One-Arm Kettlebell Press x6+6

Kettlebell Arm Bar x30 sec per side

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Half Crimp, 2 Arms x 10 sec

Single Leg Squat x3+3

Tug of War Squat x 60 sec

 

Integrated Strength 2 (Webb-Parsons, 10 sec hangs)

This workout implements the Chris Webb-Parsons hangboard protocol with resistance and mobility training. This is a good program for an intermediate to advanced trainee.

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Half Crimp, 1 Arm, Straight Arm x10 sec per side

Kettlebell Swing x10

Frog x60sec

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Half Crimp, 1 Arm, Bent Arm x10 sec per side

One-Arm Kettlebell Bench Press x6+6

Lat/Rhomboid Foam Roll 60 sec

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Half Crimp, 1 Arm, Lock Off x10 sec per side

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat x3+3

Tug of War Squat x 60 sec

 

Integrated Strength 3 (Bodyweight Only, 3-3-3 second hangs)

This workout is appropriate for those who do not have a weight room close to their hangboard. This session incorporates 3-3-3 second hangs with bodyweight resistance exercise. The 3-3-3 hangs are done on a 5 second clock: hang 3 seconds, let go for 2, hang for 3, let go for 2, hang for 3, then move on to the next exercise.

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Half Crimp, 2 Arms, Straight Arm x 3-3-3 sec

Single Leg Hip Thrust x10+10

Prying Cobra x60 sec

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Pinch Block, 3” x 3-3-3 sec per side

One-Arm Push-Up x3+3

Overhead Squat 60 sec

 

3 rounds, resting as needed:

Pocket Hang, Second Pair, 2 Arms, Straight Arm x 3-3-3 sec

Pistol Squat x3+3

Tug of War Squat x 60 sec

Programming Integrated Strength

We do these sessions 2-3 days per week during a strength phase. In-season, climbers will use this as a strength-maintenance session every week or 10 days. This also works as an effective test: although you don’t want to increase your loads in-season, you also don’t want to regress. If you start to get weaker, it’s probably time to up your high-load training again or train strength more frequently.

 

On a week-to-week basis, we program strength when it is going to be the least invasive – usually at the end of a climbing day or the day after climbing. Some example weeks are as follows:

 

BASE PHASE:

MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY THURSDAY FRIDAY SATURDAY SUNDAY
Integrated Strength Integrated Strength Integrated Strength Climbing

 

BUILD PHASE:

MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY THURSDAY FRIDAY SATURDAY SUNDAY
Boulder / Climb Integrated Strength Boulder / Climb Integrated Strength Climbing

 

PERFORMANCE PHASE:

MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY THURSDAY FRIDAY SATURDAY SUNDAY
Climb RP Climb RP Integrated Strength Climb RP

 

The bottom line with programming is you want to train as little as possible to achieve the desired results. If you are getting stronger on three days a week, try backing off a bit and see if the gains still come. The mistake we make, that we all make, is thinking that we can somehow increase the slow process of adaptation by adding more training. Strength comes slowly.

The Exercises

Hip Hinge

Deadlift

The deadlift is pure strength. There is no cheating the range of motion – you pull from the ground and you don’t dare stop until you are standing. Although it works the legs, it is primarily a “posterior chain” exercise, taxing the hamstrings, glutes, and muscles of the low back. For building pure total body strength, no exercise comes close.

The stance should be shoulder width apart or slightly narrower with your toes slightly kicked outward or neutral. The hips should be above your knees and your shoulders above your hips. The shins should be vertical and the barbell should be touching your shins. The grip is outside your stance, somewhere around shoulder width apart. The head, neck, and spine are neutral. Before you lift, take the “slack” out of the bar. This means tense your whole body like you’re going to lift the bar, but don’t. Have a proud chest, squeeze the barbell, flex your lats, and fire your glutes.

As you pull the barbell up your shins, the hips and shoulders rise simultaneously while keeping a neutral spine. At the top, completely lock out the deadlift my squeezing your glutes and your quads. Reverse the movement and once the barbell gets past your knees you can drop it to the floor.

Kettlebell Swing

We use this exercise with almost all of our athletes, almost all the time. The kettlebell swing is a great exercise for lower body power development and integration of movement. Start with the ‘bell on the ground a foot or more in front of you, then reach down and “hike” the bell back to start the reps. When swinging, only squat enough to get the bell between the legs (handle passing above the knees) and snap the hips forward to raise the kettlebell to the height of the sternum. Swinging higher in the so-called “American swing” actually diminishes the power component of the exercise, making it an easy knee-dominant movement instead of a hip dominant move. Many coaches caution against swinging overhead due to the dynamic lumbar flexion that most athletes exhibit at the top of the move.

Single-Leg Hip Thrust (bodyweight option)

The single-leg hip thrust is a bodyweight hip hinge exercise that we do when we don’t have tools available. I feel that it is inferior to deadlifting and swinging, but we do what we have to do when we don’t have weights around. To perform this exercise, lie on your back. Bend one knee to 90 degrees and plant that foot on the floor, the other leg should be held up off the ground. The movement involves driving the heel of the planted foot into the ground, and lifting the hips until the spine is aligned with the femur of the working leg, “straightening” the hip. The entire movement should be done under full control. Do all of the prescribed reps on one side before moving to the other.

Squat

Single Leg Squat

The single-leg squat is the top of the food chain in leg training for athletes. It requires high levels of strength, but also a tremendous amount of balance and mobility. It is a motorically difficult movement, and is often enough of a challenge at first to discourage athletes from continuing to practice. Over time, this should become a staple in your training.

 

Start by standing on a box or bench at least 16” high. Turn so that one leg is held in the air to the side of the box, and the inside of the planted foot is right at the edge of the box. Although this exercise can be done at bodyweight, it is actually easier to start with a little weight in the hands to help with balance at the bottom of the movement. A pair of 5# weights is probably about right for most athletes to start with.

 

Sit back, and as your hips drop, raise the weights up to shoulder-height out in front of you. Squat down until the top of your thigh is parallel to the floor. Concentrate on keeping the heel planted and drive the movement from there.

 

Progress this exercise by adding a little weight to the dumbbells. Once your bells are over about 15 pounds, this becomes problematic. If you get this strong, the exercise should be progressed to a pistol squat or you should add weight with a vest.

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Most adults don’t have the mobility to squat correctly without some amount of training. In order to train strength effectively until that mobility comes, we often put our athletes in a split-stance position. From split squats, to lunges, to step-ups, training one leg at a time is both effective in building strength and very specific to sports movement.

The rear foot elevated split squat is a very good strength and balance exercise that is easy to master. It is usually the precursor to single leg squatting, but is a staple of great programs on its own.

Start by grabbing a pair of kettlebells or dumbbells (kettlebells are preferred because they are easier to put on the ground if you fail). Stand tall and assume a split position like you would in a lunge, except that the rear foot is placed on a 16-18” box or bench with the top of the foot down.

 

With an upright spine, squat down until the front thigh is parallel to the floor, then return to the top position. Start with the weaker leg forward, and always match reps with the stronger leg forward.

Rack Squat

The rack squat is a front squat done with kettlebells. As simple as this variation may seem, changing to kettlebells represents a substantial improvement in the movement for most athletes. Positioning the kettlebells in “the rack” forces a solid core and allows you to move quickly between exercises: cleaning the kettlebells and starting to squat is much faster and easier than setting up a squat bar.

Start with a pair of kettlebells placed side by side on the ground in front of you. Grab the handles and clean the bells to your shoulders (if you don’t know the clean, now is the time to learn). In rack, you should be standing tall, bells sitting in the crooks of your elbows, with the elbows held tight against the ribs. Forearms should be vertical, and wrists straight.

The movement involves sitting “between the heels” and maintaining that good, upright position. This is an easier variant of the squat than most, and you should find full range of motion is easier than in the barbell variants. Look for a clean, smooth movement – if you have hitches in any part of the range of motion, back off a little on the weight. At the end of the set, reverse the clean (rather than dropping the bells in some weird side to side curl movement) and set the bells down.

 

Press

One-Arm Kettlebell Press

A more advanced movement, the kettlebell press involves significant core stability. I prefer the kettlebell for the overhead lift over dumbbells; the offset center of gravity helps open the shoulder and ensure full overhead extension. We start this movement in rack position and rotate to a palm-forward position at the top. This can be done with one or two kettlebells, though the 1-arm version is simpler.

One-Arm Push-Up

People generally freak out when we tell them to do one-arm push-ups. This is a feat of great strength, and we all know it. There is a way to progress into the movement by inclining the upper body, and we’ve had great success in getting athletes to a full version on the ground with careful progression.

Start with your non-dominant hand on a countertop or box (we like an Olympic bar placed in a rack at waist height). Assume a solid foot stance, with feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Brace the abs actively as if readying for a punch in the stomach. Lower yourself into a full-range push-up, being sure to get the working hand within an inch or two of the chest. Press up under full control, then repeat the movement on the dominant side. As you master the prescribed reps at a given height, reduce the height of the implement by 2-3 inches, then work up to your max reps again.

One-Arm Kettlebell Bench Press

A self-limiting exercise, the one arm kettlebell bench press forces the athlete to do two critical form corrections: the elbow is encouraged to stay alongside the torso and the athlete must brace from the core in order to stay on the bench. Most athletes have done the bench press. This is the same movement pattern, but the set-up is a little different.

It is best to start in a standing position with your back to the end of the bench. Clean a single kettlebell to rack position, then squat to the bench and sit. With the non-working arm, brace the kettlebell as you lie back into position. The kettlebell should remain in rack position, even though the elbow will naturally drop back (down) as you take your position on the bench.

Once you are in place, set a wide foot stance, then press the bell through a full range of motion. Upon completion of the set, reverse the set-up: brace the bell with the non-working hand, sit up to a squat position, then stand up. Reverse the clean and carefully put the bell on the ground.

 

Hip Mobility Drills

We have three “big bang” hip mobility drills that make up the bulk of our hip mobility training. There are dozens of good exercises, however, and if you find a different exercise works best for you, have at it.

 

Frog

The frog drill is a hip-opener that will help not only with improving your squat form, but with your turn-out on the rock. The frog is performed prone, with the knees turned out to the sides, and placed on a mat. Most knees can’t handle this exercise on a hard floor.

  1. Turn the feet out to the sides, and place the elbows on the ground directly below the shoulders, most of your weight should be on your arms.
  2. Rock the hips back toward the heels, then move them slowly up toward the elbows. Once at the top position, try to move the knees out to the sides slightly, then repeat the motion.
  3. Maintain the movement slowly for 45-60 seconds, trying each time to relax into the bottom position.

 

Tug of War Squat

The tug of war squat can be seen as a standing frog stretch. Holding onto a solid object, such as the upright on a power rack or a door frame, squat down to below parallel. Once in the bottom position, drive the heels into the floor, hold the torso upright, and gently rock back and forth to relax into the hip stretch. Use this to practice the perfect bottom position in the squat.

 

Prying Cobra

The prying cobra is a great hip flexor stretch. Assume a prone position, with the hands placed palms down to the sides of the chest at the level of the bottom of the ribcage. Legs will be held straight, with the tops of the feet on the floor. Tighten the abs, and press up until the arms are straight. By keeping tight in the abs, you’ll eliminate excessive lumbar extension and force the stretch into the hip flexors. To increase the sensation, you can gently rock to the right and left to focus the stretch a bit more.

 

Shoulder Mobility Drills

Often, a climber’s greatest opportunity for advancement is an improvement in the function of the shoulder. Whether it is strength, stability, or mobility, we rarely see a climber that doesn’t need some work. Just like the hip drills, we stick to three main exercises.

 

Kettlebell Arm Bar

The Arm Bar is a big-bang shoulder mobility and stability exercise. This is an excellent drill for developing thoracic mobility and shoulder girdle stability. Pick up a light kettlebell and set-up as you would for the get up ( kettlebell at full extension in the right hand, right knee bent and foot placed on the floor). Stretch the left arm overhead, and using the left arm and leg as an axis, bring your right knee up to the chest and roll to the left. Roll over to bring your chest toward the ground, resting the head on the left biceps or on the ground. Straighten the right leg, and try to push the right hip toward the ground. Creep the left hand “back” along the floor, and keep both shoulders pulled down and away from the ears. Hold or pulse the position for 30-60 seconds.

 

Lat/Rhomboid Foam Roll

To roll the rhomboids (between your shoulder blades), place a foam roller on the ground and lie perpendicularly across it, resting the foam roller just below the shoulder blades. Pick the hips up off the ground, support the head with the hands, and slowly move yourself across the roller, back and forth along the length of the shoulder blade. The rolling range is about 6 inches, too high and you stress the neck, too low and you’ll stress the lower back. As an alternative, you can simply hold a good stretch in various positions to help open up the front of the shoulder.

Moving to the lats, lie across the foam roller with the roller resting just below the armpit. Pick the hips up off the ground, then position yourself so the lat is being pressed by the roller. Move slowly back and forth across the roller, being careful where you cross the outer edge of the scapula; this position can be very painful. Spend plenty of time on each side.

 

Overhead Squat

Holding a PVC pipe or dowel overhead, lock the elbows and lower into a full-depth squat. As your torso leans forward into the movement, the overhead position will naturally stretch the pecs and lats. Try to keep the arms aimed straight at the ceiling, and move the hands as far apart as needed to keep the elbows straight.

Dragon Flag B&W Movement in Climb Strong Class

This is not the first article on “core” training I have written, but I felt the need to expand on the previous ones and to highlight what we are doing in our current programs. In general, the way we look at training the midsection has not changed, but over the past couple of years we’ve refined the program and the focus of the training. First, I’ll start with what core training is not and should not be:

 

Core training is not going to get rid of fat on your belly. By now you should know this, but for those who have not been keeping up, I’ll explain. The abdominals, obliques, and transversus are the primary groups that most of us try to target when doing ab exercises. These are important muscles to strengthen, but exercising them to reduce the fat that happens to lay on top of them is futile. Once again, I’ll reference the University of Virginia study that showed you’d have to do 700 crunches a day for a year to burn a pound of fat. Since spot reduction has been proven over and again to be ineffective, even doing those 365 workouts might not give you the desired results. If your belly fat is bugging you, it’s time to step away from the donut box and buy some spinach.

 

Core training is not “back strengthening.” Strong abs do not mean a strong low back. The exercises I’ll describe are safe for the low back if done properly, but should not be seen as a direct way to make the back stronger. A huge misconception for sufferers of low back pain is the idea that spinal flexion exercises, such as the abdominal crunch, are good for the back. In fact, it has been shown that repeated spinal flexion is overwhelmingly a bad idea if you have back pain. Dr. Stuart McGill has several excellent books on low back disorders and injuries, and if you have back problems I recommend picking up Back Mechanic http://amzn.to/1T7zno6 .

 

The core should not be treated as a prime-mover. There are many exercises that target the abdominals, but the abs should be trained the way they are used- as structural support. Most of the ab exercises we learned as young athletes use the rectus abdominus to create either hip flexion (as in supine leg raises) or trunk flexion (as in crunches or sit-ups). Although these do “work” the abs, that’s not how we use the muscles in normal movement. The core muscles are almost exclusively stabilizers, and are best used to control movement rather than to initiate it. The one exception which may be specific to climbing is the hanging leg raise and its variations.

 

It’s more than abs. The core, or what we prefer to call the midsection, includes all of the muscles that connect to your pelvis and low back. We include:

The rectus abdominis

The transversus abdominis

The internal and external obliques

All hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings, etc.)

The hip flexors

The spine extensors (spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum)

The hip adductors and abductors

The latissimus dorsi

 

“If you can’t see your abs, put down the cookies”

We want to be strong, so clearly, crunches won’t do the trick. We are looking for high-load, integrative exercise that will actually change the way your core functions in climbing. Being able to crank out five more reps of a rectus abdominis-focused exercise won’t do it.

 

Our training program focuses on creating a strong midsection to effectively transfer strength from the arms to the legs, and to maintain tension during climbing movements. I don’t feel you always need to mimic climbing movement to train the core properly. I do feel you need to train very intensely. A good rule of thumb: if you can crank out a few more reps once fatigue sets in, your exercises are not hard enough.

 

Telling you what not to do only helps so much, right? Here is what I am going to tell you to do.

 

We train four patterns for the core. By integrating the four main categories of movement, you can effectively train all of the muscle groups listed above. By training them with the correct intensity, you can have a stronger midsection that you’ve ever dreamed.  

 

Stability. This is where you hold your body in a tensioned, static position in which the muscles around the spine and pelvis must be held isometrically. The one that pops to mind for most people is the plank, but as you’ll see below, you can do better.

 

The plank can be regressed or progressed as needed. We stick with a general rule of twenty seconds: if you can hold a given position for a 20 count, move on to the next level of difficulty.

In order of difficulty, the plank progressions look like this:

Elbow Plank on a bench

Palm Plank on the floor

Elbow Plank on the floor

Plank with one limb raised

Plank with one arm and one leg raised

TRX Plank

Hardstyle Plank

 

Dynamic Stability. The plan is the same in dynamic stability as in stability, except that you try to hold to body in a rigid position while moving one or more limbs. There are dozens of great exercises that fit this category, but our favorites are:

Stir The Pot / Cauldron

Plank/Pulldown

T Push Up

Lever Variations

 

Anti-Rotation. We use the obliques to initiate rotation, like in the Russian Twist, but we also use them to avoid rotation. The anti-rotation abilities of these muscles are under-appreciated, but are implemented every time you move. For Anti-Rotation, I like to train the Core Press and the Plank with Weight Transfer.

 

Hip Flexion. This is the exception to the avoid-spine-bending guideline. We have to train the way we play, and we do train a series of movements that involve pulling the knees toward the chest.

Our progression is as follows:

Hanging Knee Raise to 90 degrees

Hanging Straight Leg Raise to 90 degrees

Seated Straight Leg Raise

TRX Pike

Knees to Elbows

Dip Bar Straight Leg Raise

Hanging Straight Leg Raise – full range

 

When implementing high level midsection training like this, you’ve got to respect the exercises. These movements should be a major focus if you are to do them and benefit from them, not something you throw in after a bouldering session. Start with 3 sets of 5 reps in any given movement, and progress to the next harder movement only of you can do them flawlessly. Plan on doing 2-3 exercises per training session, picking from separate categories. You should do these exercises three days per week.

 

A strong midsection makes all other strength easier. Be patient, and keep focused. Forget the burn…and if you can’t see your abs, put down the cookies.

Jordan Jack Demonstrates a Push Up in Climb Strong Class B&W

We’ve been training strength for a long time. For years, I struggled with just how to fit all the hangboard training, general strength training, and supporting exercises in a normal climber’s week. Many of us try to get by without the extra work, opting to just go climbing instead. A look at the big picture, at the idea of climbing effectively and injury-free over the course of a 30+ year period, forces us to understand that just climbing is not enough.

This article is not an attempt to convince readers to start strength training. What I am going to outline here are variations on a climbing strength program known as Integrated Strength. For those unfamiliar with the program, it’s a simple combination of:

1 General Strength Exercise + 1 Finger Strength Exercise + 1 Mobility or Stability Drill

 

We do these as a small circuit, each of which takes less than 5 minutes. The standard Integrated Strength Program looks like this:

 

3 sets each of:

General Strength Exercise 1

Finger Strength Exercise 1

Mobility Drill 1

 

3 sets each of:

General Strength Exercise 2

Finger Strength Exercise 2

Mobility Drill 2

 

3 sets each of:

General Strength Exercise 3

Finger Strength Exercise 3

Mobility Drill 3

 

This session takes most athletes about 45 minutes. If you can complete a session in a lot faster than this time, you’re not lifting heavy enough and not trying hard enough on the hangboard.

The standard implementation of these sessions is to do them 3x per week for 4-6 weeks in an off-season phase. The sessions can be used in-season once a week to maintain strength.

Variations

There are times of the year or training goals that ask that we diverge from the basic format. With the growing understanding that strength is fundamental not only to injury prevention but to climbing performance, we are constantly testing and finding ways of keeping strength year-round. The critical component, of course, is continuity. Training strength for short periods separated by months of performance is not only risky, but frustrating. How would you like to always be stuck at the same level in each and every facet of your training? If the standard 3×3 format above isn’t right for you, try one of the following variants:

Varied Arm Positioning

This template is based on focusing the hangboard efforts on upper body strength rather than exclusively finger strength. The three hangboard exercises all feature the half-crimp position, but we vary the angle at the elbow. The series then looks like this:

 

3 sets each of:

Hip Hinge Pattern

2 Arm Hang, Straight Arm, Half Crimp

Hip Mobility

 

3 sets each of:

Squat Pattern

2 Arm Hang, Elbow 90 Degrees, Half Crimp

Shoulder Mobility

 

3 sets each of:

Overhead Press Pattern

2 Arm Hang, Full Lock Off, Half Crimp

Core Stability Exercise

 

Long Circuits

In the Long Circuits variation, the athlete aims to complete two big circuits per session rather than three circuits of three exercises. Each of these big circuits is done 3 or 4 times, depending on the time available and the desired volume of training.

 

The standard Long Circuit session is as follows:

Circuit 1

Hang position 1

Horizontal Pull

Hang position 2

Core

Hang position 3

Squat

Mobility

 

Circuit 2

Hang position 1

Vertical Press

Hang position 2

Core

Hang position 3

Hip Hinge

Mobility

 

This protocol is excellent for those looking to add a bit of volume to their finger strength, as it allows 6-8 sets each for all three positions on the hangboard. We try to keep the hang times in the 5-10 second range, and aim for bodyweight or simple (i.e. a single weight for all three hangs) loading.

 

Separated Circuits

In the Separated Circuits sessions, the athlete completes the weightroom and hangboard portions of the training separately. This is ideal for climbers whose facilities are in different locations or whose gyms are really busy. The standard series looks like this:

 

3-5 rounds:

Hip Hinge

Hip Mobility

Press

Shoulder Mobility

 

3-5 rounds:

Squat

Hip Mobility

Pull

Shoulder Mobility

 

3-5 rounds:

Hang position 1

Core 1

Hang position 2

Core 2

Hang position 3

Core 3

 

Ideally, you’d complete all three portions of the session with just a few minutes’ rest between. If you are dealing with two different facilities, a break of up to about 90 minutes is OK before a full re-warm is necessary.

 

High Volume Circuits

This variation features more exercises and hangboard positions, but generally you’ll train fewer cycles of each. The standard set-up is as follows:

 

Circuit 1, 2 rounds:

Hang position 1

Squat

Hip Mobility

Hang position 2

 

Circuit 2, 2 rounds:

Hang position 3

Press

Shoulder Mobility

Hang position 4

 

Circuit 3, 2 rounds:

Hang position 1

Hinge

Hip Mobility

Hang position 2

 

Circuit 2, 2 rounds:

Hang position 3

Core

Shoulder Mobility

Hang position 4

 

Each of these circuits takes about 10 minutes to complete for 2 rounds. If you have the time and have a need for higher volume, three rounds of each can be completed. If you find that you can complete the circuits significantly faster than this, it’s time to consider whether you are lifting enough weight and using challenging enough hang positions.

All of the above variants still address the main goals of Integrated Strength: big muscle work with finger strength training, a focus on mobility, and an efficient way to bring in all the critical components of strength for climbing.

 

Pinch Block with Kettlebell, Photo by Mei Ratz

by Steve Bechtel

I’ve been asked to weigh in more than a few times on various discussions on which was the “best” method of hangboard training. Although this is much like deciding which is the best dumbbell workout, it got me thinking. To truly decide what the best hangboard program for you is, you’ve got to know where you want to go. For my athletes, the hangboard is simply a tool we use to prevent injury and improve strength. I am not concerned with attempting to set any time records, hit a hangboard weight max, or improve endurance. I am interested in building a training plan that an athlete will actually follow for an entire training cycle. Finally, I am interested in a program that is simple to implement and that can be executed in a variety of training environments.

The general argument I’ve seen is between “repeaters” and “max strength” methods. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, I’ll briefly lay them out here. The max strength method is sort of where we started with hangboarding. You grab a small hold, hold it for a few seconds and rest. It was a simple, very effective program. I think that’s why we had to complicate it. It’s like the old saying goes “It worked so well, I stopped doing it.”

Today’s understanding of max strength is largely based on the work of Eva Lopez. An excellent sports scientist, Eva has developed very nice training program to be used with her Transgression hangboard. On her max strength program, you spend four weeks adding load for short duration sets on a medium-sized edge followed by a phase of doing short sets trying to reduce the hold size you use, without additional load. The whole program requires the Transgression board, which is brilliant, but unfortunately very expensive to purchase outside Europe. With this method, climbers work very close to their max ability to hold on to the edge, but the stimulus switches each phase which is designed both for avoiding injury and for continued gains in strength. The loading phases generally are just 5-10 seconds with three minutes’ rest between. Bottom line: High intensity, low volume.

 

The repeater method was originally developed by the Anderson brothers, and consists of brief loading periods(7-10 seconds) followed by brief rests(3-5 seconds), done in sets of 5-7 reps. This results in a load that is primarily borne by the anaerobic-lactic energy system rather than the alactic system. By definition, then, this is not a strength protocol, but a hypertrophy or strength-endurance protocol. Although the loading in this format is necessarily lower than one would be able to use in a max strength set, this is still an excellent way to condition the fingers for strength, especially within the context of rock climbing. Medium volume, medium intensity.

It has to be understood that these are very different programs, so saying one is “better” is nonsense. In truth, there is probably a time and place for each of these in one climber’s program. However, I think that both programs allow for focusing on loading too close to maximum for effective long-term improvements.

The research on gaining strength is fascinating. Yes, working close to your max is one way to get very strong, but it’s not the only way. This is particularly true in isometric training. Isometrics sort of “burst onto the scene” in 1953 when two German scientists reported 5% gains in strength per week with only one daily 6 second action at 66% of maximum. This almost incredible increase in strength gained a lot of attention and many follow-up studies. The result of the follow-ups was basically this: Yes, the strength gains are substantial, but they are only applicable within a very small range (joint angle variance). This limited the usefulness of isometrics for most sports, but it is just great for climbing.

Subsequent research shows that any number of set/rep combinations can yield effective results. Most interestingly, Davies and Young (1983) showed that seven daily 1-minute actions at 30% of max resulted in around a 30% gain in strength in just six weeks. Multiple studies done at varying percentages of maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) show similar results. Coupled with the relatively weak structure of the fingers, these findings tend to support using lower loads for isometric strength gains.

Several studies, including Garfinkel and Cafarelli’s landmark 1992 study, tend to show us two other important factors. First, longer-duration isometric actions tend to build greater strength than short actions. This counter-intuitive information might suggest that holding positions for ten or even 20 seconds could cause greater gains than loading heavy for five. Second, the total volume of load (duration x contraction) is more important than the degree of load. I’ll rephrase, because I had a hard time believing it: the time you spend under load in a given position is more important than how heavy the load is.

The best source of information on effective training programs is not sports science, but the actual training programs done by elite athletes. The smart scientists take this data and build their studies around it. Although we intuitively know that exercising close to our maximum (90%+) will lead us to the greatest gains in strength, there is a problem: our bodies can’t take it. The relatively low volume of exercise an athlete is capable of at this level compromises the plan’s effectiveness. Therefore, we see more and more that the optimal training load for gains in strength is in the 75-80% zone. This is not only shown in strength athletes’ programs, but in the research that followed. It also reflects the findings of the isometric studies above.

In many of the strength programs at our gym, we’ve abandoned the classic 3×3 or 5×5 approach, and have settled in at training our athletes at lighter loads. The benefits are many, including better execution, less fatigue, reduced injury, and less stress. If you give me a program that doesn’t smoke the athlete, but shows huge increases in strength, I’ll try it. If it works every time, I’ll buy it. The same basic principles that apply to strength training in the gym apply to the hangboard.

Couple this information with the knowledge that climbers frequently sustain injury on the hangboard, and the path becomes more clear: more time under tension with 70-80% loads meet all the criteria for a great program. If I can see great strength gains without having to use a weight belt, risk debilitating injury, or buy a specialized hangboard, that’s the program I’ll pick.

In the search for simplicity, I looked for a way to build a plan that would meet all the criteria of a great program:

  • simple to implement
  • no need for specialized boards
  • building strength at lower loads over a variety of hang times
  • repeatable over long training periods
  • very low risk of injury

In my mind, one of the best plans that fits these criteria is the Hangboard Ladder Program, or 3-6-9 as it’s popularly known. It goes like this:

Select 3-4 hold types or positions. You’ll stick with these throughout the 6 week phase, so pick well. I suggest full crimp, half crimp, and open hand. Again you could conceivably come up with several dozen hold types and combinations…but don’t. You have very little adaptive capacity, so don’t waste it. These three hold positions will get you where you need to be. All hangs will be done at bodyweight. Pick a hold that you can comfortably hold for 12-15 seconds.

Week 1: 3 straight ladders 3-6-9 sec. resting as needed. As soon as you start timing rest, you have left the path of strength. You should never feel pumped, tired, or sweaty. If fatigue comes into the session, make your rests longer.

this means:

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

Week 2: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 3: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 4: 3 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 5: 4 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 6: 5 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

In truth, you don’t even need to progress the volume that steeply. You can approach it much more organically, increasing loads as you see fit, or even add more “waviness”…adding in sharp increases and decreases in volume as the weeks go by. The top strength coaches all agree that loading must be varied, but the linear progression we’re used to isn’t always the best way to progress our training. Variability in volume is a big key – especially if you are on a plateau.

Want even more simple? Grab a small hold, hold it for a few seconds and rest.

When it comes to deciding which hangboard program is best, you need to understand that finger strength is earned over the long haul. Bearing this in mind, figure out what you’re willing to do a few days a week for the next very very long time. The best plan in the world won’t help if you won’t do it.