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.
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. “Charlie, 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 “strong 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.
We call this the island workout, just like “what 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.
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 “C” 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!
Front Squat – 5
Hip flexor stretch – 3 reps on each leg
Kettlebell Swing – 10
60 seconds frog stretch
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.