By Steve Bechtel

Fingers aren’t the only part of a climber that can be weak. On hard routes and particularly in bouldering, we often see arm and back strength as a limiting factor. The ability to move between holds effectively, to lock off on holds, and the ability to keep your body close to the stone can all be improved by increasing upper body strength.

The muscles of the upper back and arms can be strengthened many ways. One can climb in specific ways and on certain types of problems, use a systems or campus board, or use traditional resistance training methods.

Any specific supplemental training should be started only when a weakness has been identified that can clearly be rectified by this type of training. It is important to understand that all training takes valuable time, and thus you should only train toward goals that you think are worth your time commitment.

Arm and back musculature should be trained as specifically as possible. In order of specificity, our training modes are as follows:

  1. Train specific movements in a climbing environment. Take care to note that repeated overload and bilateral development (using both arms equally) will earn better results. This might include climbing on steep ground, using difficult hold positions, or working on pulling holds very low. Note that it is very hard to train strength at the crag. This is better done at the gym.
  2. Train strength on a systems board. Don’t just climb; use big holds and use a systematic and progressive attitude toward this workout. The systems wall is a great tool to see measurable and balanced results.

System training walls can be used for several different training purposes. For the intent of improving arm and back strength, exercises should be limited to BIG holds and feature:

– 4 or fewer exercises per workout

– 3-5 sets of each exercise

– 1-4 movements per hand

– 2-10 seconds per movement

Suggested system board exercises include: Lock-offs (underclings, side-pulls, gastons, and straight pulls) Foot drops, High step/lock-off, One-arm pulls, Downclimbing, and Typewriter-type exercises

  1. Use traditional resistance training to gain upper body strength. This might include pull-ups, planks, ladders, or weights. Keep in mind that isometric (static) and eccentric (negative) components of movements are usually as important as concentric movements in climbing. Think specificity at all times. It is terribly easy to fall into the 3×10 mentality if you are stuck in a weight room. Training strength and bodybuilding are not the same thing.

When planning your workout, keep strength in mind. Workouts should feature:

– 2-4 exercises

– 2-4 sets each

– 2-4 reps per exercise

Intensity has to be very high with plenty of rest between exercises. Fatigue does not increase strength. If you are getting pumped, you are not resting enough.

Upper body training can integrate well with core training, as the muscle groups are almost always used in concert. Some examples in the weight room might include L-pull-ups, knees-to-elbows, and x-planks. Because the training of core and upper body are complementary, it makes sense to train them during the same sessions.

Suggested exercises in the weight room might include:



Curl and hold

Tricep press with hold

Dumbbell rows




Uneven grip pull-ups

In closing, keep in mind that any worthwhile training plan should show results. If you don’t notice a significant improvement in strength after 4-6 weeks, your plan is flawed. If you designed it yourself, go back to the drawing board and review your principles. If someone else put together the plan, fire him. After a few months of focusing on strength, move to training endurance or power for a month or so. If you still feel weak, come back to strength and get after it.

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