Leg Strength as a Limiting Factor, Revisited

By Steve Bechtel

This is a re-post of my article “Leg Strength as a Limiting Factor” published in 2009. I’ve updated it with a few more ideas and a couple of videos that better illustrate the exercises.

Sure, your fingers peel off the hold and you fall, but is it always the fingers’ fault? How strong must your fingers get before they are “strong enough?” For novice climbers, finger strength and arm strength are real and legitimate limiters, often holding the climber at a low level of performance until these facets of strength catch-up with the rest of the body. For most intermediate and advanced climbers, finger strength is pretty well developed. The fact of the matter is that until the angle of the climb hits horizontal, you’re doing the heavy lifting with your legs. At least you should be…

See, your legs are much stronger than your arms; in an average person, the legs are able to push roughly four times as much weight as the arms can pull. What’s more, the legs have an even better advantage when it comes to endurance. Give this a try, just so you see where I’m coming from: See how many pull-ups you can do in five minutes and compare that to the number of unloaded squats you can do. This should give you a good approximation of the endurance ratio. If you’d like to test out the strength ratio, switch over to one-leg step-ups on a bench or step a little higher than knee-level. See how many of these you can do with just one leg. Then go ahead and do as many one-arm pull-ups you can do in the same amount of time.

It’s a really rare climber that can do more with his arms than with his legs in either one of these tests. We all know the legs are strongest, but are they strong enough? Could you stand up right now, put your foot up on the desk, and stand on the desk using only that leg? How many times have you placed a foot on a good edge (or ledge) and still had to pull like crazy to stand up on it? The legs are capable of doing lots of work, so let’s make sure they are doing everything possible to save that precious and limited arm strength.

A good place to start is with good old squats and step-ups. If you’re one of the many climbers that get stuck in a weight room for much of their training you can do these exercises there. Since we never use both legs in the same plane and at the same load in the real world of climbing, I prefer the following unilateral exercises for building leg strength:

Step-up

Single-Leg Squat

Rear-Foot Elevated (Bulgarian) Split Squat

For building strength, you’re going to want to stick with low reps and full ranges of motion. Take your time working up to heavy weight if you’re not used to training like this.

Secondarily, we can look at the strength of the lower leg, foot, and “posterior chain,” most notably the hamstrings.

For strengthening these assistance groups, we use similar loads, but different exercises.

Calves and hamstrings don’t see a lot of concentric movement in climbing, but they do see some. For these groups we aim for slow, controlled repetitions or even static holds.

The exercises:

Calf Raise (+Calf Raise with hold)

Deadlift (or Romanian Deadlift)

Suspended Leg Curl

How often should you do these? My quick answer is only often enough to continue to progress. If you need it in terms of days per week, I’d say 2-3. How many sets? A couple. How many reps? Start with 4-6 per leg. Your best strength gains will come with lower reps, but if you haven’t been training strength, you’ll want to spend some time learning the movements under lighter loads.

Once you’re in the groove getting strong, start applying it to climbing. Try to think about how to use the big strong legs you’ve found to take weight off your hands. One of the most valuable things I’ve ever done in my climbing is to watch how my wife does a move and to then try and replicate it. Although she is very strong, she doesn’t tend to waste this energy when she can be more economical by using her legs. Just this trick alone led me to my first major step up the grades in over ten years.

It takes about twenty sessions of climbing with “use your legs” in the front of your mind before you can do it without thinking. Once you reach this point, you’re better already and can move on to fixing other weak links, and I’m willing to bet it’s not weak fingers.

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