By Steve Bechtel
In part one of this article, I talked about why many climbers should consider supplementing their climbing-specific training with resistance training. In this article, I’ll talk about how. First, let me say that I think resistance training is terribly misunderstood and misused by climbers. When we talk about strength training with weights we are not talking about bodybuilding and we are not talking about conditioning. When we train for strength we want to:
- address sport-specific motor patterns
- address sport-specific metabolic pathways
- progressively overload the system to cause an improvement in force generation
- avoid doing anything that will negatively affect our climbing
There are several popular group training programs available today that utilize many of the strength training exercises you’ll end up using as a climber. While the exercises might be similar, the framework in which they are used differs. Understand that developing a high level of non-specific work capacity will not help most climbers. This kind of workout may be appropriate for novices who are unfit and in need of general conditioning and for expert-level climbers that have maximally developed their climbing technique. For most of us, the damage done by random, high-intensity “workout of the day” efforts is huge; you might not get injured, but you are likely diminishing your ability to train effectively for climbing.
If you elect to do training directed by someone else, check their qualifications. A weekend seminar does not make a good strength coach. Ask some questions. Make sure the training they are asking you to do is tailored to your goals. Ask them to explain how their program is going to help you develop strength specific to rock climbing. Anyone who talks “elite fitness” or scalability within a general plan as a method of improving your climbing should be fired immediately.
End of rant.
Getting back to specificity, we like to use movement patterns similar to what a climber might experience on the rock. This is called motor specificity. We also want to use exercise durations, muscle actions, and loads that lead toward our end goal of strength. This is called metabolic specificity. Exercises can be either motor specific, metabolic specific, or both. The more of both you have, the better.
To develop appropriate strength for climbing we want to use complex, multi-joint movements at loads high enough that the body will adapt by getting stronger rather than getting bigger. Remember that there is a huge misconception that heavy training leads to bulk. Not so. It is high-volume, medium-load training that is most effective for building size (i.e. 8 sets of 12 reps).
There is a clear and incontrovertible relationship between increases in body mass and a reduction in relative strength. Since climbing is all about relative strength, we need to be obsessive about staying as light as possible. Once we get you good and strong, we need to focus on fat loss and ideal body composition, so we can work on the other side of the equation.
I mentioned progressive overload. Don’t skimp on this. Strength training does not happen one session at a time, but rather over a prolonged period of weeks and months. The more advanced you are in your athleticism, the longer it will take you to see an improvement in strength.
As a general outline, our athletes train strength on this kind of schedule:
Off-Season (several weeks out from performance climbing): 3 sessions per week, 3-5 exercises, 4 sets each, 1-4 reps (working at 85%+ of 1RM)
Pre-Season: (in the 4-6 weeks before a “peaking” time): 2 sessions per week, 2-4 exercises, 3 sets each, 1-3 reps (85%+ of 1RM)
In-Season: (during a peak climbing time): 1-2 sessions per week, 2-4 exercises, 2-3 sets each, 1-6 reps (75%+ of 1RM)
Often, these sessions take less than 30 minutes, which seems like a very short time to spend in the gym. We usually combine this training with a climbing gym session, as we have both a weight room and a climbing gym in our facility. I understand that this is not always the case.
We pick the specific exercises based on movement patterns rather than “muscle groups.” In general, we opt for ground-based exercises using free weights. When setting up the workouts, we always look for the bare minimum of weight-training time that will still yield results; unless you love weightlifting, gym time runs counter to what most climbers really enjoy.
The movements we pick are pretty simple. We look for 4 basic patterns in each of our sessions:
- Upper Body Pull – This is usually a rowing motion. Pull-up type exercises also qualify for this group, but I think they are inferior to the row for rock climbers.
- Upper Body Press – This can be a bench press, push-up variation, or an overhead press.
- Lower Body Multi-Joint – For climbers we like lunges, step-ups, and single-leg squats. Bilateral exercises such as squats and front squats are fine, but harder to do correctly and are somewhat less specific; you very rarely press with both legs on the same plane at the same time.
- Hip Hinge or Posterior Chain – These exercises help balance the strength of the quadriceps, as well as developing the strength of the low back and hamstrings. We like deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and even some kettlebell movements for this part of the workout.
To make things efficient, we set up a typical 4-exercise session, doing bi-sets (supersets).
Do 3 sets each of the following pairs:
A1: 4-6 1-arm inverted rows
A2: 4-6 1-leg squat
B1: 4-6 dumbbell bench press
B2: 2-4 deadlift
Rest 30-60 seconds between exercises and 2-3 minutes between groups.
When we set up strength programs, we are looking at what gives us the greatest return per unit of training time. Many people look at a plan like the one I’ve listed above and comment that it looks easy, that the sets are too short to be very hard. Any climber that’s tried a V-double-digit boulder problem knows that the “short=easy” mentality is flawed.
The training ideas listed above are designed to help climbers create greater full-body strength, which can then lead to better technical execution of specific climbing movements. This style of session is not a replacement for climbing movements.
Tags: Specificity, Strength Standards, Strong, Training, Weight Training
What would be some of the kettlebell movements you are talking about in the posterior chain exercises?
I like KB Swing and variations, KB Sumo Deadlift, and even heavy KB cleans.
Great article, thank you. I’m a strength coach who has climbed but have had a few climbers recently come looking for some supplemental work and this is very helpful.
I thought I’d point out to Ulfar that many people new to KB swings often focus on swinging the KB up, using their upperbody and shoulders, but it should be a powerful hipdrive that sends the KB up to eye level, thus targeting the posterior chain. The arms are merely their as ropes and controlling the movement.
I’m really interested to understand why you see the row as a superior exercise to the pull-up for rock climbers, is it because of the range of motion for the scapula that the row will allow compared to the pull-up? Or that the specificity of the pull-up is too close to actual climbing that there’s a higher risk of overuse injuries? Would really love to have your insight on this, thanks for the awesome articles!
The pull-up is a good exercise, but when the rock tips past vertical, rowing is by far the more sport-specific motion. When pulling vertically along the same plane as the torso, the pull-up is more specific…but in these cases you would normally have feet on the wall below you. If a climber is particularly weak in the vertical pull, I think pull-ups are fine.
Great article series thanks
1. Would you keep exercises same for each workout (ie doing same workout 3x pw)?
2. If yes, how often do you change exercises?
3. How would you periodize and progress the load over time to ensure consistent progress?
1. Personally, I like to change it up. This leads to slower progress in each movement, but I’m not really concerned with progress in the weight room as much as on the rock. I generally build an A, B, and C workout that follows the same structure, but with different exercises. For example, workout A might have pull-ups, B might be inverted rows, and C single arm lock-offs. If there is a primary strength goal or specific weakness, we can focus a bit more, but this is rare.
2. We change exercises every 8-12 sessions. In the model above, then, that would be every 8-12 weeks.
3. For this, I find the block planning model in Logical Progression 2 the best. In general, We follow the same 8-12 week model, but then switch foci between max strength, explosiveness, and stability-focused sessions.
Found this article really useful and I’m planning to incorporate this into my training, although I’m having some trouble understanding how one would preform the rest periods in between supersets. Would you preform the exercise like (A1, rest 30-60 sec, A2, rest 30-60 sec) x 3 then rest 2-3 min (removing the last rest after the last A2), then doing (B1, rest 30-60 sec, B2, rest 30-60 sec) ? I’m new to weight training and such so I don’t fully grasp concepts which might be obvious to people who know more.
In general we tell people to rest as needed, but a lot of athletes end up “seeking fatigue” in these workouts – trying to get tired as soon as possible. If you do exercise 1, rest 30+ seconds before beginning exercise 2. This is usually just transition time between stations, but you should make sure it is enough. There is really no practical upper limit, so as you get stronger, more rest will be needed, and should be taken. This might mean 2-3 minutes between sets. After exercise 2, rest the same amount before returning to exercise 1. Repeat this pattern until you complete all sets of each exercise.
After doing the full number of sets for a pair, you’d then take a slightly longer rest before moving on to the second group of exercises. This can be as long as you need to set up the weights, or even longer…again, we don’t want to get fatigued or pumped when getting stronger.