Strength Training for Rock Climbing (Part 2)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Upper Body Press – This can be a bench press, push-up variation, or an overhead press.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

An example:

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.

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