Strength Training for Rock Climbing (Part 3)

By Steve Bechtel

There was never supposed to be a third part to this article, but I’ve received a few good questions about what was in the first two parts, and I’d like to elaborate.

One of the biggest misconceptions about resistance training is the belief that it can directly ¬†improve your sport performance. Resistance training among top-level athletes is very common, if not universal. However, its use and applicability decline with highly skill-oriented sports. Climbing is just such a sport. The popularity of “elite fitness” programs, and even high intensity resistance programs aimed directly at climbers only proves this point. It doesn’t matter how badass you get in the weight room, resistance training will not make you a better rock climber if it is not coupled with large amounts of skill practice.

Resistance training, though, can do a lot for your climbing indirectly. Let’s look at a few ways this happens:

1) Regular strength training will increase your total work capacity. What this means is that you will be able to do more total work per week, per month, and per year (especially important as you age). This means you will be capable of more climbing days, and therefore have the opportunity to improve your climbing.

2) Resistance training for strength or work capacity really helps in other kinds of climbing. Alpine climbing, big walls, and ice climbing all feature a greater “work to climbing” ratio than technical rock climbing or bouldering. Rarely are we limited on walls by our climbing ability – it’s almost always a lack of “tough” that leads to failure.

3) Being strong will extend your career. Athletes who engage in regular strength training significantly delay age-related declines in performance. By keeping the muscles of the core, shoulder, and hip girdle strong, you are looking at up to 10 more years at close to your top performance levels.

4) Related to the previous point, regular strength training will help you remain injury free. The more you keep those muscle imbalances in check, and the more you keep your muscle groups working properly together, the better off you’ll be.

For older male climbers (30+) and all females, we now recommend at least a maintenance-level strength program, year-round. By selecting the right exercises and keeping the intensity high, you should be able to get by on as little as an hour a week (usually 2 x 30 min sessions) during parts of the season.

Which parts of the season? When you are trying to climb your hardest routes. A few sets of very heavy squats and pulls is not going to blow your weekend redpoint.

A final point on strength training for any skill sport: Your supplemental resistance training should never take more than about 15-20% of your total training time. If you climb 4 hours a week, a couple 30 minute strength sessions are all you should do. If you climb 20 hours a week, you can consider doing up to 3 hours of weight training. If your supplemental training is kicking your ass, you’re training improperly for rock climbing.

Adding weights to improve your alpine climbing fitness, wall climbing, or multi-day stamina is different. None of these things require the same type of fitness that hard rock climbing does, so the training should reflect that. Most of the articles here are aimed very specifically at rock climbers. The principles can be extrapolated to “down” to bouldering or “up” to longer climbs, but not always with perfect results.

Always keep your goal in mind. Every training session you do should aim toward this goal. Every session should have a reason behind it, and fatigue should never be that reason.

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