In climbing, there is an old adage stating that "climbing is the best training for climbing,” an adage used by many to make excuses for not training outside of climbing. I personally disagree with this philosophy as I will explain.
When we are speaking of the exact skills needed in climbing, how and when to step, climbing techniques and mental skills, there is no substitute for the activity of climbing itself.
However, in order to develop strength levels specific to the sport of climbing such as improving grip strength and upper body strength and endurance climbing will produce very limited or even no results or improvements.
One of the main reasons climbing isn’t good for strength training is because in climbing failure is not an option. If you have muscular failure while climbing, it may very well prove fatal. So the goal while climbing is to avoid this completely.
Alternatively, when one is strength training for climbing, one wants to reach and even pass the point of muscular failure as it is this very act that causes the body to respond with an increase in strength to adapt to the stress being placed on it. So the two methods are mutually exclusive and you will never achieve maximum strength by climbing alone.
Another example that reinforces the disparity between climbing and strength training for climbing is the way in which you grip the rock. In climbing, the rock demands the climber to use a random variety of many different grip positions and, at times, you may even deliberately vary the way you grip the rock.
As a result, it's unlikely that any single grip position will ever get worked maximally and, therefore, the individual grip positions (e.g. crimp, open hand, pinch, etc.) are slow to increase strength.
This should help you understand why a full season of climbing may indeed improve your anaerobic endurance (i.e. endurance of strength), but do little to increase you absolute maximum grip strength.
Therefore, varying grip positions is a great strategy for maximizing endurance when climbing for performance, but it will never work for training maximum grip strength. Effective finger strength training demands you target a specific grip position and work it until failure, which can only be done safely in a non climbing environment.
Finally, it could be better for some climbers to participate in cross training with other activities that are not particularly sport-specific. As an example someone who needs to lose weight should spend the majority of their non-climbing time performing aerobic activity to burn off the excess body fat as it is essential that a climber be as lean as possible for optimum performance.
If someone is totally devoid of at least some modicum of fitness, they would be better off doing some circuit training that will give them both strength and aerobic benefits.
Here are 10 training exercises that will help you improve your performance so you can make the most of your time on the rock.
Open Crimp Hand Position (Photo: Climbing.com)
1. Finger Hangs
Unlike doing a pull-up where your full grip is on the bar, you will only be using your fingers on a ledge. The idea is to suspend your body without your fingers wrapping around something, like a pull-up bar. You want your fingers to remain open as you hang from a ledge in an open crimp position. 3 seconds on / 3 seconds off for a minute. Start small, gradually work your way up overtime to 5 and then 10 seconds on and off.
Closed Crimp Hand Position (Photo: Climbing.com)
2. Finger Pull-Ups
Now that you fingers are nice and warmed up, let’s get our upper body and core into play. You will want to adjust your grip to a closed crimp position.
Tip: If you are just starting out try to get your body at least to the halfway point, where your elbows are bent at a 90 degree angle and then hold that position for as long as you can. After a few weeks you should start to see a noticeable improvement to where you can get your chin up above your hands.
3. Finger Planks
These are great for improving overall finger and core strength. Get into a pushup position with your arms fully extended but stay on your finger tips. Hold for as long as you can. Similar to the Finger Hangs, hold for 10 seconds on 10 seconds rest, or 30 seconds… challenge yourself!
Most people will think of rock climbing as pulling yourself up the face of the rock, but it is important to have the strength to push yourself up as well. This position in climbing is known as mantling. Dips are a great way to work your triceps and back to strengthen this area.
Tip: If you can’t go full body weight then start off doing some dips in with your hands on a chair behind you and your feet on a chair in front of you.
5. Spiderman Pushups
These are one of my favorite. Get in the traditional pushup position. Now, everytime you go down, bring one of your legs off the ground and bring your knee to the outside of your body towards your elbow. If you can touch your elbow, awesome! Just do your best. Alternate legs each time you go down.
6. Hanging Leg Raises
Hang from a pull up bar so that your arms are fully extended. Keep your legs straight and bring your feet up as far as you can so that your body looks like an “L”. If you can raise your legs further go for it.
Tip: If you are struggling, start off by bringing your knees to your chest. Then work your way up to straight leg raises.
7. Burpees (One leg if you’re feeling fancy)
Good old fashion burpees seem to be good for just about everything. This will improve your explosiveness and coordination. Burpees are performed by starting in a standing position. Kick your feet back and drop your hands to the floor so that you are in a pushup position. Do one pushup. Then kick your feet up to you hands so you are squatting. Now reach for the ceiling and jump as high as you can. When you land, immediately kick your feet back to a pushup position and begin the cycle again.
Tip: If you want to up the intensity a notch, do the whole cycle on one leg. Switch legs every 5 to 10 reps.
8. Pushup with a One Arm Row
Get a pair of dumbbells and place them on the floor shoulders width apart. Lay down in a pushup position but instead of your hands being on the floor, hold the handles of the dumbbell. Keep your feet about shoulders width apart. When you come up from the pushup, bring one elbow back, bringing the dumbbell straight up to your ribs. Alternate arms on every pushup. Make sure that your body is perfectly straight during the whole exercise.
Tip: If you are unable to keep your body straight, drop to your knees instead of performing the move on your toes.
9. Shoulder Press
Stand with your feet shoulders width apart. With a pair of dumbbells, lift one at a time to shoulder height so that your palms are facing forward. Slowly raise the weights up over your head until they touch, then slowly lower them back down to shoulder level. Repeat.
Tip: If you feel like showing off. You can do these from a handstand position with your feet back against a wall. No weights, just your body. We don’t recommend starting off with this but if you are up for the challenge go for it.
Ready to burn? I saved this one for last because you are going to be hurting on this. But, you will also notice the most increase in your pulling power and endurance with this move.
Hate me now... thank me later.
Do one traditional pull-up on a pull-up bar but when you hit the top, press your chest against the bar and hold for 5 seconds. Count out loud so you don’t cheat!! Now lower your body all the way down to a full hang. Come back up, but this time don’t pause at the top. After your chin goes above the bar, lower your body half way down so that your elbows are at a 90 degree angle. Count for 5 seconds. Then all the way down. Last one, come all the way up then pause ⅔ of the way down (or elbows at 120 degrees). Count for 5 seconds, then all the way down.
Congrats! You just did one set, but no resting!! Continue on starting at the beginning.
Overall. Some of these moves are clearly not meant for novices. Take your time and modify as needed. Of course, consult a physician before attempting any of these moves. With time your strength and endurance will increase drastically.
Enjoy the workout and results.
For great training equipment for climbing we highly recommend Backcountry.com. They are an industry leader for all things outdoors and we found that they have an incredible variety of training equipment that will get you into shape for your next big climb. From training boards to campus rungs to hold sets and more. Check them out!