Strength Training for Rock Climbing

It’s very easy to confuse hard work and getting strong with effective training. A good training plan, particularly one that’s designed with a specific sport in mind, should look to supplement and improve you in that sport. It’s very easy to help you add weights on to a bar and lift them for the sake of getting strong, but does that help you improve in your sport? What’s more, adding strength to poor or ineffective technique will only reinforce poor technique.

This article isn’t a definitive guide on how to be a better climber, but it will outline some basic programmes and principles that will help you improve as a climber.

To clarify, strength training and hypertrophy training (size training) are not mutually exclusive. When it comes to rock climbing an increase in mass isn’t helpful – you’re looking to improve your power to weight ratio, not create more weight to carry up the crag.

Strength training vs. hypertrophy

Strength training focuses on the ability to lift maximal loads (85% 1RPM upwards) for minimum reps (no more than 5). This will predominantly train the nervous system and not cause muscle fatigue and damage. Hypertrophy training looks to work between 65-85% 1RPM and cause a lactate response and break down muscle fibers to rebuild them bigger. Although the same exercises may be used, different protocols such as reps, sets, tempo, training frequency and nutritional planning will differentiate strength training from hypertrophy training.

Every programme will vary depending on numerous factors such as skill level of the climber, age, weight, body composition, hormonal profile, etc. An effective programme will focus on the weakest points of the climber’s ability and look to improve them.

Climbers rely heavily on the ATP-CP energy system (the easiest, most readily available energy for muscular work). This system can only last 10-15 seconds so it is important to be able to perform a movement as quickly and efficiently as possible when climbing. By improving strength, we won’t be able to increase the length of time the ATP-CP system can work for but we can improve its recovery time for it to be fully restocked.

When looking at a sport that we want to improve in via strength training we have a number of considerations and aims:

  • mimic sport specific movements
  • mimic sport specific energy pathways
  • progressively overload the system to cause improvements
  • avoid anything that will have a negative impact on sport performance
  • injury prevention

Specific movements and exercises for rock climbing

There’s no need to try and reinvent the wheel when it comes to exercise selection and programme design. Simply look at the basic movement patterns and try to replicate them in your strength sessions.

Basic movements of rock climbing:
Upper body pulls such as pull ups and rows
Upper body press such as bench press, shoulder press and dips
Lower body multi-joints movements such as pistol squats, sumo squats, lunges and step ups
Hip hinge or posterior chain exercises like deadlifts, (Romanian and sumo) glute bridges and kettlebell swings
Grip strength exercises such as finger press ups, ball squeezes and pinch grips

Example rock climbing fitness training session

Complete 5 sets of 5 reps on the following exercises, using a controlled 2-2-1 tempo.
•    Wide grip pull ups
•    Press ups on finger tips
•    Sumo deadlifts
•    Pistol squats

This routine should take no longer than 30-40 minutes. The idea is to train the nervous system to be able to lift as much weight as possible, not to exhaust the muscles. These training ideas are meant to create specific climbing strength, which will also help with technique and therefore performance.

This style of session is not a replacement for specific climbing sessions, but to supplement them.

This is a guest blog post written by experienced personal trainer and former professional Thai boxer, Alan O’Mahony of VC Fitness.