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Upper Body Training Favorites: Preparing for Rock Climbing
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
Looking for a pre-season strength program for injury-free rock climbing involving cable weight stacks and free weights common to most gyms? Even if you have never done any rock climbing before, it’s likely that you’ve seen some of the sleek, well-muscled torsos of sport climbers pulling themselves over overhung routes that look impossible from the ground. While much of climbing involves years of practice and developing flawless technique, some of what goes into success in climbing initially is appropriate preparation, including an overall strength and conditioning program.
Here we introduce you to some of the key upper body exercises that can help you develop the base strength needed to get into rock climbing condition with minimal risk of injury to the shoulders, elbow tendons and fingers. It has you work from largest muscle groups to smallest, taking advantage of super sets, which allow you to alternate between opposing muscle group exercises so that one group of muscles rests while the other works, and vice versa. This means you will be able to get a lot of work done in a short amount of time while simultaneously training the same energy systems you’ll be using when in the mountains. As always, when first starting a new workout program, take a week or two to figure out what the appropriate weights should be and work up toward the desired numbers of sets as you have time. If you have any pain, limited range of motion, or discomfort when trying any of the exercises below, you will need to focus on correcting those problems first before continuing to a more rigorous in-season program. Body Results trainers can help you determine the appropriate course of action to take.
Vertical pull: Pullups
Pullups are one of the most complete (and directly useful) upper body exercises climbers can include in their training during the pre-season to help develop vertical pulling strength in the forearms, lats, biceps, and fingers. However, many people (particularly women) seem to have difficulty doing full bodyweight pullups, especially after a winter of down time, so the floor-assisted version (pictured) provides a good intermediate training option similar in muscle recruitment to the machine-assisted Gravitron, but can be performed in a squat rack with a barbell at nose level, or a pullup bar set low in a doorjamb. We strongly recommend pullups or chinups over lat pull downs primarily for the similarity in core muscle recruitment that occurs when you’re forced to move your bodyweight, as opposed to pulling a bar down to your fixed torso.
How to perform it: Stand facing the bar with palms pronated (facing forward) and shoulder width apart, feet directly underneath your hips. Lower yourself so arms are nearly straight, with your torso under the bar and nearly vertical, then, using only as much assistance from your legs as needed, pull yourself back up until your chin clears the bar. Keep your abdominals tight throughout the exercise so that you prevent arching or overextending the back. Although completing this exercise with a pronated grip is a little harder than its cousin the chin-up (palms supinated, facing the chest) in rock climbing nine times out of ten your hands will be facing forward. If this puts too much strain on your lower back, you can set your heels on the floor in front of you or perform a pullup with feet on pins for assistance in a wide straddle. Another option is to stretch Jump Stretch bands or bungie cords horizontally across low pins beneath your knees and use the assistance to help you get out of the bottom position where it’s hardest.
How to Include It: Perform 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions to increase upper body muscular endurance for the first 3 weeks, with about 2-3 minutes of rest between sets. If you start to feel any elbow strains, put at least 48 hours between climbing days and pull up days, change your pullup grip (narrow, wide, supinated, pronated, use dowels, or wrap a towel around the bar to make it easier on your tendons) or include reverse curls with dumbbells to strengthen opposing muscle groups in the arms. Stretching the biceps and forearms can also help.
Variations on a Theme: After 3-4 weeks, try what's called your 1-repetition maximum (1RM) and see if you are able to do a full bodyweight pull up on your own. If you can, keep going and see how many you can do with good form. 2) Try having only one foot touching the floor at a time so you are less likely to use your legs for help. 3) Try splitting legs out wide and only letting tops of toes touch, rather than soles of the feet, so that you will use more arm strength. 4) Try doing partial repetitions by keeping a slight bend in your elbows instead of releasing all the way down. 5) Once every 10 days or so, do negatives, the lowering-only part of the movement: start with chin above bar and feet totally off the floor and take as long as possible to slowly lower body all the way to straight arm hang. Once you can hang onto the bar for 45-60 seconds, you should be able to do several pullups on your own!
Vertical Push: Overhead Presses
Try alternating between this exercise and pullups, discussed above. Feel free to use a barbell, EZ bar, thick bar, or dumbbells; some people might also choose to use kettlebells. This exercise is great for 1) developing core strength in the abdominals and lower back; 2) working shoulders and triceps; 3) balancing out the opposing muscles involved so strongly in vertical pulling to help maintain shoulder integrity. To perform it, stay lifted and tall in the torso, tense the abs and exhale while you lift, inhale as you lower. Grasp the implement(s) to be lifted (model is using a thick barbell) and stand with a fairly wide grip (just outside shoulders). Exhale as you press up forcefully, leaning back slightly to use more chest but DO NOT overextend beyond a range that is comfortable for you. I advise standing over seated presses to mimic the body position more similar to climbing and to allow you to use more weight. Try including 2-3 sets of anywhere from 4-15 repetitions depending on whether you’re training primarily for strength (4-8 reps), hypertrophy (8-12 reps) or muscular endurance (12-15 reps).
Horizontal Pull: Cable Rows to Face
Because climbing is so dominantly a vertical pulling activity, in order to prevent “belay neck” (the forward-chin posture so common among climbers) and to aid in proper posture, it’s important to also strengthen the upper back muscles, particularly the rhomboids and posterior deltoids. Any horizontal rowing exercise (including bent over barbell rows, 1-arm dumbbell rows, torso-supported machine rows, etc.) can be modified to target the rhomboids by keeping the upper arms at a right angle to the torso. For the seated cable rope row to the face (pictured), sit at a seated row or low pulley system with a rope attachment. Grasp knot in rope with thumbs and forefingers, rather than the heel of the hand. Keep your wrists neutral, shoulders relaxed, and elbows high as you pull rope and hands toward your face. Choose a fairly light weight (much lighter than you can use on a seated row with hands coming in toward ribs). Perform 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions to build local endurance in the upper back and shoulder muscles.
Horizontal Push: Triceps Pushups or Narrow Dumbbell Presses
To work the opposing muscle group to the horizontal pull, include triceps pushups or narrow dumbbell bench presses. This movement is quite similar to the standard bench press or pushup, except you will keep palms parallel (neutral grip) and keep the elbows in close to your ribs. Perform 2-4 sets of 6-10 repetitions and alternate between this and cable rope rows. These two variations help develop the pushing muscles in the triceps and shoulders as they’re used in stemming and mantling.
Forward Flexion: Abdominals
The Hanging Knee Raise exercise with all its variations is great for developing endurance in fingers and forearms while targeting the abdominals, obliques (by adding any twists) and hip flexors to assist in conquering challenging overhanging routes. To increase the difficulty, you can add ankle weights to each leg or hold a dumbbell between your knees. Avoid developing a lot of momentum by controlling the movement, and only lower your thighs to parallel to the floor. Try 2-3 sets of as many reps as you can do, building up to 10-12. Other variations include straightening the legs and lifting your feet as high as possible, or alternating one leg at a time, bringing the foot up and across the mid-line to incorporate the obliques.
Back Extension: Lower Back
The Weighted Back Extension develops strength in the lower back, as well as (to a lesser extent) the glutes and hamstrings. Simply add a weight plate or dumbbell across your chest, place a weight behind the head, or toss a medicine ball to a partner standing 4-6 feet in front of you for increased difficulty. If you opt to use a medicine ball, hold it in both hands down towards the floor, and as you smoothly raise up to parallel to the floor, release the ball out in front of you parallel to the floor and have your partner hand it back to you before you release to starting position. Exhale as you lift up, inhale and lower under control. Do 2-3 sets of 6-15 repetitions.
Rotation: Medicine Ball Oblique Twists
This exercise (a favorite of ours, also featured in “Alpine Core Training: Beyond the Floor” LINK) helps you develop strength for awkward belays of fast-moving climbing partners, rescues, and drop-knee, hips-to-wall climbing positions (including stems and chimneys) in which you have to twist your body to complete a move. To develop rotational strength in the obliques, and static strength in the hip flexors, abdominals and lower back, sit on the floor with feet flat and knees bent roughly 45 degrees, and clasp a medicine ball or dumbbell in both hands. Lean back until you feel the abdominals tighten, ball held in front of the body about 12-18 inches, and then twist side to side, forming a rainbow arc with the weight above the body, starting with the ball close to you, and then as you feel stronger and more comfortable with the movement, straighten the arms farther from the body. To increase difficulty, add weight, lean back farther, or increase the distance between body and ball. Include 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions to each side (count of 16-24 total).
Perhaps the most important muscles for climbing (besides the lats) are those in the forearms that control the fingers. There’s no way around it: climbing requires a lot from the tiny tendons, ligaments, and muscles of the hand and fingers. In order to keep fingers and elbows healthy, you need to embark on a suitable program designed so that you avoid overtraining. See www.bodyresults.asp/S2Preseason3.asp for additional suggestions. One good exercise to train supporting strength in all the muscles of the hands, fingers, and forearms, as well as strength in the core and legs, is the Farmer's Walk, aptly named (I imagine) because of the close resemblance to farmers carrying heavy buckets of slop or milk great distances back in what my folks fondly refer to as the “olden days.” Hold a substantial dumbbell or grip training device (shown here, 70# dumbbells) in each hand and walk 100 feet before setting the weights down and allowing adequate rest time for your forearms and fingers. Repeat for the desired number of sets.
Forearm Stretch: To stretch the muscles near your wrists and forearms, bring the palms together with fingers pointed up toward ceiling and slowly slide them downward until you feel a stretch in the inner wrist area (for some, this might be when forearms are aligned, parallel to the floor; others might be rather tight and not be able to keep heels of hands together.) Hold 20-30 seconds. Do this stretch during mid-climb to help provide temporary relief from a flash pump and allow you to continue climbing longer; find a good rest stance, shake out one arm at a time, and press the palm to the rock or wall with fingers down and away.
Remember to cool down and stretch following completion of the strength and climbing workouts. Cardiovascular exercise can be done before, after, or as a separate session, depending on your unique goals, timetable, and training schedule. If you feel your 'weakness' is strength training, put that at the beginning of your workout while you are fresh. If you know you have a muscle group that needs more attention than the others, include that exercise earlier in the workout (known as “priority training.”) Keep in mind that as you spend more and more time climbing (closer to season) you may have to decrease the frequency or intensity of your strength workouts. Use strength training to balance your weaknesses and prevent injury, and if on a given day you notice that you’re weaker than a previous workout, you may not have had enough recovery time. Pay particular attention to your elbow tendons and fingers.
When training for climbing (an activity that puts a lot of pressure on smaller muscles in the forearms, fingers, and on elbow tendons), try to always keep a reserve of 2 repetitions when doing strength training (Rating of Perceived Exertion) – in other words, do NOT train to failure, especially if you’re including gym climbing regularly. It’s simply too difficult for the body to recover between workouts. We also recommend that for best results, limit or avoid the following training mechanisms altogether: 1) training with machines--they may be poorly suited to your body mechanics or dimensions, limit your range of motion, or require little in terms of balance and core strength, or; 2) High Intensity Training (HIT), or 1-set only strength training to failure (again, too tough on the nervous system, and not enough volume/endurance to suffice for progress in climbing); 3) traditional bodybuilding programs, especially those focused primarily at inducing hypertrophy, rather than enhancing performance – the goal of strength training for the climber should be to develop appropriate levels of strength, NOT size, and maintain muscle balance in order to prevent injury; or 4) SuperSlow training (“train slow, be slow”) for optimal results.