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Sport Specific > Climbing-Rock > Climbing Conditioning

Climbing Conditioning Essentials

New to sport or alpine climbing? Interested in improving your climbing performance between now and next April? Concerned about overuse injuries? Weíve compiled a list of "Ten Essentials" for climbing conditioning that will help you maintain muscle balance, prevent overuse injuries that commonly occur in climbing gyms, and prepare your for your climbing projects both in the gym and outside. Each is a bodyweight exercise that requires minimal equipment and can be done in the privacy of your own home, with a few gym alternatives where appropriate. This workout is especially valuable for climbers not involved in any other cross-training and for beginning to intermediate level climbers. If you currently have a strength training routine, you may find that adding or substituting several of the following exercises will help you avoid developing imbalances, ultimately preventing injury and strains.

If you do not yet have a climbing strength routine, then do the following exercises in the order suggested, starting with a set of 10-12 repetitions for the first workout. This will allow you to master the form, see how the exercises feel, and see how your muscles feel a few days after doing the workout. In general, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends performing a single set of 8-12 repetitions for each of the major muscle groups, 2-3 times a week, with at least 48 hours of rest between strength sessions. Feel free to add a 2nd or even 3rd set, as time allows. However, if you donít have an hour for strength training, no worries! A short strength workout is better than no strength workout, and this workout can be done in about 20 minutes, once you are familiar with the exercises. Be sure to get your physicianís approval if you have been injured or inactive in the recent past, and progress gradually.


Before jumping into any strengthening routine, make sure you warm up for 5-10 minutes by performing some sort of cardiovascular activity to break a light sweat and prepare tendons, ligaments and muscles for more strenuous activity. This could be stationary biking, brisk walking or jogging, jumping rope, or the like. You could also do strength training following your cardiovascular workout, if you prefer. Then spend 5 minutes stretching the muscles you are going to be working, including the following three:

Door Jamb Chest Stretch, 15 sec.

A great feel-good stretch for climbers, computer programmers, bench press fanatics, or any other people who typically have forward-shoulder posture or sedentary sitting jobs. Equipment required: a vertical surface such as a door jamb, tree, or corner of a building. Extend your arms out from the torso at right angles, with elbows bent at 90 degrees. Place your forearms or hands against a wall (or one at a time, if using a corner) and lean forward. For a more comfortable position, stagger your stance as shown with one foot forward to keep your balance. Hold the stretch on each side for about 10-15 seconds, and vary the angle (i.e. height of arms) depending on what part of your upper body is tight.

Frog Stretch, 15 sec.

This favorite stretches calves, lower back and hips all at once, and also helps us determine whether a client has any lower body muscle imbalances. Equipment required: your own body weight. With hands out in front of you and feet and knees turned out so they remain in alignment, squat down as low as possible keeping heels flat on the floor. If your heels pop up, try stretching your tight calves on a stair step with ball of the foot on the step and one heel pressing down toward the floor, hold 15 seconds. Press knees open with elbows to prepare hips and legs for climbs that involve facing into the wall with legs spread far apart. Be persistent with this and with time you should see dramatic improvement.

Lower Back "Roadkill" Stretch, 15 sec.

Equipment required: your own body and comfortable floor surface. Lie on your back with left leg straight along the floor, right leg bent and right foot near left knee. Place your left hand on the outside of the right knee and apply pressure to bring the right leg across the midline of your body until you feel a stretch in your right hip, lower back, and obliques. Keep both shoulders flat on the floor as you try to bring your knee all the way toward the floor. Repeat other side. Some people will feel a very minor pop along the vertebrae when doing thisósort of like your own chiropractic adjustment. Be gentle the first few times you try it, and as always, keep stretches pain free and comfortable. The name? From a birdís-eye view, it looks like youíve been left out on the road after being hit by a truck!


Plie Squat Calf Raises 1-2 sets of 12-15

This combination exercise strengthens the calves and thighs, stretches the hips, helps develop balance and stability in your ankles, and requires no equipment other than your own body weight and a chair. As pictured, hold onto a chair for balance, and position your feet wide apart, knees tracking over turned out toes. Keeping your knees pressed back and open, with heels flat on the floor, lower into a wide squat as far down as possible, without allowing your torso to rock forward (keep chest lifted). Holding that low position, lift up onto your toes as high as possible, hold, then lower heels, and press back up to a standing position. Thatís one rep. Repeat for desired number of reps. Place a loaded backpack on your back to add resistance as you get stronger. If you have access to sturdy boards or weight plates, position them fairly wide apart so that you can place the balls of your feet on the plates, and drop your heels down into maximum stretch position before you stand up.

Snow Shovel Obliques 1-2 sets of 8 to each side

To functionally strengthen the obliques and lower back in conjunction with the upper and lower body, try this exercise with a medicine ball, heavy weight, blender, dictionary, or small loaded backpack. This functional exercise helps develop the core strength needed for many movements including flipping a heavy backpack onto your back and performing yardwork, and will increase the strength and flexibility in the trunk needed for some of the reachy climbing, stemming or backstepping moves you may encounter in the gym. Stand with feet shoulder width apart, and hold object in both hands as shown. Squat down with object low between both legs, heels on floor, and back flat. Exhale as you press up and turn to one side with object at shoulder height. Squat down low once more and repeat to the other side. Keep abs tight throughout the exercise to help prevent overextending the lower back. Make certain that you get your butt low, allowing you to move through the full range of motion, rather than bending forward at the hip and overloading the back.

Cheat Pullups 1-2 sets of 10-12 repetitions

Ah yes, the exercise that strikes fear in the hearts of most women and many men. While we realize that you may not have access to your own pullup bar at home, we recommend that you get one--they are relatively inexpensive and quite valuable for the aspiring climber. The version below is one that you can do at any climbing gym, local playground, or Par Course that has bars at different levels. If you have difficulty performing even one pullup, try this: position yourself in front of a bar at chin level--this could be a barbell set up in a squat rack in your gym, for example, or a low playground bar. Grasp the bar with hands about shoulder width apart and palms facing away from you, and slowly lower your body until you hang under the bar, feet still lightly on the floor underneath you. Using your legs only enough to help you lift up (but keeping abs tight so you donít overarch your back), pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar and repeat. As you get stronger, youíll reach a point where you can lower yourself without your feet touching the floor, and eventually, youíll be able to pull yourself up without help from your legs!

Variable Surface Pushups 1-2 sets of 10-12 repetitions

This exercise strengthens the pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders) and triceps; we recommend that you incorporate some sort of pushing exercise to balance out an upper body that is engaged in a pulling-dominated activity. Equipment needed: sturdy objects of various sizes. If you have trouble performing at least 10 knee pushups, then stick with regular knee pushups until your muscle strength increases, as this variation is decidedly more challenging. Place various objects of different heights around you in a semi-circle--such as a low bench, dictionary, basketball, stool, or even a step--and assume the pushup position with hands on different level objects. Make sure the objects are secure and wonít slide. Perform a pushup (either on knees or toes) and then, keeping back flat and abs tight, maneuver yourself over to the next objects and do another pushup. Continue around until you are too tired to continue or have completed a set of 12. (round robin not shown.)

Corner Wall Pushups 1-2 sets of 12-15 repetitions

Most climbers have well-developed lats but underdeveloped rhomboids, forward-slumping shoulders, tight pectoral muscles, and "belay-neck" posture from looking up at climbing partners, all of which can eventually result in radiating neck and back pain. To avoid developing posture resembling that of the gorilla, incorporate some rhomboid and/or rear deltoid work: anything that involves squeezing the shoulder blades together behind you as you perform a rowing-type motion. Climbing primarily involves pulling straight down (heavily involving the lats), rather than rowing in toward you, so it's best to add several sets of a rowing exercise to your weekly strength training routine.

To find out whether you properly recruit the targeted pulling muscles, enlist the help of a friend while you do a seated row. This could be with a bicycle inner tube or a low-set cable at the gym. Position yourself by it so that you can pull at shoulder height towards your body, and have your partner place a hand on your back, with thumb on one shoulder blade, middle finger on the other, and index finger on the spine indentation between the two. Now, pull the band or cable in toward your neck, and have your friend see whether your shoulder blades move as you move your arms. If they donít, you are primarily an "arm puller" and need to concentrate on squeezing the shoulder blades together so you get the postural muscles in the upper back to work properly for you. Next time, try to move your friendís thumb and finger close together (in simplest terms, imagine cracking an egg between your shoulder blades). If you are primarily an "arm puller" this motion may feel extremely odd. High grip rows to the face, squeezing shoulder blades together at the end range of motion, will help you strengthen both the rear deltoids (back portion of the shoulders) and the rhomboids.

Included here is an exercise you can substitute for a row, if you donít have access to a gym. Corner Reverse Pushups require no equipment other than an empty corner in your house (which may be easier said than found!) Snug into the corner, arms parallel to the floor, feet anywhere from 6-24" forward, and body straight from head to feet, with shoulders relaxed and down and elbows bent at 90 degrees. Press elbows into the wall and move your entire body forward, pause and hold for a full count or two, then slowly lower body back into the corner. The farther out the feet and longer you hold the position, the more difficult it is.

Triceps Dips 1-2 sets of 8-10 repetitions

Equipment needed: sturdy chair, bed or bench. Triceps dips are one of our favorite exercises, and have direct carry-over into counter-pressure climbing moves such as stemming and manteling. If you don't have access to parallel bars at the gym, you can do bench dips: position yourself on the wide part of a flat bench, bed or couch with your hands just outside of your thighs, fingers pointing forward and palms on the bench, with feet on the floor and knees slightly bent. Make sure you are on a heavy bench so it won't slide, or else secure it against a wall. Keep your elbows going straight back and lower your butt toward the floor until your elbows are at right angles, then press yourself back up. You can make this more intense by 1) placing your feet farther from you, 2) putting your heels on another bench, 3) using a stability ball for your legs, and finally 4) adding weight to your lap.

Reverse Wrist Curls 1-2 sets of 15-20 repetitions

Equipment needed: light (5-8#) dumbbells or medium-sized hardcover books, and chair or bench. To help prevent elbow tendinitis, work the wrist extensors (the opposing muscle group to the wrist flexors, which get worked repeatedly when climbing). Hold a light dumbbell or book in your hand with palm facing down (pronated position), arm propped on your thigh as shown, and place your thumb on the same side as the fingers, so you can work through the whole range of motion. Lower the weight as far as you can without losing control of it, and raise your knuckles up and back, but be sure you donít incorporate biceps--leave the arm still. Wrist flexor and extensor muscles are predominantly slow-twitch, or endurance, muscles, so keep the weights light and perform sets of 15-20 repetitions. A time-saving option is doing both arms at the same time.


Itís relatively easy to fit this beginning strength training routine into your climbing schedule, especially since itís short and can be done at home without trekking to the gym. A sample exercise routine might look something like this, with Mondays off--but get creative with your scheduling so it fits your work, school, and life commitments. Also make sure you rest a few days between gym climbs and strength training, to avoid overuse injuries.

Climbing Gym twice a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays (with pullups, if you donít have a pullup bar)

Strength Training at home twice a week, Thursdays and Sundays

Cardiovascular Training for 30+ minutes, three days a week, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays

Developed by Courtenay Schurman, CSCS, for Sports Etc. upcoming issue: October, 2000

copyright Body Results 2002. Pictures from Physigraphe Clipart CD ROM, courtesy of Physigraphe, Inc.


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