Whole-Body Strength Training

My training philosophy emphasizes finger strength training above all else.  For a number of mostly obvious reasons, I’m convinced that finger strength is the single most important physical factor (as opposed to mental or technical factors) in rock climbing.  That said, there are other elements of physical strength that are relevant, and worth training, if you have the time and energy.  In particular, the “pull muscles”, biceps/triceps, shoulders, and core muscles all have important roles to play, and we can benefit from strengthening these muscles.

For some, “just climbing” will do a decent job of developing strength in these muscles.  However, just climbing is often not very efficient or effective at improving strength in these areas, for the same reasons it’s not very effective or efficient at improving finger strength (lack of isolation, control, quantification,…).  Furthermore, if you follow a periodic training program like the Rock Prodigy method, you are likely spending significant periods of time with minimal climbing, perhaps only hangboarding.  Hangboarding is ideal for developing finger strength, but it neglects the muscles discussed above.  The fact that the hangboard-heavy Strength phase precedes the Power Phase (where whole body strength is most beneficial) exacerbates this problem.

For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to include some “Supplemental Exercises” to your climbing-specific workouts, especially during strength or hangboard phases.  This post will present a few Supplemental Exercises that I like to do to get the rest of my muscles strong for climbing.  There are many other possibilities, but I’ve found these work well for me.  As for all your training, document what you do so you can track your progress over time.

I introduce these exercises at the start of each Strength Phase.  I will select about 4 or 5 exercises from the assortment provided below, and I perform one set of each initially, building up to three sets of each exercise by mid-Strength Phase.  These exercises are always performed on the same day as my climbing workout, at the end of each workout (so, on a hangboard day, I finish my hangboard workout, rest 5-10 minutes, and then perform these exercises).  I do these in a “circuit” fashion (completing one set of each exercise before performing the second set, and so on), but they could also be done in serial fashion.

During the Power Phase, I adjust the type of exercises and number of sets depending on the day’s climbing activity.  On Campus Training days, I skip all the “Pull” exercises and biceps curls, to avoid excessive strain on my elbows, etc, but I perform three sets each of the remaining exercises.  On Limit Bouldering days, I perform the same 4 or 5 exercises used during the Strength Phase, but I only perform two sets each.  During the Power Endurance Phase, I do as I would on a Limit Bouldering day, but I often vary the exercises somewhat (for example, favoring Lock-Off Laps over other pull exercises).

During the Strength Phase, I perform on the order of 6-8 reps of each exercise.  During the Power Phase I try to increase the load and keep the reps in the 3-6 range.  During the PE Phase I perform on the order of 8-12 reps. 

Here is an assortment of potential Supplemental Exercises to choose from, with a few notes where applicable.  My favorites are shown in the videos that follow.

Pull Exercises:
– Explosive Pull-ups: Use free-hanging rings rather than a fixed bar or hangboard to reduce joint stress.  Emphasize exploding upward, as for a campus move, and then lock-off the top of the contraction for a breath.

– 1-Arm Inverted Row: More sport-specific than pull-ups. Reach with the inactive arm to make these more difficult.

– 1-Arm Pull-ups: These are a bit of a parlor trick, but in the higher grades, the ability to perform a 1-arm pull-up (or 1-arm lock-off) can come in handy on occasion.  Only recommend for advanced climbers.  Use a pulley system or inactive hand to take off weight if necessary. In my experience these are more a function of body weight than strength.

– Lock-Off Laps: These are my favorite pull muscle exercise.  Very sport-specific and outstanding for improving lock-off endurance.  Reach and hover the inactive hand to increase the difficulty.

Shoulder Exercises:
– Shoulder Press: Allow your palms to rotate as you press. Can also been done as “handstand push-ups”

– Lateral-to-Front Raise: Be careful with these if you have back issues.  Use low weight and perform slowly.

– Dips: Not very specific, but can help build general shoulder strength.

Upper Arm Exercises:
– Biceps Curls: Do these slowly and in control.  Be conservative if you have elbow issues. 

– Most of the Pull Exercises will also improve upper arm strength to some degree.  Shoulder Press and Dips also train the Triceps.

Core Exercises:
There are countless core exercises, here are my two favorites:
– Hanging Leg Raises: Perform from hanging rings for added difficulty.  Beginners can do these with knees bent, but try to eventually do these with legs as straight as possible (I lack the hamstring flexibility needed to do these with straight legs).

– Leg Lifts:  Lie flat on your back.  With legs straight, raise your feet 12-16″ off the ground, hover a few counts, then lower and repeat.  These are less specific than Hanging Leg Raises.


4 thoughts on “Whole-Body Strength Training

  1. Pingback: Tips for Effective Campusing Part 2: Going Big! | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

  2. Pingback: Functional Core Training | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

  3. Hello,
    I’ve been training calisthenics for a little bit and am interested in started climbing but I don’t have access to a climbing gym; Does this book outline how to train at home?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s