Designing a Plan

Training for Rock Climbing: Designing a Plan

Perhaps you’ve never trained for climbing before. Or you’ve dabbled in training—by doing exercises like campusing and pull ups—but haven’t seen much improvement in your ability. Or you’ve trained a lot of climbing-specific exercises, and all you’ve earned for yourself was overuse injuries and some months of couch time.

Regardless of your exact climbing history, a regular and balanced training program will be beneficial to your climbing career. Even though you’ll probably not see immediate jumps in performance, you’ll notice your body becoming more resilient and well balanced, adding longevity to your life as a climber. You’ll likely even notice your random tweaks and quirky pains disappearing—and you’ll eventually make gains in performance, if only by way of preventing injuries and prolonging your season.  

DESIGNING A PLAN

A successful training plan has several key ingredients:

  • Timing
  • Balanced Training
  • Regularity
  • Intensity
  • Form
  • Rest

 

TIMING

Climbing is an extremely physical sport! As such, the timing of training relative to your actual climbing sessions is very important. Sports scientists and coaches believe that it is best to begin any training session with the day’s most complicated activities (climbing itself), then work through less complicated activities (campusing), and finish with the simplest (doing pull ups or bench pressing).

This is because the more complicated an activity is, the more likely you are to injure yourself while doing it. And if you try to perform complicated activities while tired, you’re even more likely to injure yourself. However, if you perform them while fresh, you minimize your risk of injury.

Because every climber should take a rest day after climbing (true!), and because you want to be able to climb and train multiple times a week, the best way to pack it all in is to train immediately (or very soon) after climbing.

BALANCED TRAINING

Climbing works the hell out of the back muscles and all of the “pulling” muscles—that is arms, triceps, etc… So, though your training program should include exercises to strengthen these muscles (and make you stronger for climbing), it should also contain a solid and strenuous dose of “antagonist” exercises—those that stress the muscles neglected by climbing.

Training “Antagonist” Muscles

Please see this article on training your “antagonist” muscles.

Identifying “Climbing” Muscles

In order to identify which muscles you should train for climbing, you must first understand which movements the sport includes, and which muscles are required to execute these movements.

With regard to the upper torso and the arms, the sport of climbing involves a lot of pulling. The general muscles needed to execute these movements include the vast network of back muscles, including the lats, and many of the arm muscles, like biceps and triceps. The shoulder muscles are also quite involved with climbing, but are often overdeveloped on the posterior (back) side of the joint, and underdeveloped everywhere else.

With regard to the core, climbing uses the whole thing. The abs and the lower back are both critical components of a strong climber’s body. These muscle groups also serve to support the spine and, as such, function as antagonist groups relative to each other. Though many climbers obsessively train abs (perhaps for vanity), they should pay at least as much attention to their lower backs as they do to their six packs. 

With regard to the legs, climbing requires a lot of pressing and pulling. Climbers stand up on holds; heel hook; toe in on overhanging routes; drop knee; and more. Strong climbers’ legs should be able to perform all of these movements without risk of injury.

Weights or body-weight resistance?

A well-rounded training program will likely involve a mixture of both strength training methods: lifting weights and doing body-weight resistance exercises. And that’s great! Both have their advantages:

Weights allow you to hone in on very specific movements and muscle groups, and allow you to track progress in easily measurable quantities. Body-weight exercises tend to be multi-joint exercises (like pull ups) and therefore tend to have high functionality and crossover with respect to the actual sport of climbing. Also, weights offer a much broader range of resistance exercises than does body weight… unless you’re really creative with body-weight exercises!

See the chart below for a sampling of exercises that can be used to strengthen each area of the body

Area of Body

Body-weight

Weights

Chest (antagonist)

Push ups

Bench press (all variations)

 

Tricep/ parallel bar dips

Dumbbell flys

 

 

Dumbbell/ barbell pullovers

Arms

Pull ups (all variations: normal, wide, weighted…)

Tricep exercises (push-downs, kickbacks, extensions, etc…)

 

Tricep/ parallel bar dips

Wrist curls

 

Tricep/ yoga pushups

Reverse wrist curls (antagonist)

Back

Pull ups (all variations)

Lat pull-downs (all variations)

 

Back extensions

Rows (all variations)

 

 

Deadlifts (all variations)

 

 

Upright rows

 

 

Shrugs

Shoulders

(Though not technically body-weight, an elastic training band can be used for light shoulder work.)

Presses (all variations)

 

 

Lateral raises

 

 

Front raises

 

 

Rows

Legs/ Butt

Squats (one-legged)

Squats (all variations)

 

Calf raises (one-legged)

Leg extensions

 

Bridging

Calf raises

Abdomen

Hanging leg raises

High pulley or machine crunches

 

Crunches/ sit-ups (all variations)

 

Climbing-specific

Campusing (great for power!)

 

 

Hangboard work

 

 

Pull ups (not necessarily climbing specific, but very useful for climbing!)

 

 

REGULARITY

Just as with climbing, you’re going to have to weight train more than once a month to cause and maintain muscular adaptations. The regularity at which you train depends on the intensity at which you lift, the number of exercises you perform during each workout, and—of course—your schedule. Ideally, you’ll want to train as many as 3–4 times a week, performing 3–5 exercises each time. 

If you've built a training program with roughly 12–15 exercises (push ups, pull ups, flys, rows, etc…), and you utilize this regularity of training, you should be able to cycle through all of your exercises in a one-week training cycle.

More than five exercises per workout will almost assuredly decrease the intensity of each exercise, rendering the training less effective. On the other hand, fewer exercises per workout will not allow you to fit enough training into your schedule to be able to perform each exercise on a regular basis, and will prevent you from experiencing muscular adaptation. (In other words, if you only perorm one exercise during each training session, it might be several weeks before you cycle through all your exercises and peform that exercise again—making it impossible for your body to experience real muscular adaptation.)

More than 3–4 training sessions per week will, by nature, eliminate rest days from your schedule and therefore also render the training less effective—after all, rest is the time during which the body repairs its muscles and actually gains strength. And fewer training session per week will force you to fit all of your exercises, once again making it unlikely you'll be able to maintain a proper level of intensity throughout the training session (and leaving you extremely wiped out for several days after your training session). 

INTENSITY

Intuitively, it’s obvious: intensity matters.

Warm up.

Warm ups serve to bring blood to the muscles and awaken the neuromuscular system. Warm ups should be strenuous enough to perform both of these tasks, but be light enough so as not to interfere with upcoming "working sets" or cause injury.

If you’re new to training, err on the side of warming up “too much.” After all, the penalty for insufficient warm ups is injury; the penalty for warming up too much is slightly decreased performance—the superior option!

During “working sets,” aim to build maximum strength.

Sports scientists and coaches seem to agree that in strength training, the following range of reps per set has these affects:

Reps/Set

% of One-Rep Max

Affect

1–5

Nearing 100%

Strengthening

6–12

~70-80%

Some strengthening (mostly at lower end) & some bulking  or “hypertrophy” (mostly at upper end)

12+

< 70%

Power endurance and endurance (some bulking toward lower end)

 

Sport climbers, especially, might seem to find this "max strength"-centric advice confusing. Why train strength when the sport is a power endurance activity? The answer is that sports scientists and coaches believe that strengthening the body is advantageous to subjecting it to power endurance conditioning. When road bikers, distance runners and fighters—all endurance or power endurance athletes—lift, they lift for strength. The idea is that a stronger body outperforms a weaker (though possibly well-conditioned) body in every measure of athletics—whether you’re talking about power (explosive strength), balance or even agility. Additionally, all endurance events are easier for stronger muscles than for weaker muscles, as each move taxes the body less. And, as always, stronger bodies are much less likely to get injured. As such, you’ll eventually want to train in the 1–5 reps/ set range, but…

When starting a resistance training program, it is important to build a solid foundation before getting into very heavy weights.

Those new to lifting weights and/ or resistance training (or returning to it after an absence) should initiate their training program with a higher reps/ set phase. This is because performing any exercise at or near a person’s one-rep max is extremely taxing to the musculoskeletal system—placing strain on joints, connective tissues and muscles. Kicking off the training program with a phase of “gentler” lifting (in the 6-12 reps/ set range) allows the neuromuscular system to adapt and be prepared for future, high-intensity lifting. However, this part of the program will not feel easy; you should select weights for each exercise that cause you to fail or nearly fail by the final reps of each set. Depending on your experience and predisposition to injuries, you should consider spending 1–2 months in this phase.

How many sets?

Experts agree that, to stress the body enough to elicit gains, athletes should perform 3–5 working sets of each exercise. Persons newer to strength training can get away with 2 or 3 working sets of each; advanced lifters require more sets (and often much more complex programming) to sufficiently stress the body and cause positive adaptations.

So—for each exercise, you’ll want to begin with one warm-up set, and perform ~ 3–5 working sets.

How many exercises per workout?

Related to intensity is: selecting an appropriate number of exercises to perform each workout. In the same way that you cannot lift an effectively heavy weight for 100 reps/ set or 100 sets/ workout, you also cannot perform 100 different exercises effectively per workout.

Choosing the number of exercises you will perform each workout depends on

  • how many times you will train in a week
  • how long you will have to rest before your next workout
  • how long and intense your climbing session was before the workout

In order to train the most effectively—that is, with enough intensity—you want to limit the number of exercises per workout. However, to fit enough exercises into your weekly schedule, you must include sufficient exercises into your workout schedule. An ideal range of exercises per workout is 3–5.

See the following sample training program (rest days not included) to get a rough idea for scheduling.

 

Training Day 1

Training Day 2

Training Day 3

Training Day 4

Training Day 5

Training Day 6

Chest

Bench press

Pushups

Dumbbell flies

Bench press

Pushups

Dumbbell flies

Arms

Reverse wrist curls

 

Reverse wrist curls

 

Reverse wrist curls

 

Back

Dead lifts

 

 

Dead lifts

 

 

Shoulders

 

Upright rows

 

Front dumbbell raises

 

Lateral raises

Legs/ Butt

 

 

Squats

 

 

One-legged squats

Abdomen

 

Hanging leg raises

 

Hanging leg raises

 

 

Climbing-specific

Campus + hangboard

+

pullups

Campus + hangboard

+

pullups

Campus + hangboard

+

pullups

Campus + hangboard

+

pullups

Campus + hangboard

+

pullups

Campus + hangboard

+

pullups

You’ll notice:

  • Each day includes 3–5 different exercises, and that each area of the body is addressed fairly regularly, with some variation of exercises being used for each area of the body.
  • The plan distributes really intense exercises (dead lifts, hanging leg raises, etc…) throughout the week, rather than clumping them all in one day.
  • The chest is worked every day, as it is largely neglected by climbing itself.
  • Staple climbing workouts (campusing, hangboard training and pullups) are included every day for healthy bodies.
  • The “Arms” category seems neglected; however, the campusing and pullups do a lot of work for the arms!
  • There is a good amount of variety of exercises for many muscle groups; however, you don’t want to include so much regularity that the workouts become totally random, and the body isn’t compelled to adapt in a directed way.

FORM

Form is critical.

No matter which exercises you pick, be sure to consult with an expert so that you learn the proper form. Good form is vastly superior to “lifting heavy.” If you can’t do an exercise in good form (or through its full range of motion), go down in weight. Lifting in bad form will lead quickly to injuries.

REST

The whole point of any type of training is: to cause stress to the body and incite adaptation. The training itself is what stresses the body; the rest afterward is what allows the body to recover and adapt. Without rest, training is useless. If performing resistance exercise of any kind, you should allow your body at least 48 hours to adapt before exercising those muscle groups again. Especially if you are training your body at “max strength”—i.e. as close to your one-rep max as possible—you will not fully recover in that muscle group for as long as 7 days or even multiple weeks! (It’s true.) That is not to say you can’t train again before you’ve completely recovered; however, keep this fact in mind when tracking your own progress, and building rest periods into your schedule. (You can continue training and allow these muscle groups to rest by training other muscle groups or using slightly different exercises in subsequent training sessions.)

Keep in mind: no muscles are purely “antagonist.”

Though climbing largely neglects certain muscle groups, there are no muscles that are 100% antagonist to climbing—in other words, all muscles are used in climbing, even if only to stabilize certain joints. As such, if you perform a highly strenuous antagonist training session one day, you should not plan to climb (especially hard) the following day. Antagonist muscles, just like climbing muscles, need rest to properly recover and adapt to training. If possible, train your antagonist muscles directly after your climbing sessions. If you try to climb hard the day after a solid antagonist training session, your stabilizing muscles will be tired and vulnerable to injury.

 

For more information on this material, see Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore and Strength Training Anatomy by Frédéric Delavier.

 


 

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© 2013 Christine Balaz Sjöquist 

The information presented in this article and on this website are in no way meant to replace the advice of medical experts. Please consult with a physician before embarking on any training program.