4 Ways to Condition for Climbing

I did a post a few months ago on ways to keep yourself busy during the off season depending on where you are (I am ridiculously jealous of those people living in Texas and California right now). However, I didn’t actually define how to do this for those who are quietly scratching their heads at home.

First off, there are thousands of different techniques to condition for climbing. Some are, subjectively, more fun than others, but most will at least push you in the right direction, even if what you are doing is not the most efficient means of reaching goals.

  1. Climb (Obviously)

    Although lifting weights to train specific muscles and establishing a higher base of fitness has been known to improve athletes’ abilities, they wouldn’t be where they are if they didn’t practice their sport. In addition to everything else on this list, remember to climb. Rock and Ice has an amazing program they’ve outlined titled Build a Better Climber which has helped me immensely so far, even if I did cheat a little—okay, a lot.

  2. Cardio

    Cardio is a great way to establish a good base of fitness and allow your heart and lungs to work more efficiently on longer, more difficult routes. Having better cardiovascular endurance also helps you conserve your energy on the route’s approach. It is essential in mountaineering, where you travel for days with a large pack on steep terrain.

    You can improve your cardiovascular health by doing activities that keep your heart rate in an optimal range. Usually, you find this range by subtracting your age from 220 and multiplying by .65 (for the lowest parameter) and .85 (for the highest parameter). Monitoring your heart rate via a heart rate monitor is effective, but many machines around the gym have an option to monitor it for you. Otherwise, you can learn to take your own pulse, or monitor yourself via your perceived exertion.

    Some of my favorite cardio activities include:

    1. Stairmaster with weight—this is a good idea for mountaineers as well as for individuals who climb routes with a long approach.

    2. Running—remember to add hills or sprints to break things up

    3. Circuits—weight training and cardio all rolled into one??! Hell yeah!

    4. Elliptical—works the muscles needed for skiing this winter

    5. Biking—it’s practical, you can do it outside, and it works your quads like none other!

  3. Weight Training

    Weight training has been mentioned several times above and can be amazing for your health and your climbing attitude.

    There are two types of muscle fibers within a muscle itself: slow twitch (endurance) and fast twitch (power). Both of these muscles are used in rock climbing and mountaineering, as well as throughout the day in other activities. Fast twitch muscles are utilized when an individual works at his/her capacity (sprinting, jumping, heavy lifting, etc), slow twitch muscles usually kick in when fast twitch wears out, or during more drawn out activity (performing more slowly but for longer periods).

    Depending on what you would like to work on—endurance vs. power—you can alter your weight training to suit preferences or weaknesses. Higher repetitions with lower weight will improve slow twitch muscles and allow you to perform longer routes, hikes, ascents, etc. without wearing down as quickly. Lower repetitions and higher weight will train muscles to be powerful in short bursts, needed for that final push up a mountain or for stronger dynamic movement on a wall.

    Exercises good for improving muscular strength in Mountaineering include:

      • Squats

      • Lunges

      • Step ups/ step downs (onto a step)

      • Hip (side kicks)

      • Donkey kicks

      • Core exercises (see below) for improved posture with a heavy pack

Exercising specifically for Rock Climbing will involve more upper body and core training, involving muscles in the upper back, shoulders, arms, and chest.

  • Pull ups

  • Bicep curls

  • Dips

  • Rows

  • Bench press

  • Pec flys

  • Push ups

  1. Core exercises

    Have been mentioned above, but needs its own section because it is incredibly important to train. Not only does core strength help you pull yourself into the wall (especially on overhung routes), but it is also necessary to prevent injury in mountaineering and rock climbing.

    When I was studying Physical Therapy in college, I learned a handy saying:

    Proximal Stability = Distal Mobility

    Meaning that the more stable you are in your trunk, the more control you can exert over your limbs. This is why babies must learn how to roll over and sit before they start walking: if a child’s core is weak, they have nothing to hold them up when their legs start going. From a rock climbing/bouldering perspective, core work is important to decrease or control swing, keep hips to the wall (effectively extending reach), etc…

    Overall, adequate trunk strength also helps prevent injury and improve posture, which is why it is also essential for mountaineers to keep strong. Having efficient body mechanics when lifting a 40+lb pack off the ground over several hours can protect the back, as most herniated disks result from bending or twisting while lifting something heavy. Being able to hold the back in a comfortable position for hours on end will also reduce fatigue and pain associated with carrying a heavy pack.

Overall, there are dozens of exercises and programs out there to improve specific muscles or areas of the body that will benefit climbers. It is best to research exercises specific to your sport for the best results, but really any kind of conditioning can help in the long run. Cheers!

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