Summer Sports Prep: Exercise Tips For Power Climbing

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - 8:50am

By Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD

For folks new to climbing, it’s hard to imagine how experienced climbers can scoot up walls and cliffs with such ease, grasping only at tiny crevices and protrusions, often hanging upside down as they do it. It looks like a lot of work for the upper body, and it is—but not as much as you’d think.

In fact, climbing is a lot more like crawling or walking up a wall than it is about pulling oneself up. It also depends a lot on balance, weight distribution, and technique. Strong arms will always help, and you’ll be thankful you did your grip work when you’re dangling 50 feet in the air while hanging on to something the size of your nose, but upper body strength alone is not the only thing that matters.

Upper body training—performing a pull-up is essential for climbing

But nevertheless, let’s start with the upper body. One of the things you should definitely be working on is a free pull-up. Pull-downs are a start, but not a substitute. There’s a big difference between pulling down a handle attached to a machine while your lower body is immobilized on a seat, and pulling your swinging body upwards through empty space. The first time I tried pull-ups, my abdominal muscles were so sore I thought they were trying to chew their way out of my bellybutton.

Many folks can’t do a proper pull-up when they start out. Here’s a really good step-by-step guide on how to learn and perform a pull-up. Just about anyone can do it with enough training, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t do one right away.

Hands and forearms strength training is also important for climbing

The second thing you should focus on is the strength of your hands and forearms. Don’t overdo this training at first, as the wrist and elbow tendons are sensitive to overwork and easily annoyed. Keep it moderate and progress gradually. Here are some ideas:

  • Try holding onto the bar at the end of your exercises. If you're doing lat pull-downs or pull-ups for example, just hang on to the bar for a few seconds after your set. Even if you can't do pull-ups, try simply hanging from a chin-up bar for as long as you can.

  • Farmer's walks: Pick up some dumbbells and walk around with them till they drop out of your hands.
  • Wrist flexion and extension

  • Buy one of those little squishy grip training balls (they sell them at sporting goods stores) and just play with it while you're watching TV, on the phone, or whatever.
  • Take a piece of newspaper and rip it in half lengthwise, then rip it in half lengthwise again, so you have 1/4 of a page. Beginning at the top of the piece and pulling it up from the bottom, crumple it into a ball. Then do it again. And again. And again. And again, until your hand cramps up.
  • Pinch grip: Take two weight plates (start with 5 or 10 pounds, trust me), and put them together so that their smooth sides are facing out. Then take one hand, put thumb on one side of the plates and fingers on the other side, and simply hold the plates together as long as you can.

Climbing training: don't forget lower body training

Climbing demands flexible and strong hips. One good way to get this is through sumo stance squatting or dead lifting. “Sumo” means a very wide stance, with toes pointing out. These are often also called plié squats. Start standing with your feet wide apart. Point your toes out slightly. Keeping your back fairly upright, drop your butt straight down between your heels, as low as you can go. Pause for a second at the bottom, feeling your hip joint expand. Straighten the legs to stand up, and repeat. Once you can do a few sets of 15-20 reps easily with your own body weight, grab a dumbbell with both hands, and hang it between your legs as you perform the movement. The goal here is strength, but also active flexibility, so take it slowly and aim for a good range of motion.

Stretching to avoid injury

To help avoid injury, make sure to stretch a few key areas:

  • Wrist flexors and extensors
  • Pecs and front of shoulders
  • Hips and inner thighs

For stretching ideas, check out ExRx.