Tech Tip – Sport – Core Strength That Counts
Talking about the importance of “core strength” is in vogue these days, yet many climbers are uncertain just how the core muscles — the muscles located between your shoulders and pelvis — affect climbing performance and, furthermore, how they are best trained.
Regardless of ability, climbers making their initial forays onto very steep terrain commonly find positive, juggy handholds harder and pumpier to use than they expected. Similarly, moves that appeared (from ground perspective) to be casual often feel surprisingly long and difficult. Sound familiar?
The cause of these difficulties often lies in a complex blend of poor technique, and insufficient strength in both the upper body muscles and, less apparent, the torso’s core muscles. In climbing vertical-to-overhanging rock, the muscles surrounding your torso play a key role in enabling your arms and legs to maximize leverage and transfer torque from hand to foot (and vice versa). All the fundamental steep-rock techniques such as flagging, dynoing and deadpointing, backstepping, and twist-locking bring these core muscles into play. Next time you execute one of these moves, notice the muscular tension that develops throughout your torso — it’s your core muscles at work.
So what’s the best method of training these muscles? Sit-ups are the obvious choice, but the limited motion of this exercise targets only a small selection and range of your core muscles. Other popular options are yoga and Pilates classes, which bring all the torso muscles into play. Unfortunately, the rigors of these classes — while excellent for developing body awareness, flexibility, and general conditioning — fail to develop a high level of climbing-specific core strength. While I don’t discourage climbers from yoga and Pilates, I do advocate supplemental core training that positions the body — and activates the core muscles — in more climbing-specific ways. The following three exercises will develop core strength that counts:
The body curl. This exercise works the upper and lower abdominals, as well as the hip flexor muscles used in highstepping. While hanging straight-armed from a pull-up bar (or the largest holds on a hangboard), lift your knees to your chest, and then continue your upward motion until your knees pass between your arms. Strive for a slow, controlled motion throughout, especially while lowering your legs. Do six to 12 reps, then rest a few minutes and perform a second set.
Steep wall traversing. Perform 10-to-20-move traverses on a steep wall (30 to 45 degrees past vert is optimal), using well-spaced handholds and footholds. Use the larger holds on the wall (you aren’t training finger strength) and strive for “stretched-out” positions, which force you to draw your torso close to the wall, either straight on or with a hip turn or twist-lock. Keep moving sideways in this stretched-out traverse — you’ll quickly feel your core muscles coming into play as you strain to prevent your body from sagging away from the wall. Keep moving for 15 to 20 moves, then rest for a few minutes and repeat two more times. Adjust the difficulty of the traverse by using holds that are closer (easier) or farther apart.
The front lever. Introduced to climbing by the legendary John Gill,
the front lever is the gold standard of core-muscle strength. Since front levers recruit all the core muscles in a highly specific way, expect this exercise to be difficult and possibly a bit demoralizing (most climbers can’t do a front lever).
Begin by hanging straight-armed from a bar or a set of Rock Rings. (Rock Rings are ideal, because they draw more of the upper-torso and shoulder muscles into play.) Pull up halfway, then push your hands forward, drop your head backwards, and lift your legs. Do all this in a single quick motion and attempt to position your entire body — head to toe — parallel to the ground. Squeeze tightly throughout your torso, buttocks, and legs, and attempt to hold this position for three seconds. It helps to think about pushing your hands towards your hips, even though you’ll be in a stationary position. You can make front levers easier by simply bending one leg, or by having a spotter hold your feet.
The goal is to hold the lever for three seconds, slowly lower to a hanging position, then immediately pull back into a front lever for another three seconds. Strive for three consecutive levers, then rest for a few minutes and perform one more set. It’s important to note that levers place a great deal of stress on your shoulders and elbows (just like steep climbing), so they are inappropriate for novice or out-of-shape climbers.