Training: Gym-Free Climbing Exercises

Train anytime, anywhere with this no-equipment-necessary workout
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Train anytime, anywhere with this no-equipment-necessary workout

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of our print edition. 

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Even the most dedicated gym rats can’t pull plastic everyday. You’ve got to travel and climb, right? Or maybe you’re just lazy—or too penniless for a gym membership. Whatever the reason, it’s no excuse to get flabby. We’ve compiled a list of climbing-specific exercises that you can do in a hotel room, your house, outside your van, or anywhere you have a little space and time. These movements use your own body weight (no equipment required) to improve overall cardio as well as general strength and conditioning via circuits. Do 10 exercises back to back for one minute each, aiming for at least two rounds of 10 and resting a minimum of three minutes between each round. Add more rounds to increase difficulty. Two rounds will take less than 30 minutes, and the interval structure will help burn fat and mimic the cardio demands of route climbing: working hard then resting.

Door Frames

Finger Hangs

Make sure the frame is solid, and consider warming your fingers up with short hangs before going for the full set. Door frames are usually narrow and should be used only if you’re an intermediate or advanced climber, but tree branches or larger ledges are good alternatives. Just like with a hangboard, keep an open-crimp position without a thumb wrap. Hang five seconds then rest five seconds for the full minute.

Finger Pull-ups

These should be as controlled as possible and done only after you’ve warmed up your fingers. If necessary, change from an open-crimp position to closed crimp.

Hanging Leg Raises

This is an advanced exercise that will build finger strength and work your abdominals. Hang on the door frame and bring your legs up as high as possible; bend your knees to reduce difficulty or keep legs straight for a greater challenge. Keep core tight when lowering to prevent swinging.

Pistol Squats

Pistol Squat Rock Climbing

A pistol squat is a single-leg squat where you raise one leg out in front of you and lower down as far as possible on the other leg before standing up. It’s a great way to get full range of motion in each leg and build deep strength with flexibility. If you can do a full minute of pistol squats (30 seconds per leg), great, but consider using a door frame for assistance in getting up and down by lightly pulling on it as you come out of the squat. You can always start with regular pistol squats and finish the allotted time with assisted squats.

Open Space

Side Lines

Find an open space, mark off a distance of about 100 feet with 10-foot increments. Sprint from the baseline to the end and back, reducing the distance by 10 feet on each turnaround until you are finished. Try to touch the ground at each turnaround.

Finger Planks

Finger Planks Rock Climbing

Hold a high plank (or raised pushup position) using your fingers to hold you as high as possible. This will really build finger strength and core, as you should be fighting to stay afloat.

Raised-Leg Diamond Pushups

These hit core, shoulders, triceps, chest, and back. Get into a pushup position with hands making a diamond shape directly under your chest and raise one leg as high as possible before it bends. Perform 30 seconds of pushups then switch legs.

Jumping Lunges

Lower down into a basic lunge, with your knee straight above your toes, not extending past them. Instead of slowly pushing back up, jump, quickly switching your legs to the alternate position while in the air, landing softly, and smoothly lowering down into the next lunge.

Superman Pushups

Superman Pushup Rock Climbing

These will strengthen your entire core faster than anything else. Lie down in a pushup position, with hands close together and extended 10” out from your head. To do a pushup, you’ll have to fully engage your core and bend elbows outward.

Table

Lateral Pull-ups

Lie down under a solid table, grab the outside edge with your body straight and heels on the ground, and pull your chest to the table. The higher your feet are (closer to being level with your hands), the harder the pull-ups will be.

Chairs

Tricep Dips

Tricep Dips Rock Climbing

With two chairs of the same height, put your feet on one and your upper body with straight arms on the other. Dip your upper body down, keeping your back vertical, head up, and legs straight. This will emphasize shoulders, chest, triceps, and abdominals. Hold the top position for a few seconds between dips to stress abdominal burn.

Incline Pushups

Incline Pushups rock Climbing

This spin on the classic pushup works your upper chest, shoulders, abdominals, and back. Place your toes on a chair or any stable, raised object, keep your back straight (don’t let your butt sag), and perform a pushup.

Chair Ups

Chair ups Rock Climbing

This emphasizes grip and forearm strength, as well as core stability. Start by lying on your stomach (similar to Superman position) and extend your arms straight out in front. Grab the front legs of a chair and curl the chair upward until it’s about five inches off the ground. Your elbows should always be touching the ground and are the pivot point for raising the chair. Squeeze your lats and keep your shoulders tight. You can hold the chair in the air for one minute or choose a heavier chair and do three rounds of 15 seconds. 

Walls

Stemming Burnouts

Find a narrow hallway that you don’t mind potentially marking with rubber, and use your upper body to get into a full stemming position between walls. (Poke around outside for a brick, stone, or wooden hallway.) Stay upright and practice engaging one leg more in order to give the other a small rest. Experiment with heels down, up, out, etc. Stem for one minute.

Upside Down Shoulder Press

Shoulder Press Rock Climbing Inverted

Get into a handstand position against a wall and guide your back, glutes, and legs until you are in line vertically. Lower your body down just before your head touches the ground and then press up until you are in a full handstand. Emphasize the top position with a shrug. These are great for strengthening easily injured shoulders, but make sure to warm your shoulders up with arm circles and stretching. Consider doing pushups and/or planks first. If these are too hard, put your feet on a chair or bed with your butt in the air, hips at 90°, and back straight. Now lower down, the chair or bed should take a lot of the weight off. 

Stairs

Stair Jumps

Similar to box jumps, except you will be jumping more forward. Find a height and distance that is optimal for you and jump forward to your desired step, landing in a squat. Jump back down and repeat. This is great for high reps and cardio. If you want to mix it up, use your momentum and consecutively leapfrog to higher steps until you reach the top of the staircase. This will test your explosiveness, stamina, and core stability.

Weighted Stair Walks

Just like it sounds, find something relatively heavy that you can carry comfortably, like full water jugs, a loaded laundry basket, or a weighted pack, and walk up and down a flight of stairs. There are two things to focus on while doing these: Go for speed with a light weight or choose a really heavy weight and walk slowly. This can be done virtually anywhere, from parking garages to apartment buildings to a nearby stadium.

Stair Sprints

This will improve coordination and explosiveness. Sprint up a flight of stairs, and every round try a new pattern: each foot touches the same step, one foot on each step, skipping one step, skipping two steps, etc. Utilize your arms to help keep your momentum, and focus on the interval aspect by sprinting as hard as possible on the way up, then walking or slowly jogging down the stairs as a mini-rest.

Makeshift weights

You can do a variety of standard weightlifting exercises using full gallon-size water or milk jugs, which weigh about eight pounds each. Think about trying the following: bicep curls, shoulder press, standing flys, Russian twists, weighted squats, bench press, forearm curls, farmer carry, etc.