Training: Leg Exercises for Climbers

Condition your lower body for steeps, slabs, and stemming
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Condition your lower body for steeps, slabs, and stemming

Many climbers can quickly rattle off a number of excuses for skipping leg day in the weight room—“they will get bulky and weigh me down” and “this couch is too comfortable to leave” are favorites—but there are plenty of reasons why you should focus on strengthening your base. Having a strong, powerful, and flexible lower half gives you more endurance, allows you to do bigger, harder moves, and exponentially improves footwork and thus technique. Strong legs are crucial for long routes, where you might end up standing on your feet all day. Rope-stretching slab pitches or long stemming corners will make even a seasoned alpinist’s legs burn, and sport climbers need sturdy calves and hamstrings to really toe-in on the steeps. And with any type of climbing, the more weight you can put on your feet and legs, the longer your comparatively weaker arms and upper body will last. We’ve compiled a collection of quick and simple exercises that will build your base and make you a better climber.

The Basics

Strength

This is the basis of all workouts. Keep improving the highest amount of weight you can support in any given motion, and it will transfer to all other facets of training.

Power

Involves strength, but also includes explosiveness and how fast you can do dynamic moves.

Flexibility

Adding this to strength opens up a whole new world of moves; includes being strong in end ranges of motion.

Endurance

Your legs have a pump-clock, too, and slabtastic pitches can cause that burn and shake that will make you want to take. Train for those on-fire moments to stay cool under pressure. 

The Exercises

Universal Lifts: Squat and Deadlift

No matter your pursuit, the squat (fig. 2) and the deadlift (fig. 1) are the two most fundamental and comprehensive lower body exercises for athletes. Each exercise works every muscle from your calves to your glutes to your core, and they’re both important for all types of movement. If you only have a few minutes, focus on doing squats and deadlifts.

back squat rock climbing leg exercise

The squat. Form notes: wide stance, back straight, head and eyes up, keep chest up, push butt out. Photo: Andrew Bydlon

deadlift rock climbing leg exercise

The deadlift. Form notes: straight arms, bar close to shins. Photo: Andrew Bydlon

These exercises can be done with no weight (aim for high reps or time), but 3 sets of 10 reps with a challenging but doable weight will build strength quickly. If using weights, pick something that’s about 70% of your max.

Toeing In

Increase calf and toe strength to make use of the smallest nubbins on overhangs, and to improve balance and stability for delicate, techy moves on slabby and vertical terrain. For each of the listed exercises, aim for high reps (50+) when unweighted, 3 sets of 10 when weighted, or time (30 to 45 seconds as a starting point).

Catcher calf raises rock climbing leg exercise

Catcher calf raises. Form notes: upright torso, knees pointed out. Photo: Andrew Bydlon

Catcher calf raises: Bend down into a baseball catcher’s position, knees pointed slightly outward. Raise heels up and down in a smooth, fluid motion. Make it easier by using one hand on the ground (for balance only), or make it harder by holding a light dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest.

Calf raises: Find a curb, stair, or stack a couple weight plates on the ground. Balls of the feet should be on the stair with the back half of your foot hanging off. Drop your feet to feel a stretch in the calf, and then press up through your toes till you’re on your tip-toes. Hold weight for a strength challenge, or do one leg at a time to focus on balance.

Continuous calf jumps: On flat ground, jump up and down using just your toes; only bend your knees slightly and don’t let your heels touch the ground. 

High-Stepping

This move requires a combination of balance and flexibility, along with strength throughout the entire range of motion. Boulderers, sport climbers, and traddies will all find these exercises helpful. Aim for 3 sets of 15 for each leg.

Weighted box steps: Find a box or ledge at shin height and step up with the left leg, bring the right up, step down with the left leg first, then right. Repeat by stepping with the right leg. Make sure to put your whole foot on the box. Add weight, include a calf raise at the top of the step, or find a higher box for more challenge.

bulgarian lunges rock climbing leg exercise

Bulgarian lunges. Form notes: shoulder blades engaged, knee dips straight down. Photo: Andrew Bydlon

Bulgarian lunges: Using a bench placed behind you, extend one leg backward and place the top of the foot so it’s resting on the flat surface (rest on just toes to make it slightly harder). With a dumbbell in each hand, lunge forward until your front knee reaches 90°, being careful that it doesn’t extend past your toes. Lunge with front leg farther away from the bench (rear leg will be straighter) to increase the difficulty.

Hanging knee lifts: This is a core-intensive exercise, but it’s excellent for hip flexor strength and overall flexibility. Hang from a bar and raise one or both knees toward your chest, going as high as possible. Alternate between keeping your knees together and spreading them wide for increased range of motion.

Stemming

Requiring endurance, flexibility, and some serious calf strength, stemming utilizes the rarely used outer muscles of the hips to help push outward against the rock. Go for time (1 minute) or a high number of reps; you should feel the burn for the last few reps/seconds. Use weight for increased difficulty. 

Wall Sits: Many athletes dread this exercise, but it’s ideal for pushing through the burn in a safe position while building leg endurance and mental fortitude. Find a wall and “sit” with your back against it and legs at 90°. Place a light weight plate on top of your thighs to up the challenge. Keep palms flat on the wall next to you, or rest them lightly in your lap—don’t cheat by pushing on your legs or the wall!

Multi-directional lunges: Start standing, and keeping core tight and upper body upright, step forward into a lunge, back to start. With the same leg, step out at about 45°, back to start. Now step out straight to the side, back to start. Repeat with the other leg.

core to toe side lunges rock climbing exercise

Core-to-toe side lunges. Form notes (right side): head in nuetral position, legs straight, one fluid motion. Photo: Andrew Bydlon

Core-to-toe side lunges: From a standing position, lunge out to the right, keeping toes pointed forward and the left leg completely straight (left). Get as deep into the lunge as you can, then spring back up to standing, and without resting your right leg on the ground, lift it up as high as you can out to the side, keeping it as straight as possible (right). Do this without weight at first, working to make the step out of the lunge and leg lift as fluid and powerful as possible.