Suspension Training for Rock Climbing

15 minutes to strong shoulders, a stable core, and fewer injuries
By JP Whitehead ,

This story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of our print edition.

Photo: Ben Fullerton

There’s a 15-minute circuit of exercises that strengthens your core and stabilizes your shoulders to effectively eliminate weak spots in your overall fitness. Plus, it will keep you in shape when you can't get to the gym.

The TRX (total resistance exercise) suspension trainer utilizes two adjustable straps with handles in creative configurations to use your body weight for resistance. Many gyms have TRX systems, but you can also get an at-home kit ($200, or build your own. Suspension training engages those tiny stabilizing muscles in your core, shoulders, legs, and back that are necessary for climbing but often ignored by traditional weight machines and dumbbell exercises. We worked with Fraser Quelch, Head of Training for TRX, to put together this three-part circuit (10 exercises total) specifically for climbers, focusing on strengthening injury-prone areas and weak spots in a quick 15 minutes.

Suspension Training Guidelines

  • Do this 2x/week on rest days.
  • Do each exercise at least once, but you can do up to 3 sets of each exercise.
  • Transition and rest 30 seconds between each exercise and 2 minutes between each round or circuit.
  • Mid-calf (see below) means stirrups should come to mid-calf. “Long” is slightly longer than that; “short” is shorter.

Need a suspension trainer on the cheap? Check out our guide:
Make Your Own Suspension Trainer on a Budget

Circuit 1

Core Round 1. Targeting core stability and strength, all of these workouts directly translate to better performance on steep sections, where body tension, deliberate foot placement, and staying close to the wall are crucial.

1. Body Saw. 8 reps; mid-calf length

Photos: Ben Fullerton

In forearm plank position (toes flexed downward in stirrups), place elbows under shoulders. Slowly push your body as far forward as possible, and then backward to complete one rep. Don’t let hips sag. To increase difficulty, try the workout with hands on the floor and straight arms.

Helps with: Body control while moving, high-stepping, staying tight on overhangs, preventing barn doors

2. Side Plank with Hip Raise. 8 reps (per side); mid-calf length

Photos: Ben Fullerton

Start in pushup position then turn into side plank position (elbow under shoulder and top arm straight toward sky). Place feet in stirrups with top foot in front, heel to toe. With straight legs, raise hips up slightly then return to starting position for one rep.

Helps with: Drop-knees, cutting feet, high heel hooks

3. Overhead Squat. 8 reps; mid-calf length

Photos: Ben Fullerton

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, facing the anchor point. Place your hands inside the stirrups with the backs of your hands against the straps, thumbs on the outside. Raise hands above your head wider than your shoulders. Without leaning, squeeze your upper back to put tension on the straps. Maintain this tension with chest forward and eyes up, then squat down as low as you can. In the bottom of the squat, squeeze shoulders and back for more tension, then stand up for one rep.

Helps with: Preventing hunchback, opening chest, hip strength and flexibility for steeps, body tension

Circuit 2

Shoulder Stability. These exercises isolate and strengthen the entire shoulder girdle, which is prone to injury in climbers, by putting the shoulder in positions that are specific to climbing. It also builds strength and flexibility throughout the upper back. 

1. Clock Press. 3 reps; long adjustment

Photos: Ben Fullerton

With heels up, lean into the stirrups in a low-angle pushup position. Lower your chest to your hands, then slowly extend one arm out to the side, pause, and bring it back. Repeat with opposite arm, then push back to start for one rep. Go closer to the ground to make it harder.

Helps with: Compression, sidepulls, preventing shoulder injuries

2. Deltoid Series: T to Y to I. 8 reps; long adjustment

Photos: Ben Fullerton

Put one foot in front of the other with arms in front holding straps. For “T,” stand up by putting arms out to the sides, shifting weight from back to front, and squeezing shoulder blades. Lower back down, then repeat in “Y” (image 2), lower, then arms straight up for “I” (image 3); that’s one rep.

Helps with: Overhanging shoulder-specific moves, gastons, sidepulls, compression

3. Atomic Pushup Matrix. 8 reps; mid-calf length

Photos: Ben Fullerton

In a pushup position with feet in stirrups, bring your knees into left elbow with slight rotation, back to start, then knees into right elbow, back to start. Bring knees straight up to chest, back to start, and then do a pushup for one rep.

Helps with: High foot placement and heel hooks, body tension, strengthening opposition muscles, core stability

4. T-Spine Rotation. 8 reps (per side); short adjustment

Photos: Ben Fullerton

With inside foot in front of outer foot, hold handle with outside hand in a lockoff position, elbow high. With inside hand parallel to straps, lower as far as possible, then extend arm out to the side. Bring arm back and pull yourself up to starting position. Switch feet to make it easier.

Helps with: Lockoffs, hip, spine, and shoulder flexibility, controlling moves on steeps

Circuit 3

Core Round 2. More isolated and advanced core exercises for keeping tension with one foot on.

1. Pike. 8 reps; mid-calf length

In pushup position with feet in stirrups, lift tailbone up with legs straight. Lower back to start position to complete one rep.

Helps with: High-stepping, holding a swing, body tension

2. Rotational Warding with March. 8 reps (per side); mid-calf length

Photos: Ben Fullerton

Stand sideways with hands in both stirrups in a prayer position. Push hard to the side with straight arms to keep straps under tension. Now slowly march by raising each knee.

Helps with: Holding barn-door swings, core strength, body tension

3. Plank with Abduction and Scorpion. 8 reps (per side); mid-calf length

Photos: Ben Fullerton

In pushup position with one foot in stirrups, bring free knee to chest, then back to start. Extend leg out to the side (abduction), back to start. Now twist at the hips to swing leg back and over other leg so hips are open (scorpion).

Helps with: Single-leg strength, hip flexibility, back-stepping, high-stepping, body tension

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