Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Thanks to your local climbing gym, rock climbing is a four-season, every-day-of-the-week sport. It’s always sunny in the plastic paradise, even during the dark, cold, and wet winter months. Easy and instant access should do wonders for your climbing, but there’s a fatal flaw to many climbers’ training regimen: monotony. It’s easy to fall into a blah routine or just hop on any 5.10 with the shortest line. But infusing your workout (and it is a workout) with purpose, variety, and motivation will yield big results in your strength, endurance, and power.
We teamed up with professional coaches and trainers to develop 12 workouts that will maintain psych for the gym and training. The best part? All you have to do is climb. No complicated multi-month schedule to follow—just pick a specific workout and go. Of course, the upside to training is not only a more impressive ticklist come send-season, but a beautiful and awe-inspiring physique to go with it. We know you didn’t get into climbing for those rippling muscles, but we haven’t heard any complaints.
Key terms & definitions
Power: High-intensity movement or maximum strength combined with speed and the ability to do a hard move quickly and forcefully; climbers need this for “big” moves, lunges, and dynos, among others
Endurance: The ability to do low intensity work for a long time, meaning how long you can stay on the wall
Power-Endurance: The ability to sustain high-intensity movements; being able to do many hard moves in a row
Technique: How to move efficiently with footwork, hand moves, sequences, beta, etc.
Projecting: Learning how to read routes, figure out beta, and execute moves after lots of trial and error; includes the mental approach to difficult climbs
Body Tension: Important for overhangs; this focuses on core strength and will make any move easier
On-Route Recovery: Learning how to rest while climbing, and climbing when you’re tired and/or pumped
Volume: A catch-all term for climbing a lot; ups mileage, increases strength and endurance, and helps with reading routes
Core: Fingers of steel, strong arms and legs, and mental focus are useless without a solid core. The “core” consists of the midsection from abs and obliques (side abdominals) to the mid and lower back and hips. There are dozens of smaller muscles that make up the “core,” and they perform as one unit to bridge all the different parts of the upper and lower body. It wraps all the way around your torso and supports everything, making the separate movements work together for one common goal. There’s not a single thing in climbing (or life, really) that doesn’t involve the core, and strengthening it is invaluable for preventing injury. This area of the body builds strength quickly, but remember to work all the muscles that comprise it.
Forearms: Sinewy, vein-popping forearms are a dead giveaway for identifying most climbers. Our sport’s never-ending demand on this group of relatively small muscles builds them up into freakishly jacked and vascular tools de crush. The forearms are the operating force behind pinches, crimps, finger-locks, gastons, underclings, and more. Although they are usually the first body part to give out when climbing (the awful pump), they are also some of the quickest muscles to develop when training.
Biceps: Welcome to the gun show. Biceps coordinate complicated and intricate movements of the hand, as well as flexing and rotating the forearms. Without the bicep, you wouldn’t be able to bend your arm at the elbow or twist your hand in the strange ways climbing demands. These muscles are also particularly important for lock-offs and underclings.
Back: Climbing is all about pulling, and the back has the biggest and strongest “pull” muscle group in the body. The latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, and trapezius (traps) are the three large muscles that are responsible for every climber’s ability to pull. As a result of climbing a lot, the upper back can overdevelop into a “hunchback” appearance, even if that person doesn’t do a single pull-up or other back exercise.
Legs: Your foundation but easily overlooked. As the most underrated cog in the machine, the legs are literally the driving force behind most movement. Your upper body holds you on the rock, but your legs move you UP, whether you’re bouldering or peakbagging. Because these muscles are so large (compared to the smaller arms), use them as much and as efficiently as possible. Calves are crucial to standing on dime edges, pockets, and smearing on slabs, while quads are the secret to big power moves. Hamstrings keep you on overhangs and make heel hooks possible.
1. Pyramids (endurance)
Pick a number grade you feel consistent with. If you’re a solid 5.11 climber, then go with 5.10. Without untying from the rope or resting between attempts, climb 5.10a to 5.10d, then back down from 5.10d to 5.10a. If you fall below halfway up the route, start that route over and try to complete it, and then keep moving through the pyramid. If you fall again below halfway, move on to the next route. If you fall above the halfway point, count it and move onto the next route. By the end of the pyramid, you should have climbed eight routes without rests in between. Rest at least 15 to 20 minutes, and then go another round. Advanced climbers can shoot for three rounds.
5.11 sport climber: 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.10d, 5.10c, 5.10b, 5.10a
V9 boulderer: V5, V6, V7, V8, V8, V7, V6, V5
2. Route Intervals (Endurance and on-route recovery)
Perform a series of difficult, four-minute climbing burns with only five minutes rest between each climb. You and your partner will each take turns climbing (toprope or lead) for four minutes, while the other belays. There’s a one-minute transition period between each climb—be sure to double-check both the knot and belay device with each changeover. Select routes within two full number grades of your onsight limit—for example, if you onsight 5.11, then climb between 5.9 and 5.11. Use a stopwatch to stay on schedule for climbing exactly four minutes. If you finish the route with time to spare, immediately begin downclimbing the route until the four-minute mark. When your four minutes are up, lower to the ground, untie, and belay your partner on his climb. Do at least six climbs each—this will take exactly one hour if you stay on schedule. Beginners should shoot for at least six climbs, while intermediate and advanced climbers should try to get at least 12 four-minute burns in.
3. Climb for Points (volume training)
This workout is best done three times a week with a day of rest in between, for four weeks in a row. Focus on incremental progress for that month, followed by an easier fifth week, and then try your project. It’s great for the end of a setting cycle, when the problems or routes have been up for a while and you have them wired. It works for bouldering and sport climbing, but set lower point goals for bouldering. The climb’s grade is the point value, but you get double points if the climb is at your onsight level. For example, a V6 boulderer gets five points for a V5 but 12 points for a V6. Set a number goal and climb until you reach it, getting as much rest as you need within that session. Beginners set lower number goals, and intermediate/advanced climbers set higher point goals.
V6 boulderer (points/day): Week 1: 40 Week 2: 45-50 Week 3: 50-55 Week 4: 55-60
5.10 sport climber (points/day): Week 1: 100 Week 2: 150 Week 3: 200 Week 4: 250
4. Laps (endurance)
Pick a grade range for sport climbing that is about 70 percent of your redpoint. A 5.11+ climber should climb 5.10+ with a few 5.11- routes. Climb five routes in your range, with no rest between each route. If the five routes feel impossible, then go to an easier grade or try four routes. Take a 15- to 20-minute rest or belay your partner on his turn for a break. Repeat the set of five laps, trying for different climbs. If there aren’t enough routes in the range, it’s ok to repeat. Beginners should aim for two rounds of this (10 routes), while intermediate and advanced climbers can shoot for three or more rounds. You should be thoroughly exhausted when you’re done.
5. Project, Push-up, Pull-up (projecting skills and Power)
Power is difficult to train for, but a great way to gain it is to try hard moves when you’re already tired. Find a project at your limit that you’ve never been on, isn’t your style, and is something you wouldn’t mind putting some effort into. For 15 minutes, work on your project. When the time is up, you have five minutes to do 50 push-ups and 20 pull-ups. Even if you haven’t done that many, quit when the five minutes is up. That’s one round. Do six rounds of this, so by the end, you will have put 90 minutes into your project and aimed for 300 push-ups and 120 pull-ups. It helps to do this with a partner who is equally motivated. Bring a notepad to keep track of your rounds. This is easier with boulder problems, but can be done with sport routes as well.
6. Traverse Eliminates (endurance)
Use a near-vertical section of wall that will allow you to traverse for 20 to 30 feet—each traverse will be out and back, so you’ll travel double the distance. Do four times with a different eliminate each time; the eliminate means you won’t be allowed to use holds in certain ways. First, traverse the section of wall using only side-pull handholds. All hand and footholds are on, but you can only grip using the sides of the holds. The second traverse is a finger eliminate: Use only two fingers of each hand to grip (alternate the fingers if desired). Do the third lap using only the pinch grip on each hold. In the fourth and final set, traverse the wall using only one hand. E.g., use the right hand out and only the left hand on the way back. This last round might require deadpointing or lunge moves to advance your hand from hold to hold. Rest three to five minutes between each traverse.
7. Bouldering Intervals (power-endurance)
You’ll need a stopwatch and partner. The goal is to ascend five strenuous boulder problems in five minutes with minimal resting. Pick challenging problems that you can still do when you’re tired and that are easy to descend, purposely minimizing recovery time. Remember you only have five minutes to do five problems. Once the five minutes are up (regardless of whether you’ve sent five problems), it’s your turn to be timer/spotter while your partner goes. Do three (beginner) to six (advanced) rounds of these bouldering intervals. You can make a game of it by keeping score and determining a winner of each round by adding up the V-numbers of the five problems completed.
8. Bookends (technique)
Start and end any climbing session with solid technique practice, so if you start to use improper or poor movement (e.g., dynoing past an intricate footwork sequence instead of working it out), technique is reinforced at the end of the routine. After warming up but before the climbing session, do 10 to 20 minutes of specific technique drills at a low intensity with slow, methodical movement that emphasizes flexibility. Do it again after climbing but before cooling down—hence the “bookends.” The drills consist of doing the exact same movements five or more times in a row. Suggested movements: step-throughs, back-steps, back-step flags, keeping opposite hand and foot contact, crossing hands, dynamic drills (two hands moving simultaneously, focusing on the hips to create movement rather than the arms), and any other complicated move. Concentrate on developing a continuous “flow” that incorporates all the techniques together; movement should be deliberate rather than sloppy.
9. 3×10 Intervals (endurance and on-route recovery)
If your inclination is to rest or “take” when you’re pumped, this workout is for you. It’s natural to want to kick back until the burn fades, but that won’t make you stronger. This format is three rounds of 10 climbs in a row, and it’s designed to help you tolerate the pump. Within each group of 10 climbs, the highest difficulty should be one full number grade below onsight level. The order should alternate easy-hard-easy-hard, with the hardest climbs in the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth slots; the tenth is a cool down. The easy climbs should start about three number grades below onsight, the next hard climb would be two number grades easier than onsight. Choosing routes takes practice, so write down your groups beforehand so you don’t have to keep track in your head.
5.11c onsight climber: 1) 5.8 2) 5.9 3) 5.8 4) 5.10 5) 5.9 6) 5.10+ 7) 5.10- 8) 5.10+ 9) 5.9 10) 5.8
Depending on how that felt, adjust the set to be easier or harder.
An easier group: 5.7; 5.10; 5.8; 5.10+;) 5.6; 5.10+; 5.8; 5.10; 5.9; 5.8 A harder group: 5.7; 5.10-; 5.8; 5.10+; 5.7; 5.10+; 5.8; 5.10+; 5.9; 5.6
10. Lock-offs (static strength)
Find a boulder or sport route that you can do consistently—usually a few grades below redpointing level. Climb the selected problem and lock off every single move, holding the reaching hand just below the next hold for three seconds. Make sure it is a full three seconds. This will force you to focus on the intricacies of each move so that your body positioning has to be nearly perfect to efficiently execute each move. By the end of the climb, if you don’t feel like you had to try hard, downclimb in the same fashion, pausing the hand that’s reaching down to the next hold. Rest a few minutes and move on to the next problem—do this for each climb, increasing the grades if you can.
11. Up-Down (power-endurance)
Pick two climbs (boulder or sport) at grades you can flash, one slightly harder than the other, and next to each other. If you climb V7, pick a V5 and a V4. Climb up the harder problem first. Once you reach the top of the boulder, shake out, and without topping out or jumping off, downclimb to the start of the next problem using any holds on the wall. Without letting your feet touch the ground, complete the second boulder and jump off or top out. Rest a few minutes and repeat for the rest of your climbing session.
12. Peter Pans (body tension and endurance)
This is great if you don’t have much time but want to get worked. For bouldering or sport climbing, this drill teaches you to stay on the wall when your feet cut and swing. Choose an overhanging route or problem with decent holds all the way up. Grade doesn’t matter, as long as the holds are big and easy for you. For each move, cut both feet intentionally. Swing them off the wall and then back on. Make the next move, and then swing them off the wall and back on. Repeat for every move on the route. Make sure to keep your arms slightly bent to help engage your core; don’t straight-arm anything. This workout will tire your entire body pretty quickly, so you might not need as many climbs to get worked. Beginners aim for five routes or 10 problems; intermediate/ advanced climbers aim for 10 routes or 15 to 20 problems, or do a combination of routes and problems.
13. World Cup Simulator (projecting skills, power, power-endurance)
Pick a project, any project! The purpose of this exercise is to force you to focus and execute under pressure while building power and endurance. Find a boulder problem that you know you’d have to work on for at least one full gym session before being able to complete. Project that boulder problem for 15 minutes. Once the 15-minute round is up, you have 15 minutes to climb every problem in the gym of a certain grade. That’s one set. Say you pick a V4 that you know will be difficult. Work that for 15 minutes. Then climb every V1 in the gym within 15 minutes (at least five problems). If you fail at completing every problem, move on to the next projecting round. Do six sets of this. Rests will be in between attempts on the project.
Rules for Gym Rats
1. Climb outside. Yes, this is the first tip of training indoors. This is why most of us train in the first place, so don’t sacrifice outdoors time to stay in a gym. It’ll keep you from burning out on plastic while giving you a reason to try harder when you are inside.
2. Climb at least three days a week, not all in a row.
3. Cross-train. Climbing works specific “pull” muscles, so work opposing “push” muscles to avoid injury.
4. Drink more water than you think you need: at least 64 oz. per non-training day and 96 oz. on training days.
5. Listen to your body. If you think you need a rest day, take one. If you climb really hard one day, chances are your body will need rest to maximize the gains you made the day before. If you feel a tweaky muscle or tendon, take the few days off now to avoid being forced to take two months off when that tweaky feeling turns into a full-blown injury.
6. Pick a weekly schedule that works for you and is easy to stick to. Two options: 6a. Climb Monday, Wednesday, Friday, with Tuesday and Thursday as rest days (you can climb outside on the weekends, but don’t train). 6b. Climb two days on, one day off, two days on, one day off, two days on, four days off. Repeat.
7. Warm up and cool down. Get your body ready to climb by doing a few easy routes, jumping jacks, jogging, stretching, etc. Cool down after workouts by climbing more easy routes/problems and stretching. This will avoid injury and promote recovery.
8. Maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Fuel your body with whole, natural foods that include a solid mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
This article originally appeared in Climbing in 2013.
Julie Ellison started climbing in Alabama more than a decade ago and is now living out her dream of van life with her pup, a 60-lb. lap dog named Lizzie. As the Editor at Large of Climbing magazine, Julie thrives on creating high-quality, inspirational stories and photos for climbers of all disciplines.