Conditioning for Climbers: Fitness and Strength Are Not the Same

Most athletes build a base of general strength before concentrating on specific disciplines. For most climbers it's the other way around.

Photo: Sonnie Trotter

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Most climbers are not “athletes” in the true sense because general fitness and conditioning are low on their priority list—an after-thought rather than a crucial training component. In most other sports, a base of general strength and endurance is built first before you concentrate on a specific discipline. But for most climbers it works the other way around.

The value of cardio-work and gym conditioning for climbers is widely understood, yet tastes and tolerances vary considerably. There are so many different profiles here—the gym junkies and aerobic fiends who over-cook it at the expense of their climbing, the couch potatoes who can’t walk to the crag without a sit-down rest and the hit-and-miss crew whose fitness pendulums randomly according to fluctuating work schedules and motivation.

It can be difficult to find time to run or go to the gym, especially when real climbing is so much more satisfying. But if you opt out of general conditioning for too long, you simply won’t be fit or strong enough to be able to train safely or effectively. Much of the conditioning training will also work the antagonist muscles and help to balance the body. Competition climbers have conditioning dialed, which explains why they are able to achieve and maintain a level that most of us can only dream of.

So, if you’re psyched to get with the program, here are some guidelines for boosting your supportive fitness to the next level.

1. Where and When

There are two ways that conditioning and cross training should feature in your overall approach, the first is during dedicated cardio and conditioning phases and the second is on a regular basis, week in, week out. Any long-term training program should start with a cardio and conditioning phase that may involve a total break from climbing, or include a maximum of one or two light, endurance-based climbing sessions per week. The length of these phases should depend on how much rest you need from climbing as well as how much general fitness you’ve lost while focusing exclusively on climbing—the two are often synonymous. Two to four weeks is the approximate phase length. Conditioning phases are also ideal when recovering from an injury, in which case they may last longer, for example, up to 10 weeks.

There is a fine line between cross training and conditioning being complementary or detrimental. Prolonged aerobic or anaerobic exercise will deplete glycogen reserves and may impair your recovery from more intense climbing sessions, resulting in a lack of progress or, worse still, illness or overtraining- related injury. The simple advice is to reduce the length, frequency and intensity of cardio and conditioning sessions during phases of hard climbing and training, especially when strength gains are the priority.

Training guidelines for cardio and conditioning:

[ X3] moderate sessions per week during rest phases
[ X4-5] hard sessions per week during conditioning phases
[ X3] moderate sessions during endurance phases (climbing)
[ X1-2] light sessions during strength phases (climbing)

2. What to do

The great thing about cardio and conditioning sessions is that you can do them anywhere, without the need for special equipment. Elite climbers may wish to incorporate rings, kettlebells and TRX straps into these sessions, but for the majority, all you need is somewhere to run and some floor-space for exercises. Early mornings, lunch-breaks or evenings may provide suitable gaps in your schedule. Above all else, set training targets to make sure that you keep improving. It’s very easy to slip into your comfort zone and allow your sessions merely to repeat themselves. The body adapts quickly, and the only way you’ll get fit is to keep changing things up and/or increasing the intensity.

Sample interval training program for running / cross-training

Session 1 20 Min Steady Run
Session 2 30 Min Steady Run
Session 3 30 Min Steady Run Including 1 X 1 Min Interval
Session 4 30 Min Steady Run Including 2 X 1 Min Interval (1 Min Rest Interval)
Session 5 30 Min Steady Run Including 3 X 1 Min Interval (1 Min Rest Interval)
Session 6 30 Min Steady Run Including 4 X 1 Min Interval (1 Min Rest Interval)
Session 7 30 Min Steady Run Including 5 X 1 Min Interval (1 Min Rest Interval)
Session 8 30 Min Steady Run Including 3 X 1 Min Interval (30 Sec Rest Interval)
Session 9 30 Min Steady Run Including 4 X 1 Min Interval (30 Sec Rest Interval)
Session 10 30 Min Steady Run Including 5 X 1 Min Interval (30 Sec Rest Interval)

3. Anaerobic and Cardiovascular Training

Running and cross-trainer machines are preferable to cycling, which is prone to building up the leg muscles. If you must cycle, then stick to the roads, avoid hills and spin with a high cadence. Swimming is only suitable during rest or conditioning phases, as it can tire the arms, shoulders and upper body. The modern thinking is to avoid churning out the same old 30-minute aerobic plods. Provided you feel fit enough, you should aim to incorporate anaerobic intervals (high- intensity bursts of exercises such as sprints) to send your heart soaring, followed by controlled periods where you slow back down and recover. This will produce superior fitness gains and be more enjoyable and challenging. The ability to switch between aerobic and anaerobic energy systems is more relevant to climbing than relying purely on aerobic systems. In addition, anaerobic training is understood to boost growth hormone production, which is about as handy for training gains as it gets. You don’t need a heart-rate monitor to do these sessions, but a stopwatch is handy.

A sample program is given above. Those who are less fit should build up from 15- to 20-minute aerobic sessions (i.e.: hold a steady pace) until they can sustain 35 to 40 minutes of effort. After this, it is safe to attempt to incorporate intervals.

4. Conditioning Sessions: Floor and Gym

There are many different types of routines that you can do here, but the general theme is to do lots of different exercises, with low weights and fairly high reps. If you are injured then avoid exercises which aggravate the injury and instead do a separate rehab program. It usually makes sense to avoid exercises that work the muscles that are used commonly in climbing (i.e. back and biceps) and instead emphasize the legs and antagonists. However, avoid any leg exercises that are prone to causing muscle bulk, such as squats with weight. It is good to include the core muscles, but the aim is to achieve an all-over body workout rather than a specific focus on the core (which clearly will have a place at other points in your program). A great option is to do a circuit-style routine, as this will develop anaerobic fitness as well as condition the muscles. One of my favorite routines is given below. This is just one of an infinite number of possibilities, and you may prefer to free-style and create your own.

Coach Gresham’s conditioning circuit:

Choose six exercises from the list below, making sure you include at least one of each of the full range of muscle groups. Arrange them in order so that you will be alternating between different muscle groups. The exercises are completed circuit-style, moving from one to the next, without rest, in sets of between eight and 12 reps (see targets below). Start at a level that you can just manage and then work up progressively to doing the highest number of reps and circuits. Guidelines are also given for rests between rounds of each circuit. Once you’ve hit the highest target you can reduce the amount of rest further between rounds, but note that this can have a fairly dramatic effect on performance so take it easy here!

  • Push ups (chest, triceps)
  • Seated dips (chest, triceps)
  • Sit ups (abs)
  • Leg paddles (abs)
  • Dorsal raises (lower back)
  • Star jumps (legs)
  • Squat-thrusts (legs)
  • Burpees (star-jump, squat- thrust & press-up combined) (full body)
  • Wind-ups (weight on rope attached to wooden dowel) (forearm extensors)
  • Reverse wrist curls (forearm extensors)

Session Targets:

  1. 8 RePS – 2 RounDS x 3 (8 mins rest)
  2. 8 RePS – 3 RounDS x 3 (8 mins rest)
  3. 10 RePS – 3 RounDS x 3 (7 mins rest)
  4. 10 RePS – 4 RounDS x 3 (7 mins rest)
  5. 12 RePS – 3 RounDS x 3 (6 mins rest)
  6. 12 RePS – 4 RounDS x 3 (6 mins rest)

This article appeared in Rock and Ice 221 and is republished here for free. Sign up with a Climbing membership, now just $2 a month for a limited time, and you get unlimited access to thousands of stories and articles by world-class authors on plus a print subscription to Climbing and our annual coffee-table edition of Ascent. Please join the Climbing team today.

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