How to Cross-Train for Climbing for Better Sending

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Michaela Kiersch cross-training with a trail run in the foothills of Salt Lake City.

Michaela Kiersch cross-training with a trail run in the foothills of Salt Lake City.

Whether I’m training for limestone routes like Necessary Evil (5.14c) or for the parkour-style bouldering competitions of US Nationals, I’ve found a need for multi-dimensionality. In addition to climbing-based workouts like 4x4s and circuits, 

I do supplemental training to increase overall fitness, grow in climbing abilities, and optimize performance. Here, I’ve detailed three key areas where you should be doing supplemental training, to make yourself a stronger, fitter, more well-rounded climber; I’ve also outlined a sample week of climbing plus cross-training on the facing page.

Cardio Training

At 165 feet, the Oliana, Spain, testpiece Mind Control (5.14b) demands a high level of cardiovascular fitness. Climbing quickly reduced the amount of time spent on route and the lactic acid in my forearms; improving my cardio fitness helped me gain this speed, as well as recover better on the wall. It also let me gain better control of my breathing and heart rate.

Regulating your breath during a long crux sequence comes partly from having a certain fitness level but also from experience. During cardiovascular exercise, it’s easier to learn to breathe in a controlled fashion and to be aware of your heart rate than when you’re panicked on the rock. You can then transfer these breathing skills—a calm, slow breath while resting and a hard, forceful breath during exertion—to your climbing.

Start by adding two to three cardio-focused workouts a week in addition to your climbing sessions—these can be on climbing days, time permitting, or on active rest days. In an effective cardio session, maintain an elevated heart rate of 70 percent of your maximum for 30–60 minutes through moderate but continuous exercise like running or hiking. (The Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests your maximum heart rate is 208 minus 0.7 x your age. A heart-rate monitor can help until your awareness increases.)

You might also make one of your cardio days interval training—alternating between two activities, usually requiring different heart rates and effort outputs. This mimics the heart-rate variance you experience resting on a route then climbing the crux/es—for climbers, walking/jogging intervals are ideal. Elevate your heart rate to 60 percent of your max while walking then 80 percent while running; keep any interval exercise to around 30 minutes.

Strength and Conditioning

There are obvious benefits to strength and conditioning training, including improved muscular endurance, better balance through increased muscle control, and the ability to target your weaknesses. In the past, I’ve struggled to maintain upper-body strength for bigger moves. This past winter during the Hueco Rock Rodeo, I pulled onto the crimps of Tequila Sunrise (V11), grabbed a left-hand sidepull, and made a cross-body huck to a large hueco. Latching the hold required strong shoulders, biceps, and core, which I’d trained for by doing bench presses, biceps curls, and abs three to four times a week.

Ideally, you’ll follow a similar schedule. Variation is crucial: Create a circuit of four to six different exercises that target different areas, moving from exercise to exercise, performing each exercise in succession and then looping back. Also, shoot for lower weight and higher repetitions (8–10) to ease the intensity and to best simulate the continuous movement in climbing. Incorporating antagonist exercises—movements opposite those you find in climbing, like reverse wrist curls or dips—can help prevent injury and correct muscular imbalances. Additionally, targeting the core with leg lifts, crunches, and planks will help you keep your body closer to the wall while climbing. You can easily add these into your circuit.

Weekly training plan

You can tweak this sample week to your meet your training needs.

Day 1: Climbing + Cardio

Cardio Training: Before climbing as a warmup or afterward as a cooldown, run or hike, maintaining a heart rate of 70 percent of your max for 30–60 minutes. 

Day 2: Injury Prevention + Climbing + Strength

Injury Prevention: Before climbing, do three sets of Finger Glides (see “Self-care for fingers” below).

Strength and Conditioning: After climbing, complete a circuit of pushups, dips, leg raises, planks, and Is, Ys, and Ts, doing 3 sets of 10 reps for each exercise. Between each circuit, rest double the amount of time it took to finish one set.

Day 3: Active Rest Day

Cardio Training: After a warmup, do 30 minutes of interval training as described in the Cardio Training section.

Day 4: Injury Prevention + Climbing + Strength

Injury Prevention: Before climbing, over the course of the day, massage your fingers in three 5-minute intervals and do the Rolling Pen for a similar duration. Additionally, note any areas where your body feels weak or tweaked; foam-roll these problem areas, or if signs are worsening, note the condition to see if it deteriorates.

Strength and Conditioning: After climbing, run through a circuit of biceps curls, bench presses, triceps extensions, and leg raises, doing 3 sets of 10 reps for each exercise. Between each circuit, rest double the amount of time it took to complete one set.

Day 5: Active Rest Day

Cardio Training: During the day, run or hike, maintaining a heart rate of 70 percent of your max for 30–60 minutes continuously. 

Day 6: Climbing + Strength + Injury Prevention

Strength and Conditioning: After climbing, run through a circuit of pushups, dips, leg raises, planks, and Is, Ys, and Ts, doing 3 sets of 10 reps for each exercise. Between each circuit, rest double the amount of time it took to complete one set.

Injury Prevention: If a problem has persisted from the previous session, address it with foam rolling or antagonist exercises.

Day 7: Total Rest Day

Injury Prevention

One of the most crucial components to longevity and improvement is an injury-prevention routine—one of the biggest factors that’s kept me climbing consistently over the years. You can implement your injury-prevention routine with every workout session as it makes for a great warmup, though you might also incorporate certain exercises like stretching or Theraband work even on rest days.

Important areas to target include shoulders, fingers, and knees, which take the brunt of the force when climbing. Use exercises like Is, Ys, and Ts with a Theraband, light weights, or gymnastic rings for greater shoulder stability. Try finger extensions with a rubber band to help strengthen finger tendons, and use a foam roller to address problem spots in your knees. Antagonist exercises like pushups, dips, and reverse hammer curls will strengthen your triceps, help you push down farther on holds, and help alleviate and avoid biceps tendinitis. Rice-bucket workouts involving turning rice, flicking it, and doing finger extensions also provide antagonist work for the tops of your forearms and wrists.

Self-care for fingers

Rehabbing the typical A2 pulley injury can take months—it’s better to avoid a tweaked finger by doing injury prevention ahead of time. I like the following three exercises, all of which appear in the sample week at left:

Finger Glides

Begin with your fingers extended; bend them into a crimp position, then re-extend them. Now bend your fingers so they touch the bottom of your palm, then re-extend them. Finally, close your hand into a fist and release—this is one rep. This will help warm up your fingers for a project, help you rehabilitate or assess an injured finger, and augment finger strength.

Massage

There are a number of different finger-massage devices as well as inexpensive acupressure finger rings. Essentially, they all run over your fingers and allow you to spot-massage your fingers, stimulating blood flow and working out problematic spots.

Rolling Pen

Take a large pen like a Bic Sharpie and place it at the top of your palm, along your calluses; now try to roll the pen toward you using all four fingers. This strengthens the tendons and improves manual dexterity. 

Michaela Kiersch began climbing 16 years ago and has traveled the world, sending V13 boulder problems, 5.14+ sport routes, and winning competitions. She currently lives in Salt Lake City.