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Adopt The Tricks Of World-Class Climbers And Climb Better. Here’s How

Pro climbers got where they are through training, practice and by learning what works on the rock and what doesn't. Here, some of their tricks for upping your game.

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It’s so easy to lose track of all the various exercises and practices that help us to keep improving our climbing. Training plans are useful, but most elite climbers simply develop a mental checklist of good habits, which they revisit intuitively on a regular basis. Some of these tips are about injury prevention whereas others are more directly linked to performance, but they all fit together to keep things moving steadily forward. I’ve pulled together a list of training habits, best practices used by 5.14 climbers, but there are many more where these came from! As you go through, ask yourself how many of these tactics you do, how many you don’t and add them to your repertoire to up your game, just like the top-end climbers do.

Use a stretch-band before climbing!

Better to prevent shoulder injuries than be forced to cure them. Some coaches suggest that you don’t need to bother activating your rotator cuff before you climb, however, this supportive, stabilising muscle is notoriously sluggish and the majority of shoulder injuries are caused by it not firing optimally and the shoulder being loaded awkwardly. You can find various stretch-band exercises for internal and external rotation of the rotator cuff online. For the sake of a couple of minutes, it’s surely best to not tempt fate.

Climber warming up using stretch bands.
Use a stretch band to activate your shoulders, rotator cuffs in particular, to help avoid injuring these critical components. (Photo: Rick Smee)

Practice footwork accuracy when warming up

Why miss out on the endless benefits that come from performing the most important technique drill of all? Be totally uncompromising with every foot placement: one touch, with no sound and no toe-drag. This is also the best way to filter out distractions and focus your mind. I get it that sometimes you feel lazy, but don’t let your ego interfere, as no climber is above this drill.

Vary your grip!

Change the way you grip edges and switch from half-crimp to open/drag and experiment, carefully, with full crimp. Do this when warming up and then try to use weaker grips as you push up through the grades. Why? To build versatile grip strength and also, “grip-switching” is a classic energy conservation strategy for long, endurance-based climbs.

Do pull-up bar hits for arms and core at the end of climbing sessions

It’s nearly always your fingers that give out first when you climb, so why not train on the pull-up bar afterward? A good strategy is to do high-rep, low-load sets (eg, two-arm pull-ups and leg-raises) after endurance-based climbing and low-rep, high-load sets for strength (eg, offset pull-ups and front-levers) after hard bouldering.

Your fingers give out long before your arms—after a climbing session hit the pull-up bar to round out your workout. (Photo: Rick Smee)

Don’t forget hangboarding

It’s so easy to drift out of the habit of hangboarding, but a strategic stint of three or four weeks always gives finger strength a major boost. Hangboarding works best when drip-fed in small doses, so two or three 25 to 30-minute hits a week is usually all it takes. You don’t want to fingerboard year-round, so take cool-off periods after doing a lengthy stint. There are many views and theories on protocols, but most favour max-hangs where you aim to hit failure between six and 12 seconds. The hangboard also provides the perfect tool for addressing weaknesses, so if you’re better at half-crimping than dragging/open-hanging, then you know which grip to train.

Work the hangboard in small doses, but don’t forget about it. (Photo: Rick Smee)

Stretch your front-pecs and forearms after climbing

To improve functional mobility in the upper body, minimise post-training soreness and stave off the classic climbers’ hunched posture, leave time after climbing to stretch the front-pecs, shoulders and forearm flexors. Do each stretch twice and hold them for 25 to 30 secs.

Be sure to leave time after you train or climb to stretch, to avoid soreness and counter the typical climber’s hunchback. (Photo: Rick Smee)

System shocks

Why do we always try to make training feel comfortable and familiar when the point is the opposite? Training early in the morning feels horrible, right? So do it! Gripping a campus board with your index finger bent knocks the wind out of your sails too, and so does bouldering with a weight-vest and so on. By definition, system-shocks should not become staple habits but things you do periodically to bust through plateaus. Make sure the shocks are right for your level (no weight vests for beginners etc). As top British boulderer, Alexander Lemel says, “The whole point is that it’s supposed to be hard.” So go on, lob an anvil into your training and step back and watch the results.

HIIT training

Shock your system by sometimes throwing in an exercise that is hard for you, such as campusing. (Photo: Rick Smee)

Many of us will experience greater value from doing a 10- to 15-minute HIIT-style floor routine rather than plodding away for twice that time. There are endless studies tat extol the benefits of HIIT training and we also see that sport climbing and bouldering place high demands on the ability to recover from short, explosive bursts of effort. A simple routine is to do burpees (star-jump > squat-thrust > push-up). Warm up for 3 minutes, then set your timer and do 8 to 10 reps every 90 secs or 4 to 6 reps every minute, with the aim of doing, say, 50 to 60 in 10 mins or 80 to 100 in 15 minutes. Go steady if you have weak knees and stand up in control rather than leaping. This routine is a one-stop-shop for anaerobic fitness and all-over body power. Two sessions of HIIT per week will usually be plenty. This training is also a great stress buster and provides one of the best endorphin releases out there, but it isn’t a complete substitute for cardio work. Those with a major weakness or who aspire to do longer routes are still advised to do aerobic work.

Use the classic burpee for a bit of HIIT training. (Photo: Rick Smee)

Keep forearm extensor trainers in a handy place and use them!

Rubber forearm extensor trainers are crucial for preventing the common climbing injuries associated with muscular imbalances in the forearm, such as elbow tendinitis. When it comes to the practicalities of using them, the main issue is that you can never seem to find them when you have a free moment to use them. Put the trainers in the pockets of your gym bag or work bag or in a place where you can always find them (bedside table, with your keys etc). Do three sets of 15 to 20 reps, to 80 percent effort level, three times a week and they will help keep your forearms healthy and robust, as well as facilitating further strengthening of your fingers.

A forearm trainer is a handy way to counter imbalances, just be sure to keep it at easy reach so you are inclined to use it. (Photo: Rick Smee)

Do push-ups a minimum of twice a week

Push-ups are arguably the best thing you can do for your climbing when you have a spare five or 10 minutess and they require no equipment whatsoever. Push ups train the common antagonist (opposition) muscles in the upper body (chest, shoulders and triceps), so will help to stave off many common injuries, as well as build core strength. Do a warmup set on your knees, then three sets of 10 to 30 reps, subject to your level. If you struggle with push-ups then do them kneeling. Make a vow to do this at least twice a week and preferably three times. This should be regarded as the minimum requirement and no doubt, there’s value in exploring supportive strength conditioning more deeply. As always with training, it comes down to the beautiful basics.