A Faster, Safer Way To Get Stronger?

Climbing your best isn't just a function of pull-up strength and finger power; it's about being flexible enough to apply that strength.

Everyone knows the type: that dude who’s so obscenely strong he can do one-arm pull-ups and campus wearing a 20-pound weight vest. 

“I’m surprised he doesn’t climb harder,” someone says—again. 

How many times at the gym have we heard this banter? Today we see mutants cloned en masse, yet in climbing, strength can be both a blessing and a curse. Remember, power is nothing without control. The best climbers aren’t necessarily the strongest, but the ones who have the X-factor in movement. Watch footage of Adam Ondra or Margo Hayes, as well as veterans such as Lynn Hill, Peter Croft or John Bachar, and you will see that they share a balletic, aesthetic movement style. It takes talent and years of experience to hone technique; and flexibility and mobility are key to the process. 

Climbers in the past notoriously undervalued supportive flexibility and mobility training, but it’s now widely understood as one of the best areas to invest our training time.

Climbers in the past notoriously undervalued supportive flexibility and mobility training, but it’s now widely understood as one of the best ways to invest our training time. The aim is not just to do better in stemming corners and slabs with high steps; it’s about promoting a more fluid, relaxed and efficient climbing style; good general posture; and a reduced risk of injury. 

Bet you never did the forearm-extensor stretch before. (Photo: Rick Smee)

First, some definitions

Passive flexibility: the ability to move a limb through its widest range of motion with assistance from body weight, gravity, use of another limb or help from a partner—e.g., sitting in the splits position or touching your toes. 

Dynamic flexibility / mobility: the ability to lift a limb into a position without help or assistance (as defined above)—e.g.: stepping high using the hip-flexor muscle. A useful goal is to reduce the gap between passive and dynamic flexibility by choosing stretches where you must lift the limb into position without assistance. For example, from standing, bring your knee up to your chest without using your arm. 

With an overwhelming number of exercises out there, the question is where to start? Sure, it would be great to do regular yoga classes and spend hours stretching on rest days like an Olympic athlete, but those feel like pipe dreams to many of us with busy schedules. If we see a list of 20 or more exercises, we might shirk out. If we see a dozen? We might just try. (The list that follows is not comprehensive. For best results, change and rotate your exercises periodically.)

(Photo: Rick Smee)

Mobility Exercises 

For most of us it is logical to perform mobility exercises during the warm-up for climbing, hangboarding or campusing. Mobility exercises awaken our nervous systems and stimulate the tendon-reflex receptors. You can also combine them with stretch-band work to maintain shoulder health. If you’re bouldering, save time by performing the exercises between warm-ups, but if you’re doing routes and will be belaying, then do the exercises first. Avoid static stretches for your arms and upper body in your warm-up, as they may over-relax muscles and dampen the reflex receptors, which protect joints and tendons. 

Also Read: Common Power/Endurance Training Mistakes and How to Train the Proper Way

Mobility protocol

• Do each exercise one to three times for approximately 1 minute each. 

• Perform all movements in control, with a full range of motion and muscles lightly contracted. 

Pull your lower belly up and inward toward your spine to activate your core. 

1. Arm circles combined with finger clenches. Move both arms at the same time, using slow and controlled form. Engage the shoulder blades and change direction periodically; keep your arms close to your body such that your upper arms graze your ears in passing. 

2. Lunges. Lunges are a staple for promoting leg power, stability and range of motion.

3. Plank with knee to elbow. This exercise is a classic to engage the core and promote hip mobility.

4. Step-ups and leg swings. For step-ups, stand up straight on one leg, bring your knee up to your armpit, then rotate it outwards and lower it back down. For leg swings, simply swing the leg backwards and forwards. Both exercises are highly specific to climbing, recruiting hip-flexor strength and promoting range of motion in the inner thigh.

Photo: Rick Smee

Flexibility Exercises

A practical approach is to split upper-limb and lower-limb work into different sessions—performing arm and upper-body flexibility straight after climbing, to warm down, and focusing on lower-limb flexibility on rest days. A great option is to merge leg flexibility with recovery practices such as self-massage work (using a foam roller) and muscle-tension-release therapy (with a tennis ball or squash ball). Consider these sessions not as chores but rather a chance to relax and help your body and mind repair. The key is regular practice, so why not pledge two (or preferably three) sessions a week of lower-limb work? Once these sessions become routine, the benefits will flow.

Also read: Common Training Mistakes That You Can Fix Right Now

One caveat about doing leg-flexibility work while resting between climbs: Be wary of stretching the hamstrings statically when trying boulder problems with aggressive compression heel-hooks, as you may over-relax the muscles and risk injury. Instead favor dynamic hamstring stretches. Meanwhile, most (but not all) coaches agree that we should avoid static stretches for the arms and upper body before or between climbs. 

Flexibility protocol

Do each stretch two-three times. Perform a test stretch first by holding for 5–10 seconds at 75–80 percent of your full range. 

Ease gradually into the positions and hold for 20–30 seconds. The stretch should be mildly uncomfortable but not painful. 

Breathe deeply and regularly. 

Try to stretch slightly farther each time but don’t get too competitive with yourself and overdo it. 

A superb technique is resistance stretching. Move into the stretch, take up the tension, then contract the relevant muscle/s to resist the stretch for 10 seconds; then relax and move deeper into the stretch. Repeat.

Lower-limb Stretches

1. Downward Dog. Combine hamstrings and calves. From standing, bend your legs, crouch, touch the ground and plant your hands in front of you. Straighten your arms and legs, aiming to keep your heels on the floor, body forming a V-position. Breathe deeply. 

2. Frog. One of the best leg stretches for climbing, the Frog helps you bring your hips close to the wall and weight your feet. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width and turned outward at 45 degrees. Crouch and push your knees outwards and back with your hands, thrusting your hips forward. Better still, do the floor version, from which it is easier to push into the stretch. 

3. Box-splits. Quite simply, stemming practice on the floor. Face forward and move your feet out wide, keeping your legs straight. Place your hand on a chair for support as needed. Lower slowly and cautiously, do a very moderate stretch and don’t push too far. This stretch is highly beneficial for climbing. 

4. Glutes. Lie on your back, curl up and bring your legs over your head. Keep one leg straight but bend the other leg, turning the knee out to the side. Hold the ankle of the bent leg and pull gently down to take up the stretch on your glute. Hold, then swap sides. 

Photo: Rick Smee

Upper-limb Stretches

1. Forearm flexors and front-pec combined. This may be the single best stretch for finishing a climbing session and a great antidote to the dreaded “climbers’ hunch” (slumped posture caused by overly tight front pecs or, more simply, climbing too much and neglecting stretching). Place your palm upside-down on the wall at shoulder height, open your chest, straighten both arms, and train your sight down your outer arm into the distance. Switch sides.

Photo: Rick Smee

2. Forearm-extensor stretch. (Shown above) Cross forearms, link fingers and rotate the lower arm to take up the stretch. 

3. Assisted-shoulder stretch behind head. This is a crucial stretch for maintaining or, better still, improving functional mobility (the ability to reach farther and pull with greater power from a full range of motion). Grasp your elbow and press your arm downward to activate the stretch. Switch sides.

Photo: Rick Smee

4. Lat stretch standing side stretch. Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width, legs slightly bent, and then stretch over to your left, placing your left hand on your left thigh for support. Reach out/over with the right hand to engage the stretch, and try not to tip forward or backward. Switch sides. 

Neil Gresham of Sheffield, England, is a professional climbing coach, runs the training website neilgresham.com, and is an all-around climber who has done 8c+/9a, 5.14x trad and WI 7, and put up new routes from Brazil to Mongolia, Vietnam, Iceland and China.