As a full-time high school teacher, husband, pro climber, and father to two young boys, I don’t have a ton of time to devote to training for climbing. What matters most in a workout is getting the most bang for my buck—this means short but intense workouts that keep me strong. I don’t climb or boulder much anymore during the week, but the circuits I’ve developed with the help of top trainers keep me at or near my peak level of performance and can do the same for you. These circuits focus less on endurance, which I can get back by volume climbing (focusing on a lot of pitches in a day) on the weekend or just one night a week. To round out my training, I include climbing-specific movements like campusing, hangboard, or my own exercises once a week for an hour to an hour and a half. (Check out climbing.com/skill/training for suggestions on campus and hangboard workouts.)
Train for about 45 minutes twice a week.
Choose eight different exercises, which will be divided into two groups of four.
Within each group of four, there should be one exercise each for upper body, leg, and core, and the fourth should be an isolated pair of oppositional muscles (core/lower back, biceps/triceps, chest/upper back; choose one muscle for the first group and the other muscle for the second group).
Perform each exercise for 40 seconds; give yourself three seconds to switch between exercises.
Complete four rounds, where one round is completing all four exercises once (160 seconds of work plus transition time). Don’t stop after completing each round; keep pushing until you have completed each exercise four times for a total of 16 movements, and then rest for five minutes.
Repeat the above steps with the second group of movements, and then take another five-minute rest.
Finish the circuit with five straight minutes of the following core exercises:
- 1-minute forearm plank
- 1-minute dolphin pushups (above): Start in a pushup position and walk your feet forward until your hips reach 90 degrees. Keep legs straight while you do pushups.
- Two 30-second, one-arm planks: Alternate arms.
- 1-minute toe touches: Lie on your back with legs up and hips bent at 90 degrees, heels to the ceiling; reach hands up to touch your toes.
- 1-minute scissor-kick crunches: Lie on your back and raise legs slightly up so hips are bent at 30 degrees; move left leg under right, and then left leg over right while holding a crunch position with upper body.
I have a list of nearly 100 exercises that I choose from; because it would be silly to list them all, here are my favorites from each category. If you’d like to create your own, closely analyze the type of moves you make while climbing (e.g., locking off, crossing through, flagging, etc.), and then integrate an established exercise that works those muscle groups. Often I combine multiple exercises/movements to make coordination—hugely important in climbing—a major factor in my workouts.
Mountain man: Use a rope on a pulley hanging from the ceiling, with a climbing hold attached to each end of the rope. (Free-hanging holds like Metolius Rock Rings are excellent for this.) Pull off the ground, moving one arm all the way down in a lock-off position and hold for a few seconds. Then pull the other hand down and hold for a few seconds. Repeat. Increase the challenge by wearing a weight vest or using smaller holds.
Campus-board touches: Reach as high as you can with your first hand, latch the hold, and then come back to your starting position. Repeat without coming off the board. Use a foothold to make it easier, or smaller holds to make it harder.
Around the world: Use a pull-up bar to lock off with your head just below the bar. Stay locked off and change your position by moving one hand at a time, so you’re now facing the opposite direction. Continue going around the world while maintaining the lock-off; don’t swing your body wildly as you swivel around.
Offset pull-ups: Throw a towel over a pull-up bar or hang a hold on it so you have something to grab that’s about a foot lower than the bar itself. With one hand on the bar and the other on the towel/hold, do pull-ups. Alternate the high hand each round.
Box jumps: Using both feet, jump up onto a raised box or object; your entire foot should be on the box. Then jump back down without pausing. Repeat.
One-legged squats (above): With one leg straight out in front of you, squat down on your other leg until your butt hits the heel of your foot, and then stand back up. Do this for the full 40 seconds, and alternate legs each round. Add dumbbells to make it harder or use the wall for balance to make it easier.
Lunges with press: Use a pair of light dumbbells (about eight lbs. each) and press them up straight over your head while you lunge forward. Alternate legs with each press/lunge.
Steps: Step up onto a box or raised object, match feet, and step back off with same leg. Alternate legs with each step. Use a taller box or add dumbbells to increase difficulty.
Paint cans (above): Grab two paint cans (or something of similar height) and place them side by side on the floor about shoulder-width apart. Place hands on the lid of each paint can and assume the pushup position. Do a pushup, tuck your legs under your body, and then extend them in front of you without touching the floor. Hold for two seconds, and then bring them back under your body and into the starting position. Repeat.
Bridge (above): Lie on your back and place both feet flat on the ground and shoulder-width apart. Raise hips as high as you can with hands on the ground, palms down, along your side. Extend one leg out or balance feet on a stability ball for more of a challenge.
Dip-bar leg raises: Use a dip bar to lift your body up until your arms are extended and locked. Keeping legs straight, raise them until they are parallel to the floor. Lower them until they’re at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Repeat the raise, making sure not to let your legs dangle freely. Make it easier by doing it on your elbows, or make it more difficult by holding light dumbbells between your toes.
Side elbow plank (above): Lie on your side, with forearm on floor (elbow directly below your shoulder). Lift your hips up so weight is on the outside edge of your bottom foot and your forearm/elbow. Keep hips, shoulders, legs, and feet stacked and vertically in line with body. Alternate sides each round.
Core/lower back: Crunches and Supermans (Lie on stomach with arms extended in front of you, legs shoulder-width apart; lift arms, head, and feet straight up as high as they can go, lower slowly.)
Biceps/triceps: Bicep curls and overhead tricep extensions
Chest/upper back: Pushups and bent-over rows (See climbing.com/shoulders-hips for a description of this exercise.)
*These moves are performed on a systems board or hangboard.
Repeater: Choose a hold on the systems board that is a weakness for you (e.g., a pinch or sloper; ideally, there are pairs of similar holds lined up on the board). With fixed feet (meaning they don’t move during the exercise), grab on to a set at the same level, and then reach up to the next set one hand at a time. Without moving your feet, reach back down to the starting point. Repeat the movement, and alternate the leading hand.
Around the block: Choose a hangboard that has four different types of holds (sloper, crimp, jug, and pocket). Grab the slopers and pull off the ground. Without touching the floor, go “around the block” by moving one hand at a time to the crimps, then to the jugs, and then to the pockets. Order doesn’t matter, but keep repeating. Use your feet or pick big holds to make it easier.
Cross-through: Using the systems board, choose two good holds to start from and set your feet on the footholds. Lock off the left hand, and reach as far left as you can with your right hand (keeping feet fixed), and then latch a hold. Bring right hand back to the beginning and repeat; switch the locked-off hand each round.
Flag-and-clip: Choose a good left hold on the systems board and place your left foot directly beneath you on a good foot. With your free hand holding a length of climbing rope and your right foot flagged behind your left leg, clip a hanging quickdraw that is almost out of reach. Keep repeating, and alternate hands each round.
Rob Pizem teaches science at an alternative high school in Grand Junction, Colorado. When not with his family, he is constantly on the lookout for the perfect route, be it a single pitch or a big wall. You can follow his adventures and training videos at pizem.blogspot.com. Thanks to Arc’teryx, CAMP-USA, Scarpa, Sterling Rope, and Wind X-treme.