This article was originally published in our print magazine in 2020.
If you live far from the crags or a climbing gym—or find yourself marooned in a “climbing desert” because of travel or life events—you need not lose sight of your climbing goals. Earlier this year, I lived for a few months in Metro Detroit, an hour’s drive from the nearest rock gym. Instead of festering in a climbless despair, I hit the local weight-lifting gym nearly every day, conjuring up ways to build climbing strength. My first day out on rock this year—after going four months without climbing—I felt strong, confident, and shockingly not pumped.
Train with intention
Lifting weights or spinning an elliptical is a drag. But doing those mind-numbing exercises with intention will lead to results that are transferrable to climbing. “I’m a big believer in objective-based training,” says Dr. Phil Watts, a professor at the School of Health and Human Performance at Northern Michigan University. “Every workout has a designed purpose.”
Watts has over 40 years of experience as a climber and a physiologist, contributing to over 80 scientific journals, including studies like “Effects of Rock Climbing Route Ascent and Route Familiarity on Handgrip and Finger-Curl Force.” Watts asserts that it’s important to set a specific goal to work toward and to understand which protocols will help you achieve that. For the climber estranged from climbing, that goal is to build climbing-specific strength, rather than mindlessly toiling with dumbbells to “get swole.”
Your Sample Week
Using my own training merged with input from Watts, I’ve outlined a sample week at your non-climbing gym, with each day’s workout taking 45 to 75 minutes. The overarching goal is to work on power and muscle recruitment, but it’s equally important to set weekly goals, be they for 1 week or 10. As you go through, pay attention to how your body responds, and adjust the weight, duration, or intensity accordingly. As the weeks progress, you should be working toward measurable improvement. (Note: Do each day’s exercises in the order presented.)
Monday: Hands, Grip, Forearms
The most important climbing-specific strength is finger and forearm strength, trainable even in a weight room.
Why: These will wake up and stretch your finger and forearm tendons to avoid strain during more intense workouts.
How: Wrap a thick rubber band around the tips of your fingers and spread your fingers without bending your wrist. Hold for 20–30 seconds, then rest 30 seconds. Repeat 5 times.
Why: To gain finger strength and endurance. Look for a flat surface elevated enough to hang from—the squat-rack crossbar or pully machine.
How: Place the first pad of the fingertips on an edge and hang in an open-crimp position, with palm open and thumb out. Hang 20–30 seconds, then rest 1 minute. 5 sets.
Why: Practicing lockoffs will help build the static endurance-under-duress necessary for powerful climbing.
How: Hold lockoff (chin above bar) on a pull-up bar. 15–25 seconds, then rest 1 minute. 5 sets.
Weighted finger resistance
Why: Resisting weight will simulate the feeling of hanging onto small holds and will help build finger strength.
How: Girth-hitch webbing to a weight plate. Wrap the weighted webbing once around your first fingerpads and resist opening your hand. Hold 6–10 seconds, then rest 30 seconds. Repeat 5–8 times on each hand, one hand at a time, to thoroughly pump each side.
Why: High reps foster endurance.
How: Sit upright and rest forearms on thighs, with hands holding dumbbells and hanging off knees. Curl the wrists upward, then slowly back down. Start with 10–15-pounds. 50 reps, then rest 1 minute. 2 sets.
Pullups to Failure
Why: Doing pullups will simulate static movement on stone. Doing them to failure will simulate fighting to the very end when climbing.
How: Very slow and controlled pullups with legs straight and core tight, and slow negatives (lowering down) to failure. Go to failure, then rest 3 minutes. 2–3 sets.
Why: Flexibility is beneficial to climbing movement and flow—and it’s a good way to cool down after a hard workout, to prevent soreness and injury.
How: 10–15 minutes of basic, general cooldown stretching.
Tuesday: Cardio, Core, Legs
Watts says that being aerobically fit will help you to recover more quickly when climbing—both between routes and on rock. And, “If you’re going on a trip, you’ll be able to climb more throughout the day without getting worn out,” he adds. Additionally, core strength is the foundation for all climbing movement, and, says Watts, “Legs are a lot more imporant today than they were in the 1980s”—the present thinking about climbing places more emphasis on using our entire body as a unit, rather than just pulling with fingers, forearms, and biceps.
Why: Aerobic fitness speeds recovery time. How: 2–3 miles on a treadmill or the track.
Core Roller + Hanging Leg Raises
Why: Beneficial for maintaining control if your feet swing off the rock.
How: Kneel with core roller wheel in your hands. Roll out until your chest nearly touches the ground, and then roll back up. Hang from elbow straps or pullup bar with knees bent. Raise knees to chest height then slowly lower. 10 reps each, alternating exercises. 3 sets.
Crunches and Planks
Why: Core strength.
How: 50 crunches. Lying flat with knees bent and feet on the floor, lift your shoulders and upper back off the ground, curling your chest toward your knees; hold for 1 second, and then lower. Now do 2-minute forearm planks with your core tight and your body straight, avoiding sticking your butt in the air or letting your hips sag. Alternate exercises. 3 sets total.
Why: Hip and leg strength are crucial in highstepping and heel hooks, plus help with balance on technical terrain.
How: With feet shoulder-width apart, sit deep into your heels and then stand back up, keeping your back straight (not arched). 100 reps.
Why: Leg strength.
How: Step one foot forward and bend the knee, lowering the other knee to the ground; stand back up. Alternate legs. No weight or low weight (holding dummbbells). 50 reps.
Wednesday: Upper Body
A lean, powerful upper body that works as a unit will promote fluid climbing motion. Instead of isolating one muscle group, intertwine several together in your workout for efficiency and a power-endurance burn.
Why: To get the blood flowing and your muscles loosened up.
How: 10 mins elliptical. Light stretching, focusing on shoulders and back.
Biceps Curls + Shoulder Press
Why: To get arms/shoulders working together.
How: Curl dumbbells to shoulder level simultaneously, then press overhead. Lower back to starting position. Start with 20-pound dumbbells and increase or decrease weight if necessary; 10–20 reps. 3 sets.
Triceps dips + pushups
Why: Good for mantels and shouldery moves.
How: Alternate 10 dips and 25 pushups. 3 sets.
Why: High reps will build endurance for
How: Sitting position, start with arms extended holding onto bar. Pull bar down below chin. Low weight: 30–40-pounds. 100 reps.
Why: To balance out lat pulldowns.
How: Standing straight, start with bent elbows and raised hands, holding handle of pully machine. Extend arms, pulling handle straight down. Low weight. 100 reps.
Thursday: Hands, Grip, Forearms
Repeat Monday’s workout.
Friday: Cardio, Core, Legs
Why: It is beneficial to vary aerobic exercises. Instead of running again, try elliptical sprints.
How: 4 mins at a casual pace, 1 min sprinting. Continue alternating for 40–60 mins.
Core and Legs
Repeat core and leg exercises from Tuesday.
Saturday: Upper body
Repeat Wednesday’s upper-body circuit.
“On the Seventh Day, go forth, chill, and watch bouldering videos.”
No matter which exercise you’re doing, squeeze the bar as tightly as you can to stay focused on grip strength and forearm endurance during your workout.
Drop the thumb
Unless we’re pinching, full crimping, or thumbderclinging like Tommy Caldwell on the Dawn Wall, our thumbs see much less use than the other four digits. Thus, when doing pullups or dumbbell exercises, wrap the thumb around the top of the bar or let it hang in space, to home in on finger strength with the four principal fingers.
Bennett Slavsky is a Michigan climber and journalist currently based in the American Rockies.