Return to Sender: Comeback Fitness in Two Weeks for Climbers Over 40

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Do Is on an exercise ball for a bonus core workout while you strengthen your shoulders.

Do Is on an exercise ball for a bonus core workout while you strengthen your shoulders.

Comebacks get harder as we age—we don’t build muscle as easily nor recover as quickly. I discovered this in 2017 at age 48, upon returning to climbing after a three-year hiatus—and discovering that the 5.9s I used to warm up on were now at my limit. However, hardmen like Jim Donini and Bill Ramsey show there’s no reason you can’t climb your hardest when you’re older; it just takes more work.

Lay the Groundwork

Step one is laying a general-fitness foundation. According to Dr. Brigit Barre, a sports certified doctor of physical therapy at Langford Sports & PT in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it is harder for aging athletes to get and stay in shape because our metabolism slows, our muscle size and strength decrease, and our muscles, tendons, and ligaments become less flexible. However, consistent exercise will improve all of these things. Consider a boot camp or HIIT-style workout, or a combination of light resistance training with a cardio component. Your current fitness level will determine how long to focus on this phase—Barre says it’s a “feel thing” (look for increased flexibility and endurance) and that two to three weeks is a good baseline. Once you start back into climbing training, include active rest days with a cardio component: hike, run, bike ride, etc.

Get Back on the Wall

The best way to get climbing again is with a balanced plan that builds endurance, strength, and power equally—emphasis on plan. This helps in three ways, says Lance Hadfield, a climbing coach at the Stone Age Climbing Gym in Albuquerque: “First, it helps you overcome the inevitable plateau. Second, it provides measurable goals that show improvement. Third, it helps with injury prevention by specifically targeting things like shoulder and finger strength.”

There are numerous resources—my climbing partner and I chose the AIM Adventure U course 4 Weeks to Sending Fitness. While we both found it to be excellent, we also discovered that we weren’t quite ready. I tweaked a shoulder during bouldering intervals, and my buddy tweaked an elbow on his first hangboard session. So, with the help of Dr. Barre and Hadfield, I’ve developed a two-week preflight plan for older climbers leading up to 4 Weeks (or any similar protocol). By incorporating measured doses of climbing, hangboarding, injury prevention, and strength training, I completed 4 Weeks on my second attempt and am climbing confidently again.

Warming Up

Each day, you’ll do either the Full Warm-Up or the Shoulder/Tendon Glide Warm-Up.

Full Warm-Up

  • Cardio (5-10 Minutes): Stationary bike, treadmill, or rowing machine. Or combine intervals like jumping jacks, mtn. climbers, and burpees.
  • Dynamic Stretching (5 Minutes): Stretch the joints and muscles through the range of motion, holding 5 seconds, releasing, then repeating a few times. Try arm-across-body movements, knees-chest, sidebends, and other stretches that mimic climbing movement, plus Sun Salutations.
  • Easy Routes or Bouldering: Begin with at least one easy route or a few easy problems; stretch out and hang from big holds. There is no set timetable—just ramp up gradually to prep for giving maximum effort.

Shoulder Warm-Up

One of the most common injuries that Dr. Barre sees with aging climbers is to the shoulder. Use her three-exercise warm-up.

  • Reach and Rolls: Begin on your side with legs bent at 75 degrees and arms together straight in front of you. Slide top hand forward out past fingertips of bottom hand and then back toward your shoulder, as if pulling a bowstring; now continue in that direction by rotating back, upper arm, and head as top arm extends back onto the floor. Reverse to starting. 12 reps each side.
  • Shoulder Circles: Begin as for Reach and Rolls, but sweep your top arm overhead, keeping your elbow straight and hand contacting the floor. Rotate your trunk and rib cage, and turn your head to follow, circling around with your hand touching the floor. Reverse to starting. 12 reps each side.
  • Egyptians: Begin on your back with your legs straight and your arms in a T, then bend your elbows like goal posts. Bring one palm down to the floor while you reach the back of your other hand behind you, turning your head toward this hand. Reverse directions/sides, then return to starting. 12 reps.

Tendon Glide Warm-Up

These help reduce tendon friction and irritation.

  • Finger Tendon Glides: Fingers flat on palm, roll up through each joint to straighten fingers; return fingers to palm for one rep. 3 sets of 10–12 reps.
  • Wrist Tendon Glides: Bend arms to 90 degrees, hands in a fist and bent forward (aka “bunny hands”). Now reach down through your palms, straightening your arms toward the ground, extending your fingers outward and wrist back toward you to complete one rep. 3 sets of 10–12 reps.

The Workouts

These workouts help address older climbers’ spinal/thoracic stiffness, decreased core strength, and increased risk of injury.

Planks and Side Planks

Do these on the hands or elbows—keep your core and quads tight. For planks, keep your spine neutral by looking down. For side planks, put your free hand on your hip and keep everything in line.

Shoulder Workout

Do these exercises in the order below.

  • External Rotations: Stand upright, arms along your sides, one arm bent at a right angle and a rolled towel tucked under that arm; in this same hand, hold a resistance band anchored across your body. Rotate your arm outward, pulling against the resistance, and then slowly return to starting. Keep your hips and shoulders facing forward, and don’t shrug your shoulders—or drop the towel! 10 reps each side.
  • Internal Rotations: Stand upright with one arm bent at a right angle, your fist facing forward and holding a resistance band anchored on the same side of the body. Rotate your forearm across your body and slowly return to starting. Keep elbow tucked. 10 reps each side.
  • Crawling: Begin on all fours. Slowly rise to your toes, lifting both knees off the floor, and crawl forward. Go 20 feet or so, rest, and then repeat three or four times. Once you get stronger, see how far you can go!
  • Band-Aided Pull Ups: Girth-hitch a thick resistance band to a pull-up bar, grab the bar at shoulder width, and then hang and put both feet in the band. Draw your shoulder blades together down your back and then do an assisted pull-up, leading with your chest. 3 sets of 5 reps.
  • Is, Ys, and Ts: Either standing, seated on an inclined bench, or (best) on an exercise ball for core—chest/stomach on the ball with toes behind you, shoulder-width apart. For Is, grab two light (2–5 lbs each) dumbbells and lift both arms straight in front of your head, forming an I; thumbs up and elbows straight. Arms back down for one rep. For Ys, raise arms diagonally. For Ts, raise arms straight out to your sides. 3 sets of 10 reps with each position.

Mileage Training: ARCing and Routes

Mileage is the key to restoring lost grip strength, which is why Hadfield suggests Aerobic Restoration and Capillarity (ARC) training mixed in with longer sessions swapping leads with a partner. The idea is to spend a prolonged amount of time on the wall doing moves while slightly pumped—this helps improve general climbing fitness as well as base grip and finger strength. Try traversing or autobelay laps.

Hangboarding

Hangboarding is the quickest way to restrengthen your fingers, but it also carries a risk of injury. A good reintroductory workout is repeaters with short reps on big holds. Find comfortable jugs, hang for 5 seconds, then rest for 5 seconds; repeat 10 times. Maintain good form, with shoulders and elbows slightly engaged. To build on this exercise, find a set of big, comfortable slopers and do another 10 reps.

Comeback Fitness Training Plan

Week 1

  • Monday
    • Shoulder Warm-Up
    • Tendon Glide Warm-Up
    • Planks, 30 sec on/30 sec rest x3
    • Side Planks, 15 sec on/15 sec rest each side x3
    • Shoulder Workout 
  • Tuesday
    • Full Warm-Up
    • ARC, 10 min on/10 min rest x2
    • Lead two easy routes
  • Wednesday
    • Shoulder Warm-Up
    • Tendon Glide Warm-Up
    • Planks, 30 sec on/30 sec rest x3
    • Side Planks, 15 sec on/15 sec rest each side x3
    • Hangboard Repeaters on Jugs, 5 sec on/5 sec rest x10
  • Thursday
    • Rest Day
  • Friday
    • Full Warm-Up
    • ARC, 10 min on/10 min rest x2
    • Planks, 30 sec on/30 sec rest x3
    • Side Planks, 15 sec on/15 sec rest each side x3
  • Saturday
    • Full Warm-Up
    • Routes w/ Partner, 60-90 min
    • Shoulder Workout
  • Sunday
    • Rest Day

Week 2

  • Monday
    • Full Warm-Up
    • ARC, 15 min on/15 min rest x2
    • Planks, 30 sec on/30 sec rest x3
    • Side Planks, 15 sec on/15 sec rest each side x3
  • Tuesday
    • Shoulder Warm-UP
    • Tendon Glide Warm-Up
    • Hangboard Repeaters on Jugs, 5 sec on/5 sec rest x10
  • Wednesday
    • Full Warm-Up
    • Endurance Laps, 2 routes in a row, rest same amount of time x3
    • Planks, 30 sec on/30 sec rest x3
    • Side Planks, 15 sec on/15 sec rest each side x3
  • Thursday
    • Rest Day
  • Friday
    • Shoulder Warm-Up
    • Tendon Glide Warm-Up
    • Hangboard Repeaters on Jugs, 5 sec on/5 sec rest x10
    • Shoulder Workout
  • Saturday
    • Full Warm-Up
    • Routes w/ Partner: 3 Moderate, 2 Challenging, 2 Project Burns
    • Side Planks, 15 sec on/15 sec rest each side x3
  • Sunday
    • Rest Day

Randall Gann is a freelance video professional and writer in Albuquerque, NM.

Visit climbing.com/sendingfitness to register for our very popular one-month bootcamp, 4 Weeks to Sending Fitness, taught by pro climber Madaleine Sorkin.