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10 Science-Backed Exercises To Up Your Bouldering Game

Alongside a group of climbing-oriented phsyio students, "The Climbing Doctor" lays out how you can become your most powerful self.

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Introduction

You are passionate about rock climbing and at some point, became a frequent at the bouldering wall. You dream of sending complex bouldering projects that finish with a perfectly executed dyno. Despite your dedication to practice time on the wall and strength training in the gym, you seem to have reached a plateau. If only you could reach that next level.

You are at the gym on a Saturday, feeling rested and ready to give 100% on the wall. You have been working hard in your training lately and cannot wait to see it pay off. Today you have decided to try some more difficult routes. A certain problem grabs your attention, and you get to work. Halfway through the climb, you find yourself distanced from the next handhold. You know that your only choice is to make a fast move towards it, letting your body move away from your solid footholds and relying on your reaching hand to keep you off the ground. At the count of three, you let go with your right hand and propel your body upward. To your dismay, your hand is flying off the wall just as quickly as it had latched onto the next hold. You are now back on the bouldering mat wondering what went wrong.

Does this story sound familiar? Are you putting in the training but failing to see a payoff on the bouldering wall? Maybe you are plenty strong and have good climbing technique, but you are lacking muscle power. Rock climbing performance, and particularly bouldering performance, is not only related to the force that you can develop but is strongly correlated with the rate that the force is developed1. In essence, even if you are very strong, if it takes too long for you to produce full force, you may miss the dynamic moves every time.

This article will provide boulderers the resources to make their training regimen more focused and effective for developing upper body power. By mimicking the physiological demands of bouldering, these exercises will prepare boulderers for dynamic movements and make them more confident on the wall.

Demands of Sport Climbing vs. Bouldering

Before diving into a training program, it is important to take a step back and ensure that your training methods are congruent with your goals. Different variations of climbing require different physiological adaptations and therefore necessitate unique training focuses for optimal performance. It has been shown that forearm strength and power are important to bouldering performance1. Although forearm strength is greater in lead climbers than non-climbers, boulder climbers display greater finger-flexor maximal strength and rate of force development (RFD) when compared to lead climbers2. RFD is defined as “the ability of the neuromuscular system to increase contractile force from a low or resting level when muscle activation is performed as quickly as possible3” and it is a primary discriminator between these two climbing variations2.

Due to the dynamic nature of bouldering, power elements should be incorporated into training to meet the demands of the sport. Keep in mind that this article is centered around bouldering and the exercises and dosing have been designed to accommodate relatively short duration climbs with powerful movements. Power is most utilized in bouldering situations that include two to three limit moves or moves at the limit of your ability level4. Power-endurance requires power to be sustained over longer periods such as on a bouldering problem or traverse with seven to ten difficult moves4. Sport climbers may benefit from power-oriented exercises but the decision to focus on short-duration power versus power-endurance or endurance will be determined by the style of climbing5. An emphasis on power would be appropriate to train for sport climbing routes that involve demanding crux moves but also have several good rest spots for recovery. Power-endurance and endurance training are better suited for climbing routes that are of lower intensity but longer in duration between rest points5. Your training style should reflect your climbing preferences and relative physiological and performance deficits. This article contains exercises mostly focused on power with some crossover into power-endurance training.

It is also important to note that the best results often come from periodized training, meaning the emphasis of exercises is systematically changed throughout a training period5. This training method helps to minimize training plateaus and risk of injury5. For this reason, even if your style of climbing is power-oriented, it would not be the smartest decision to intensely train power year-round.

Training Considerations

In addition to specifying your training for certain physiological changes, your training should also resemble climbing positions and movements. Exercises that most closely mirror climbing will have an increased positive effect on climbing performance6. The six exercise rules to mirror climbing movement developed were developed by The Climbing Doctor, Dr. Jared Vagy DPT, and described in his book “Climb Injury-Free.” The six exercise rules can help you analyze the effectiveness of your training exercises. The rules are to put weight into your toes, bend your knees, engage your abdominals, stabilize your shoulder blades, keep your hands above your shoulders, and keep a micro-bend in your elbows6. Not all the exercises that you do will follow all six of these rules, but it can help you to analyze and modify exercises to gain the most from your training.

Engaging the abdominals and stabilizing the shoulder blades are two factors from the six rules that are particularly relevant to upper body power. Core musculature provides a stable base for extremity function and force transfer which contributes to upper body power during dynamic movement7. The core also controls movement and allows you to apply forces in all directions, helping you to maintain your hand and foot positions on the wall6. Static engagement of the core during dynamic upper body power exercises will train you to be prepared for the demands of a difficult boulder problem. The shoulders complete the energy transfer from the core to the arms. Stabilization of the shoulder blades via muscle engagement can improve performance as well as take stress off the arms and reduce the risk of injury6.

To gain the most benefit from your training session and prevent injury, always incorporate at least a 5-10-minute warm-up and cool-down.

Strength: The Prerequisite of Power

Muscular power is dependent on the ability to apply high levels of force rapidly and to express high contraction velocities8. There is a strong interplay between overall muscular strength, the ability to express high forces in very short periods of time, and the ability to express high forces as the velocity of muscle shortening increases. Of these variables, overall strength is the primary determinant for the ability to express high power outputs8,9. In short, muscular strength is an essential prerequisite for the development of muscular power.

Given the association between strength and power, it makes sense that ballistic power training is not necessary until after the development of foundational levels of strength10. Relatively weak individuals can increase their maximal power and velocity during athletic movements solely by increasing their maximal strength and without ballistic power training10. In contrast, specific power training is beneficial for those who have baseline strength because the body adapts to the demands that are placed on it. Engaging in sport-specific power training results in certain neural adaptations that improve sport performance10. Consequently, weaker individuals should focus on developing strength before power while stronger individuals should incorporate aspects of both training methods. It is also important to note that strength and power training can be modified to different levels of difficulty. As an example, plyometric pushups can be performed on one’s knees instead of feet to make the exercise easier. The most important point is to train in a way that fits your goals, fitness and skill level, and lifestyle.

Below you will find climbing-specific power assessments along with adaptations for easier testing in the gym.

Upper Body Power Assessments

1. RFD of Finger Flexors

  • Isometric RFD testing on an instrumental hold is preferred to traditional maximal strength measurements for assessment of muscle function in boulder rock climbers as this method of testing is more specific to the demands of the sport2.
  • Special equipment is required for this type of testing and a climbing-specific hold should be used for dynamometry.
Photo: Courtesy Dr. Jared Vagy

2. Arm-Jump Board Test11

  • Climber begins by hanging on a jug hold at rest with arms fully extended
  • Climber performs an explosive pull-up and releases both hands to slap the scaled board at the highest point possible
  • Performance is measured by the distance to the lowest hand.
  • Perform 3 trials with 3 minutes of rest between each trial.

Above is a series of images depicting the arm-jump board test which was described in the article “Upper-limb power test in rock-climbing” published in International Journal of Sports Medicine11.

3. Powerslap Test12

  • Climber begins by hanging on a jug hold at rest with arms fully extended
  • Climber performs an explosive pull-up and releases one hand to slap the scaled board at the highest point possible
  • Climber should begin in a relatively narrow grip position and reach slightly wider
  • Assessment should be performed three times for each hand with three minutes of rest between each trial. The highest of the three trials on each side should be recorded.
  • Results should be measured to the nearest centimeter. The Lewis formula can be used to calculate power, or you may choose to measure your progress by comparing your baseline height to future measurements.

Above is a series of images depicting the powerslap test which was described in the article “Sport-specific power assessment for rock climbing” published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness12.

Below are two videos depicting an adaptation of the powerslap test performed on a Tension Board. This is an example of a way to modify the powerslap test to be performed in a climbing gym. If you choose to use this method, make sure to record the Tension Board angle and the distance you were able to reach. If it is easier, mark down what hold you were able to reach or take a video of you performing the test. However you choose to measure your results, you should record enough information to be able to compare your most recent test to your baseline test.

Note: The first video is of an experienced climber while the second video is of a newer climber. Notice how the first climber can complete the movement faster and reach higher than the second climber. This is due to differences in strength, power, and neuromuscular adaptation.

The above assessments are evaluated for their applicability as upper body power measures specific to rock climbing performance. Unfortunately, these tests may not be feasible for some individuals due to resource availability. If you are unable to perform these tests, make sure that the testing protocol that you use at your baseline assessment is the same as at your retest assessments. Counting the number of repetitions of an exercise performed in a specified amount of time is a good way to assess power in a way that is accommodating for those who have limited equipment. As with training, assessments that mimic demands of climbing are preferred because they more accurately relate to climbing performance.

4. Repetitions in 30 Seconds

  • An easy and adaptable way to measure upper extremity power is to perform a maximum number of exercise repetitions in a given amount of time.
  • Choose a climbing-specific power exercise and count how many repetitions you can perform in 30 seconds.
  • Some exercises you may choose to test include pushups, pullups with or without assistance, inverted rows, and medicine ball slams or throws.
  • Perform a baseline assessment and then periodically retest to assess progress.
  • Note: These exercises should be performed at a fast pace, but it is crucial that they are also performed with proper control and technique to prevent injury.

After you have assessed your power, it is time to adapt your training program to focus on your power goals. Below are ten exercises that can be incorporated into your training program to increase your upper body power and facilitate improvements in your bouldering performance.

Exercises

1. Campus board training

  • Benefits of campus board training: develop explosive strength, improve force gradient, and enhance intramuscular and intermuscular coordination13
  • Variations demonstrated in videos below: one arm dyno, double dyno, campus board ladder, and bidirectional campus board training
  • Exercise dosing: near maximum intensity, 4-6 repetitions, and 2-3 minutes of rest between sets13

 

2. Cable pulls

  • Perform cable pulls quickly for 30 seconds while maintaining proper technique (maintain shoulder depression and retraction and core activation).
  • Exercise dosing: repeat 30-second bouts, 3 times in each direction with 1-2 minutes of rest between sets
  • Note: Proper positioning and technique is especially important for injury prevention while performing this exercise. When pulling from the side, maintain a shoulder position that is slightly angled to the front instead of reaching purely to the side. Keep your shoulder and abdominal muscles engaged throughout the exercise to avoid the weight pulling on your shoulder as you extend your elbow. This is a safe and beneficial exercise when performed correctly but should be discontinued if it causes any pain or discomfort.

3. Plyometric pullup

  • Perform an explosive pullup and lift one hand off the bar at the top of each pullup.
  • Alternate hands with each repetition.
  • Modification: place one foot on a block between hip and knee height and use for assistance, as needed
  • Exercise dosing: 3-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions at high velocity with 2 minutes of rest between sets

4. Plyometric pushup

  • Perform an explosive pushup using one of the variations below or your own variation.
  • Perform on a thick mat or perform pushup up to a higher surface to decrease stress on the wrists.
  • Modification: perform pushups on knees rather than feet
  • Exercise dosing: 2-3 sets of 8-16 repetitions with 2 minutes of rest between sets

5. Inverted row with hand lift

  • Perform an explosive inverted row and lift one hand off the bar at the top of each repetition.
  • Alternate hands with each repetition.
  • Modification: the inverted row will be easier the lower your feet are placed in comparison with the bar
  • Exercise dosing: 3-4 sets of 12 repetitions at high velocity with 2 minutes of rest between sets

6. Resistance band pulldown

  • Begin in a slight squat position with your weight shifted towards your toes.
  • Have a band positioned slightly away from your body and at a height that allows for some resistance when your arm is up, and elbow is fully extended.
  • Quickly pull band down so that your elbow is fully flexed, and your hand is near the outside of your shoulder.
  • Slowly bring your arm back to the starting position, keeping your shoulder muscles engaged throughout the exercise.
  • The pictures below show two variations, one with double-leg support and another on one leg to emphasize balance and stability.
  • Exercise dosing: 2 sets of 15 repetitions on each side with 2 minutes of rest between sets
Photo: Courtesy Dr. Jared Vagy

7. TRX plank rocker with press-up

  • This exercise challenges the abdominals and upper body.
  • Try to maintain a neutral spine as you rock backwards and then forwards to press-up onto your hands.
  • Exercise dosing: 2-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions with 2 minutes of rest between sets

8. Overhead medicine ball throw

  • Perform while seated on a block with toes on the floor and slight lean backwards to engage your abdominals throughout the exercise.
  • Toss medicine ball from chest level and throw straight vertically.
  • Absorb the weight of the ball and release as quickly as possible.
  • Modification: utilize a partner to drop and catch the medicine ball from above
  • Exercise dosing: 3 sets of 15 repetitions with 1 minute of rest between sets

9. Pullup with grip switches

  • Begin in a chin hold position with the top of your chest at bar height.
  • Quickly dip slightly down and then explosively pull above the starting position while changing your hand position.
  • One at a time, change each hand back and forth between a pronated grip and a supinated grip.
  • Modification: place your toes on a block slightly towards the opposite side of the bar and use assistance as needed
  • Exercise dosing: 2 sets of 16 total grip changes with 2 minutes rest between sets

10. Banded grip exercise

  • Begin with fingers in a slightly flexed position and quickly pull fingers into more flexion. This can be performed with pulling into a half-crimp or full-crimp position.
  • Hold fingers in this flexed position with each repetition.
  • Setup may depend on your available equipment but may include a portable hangboard with resistance bands.
  • Exercise dosing: 3 sets of 3-5 repetitions with an 8-10 second isometric hold with each repetition

Incorporating Power Exercises into Your Workout Routine

For best results, it is commonly recommended that power exercises should be performed 2-3 days per week. This is the general guideline for all power training and may not exactly fit your training schedule. Ideally, you should try to avoid training the same body region for back-to-back days to allow time for the muscles to recover. Keep in mind that bouldering itself demands substantial upper body strength and power, and so an intense day of bouldering requires recovery time as well. To accommodate for time on the climbing wall, you may want to perform these exercises 1-2 days per week.

Focusing on strength and power training can be the perfect supplement to take your bouldering to the next level. Nevertheless, do not forget that to become better at bouldering, you should practice bouldering! Try some of these exercises and keep doing what you love. To further enhance power gains from your bouldering sessions, focus on high intensity and low repetition exercise by engaging in limit bouldering14. Limit bouldering involves bouldering a route that includes only one or two high difficulty moves that are at the top of your climbing ability. This is a sport-specific method of increasing power and contact strength14.

See a Doctor of Physical Therapy

If you experience pain with any of these exercises or with climbing, consult a medical practitioner such as a physical therapist. Improper technique and repetitive movements may make a climber prone to injury. A physical therapist can help you reduce your pain, increase your climbing level, improve your exercise and climbing technique, adjust your training, and achieve your goals.

About the Author

This article was written through a mentorship process in The Climbing SIG, a rock climbing special interest group for physical therapy students developed by Dr. Jared Vagy DPT –  The Climbing Doctor.

Claire Lorbiecki

Claire is a third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) student at Regis University in Denver and has graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. Apart from her studies, Claire enjoys spending time outdoors and staying active. Some of her favorite activities include camping, hiking, biking, and downhill skiing. A combination of loving the outdoors and having been a gymnast for many years made rock climbing an easy addition to that list. Claire looks forward to challenging herself as a climber and continuing to gain, share, and apply knowledge as a future Doctor of Physical Therapy. To contact Claire with any questions or comments, please email her at clairelorbiecki@gmail.com.

About the Contributors

Jared Vagy

Dr. Jared Vagy “The Climbing Doctor,” is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and an experienced climber. He has devoted his career and studies to climbing-related injury prevention, orthopedics, and movement science. He authored the Amazon best-selling book Climb Injury-Free, and is a frequent contributor to Climbing Magazine. He is also a professor at the University of Southern California, an internationally recognized lecturer, and a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist.

To learn more about Dr. Vagy you can visit theclimbingdoctor.com or visit him on Instagram @theclimbingdoctor

Jennifer Demyanek

Jennifer is a physical therapist, college professor, and rock climber in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine with a Doctorate degree in Physical Therapy. Jennifer is the owner of Onsight Movement, a private physical therapy practice located in Las Vegas, specializing in treating rock climbing injuries and improving climbing performance. She also currently serves as Adjunct Faculty at the College of Southern Nevada teaching Anatomy & Physiology.

Jennifer is an officer of the virtual Rock Climbing Special Interest Group as well as a member of the American Physical Therapy Association’s Orthopedic Section. She also holds a certification in Dry Needling from the American Academy of Manipulative Therapy. When not practicing physical therapy, Jennifer can be found outside rock climbing around the southwest or spending time with her husband, Dylan. You can contact Jennifer via email at jennifer@onsightmovement.com or by visiting www.onsightmovement.com.

Kevin Cowell

Kevin is a physical therapist, clinical instructor, and rock climber based out of Broomfield, CO. Kevin owns and operates The Climb Clinic (located at G1 Climbing + Fitness) where he specializes in rehab and strength training for climbers and mountain athletes. He found his passion for climbing in Colorado while attending Regis University for his Doctorate of Physical Therapy and has since become a Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach (CSCS), Board-Certified Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist (OCS), and a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy (FAAOMPT).

References 

(1) White DJ, Olsen PD. A time motion analysis of bouldering style competitive rock climbing. J Strength Cond Res. 2010; 24(5):1356-60.

(2) Fanchini M, Violette F, Impellizzeri FM, Maffiuletti NA. Differences in climbing-specific strength between boulder and lead rock climbers. J Strength Cond Res. 2013; 27(2):310-4.

(3) Rodríguez-Rosell D, Pareja-Blanco F, Aagaard P, González-Badillo JJ. Physiological and methodological aspects of rate of force development assessment in human skeletal muscle. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2018; 38(5):743-762.

(4) MoonBoard Your Way to Max Power. Climbing website. Accessed May 23, 2021. https://www.climbing.com/skills/moonboard-your-way-to-max-power/

(5) The Making of a ‘Rock Prodigy.’ The Rock Climber’s Training Manual website. Accessed May 23, 2021. https://rockclimberstrainingmanual.com/tools-for-rock-climbing-training/the-making-of-a-rock-prodigy/

(6) Vagy J. Climb Injury-Free: a Proven Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation System. The Climbing Doctor; 2018

(7) Shinkle J, Nesser TW, Demchak TJ, McMannus DM. Effect of core strength on the measure of power in the extremities. J Strength Cond Res. 2012; 26(2):373-80.

(8) Haff GG, Nimphius S. Training Principles for Power. Strength Cond J. 2012; 34(6):2-12.

(9) Kawamori N, Haff GG. The optimal training load for the development of muscular power. J Strength Cond Res. 2004; 18(3):675-84.

(10) Cormie P, McGuigan MR, Newton RU. Adaptations in athletic performance after ballistic power versus strength training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010; 42(8):1582-98.

(11) Laffaye G, Collin JM, Levernier G, Padulo J. Upper-limb power test in rock-climbing. Int J Sports Med. 2014; 35(8):670-5.

(12) Draper N, Dickson T, Blackwell G, et al. Sport-specific power assessment for rock climbing. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2011; 51(3):417-25.

(13) Michailov ML. Workload characteristic, performance limiting factors and methods for strength and endurance training in rock climbing. Med Sport. 2014; 18 (3): 97-106.

(14) Power. The Rock Climber’s Training Manual website. Accessed February 17, 2021. https://rockclimberstrainingmanual.com/training-for-rock-climbing/power/