A strong core is crucial to progressing as a climber. Body tension, keeping your feet on, moving efficiently, toeing-in on overhangs—it all revolves around the core. Plus, a solid core helps prevent injury. You’ve probably heard a core-strength evangelist preach the benefits before, and you’ve probably been pointed toward endless crunches or even expensive programs like Pilates, TRX, or yoga. Get ready for a new approach: varied exercises that are specifically targeted to work multiple parts of your body at the same time—just like climbing does.
- Pick five or more of these exercises and do them at least three (and up to five) times a week for best results
- Add as many sets or exercises as you need to feel the burn; you should be struggling to complete the last set
- Do these any time—end of a climbing session, on a rest day, in the morning before work—but avoid doing them right before you climb, as this could make your base tired and give you poor, injury-causing technique
- A good core workout hits all aspects of your trunk, not just the abs in the front. Each of these exercises has varied motions to work your front, back, and sides
- Take at least one to two rest days every week to let your muscles recover
- If you have a history of back or neck problems, consult your doctor before starting high-intensity exercises like these.
1. Hanging Leg Lift
Start on the jugs of a hangboard or a pull-up bar. Keep your arms straight, shoulders engaged (squeeze shoulder blades together), and legs straight down. Lift your legs up so your hips are at 90°, without bending your knees. When you lower back down, keep your body as still as possible (you’ll have a tendency to swing). Raise your legs again without using momentum. Do three sets of 15, resting about one minute in between.
For a tougher challenge, raise your legs with knees bent, pulling them all the way into your chest. Or try just hanging with knees bent, hips at 90°, and have a friend put weight on your lap. Start with 10 to 15 pounds, hanging for 15 seconds. Have your friend remove the weight before lowering legs.
Abs, lower back, hip flexors
2. Arm Dip
Stand straight, feet shoulder-distance apart. Choose a dumbbell that will provide good resistance; 15 pounds is a good starting point. Hold it in your left hand and slowly lower your left shoulder straight down, as far as it will go. Try to keep your right hip in line with your body; don’t let it jut out to the side. In a controlled motion, bring the weight and your body back up to the starting position. The up and the down should be two separate motions. Do 20 reps and then switch arms.
3. Sit Up, Stand Up
Lie with your back on the ground, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Hold a weight plate (start with 20 lbs.) near the ground with arms straight out from your head. Using momentum, do a sit-up with the plate in the air, get your feet under you near your butt, and stand up all the way—keeping the plate in the air. Lie back down in the starting position (plate doesn’t have to be up when sitting back down, but don’t put it on the ground); repeat 15 times.
Abs, hip flexors, hamstrings, quads, shoulders
4. Wheelbarrow Walk
Those wheelbarrow races you did as a kid are actually great for your core. Get into a high plank, with your hands directly below your shoulders. Have a partner lift you by your ankles. Keeping your body straight (don’t dip at the waist) and looking straight ahead, move your right hand forward about six inches. Then move your left hand up six inches past your right, finding a good pace for you and your partner to avoid face planting. Keep your core and glutes contracted to maximize the movement. Go about 30 feet, then switch with your partner. Try to do five rounds, without compromising technique.
Obliques, abs, lower back, glutes, shoulders, arms
5. Oblique Knee Raise Plank
Start in a high plank. Bend one leg and bring your knee to just outside the corresponding elbow. This should open your groin up to the ground as you move your knee up. Return to starting position and repeat with the other leg. Keep it controlled but maintain a steady pace. Do this for one minute.
Abs, lower back, obliques, glutes, hip flexors, shoulders, chest
6. Farmer’s Walk
Pick two weights that are in the high end of your comfort range. Holding one in each hand, start walking. For this motion to be effective, keep your core tight and your posture straight, standing as tall as you can. Either go for distance (50 yards) or time (1 minute). If you want to test yourself, walk until your arms are about to give out; just be careful not to drop the weights.
Instead of using the same weight in each hand, hold a weight that’s about five pounds heavier in one hand. This will force you to keep your core tight as you try to balance the two different weights.
Lower back, obliques, abs, forearms, hamstrings, quads, calves
7. A-Frame Arm Drop
Begin in a C-sit position, knees bent at 90°, abs engaged so upper body is off the floor, and just heels on the ground. Put both arms straight above your head, holding palms together. While keeping your upper and lower body completely still, slowly lower your arms down to the right of your hip, tap the floor, and bring them back up overhead. Now lower to the left side. Do 30 total, 15 per side.
Abs, obliques, lower back, shoulders
8. Plank Variations
With a full-body burn, it’s hard to ignore planks as an effective core-strengthening exercise, but here are a few variations to keep it interesting. For each, keep muscles engaged and actively holding the plank. Start with three rounds of one minute, resting one minute between rounds.
This is a standard high plank, but you want your toes up on an elevated surface (bench, chair, etc.), so that your whole body is parallel to the floor. Use a wobbly exercise ball for increased difficulty.
Sideways walking plank
Get into high-plank position. From here, move your right hand about six inches to the right, and then move your left hand six inches right. Move your left hand back to starting position and follow with your right. Go to the left side, then repeat.
Side plank with leg raise
In a side-plank position (left hand on floor directly under shoulder, body straight, balancing on outside edge of left foot), raise the right leg so your feet are wider than your shoulders and hold.
9. Kettlebell Figure Eight
Start with legs a little wider than shoulder width, and bend at the waist, keeping your back flat and head up. Use a lightweight kettlebell and go around your right leg with your right hand, then pass it under your right leg to your left hand. Repeat on the left side. That’s one rep; repeat 15 times.
Abs, lower back, glutes, hip flexors, obliques, arms, quads
10. The Matrix
Start on knees that are hip-width apart with a straight back. Hold a weight near your belly button and slowly lean back as far as you can, keeping your back straight. Hold for three seconds, and then slowly come back to the starting position. Repeat 20 times.
Abs, lower back, glutes, quads, hip flexors
This article originally appeared in Climbing in 2014.