This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of our print edition.
Most dedicated climbers spend at least a little bit of training time in the weight room, but much of that time is wasted performing exercises that don’t mimic climbing movement closely enough. Furthermore, focusing on strengthening those ineffective movements can often lead to injury when climbing because you’re not training the proper muscles to work in harmony. Sports science research (and basic logic) supports the theory that the more an exercise mirrors your movement in the sport, the more the exercise positively affects your sport performance. For climbing, the secret to a successful training exercise off the wall is to maintain a body position that is common while climbing. As a climber and doctor of physical therapy, I’ve developed six rules that can be applied to standard exercises to make them more climbing-specific. By making these small modifications and paying careful attention to your body from your big toe to your fingertips, you can drastically increase the effectiveness of almost any exercise, whether you’re lifting heavy dumbbells or using your own body weight.
The 6 Rules
To create the following rules, I studied the most common characteristics of an “ideal” climbing posture. Of course the perfect body position varies by terrain, angle, hold type, etc., but you’ll find that these suggestions reflect the most often-used postures. Some of these rules may seem intuitive, especially to more advanced climbers, but think about the last time you went into the weight room—you might not have employed any of these. At most, probably just one to two per movement. The more of these rules you can incorporate into one exercise, the more beneficial your non-climbing training time will be. This will even help train your mind to activate several different body parts simultaneously, which will make you a more fluid and intuitive climber. Simply put, make your exercises mirror climbing.
1. Weight Toes
When climbing, you rarely ever transfer your full weight into your heels unless you are using a heel hook, back-stepping, standing on a huge ledge, or are in a chimney. With stemming corners, face climbing, steep roofs, and even crack climbing, your toes do almost all the work to power your legs and balance on holds. So when training for climbing, it is important to shift your weight into your toes. Don’t stand all the way up on your tippy toes, but think about shifting your weight forward onto the ball of your foot and slightly raising your heel; this is how you spend 99% of your climbing time and probably 0% of your current training time off the wall. It’s best applied to exercises that normally focus on the upper body—bicep curls, shoulder presses, bent-over rows—since most lower body exercises already have a recommended stance. Build up endurance by doing simple calf raises, with or without weight, then try to do them one leg at a time to mimic climbing movement even more closely. If that is too easy, try performing a flag maneuver while doing raises or close your eyes to add more of a balance challenge.
2. Bend Knees
Every beginning climber is told to straighten their arms so they hang on their skeleton instead of using up precious bicep energy, but in order to straighten your arms, you must first bend your knees. This will take the weight off your arms and put it into your stronger legs, where your body’s most powerful muscles are designed to support and transfer your entire weight easily and efficiently. Your arms are not designed to do that. With that in mind, do exercises that train your knees to bend while your arms reach or pull at the same time. Performing arm-centric exercises like tricep extensions in a squat position, rather than standing upright, will teach your leg muscles to engage during arm movement. Building this muscle-activation memory will help every aspect of your climbing tremendously.
3. Engage Abdominals
Maintaining core tension allows for an effective transfer of energy from your feet to your hands, and the more stable your midsection is, the more efficient your movement. The core muscles are rarely used to initiate a move, so stay away from exercises, such as standard crunches, that don’t resemble climbing. Instead, focus more on exercises that keep a stable midsection while performing arm or leg movements, like performing a high plank while lifting one arm or leg at a time. Try to keep your midsection still while moving the chosen limb in a controlled fashion, which is exactly what you should try to achieve while climbing.
4. Retract Shoulder Blades
The shoulder blades provide the stable foundation for your mobile arms. When you engage your shoulder blades, you can take stress and weight off your arms and shoulders, helping to direct the force into your midsection. To demonstrate this, raise a weight above your head with your shoulder blades relaxed and shoulders slumped forward, then lift the same weight with your shoulder blades retracted back. Which is easier? You will notice the weight feels lighter to lift with the latter. When you engage your large shoulder blade muscles, you give additional support to your arm. Make sure to stay engaged by gently pulling them in toward your spine during all training exercises, including fingerboard training.
5. Keep Arms Above Shoulders
The majority of climbing involves the arms staying above shoulder height. There are few instances when the arms work below shoulder height (mantels, low under-clings, and sidepulls). Exercises with hands below the shoulders translate poorly to climbing-specific movement. Stay away from common rotator cuff exercises where your elbow is bent at 90° and you rotate your hand outward from your abdomen with resistance; this position doesn’t reflect how the rotator cuff is used when climbing. Strengthen your shoulders by holding your arms out and above your shoulders and resisting against a band or strap
6. Maintain Straight Elbows
Straightening the elbows when climbing steep and overhanging terrain puts the weight into the skeleton and takes it out of the shoulders and biceps. This allows for greater circulation and more energy-efficient movement. Unless you’re focusing on lockoff strength with bicep-bending movements, try to keep your arms straight during other train- ing, such as arm circles and straight-arm raises.
The Perfect Exercise
The photo above shows all six rules efficiently combined into a single exercise. This exercise demonstrates pressing out on an exercise band (strengthens shoulders) with straight arms held above shoulder height while weighting the toes, engaging abdominals, bending the knees, and retracting the shoulder blades. Try to be creative with your exercises and see how many you can find that satisfy all six rules.