Building Big Muscles for Sending

baby muscles

Baby muscles before starting training.

Do you ever feel like your progress in climbing has stalled or hit a plateau? Well that’s exactly how I was feeling this past winter. I was climbing about 3-4 times a week in the gym or outside, bouldering and leading, but I felt I had lost the initial progression that I had first experienced when I started climbing. Luckily for me, my friend Keith Hengen has some awesome strategies and training plans that help even adolescent climbers like myself reach new heights in their climbing. His wealth of knowledge was developed from research literature as well as climbing specific workouts outlined by Steve Bechtel on his site Climb Strong. Today I share a few strength training exercises you can do to build up big muscles for big sending.

Why is strength training helpful to climbers you may ask? Well as Steve Bechtel explains in his article Strength Training for Rock Climbing, part one, “The basic idea is that for any given move, a stronger climber will use a smaller percentage of his maximum strength, and will thus be better able to climb with technical correctness and will be more resistant to fatigue.” So if you’re looking to improve your efficiency in movement while climbing for longer iterations, strength training is one way to make those gains. It’s important to note that if you are a beginner climber (climbing less than 2 years) this might not be the best way for you to make gains. If you haven’t yet developed good climbing technique no amount of added strength will help you become a better climber and in all likelihood it will reinforce bad technique and form. Make sure that starting a strength training program makes sense for your climbing and your goals!

If you’ve decided that strength training is the right next step for you, here is an example of a plan that I followed. (I’ve also included videos below of each of the movements). The four types of movements I worked to improve are as follows and are recommended in Steve Bechtel’s article Strength Training for Rock Climbing, part two:

  1. Hip Hinge or Posterior Chain – this exercise helps balance the strength of the major muscle groups; back, core, glutes, and quadriceps. To work all of these muscles I did deadlifts but there are a number of variations on this exercise such as Romanian deadlifts and kettlebell movements.
  2. Upper Body Press – think bench press, push up variations, dips or an overhead press. I personally did a bench press with dumbbells because this forces your shoulders/arms to independently stabilize themselves, which is more similar what they do while climbing.
  3. Upper Body Pull – usually a rowing motion, think inverted rows or pull ups. This motion is a basic movement of climbing and as explained in the article Weight-Lifting Exercises to Improve at Rock Climbing, it is advantageous to strengthen through training because it allows you to “focus specifically on back and arm strength by controlling technique and weight.” Also, if you are working one armed exercises it will allow you to more easily build equal arm strength. This will increase your lock off strength and help in various clipping positions encountered when leading.
  4. Lower Body Multi Joint – as climbers we rarely press with both legs on an even surface and therefore the most beneficial exercises will be ones that work each leg independently, think lunges, step-ups and pistol squats.

An example of a training session working the muscle groups outlined above could go as follows:

– Warm up:

Stretch for 15 minutes
Three sets of 10 dynamic push ups

– Break the four exercises into two groups (A and B), doing bi-sets. Breaking the exercises into these groups will allow you to work multiple muscle groups with little overlapping fatigue.

A1: 5-7 deadlifts. Form Tip: Keep your shoulders back and head up at all times. When lowering the bar hinge from your hips so as not to put undo stress on your lower back.

5-7 dumbbell bench press. Form Tip: Try to go past 90 degrees because this more closely mimics the full range of motion you use when climbing.

4-6 1­‐arm inverted rows or 1-arm assisted rows. Form Tip: Keep your body planked and aim to bring your chest to the bar.

4­-6 1-leg squat. Form Tip: Track knee over your toes, don’t dip your knee to either side and try to keep your back straight and chest lifted.

Rest two minutes in between each bi-sets or in other words do A1 and A2, rest 2 minutes, then B1 and B2, rest, and repeat. Repeat the entire process three times. If you’re someone like me who has never done any type of “lifting” or strength training before, I found it really helpful to keep a journal of my progress. When I was training I would do these exercises up to twice a week. Never compromise your form for more weight, take it slow and the progress will come, I promise. When in doubt please consult a professional trainer.

After strength training, I was climbing harder than ever before in the Red River Gorge.

After strength training, I was climbing harder than ever before in the Red River Gorge.

As a result of my strength training I have been able to climb harder than ever before but more importantly, I have gained confidence, which translates to a stronger head game. And that in itself is invaluable.
Climb on (stronger),

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4 thoughts on “Building Big Muscles for Sending

  1. Eric says:

    Great tips! It must be worth it all to feel your improvement on the rocks. Every little bit helps. Ever try a Concept2 rower?

  2. v10Princess! says:

    Ummm yeah, strength training is the BEES KNEES. I mean, let’s be real, if you bring a knife to a gunfight, it’s game over before you even start.

  3. SouthernBe11e says:

    Hey Princess, what do you know about gunfights. I am guessing it is about as much as you know about climbing v10 (i.e. nothing).

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