Rock climbing is a great way to stay active and get outside. The sport is booming right now, and climbing gyms are opening up everywhere, making it accessible and fun to train. I’m sure the first time you went climbing, you noticed how muscles you didn’t even know you used were sore.
Contrary to popular belief, climbing is not just an upper-body strength related sport. There is so much technique, footwork, core stabilizing, and mental focus required in this all-body encompassing sport. There are so many different and creative ways to train for climbing! Training never truly feels like training in this sport.
In this article, we have provided a list of some of the most effective (and entertaining) training exercises to aid you in your climbing endeavors.
Here’s our top 10 exercises good for rock climbing:
1. More Climbing!
The best way to get better at rock climbing? Climbing! Climbing more will help improve your movement, balance, and technique on the wall. It is its own workout as well. Even if you take a “rest” day and climb nothing but easy routes, you are still actively working out your core and other muscles that are used in climbing.
If you have access to a climbing gym, it might be time to purchase that membership (if you haven’t already). Having a membership will make it financially easier to go to the gym and climb as much as you feel like.
There is no specific layout as to how many days you should or should not be in the climbing gym. Everybody is different and climbing is an all-body activity, so listen to your body and only do as much as you are comfortable with.
For training purposes, I suggest going at least three days a week to start with. Two of these days should be sessions where you warm up on easier routes, climb at your level and harder, then cool down on easier routes again (this will also help you end the day on a positive note).
The third day should be a rest/technique focused session. Forget the “projects” you started during the other two sessions and climb those routes that are fun and easy. Go around the gym and climb all the 5.6’s, then all the 5.7’s, then 5.8’s. If you’re bouldering that day, do the same with V1’s, V2’s, and V3’s.
Climbing easier routes lets you stop worrying about “sticking that move,” and allows you to take your time and work through the movement of each route. Even though these are easy climbs, you should not climb fast.
Move slowly, let your body learn to relax on the wall, try to be as precise as you can with your movement. This is vital to practice early-on in your climbing endeavors. Learning to relax and stay focused will prove useful for climbing harder routes, and for lead-climbing.
This goes along with just climbing more, but if you are more of a sport-climber (on the ropes), then I have some upsetting news for you. Bouldering will actually help you A LOT.
Bouldering offers a condensed version of climbing that is powerful and just plain different from sport routes. Spend either the entire session or half of the session during one of those “hard” days I mentioned earlier on some good, old fashioned bouldering.
If you’re feeling froggy, you can spend a whole week or two doing nothing but bouldering. Come back to sport routes, and you, yourself will be surprised. This is due to the stronger movement that is required from boulder problems. Think of a long-distance runner who includes sprinting into their training regime.
To help build upper body strength, and more specifically – upper body strength pertinent to climbing, pull-ups are the perfect exercise. You don’t even have to go to the gym to do them. for decently cheap, you can purchase one of those door pull-up bars and hook onto any door in your house or apartment.
As with any exercise, it is important to do it properly. Grip the bar with your palms facing away from you, and your hands about shoulder width apart. Keep your shoulders back, and core engaged. Pull upward until your chin rises above the bar, then slowly lower until your arms are fully extended again.
Do not fret if you have never done a pull-up before! You can do alternate exercises to help you get there. Chin-ups engage your back more to take weight off your biceps…AKA they’re easier. Chin ups are also great for building back-strength, which is still pertinent to climbing. Chin ups are what we all learned in Elementary school P.E. The ones where your palms are facing you, and your hands are closer together.
Chin-hangs, and active-hangs will also help you on the pull-up bar. Chin-hangs involve positioning your hands the same as you would for a chin-up, but you raise your body so that your chin is above the bar, then hold there for a certain amount of time, or for as long as you can.
Active-hangs are where you keep your arms fully extended, but engage your shoulders and back muscles to lift the body slightly toward the bar. Release, then engage again to raise. You can do these in reps as you would a pull-up.
Push-ups are essential after doing all those pull-ups. Climbers often get so obsessed with hanging or doing anything that involves a pulling motion and forget to compensate the other muscles and tendons around the joints we are stressing by pulling.
You will feel it in your elbows down the road if you have not been equally training your arm muscles. Climbers equate it to “Tennis elbow,” and it is not fun. Push-ups are the easiest way to combat this. They don’t require any gear, and you don’t have to be in the gym to do them. If you’re at home messing around on that pull-up bar, don’t forget to add in some push-ups!
Push-ups also train muscles needed for climbing, so why not?
Also read: What Do You Need for Outdoor Climbing?
In just about any climbing gym that has a fitness area, you will see a hangboard or two next to the pull-up bar. These are boards made from wood, or from the same material climbing holds are made from. There are different slots, sloped sides, and ridges that are made for doing pull-ups or hanging from.
Hangboards are useful tools in the training world because they allow you to train your finger tendons and forearms while engaging your biceps, back, and shoulder muscles as you would while doing pull-ups, or active-hangs.
Did you know your fingers don’t have any muscles? They rely on long tendons that provide action from your forearm muscles. Hangboards are essentially the pull-up bar to work on your forearm and grip strength.
You can find many hangboard workouts online or from your climbing gym.
Yoga has made quite the boom in the climbing world recently. Climbing gyms are being built or are making room for yoga rooms and adding classes to their schedules.
Yoga is a great way to get an all-encompassing work out. It helps with flexibility, balance, and core strength.
If you do not have access to a gym that has yoga classes, don’t have a yoga studio nearby, or just don’t feel comfortable going to a yoga class yet, you can find many video classes online or on certain phone apps.
7. Core, Core, Core!
Climbing is not all about those pull-ups! A common misconception is that climbing requires a lot of upper body strength. The secret of a great technical climber is their core strength and footwork.
That upper body strength will help you develop grip strength and strength to “lock off” in certain positions, but to move upward, you move your feet into position. While you do that, and move off of that position, your core is engaged that entire time!
Your core is not just your abs; it is an all-encompassing term that refers to your center of gravity. It includes your abs, lower back, and abs. Aside from climbing, having a strong core is beneficial to daily life.
Yoga is a great exercise for your core. There are other popular exercises that help to develop a strong core such as planks, bridges, plank-knee crosses, V-ups, V-sits, and plenty more.
Here’s a video with 5 great core exercises specific to climbing:
To start out with your three days of climbing per week, two to three strong core workout days should be added as well. These can be added to your climbing sessions or done on different days.
8. Free Weights and Body Weight Exercises
To improve and maintain your strength, there are a few free-weight exercises you can do. Along with pull-ups and push-ups mentioned earlier, tricep dips (with or without added weight), dumbbell shoulder presses, bicep curls, body weight squats/kettle squats, and calf raises are all great exercises for climbing.
Some gyms will have a Grippul device in their fitness center as well. These are amazing tools used to combine weight training with finger and grip strength. The Grippul is a plate you can screw any climbing hold onto, then hook up to any gym weight to lift.
You hold the climbing hold in one hand and pull the weight up in reps or hold as long as you can. If you have two of these, you can also sling them over a pull-up bar and hang or do pull-up exercises on any hold of your choice.
9. Training Boards
Training boards are fairly new in the climbing gym scene, but they have certainly made an impact. Most gyms have made room for these tools and will likely have circuits available for you to practice.
A Training board is simply a small piece of climbing wall with different types of holds placed all over the board. This allows you to create your own problems, practice gripping certain holds, and practice just about anything.
The Moon Board and the Kilter Board are the most popular. These boards have lights on or near each hold. These lights are linked to their accompanying phone apps, where you can actually map out a specific route. You can also find routes designed by other people on the app and link it to your Moon or Kilter Board.
Older gyms might not have a Moon or Kilter Board but will have something they refer to as the “Spray Wall.” These Spray Walls are where the idea for training boards came from. It is just a wall littered with various climbing holds for you to link together and practice on. Spray Walls are great for playing “Add On” since you can create an endless problem.
Add On is a game you play with other people. You start by identifying a start hold, then the next person adds the next hand hold, then so on. If you fall, you’re out of that round. The goal is to go on for as long as possible and try to pick challenging holds to knock your opponents out.
10. Traverse Exercises
These are a few circuit-training exercises you can do on the climbing wall. Most of these require you to traverse the wall, which means to ignore the routes and simply move horizontally along the wall connecting all the holds. Traversing is a great way to warm up/cool down and work on your endurance.
- Silent Feet
This game is fun to do with a friend or two. The idea here is to climb or traverse with the intention of not making a sound with your feet. This exercise is made to slow you down and teach you to be deliberate with your footwork.
You can go further with this game by adding the rule that you cannot move your foot once it is on a hold. There is no pivoting, tilting, or repositioning after your foot hits the hold. So, where and how you place your foot is how it has to stay until you leave that foot hold.
- The Blinking Game
While on the wall, begin moving your foot toward a hold. Just before contact, close your eyes and finish placing your foot. While keeping your eyes closed, evaluate your placement by putting weight on that foot. If it’s not entirely secure, continue feeling around until you get it. You can open your eyes to select the next foot placement, then repeat.
This exercise works on your spatial awareness and ability to evaluate foot placement by feel.
While traversing, look at the next hand hold with intention, then hover over it for three seconds before taking hold. Feel how engaged your core and legs are in this position. This drill aims to work out your core, legs, and arms as you hover in a less-than-preferred position.
- Leg Swing
This exercise is one of those that just plain hurts the next day…but in a good way! For this game, you should find a wall that is slightly overhanging. Adjustable training boards are good, but an easy route on an overhanging wall is more fun.
Begin on the start hold(s), move your hands up to the next hold, then take both feet off the holds they were on. Let them hang under you while keeping your core engaged, then lift them up to the next foothold that you can. Move your hands up, then repeat until the route is finished.
This exercise aims to teach deliberate footwork as well as intensely working out your core.
How many days a week should I rock climb?
If you are going to focus on training, I suggest going at least two-three times a week. Try to spread the days out if you can, especially if you are climbing hard on those days. It is important to put in at least one day of climbing that is more of a “rest” day – climb easy routes while focusing on technique and body movement.
If you can go more than three days, go for it! If you are going this often, just remember to pay attention to your body and don’t be afraid to spend the day climbing fun/easy things. This allows you to just enjoy climbing and enjoy the movement rather than adding the stress to your body and mind to climb as hard as you can all the time.
Spend the day playing games such as Add On, or practice traverse exercises with friends for a light-hearted and laugh-filled day of climbing.
How long should a bouldering session last?
A bouldering session can last as long as you want it to. It is easy to take plenty of breaks while bouldering. You will know it is time to call it quits when your body (or fingers) are obviously fatigued.
Do rock climbers lift weights?
Climbers typically lift weights as much as distance runners lift weights. The focus is not on gaining a ton of muscle mass, just enough to help train and tone targeted muscles.
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Daniell is a certified outdoor climbing guide with professional experience climbing throughout Colorado’s Western Slope region. She is based out of Fort Collins, CO and enjoys trail running, desert climbing and overnight canoe trips.