Climbing, like any other sport, needs to have supplementary work performed outside of actual climbing time. I have come across not just climbers, but people from multiple sports where they think that just doing the activity will be enough. It is not until I have worked with them that they have found their sport easier and they can perform to higher level. Climbing is exactly the same.
Climbers need to have a high amount of muscular endurance, with the body being able to deal with the build up of lactic acid that the muscles will produce. There also needs to be a high amount of power as well a tremendous amount of strength, especially in the latissimus dorsi (back), forearms and hands. Having a high amount of stamina is a must as you can be climbing for hours at a time and is especially important as altitudes increase.
When I have worked with climbers, we have concentrated working on the back muscles, shoulders, forearm and hand muscles and the core muscles. I use a variety of exercises to help the above muscles and body functions. They include, but not limited to deadlifts, squat variations, pull up variations, rows, press variations and clean variations.
The deadlift is one of the best exercises you can, regardless of whether you climb or not. It works around 200 muscles in the body, not to mention the back, arms, legs, glutes and gripping muscles. I do this exercise two different ways. I get my climbers to do a heavy deadlift day, working up to 90-95% 1 rep max (RM) for 1-3 reps. I then get them doing dynamic work 3 days later, working on pulling quickly from the ground. I would get them working at about 55-60% 1 RM and doing 8 sets of 1 rep with about 30-45 seconds rest between sets. I would supplement this lift with exercises such as high pulls, cleans from the floor and hang cleans.
I will occasionally supplement heavy deadlifts with heavy front squats. Like deadlifts, squats are extremely tough on the body and work around the 200 muscle mark too. Front squats, especially with an Olympic grip, put a lot of strain on the mid-section and back muscles as the weight forces the body to keep back muscles tight, allowing the chest to stay up.
I do a lot of pull ups with my climbers. We do wide grip, neutral, palms back, towel pull ups, fat grip pull ups all with a full range of motion. I get my climbers to go from a dead hang on every rep. Again, I do very high weight pull ups for few reps, adding weight around the climbers waist (I had one guy pulling an extra 40kg for 5 reps) to no weight at all. On these days, I get them to pull as quickly as they can. For those powerful enough, jump pull ups and muscle ups will be prescribed. I do these for sets of 3-5 reps, really focusing on powering up.
Obviously there is a lot of forearm and grip work done. I vary the exercises from simple static holds to wrist flexion and extension. Some static holds I like to use are plate pinches (placing two 10kg plates together and pinching them together on the smooth sides), dumbbell holds and barbell holds. I might also make it a more conditioning exercise by doing farmers walks and make it even harder by adding my fat gripz to the bar. Hammer curls and reverse curls are also thrown in occasionally for forearm and biceps strength.
In my personal training sessions with my climbers, I get them to do press variations such as single and double arm dumbbell presses, push presses, Arnold presses and bench presses and press ups. This is to help strengthen the shoulder girdle muscles and shoulder muscles. I will also use dips to help with shoulder strength and triceps strength. I do these exercises for higher and lower reps and use a variety of weights.
For the climber, core muscles are very important. A favorite of mine is the Roman Chair Twist, where the climber lies back and then twists from side to side. This will engage the rectus abdominis, tranverse abdominis and internal and external obliques. Other core exercises are variations of the plank hold, ab wheel or barbell role outs, hand walk outs from the toes to nearly flat and back up, hanging knee raises and weighted Janda sit ups. I do these with a slightly higher rep range.
For conditioning, I will do short intense circuits as slightly longer interval training sessions. The circuits could be anything from a tabata circuit (20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest, repeat until 4 minutes is done) to one exercise done for 10 reps with a minutes rest and performed again (McPhee burpees are good for this). I will also do high intensity interval training (HIIT) working with high intervals from 30-60 seconds with rest periods of 1-2 minutes. I will get my climbers doing this for around 10 minutes to 20 minutes tops.
Stretching is must as it will help you become more flexible, but keep you flexible. I use a range of stretching techniques, including PNF stretching. Flexibility is extremely important in the lower body and I work on improving the range of motion in and around the hip joints.
Rock climbing should be treated like any other sport or physical activity, it requires a large amount of physical effort, strength and endurance. You can't beat rock climbing to become better at climbing, but training properly for it will help progress you quicker than if you did just that.
Harry Grove BSc CSCS DipPT has helped personal train athletes and individuals from a variety of backgrounds for more than a decade. He is the co-founder of PT On-Demand Ltd! - an online training and exercise resource.