Strength Training to Improve Your Climbing: Lifts I Love (1) – The Deadlift

Want to improve body tension? Try adding deadlifts to your training program. (Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at at

Want to improve body tension? Try adding deadlifts to your training program. (Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at








You are climbing a steep route, and for the life of you, you just can’t keep your feet on the rock. They just keep flying off every time you get stretched out, and every time your feet cut, they whip back in the air from the momentum of them coming off, and then you work to let the forward momentum swing them back on.

“Man, I need to do more crunches!” you think to yourself, after this happens eight times on the same route. “Obviously, my core is weak.”

You go home, and every other day (or every day), you force your body through a grueling 20-minute core workout involving all sorts of different ab-targeting, crunch-style movements. Hundreds and hundreds of crunches later, you are still struggling to keep your feet on, though…

What did you do wrong?

This is a very classic and common situation, actually. And it’s one that I trained incorrectly for years myself. I worked the piss out of my abs, so that I could get my feet back on if they whipped off the rock. Never mind that I didn’t really climb steep rock so my feet never cut off anyhow – but I worked on my abs, regardless. I guess I worked on them more for bouldering situations where my feet would cut off occasionally. And because people said I should work my abs for climbing.

But it never dawned on me to ask the question about whether it might be possible to avoid this wild, full-body whipping motion in the first place, a motion that can waste time while climbing, and also that obviously loads the upper body every time it happens. So – what if it’s possible to (mostly) avoid having the feet unintentionally whip off in the first place? Or, if foot-cutting is part of the beta, what if it’s possible to have way more control over the angle and trajectory of the cut, not needing the full swing out and back to happen over and over again because it can’t be helped?

Enter deadlifts.

Other than pull-ups and pull-up variants (topic of the next Lifts I Love entry), I credit deadlifts with having the most impact of all the lifts I do in improving my climbing performance. Deadlifts strengthen several major muscle groups on the back of the body – parts of the body involved in generating body tension to keep one’s feet on the rock when extremely stretched out, and parts involved in pressing up into these types of positions as well – especially on steep rock. Deadlifts also engage many muscle groups throughout the rest of the body. This lift really is a full-body lift, and it quite closely mimics the muscles used when you are generating a body-tension-y movement on steep rock.

It’s very important to learn how to deadlift properly to avoid injury; however, claims that “I have a weak back so I shouldn’t deadlift,” are a little off, seeing as one of the most effective way to strengthen a weak, injury-prone area is to lift weights to strengthen that area! Add to this that deadlifts will help you in living life, too – in other words, having the strength and know-how to lift heavy objects properly from weight training can have great benefits to avoiding injuries during life tasks, both now and in the future. That being said, deadlifts should be worked into slowly, making sure that your form is correct. If you are unsure, hire a personal trainer to help you learn how to deadlift correctly.

After you have spent several months (or years!) deadlifting, if this lift has addressed a problematic area for you, you will start to notice greater control over your feet not cutting, and that you can maintain greater body tension, especially on steep rock. You may be able to stretch out taller up on your tiptoes without losing your footholds. You will find that your body doesn’t wildly whip away from the rock with as much frequency or at all – and that when you do cut your feet, you have much more control over the trajectory. You will still be able to utilize momentum from your feet cutting if it makes sense, but you won’t be at the mercy of the wild, full-whip-back foot cutting if it’s not what you want in any given situation. In other words, you’ll be able to deliberately cut your feet and place them precisely where you want them next in most situations, or to not cut them at all if you don’t want to.

Read more about deadlifts:

One of the Most Underrated Strength Exercises You Can Do

How to Deadlift with Proper Form: The Definitive Guide Barbell Deadlift

Why Fitness Resolutions Are So Hard to Keep – And What You Can Do To Change This

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at









“Whenever we make resolutions, it seems we are tested. Temptations, distractions, and old habits spring up from every side. We need to find the inner strength to persevere and to discover ways to succeed.” (from Inside The Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study and Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, by Jaganath Carrera)

If you’re struggling already with your New Year’s resolution – less than a month after your intention was set – you are probably not alone. As the above quote illustrates beautifully, keeping our resolutions once they’ve been made challenges almost everyone who happens to be human. We also see this relatively universal experience reflected in the well-known saying “old habits die hard.”

Why is this? What is it about ourselves that makes it so easy to slide back into familiar routines that we perhaps desperately wish to change? The comfort of routine, yes, but why do so many of us persist with comfortable routines that make us routinely uncomfortable in our physical bodies, due to overeating, making poor food choices, neglecting to exercise or get enough sleep – all stressors that can contribute to poor health and suboptimal functioning on all levels of being?

The answer isn’t a simple one, but I firmly believe that we have a deep-seeded natural (genetic/evolutionary) tendency in our bodies that drives us to attempt to maintain our current state of being once our body has learned to operate and function in this state, even if it causes long-term damage and dysfunction and/or shortens our lifespans. In other words, once we’ve established a set point of “normal” functioning for our body in a certain set of circumstances, our body strives to maintain that set point and will actually work against our efforts to change that set point – particularly if we attempt to cause this upheaval on a large scale all of a sudden, which is exactly how many New Year’s resolution fitness/diet programs are undertaken. (Read more about the set point theory here: Weight gain and weight loss difficulties: the Set-Point Theory (part 2)).

This knowledge can seem daunting and discouraging, but actually, I believe it shines a ray of light and hope onto the topic of resolutions, as follows: To make and then successfully keep a fitness resolution, you should work to make small, step-by-step resolutions that involve minor adjustments to your current lifestyle rather than dramatic, drastic overhauls that disrupt your body’s conditioned way of functioning. Make the changes small enough that they will go virtually unnoticed, and make them easy enough so that you can and do succeed. Maybe you eat one more serving of fresh vegetables or fruit a day, switch to whole grain bread for every other meal, cut out sugary soft drinks or do a half-and-half mixture of tonic water and 100% fruit juice in place of sugary soft drinks. Perhaps you add in five minutes of stretching or walking or lifting weights three days a week, and after six weeks, you move this up to six or seven minutes. Maybe you get to bed 10 minutes earlier. All of these are very, very small changes – but they are a start, and if you can maintain them, they are worth so much more than dramatic changes that fall by the wayside after a few short days or weeks.

Once you’ve succeeded for a minimum of six weeks (longer if you want to really ingrain the habit), you can tackle the next change(s) on your list. Or you can try to adopt a small change in several different areas related to your fitness at the same time – but I suggest no more than three at a time. Keep a journal (on your cell phone might be easiest) to keep track of how you do in reaching your goals, and adjust them as needed. The goal is for you to succeed – keep reminding yourself of this – not to set yourself up for failure. Make sure the goals for each six week to three-month period are entirely attainable, and let yourself feel good about reaching them, no matter how small and insignificant they may seem to others (or your unhelpful internal self-judge, who expects you to be swimsuit-ready in three days and also able to run a marathon in the same amount of time).

After several years of making changes this way, you might be surprised to discover real changes in yourself and your fitness/energy levels that you never thought were possible. Another big reason that fitness resolutions and programs fail is because people expect impossibly dramatic results way too quickly. If you can change your mindset to embrace the idea that you’re working toward a permanent lifestyle improvement, not a temporary fix, and that the changes will be gradual, you will be on the way to succeeding via the understanding that the physically visible changes are likely to happen extremely slowly, but that the underlying fitness benefits of improved healthy habits will reap great rewards in terms of your overall health and wellbeing much more quickly…and that physical changes will follow, albeit much more slowly than you might wish them to occur.

Looking back at your New Year’s resolutions now, decide on some realistic, easily accomplished steps you can take during the next six weeks (or longer) to work toward those resolutions. Working to gradually reshape your body’s “fitness set point” will take some time, but if you can stick with it and continually update and expand upon your small, reasonable resolutions, you may be looking back five years from now amazed at how far you’ve come in terms of fitness, rather than discouraged and dismayed by your inability to make a fitness resolution and stick with it.

Move of the Month 11: Flagging (or Otherwise Dropping One Foot Off the Rock While Climbing)


Shifting into a flagging position to execute a climbing move.

“Do you realize that you pretty much always have both feet on the wall?”

This question actually transformed my climbing style long, long ago, much in the same way that learning how to open-hand as my default grip rather than crimp for dear life changed my climbing. At a few points along the way, something that another climber has pointed out to me has helped me make a major leap forward in my climbing. Other such incidents that stand out include being directed to actually take a minimum of at least one real rest day from all physical activity every week (shocker!), and more recently, being told (by my dear husband) that I was weak and needed to strength train with a particular focus on pull-ups and pulling (best advice ever given to me). Anyhow – point being that there are these times when someone else’s observation can have a profound and lasting impact on a person’s athletic performance – and unleashing my feet from full contact with the rock was one of the earlier ones that helped change my climbing.

Flagging involves letting one leg swing behind (most commonly) the other leg to help the climber advance on a climb. There are inside flags, too, in which the leg swings in front of the other leg – I find I use these most often on steep rock where there’s space between rock and leg to allow for this movement easily. Thinking of the counterweighting leg as a virtual “tail,” and envisioning how cats or monkeys or other leaping, long-tailed animals use that appendage to help create better balance is a good visual – the leg/tail swings around behind or in front of the other leg until the balance point is felt, allowing the climber to release whichever hand needs to let go and move up. Using flags can provide efficiency gains in certain climbing moves, as illustrated by the following photos:

Flagging isn’t the only one-foot-on technique that climbers should work to incorporate into their climbing – letting a leg drift out to the opposite side to counterweight can be an effective technique, too, whether the foot of that leg makes contact with the rock (front-pointing, or just letting the toe drive into the rock without being on a specific hold to help hold body tension/position), or not, as the case may be.

Letting go of the three-points-of-contact concept and allowing the feet and legs to become counterweights encourages greater fluidity and ease in climbing, so long as this doesn’t involve allowing the foot off the rock to become a toe-dragging, useless deadweight behind you. Sensing the proper positioning of one’s body and learning to let go of the need for both feet to be on holds at all times goes hand-in-hand with learning how to smear effectively.

Experiment with incorporating this technique by climbing on easier terrain (for handholds) and looking for places where you can comfortably explore letting a leg dangle behind you, and then shift that leg behind and in front of and out to the side of the opposite leg, noting how this shifts your sense of balance on the handholds. Gradually work to incorporate this into your climbing world – like all techniques, with enough practice, it will become second nature and you will automatically drop a foot off and swing the leg into the correct balance spot when it makes sense to do so.

Climber. Writer. Climbing Coach/Trainer. Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200). ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT). Avid Lifelong Learner.

Switch to our mobile site

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On LinkedinCheck Our Feed