Ways to Improve Your Sport Climbing/Bouldering (8): Strength Training (HARD)


Five years ago, this tree was a struggling sapling that I was trying not to run over with the lawnmower. Like this tree’s slow, steady, and unnoticeable growth from day to day, tangible strength gains from weight training will happen slowly. However, with consistency, dedication and time, you may find that a few years from now, you’ve entirely transformed your climbing strengths and become much better at styles and moves that used to stymie you. It’s hard to be patient and to put the necessary time in, but the end result just might be worth it.

I’ve talked about strength training a ton and how much it’s helped me in improving my climbing here already. I’ve written about it from an instructive standpoint a lot, too – lots of articles on exercises and such. As I don’t really want to repeat myself over and over and over again, I’ll point you in the direction of the other articles I’ve written to get you going if you’ve never contemplated weight (or strength/resistance) training for climbing (or just general fitness) gains before. You can start with Basic Weight Training for Climbers & Boulderers; Why To Consider Weight Training for Climbing (Flashed Blog) and check out the numerous weight-training article links on my Online Articles page as well as ExRx.net’s article “Low-Volume, Progressive-Intensity Training.”

Instead of explaining why strength training can be so effective for almost any athlete when employed intelligently as a key component of the training plan – since I pretty much went over that in my last four-part WI entry on SAID/OP – I’d like to just touch as briefly on 10 other notable aspects of strength-training in today’s entry.

  1. As the ACTION Personal Trainer Certification Textbook says, “No one can perform resistance training for a month and expect to see significant changes.” Seeing awesome results from a well-designed strength-training regimen manifest in your climbing will take months, if not years. Our brains want instant results. Our bodies usually take a much longer time to build strength than we want or expect them to.
  2. Build a solid and balanced base. If you’ve never strength-trained before, start by following general strength-training guidelines before you get more specific with your exercise selection, sets and reps.
  3. Before you attempt any new or unfamiliar exercises, you must understand without reservation how to execute the movements correctly and how to use the equipment safely. Ask for a spotter if and when necessary. Consider hiring a personal trainer for a session or two.
  4. When you have established a solid base in strength training (usually a minimum of two or three months), consider adding in weakness-targeting exercises if you’re not already performing these as a part of your general program. Make working your weaknesses a top priority in training, both in weight training and other forms of training alike. Also, keep in mind that the areas that start out as your obvious weaknesses may change over time. As you strengthen your original target areas, other weaknesses may appear as more crucial to work in the future.
  5. Depending on your background (both strength-training and general fitness) and your (unchangeable) training (i.e. genetic) potential, no matter how well you choose your exercises, the more you’ve trained an area well and thoroughly in the past and the closer you are to your genetic potential, the fewer gains you will make. This sucks. I’ll discuss this along with some other annoying and sucky aspects of training more in the “Things That Suck” WI entry coming up.
  6. Realize that the best exercises for improving climbing-related areas of strength may not always be obvious. Deadlifts are a great example of this – and yes, I know that people will still argue that they’re not applicable for climbing or only for certain climbers, body types or styles of climbing. I respectfully but thoroughly disagree. While I’m sure there’s an upper limit of relevant amounts you could lift in terms of making climbing gains, I’m also fairly certain the majority of climbers aren’t at or anywhere close to that level. If you’ve never tried deadlifts consistently and built up to lifting a reasonable standard, you’ll never know what you’re missing out on in terms of potential body tension/core-strength gains for sport climbing and bouldering (not to mention avoiding injuries from life). It’s ultimately your choice – the same goes for other relevant exercises.
  7. Increasing volume (frequency and duration of exercises) isn’t the best way to build strength. “Increasing frequency or duration [i.e. volume] cannot make up for a decrease of intensity,” as explained in the ExRx article referenced above. It concludes, “Performing the fewest sets and exercises necessary to reach your objectives will facilitate higher workout intensities and can reduce the occurrence of overtraining.” This means that effective strength training doesn’t require hours in the gym and countless repetitions to exhaustion in every workout. It does require intensity – or lifting heavy weights/resisting difficult amounts.
  8. What about muscle gain? I know the arguments here: “But what about strength-to-weight ratio?” and “I don’t want to gain weight because being heavier could never help my climbing.” Etcetera. Again, this is your choice, but from what I’ve observed, it’s hard to get huge from low-volume, high-intensity strength training, and most folks seem to benefit from the (usually minor, if at all) muscle weight gain, should it happen – meaning that if you put on a few pounds of functional muscle weight but your body-fat percentage remains the same, you’ve likely actually improved your strength-to-weight ratio (this topic is covered and explained really well in Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition, by Dan Benardot). And you might not gain weight – you might lose weight as your body gains strength, too. See “What’s Your Strength to Weight Ratio? How I Got 50% Stronger While Losing 3% Body Weight” for a runner’s experience with this; it’s not exactly how I personally approach strength-training for climbing, but it’s a great general endorsement. The basic point here, though, is that functional and/or slightly more/bigger muscle is usually better than no muscle or weaker, smaller muscle. You’ll notice this is the case if you’re heavier but moves feel easier and you consequently feel lighter overall when you’re climbing. Of course, if you’re heavier and moves feel harder, you’ve either added fat (not good), or you’ve added too much muscle (not very common) for your own good, or you’ve added muscle in the wrong places for climbing. I hope to talk about this more – body composition/diet/nutrition – in another entry (man, I’m promising a lot of these – but the topics are all so interrelated, it’s hard not to digress!).
  9. Raw strength gains don’t usually translate directly into wild and immediate improvements in overall climbing performance. You have to take the time to mold the strength gains into your climbing. This means that even if you get stronger from lifting/training in the gym all winter, when you come out to climb in the spring on real rock, you’ll have to undergo and adjustment and manipulation period during which you learn how to effectively employ your strength gains in climbing. New techniques may have opened up for you to learn and integrate (as strength gains have a way of making formerly inaccessible techniques available), requiring you to rework aspects of coordination, balance, pacing, flexibility and so forth. Your mind may not completely understand your body’s new capabilities, and it won’t instantly and automatically integrate your strength gains into your climbing game. This takes time and is an integral part of the process, a key portion of the yearly training scheme.
  10. Similarly to No. 9, after you strength train for a period of time – and especially if you focus most or all of your training time on this for several months – it will also take time to build your power, power endurance and endurance up closer to your new strength level, allowing you to take full advantage of your strength gains. By raising your absolute strength level, you do indeed raise the potential level that you can bring those other components up to – but this won’t be automatic or quick, either. It’s a process that takes time (weeks to months) and discipline (training some of these can be painful) as well. I’ll discuss these components of climbing in my next few WI entries.

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up. Remember that my designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20 years of climbing along with my observations from climbing coaching throughout the past four years. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change than I do/did. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing, bouldering and training!

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