Tag Archives: strength training

Maintaining Strength During the Climbing Season

Climbing outside is so much fun that it's easy to ditch training for months on end -- but you might regret it if you do.

Climbing outside is so much fun that it’s easy to ditch training for months on end — but you might regret it if you do.

Do you ditch training entirely during the climbing season, and just climb for months on end as your training?

Let me start by saying that if you just want to climb and you don’t mind a) losing strength gains gradually over the course of the season; and b) potentially incurring some repetitive use injuries or muscle imbalances, you should go right ahead with this plan.

However, if you would like to avoid a) and b) both, you’ll likely want to keep some of the strength training elements from your off-season training plans in play during your on-season. You will just want to severely taper down the volume of each workout as well as the frequency of workouts. You do this to avoid cutting into your actual climbing performance as much as possible.

The question changes from “How much of this type training can I get away with and still make gains?” to “How little of this type of training can I get away with without losing my gains?”

You shift the focus of your lens to performance climbing, but strength work has to stay in the periphery, as does opposition muscle work, for best results in terms of strength maintenance and overall body balance.

The steps I take in my program involve the following:

  1. Examine my list of strength-training exercises I do in the off season, and try to whittle out any that I don’t deem completely necessary. This is hard for me as there’s a reason for each exercise I do!
  2. With that list in hand, I prioritize the exercises, and split them into two or three shorter lists of 3 to 6 exercises that can be done together. Each list represents one short workout. I am free to combine them if I want to stack workouts, though – it’s up to me!
  3. In each workout, I do way fewer sets of each exercise. I still try to lift heavy, though – this is strength maintenance, after all.
  4. I try to not go to failure. I definitely try to leave one rep in the tank, lifting to fatigue rather than failure. I lift the same weight I have been lifting throughout my strength-training cycle. Sometimes I even add weight, as I have consistently gotten stronger during my climbing seasons the past few years, too.
  5. I lift far less frequently. I aim to get a lifting session in at least once a month (working to hit all lifts on my list at least 1x a month), but no more than 2x a month.
  6. I try to lift when it interferes with my outdoor climbing performance the least – when I know I’ll have a bunch of rest after lifting. But at the same time, if that month deadline looms, I bite the bullet and lift anyhow (usually!).
  7. I understand that lifting during my performance season may negatively impact my performance in the short-term, immediate future. Over the long-term, the benefits of keeping my muscles strong and balanced outweighs this short-term drain on performance.

By keeping lifting in play through the climbing season, you may actually end your season stronger in terms of pure strength than you started it. You also will be working more on climbing fitness, movement, tactics, and technique throughout your season(s) outside. This means that by the end of your season, you may be experiencing new peaks in performance that weren’t possible the previous season. And then, you’ll repeat for better results in the future.

Move of the Month 15: The Heel Hook (Improve Your Climbing!)

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I used to not use heel hooks much beyond just setting my heel on a hold to take some weight off of my arms and hands.

The more steep rock I’ve climbed, the more this has changed.

Using heel hooks to rest is an awesome technique, for sure. It can provide your upper body with a much-needed respite. To do this, you simply place your heel on a hold when you’re resting and shaking out your arms and hands. If it alleviates the strain on your upper body more, it’s probably a good choice for resting. This is usually a fairly passive heel hook, meaning your leg muscles won’t be working hard in the heel hook. Of course, there has to be a solid hold available to heel hook to make this work for you!

There are times when a resting heel hook will be extremely stressful on your leg(s), though. This can happen if you’re wrapping a heel around a corner and digging into the rock (compressing) with that heel to get weight off your hands and arms and upper body. It can also happen more often on steep rock than vertical terrain – that the rest position is stressful on the legs, whether you’re heel hooking or not.

Using heel hooks to help advance your progress up the rock adds another dimension to this move – and it’s a great example of how having strong legs can help your climbing.

If you’re sitting and reading this, extend your leg out rest your heel on the floor. Now, press into that heel and notice how all the muscles on the back of your leg engage. Drag your heel along the floor toward you and feel the muscles you use to do this motion. Those are the muscles that you’ll engage to help leverage active heel hooks to your advantage, whether you’re actually pulling your way up higher on the rock with that leg motion, or holding the heel hook in one spot so that you can advance your hands up to higher holds.

I didn’t really get how to use my legs aggressively in heel hooks when I started my journey into the realm of steeper climbing. As I learned how to do this – how to really engage and pull with my legs – it has helped me enormously. I’ve concurrently worked to strengthen the muscles involved in this motion, not just to be better at it but also, to help me avoid injuring my leg muscles.

Climbers sometimes get hurt by trying to use active heel hooks and not having the leg strength for them. This can lead to hamstrings strains and tears, among other muscle issues. To help prevent this type of issue, strengthen the legs outside of climbing using movements that mimic this motion. Hamstrings curls are a great choice. You can start with Ball Leg Curls and switch to doing one leg at a time when two legs gets easy. As you advance, move into hamstrings curls. Note that deadlifts work hamstrings, too.

Strength Training to Improve Your Climbing: Lifts I Love (5) – Cable One-Arm Triceps Extension

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo Photography.

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo Photography.

Are you shorter than the average climber?

Struggle with mantling?

Have difficulty taking holds down past your shoulders?

If you answered yes to one or all of the above, consider adding this exercise or something similar to your (complete!) sport-specific strength-training program.

I love this lift because it has helped me tremendously in situations where I can’t quite make the reach in my pull-up range of motion, meaning I can bring the hold in question down to shoulder level, but I am still short of reaching the next hold. Having an increased ability to turn the pull into a press can be all the difference in the world in making or not making a move.

And while it’s indisputably true that it’s nice to have more reach much of the time in climbing, being stronger in this “turnover area” from pulling to pressing can help mitigate shorter climbers’ reach issues in many circumstances. In other words, the shorter you are (and the harder you climb), the more likely it is that you will see results from this lift in your climbing.

Case in point – a few years ago, I was walking some other climbers through a bunch of strength exercises, this one included. My 6’4” friend was horrified to discover how relatively “weak” he was in this motion, but it made complete sense to me – he hadn’t really needed to develop this ability for where he was in his climbing at the time. In other words, being able to press holds out wasn’t really holding him back yet.

As anyone improves their climbing ability up to a higher level, this strength development will become more and more helpful, no matter how tall the climber. There will be times when pressing a hold down farther will be key, even if you’re tall. Since one of the big ways in which climbs get harder is that the holds get farther apart, it’s a useful sport-specific strength to develop, even if you are 6’4”.

But if you’re 5’0” (or even 5’6”, like me), you’ll probably find it much more useful much earlier in your climbing development, enabling you to surmount more and more “reachy” moves with greater ease than those climbers of a similar stature who chose not to work on putting some strength work into their triceps.

Learn how to do it here: Cable One Arm Tricep Extension. For climbers, I recommend doing this with your palm facing down (pronated). This replicates the movement used in climbing more accurately.