“Dude, the only way to be a strong climber is to just climb man." You've all heard it and you've all believed it. If you were like me when I first started climbing, you believed it because you used it as an excuse to not lift weights. Let's face it, most climbers are 5'8" and weigh 135 lbs soaking wet, with their shoes on, fully clothed, and holding a 20 lbs dumbbell. Not exactly the weight lifting type and probably last picked for a game of pick­up.

It is true though, climbing is very sport specific and requires a massive amount of time training on the rock or at a local climbing gym. I am not going to go into any detail about climbing specific training, but I am going to talk a little bit about general functional strength training for climbers.

Climbers need to know that just climbing can only take you so far. By not training strength you will not reach your full potential as an athlete.

Remember, we see strength training in all sports, right? You could be a 100m sprint track and field stud, going for the gold in curling, or performing at the highest levels in beach volleyball. The amount and degree of time in the weight room might differ from sport to sport, but strength training is still implemented across the board.

In climbing, the kinetic chain from fingertips to the ends of your toes is engaged at all times. Your hips must be flexible, yet powerful for high steps, the fingers must be strong in order to hold onto small holds while your posterior chain doesn't collapse (lower back, glutes, and hamstrings), you need to know when to crank the volume up on hard moves and turn it way down when there's an opportunity to rest. While climbing requires a whole quiver of varying skill sets, strength training is a small piece of the climbing puzzle that must not be neglected. The stronger you can be, the more efficient you are on the rock.

Even though the climbing requires highly technical skills in the sport, climbers still needs to strength train to be a better climber and a better overall athlete. This element often overlooked by climbers. Climbers, like most athletes, need to learn how to recruit all their muscle groups, not just their Popeye-like forearms and turtleshell backs.

If you are a climber and have never lifted before, then you should be psyched. Being a novice is certainly humbling, but it's an exciting time to teach an old dog new tricks. As adults it's so rare to learning something new. Most of the time we just think we're experts at everything, but seriously...when was the last time you learned a new skill and approached it as a novice, not a self proclaimed expert? Being a novice is great and people forget this: you're constantly improving and getting better each day. Being an “expert" is often hard because you may see one single improvement once a year, sometimes once every two years. Embrace being a novice and reap the benefits. Maybe you've done a little bit of weight training here and there, but you haven't figured out what exactly needs to be done. Think like a novice, ask questions, and be open to new things. (Read more on 6 tips to help excel in life & sports).

When strength training, we want to stick with the four major patterns. We want to hit all the “big" lifts. By doing this, our kinetic chain will be stronger on those hard moves, especially on the hamstrings and glutes. We'll also have more balance between our press and pull muscles. Climbers are really good at pulling, but can't press more than a 14 year old high school football player. By evening out this obvious imbalance, we'll also prevent many shoulder injuries that we often seen in climbers.

  1. Hip dominant/Hamstring­ - Deadlift or Romanian Deadlifts
  2. Knee dominant/Squats­ - Barbell Front Squats or 2 Kettlebell Rack Squats
  3. Pull­ - Pull­ups or some variation of the Row
  4. Press­ - Bench press or Military Press

We'll keep it very simple here.

Do this two times a week (Complete as single sets before moving onto the next)



(No PVC? Use a broomstick or a stick clip)



There are many other lifts that can be done for the four major movement patterns, I've just picked ones for the purpose of an example workout. Feel free to put in other lifts, just as long as you cover the major movement patterns. If you have little to no experience lifting weights I highly recommend hiring a coach or trainer. In regards to load, you want to work around 80% of your max. You may not know what that is and that's ok, it will take some trial and error to figure it out. Just remember these principles:

  • Go as heavy as you can while still completing the prescribed sets and reps with perfect form and never to failure.
  • Always have one or two reps left in the chamber. If you are working at 3 sets of 3 you should feel like you could do 4-­5 reps at the given weight you're using.
  • Start a little light if you're not sure and gradually increase as it makes sense
  • Remember heavy (heavy for you that is) matters. If you go to light, you're just wasting your time, and if you go too heavy, you run the risk of hurting yourself.

I think the biggest reason climbers have neglected weight training is because of this wildly inaccurate statement. “I don't want to lift heavy weights because I'll gain weight and I want to stay light for climbing." I'm not going to get into it here, but science shows this simply isn't true. You will not gain weight strength training. Plain and simple. If you stick to around 10 total reps (3x3, 5x2, 2x5, 5/3/1, 6x1, etc), lift heavy, and maintain a good diet it just won't happen. Please trust me on this.

For an easy ­to­ use program that incorporates resistance training and climbing training, check out Steve Bechtel's Full Tilt program. Steve has been on the forefront of training for climbers and is the founder of Climb Strong. Visit climbstrong.com for more information.

Steve has often found that coupling strength training days with your favorite hangboard workout works very well. Do your strength set first, you'll be good and warm, then do your hangboard workout after some finger warm­-ups.

Don't forget that the goal is to climb stronger, not to becoming the next Olympic gold favorite powerlifter. Incorporate the strength training when it makes sense in your weekly schedule (ideally twice a week). The rest of your training time should be spent climbing. You'll notice a difference. Plus being stronger makes you more useful when a sofa needs to be moved from the top floor of an apartment building and you'll be harder to kill during a zombie apocalypse.

Choose strength.

About the Author: Charlie is a strength coach at Elemental Performance + Fitness in the small mountain town of Lander, WY. Charlie believes strength training is foundational and can be applied to any fitness goal. Charlie works with a wide variety of clients, but focuses on climbers and coaching a local youth climbing team. Charlie spends most of his time at the gym training his athletes (programs he already put himself through), at the crag climbing, or backcountry skiing.

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