Since tearing my MCL almost a month ago, I’ve focused on training sessions involving the hangboard, campus board and targeted weightlifting.
I’m not an expert in training, but below are recommendations and tactics I’ve learned in the last 4 weeks, along with photos and videos to illustrate important concepts. (Make sure to have the sound on for the videos). Many of these tips detail what NOT to do. If this sounds paranoid, that’s because there are more ways to do an exercise wrong than right. You may want to get strong, but you’ll definitely get weak sitting on the couch because you’re injured.
First, here are a few general climbing workout guidelines:
1. If you can’t climb at least 5.10, this is not for you. This is not to disparage new or beginner climbers. Rather, simply put, if you’re not yet to that level, your time will be better spent developing technique and muscle memory. If you’re not a 5.10 climber, the best way to improve is to climb.
2. Warmup thoroughly. I usually ride the exercise bike for 5 minutes just to get my blood flowing. Then I stretch for ~10 minutes focusing on my back, arms and fingers to ready my tendons for stress. Then I do ~5-10 pullups on jugs or a bar to get my arms ready and “ease into” the workout.
3. No crimping! Crimp all you want on that 5.13 project. But it’s much better to train open finger strength than crimping.
4. Give yourself enough rest. After an intensive workout, recover for at least a day. You can still go climb. But recognize that it can be counterproductive to destroy yourself day in and day out with exercises that break down muscle.
5. Avoid injuries. Muscles develop faster than tendons. If you make strength gains, it will take your tendons time to catch up. Don’t push an exercise to tendon soreness. More on injury prevention on an exercise by exercise basis below.
6. Drink enough water. This also helps with injury prevention and allows you to get the most from your efforts. I try to drink a bit of water after every exercise and drink a full liter of water throughout the course of a session.
OK, now that my motherly lecture is over, on to the good stuff.
If you want to incorporate the campus board into a workout, it should be the first thing you do. The campus board is all about power, dynamic movement and contact strength. It is not a good exercise for endurance training. Being fresh for the campus board ensures that you’ll get maximum return and reduces the chance of injury.
Once you get to the point of diminishing returns, stop and move on to the hangboard. At first this might mean only doing 5 minutes.
Here is a video of a few specific campus board exercises I like:
1. Skip 1
2. Skip 2
3. Bump match
Give yourself enough rest between repetitions to recover to at least 80%. I will rest at least 30 seconds between reps. If you work downward on the campus board, stop if you encounter elbow soreness.
The hangboard is great to improve finger strength, lockoff strength and forearm “microendurance,” meaning the ability to maintain on marginal holds or stressful positions for longer. A good hangboard will have a variety of edges, slopers and pockets. Work them all, but focus on your weaknesses. Hangboard workouts are also the easiest way to get injured. Pockets in particular are incredibly stressful on the tendons. Only work the pockets you’re ready for and avoid pockets if you’re tiring. Never do exercises with fingers of one hand split between different holds. Doing so dangerously isolates tendons.
Here are a few hangboard exercises I like:
Dead Hangs – Dead hangs are good for developing finger strength and endurance. Just pick your holds and hang in a static position. Never dead hang with all the weight on your skeleton. This is one of the most common errors of doing a hangboard routine. When climbing, having your weight on your skeleton is advantageous because it saves energy. It is intuitive to take that philosophy to the hangboard. There is only one problem with this: it’s horrible for your joints and is very likely to lead to stress shoulder and elbow injuries. By always keeping your arms slightly bent you will naturally work your shoulders, triceps and core along with your fingers. You can do dead hangs at any point of a pull up.
Pull-ups – Many would argue that pull ups aren’t effective. I disagree, but once again stress that there is a wrong way to do pull ups and a right way.
Hop on a bar and do a few pull-ups. You will naturally accelerate quickly, slow down as you reach your high point, drop quickly and bounce to begin your next rep. Very little of this motion translates to climbing and momentum allows you to bypass weak points.
The goal of pull-ups for climbing training is not to do as many as possible. Instead it is to gain strength and control throughout the movement. The acceleration throughout a pull-up should be near zero. In other words, maintain a constant, slow velocity throughout the pull-up, both up and down. Also, push the motion as high as you can instead of calling it good once your chin reaches your fingers. This will help with lock offs and reaches. Depending on the velocity and holds you choose, you may only be able to do 1 – 5 reps.
Another pull-up routine I like is to pick pause points in the course of a pull up. Break the pull-up into 3 or 5 sections and pause for a predetermined amount of time. Pause at the same points on the way down. Again, you shouldn’t be able to do many of these – 3 is a good number.
Offsets – Rarely when climbing will both of your hands be on identical holds at identical heights. Your body should be ready to crank off of a good right hand with support from a poor left hand and vice versa. Both dead hangs and pull-ups can be done in offset fashion.
Swings – Allow your body to swing while hanging. The motion forces muscles to constantly adjust and simulates latching a hold and recovering equilibrium.
I’ve never felt very limited by core strength, but also recognize it’s importance in efficiently transferring power throughout the body when making a move, especially on an overhung route or boulder problem. Core strength is very important in preventing barn doors, on overhung routes and when reestablishing on bouldering problems after cutting your feet to name a few instances.
Hanging Sit-ups – Do these with only body weight or with a medicine ball held between the knees. I like to do a set of 10-15 with weight or 20 without weight. If arm slings are available, you can eliminate strain on your shoulders. Rotate from center to left to right. See the video below.
Medicine ball twists – These work the obliques.
Targeted Weights and Other Exercises:
Finger rolls – The hangboard and campus board help you recruit more muscle fiber for moves, but don’t add much forearm muscle. Finger rolls actually build forearm muscle. For finger rolls, you need a weightlifting bar, free weights and a frame for spotting. Start with ~75% of your body weight and go from there. Hold the bar at the tips of your fingers with your palms as open as possible. Keeping your arms straight, curl your fingers. You should do 3 sets of 3-6 reps. If you can’t do 3, drop weight and if you can do more than 6 before failure, add weight. More information on finger rolls can be found here.
Ring Push-ups – These help develop press strength. Again, you’re not training to tackle a 300 lb lineman. Do these slowly.
Dumbbell Pulls – These help develop lock off strength. Make sure to do these slowly, both up and down. See here for more information.
Forearm Rolls – All you need is a weight (5-10 lbs) tied to a bar with several feet of slack. These are great for developing the upper forearms and pinch strength. Keep your arms straight at shoulder level and roll the weight up and then down. Do two sets – one rolling the bar away from you and the other rolling the bar toward you.
PBR Lifts – Self explanatory and essential for morale.
Vary these exercises to work your weaknesses and/or train for the type of climbing on specific routes or areas.
A typical routine for me is as follows:
Exercise Bike – 5 min
Stretching – 5-10 min
Further warmup – 5 min
Campus board – 15-20 min
Hangboard – 20 min
Targeted weight lifting – 15 min
Core – 5 min
Of course, you should find a balance that works for your time and training needs. Eli has an excellent article on circuit training here.
A few other exercises I would recommend for the advanced climber:
1. One Arm Pinkie Pull-ups – I can do 20+ of these when using the deep mono pockets on the hangboard but am struggling to get to 10 when using the micro crimp feature.
2. Dead Hang Pinkie Curls – Hang from your pinkie on the sloper and while keeping your arm straight curl your pinkie. This is a fantastic exercise because as the finger is curled you’re forced to hang on with less and less surface area contact.
Both of these first two can be done with any digit. Novices may want to start with the middle finger.
3.The Nail – For a great core workout this can’t be beat. This can also be done at home. Novices will need a board with a nail through it. More advanced participants will only need the nail. Simply flex your abs and lay your center of gravity on the nail. Balance with all points off the ground until you get tired. I recommend bringing a magazine open to a lengthy article to put under your nose as this exercise can be time consuming.
Thanks to Tyler and Lizz for video and photos.