The bottom line for all climbing is a basic level of strength. At the very minimum you need to be able to do the moves. If you can't, it doesn't matter how good your endurance or power endurance are, you won't get up the climb! Of course having a stable and injury free body are the starting points. There are many ways to specifically improve your climbing strength but here are some of the most basic ones. I always feel there is no point making training more complicated than it needs to be. Going bouldering is the main form of strength training and should always be fitted in, unless you have tiny windows of time and a pull up session is the only way. The other times to be clever about training strength is if you are injured. For example if your fingers are bad, weight training is an idea, or if you have a lower limb injury, pull ups and fingerboards work well.
Sometimes it’s really easy to get carried away with fancy exercises but I cannot emphasise enough the importance of simply going bouldering. Bouldering can literally address everything if you pick the right climbs:
- Fingers – crimps, slopers, pinches
- Big moves
- Steep climbs
- Sideways moves for shoulder strength
Pick out particular styles of boulder problems, not just grades. There will be some that you hate, possibly because of the techniques required, but also you may be lacking the specific strengths. These are the boulder problems you are after. You may have to try problems of disappointing grades, but improvement and strength gain is only possibly by working on weaknesses.
For strength training, pick out 3-5 hard boulder problems and work them. Warm up thoroughly (30-45 mins) and spend 1 hour just working some key problems. You may spend 15 minutes on each one. Have lots of rest between attempts, this takes a lot of discipline. These sessions are all about quality over quantity. When you have a sense you are going downhill, STOP! It's time to warm down and rest. Strength training is very high intensity and very low volume, which requires a lot of rest between attempts on problems and following sessions. (possibly 2 days rest).
2. Pull ups
The pull up bar is so useful. If you have one at home put it up in the living room or kitchen. It may spoil the interior decor, but you are much more likely to use it if it’s there rather than in a dark corner of a spare room.
Being able to complete at least 1 pull up is a must for all climbers and 3 is even better. For many routes (up to 6c) you don’t actually need to be able to do lots of pull ups. However for steeper climbs and bouldering it’s vital to be able to complete a number; approx 10.
How to do a pull up when you can’t do one!
- Use a chair to stand one or both feet on
- Add a resistance band to aid upward movement
- Jump into a pull up
This video explains it really well. Probably as climbers you will have already worked on grip strength, so you can fast forward to the middle section.
When 1 or 2 pull ups feel ok, continue the remaining 10 pull ups with your feet on a chair. To really gain strength, form is really vital and it’s important to complete fewer pull ups well (even if they are assisted by feet) rather than swinging around just to try and get the chin over.
As a general rule of thumb, 3 sets of 8-10 with 3 mins rest between sets will be a good way to train.
When you are really confident with 10 or so pull ups, you can move onto other types of pull ups such as:
3. Locking off
Locking off to reach another hold is one of the most useful things a climber can do. I meet quite a few people who can do lots of pull ups but really struggle to hold a static position with one arm (even supported by the feet on a climb) and reach up.
2 hand lock offs
Use a pull up bar (either with your feet on or off) and do a full lock or 90 degree lock. Hold for 10 seconds and lower. You can increase the time and work up to doing this on a fingerboard on different kinds of handholds.
Climbing lock offs
You can practise this on a climb supported by your feet. As you can see in this picture reach up but try to stay in a front on position, don’t twist. Reach up and hold for 5 seconds, come back down hanging, with your feet on. You can do this on narrow climbing positions, wide positions and undercuts and choose different angles (steeper is obviously harder). Do 3 sets of 2 pulls on each arm with 2 mins rest between sets.
Once you can do this on the climbing wall you can try this without your feet. A campus board really helps for this, but you can do it using a pull up bar and a rope. As you get better, increase the distance between your hands. Do 3 sets of 2-3 pull ups on each arm with 2 mins rest between sets. If this feels too hard, you can always add your feet (and it’s a good transition from the exercise above).
This video briefly talks about touches. They are performed on a campus board, the video shows using feet initially, but moving on to using no feet. Start with both hands on rung 1, reach with one hand to 2, and with the same hand reach again to 3 and back to 1. Repeat 2 times without touching the floor. Repeat on the other side. Rest 2 mins, 3 sets in total.
Finally the fingerboard. I still think that specific boulder problems are the best for developing finger strength (in a perfect world outside), but if you have little time to get to the wall, a fingerboard at home might become a good friend. Slightly off topic, in my experience, often outside is the only way. For example in the Peak District the limestone crimps are some of the smallest I've come across in the UK. The only way to get strong fingers for Peak limestone will be on that rock type. The same will go for using slopers on gritstone or in Fontainebleau. If you can't get outside, consider your goal and the types of finger holds on it - choose holds on your fingerboad that simulate these. The downside of fingerboards is they don't simmulate the jagged nature of outdoor holds.
Initially start by finding handholds that are reasonable to hold and do the double hand lock offs as above and with straight arms. Move onto worse handholds doing the same thing. Hold the different positions for 10 seconds and rest on the ground between positions for 1 min.
Always train where possible in the half crimp position - see pictures below. Training in a full crimp (with you thumb folding over the fingers) is dangerous from an injury perspective and you'll get more gains in the half crimp position (than the full open hand/drag position). Saying all that the open hand position is safe and you will also makes gains using this position.
For more advanced fingerboard training try deadhanging and isolating different holds so you can start to hang with one hand. Here is a really good video. The Beastmaker website is also really useful for more exercises that target certain grips and finger endurance.
This video explains some of these principles well (although quickly goes into one arm lock off territory - this is very advanced). Sticking with the repeaters and one assisted hangs is the way forward:
I was considering putting this section at the top because it is so so important when considering strength training. This kind of exercise is very intense and you need the right fuel to make it work. If strength is your weakness, you'll need the right fuel even more. Protein is vital, however volume of food is equally important (intake calories must match output). Do not consider eating like a sparrow but having an expensive protein shake at the end of each session. You should be eating protein (and fats and carbs) for every meal and you just need additional protein immediately after exercise. Here is a brilliant article about training through hard phases.