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I taught Rock Climbing classes at two local Rock Climbing gyms in north New Jersey for three years. The best way to train for climbing is by climbing! Just like any other specialized sport, practicing the specialized movements in real situations are the best way to grow in the sport. However, we can't always be climbing, no matter how much we want to, and climbing too hard without outside training can actually leave the body vulnerable to injury!
These five rock climbing-specific at-home exercises will allow you to train at home, guard against injury, and become a better climber!
Training Goal: Pull-ups
- 20 pull-ups in a row
- 2 minute hang time
- Strength on the wall
- Grip endurance
Pull-ups and Hangs
Pull-ups and hangs are the simplest exercises to mimic climbing when you cannot actually climb. Pull-ups should be done palm forward so that the arms and the back are involved in the pulling motion. Pull-ups can be done in multiple ways to benefit different climbing skills.
Start with basic pull-ups: pull up in one steady motion and gradually lower yourself down. This is a basic strength training exercise. Once you have this down, try explosive pull-ups where you pull yourself up rapidly, as quickly as you can control, and then lower yourself down slowly. These train the quick, explosive strength required for more difficult bouldering and on-rope climbs. The last type of pull-up is to pull up on the bar until your arms are at a right angle, then hold that position for as long as possible. This trains lock-off strength and breathing under pressure. A pull-up bar isn't standard equipment for every living room, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be. Easy to install and sturdy pull-up bars are available.
I suggest you put the pull-up bar in a decently well-traveled doorway, such as into and out of the kitchen or your bedroom, and make a pledge to do one pull-up every time you travel through that doorway! Mine is mounted in my kitchen which makes me pay a pull-up tax for every snack I grab.
Don't go overboard with the pull-ups though. A general rule of thumb for climbers is that if you can do 20 pull-ups in a row, without resting, then you can stop training them. After 20, you'll actually get more benefit out of hanging and training the muscles and endurance reserves that contribute to grip strength. Hanging on a bar gets boring though, so I suggest putting up a hang board in your home! Hang boards are cheap, easy to install, and can really help you take your climbing to the next level. Notice that 2-finger pocket move at the gym is killing you? Train for that move at home! Same with pinches or slopers, which are traditionally very difficult grips to get used to. If you're interested in putting a hang board up in your home, I recommend getting the Metolius Wood Grips Compact Training Board. It has a warm wood finish so it fits in a home setting better than a bright plastic hang-board and comes with training instructions and mounting equipment. Hanging a hang board in your home is akin to bringing a small part of the climbing gym home with you.
Training Goal: Core Muscles
- 10 leg lifts every week
- 50 crunches every week
- Increased ability to control your lower body during overhanging climbing
Leg Lifts and Crunches
If you've ever climbed a route that is overhanging, you'll know that the second (sometimes even the first) most used muscle group is actually your core. Core exercises are easy to do at home and require no additional equipment. I recommend two simple exercises, leg lifts, and crunches.
Leg lifts are easy to describe but hard to do. Lay down on the floor (lay on a towel or other padding if you're on a hard floor), and place your hands underneath your butt. Now focus on slowly lifting your straight legs into the air in a controlled motion. Your back should remain straight and against the floor and your legs should remain as straight as possible. Once your legs are pointing straight up into the air, take a breath, relax for a moment, then lower your legs back down. Now do this 10 times. The goal of this exercise is not speed, but control. It will strengthen the same muscle group you use to pull yourself back towards the wall when your feet cut out from under you on an overhanging climb.
Crunches are, well, crunches. Everyone knows them and everyone hates them. They are still one of the best and easiest staple exercises for strengthening your core. The best experience I've had with crunches is when I do them like this: Lay a towel or cushion on the floor to support and protect your back. Now lift your legs off the ground and bend at the knees so that your legs form a right angle between your lower leg and upper leg and another right angle between your upper leg and your torso. Hold your legs in that position. Now place your hands behind your head, fingertips on the back of your head to support it, and crunch your core together to lift your upper body into the air. Your back should remain straight throughout the entire movement. Do this 10-20 times per set with rests in between sets. This exercise is best done during commercial breaks while watching TV. It doesn't take much time but has the potential to really strengthen your core muscles.
Training Goal: Push-ups
- 55 push-ups a week
- That's one push-up countdown
- Help prevent muscle imbalance in the arms and chest
Push-ups and Other Pushing Exercises
Climbing is mostly an exercise for the pulling muscles, such as the biceps, which leave the pushing muscles, like the triceps and chest, under-trained. If you only rock climb then you are at risk for muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances can lead to injury and generally leave you underperforming compared to what you could do with balanced strength. Check out this article by the Washington Post on muscle imbalance for more information. To combat this, many climbing classes use push-ups as part of the class warm-up and cool-down exercises. Push-ups don't directly aid climbing muscle sets, but indirectly aids them by strengthening the complementary muscles and helping to prevent muscle imbalance.
My recommendation, and the technique I used while teaching rock climbing classes, is to do a "push-up countdown" before climbing. The concept is simple, start at the number ten, do ten push-ups then take a ten-second break. Then do nine push-ups and take a nine-second break, etc., all the way down to one. In the end, this will have you doing 55 push-ups, but it won't feel as hard and intimidating as the phrase "do 55 push-ups!"
Take a moment to think about what muscles or motions could be undertrained by your current activity set. Every muscle group has an exercise to train them and by being aware of potential gaps, you can easily fill them.
Training Goals: Stretching
- Incorporate a stretching routine into your weekly workout
- Stretch before and after climbing
- Improve flexibility
- Help prevent injuries
Stretching is an important warm-up and cool-down activity that many climbers skip. Stretching can increase your range of motion and flexibility, directly enhancing your climbing ability. However, more importantly, stretching can help prevent injuries by preparing your muscles and tendons before use. Any stretching routine is better than none, and the simple stretches you most likely learned in high school gym class still apply and should be incorporated into your climbing routine.
Here is a quick climbing stretch warm-up for the muscles and tendons that control your fingers: Hold your arms straight out, palms down, and grab your fingers with one hand. Now gently pull your time fingers upwards with palms still pointing down. This stretches the tendons in your wrist that control your fingers. Now keep your hand palm down but gently pull your fingers downwards. This will stretch the top of your wrist. These are good stretches to do to warm up and combat fatigue in between climbs.
Summary of Training Goals
20 pull-ups in a row
Strength on the wall
10 leg lifts
Help combat muscle imbalance
Stretch during every workout
Improve flexibilty and prevent injuries
Train Hard at Home, Climb Hard on the Wall
These simple at-home exercises, when done consistently, can improve your performance and abilities as a rock climber. You can't always be on the wall, so make the most of your off the wall time and work in a climbing-specific workout every week. The results will show themselves!
If you have exercises you do at home to improve your climbing or enjoyed some of these simple tips, please leave a comment below and start a conversation! I hope you're motivated to work out at home and climb harder than ever before! From one climber to another, climb on.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Zac on January 19, 2018:
All muscles pull, none of them "push"
person on December 27, 2017:
thank you sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much! this really helped me out.
John Himics (author) from Newark DE on September 07, 2014:
Thank you for your kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed the exercise and it felt good! Keep on climbing!
Ana Maria Orantes from Miami Florida on August 14, 2014:
I like your hub on rock climbing. It is an excellent exercise for the entire body. I tried the hanging exercises at home . Exactly, the way you mention on the article . After doing it. It feels great.Thank you for writing a positive hub with the unique purpose of helping every body. Congratulations for your nomination.