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By Kristin Reisinger, MS RD
It's approaching the end of February, been cold outside for months and another rock climbing season is fast approaching. If you're like me, you didn't get out on the rock nearly enough last year especially with all the rainy weekends we had here in the Northeast. Or maybe you did make it out but you didn't progress as much as you wanted. Regardless, you're determined to get your climbing chops humming in preparation for the fast approaching season by scrambling to the local climbing wall and you're finally going to put that gym membership you've been paying for to good use.
But where do you start? How do you maintain that great forearm and finger strength you developed on the rock and awesome quad strength that got you up to some really tough footholds? Easy. Training in the off-season for rock-climbing is an excellent way to maintain your climbing stamina as well as improve your sport-specific techniques by utilizing your local climbing wall as well as incorporating some great exercises into your current training program. And all this can be done in sub-zero temperatures without ever having to touch a rock!
Many factors come into play when developing a training program tailored for a rock climber. Strength, endurance, balance, flexibility and confidence all are integral components. Some styles of training are more sport specific than others while some exercises are standard exercises but beneficial to the climber. Let's take a look at each component and examine how you can incorporate each of these into your training.
Strength is critical as a climber. Sometimes increased strength can compensate for technique as a climber and sometimes the opposite is true. Regardless, strength is crucial in order to progress and get you moving from easier climbs to harder climbs. Upper body, forearm, finger and leg strength all work synergistically to accomplish this.
Variations on the pull-up are a great place to start. Instead of continually doing the standard wide-grip pull-up, try alternating your grips with one-hand wider than the other, close-grip, wide-grip and any other variation you can think of, simulating how you'd be gripping the rock on a difficult climb. Another great technique is to use a towel thrown over the bar and use that to pull-up on with one hand pulling up from the bar with the other hand simulating an imbalance between handholds. Generally in nature you don't find handholds perfectly matched like on a standard wide-grip pull-up so pretend you're on the rock and go!
Finger and forearm strength is also of utmost importance as a climber. Burning in the forearms and finger pain is always a setback. Therefore, developing the strength in these areas in the off-season will have a tremendous impact on your climbing once the season begins again. Exercises such as wrist curls with a barbell, hanging by your fingertips from a pull-up bar or cable-crossover beam for duration and using a gripmaster will all assist in developing strength in these areas.
Specialized equipment can also be used to develop strength in these areas. Climbing aids such as fingerboards and rock rings are increasing in numbers by manufacturers making training in the off-season much easier. They are generally available in the climbing gyms but can also be purchased and used in your home-gym. Fingerboards have numerous handholds and fingerholds on them allowing for a variety of ways to pull-up and hang increasing strength in the upper body, fingers and forearms.
Most exercises for legs will benefit you as a climber, as well. The squat is the prime exercise to develop the lower body strength you need as a climber to lift yourself off of footholds up to higher terrain. More specifically, practicing one-legged squats will benefit the climber for times when you only have one foot on a hold and you need to press off of it to bring yourself to another hold higher up.
Endurance is essential as a climber, as well, especially during multi-pitch climbs. In the off-season it is important to maintain a level of cardiovascular fitness by typical means such as jogging, indoor cycling or whatever you choose. However, as a climber there are options more specific to climbing that will help to build muscular as well as cardiovascular endurance that will benefit your climbing skills exponentially.
Bouldering and traversing at the climbing wall back and forth for duration will increase muscular and cardiovascular endurance specific to climbing. To make it harder, try adding weights to your harness or a heavy backpack to simulate the added weight of the rope as you ascend further up a pitch. This same tactic can also be used when top-roping. Try ascending and descending a route at your climbing gym several times in succession to increase your endurance. Add weight to make it harder.
Top-roping, like what you find at a climbing gym, will also give you the opportunity to try harder moves that normally you might find too difficult out on the rock. This is the time to make those attempts so next time you're out, you will have the confidence and agility to give it a try!
Having good balance and being centered while climbing is also essential. However, the best way to improve your balance is simply to climb. In the off-season when this is not possible, there are drills you can perform which will help you to increase keeping your weight centered above your feet and strengthen those stabilizing muscles that aid in the process.
One-handed climbing is an excellent technique to do so. Choose a route at the climbing gym you can climb comfortably. Ascend and descend it once and then do it a second time without the use of your non-dominant hand. Focus on the placement of your feet and use your dominant hand merely for balance against the wall. If you're feeling courageous, try the climb a third time using only the non-dominant hand for assistance without the use of the dominant hand at all.
Another great technique is climbing the route using any available holds for your feet and only the use of the wall itself for balance with the hands. This is a great way for those who have a strong tendency to muscle their way up a route to break that habit and develop better skills and balance in climbing.
One last variation off of both these techniques is to attempt the route while keeping the hands at or below chest levels. This is good to practice climbing techniques such as stemming and manteling as well as making your way up and over flakes instead of reaching for the highest handhold you can find and pulling yourself up. It also forces you to strategically find good footholds, thus, increasing balance and strategy development when climbing a route.
Lastly, there are balance-specific tools available in most gyms geared towards increasing your core strength and balance such as balance boards and balance balls. Both are excellent tools to perform various weight exercises on strengthening stabilizing muscles important as a climber. These can all be incorporated into your basic training program at your local gym. It's about time you put that membership to good use!
As a climber, flexibility also plays a key role. Ever try and reach that foothold that you couldn't quite get to because your hamstring was so tight? Incorporating stretching regularly into your off-season training program will benefit your climbing skills come springtime. Maybe it's time you checked out that yoga class you've wanted to try?
There's no doubt that getting out and climbing is the best way to become a better climber but sometimes that's just not possible. That doesn't mean getting rusty is inevitable, however. Rock climbing walls and local weight training gyms are superb resources to keep yourself in shape and get stronger for the next season. Put to good use, they will help you to develop your technique as a climber and aid you in becoming stronger and better. Off-season training will help to alleviate the fear and doubt that comes along with attempting harder climbs and is integral in progressing, even when the weather doesn't permit. And aside from all that, climbing is pure fun any time of the year! On belay!
Kristin Reisinger, MS RD, is a New York City-based nutritional consultant, fitness trainer, freelance health + fitness writer and musician. She holds a Master's Degree in Exercise Physiology + Nutrition from Columbia University and is a Registered Dietitian through American Dietetic Association. She is also a competitive figure athlete, former Galaxy competitor, avid snowboarder, rock climber and surfer. She has been competing for over five years and will continue to do so until she is 80. She can be contacted at email@example.com.