Skills: Getting an Early Hold on Climbing Season

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Skills: Getting an Early Hold on Climbing Season
By Nancy Prichard

An early-season climb can be a humbling experience: No matter how many moguls you mastered over the winter, that first afternoon at the crag can make you feel like you've been in hibernation. But climbing really isn't on a different fitness plane than winter sports. "Preparing for a successful climbing season is nothing new," says John Long, a climber for 25 years and the author of the How to Rock Climb series (Chockstone Press). "As you do for any other sport, you need to focus on endurance, flexibility, and strength -- with climbing in mind." Here's how Long and other experts suggest honing the basic three.

Endurance: Master the Ropes
To build the maximum endurance you'll need for approaches and multipitch routes, Long points to rope-skipping as the king of cardiovascular exercises. "Cycling, swimming, or running will give you the strong heart and good wind you need," he explains, "but skipping rope also fine-tunes coordination and balance, which come in handy when you're a few hundred feet off the deck." Long recommends skipping rope at least 20 minutes a day, five days a week. If you don't look like Rocky at his best, start with single skips, passing the rope under your feet once with each jump. After a week, take a few minutes after each workout to practice double skips. When you can do a dozen consecutive doubles, work them into your 20-minute session: Warm up with five minutes of singles and then start punctuating the workout with 30-second sets of doubles; ten to 20 doubles every three minutes is ideal.

Flexibility: Stretch like a Frog
While endurance is essential, you won't ascend anything without flexibility. "If you can't reach a hand- or foothold, you can't use it, no matter how big it is," acknowledges Eric Hörst, a veteran climber and author of Flash Training (Chockstone Press). The classic climbing stretches called froggies will help. "By stretching your adductor, gluteus, and iliopsoas muscles," explains Hörst, "you'll be able to keep your body closer to the rock, thus transferring the stress away from your arms to your more powerful legs." Start on your hands and knees. Slowly slide your knees outward, keeping your heels together and your toes pointed out. With your back straight, slowly push your pelvis toward the floor. When you're as flat as possible without forcing it, gently lower your chest to the floor. Hold the position for at least one minute and return to kneeling position. Do ten reps, twice daily.

Strength: Hit the Wall
Flexibility can make up for only so much of a strength deficit, so you're going to have to build climbing-specific muscle power. You can spend a couple of days a week in the weight room, working your shoulders, arms, and back, but it's more efficient to visit a climbing wall. "The advantage that modern climbers have over their predecessors is access to indoor climbing gyms," says Dale Goddard, former U.S. sport-climbing champion and the author of Performance Rock Climbing (Stackpole Books). Wall work on big holds strengthens finger tendons, which will help stave off injury when you're cranking on real rock. It'll also build the forearms, lats, abdominals, pectorals, and back muscles you need to defy gravity. Goddard recommends doing laps on the wall -- either continual ascents and descents, or lateral back-and-forth movements. Work up to the point where you can go at it nonstop for at least 20 minutes. Climb with control, allowing your muscles to tire but obviously not to deposit you on the mat. Stick to big holds so as not to prematurely exhaust your fingers; avoid moves that hurt. Limit your 20-minute sessions to three times a week. You'll be less humbled on that first pitch at Hueco Tanks.

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