Staying Power

Lasting longer, climbing stronger

Oct 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

"Training for climbing is actually a fairly new phenomenon," says Chris Wall, head instructor at the Boulder Rock School and certified personal trainer to climbers. "But because indoor climbing (as training) can be so fun, it's easy to overdo it and become injured. That's why you need to treat it like a weight regimen. Schedule work days and rest days. Come in, warm up, do your program, and leave."

Chances are you already know some climbing basics: Use your legs and feet, not just your arms; keep your hips close to the wall and your eyes on your foot placements; move with short, precise steps. These skills will generally keep you from looking like a suburban dad scaling a fence to chase kids out of his yard. But the following exercises will help you add strength and endurance—the keys to good technique. Combine structure with variety by alternating the emphasis every three weeks—the first three on endurance, the next three on strength; the exercises that follow are a few good examples of things to include in your workout, while technique should be a constant part of this routine. Aim for three days a week, an hour a day with breaks, or until your skill level begins to deteriorate during a session, making you prone to injury. If you can't pick up where you left off in the previous workout, you're probably not fully recovered; try switching your type of training, or give yourself another rest day.

Strength and Endurance

Warming up

"It's easy to get hurt at a gym because you didn't earn your way here by hiking two miles from the road to the base of a cliff," says Lewis, coauthor of From Gym to Crag. A good workout begins with a short run or 20 minutes on the stair climber, five minutes of sit-ups, and some easy traversing. Also, take care to rotate your arms, elbows, wrists, hips, legs, knees, and ankles through their full range of motion—slowly and precisely—as many times as your age. You'll avoid the dreaded flash pump—an Incredible Hulk-like engorging of your forearms with blood, rendering them useless. "A flash pump can shoot you down for an hour or so, and most people only have an hour," Lewis points out.


The opposite of endurance laps, training for strength is hard and brief, and may entail spending only 30 seconds on a difficult boulder problem or climbing once up a pumpy route in small increments with long rests. Don't be ashamed to rest, or "hang-dog," while on the climb. Variations: Start with a moderate route, and then hop on increasingly easier routes; as you become tired, the difficulty level will feel the same. Or, grab a partner, get on the bouldering wall, spot her a three-second lead, and play tag.

Conditioning for strength and power can be a delicate seesaw. Climbing mostly builds muscles that pull (forearms, lats, trapezoids, biceps) while demanding less of those that push (shoulders, pectorals, triceps). Moreover, muscles strengthen far more quickly than tendons, which can be prone to injury. To counter these potential imbalances, incorporate weightlifting exercises such as bench presses, shoulder presses, triceps presses, and flies.


Stamina is essential for handling the unpredictability of climbing outdoors--nasty weather, getting off route, etc. But gyms are predictable environments (central heating!), thus making them ideal places to build real endurance. Think of the wall as a kind of vertical treadmill on which you'll lay out continuous ascents and descents. The key is to find an easy route with large, juggy holds (they feel like suitcase handles). The route may be several levels below your ability, but that's the point. Tie in, climb to the top, have your partner lower you to the floor, but without touching down begin climbing again. Aim for five laps over 30 minutes, or until you attain a slow, deep-muscle pump. Advanced variation: Climb down instead of being lowered.



Hanging with your arm straight, rather than with your elbow bent at 90 degrees, transfers the work from your muscles to your bones. Practice moving through difficult sections of the route smoothly but continuously, and then pause where you can comfortably drop an arm. Corners and big footholds are great opportunities to hold a stance, lean your shoulders into the wall and shake out both arms. A lock off—a power position where you bring your hand up to your shoulder, taking the weight off your biceps and utilizing the pectoral muscles—is also a key rest position.


This involves extending an arm or a leg, or both, out to push against an adjacent surface. By applying counterpressure at opposing surfaces, such as in a corner, a chimney, or between two large holds, you transfer the force from your muscles to your skeleton. Stemming can offer an excellent rest, and also affords you stability in spans where the footholds are suddenly much smaller than they appeared in the brochure.


Not all rock gyms have crack climbs, but those that do offer the opportunity to practice jamming, an essential skill on outdoor cracks. Wedge your foot in at a slight angle until it sticks, turn for torque, and stand. This can be done with both feet, as well as hands (the lower hand works the crack with the thumb up, the upper hand the reverse), so that you ascend the crack entirely by jamming. You might also jam with your hands while using footholds outside of the crack.


Given a relatively modest incline, friction between shoe and rock can keep you planted right where you need to be. The key to smearing--pasting the toe and ball of the sole directly onto the wall--is to pull your hips out from the route, directing the force into the rock rather than straight down. Be precise, applying smooth, easy pressure as you weight the smeared foot. Now relax and trust those shoes.


"One of the problems with indoor climbing and bouldering walls is that there are so many holds it's easy to lose focus," says Lewis. "There are no limitations, unlike outdoors, where they exist everywhere. So it's up to you to impose artificial limitations." Lewis recommends climbing blindfolded, with your partner pointing out your next step (a great way to build balance). Or smear-only climbing. Or eliminating one hold each time you do a lap. Or playing Simon Says, with your partner directing you into pretzels. "You'll develop a repertoire of skills you might have overlooked, and which you may need on the outside," says Lewis.


In addition to From Gym to Crag, aspiring rock jocks can check out Freedom of the Hills (Mountaineers Books), How to Rock Climb! (FalconGuide), and The Complete Idiot's Guide: Rock Climbing (Complete Idiot's Guides), some of the best basic books available.

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