Bored with bouldering? These climbing-gym exercises put strength and endurance within easy reach.
With close to 300 indoor climbing gyms now dotting the country, a challenging wall is probably as close as your town's warehouse district. You can improve your endurance, hand strength, and agility with the three routines outlined below, recommended by Chris Bloch, a four-time X Games medalist and former national speed-climbing champion. Commitment is the first hurdle. "To be a good climber, or to improve, you have to climb more than once a week," he says. These moves aren't meant to be performed sequentially. Instead, incorporate one of them—with the noted exception—into each of your warm-ups. And be sure to mix at least one nonclimbing workout into your week—Bloch plays hoops and practices yoga. Sticking to this plan, he explains, "will push you to the next level, whether you're just starting or already pretty advanced."
You're straining for that next hold, but you just can't quite reach it. Most climbers in this spot assume they have to lunge and pull themselves up using their other arm. "Don't do it," suggests Bloch. "Backstep instead." With your right (weight-bearing) arm straight, bring both feet up the wall to a hold. Keeping your left foot on the hold, rotate your left hip into the wall. Then stand up on that foot so it drives your left hand up until you can pivot yourself to that elusive hold. Now do it again on the opposite side. Bloch suggests practicing the backstep—a slang term he says may have been borrowed from skateboard culture—at least three or four times during your warm-up. Eventually, you should integrate it into your overall climbing strategy.
Begin on a route that's three letter grades easier than the maximum rating you can climb—if you can normally handle a 5.10d, then try a 5.10a. As you're pulling your way up the wall, don't grab the next hold immediately. Instead, pause and let your hand hover as if there were a force field keeping you off it. Stay in this position for three to five seconds—then grab. Do this all the way up the wall. "You're leaving yourself in the most difficult position possible," explains Bloch. "You'll be able to hang longer in the future, which is the key to making more difficult moves." Repeat the exercise until you can't go on, then rest, recover, and start over again. Do this three to five times. And don't forget that the lock-off is strictly a strength-building exercise and not a recommended climbing technique.
Strong digits are vital climbing tools, and Bloch offers two exercises to get them. First, practice on routes with smaller holds. "You don't always have to get up a route without falling," he says. "Maybe you can make the first five moves." The other shortcut to Spock-like pincher strength is up a campus board—a ladder that slopes away from the wall. The board builds contact strength—the ability to engage a hold with lightning speed and precision. Pull yourself up the board, rung by rung.Use just the pads of your fingertips, but position your fingers into a nice curve—don't crimp them over the edge of the board. "When you're on a 5.12 route," says Bloch, "it's really important that your muscles be able to move on to the next hold in a very quick manner." Note: Beginners should steer clear of the campus board until they have built up hand strength—otherwise they risk injuring tendons in their fingers. Also, don't combine this exercise with a session on the walls. "You should rest for at least two to three days after doing the campus board before climbing again," says Bloch. —ANDREW RICE
Photos: Erik Butler (of Chris Bloch)