Stay in Peak Climbing Shape with 12 Easy Gym Workouts
It’s the dead of Winter, and maybe you live in an area where the dry crags are too far away, and the town isn’t cool enough to have its own indoor climbing gym. What do you do? Based on a small survey I created, so far it’s a tie between forgetting about climbing altogether and hitting the slopes or being creative with workouts at home or in the gym.
So if you can’t fly South (or move to a city like Boulder) and want to dedicate the winter to staying in peak shape for climbing season, here are 12 great workouts you can do in the gym.
Forearms and Fingers
1. Standard Wrist Curls: You can use dumbbells while standing or sitting for this exercise. Standing, let your arms hang at your side and curl at the wrist inwards. Sitting, same idea, but you can also rest your arms on your knees for support. In addition, curl outwards to work the top of your forearms. This will help prevent climber’s elbow (aka tennis elbow).
2. Wrist Curls with a Barbell: If your gym has barbells in varying weights, grab one. I usually work with the 4lb bar. With your hands roughly shoulder width apart, twist the bar one hand at a time, engaging the wrist curl. To make things harder, raise the bar out in front of you and try to keep your arms straight while you do each curl. Remember to reverse the motion so as to work the top of your forearms. I usually do about 20 seconds the first time so as to warm up the muscles and prevent a flash pump, then I go into 30-60 second reps.
3. Hangboard: Everyone has their own version of the perfect hangboard workout and if you’re thinking about buying one I highly recommend it (shop for hangboards and holds on Prolink here). But if you’re without one and want some ideas you can use weight plates or the edge of a dumbbell. Crimp the edges with an open hand and slowly lift the plate or dumbbell up and down. Another workout is to pinch the plate or dumbbell. With plates you can stack two together to widen the pinch. Hang the weights at your side or slightly in front and hold.
4. Rice Bucket: One of the more effective ways to train your forearms and fingers in my opinion. Not only is it a do-anywhere workout, it’s friendlier for your tendons when compared to the hangboard. You can even sit back and watch a movie. Read here for details.
5. Sacrifices: A great way to work on that lock-off power. Using a 20-25lb plate, balance the plate across your forearms and hold out your arms in front of you, not allowing the plate to rest against your body. Hold for 30-60 seconds, or longer, depending on your level.
6. Shoulder Blow-Outs: This workout utilizes 4 different dumbbell shoulder exercises: Lateral raise with palms out, forward raise, shoulder press, and reverse fly. Choose dumbbells between 8-15lbs (choose a weight you know you can finish all five types of exercises with) and complete 3 sets of all 4 exercises, 10-15 reps a piece. Rest for a minute between each set – preferably an active rest, with crunches or leg lifts.
In a great training article by Climbing Magazine, it states that “there’s not a single thing in climbing (or life, really) that doesn’t involve the core, […]” and of course there are numerous combinations of core-focused exercises that will help, but here are a few favorites.
7. Vertical Bicycles: Using a vertical knee-raise machine, alternate lifting the legs in a circular motion as quickly as you can for 60 seconds. If you want something more difficult, hang from a pull-up bar, requiring a lot more balance to keep yourself from swinging around.
8. Medicine Ball Twists: With an 8-10lb medicine ball (or dumbbell if you’d like), sit with knees bent and oscillate your torso from left to right, focusing on the obliques. To make things harder and to encompass more of your core, set up a steep incline on an adjustable ab bench. When you’re ready to go, slowly lower and lift your torso as you twist. I go until the burn is too much to handle, rest for a minute, then repeat.
9. Dumbbell Chest Press with Flutterkicks: Talk about coordination and balance. With this one you are laying horizontal on a flat bench. Flutterkick as you complete 12-15 reps of the dumbbell chest press. You can also mix this up with leg lifts (lift in unison with upward dumbbell press) and scissor kicks.
Back and Chest
Your back is a critical component to not only your arms but your core as well. As climbers we tend to forget to balance out the middle and lower back. I’ve had trapezius issues in my right shoulder from a backpacking injury. Because of this I have to remember to work out my lats and other areas to keep my trap from being overworked. When pumped out on the wall, you can sometimes notice climbers raising their shoulders closer to their ears in efforts to hang on just a little bit longer. The trap muscle is a huge muscle and its easy to depend on it, but it’s also easy to stress.
10. Lat Squeeze: Hang off of a pull-up bar and relax your shoulders. Focus on your lats and the middle of your back, tighten the core and make sure your pelvis is forward. Without moving your arms, flex your shoulder blades together. You can also do this on the floor: with knees and hands on the ground, slightly arch your back. Again, focus on your lats and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
11. Horizontal Pull-ups: Using the chest press machine, set up a bench far enough for only your toes to reach. Hanging horizontally, pull your chest into the bar and lower. This will help strengthen the muscles needed for all sorts of overhang!
Lower Body and Cardio
Your legs are a true powerhouse and the undisputed foundation behind every movement. It’s easy to take them for granted as focus is often all on the upper body. It might not be safe to say…but I’ve seen many climbers that are top-heavy with scrawny legs and no calves! Then they wonder why they can’t just campus the overhangs or why their calves are on fire after a little bit of slab climbing. Do you notice climbers whose feet are constantly popping off the wall? Maybe some attention to the legs will help!
12. Running & Cardio: In my opinion, running is one of the greatest forms of exercise ever. But of course, not everyone is crazy like me. But cardio is super beneficial to climbing, believe it or not. One cardio exercise I really enjoy doing is Super Sets, essentially a circuit of workouts you do back to back. For 30-45 seconds each, here are the 3 I like best: burpees with pushups, plank, and mountain climbers. What’s great about these workouts are that they work on strength and endurance at the same time. Typically 3 reps are all you need to warm up for all your other workouts, and sometimes for rep #2, I alternate from mountain climbers to a plank with side twists.
Take the Time
Since you are focusing more on individual muscles and routines, it’s best to take this time to make sure you balance those opposing muscles never really used when climbing. Besides those already mentioned, don’t forget about your triceps. And when it comes to recovery, proper rest, massage, adequate stretching, hydration, and nutrition, are all critical to harnessing the fruit of your labor. Here’s a great article about nutrition science and climbing.
If you need some advice on injury recovery and neat injury prevention exercises, checkout the Climbing Doctor for all of his latest research.
Do you like to workout to videos? Here’s my favorite calisthenics-oriented YouTube channel, with workouts up to an hour long! FitnessBlender
Looking for a great handboard? Try this one from Trango available on Prolink:
*Note: We are not professional trainers and these workouts are the ones that work for us, but may not be right for you if you have any injuries or special conditions. Please don’t be a dummy and do anything that you aren’t comfortable with.
By Outdoor Prolink Editorial Intern Sara Aranda. Sara likes to climb, trail run, travel and adventure and is spending her winter in Yosemite. Look for more blog posts and photos from Sara coming soon!