How to Build Strength in Rock Climbers – Part 1

Most people have known me as Strength and Conditioning Coach primarily for Team Sports (Rugby Union and American Football), however, my passion has always been Rock Climbing since as long as I remember. So at present I have switched my focus to build strength in Climbers.

Even with Rock climbing in the Olympics it is still hard to get climbers in the gym to strengthen their bodies. I think it’s too easy to confuse a hard workout with effective training. In most cases that I have encountered athletes have little understanding of techniques and adding strength exercises to poor technique is simply a way of reinforcing that poor technique.

Looking at other sports can be a useful tool when it comes to knowing how to train climbers. the problem is many Athletes look at the wrong sports for comparison. Climbing is nothing like triathlon or distance running; it’s more like gymnastics. One of the most important lessons we can take from elite performers in sports like rock climbing is that there are no top-level athletes that just use their sport as conditioning for that sport. In this regard, rock climbers that don’t do supplemental strength training are about behind elite-level athletes in similar sports. This is evidenced by the fact that the best climbers of today can still perform at a world class level in multiple disciplines.

The proposed format for Olympic sport climbing will require participants to compete in all three disciplines – lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering, this means that as part of training power and explosive movement exercises must be included.

Understanding that a maximum level of strength and power cannot be maintained even by doing the most intense climbing does not contradict the principle of specificity but highlights it. The reason strength training must be done outside the climbing wall is because climbing’s multi-faceted nature doesn’t allow for sufficient focus on strength alone. When high levels of the sport are reached, training must become “partitioned” in order for the climber to advance. The hardest moves on rock simply cannot be correctly executed without sufficient ability to generate force.

The mechanism by which supplemental strength training helps climbers should be understood. The basic idea is that for any given move, a stronger climber will use a smaller percentage of his maximum strength. Thus he’ll be better able to climb with technical correctness and will be more resistant to fatigue. Elite-level climbers rely heavily on the ATP-PC (anaerobic alactic) energy system, the energy that is present and most-readily available for muscular work.  This energy system is the system by which the body fuels 10 to 20 seconds of intense exercise by using stored ATP, the high-energy molecule that fuels muscles, and then through phosphocreatine, which is quickly converted to ATP to further fuel muscle contractions.

This system is best developed by increasing strength and power. Elite level climbers don’t rely as heavily on glycolytic (anaerobic lactic) metabolism, which allows for quicker recovery at rest stances and better day-long endurance.

How much supplemental strength training is appropriate? Depending on the time of year, Climber should do between 2 and 4 short strength sessions per week. During a preparatory or off-season period, building strength is a priority. This is also called Periodization:

This is defined as the systematic planning of athletic or physical training. The aim is to reach the best possible performance in the most important competition of the year. It involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period. Conditioning programs can use periodization to break up the training program into the off-season, preseason, in season, and the postseason. Periodization divides the year-round condition program into phases of training which focus on different goals.

Many athletes train strength during the Autumn-winter only to see decreases in strength as they move into a peaking or performance phase. a plan must be in place on maintaining some level of strength and power training throughout the year.

Training that increases muscle size and strength can be useful but building maximum strength for minimum size is the most important training goal. By careful planning, this is straightforward. By avoiding hypertrophy (increase in muscle size), we create an increase in relative strength, making for a more efficient climber.

Another way of looking at it is that absolute Strength is the maximum possible force a muscle could generate. Maximal Strength is the maximum force that can be initiated in athletic movements, usually 70-90% of absolute strength. Finally, the Strength Deficit is the difference between the two. Strength training is the method of reducing this deficit.

In part two of this article, I will cover the specifics of planning and implementing strength training in a climbing program

References:

Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Fourth Edition: Greg Haff, N Travis Triplett

National Strength & Conditioning Association (U S )

The Strength and Conditioning Bible: How to Train Like an Athlete Nick Grantham

Training for the New Alpinism:  Steve House and Scott Johnston