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Fifty-three new climbing gyms opened in the U.S. in 2021 according to the Climbing Business Journal. (1) What’s significant about this number is that it represents the most openings ever for this type of fitness facility in a calendar year. This means that, as a personal trainer, more of your clients may be looking for climbing training. Here’s what you need to know to help them get ready for this exciting sport.
Rock climbing requires the use of many muscle groups. Some of the muscles stressed most when climbing are located in the upper body. This includes the forearm, lats, shoulder muscles, and biceps.
Core muscles are also important for rock climbing. Glutes, abs, and hip flexors all make up the core. Good core strength helps a climber keep their body balanced and stable when transitioning from one hold to another.
Muscles in the lower body play a role as well. Strong quads, hamstrings, and calves help push the body upward. When the hip flexors are strong, it becomes easier to manage high steps and keep your balance.
One benefit of training is that it helps develop the muscle strength needed when climbing. For instance, edging is a common rock climbing technique. This technique involves stepping on a hold with the edge of the shoe. Good leg and hip strength can help the climber stay against the wall and keep them balanced. The side pull is another climbing technique. A strong upper body helps the climber pull their body to the side with greater ease.
Training also helps climbers develop better grip strength and finger strength. When rock climbing, the holds are sometimes small. Having greater strength in the hands enables the climber to keep hold of these ledges while moving up or to the side.
Working with clients who engage in rock climbing can also help prevent or correct muscle imbalance issues. This requires working both agonist and antagonist muscles. For example, climbers rely on their biceps to help pull themselves upward. Working this muscle makes the upward movement easier. But strengthening their triceps is important too as it helps keep balance in their upper arms. One consequence of muscle imbalance is an increased injury risk. If the opposing muscles don’t have enough strength, an injury can occur.
Training can also aid in injury prevention in other ways. Sprains are a common rock climbing injury, accounting for 26% of the emergency room visits made by climbers between 2008 and 2016. (2) A sprain is a stretched or torn ligament and studies have long shown that strength training helps make ligaments stronger. (3) This increased strength can help protect against stretches and tears.
If the client wants to improve their climbing performance, training can assist with this as well. Research indicates that increased finger strength is one of the main factors associated with better climbing ability. (4) So, adding this type of exercise to their workout program can help them reach this goal.
Another benefit of training is that it helps climbers build the endurance needed for this sport. Better power endurance means that they’re able to contract their muscles for extended periods with little reduction in efficiency. Greater muscle endurance is especially important if they want to become an elite climber. Case in point: one study found that elite climbers have greater arm endurance than climbers ranked as advanced. (5)
If you’re not familiar with rock climbing, it helps to know that this sport is not the same as bouldering—even though they sound very similar. What’s the difference?
When rock climbing, the climber has some level of protection via ropes and other protective gear. Individuals engaged in bouldering don’t use these types of devices. It’s just them versus the wall.
Another difference is that rock climbers typically climb higher than a boulderer. Therefore, they benefit from having more endurance. Bouldering relies more on strength, which changes the focus when training.
What type of training plan can be beneficial for clients who climb? One that includes endurance training, strength training, and balance exercises.
The main point of this type of training is to boost power endurance, or the ability of the muscle to contract for long periods. Well-known climbing trainer Steve Bechtel talks about this topic extensively in his book Climb Strong: Power Endurance: Fatigue Management for Rock Climbing.
Climbers can build their muscular endurance by using a hangboard. Also called a fingerboard, the hangboard has numerous channels that the climber can hold to hang for designated amounts of time using different grips. Using a hangboard helps build endurance in the upper body, also boosting finger and grip strength.
Climbing intervals are another way to improve anaerobic endurance. Like other types of interval training, this involves alternating periods of more intense climbing with short periods of rest.
Several strength training exercises are helpful for a rock climber. These make the muscles stronger so they can better support rock climbing techniques. If they’re done quickly, they even help build muscular endurance.
Pull-ups, benches, and rows are good exercises for boosting upper body strength. Push-ups and planks contribute to greater core strength. The squat, lunge, and calf raise increase strength in the lower body.
Bechtel recommends that climbers use four basic movements in each weight training session (6):
Upper body pull exercise (row, pull-up, lat pulldown)
Upper body press exercise (bench press, overhead press, push-up)
Lower body multi-joint exercise (lunge, single-leg squat, jump squat, step-ups)
Hip hinge or posterior change exercise (deadlift, kettlebell swing)
The third component of a complete rock climbing program is balance exercises. Without good balance, the climber will struggle to stay on the wall. Poor balance also makes it more difficult to execute common climbing techniques.
Planks, single-leg stands, and tandem walking, also known as tightrope walking, can help improve balance. Exercises performed on a Bosu ball promote better balance as well.
Here’s an example of a climbing workout that includes endurance, strength, and balance training:
Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes with light cardio activity such as jogging, jumping jacks, or side steps
Endurance: complete 5-8 climbing intervals, alternating between 90 seconds of high-intensity climbing and 30 seconds of rest (another cardio exercise can be substituted if a wall isn’t available)
Strength training: do 8-10 reps of one exercise from each of the four categories of strength exercises (pulls, presses, multi-joint movements, and hip hinge or posterior chain)
Balance: perform two balance exercises, such as holding a single leg stand for 15 to 30 seconds on each side followed by tandem walking across the room and back
Cool down for 5 minutes
Another option is to separate each of the three main components of the training so the client isn’t doing them all on the same day. Here’s what this type of program might look like:
Monday: climbing session
Tuesday: strength training and balance exercises
Wednesday: endurance training
Thursday: rest day
Friday: climbing session
Saturday: strength training and balance exercises
Sunday: endurance training
If you live in an area where your client can climb outdoors, you may decide to offer training in these areas. Ensure that the client has their protective gear for the endurance portion of the climbing session. You might also keep a set of gear handy in case they forget theirs.
When training on an actual rock wall isn’t an option, training at a climbing gym can help your client work on their technique while building endurance and strength. Have them perform the endurance portion of the training on a climbing wall. The rest of the exercises can be done on the side or in an adjoining gym area.
Want to learn more ways to help your clients build endurance, strength, power, and speed? All of these topics are covered in ISSA’s Strength & Conditioning Coach certification program. This certification is offered 100% online and covers everything from how to conduct strength and conditioning assessments to effective program design.
ISSA's Strength and Conditioning course bridges the gap between science and application by giving students the "how" of helping athletes achieve any sport-related goal. With this course, not only will you learn the exercise science behind strength and conditioning, but exactly how to create the perfect training program for any athlete. Further, it offers one of the only accredited exams in the strength and conditioning space, making you a hot commodity to any employer.
Gyms and trends 2021. Climbing Business Journal. (2022, February 15). Retrieved November 16, 2022, from https://www.climbingbusinessjournal.com/gyms-and-trends-2021/
Buzzacott, P., Schöffl, I., Chimiak, J., & Schöffl, V. (2019). Rock climbing injuries treated in US emergency departments, 2008–2016. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, 30(2), 121–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wem.2018.11.009
Fleck, S. J., & Falkel, J. E. (1986). Value of resistance training for the reduction of sports injuries. Sports Medicine, 3(1), 61–68. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-198603010-00006
Torr, O., Randall, T., Knowles, R., Giles, D., & Atkins, S. (2020). Reliability and validity of a method for the assessment of Sport Rock Climbers' isometric finger strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 36(8), 2277–2282. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003548
Ozimek, M., Rokowski, R., Draga, P., Ljakh, V., Ambroży, T., Krawczyk, M., Ręgwelski, T., Stanula, A., Görner, K., Jurczak, A., & Mucha, D. (2017). The role of physique, strength and endurance in the achievements of elite climbers. PLOS ONE, 12(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0182026
Bechtel, S. (n.d.). Strength training for Rock Climbing (Part 2). Climb Strong. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from https://www.climbstrong.com/education-center/strength-training-rock-climbing-part-2/
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