A few of the country’s top climbing coaches explain common errors and misconceptions surrounding weight training.
On the lifting:climbing spectrum, we have a couple of extremes. In one camp we have gym rats who live for the gains but also happen to do a little climbing. In the other, we have climbers who will begrudgingly pick up a dumbbell only if you promise them it’ll bump their red-point grade up a letter. But what do the experts suggest?
“I wouldn’t say that because you’re a strong weight lifter you’ll be a strong climber,” says Justen Sjong, the Boulder-based coach. “But if you’re a great climber, I think it’s foolish not to incorporate some kind of weight training into your climbing.”
Strength training shouldn’t replace your projecting sessions or your hang boarding routine—beefy lats won’t do you much good if your fingers can’t keep you on the wall—but if you want to avoid injury and maintain base-level fitness, consider integrating some resistance training into your overall plan.
Let’s start by debunking some myths.
Weight lifting will make you worse at climbing.
“Climbers say they don’t need to resistance train—they just need to climb,” says Bechtel. “But you hear that from every athlete in every sport, from skiing to basketball to badminton, and that mentality is how people get hung up and plateaued.”
Plus, strength training can be an effective injury-prevention measure, especially in light of the recent hang-boarding craze.
“Everybody’s fingers are getting really strong, which leads to a lot of shoulders blowing out,” Sjong says. “Fingers are latching on but the shoulder girdle isn’t able to support the load.” Exercises targeting muscles around the wrists, knees and shoulders can go a long way toward avoiding season-shortening injuries.
Weight lifting is key to sending your project.
Rob Shaul, who has been training athletes at MTI for about a decade, says the transfer of traditional gym-based training to outdoor rock and ice performance has been, in his experience, negligible. While he does recommend general endurance work, strength training and core work during the off-season as a base upon which to build more specific fitness (and for the reasons detailed above), he tends to ditch the traditional gym rat stuff on the cusp of send season. In the weeks before tackling a big project, his athletes increase their time on the climbing wall as well as the system board and campus board, spending a minute at a time hanging with a minute or two of rest in between.
Low reps will make you huge.
Legend has it that big weight and low reps will inflate muscle mass while high reps with lower weight will simply tone what’s already there. Bechtel says this isn’t necessarily the case.
“What’s the first thing you’d say when I ask you about a cyclist’s physiology?” Bechtel asks. “Big legs. And they do more reps than anybody.”
As usual, the real benefit lies somewhere in between. Work with enough weight that you can only do three to five reps per round. That’s the type of load that triggers metabolic change and real improvement, says Bechtel. High reps at low weight will just make you tired.
Puking means it was a good workout.
“The first mistake I see people making is in how they measure success,” says Bechtel. He contrasts an athlete’s reaction to a new red point (“Wow, that flowed so effortlessly. What a great day.”) to an athlete’s reaction to a short workout (“Wow, that required so little effort. What a wasted day.”)
“Fitness is a result of what you did, not how you felt,” he says. Unless you can track and measure your progress from one week to the next, focusing solely on how taxed a workout made you feel is a waste of time.
Becoming a weight lifter is all or nothing.
Rest is important, and weight training is effective in small doses. If you’re a creature of habit, try just two 40-minute sessions every week. “That should be enough as long as the intensity is there,” says Bechtel.
For those loath to hit the gym regularly, Sjong recommends sprinkling six two-week sessions throughout the year, whenever you can fit them in. That means during your off-season, the periods you can’t get out to the crag or climbing gym, or whenever life get stressful.
“If your life is mentally taxing, and you don’t have the mental energy to perform climbing, go lift some weights. If you climb while stressed, you’ll create this negative cycle related to your climbing, and you’ll become disappointed,” says Sjong. “Weight lifting is a productive alternative.”
You need a “leg day.”
According to Bechtel, finger work alone isn’t enough for the kind of whole-body hormonal response that kicks muscle production into gear, mainly because there’s so little muscle in the fingers.
“What we’re seeing is that the hormonal responses that come with heavy weight training—like doing squats or deadlifts—can benefit our finger strength through this back-door metabolic stimulus,” Bechtel says.
According to Shaul, integrating a hang boarding or bouldering/boarding session with sprints, squats or other general-fitness work maximizes time without overtaxing the fingers.
To climb hard, one must obtain abs of steel.
“Most climbers engage their core at the wrong moment,” either stalling out mid-move or engaging after the body has already started to fall away from the wall, says Sjong. He recommends making a face or a noise to time a big move with an ab contraction so you can tell if you’re firing too early or too late.
Shaul says climbers can also better utilize existing ab strength by training the rest of the system, particularly hips, back, and shoulders. He calls his solution “Chassis Integrity,” a focus that incorporates whole-core exercises like sandbag getups (think Turkish getup but with a 40-pound sandbag instead of an extended dumbbell).
You need to find a routine and stick to it.
“Be open-minded and explore. That’s the most important thing,” says Sjong. One routine might be enough to carry you over the 5.12 threshold, but sticking only to that will likely plateau you before you can reach 5.13.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect plan,” says Sjong. “Keep trying new things. The goal should be to keep changing, and changing for the better.”
Looking for a refresher on climbing? Find a climbing course at your local REI!