How to Train for Mountaineering

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This article is part of our series: Intro to Mountaineering

a tired mountaineer roped up and on the mountain

If you’re getting ready for your first mountaineering trip, then you absolutely need to acquire the necessary technical skills. You won’t make it to the summit, though, unless your body is also ready for the physical challenge. If your trip is led by a professional guide, the itinerary likely includes a few days to learn basic snow and ice skills. The necessary physical training, though, will take weeks or months of preparation on your part.

To quote from the comment section of someone who climbed Mount Shasta on an REI Adventures trip: “Train, train, train.” (Then you should probably train some more.)

This article includes strength-training exercises you can do, but more generally covers the elements of a successful mountaineering training program, rather than laying out a detailed plan. Your training approach must be customized for you and the specific mountain you’ll be attempting to summit. That said, these are the general steps you’ll follow for any mountaineering training plan:

  1. Assess your current fitness level. This might even include a physical from a doctor and/or an evaluation by a certified trainer. If you’re going with a reputable guide service, they’ll counsel you on the physical preparedness required and will ask you to provide a complete medical history.
  2. Consider the physical requirements of your climb. Mountaineering is essentially an endurance event, like a marathon. Think of it as extreme backpacking, where you’ll be carrying a heavy load, ascending steep terrain, gaining a lot of altitude and often doing so at high altitude. That said, doing a winter summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, for example, is very different from an Everest expedition, so assess your needs carefully and plan accordingly. Being able to climb at a steady rate that you can aerobically maintain without stopping, plus having enough energy and strength to descend safely, will be key objectives to your training plan.
  3. Decide how you’ll approach your training. Your detailed plan can be something you put together on your own with a minimal budget; entire books cover the subject, but the downside is that you will lack expert feedback and it may be harder to keep your motivation up. Or you can seek out a personal trainer to create a customized plan with regular check-ins. This option will cost you more, but you may decide the benefits are worth it. You will find a range of opinions on training, so work carefully to find a plan that works best for you.
  4. Develop a personalized training plan. Mountaineering requires multiple types of training, each focusing on a different need:
  • Cardio workouts to improve the overall fitness level of your heart and lungs.
  • Interval sessions to boost your ability to process more oxygen with each breath.
  • Strength and endurance exercises so you can haul a heavy load and sustain physical output for many hours.
  • Balance and flexibility training because you need both for mountaineering.
  • Hiking days to extend your training into real-world situations.

 

Mountaineering Training Timeline

a mountaineer roped up and on the mountain at high elevation

When should you start training for a mountaineering trip? Depending on your initial fitness level, you should start training a minimum of 16 weeks prior to your trip. For example, if your trip date is scheduled for July 1, you’ll want to start no later than mid-March; earlier is even better—to prepare for this kind of undertaking, you simply can’t start too early.

How do you incorporate rest and recovery in your training plan? A good training plan builds gradually. It also includes plenty of rest days—at least one day a week in all training phases. In addition, every 4 to 6 weeks you should have a week where the training load reduces by 25% to 50% to allow your body to fully recover. It’s also important to avoid injury by overtraining, which will set you back. So, as you train, you need to adjust your schedule (add extra rest days) or switch up training types to give sore body parts a breather.

When should peak training happen? Your training plan should peak about two weeks prior to your trip. The week immediately prior to your trip should be especially light to allow your body to recover. Your most important goal the week before you leave is to get plenty of sleep.

 

Sample Mountaineering Training Plan

  Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Cardio

Cardio,
45-90
minutes

Intervals,
30-45 minutes
Cardio,
45-90 minutes
Intervals,
30-45 minutes
Cardio,
45-90 minutes
Day hike focused on packing weight and gaining elevation Recovery day
Strength None 2-3 sets None 2-3 sets None None None

 

Cardio Workouts

Weight-bearing activities, like trail running, hiking, or snowshoeing are ideal because they also help build overall strength and endurance. Options like cardio equipment in a gym, or cycling and swimming, can be used to change up your training on days you need to give your musculoskeletal system a break.

Read How to Train Using Heart-Rate Zones for more details about how to monitor your cardio sessions. Your individualized training plan should include details about time spent in each training zone.

 

Interval Sessions

As altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases and you obtain less oxygen with each breath; interval training improves your ability to utilize oxygen. Intervals are a set of repetitions of a high-intensity aerobic exercise at a substantially faster pace than usual, with low-intensity recovery exercise in between.

For example, you might run four 1-mile repeats at a hard pace, with 5 minutes of slow jogging or even walking between the mile repeats. You could also run to the top of a set of bleachers, then jog slowly back down, repeating that four times. You can choose whatever mode of exercise you prefer, such as a treadmill, bicycle or elliptical machine, as long as you push yourself to a high level of intensity.

Read How to Measure and Improve Your VO2 Max for more details about how you can train to process oxygen more efficiently.

 

Day-Hiking Days

The goal is to build up to a hike that mirrors your most strenuous climbing day in terms of your pack weight, number of hours of exertion and anticipated elevation gain. If you can do this at a high altitude, too, that’s even better.

Doing a hike once a week is important to transition your training into the conditions you’ll experience on the mountain. Begin with an easier hike and a lighter pack at a lower elevation, then increase intensity on future hikes by adding distance and pack weight.

You’ll want to add more hikes closer to your climb date, but back off a week or two beforehand to allow your body to recover fully.

Altitude and training: Adjusting to altitude is a process that can really only be accomplished by arriving several days early and spending time at higher altitude. Your body needs that time to undergo the physiological changes that altitude produces. If you’re also able to train at high altitude beforehand, that’s a bonus, but not many people have access to a high-mountain area or a facility with a specialized high-altitude training chamber.

 

Exercises for Strength, Endurance, Balance and Flexibility

Exercises that target areas that bear the brunt of a heavy load on the mountain are key. You need to increase strength in major leg muscles and your core muscles, and to increase endurance in those same muscle groups.

Core exercises will also help with balance. Flexibility can be increased by warming up through a full range of motion prior to other types of training and by stretching during cool-down sessions. Some climbers also like to add yoga sessions to their training plans.

You can follow the exercise plan below, or use it as a starting point to develop your own routine. You should ultimately choose a set of exercises that you (or your trainer) feels will work best for you.

 

Training Exercises for Mountaineering

Keep the following in mind as you train:

  • Make the exercises fit your body, not the other way around.
  • If something hurts, modify the exercise or skip it—and take extra rest days if you feel the need.
  • Move at your own pace, going slowly at first.
  • Increase the repetitions or add more resistance or weight as your training progresses.

Warm up: Get yourself warmed up by doing an easy 5- to 10-minute jog. Then follow the guidelines below as you progress through the exercises in this article:

  • Inhale during initial exertion, then exhale as you return to the starting position; during faster exercises, simply make sure you breathe regularly.
  • Rest for 30 to 45 seconds at the end of each exercise (unless otherwise noted).
  • Do each of the exercises below one time in succession, then rest for two minutes and repeat another set of all the exercises (if you have time to fit in a third set of exercises, that’s even better).

 

Jump Squats

Squats are found in many training plans because they provide an excellent all-around workout for all of the muscles in the lower body and legs—your body’s mountain climbing engine. Adding a jump helps develop power in the lower legs.

Props: None

  1. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and then squat down until your thighs are at least parallel with the ground.
  2. Keep your chest up, your feet flat and your knees over your toes.
  3. As you come up from the squat, push through heels and explode up and jump a few inches off the ground.
  4. Land softly and quietly, and immediately go into another squat.
  5. Do 15-20 times.

 

Step Up Exercise

Ascending a snow-covered slope while wearing a heavy pack requires you to be able to take a seemingly endless series of uphill steps. This exercise builds strength and endurance in your glutes and quad muscles so you can keep chugging up the mountain, hour after hour.

Props: A stable surface, about 8 inches off the ground. If you have a training box or an aerobic step at home, you can use that. If not, the bottom step on a flight of stairs can also work.

Wear your weighted backpack when you do this exercise. Start with 10 pounds or so, then add a few more pounds each week until you get to about 80 percent of your anticipated pack weight.

  1. Start with your left foot on the ground and your right foot on top of the step; your right knee will be bent.
  2. Step up until you are standing with your right leg nearly straight and you are balanced on top of the stop; your left leg should be bent slightly and your left foot poised an inch or so above the step.
  3. Pause in a balanced position, then step down, returning your left leg and right foot to the starting position.
  4. Do this 15 times; then repeat the exercise 15 times on the other side.

Tips and modifications: Adjust the difficulty by finding a higher or lower (stable) surface to step on.

 

Heel Down Exercise

Mountaineers also need to be able to lower their body and pack weight under control. That’s key to preventing knee injuries and stumbles. This exercise works your glutes and quad muscles so you have the strength and the balance to do that smoothly and efficiently.

Props: A stable surface, about 8 inches off the ground. If you have a training box or an aerobic step at home, you can use that. If not, the bottom step on a flight of stairs can also work.

Wear your weighted backpack when you do this exercise. Start with 10 pounds or so, then add a few more pounds each week until you get to about 80 percent of your anticipated pack weight

  1. Start by standing on top of a step, balanced on your right foot with your left foot hovering to the side.
  2. Lift the toes on your left foot up, then bend your right knee as you slowly lower your left leg until your left heel is barely touching the ground or poised just above it.
  3. Power back up with your right leg until you are back to the starting position.
  4. Do this 15 times; then repeat the exercise 15 times on the other side.

Tips and modifications: Adjust the difficulty by finding a higher or lower (stable) surface to step on.

 

Single-Leg Deadlift Exercise

This exercise engages your hips and core muscles to develop strength and balance as you center your weight over each side of your body.

Props: A pair of lightweight dumbbells

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in your left hand.
  2. Centering your weight over your right foot, bend forward at the hips as you extend your left leg backwards; maintain your balance as you lower the dumbbell toward the floor. Do not let your hips rotate.
  3. Raise back up to the start position by squeezing your glutes; your core should remain engaged and your back should remain straight.
  4. Do this 20 times; then switch to your other side and do 20 reps.

Tips and modifications: Adjust the difficulty by adjusting how high far down you bend toward the floor. You can also use a lighter or heavier dumbbell.

 

Lift Exercise

Not all mountaineering movements are in a straight line, so this exercise prepares you to switchback up a snowfield, and for all the other twists and turns that your route to the summit must follow. It develops balance and core rotational power by strengthening your upper and lower abdominals and obliques, along with your glutes and leg muscles.

Props: A medium-resistance exercise band

  1. Secure one end of the band at ankle height.
  2. Standing sideways to where the band is anchored, position yourself so that when you grab the end of the band with both hands, there is tension in the band.
  3. Rotate your torso upward to the right, pulling the end of the band at an upward angle across the front of your torso; let your feet pivot until you are facing in the opposite direction with your arms straight in front of your body. Also rotate the leg closest to where the band is anchored slightly while pushing up onto the toe of that foot.
  4. Return to the starting position while maintaining an even tension in the band.
  5. Through this entire motion, your core muscles should be powering the movement. Your shoulders should stay square and your hips should remain aligned, and your elbows and wrists should also remain as straight as possible.
  6. Do this 20 times; then do the same on the opposite side for 20 more reps.

 

Tips and modifications: Adjust band resistance level by shortening it to increase resistance or lengthening it to ease the resistance. Your goal is to feel fatigued at the end of your reps, but not so fatigued that you struggle to finish them.

 

Side Plank with a Lateral Pull-Down Exercise

Mountaineering requires ropework, too, and this exercise works muscles that engage as you pull, including your lats and shoulder muscles. It also works your glutes and obliques to develop upper body and core strength to keep you stable.   

Props: A medium-resistance exercise band

  1. Use a resistance band that you can secure about 1 to 2 feet off the ground.
  2. Get in the side plank position with your head facing toward the door. Lie on your side and place your elbow under your shoulder and stack your feet one on top of the other.
  3. Hold the resistance band in your top hand and keep your hips, torso and shoulders perpendicular to the floor as you engage your abs. Tighten your glutes and lift your torso off the floor.
  4. Maintain this position while pulling the band from overhead down toward your shoulder, stopping when your elbow is near the side of your ribs. Be sure to keep tension in the band from the extended position to the tucked position.
  5. Do 15 reps on each side.

Tips and modifications: If this is too challenging, you can modify the exercise by crossing your top leg in front of your lower leg, or going down onto knees.

 

Side Plank with Overhead Press with Band Exercise

Another exercise that enhances your ability to pull on a rope, this one builds strength in your deltoids, upper trapezoids and triceps.  

Props: A medium-resistance exercise band

  1. Use a resistance band that you can secure about 2 to 3 feet off the ground.
  2. Get in the side plank position with your head facing away from the door. Lie on your side and place your elbow under your shoulder and stack your feet one on top of the other.
  3. Hold the resistance band in your top hand and keep your hips, torso and shoulders perpendicular to the floor as you engage your abs. Tighten your glutes and lift your torso off the floor.
  4. Maintain this position while pressing the band from shoulder height up overhead, locking out the elbow.
  5. The band should have tension throughout the movement.
  6. Do 15 times each side. Rest for 30 seconds between sides.

Tips and modifications: If this is too challenging, you can modify the exercise by crossing your top leg in front of your lower leg, or going down onto your knees.

 

Push-Up with Single-Arm Row Exercise

This exercise works your arms and shoulders so you can heft heavy mountaineering gear; it also bolsters upper-body endurance for ropework. The push-ups strengthen your pecs and triceps while the arm rows focus on your lats and biceps.

Props: None

  1. Begin in a push-up position with hands on dumbbells and feet set wide apart.
  2. Lower your body down in a straight line. After you push back up, row one elbow back, bringing the dumbbell up toward the rib cage.
  3. Return dumbbell to ground and do another push-up.
  4. Row the other elbow back, bringing the dumbbell up toward the opposite rib cage.
  5. Maintain a plank position throughout the exercise by keeping the body straight from head to toe. Do not let hips rotate; keep chin slightly tucked looking at the ground ahead of you.
  6. Do 10-15 reps on each arm.

Tips and modifications: If you are unable to maintain a stable trunk while on your feet, drop to your knees to complete the exercise.

 

 

Before beginning any training plan, check in with your doctor or certified training professional.

 

 

Related Articles

How to Train Using Heart Rate Zones 

How to Measure and Improve Your VO2 Max

How to Train for Backpacking

How to Train to Climb a 14er


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Contributing Experts

Naz Ahmed

REI Outdoor Experiences Market Manager Naz Ahmed has summited Denali, and is an AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) Single Pitch Instructor who has guided for Ascend, which trains Afghan women in life skills, mountaineering and more.

Samantha Van Gorder

This exercise plan was developed by Dr. Sam Van Gorder, a physical therapist based in Bellevue, Wash. She worked as a personal trainer while pursuing her doctor of physical therapy degree (DPT) from Duke University.