Training For Climbing – Exercise & Endurance Tips

For top performers, climbing, like so many other sports, has changed dramatically over the years. With the advent of competition climbing and the accompanying sponsorship, as well as the sponsorship which now goes with the first ascents of major new climbs, climbers have started taking their sport seriously. With this attitude has come intensive training.

Even if you don’t aspire to being the world’s top sport or alpine climber, training and fitness make climbing much more enjoyable. The more you put in, the richer the experience will be. Along with the increased fitness and enhanced performance, however, comes the demon of training-related injuries. All too often injuries owing to training could have been prevented, had the climber been working to a planned training regime, tailored to his or her specific needs.

For those who take training for climbing seriously, and would like to develop a proper training program for themselves, there are a number of good books available which offer a professional, scientific approach to climbing training.

Directed Training

Beginners often ask what kind of training is best for climbing. Wolfgang Gullich, one of the world’s best climbers, said: ’The best training for climbing is climbing’. This is probably true, but most of us can’t get to the rocks three or four days a week, and have to make do with substitutes like climbing gyms, nearby boulders and our own training walls or ‘cellars’.

The Principle Of The Weakest Link

Many factors contribute to making someone a good climber for instance, finger strength, good footwork, flexibility, endurance, power, mental readiness, and equipment. It was once again Gullich who put this into words. Almost in tears after repeated attempts at a climb in the Verdon Gorge in France, he groaned, ‘Climbing is so complex!’ He had come to realize that he had put too much time into power training, a domain in which he was already strong, ignoring flexibility and fluidity. All too often climbers ignore their weakest aspects, preferring to work on strengths. This does little to improve their overall performance.

Try to identify the areas in which you need the most work, and focus your training on them. As you improve in one area, so another will require more effort, and the picture will keep changing. Proper training requires both self-examination and truthfulness. Locating, admitting to, and monitoring your strong and weak areas is probably the most difficult and constant battle in training and in climbing. With good training, your strengths will continue to support you and allow you to climb, while your weaknesses will gradually become further strengths.

All-Round Training

There is little doubt that most of your training and strengthening should be directed at the parts of the body that do the most work but, which parts are these? Before you say ‘the arms’, think about it carefully -virtually every single major muscle and tendon group, from the toes to the tips of the fingers, and from the buttocks to the neck, is involved in climbing. To train any specific group to the exclusion of the others is to court injury and failure the whole body’s muscle groups need to be brought to fitness in unison. Strong pulls need to be balanced by equally strong counter-pulls.

Cross-training has been found to help in most sport disciplines and climbing is no exception. Jogging, cycling, swimming, aerobics, walking and the like provide both diversionary exercise and general aerobic fitness. Sports like judo, gymnastics and dance promote flexibility and suppleness. Carefully planned weight training can help strengthen selected muscle groups and, contrary to popular belief, does not turn you into a huge, muscle-bound hulk! With the aid of a combination of these activities, you will build and develop a ‘balanced climbing machine’.

Rest And Relaxation Times

Totally ‘blasted’ muscles need at least 48 hours to recover completely. So, if you train to exhaustion, the following day’s training will be worth very little. Pacing your training to fit into your work and leisure schedules is vital, as is understanding recovery time during a single training (and climbing) session, as well as between consecutive sessions.

Understanding What It Is You Are Doing In Training

The body is in effect a highly-efficient biological machine. Like any machine, it needs energy, it produces waste, and it requires control and feedback to prevent it from acting up. its efficiency can be improved up to a point and, like any machine, it can be damaged by overuse or by poor use.

We each have a certain genetically-determined body form or type, and we can do little (if anything) to change the basics. Genetic factors determine things such as the relative density of your skeleton, your height, the amount of body fat you are prone to, the composition of your muscles, the absolute strength of your tendons. and your mental approach to climbing.

The easiest changes to bring about relate to weight (via a careful and sensible diet), and to strengthening muscles and tendons within your genetic limits which are, in fact, broader than most people imagine.

Improving Muscle Power And Endurance

Muscles consist of bundles of fibres, joined to ligaments or tendons. Each muscle fibre has a nerve which activates it. Muscle fibres are either active or inactive there is no half-way or half-strength in a muscle fibre it contracts fully, or not at all. Equally important is the relaxation of the fibre, which involves a complicated set of chemical and physical changes. This in turn depends on both genetics and physiological adaptations within the fibres, which can be improved by appropriate training.

Gains in muscle strength are made in two ways:

  • When there is an increase in the number of fibres in that particular muscle group.
  • Through recruitment, when more muscle fibres are activated to handle a particular pull.

Gains in muscle fibre efficiency (recovery time) are achieved by:

  • Increased capillarity, so that more blood vessels surround the fibre to remove wastes which are responsible for preventing the muscle fibre from recharging.
  • Increased mitochondria (‘powerhouses’), enzymes, and energy stores (glycogen) in the fibre which allow faster re-activation.
  • Increased aerobic functioning, where muscles burn food more efficiently in the presence of oxygen, and inhibiting waste products (such as lactic acid) are removed in the presence of oxygen. The alternative to this is anaerobic functioning, which occurs when the muscle does not have sufficient available oxygen to liberate energy from food -it is less efficient, and produces wastes such as lactic acid which are toxic, and which can only be removed in the presence of oxygen. This lactic acid build-up produces the burning sensation climbers often refer to as a ‘pump’ when your muscles just can’t work!

Muscle fibre improvement, in terms of both strength and efficiency, takes place in response to the stress provided by training. Regular increased use of a particular muscle group results in adaptation that is. the muscle fibres start to increase in number, and/or (depending on the type and frequency of the stress applied) each fibre cell increases both its storage of glycogen, and the amount of key enzymes produced. The number of blood vessels surrounding the muscle groups increase, and the amount of blood enzymes undergoes a change.

The training process takes time weeks, not days and you need to persevere to achieve results. It is vital to stress the body in exactly the right way to achieve your goals: for power, build on maximum recruitment; for endurance, maximum efficiency in waste removal.

The size of muscles is not necessarily a measure of their efficiency. It is interesting to note that, as a muscle doubles its bulk, its efficiency only goes up by about 50-60%, so large muscles aren’t always the strongest. Recruitment of fibres is more important and this is largely genetically determined. Of interest here, too, is the power : weight ratio (power is relative to the weight that has to be shifted), so lighter climbers can often out-perform big, hulky climbers. This may, of course, be different on long, steep alpine approach marches, or routes needing sheer power.

Of equal importance is the ‘use efficiency’ of the muscle – this is related to intermuscular co-ordination. Any muscular action by the body is never a result of the contraction of a single muscle, it occurs as a complex interplay between dozens, sometimes hundreds, of muscle groups. Training these groups to act in concert is what constitutes a great deal of training for climbing building up sequences of moves that use muscles fluidly and efficiently, and with just the right amount of recruitment in each to avoid energy waste or balance and co-ordination problems. This process is called building engrams.


Think of yourself riding a bicycle you don’t have to think about what to do next, right? That is because you have built up cycle-riding engrams, or patterns of movement that allow you to cycle without thinking.

In a similar way, training for climbing will help you build up climbing engrams which will allow a wide range of moves to be done almost automatically, with the mind and body only having to do critical minor adjustments to meet the individual circumstances.

The Importance Of The Mind

It is fair to say that in at least 75% of cases, a climber falls as a result of a mental lapse, not a physical one. Performance results from a subtle interaction between the unchangeable (like the rock or the weight of the rope) and the changeable (largely the state of the body in response to the promptings of the mind). Every one of us can think of days when things have just flowed when it was impossible to take a wrong step. This is the ideal state of mind in which to climb when your confidence simply flows, and you are liberated from any fears and misgivings.

At any given time while climbing, your body employs a ‘triad’ to make things happen: the mind (psychological component), the autonomic nervous sytem (e.g. breathing, digestion, heart rate, perspiration) and the motor nervous system (the muscles you control). These three aspects interact whether you like it or not.


In climbing, the term arousal is used to refer to the state of the body’s readiness to do something. The level of arousal largely reflects the ratio between adrenaline and noradrenaline, two hormones secreted by the brain in response to stress. Adrenaline is the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, which allows the body to override its normal limits of strength. In climbing, this override may be a good thing, but the trade-off is decreased muscle co-ordination, leading to a lack of the fine motor actions needed to climb hard rock. When you are hyped up, the amount of adrenaline in the body increases, pushing up your heart rate and breathing. Being scared pushes up your adrenaline levels, and increases power, but it also increases perspiration and reduces coordination. So, although being aroused may help you over desperate, chunky overhangs, it will count against you on a technical route which needs fine foot placement and tricky hand action. There is an optimal state of arousal for each person for each type of climb.

Controlling Arousal

  • Breathe – deep, regular breaths often help calm you, and allow you time to gain control of a situation. An amazing number of climbers almost literally forget to breathe on or before hard routes or competitions.
  • Use positive visualization – close your eyes, and see yourself successfully carrying out the series of moves that are worrying you. Feel the moves -the more real you can make the experience in your mind, the easier the route will seem.
  • Take the climb less seriously. So what if you don’t do the route? Will it make any difference to your life? Smile – even if it is only inwardly – and chuckle about it to yourself. Get things into perspective.
  • Promote positive expectations for yourself. Don’t think, ‘But this is the hardest thing I have ever done’. Rather say, ‘I’ve done many things almost as hard, and I am trained and ready for this one’.
  • Be success – oriented – don’t think of how you could fail; think only of how well you could succeed. Repeat as a mantra: ‘I can do this, I can do this!‘
  • Relax (de-tension) your body just before you start -spend a few seconds or minutes actively trying to relax any tense muscles -sit calmly, and visualize (and feel!) each muscle relaxing, from your toes to your head.


It is easy for injuries to become the bugbear of training, and of climbing. However, according to a leading sports physiotherapist, 80% of climbing-related injuries she encounters could have been prevented. How?

Avoiding Injuries

  • Warm up and stretch – every single time! Even a few moves with an unsupple body could start microtrauma – tiny injuries that normally heal themselves in a short time, but, if continually added to, can lead to a major tear in your tendons at some future stage.
  • Always start at low intensity, until your joints, tendons and muscles are ready for ‘the big ones’.
  • Be reasonable in your expectations it takes from four to ten years to train a first-class climber!
  • Stop the instant you feel pain or serious discomfort. Heed your body’s warning signs.
  • Beware of cold conditions – these can be damaging to tendons and muscles which are not thoroughly warm. Remember that pain responses are dampened by cold, thus injuries can go unnoticed.
  • If there is any inflammation, then stop the activity until it has totally disappeared.
  • Know when to let go – most injuries occur when climbers know they can’t hold a move, but still foolishly and desperately try.
  • Tape up crucial joints, such as fingers, knees and ankles, before they start to get sore.

Treating And Recovering From Injuries

Evaluate the seriousness of the injury. If you hear or heard a sound (a ’pop’ as a tendon tore, or clicking in a joint), feel severe pain, swelling or numbness, stop exercising totally for five days to a week. Consider consulting a qualified sports doctor or physiotherapist.

Immediate Treatment: R.l.C.E.

R – Rest: Immobilize the limb or joint as soon as you can, even if it feels ‘better’ soon after the injury this is probably the body’s natural pain suppression system kicking in and fooling you.

I – Ice: Treat it by applying ice or immersing in cool water to help reduce swelling.

C – Compress: Wrapping the limb or joint in a tight bandage or something similar also reduces swelling, and helps with immobilization.

E – Elevate: Raising the limb above the level of the heart helps excess fluid to drain and reduces swelling.

Long-Term Treatment: Rehabilitation

The circulatory system is vital in the healing process. Muscles heal faster than ligaments and tendons, as they are served by plenty of blood vessels. For muscles, each healing phase requires some 2-3 days; for tendons and ligaments, from 1-6 weeks is needed.

Phases Of Rehabilitation

  • Rest – this first phase requires that the affected part is not used at all.
  • After rest comes use – this promotes blood flow, but it must be done very carefully, and introduced gradually. Careful, non-aggressive movement of the joint or limb should be carried out. Stop the minute any sharp or continuous pain occurs.
  • Once the injured part can move fully and normally, then progressive resistance (loading) is applied to the injured area. During rest periods, heat packs can be used to encourage blood supply. Warm up and stretch thoroughly in this phase.
  • Re-training is the last phase -the injured part is slowly brought back into climbing mode via a progressive retraining programme, starting at low intensity, with many repetitions, and progressing through to full strength, with few repetitions. Don’t hurry this phase! Pain at this stage means ‘no!’ – go back a phase.

Beginning A Training Schedule

  • Establish your strengths and weaknesses, and write them down. Ask a friend to help you identify problem areas (and promise not to get angry about criticism!).
  • Decide how often, and for how long you can and want to train in the course of a week. Make a timetable.
  • Set long-term goals and targets: these may depend on the time of year you start your training (whether it is in or out of climbing season) and the type of climbing you are primarily training for.
  • Use this article (and any other sources) to help you choose a program to address your basic weaknesses.
  • Try to achieve a balance between training for power (short, desperately hard sequences of moves), power-endurance, and endurance (many far easier moves in sequence). Continue to target your weaknesses, but use your strengths, and bear in mind your long-term goals.
  • Set short-term goals to accompany your training program. Say to yourself, for instance, ‘In two weeks’ time, I must be able to do 40 leg-raises and complete the roof of the boulder cave on its easiest holds’; or ‘I must climb the 5.12b problem at the local crag on top-rope’.
  • Allocate activities to your program times. Don’t forget warm-up and stretch times, as well as cool-down time and rest periods.

Before Each Training And Climbing Session

  • Warm up – do some form of light aerobic exercise for at least 5-10 minutes. Try jogging, skipping, cycling, or fast walking until your heart rate is slightly raised. This should not be a go-for-it, frantic exercise you merely want to get the circulation going and joints lubricated.
  • Stretch for at least five minutes general stretching exercises are good.

Remember that good stretching exercises are mostly static, so don’t jerk or bounce the parts being stretched, nor force them to the point of pain. When you encounter resistance, hold the position, then try stretching just a little more.

  • Use a few moments after the stretch to mentally run through your goals and program for the particular training session. it is very important to prepare yourself mentally for training and/or climbing.
  • Tape up or brace any problem joints or tendons. Use elasticized strapping or braces on moving joints such as elbows and knees, and use rigid strapping tape for fingers and wrists.
  • Finally, if your training session includes climbing as it probably should do warm up for 5 10 minutes on easy holds before trying the harder ones.

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