How to Return to Rock Climbing after a Break?


The best way to return from a rock climbing break is to slowly increase your training intensity. Start with warming up longer than you climb and start with lighter and controlled climbing before doing dynamic and hard moves. When can you climb at your limit again? This depends on the time you were away from climbing and what you did during your break. If your break lasted a month, two weeks build-up is paramount. If you were away for a year count with 3-6 months of graded activity.

Returning to climbing is awesome, but as you read, it takes time to do it right.

That’s why in this blog I discuss how to return to rock climbing after a short and long break. I discuss what happened to your body during the break and how to stay fit throughout.

Let’s dive in.

1. When Can a Break be Considered a Break from Climbing?

A break from climbing is at least a week of no climbing at all. A shorter amount of time is more like a recovery period from your last training, whereas a break longer than 1 week will allow your body to start refilling energy stores entirely. The time it takes to fully reload your energy stores depends on how intense your latest training period was.

I believe 2-4 1-week breaks a year and at least 1 longer break from rock climbing reduces the risk of overload injuries.

2. What are the Risks when Returning to Rock Climbing after a Break?

The biggest risk when you return to rock climbing after a break is in the fact that you mistake your current physical readiness for the one before the break. Say, you climbed 6c before you went on a break, now upon return you expect to do the same. This increases the chance of injury because you’re forcing your body to do things it isn’t prepared for.

3. What is the Difference Between a Long & a Short Break on Your Physical Performance?

The difference between a long and short break from rock climbing lies in the effect on your nervous system and muscles. After a short break, of less than 3-4 weeks, there will be no reduction in muscle size but rather a reduction in nervous system readiness. Meaning that you might feel weak but only because you have to reactivate your nervous system.

Did you take a break lasting longer than a month? Then, the chance becomes higher as time goes on that your muscles, tendons, and ligaments will reduce in strength. Your body always adapts and never holds onto things it doesn’t use. Thus, as soon as it notices you’re not using the muscle and tendon strength you developed for climbing, they will atrophy.

4. How to Stay Fit During a Break and Profit from the Benefits of a Break?

To benefit most from your total break from climbing you best refrain from all training during the first part. In the second part, you do light hang board exercises and strength training to use your climbing muscles but not stress them. This stimulates regeneration, maintains nervous system activity, and as a consequence, it makes the jump back to rock or plastic smaller.

Furthermore, it’s smart to ensure proper nutrition and mostly your protein intake. Protein and its building blocks amino-acids are essential nutrition for your muscles.

If you want to check what’s the right protein intake for your situation I suggest you consult the Protein Intake Guide at Examine.com. They’re my go-to resource when it comes to nutrition & supplements.

Finally, sleep is always an essential part of recovery so during your break this isn’t any different. Most of your body’s recovery processes happen during your sleep. According to sleep scientist Matthew Walker, 6-8 hours a night is within the normal spectrum. As an athlete, it’s ok to sleep up to 9 hours though. I always ask my patients how they feel when they wake up. If you feel rested at wake-up, and you sleep 6-9 hours, you’re likely to sleep sufficiently.

Below I’ll explain how to best set up your break to benefit most from it.

4.1 How Long is the Ideal Climbing Break?

The ideal climbing break lasts 1 to 2 weeks. 1 Week of no climbing at all and 1 week of active recovery to stimulate regeneration.

A little note on overtraining; if you’re in a state of overtraining you might consider taking a longer break to let your nervous system recover. When you’re overtrained, your body stops responding to training stimuli. You become progressively weaker even though you’re training the same or even more than before. Other symptoms of overtraining are a reduced appetite, reduced sleep, feeling depressed, and generally feeling tired. Overtraining is serious and should be treated well. As a rule of thumb, when you’re overtrained, take at least 4 weeks off. Don’t worry about what will happen to your body because it’ll always be better than when you continue climbing.

4.2 Active Recovery Training

Active Recovery training aims to speed up recovery by doing familiar, in your case, climbing movements. The idea is to never use more than 40% of your max weight, intensity, or if you can’t measure that, rate of perceived effort (RPE).

What is RPE?

It’s a number from 0-10 indicating how hard you find an activity. 0 meaning there is no effort involved, 10 indicates you feel you’re at your absolute limit. You can use this rating scale for yourself if you don’t have any weight or other objective metrics to relate to. Just be honest to yourself and rate the effort of your training. The more you do this, the better you get at rating your climbing intensity.

Great exercises for active recovery are:

  • Sub-maximal hang boarding
  • Pull-ups with elastic bands
  • Dumbbell and Barbell Rowing Variants
  • Horizontal and Vertical Pushing Exercises
  • Squats and Deadlift Variants (YES, you use your legs while climbing)

Do all exercises at low intensity, as I mentioned before at a max RPE of 4 or 40% of your 1Repetition Max (if you know this). Aim for 15-20 repetitions doing 2-3 sets. And for sub-maximal hangs aim for 30 seconds hangs for up to 10 sets with 1–2-minute breaks in between.

5 How to Return to Rock Climbing after a Short Break?

After a short break from rock climbing, it’s important to warm up extra during your first 2-3 climbing sessions. This ensures your nervous system is reactivated and prepared for the climbing you’re about to do. Still, do not plan anything fancy for the first 2 sessions, climb a lot but not at your limit.

Below I explain how to go about this more precisely after a 1- and 2-week break respectively.

5.1 1-Week Break

During a 1-week break, I recommend you just take a total break from climbing. A 1-week break is too short for any muscle atrophy to happen and your nervous system is still in climbing mode.

What does this mean?

Just warm up really well before your first climbing session and go climb as you like.

5.2 2-Week Break

During a 2-week break from rock climbing, I recommend you take 1 week of total rest and 1 week of active recovery training. Do 2-3 days of recovery training incorporating a mix of finger training and strength training exercises. Your entire training should feel super chill and you should finish with more energy than you started.

During your first climbing week assuming 3 climbing sessions the first week, start the following way:

Day 1

  • Warming-up off the wall 15-20 minutes including the hanging of different sizes of edges
  • Warming-up on the wall 2x40moves traversing on a boulder wall
  • Climb for volume slowly (so below your onsight level)
  • Go home after 60 minutes of climbing

Day 2

  • Warming-up off the wall 15-20 minutes including hang boarding on different sizes of edges
  • Warming-up on the wall 2x40moves traversing on a boulder wall
  • Climb for volume slowly at 30 minutes
  • Try 3-5 routes that are at your onsight limit

Day 3

  • Warming-up off the wall 10 minutes including hang boarding on different sizes of edges
  • Warming-up on the wall 2x40moves traversing on a boulder wall
  • Try hard – go nuts

Day 3+: your nervous system should be prepared for heavy climbing again. Never stop doing proper warming-ups though 😉.

6. How to Return to Rock Climbing after a Long Break?

Returning to climbing after a longer break, say, over a month or longer is a different ball game. Now, your body has anatomically changed. So, you might possess the skills to climb the level you did before, your body might not have the physical capacity.

A longer period of “graded activity” (building up training intensity in steps) is essential and should reflect the amount of time you were away from climbing.

Here are some rough estimates about your period of graded activity before returning to your redpoint level:

Duration of BreakDuration of Graded Activity
4 weeks2 weeks
2 Months3 weeks
3 Months4 weeks
6 Months8 weeks
1 Year3-6 months

The duration of the build-up after the break might differ depending on your climbing level before the break, and how you stayed fit during the break itself. Still, you should start slower rather than faster. Otherwise, coming back after long(er) breaks could turn out to be the perfect recipe for an injury.

Here is how you can build up your training level over a prolonged period. Depending on how long your graded activity period lasts you extend the time of each step.

Step 1

  • Never climb 2 days in a row
  • Climb 2-3x/week
  • Warm-up 20 minutes off the wall
  • Warm-up 20 minutes on the wall (traversing on a boulder wall f.e.)
  • Climb up to 30 minutes at a level where you can wait 2 seconds with your hand above the hold you’re about to grab. This ensures you climb slow, focus on technique, and below your limit. Stay below an RPE of 5.

Step 2

  • Never climb 2 days in a row
  • Climb 2-3x/week
  • Warm-up 20 minutes off the wall
  • Warm-up 20 minutes on the wall (traversing on a boulder wall f.e.)
  • Climb up to 60 minutes at a level where you can wait 2 seconds with your hand above the hold you’re about to grab. This ensures you climb slow, focus on technique, and below your limit. Stay below an RPE of 5.

Step 3

  • Never climb 2 days in a row
  • Climb 2-4x/week a week
  • Warm-up 10-15 minutes off the wall
  • Warm-up 20 minutes on the wall
  • Climb at onsight level. Stop climbing if your RPE goes above 7.

Step 4

  • Climb 3-5x/week
  • Warm-up 10-15 minutes off the wall
  • Warm-up 10-15 minutes on the wall (traversing on a boulder wall, climbing easy routes)
  • Climb with an RPE up to 9

Step 4+: climb as you desire. Make sure though, that you take enough recovery time between training sessions and alternate between more and less intense training sessions.

7. Take-Home Messages

Short breaks from rock climbing are a great way for your body to recover and prevent injuries. However, after the break, your nervous system is in recovery mode and needs some time to reboot. This is why it’s smart to increase your training intensity step-wise after a break.

Did you take a longer break?

Then your body has most likely adapted as well and your training build-up should take longer.

Joël Broersma

Hey, I'm Joël Broersma, a Dutch Physical Therapist living & working in Switzerland. I'm an avid rock climber and sports & movement lover in general.

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