Strength Training for Rock Climbing

Strength training for rock climbing is essential for injury prevention, longevity, and optimal rock-climbing performance. How you train on strength though, depends on your climbing discipline and on your goals.

In this blog I’ll explain the 3 different strength qualities, I’ll address a common misconception about weight lifting for rock climbing, and I’ll show how to plan your strength sessions around your climbing sessions.

Are you ready to dive in?

Let’s go!

1. What is Strength Training?

Strength training, or resistance training, is a way to increase your strength by using additional weight. This can be done with anything from free weights to machines, elastic bands, chains, and or body weight.

A common misconception about strength training is that it will increase your body weight, something most rock climbers aren’t looking for. This is not necessarily true. Strength training with the result of gaining muscle is a subset of strength training that aims to enhance hypertrophy (muscle growth). For this to occur, you also need to eat a caloric surplus, which your body will then use to build muscle. Thus, if you don’t train for hypertrophy and you don’t eat a caloric surplus it’s unlikely you’ll gain weight.

This brings me to the following point: depending on your goal, your strength training will vary. Each sport demands a different type of strength. A marathon runner will train differently than a sprinter. By the same token, the strength training of a die-hard boulderer will differ from the one of a sport climber.

So, what would strength training for rock climbing look like then? To understand that, I’m going to explain the various types of strength followed by which types are used for which climbing discipline.

2. Which Types of Strength are Necessary for Rock Climbing?

Strength has 3 different qualities, maximum strength, power, and muscular endurance. Each of these is relevant for rock climbing. However, it depends on your discipline and on the route/problem you’re climbing which strength quality is dominant. Below I explain the strength qualities in more detail.

2.1 Maximum Strength

Maximum strength is defined by the maximum force your nervous system can generate and is expressed by the maximum weight you can do one repetition of an exercise with. This is called the 1 Repetition Maximum (1RM). Knowing your 1RM for the exercises you do will help you calculate the right weights and repetitions for your training. Maximum strength relies less on muscle size and is more a matter of optimal intermuscular (between muscles) and intramuscular (within muscles) coordination.

2.2 Power

Power is strength x velocity. Power has nothing to do with muscle size and has everything to do with how fast your motor units (the parts where motor nerves connect to muscles) can fire. Power in rock climbing allows you not only to make fast movements but also to generate more momentum to make far dynamic moves. It is important to remember that power can never be trained without a solid base of maximum strength. Thus, a power training phase is always after a maximum strength phase.

2.3 Muscular Endurance

Muscular endurance is the capacity of your muscles to sustain work over a prolonged period. There are 4 types of muscular endurance which each come with its own timeframe of work:

  1. Power Endurance (PE): 10-30 seconds
  2. Muscle Endurance Short (MES): 30 seconds-2 minutes
  3. Muscle Endurance Medium (MEM): 2-8 minutes
  4. Muscle Endurance Long (MEL): 8+ minutes

Now that you have an overview of all the strength qualities, let’s see how they are represented in rock climbing.

2.3 Strength Qualities in Rock Climbing

Sport Climbing requires the following strength qualities:

  • Maximum Strength: to be able to hold onto the most difficult holds and to be able to do the hardest moves on a given route
  • Power: to generate speed and momentum for the hardest crux moves on the route
  • PE: To be able to do multiple hard and/or dynamic moves after each other
  • MES: to be able to climb routes up to 2 minutes
  • MEM: to be able to climb routes up to 8 minutes
  • MEL: to be able to climb routes lasting more than 8 minutes

Bouldering requires the following strength qualities (all for the same reasons as in sport climbing):

  • Maximum Strength
  • Power
  • PE
  • MES (only on longer boulder problems)

A glance will reveal why boulderers usually spend more time on campus boards (to train power). And why for sport climbing it might be more beneficial to spend more time climbing routes or multiple routes after each other to develop different types of endurance.

3. The 4 Benefits of Strength Training for Rock Climbers

The 4 main benefits of strength training for rock climbers are:

3.1 Tendon Strength

Strength training not only leads to adaptations of the neuromuscular system, but also of the tendons. The tendons are the connections between muscles and bones and are stronger and less elastic than muscles. There’s less blood circulation too and they respond slowly to changes in load. This makes tendons prone to injuries. As things go, your tendon might start hurting today because of a change in the training load you made 4 weeks ago. Thus, the stronger they are, the more resilient they are against high forces.

3.2 Increased Strength Reserve

Strength training is an efficient way to increase your strength reserve. This is a surplus of strength relative to the strength necessary at a given moment. If the hardest move on a route requires you to be able to pull 50 kilograms with your right arm, the ability to pull 100 kilograms (50kg strength reserve) with that same arm will make the move significantly easier than when you could only pull 60 kilograms (10kg strength reserve) with that arm.

A rock-climbing route might have a crux of 6 hard moves, and a boulder problem might consist out of 10 hard moves. Besides that, to be able to do all these moves you also need the required technical capacities. The bottom line is, that to increase strength just by climbing is inefficient. You’ll be able to force more strength adaptations during strength training than climbing ever will.

3.3 Training Weak Points

With strength training, you can focus on specific weak points. Be it core strength, finger strength, or shoulder stability, you can target each specifically. Rock climbing will develop strength for rock climbing but the route/boulder problem incentivizes the moves you need to make. These moves are not specifically targeted at improving your weak points. As a result, weak points easily remain weak points. Both from a climbing performance perspective, and an injury prevention point of view, climbing a large variety of route styles will help you develop a more all-round strength though. Which in turn reduces your number of weak points.

3.4 Injury Prevention

Strength training is a great way to do opposition training. To do movements that are the opposite of climbing movements. Pushing horizontally, vertically, to train your lower back, finger & hand extensors, and training your legs. Balancing the strength in your agonists (the muscles that shorten during a movement), and the antagonists (the muscles that lengthen during a movement) reduces the chance of injuries. To bend your fingers, and hold on to climbing holds, you shorten your finger flexors (agonist) and lengthen your finger extensors (antagonist).

boulderer on an overhanging rock face

4. How do You Train Each Type of Strength?

Each type of strength requires a specific approach:

  • MxS: per exercise 1-5 sets of 1-6 repetitions with 70-100% of your 1RM
  • Power: per exercise 1-5 sets of 1-10 repetitions (lasting less than 10 seconds) with 30-50% of your 1RM with a focus on acceleration/speed
  • PE: per exercise 1-5 sets of up to 15-20 repetitions with a focus on speed with +-30% of your 1RM
  • MES: per exercise 1-3 sets of 20-30 repetitions with 60% of your 1 RM
  • MEM: multiple exercises in a row (circuit). For example, 6 exercises, each 1 minute with no rest in between
  • MEL: same concept as MEM but longer.

Above is how you train each strength quality, it depends on the type of climbing you do, however, which strength exercises are indicated.

5. Which Type of Strength Exercises Should You Do?

The best exercises to strengthen climbing-specific muscles are movements that aim to improve hip hinging, pulling, finger strength, and stabilizing the core and shoulders (in between brackets I describe which strength qualities are best trained with these exercises):

  • Finger Board (MxS & Endurance)
  • Campus Board (MxS & Power)
  • Pull-up & Variations (MxS)
  • Rowing Variants (MxS)
  • Deadlifts (MxS)
  • Kettlebell Swings (MxS, Power & Endurance)
  • Front Levers & Variations (MxS)
  • Shoulder Stability Exercises (Endurance)
  • Core Exercises (MxS & Endurance)

The best exercises for opposition training include movements that target the legs, lower back, chest (horizontal presses), and shoulders (vertical presses). Great exercises are:

  • Lower Arm Extension (MxS, Endurance)
  • Squats (MxS)
  • Split Squats & Lunge Variations (MxS)
  • Hyperextensions (MxS & Endurance)
  • Push-ups & Bench Press Variations (MxS)
  • Military Press & Dumbbell Shoulder Presses (MxS)
  • Clean & Press (MxS & Power)
woman doing dumbbell split squats
Split Squats

6. How to Plan Your Strength Training Around Your Climbing Sessions?

It depends on the number of training sessions per week you do how you best plan your strength training around your climbing sessions. In general, I recommend 1-2 strength (weight lifting) sessions a week. If you do only 1 strength training then focus on opposition training.

Below are 2 examples of how to plan your weekly training when you climb 3 or 4 times a week (ST = Strength Training):

Climbing 3x/week:

Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7
RestHard ClimbingTechnique Climbing + Climbing Specific STRestHard ClimbingOpposition STRest

Climbing 4x/week:

Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7
RestEndurance ClimbingTechnique Climbing + Climbing Specific STRestFree ClimbingOpposition STFree Climbing

Climbing can both be bouldering or rock climbing. An endurance session will differ though, between rock climbing (PE, MES, MEM) and bouldering (PE mainly).

7. How to do Strength Training on a Climbing Wall?

Strength training for rock climbing is best done by lifting weights because you’ll be able to enforce specific adaptations for your weak points. Besides, you won’t be loading your fingers joints with most strength training which reduces the chance of injuries. Nevertheless, it is possible to train each strength quality on the wall as well.

Here are some examples:

  • Power: 1-3 moves on a boulder problem that requires large dynamic moves or on a system wall. Focus on explosive fast movements. Repeat 1-3 times with 5-minute breaks in between.
  • MxS: 1-6 moves on a boulder problem that requires slow movements which you can barely do (redpoint level or above). Choose 3 boulder problems and try each 5x. Take 3-5 minutes rest between tries.
  • PE: 3-6 moves on a dynamic boulder problem below redpoint level. Focus on fast explosive well-coordinated movement. Repeat up to 5 times with 5-minute breaks in between.
  • MES: 4×4 boulder problems below redpoint level, or doing doubles on a sport route you can top out within 4 minutes
  • MEM: Doing 3-10 laps on a sports route

8. Important Caveat: Technique vs. Strength in Rock Climbing

I hope that after reading this blog you’ll be convinced of the importance of strength training for you, your health, and your climbing performance. Still, strength can never replace proper climbing technique and should therefore always support your climbing technique and not compensate for a lack of it.

Proper technique will reduce the chance of falling, enhance balance on the wall, and put less stress on your joints. Which all, in turn, reduce the chance of injuries. Something you want to accomplish with strength training as well. Furthermore, learning to turn your hip to the wall on a crux move might help you to send your project faster than (to do it without and) compensating by getting super strong on pull-ups.

The bottom line is that I believe that weight lifting brings unique benefits to your body and health and should therefore be done by every climber. Still, don’t make it more important than learning proper technique, and don’t spend all your energy on it. Walk out of a strength training session without surpassing a fatigue level of 7-8/10.

Joël Broersma

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

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