What are the Best Strength Exercises for Sport Climbing?

squat rack in gym

The best strength exercises for sport climbing are exercises that include movements from rock climbing. Among my favorite exercises are deadlifts, ATG Split Squats, Pull-ups, and Land Mine Rows.

In this blog, you’ll discover how each of the 9 best strength exercises adds to your rock climbing strength and which strength quality you best develop with it.

Are you ready to dive in?

Let’s go!

1. What Type of Strength is Necessary for Sport Climbing?

For sport climbing, you need maximum strength, power, power endurance, and muscle endurance. Each of these strength qualities requires a specific number of sets and repetitions of an exercise to be done. And a percentage of your one-repetition max (1RM) to decide on the weight you use for resistance.

You can use any exercise to train each of the types of strength, still, some exercises are more suited for maximum strength training whereas others are better for muscular endurance. Among the factors that influence the suitability of a given exercise are the technology needed to do the movement, the amount of weight you use, and its capacity for injuries.

2. The Best Strength Exercises for Sport Climbing

Sport climbing is a highly complex and technical sport that is impossible to reproduce in the gym. That’s why the strength exercises for rock climbing should consist of movements that are part of your climbing movement repertoire.

Movements that are part of sport climbing:

  • Pulling: every static and dynamic movement with your arms
  • Grabbing: every hold for your hands you need to grab onto
  • Hip Hinge: pressing your hips to the wall
  • Jumping: doing dynamic movements
  • Lunging/Single Leg Squats: drop knees and flagging
  • Pushing: rarely, but more often when climbing chimneys and corners
  • Holding/Static Body Positioning: staying in a position to prepare for the next move and/or to keep part of your body in position so the other part can grab/stand onto the next hold

In this article, I will focus on the movements that are part of rock climbing and leave the opposition- or antagonist strength training aside. The last-mentioned type of training, which targets the muscles opposite to those used in rock climbing, is important to prevent muscle imbalances and injuries. This subject deserves a separate blog though.

Below I describe the best strength exercises for sport climbing. If you’re missing your favorite core or shoulder stability exercises then that’s because they are, as the name indicates, stability exercises. Weight lifting movements train core and shoulder stability; however, stability exercises don’t necessarily elicit strength adaptations.

2.1 Deadlift

Best to train: maximum strength, power, and to a lesser degree: muscle endurance

Trains Climbing Movements: pulling, grabbing, hip hinge, holding/static body

I have dedicated an entire blog to why climbers should deadlift. And not without reason. The deadlift is arguably the best? strength-building exercise there is. If you learn the exercise right, you’ll be able to add plates to your barbell weekly. Remember though that your technique should never be sacrificed to add more weight. You don’t need to train at your absolute limit to generate strength adaptations. Weights “as low as” 70-80% of your 1RM done 3×4-6 repetitions are sufficient. This is true for all strength training.

The deadlift is a hip hinge movement that trains your entire posterior chain, from your heels to your neck. Furthermore, holding the heavy barbell in your hands requires a strong grip without loading your fingers. As things go, you do this enough during climbing already.


2.2 ATG Split Squat

Best to train: maximum strength, muscle endurance

Trains Climbing Movements: lunging, static body positioning

The ATG Split Squat was been popularized by Ben Patrick or Thekneesovertoesguy on YouTube. A Personal Trainer from the USA suffered from a battery of knee injuries that left him hurting and impossible to engage in his passion, basketball. If you’ll take a couple of minutes of your time, you’ll quickly notice that Ben can do insane things with his knees nowadays.

How did he do this?

He ditched the age-old belief that when you train your legs your knees shouldn’t move over your toes. This would generate too much pressure on your knee joint and tendons which could damage those structures.

However, nothing could be less true.

Progressively Training your knee all the way over your toes will actually help you become stronger in this position. The pressure in your joint has positive effects on your ligaments, tendons, synovial fluid, and cartilage. Something we climbers desperately need. Heel hooks, kneebars, pressing your knee over your toes to balance on a small hold, butterfly squatting while resting, drop knees, high steps, and I can continue for a while here telling you about all the moments during sport climbing your knee is fully bent while resisting high amounts of pressure.

That’s why the ATG Split Squat is a great strength exercise to train your legs and your knees in a position they encounter often while you climb.


2.3 Lateral Split Squat

Best to train: maximum strength, muscle endurance

Trains Climbing Movements: lunging, static body positioning

The lateral split squat is the same as the ATG Split Squat however performed in the lateral plane. This transfers better to rock climbing as you can only move up, down, and to the sides.

Because you move to the side your glutes will have to work a lot harder to stabilize. This is another great benefit compared to the ATG Split Squat.


2.4 Pull-ups

Best to train: maximum strength, power, and muscle endurance

Trains Climbing Movements: pulling, grabbing, holding/static body

If you ask anyone to name a great strength exercise for rock climbing, the chance is high that pull-ups are among the first exercises mentioned. Not only does pull-up strength transfer well to rock climbing, but the exercise can be performed in many variations to increase its intensity. If that isn’t enough you can easily add weight by wearing a belt that can hold weight plates with a chain.

With pull-ups, you train your grip, biceps, lats, and trapezius muscle. And remember to squeeze your shoulder blades down and together at the end of a pull-up. Something which is obvious in all rowing exercises but often forgotten while doing pull-ups. If you do a pull-up correctly, you’ll pull your chest to the bar and not your head over the bar.


2.5 Bent-over Rows

Best to train: maximum strength, muscle endurance

Trains Climbing Movements: pulling, grabbing, holding/static body

Bent over rows are a great way to train horizontal pulling while training lower back stability at the same time. Standing bent over requires great lower back and glute tension. Just like with deadlifts, once you have the technique under control, you’ll be able to increase the weights you train with rapidly.

With bent over rows, you train mostly the same muscles as with pull-ups but at a different angle.


2.6 Land Mine Rows

Best to train: maximum strength, muscle endurance

Trains Climbing Movements: pulling, grabbing, holding/static body

Land mine rows are a great addition to a weight lifting program for rock climbing because you do them unilaterally. You get into the same position as with a bent-over row, however, with land mine rows you pull up the end of the barbell with one arm. This puts great strain on your core muscles because you need to prevent your upper body from rotating.

This exercise is technically challenging so start light and work on your technique before doing anything else.


2.7 Inverted Rows/Ring Rows

Best to train: maximum strength, muscle endurance

Trains Climbing Movements: pulling, grabbing, holding/static body

Of all the rowing exercises, inverted rows translate best to rock climbing. Contrary to the bent-over row and the land mine row, the inverted row is a closed kinetic chain movement (you move your body towards a fixed point). This is similar to rock climbing.

You can increase the load of the inverted row first by increasing the angle under which you do the exercise. When you’re able to do multiple sets of horizontal inverted rows you can increase the resistance by wearing a weight vest or by simply adding weight to a backpack.

2.8 Finger Board

Best to train: maximum strength, muscle endurance

Trains Climbing Movements: grabbing, holding/static body

The fingerboard is both a climber’s best friend and greatest enemy at the same time.

Why is that?

Because finger strength is essential for rock climbing and positively correlates with climbing level. So, if your fingers are stronger, you’ll usually be able to climb higher grades.

However, since fingers are the weakest joints in the body they are easily overloaded. Definitely, if you’re a beginning rock climber (<2 years of experience). That’s why I can only repeat [name of Lopez] requirements for starting hangboard training:

  • At least 2 years of multiple climbing sessions per week
  • Minimum redpoint grade 7a
  • Ability to hang on to a 20mm edge for 15 seconds

If you do not meet these requirements, you’re setting yourself up for injury. Moreover, taking precious? which you could use to improve your technique.

[photo of hang boarding]

2.9 Campus Board

Best to train: maximum strength, power

Trains Climbing Movements: pulling, grabbing, dynamic moves, holding/static body

The campus board is the high-performance climber’s best friend. You’ll be able to train specific dynamic moves. And you’ll be able to elicit specific power and power endurance adaptations which might be hard to get otherwise. As things go on a campus board you can repeat movements easily to generate a training stimulus. Which might be hard to do on a climbing wall otherwise.

I believe you shouldn’t even look at the campus board before you’ve met the requirements for hang boarding. As a sport climber, you can do without a campus board until you reach a climbing grade of 7b+, perhaps even 8a.

And if finger training on a hang board leaves you prone to injury, a campus board training will do even more so. So, approach that beautiful piece of wood, where people do spectacular moves, with caution.

3. How to Design your Strength Training Session for Sport Climbing

A strength training session for rock climbing should at most consist of 5 exercises. I recommend combining hang boarding and/or campus boarding with climbing sessions. They both load the fingers, you best do it on climbing days to leave the other days for recovery. The other weight-lifting movements do not load the fingers. That’s why you can do them in a separate session. Do 1 or 2 strength sessions a week.

Here are 2 examples of strength sessions. You can alternate them so that you do all the exercises regularly.

Example A: Deadlifts, Pull-ups, Bent-over Row, ATG Split Squat, Lateral Split Squat

Example B: Deadlifts, Inverted Row, Land Mine Row, Lateral Split Squat.

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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