Strength and Conditioning for Climbing and Bouldering
Climbing is a complex skill-based sport. Without climbing regularly and developing movement skills, strong fingers, tactical skills, mental skills, knowledge and experience you will not become a good climber. But as we all know, this is not the whole picture.
All of us who climb regularly come up against our physical limitations on routes and problems. Climbers will often attribute these limitations to not enough endurance or insufficient power endurance, or getting pumped too easily or lacking finger strength. Of course, all of these things are real and common limiters. But our tendency to separate out these things can lead us to miss the bigger picture – finger-to-toe strength forms the foundation of climbing performance. Indeed, strength is the foundation of all athletic performance, whatever your sport. Even if we are the most efficient mover on rock on the planet, if we’re not strong enough to hold the positions, we will fall off.
Strength and conditioning for climbing and bouldering aims to address this by developing a foundation of all-body strength and power, mobility and injury resistance that allows you to build all the other facets of climbing on top.
Read on to learn more, and don’t hesitate to contact me if you wish to explore things further.
‘…having reached a plateau where it became increasingly difficult to push my level, I booked seven sessions with Sam. Five months on, I’m amazed by the difference, not only in my climbing performance but also in the way in which I structure my climbing sessions and targets for the next year.’ – James, 7C+ climber
Your questions answered
If you’re already a skilled and experienced climber, developing more strength and power can take you to the next level or push you through a plateau.
If you’re just starting out, becoming strong can give you a great platform from which to start developing your skills and climbing more and more.
Strength and conditioning for climbing covers all areas of the body and trains us to coordinate our force generation from fingertip to big toe.
In a comprehensive programme we will use weights-based compound lifting like deadlifting and weighted pull-ups, bodyweight-based tension exercises, hand and finger strengthening protocols, shoulder and elbow conditioning, endurance training, movement competency work and mobility development.
Simply, strength and conditioning will:
Improve your maximum strength and power;
Increase your training capacity allowing you to train and climb more, for longer and harder, collectively leading to improved and sustainable gains;
Improve your injury resistance, extending your climbing career;
Delay fatigue / improve your display of endurance;
Improve your physiological and climbing efficiency;
35 years after Jerry Moffat realised that pull-ups and physical training make you a better climber, this line of thought is still holding so many climbers back.
Of course, successful climbing is rooted in movement skills, tactical skills, mental skills, knowledge, finger strength and experience, and we all know a good climber who has never trained a day in their life. But climbing is an all-body physical athletic endeavour. Even if just 10% of your climbing performance was down to having a stronger back, stronger legs, a stronger pull-up why would you not want to gain that 10% to climb better?
Moffat and co were figuring out things for themselves, but the good news for you is that the intervening years and scientific research have shown that you can gain meaningful strength and power with as little as 1-2 focused training hours each week. You just need well designed, strength-focused training protocols, with consistent commitment to the process.
This is a widely held misconception that prevents many climbers and other athletes from even considering strength training. Simply, this is just not a concern.
It’s true that medium-load medium-to-high rep lifting does increase muscle mass. But very high load, low rep lifting doesn’t. The physiological reasons are a little complex, but principally it’s because adaptations to correct strength training are not driven by muscle growth (hypertrophy), but by changes in neuromuscular systems (how your nerves and muscles communicate and coordinate), musculo-tendon stiffness (how much elastic energy is stored in your muscles) and energy systems (how your body produces energy).
The scientific and real-world evidence is clear: strength training with the correct, scientifically-based protocols does not add significant amounts of muscle mass that are detrimental to power-to-weight ratio.1,2
Strength and power gains suitable for climbers can be made with just 1-3 short gym based sessions each week. In fact, depending your physiology, during the climbing season we might only strength train for an hour or two every 7-10 days.
We periodise strength and conditioning based on the needs of the individual, for example by doing heavier more frequent lifting in the winter. Unlike endurance and power endurance, which we lose relatively quickly, the wonderful thing about strength training is that done properly, consistently, over long periods, you don’t lose the gains when you reduce the lifting frequency. This is because the physiological mechanisms that determine strength and endurance are profoundly different.
I have spent my whole life juggling the demands of sport, outdoor adventures, training, work and life. I know just how tricky it is to fit everything in! Originally a scientist by trade, my approach to coaching is science-based, highly personalised and consultative – none of my athletes has exactly the same plan because we all have different physiology, different goals and different life situations.
I like to take my athletes on a journey in which we work together, not only to help you improve, but where you also learn about the skill, art and science of training and learn about how you personally respond physically and mentally to training.
After our first consultation session we build a plan from the appropriate starting point, ensuring that you’re sufficiently well conditioned for the programmes that we embark on. Over time we progress and regress exercises and programmes appropriately so that your strength and form is developed properly and sustainably for the long-term.
Training, coaching and programming will be a blend, according to your personal needs, of face-to-face coaching and/or virtual face-to-face coaching. Your personalised training plans are delivered and tracked using my web-app platform and we normally have contact every week, whether it be face-to-face, on the phone, or via email and messaging.
Every exercise I prescribe and session I programme is about giving you the biggest return for your time in the gym. You’d rather be climbing than in the gym, so lets make the gym sessions really effective and efficient.
So, if you would like to start getting strong for climbing or bouldering, drop me a line and we can make a start!
- STØREN, Ø., HELGERUD, J., STØA, E.M., HOFF, J., 2008. Maximal Strength Training Improves Running Economy in Distance Runners. Medicine Sci Sports Exerc 40, 1087–1092. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e318168da2f
- Rønnestad, B.R., Hansen, J., Nygaard, H., 2016. 10 weeks of heavy strength training improves performance-related measurements in elite cyclists. J Sport Sci 35, 1435–1441. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2016.1215499