Train Your Legs to Climb Harder

Train Your Legs to Climb Harder and Avoid Injury


Strength training for climbing has multiple benefits that extend well beyond your performance while on the climb and gunning for that next rest.  We all recognize the improvements in power, endurance, and mid-climb recovery, but what about everything leading up to when you step up to the climb and if you come off the climb?  Yes, as a matter of fact, getting in a couple days per week of resistance training, especially your lower body, will help you climb stronger and stay safer!

First, let’s consider a basic technique concept in climbing.  In basic “How to Climb” movement & technique classes at the climbing gym, one of the very first concepts I would tell new climbers is to think about how they climb a ladder.  We don’t hang from the rungs and pull ourselves up with our arms, instead we use our hands for balance and we use our legs to push us up the ladder.  The same, to a degree, applies to being on the rock or climbing wall.  Yes, of course we’re pulling and gripping and using our upper body a lot, but our legs are pushing us up the wall.  It’s why we always look for a foothold slightly higher than the one we’re standing on.

Second, let’s consider what happens when you fall while on a rope, or come off a boulder problem and land on (hopefully) somewhat even terrain.  The fancy term for what we need is good landing mechanics.  If you’re on a rope and take a big fall, your legs (again, hopefully) are what’s going to make contact with the rock face first.  Same goes with bailing or falling off a boulder problem, you’re hopefully going to land feet first.  Once you land, it’s going to be up to your leg muscles to stabilize your joints (ankle, knee, hip) and keep them from rolling, twisting, and popping. 

Finally, let’s consider how you got to the climb in the first place.  If you’re at the climbing gym, the approach generally isn’t too bad.  Outdoors, unless you are very lucky the approach is going to involve some type of trek or hike into the climbs.  There’s a saying I’m very fond of, that essentially states, “Everything in life is easier if you’re stronger”.  You have a limited amount of energy to devote to the day.  If your legs are stronger, the approach will be easier, and you’ll have more energy to devote to the whole reason you’re there. 

How do we do it?  That’s the easy part, and can be as simple as taking an extra 20 minutes at the climbing gym to use that fitness area you’re so lucky to have.  Strength training does not have to involve complex exercises with barbells, racks, screamy-bro-trainers, and utter exhaustion.  It can be done in a short amount of time, with minimal equipment, and without having a big effect on your ability to train on the climbing wall.  Training our lower body essentially involves two distinct movement patters: a squat & a hinge.  Each of these movement patterns trains either the front side muscles (think quads) or your backside muscles (think hamstrings).  The front & backside muscles being balanced and working in tandem is what stabilizes joints and keeps everything safe. 

Aim to resistance train 2-3 times per week, you can get it done in under 30 minutes each session.  Do 2-4 sets of each particular exercise for anywhere from 5-10 repetitions.  Be sure to include exercises that are types of squats (goblet squat, lunge, step up) and exercises that are types of a hip hinge (glute bridge, hamstring curl, deadlift, more step ups).  If this all is starting to seem confusing or intimidating, find out if your gym is an educated, qualified trainer or strength coach, or seek out help from an educated & qualified online trainer. 

Look towards strength training, especially your lower body, to help keep you climbing longer, harder, and safer.  Sometimes our outdoor climbing season is short, make the most of it by keeping yourself healthy.  Getting some time in the gym training your lower body will give you benefits that will extend well beyond your climbing, whether it’s other athletic pursuits like trail running, mountain biking, or skiing, or simply being able to get through everyday life feeling better.

Another Key Element of Training - Have a Plan

In my last post I discussed the importance of consistency in regards to hitting the gym and seeing improvement.  We hit the gym for various reasons (goal setting is coming soon!), but the bottom line is that we do it in the hopes that we’re going to get better, stronger, healthier, more attractive, or a ton of other specific reasons.  So, if we hit the gym with consistency in an effort to get better, what are you going to do when you get there?

I’m a fairly busy guy.  I don’t have a ton of time to spend at the gym doing my own training, so I need to make my time there as efficient as possible.  If I come in and decide to just do whatever exercises I feel like on any given day, there’s a good chance I’m going to miss out on a lot of potential gains, and even worse I’ll spend twice as much time doing it!  And to be honest, many of us prefer to do the things we’re good at, and avoid the things that aren’t as much fun or that we’re not good at.  I love deadlifts, and while they’re quite possibly one of the best lifts out there in terms of benefit and improvement, if that’s all I do I’m missing out on a lot.

How do we make sure we’re avoiding any pitfalls in our training?  We need a plan.  We need to know what we’re going to do before we even get to the gym on any given day.  A good plan will make sure we are using our time wisely, it will detail what exercises we’re going to do, how many repetitions, how many sets, how much rest, and all kinds of other things that are important to whether or not our plan is going to get us to our goal.  Most of all, a good plan will be designed to have us doing what’s necessary and specific to our end game.  If you want to train to be a great runner, then doing 12 sets of bicep curls to failure is probably not going to get you there.  Think about what exercise(s) you are choosing, ask yourself if this will get you closer to your goal, and use it only if the answer is a resounding Yes!

There’s a lot that goes into writing a good program.  It’s a skill that not everyone possesses, and it’s a chore that a lot of trainers don’t like to do.  Myself, well I’m kind of a nerd about those things, and I like designing a plan around someone’s goals, their strengths, their areas of improvement, and their time commitment.  If you’re not feeling up to the task, consider finding an educated trainer or strength coach that can help you.

Coming up next, I’ve mentioned training for a specific goal multiple times now, we’ll talk about how to decide on a goal, some guidelines for goal-setting, and some things to keep in mind when looking at a training plan to get you there.

A Fundamental Principle of Training - Consistency

There are many variables when it comes to how to best hit the gym.  Everybody is different, there’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all way to train, and everyone has different goals.  With that said, there are some basic tenets that apply which can help make your time training efficient, practical, and most of all safe.  Of all these principles of training, understanding the effect of training and how our bodies adapt and get better is critical.  

Think of what happens when you hit the gym, whether it’s your time on the climbing wall or your time in the fitness center.  You train and put your body under stress.  Later that evening, or perhaps the next day, you’re feeling it.  Maybe you’re tight, sore, tender, or whatever adjective you choose, the bottom line is you can feel it.  What you do next is critical to whether or not this will all have been worth it.  You need to do it again.  And soon.  And consistently over time.  Otherwise that bout of motivation and all your great effort won’t be fully realized.  I’m not saying that any single effort or attempt at exercise is futile, because developing habits has to start somewhere.  But my goal as a strength coach & personal trainer is to help people feel better, stronger, and healthier, so with that I offer this advice.

After we train and put stress upon our body, we go through a brief period where our performance or simply “how we feel” dips below our baseline.  Then after a couple days our body repairs itself and says, “Hey, what the heck was that?!”  If we don’t do it again any time soon, everything gets back to a nice comfortable existence back at our baseline level of performance.  However, if we do it again within a brief period of time, our body will maybe once again say, “Yo, dude, what gives?!”, then dip down a bit, then repair itself back to our baseline.  If we develop some consistency, and start doing this training thing every couple days, more often, finally our body is going to say, “Alright, fine.  If you’re going to keep doing this then I’m going to go ahead and recover to a state above that baseline so I’m more prepared for the next time you do this!”  This adaptation, or recovery to a state above our baseline will continue as long as we stay consistent and keep applying training stress in a proper way.

That, in short, is how we can fully realize the benefits of exercise and training.  There are several more key principles that will be discussed in further detail in upcoming posts, so stay tuned and keep an eye out for more.  We’ll discuss the idea of having a plan when you’re in the gym, of being sure that plan is specific towards your goals, and how to be sure we’re applying this stress in a productive way that’s safe and reduces the potential for injury.

Welcome to the site!

As I work to create this website as a platform for helping people get healthy, reach goals, perform better, and exceed their expectations, I find myself wanting to share with everyone a little about me.  Just a glimpse into how I've ended up where I'm sitting.

25 years ago I completed my last year of high school, and my last season of high school hockey, and looked forward to everything to come in MN.  I was coming out to attend college at Gustavus, and while there continue to play hockey.  It was a continuation of my entire youth spent playing sports, mostly hockey, however I had also recently begun rock climbing with a few high school friends.  One week into my freshman year at college and I spotted another student with the telltale caribiner keychain, he had to be a climber.  Turns out he was (in fact he was going to be starting an internship soon at a new company called Nicros), and he invited me along to climb down in Red Wing.  Turns out to be my first experience clipping bolts as a sport climber, I had only climbed at The Gunks in upstate NY, a very traditional area with nary a bolt to be seen (at the time).

Fast forward to finishing college, I end up getting a job with Nicros myself, as well as some work at Vertical Endeavors in St Paul.  After spending 3 years there, meeting my future wife, and expanding on my knowledge and abilities, my wife and I moved out to Vegas, then eventually landed in Denver.   I managed a climbing gym in Denver, did some guiding, continued routesetting, and ended up working in the entertainment industry as a rigger and stunt designer, including a 6-month stint on Broadway with DeLaGuarda. 

After a move back to MN, two awesome boys, and a little time away from climbing I began a foray into endurance sports, starting with triathlon and completing races up the Ironman distance, then trail running, completing events up to 100 miles in length.  Somewhere in the middle I fell in love with swimming, and completed endurance open water swim events up to 4 miles in length.  During this time I re-discovered strength training as a means towards enhancing sport performance, and decided to make a career of it.  And really jumped into that full throttle, going back to school first for an AAS degree, then completing a double MSc in Sports Performance & Sports Nutrition.

And it all comes back full circle, as I now am preparing for returning to the Vertical Endeavors family, in their new Twin Cities Bouldering & Training gym, helping climbers get stronger, reach goals, and get the most out of their time in the gym!

See you around!