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.