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Get Stronger, Climb Harder


Climbers love the idea of getting better, but few actually want to put in the effort. That's because training sucks. However, a structured plan is the most efficient way to get stronger, and being stronger definitely does not suck.

Here is a schedule that over 12 weeks will increase your ability to pull hard moves. This is a modified version of the training program Andrew Wilson and I developed for the Edge Junior Climbing Team in Vancouver, Canada, where I coached for six years. The program's 12 weeks is the minimal time frame to achieve long-term gains -- but each section could be doubled.

The goal of periodic training is to isolate and strengthen a specific muscle group, then teach your body how to use the new strength with other muscle groups. The best strength gains in the shortest amount of time require isolating a muscle group (e.g., the biceps) and pushing it to failure. Many exercises use multiple muscle groups (pull-ups, for example, use forearms, biceps and lats), meaning that while you may push one group to failure, the other groups are not getting a full workout. By isolating a specific muscle group and pushing it to failure, you achieve maximum gain from each exercise.

This program assumes you are 12 weeks away from the start of your climbing season. If you haven't climbed in a bit, jumpstart your climbing muscles by spending three or four weeks doing low-intensity, high-volume climbing workouts three to five days a week. Begin by training the climbing-specific muscle groups such as forearms, biceps and lats, and occasionally work the muscles such as the triceps and upper forearms that are not used as frequently in climbing. The first three weeks of this program are dedicated to pure strength gains. After that, the program combines strength (two days) and power training (one day) for three weeks. The final three weeks concentrate on power training, before bringing in a few days of power-endurance each week. Many confuse strength and power. Strength can be defined as the maximum contractual force of an individual muscle (or muscle group) as opposed to power, which is the coordinated action of multiple muscles to exert that force in as short a time as possible. Power is the recruitment of the strength of the muscle.  

Every workout consists of a warm-up and cool-down. Don't skip either. It is better to treat a rushed session as an active rest day than get injured because you didn't warm up or cool down.

This program is designed for you to work out three days a week. During the strength and power training portions, three days a week is plenty. You can climb another one, maybe two, days per week, but do not try hard on these extra days and don't expect to be climbing well. Remember: You don't get stronger on training days; you get stronger on rest days, when your muscles are recovering.

Please remember this: The actual exercises aren't as important as understanding a proper training program and how it is set up. Increasing your strength first is important. Training power is not very effective if you don't have the strength base to see the power gains. Power-endurance (resistance and continuity) bring the newly acquired power to the rock and, to paraphrase Tony Yaniro, if you can't pull the hard moves on a route what good is endurance?
By the end, you will be ready for the best climbing season of your life.


BEGIN EACH WORKOUT with a thorough 30 to 60 minutes of easy to moderate climbing and stretching (see page 48 for warm-up stretches.) Develop a consistent routine so you can see how you are feeling each day.


Cardio: 10 to 20 minutes, so you start to sweat lightly. Running, soccer, jumping rope, fitness circuit, etc.


Stretch: Target all the major muscle groups in the body. Don't concentrate on fingers and forearms yet.


The Climbing Gym: Start with easy climbing. Concentrate on technique -- weighting your feet, not overgripping, etc. In a weight room, go through a series of exercises with low weight. Use your muscles through a range of motion.


Stretch More: After some time on the wall, stretch your forearms, fingers, upper arms and shoulders. You'll want to feel a slight pump in your forearms before moving on.



Strength training involves pushing specific muscle groups to failure by isolating the muscle groups -- the exercises are usually a slow, simple range of motion. Generally, it takes about three weeks of training before your muscles see long-term results. Gains prior to three weeks usually indicate that you've learned how to do an exercise more efficiently; your brain and muscles learned to recruit for the specific exercise. If you have never done any specific strength training before, start slowly. Spend a few days learning how to do the exercises properly. Doing exercises improperly, such as by using one side of your body more than the other, leads to imbalances and possible injuries. During this portion of the program, you will not be climbing as a part of the workout, but some of the exercises will require access to a climbing gym or some climbing-specific training devices. Yes, it will be boring, but worth it. You may still climb to warm up or cool down, but try not to push yourself and don't expect to be climbing well.



Grab a one-pad crimp on a hangboard, and hang with one hand. If you can only hang for a split second, then do 10 attempts with minimum rest. If you can hang for more than 10 seconds, add weight or decrease hold size. Repeat three times with each hand; rest one minute between attempts.


Grab similar holds on a hangboard with both hands. Hang with straight arms for eight to 12 seconds. If you can't hang that long, increase hold size or take weight off by using footholds, bungee cords, partner assistance, chair in front, etc. Use an open-hand, not closed, crimp position.

Perform with at least three different hold types (slopers, crimps, pockets). Do each one three times with one minute of rest.



Many articles exist on system-board training and I suggest you read them. In general, system-board training involves climbing an overhanging woodie on the same holds, using your feet and executing movement slowly. You repeat with several different hold types/orientations. System-board training is a great hand- and core-strength workout when you add a weight vest or belt.

H.I.T. stands for High Intensity Training and was developed by Eric Horst. H.I.T strips and holds are distributed by Nicros along with a description of the workout. Similar to but more regimented than a system- board workout, the H.I.T. strip workout focuses on recruiting your finger strength through climbing-specific movement.



CLOSED-GRIP PULL-UPS: Grab large holds (chin-up bars, incut jugs) shoulder-width apart. Do a chin-up, finishing at full lock off, and lower down. Pull evenly and smoothly with both arms, keeping elbows tight into your body. Do three sets until failure. If failure is more than 20, add weight. If failure is less than 10, take off weight by putting your foot on a chair, using a bungee cord, or using partner assistance.

REVERSE BICEP CURLS: Grab a curl bar with your arms extended down, palms down. Bend your knees slightly and curl the bar upward. Concentrate on pulling evenly with both arms, elbows tight to your body. Do three sets, with 12 to 15 reps.

WIDE-GRIP PULL-UPS: Grab a pull-up bar with your hands wider than shoulder-width. Pull up as high as possible, evenly and smoothly, keeping both elbows in line with your body as opposed to rolling backwards. Do three sets until failure. If failure is more than 20, add weight. If failure is less than 10, take weight off.

LAT PULL DOWNS: Using a pull-down machine at a weight gym, grab the bar with a wide grip. Do three sets, 12 to 15 reps.


FRONT LEVERS: Using a pull-up bar or hangboard, start with your hands shoulder-width apart. Keeping your arms slightly bent, try to lever your body straight, lifting your lower limbs while tilting your upper body back, finishing as if you were lying on the ground with your arms pointing at the sky. Hold for two to three seconds, then lower slowly. Do two sets of eight to 12 levers, with a one-minute rest in between. This is a very intense exercise but there are ways to make it easier:

-  Have a partner help lift your lower back and legs.
-  Try the exercise with one leg bent, switching legs for each lift.
-  Try the exercise with both legs bent.

-  Have a partner help raise your body, but control the lowering yourself.    

WIDE-STANCE PUSH-UPS: Do push-ups with hands out to the side so elbows are at 90 degrees when shoulders reach forearm height in the air.

CLOSED-STANCE PUSH-UPS: Do push-ups with hands directly under shoulders. Concentrate on elbows passing close by your side.

TRICEP PUSH-DOWNS: Using a pull-down machine at a weight gym, bend your knees slightly and grab the bar with your palms facing out. Hold the bar at shoulder height and push it down to full arm extension. Do three sets of 12 to 15 reps.


POWER-TRAINING EXERCISES are more dynamic, combining movements and different muscle groups. Power training also involves more climbing-specific exercises and will require access to a training or climbing wall.


POWER LADDERS: These are like system-board training, only the system board focuses on finger and core strength, while power ladders target upper-body strength. On your woodie, set five similar holds up the wall for both the right and left hands (10 holds total), placing each two inches above the last and slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Train three to four different hold types, such as crimps, pockets, pinches and slopers. Grab the first hold, placing your opposite foot on the wall at a height where you will be able to pull it. Lock-off (hold your hand just outside your shoulder and keep your shoulders square to the wall, pulling with the opposite foot/leg as well). Hold the lock off for three to five seconds. Reach up with the other hand and grab the next hold. Now put the opposite foot on, let go of the original hand and foot, and lock-off the new hold. Hold the next ladder hold again for three to five seconds. Continue up the remaining holds. Do eight to 12 lock offs with each arm and repeat each hold type twice.

CAMPUS BOARD:   Using large holds allows you to develop the power of the upper body without straining your fingers, which have already been targeted by other exercises. Switch to smaller holds if you haven't done any finger-strength specific exercises, but be careful and controlled when catching small holds dynamically. If in doubt, just drop off.

- BASIC CAMPUSING: Go up the board, one hand over the other without using feet. If necessary, match the same rung before going up again. Skip rungs if the spacing is too close for you.

- GO AGAINS: Start with both hands on the bottom rung. Reach one arm up to the first rung, then reach again using the same arm to the second, third and fourth rung (if you can go that far). Each time, pause and weight the upper arm on the rung. Now reverse, coming back down one rung at a time. Rest one minute, switch arms and repeat.

- TWO-HANDED DYNOS: Grab the bottom rung with both hands. Using momentum (and coordination) move both hands quickly to the third rung. Stick it, and drop both hands quickly to the second rung. Go up to the fourth, and quickly down to the third. Up to the fifth, down to the fourth, etc.


CROSS-BODY PULLING:  This exercise combines technique training with power training. Set two good holds about one to two inches apart on a 30- to 45-degree overhanging wall. Place feet directly below (at normal foot level) the holds. Hold the right hold with the right hand, and backstep the right foothold with your left foot. Begin by hanging down and to the left of the right handhold and pushing your hips up and right. Pull your upper body up and reach across the hold with your left hand. Don't necessarily grab anything with the left hand. Lower and repeat, eight to 12 reps. Switch sides and repeat. Do two sets. Add weight to make it more difficult or decrease the wall angle to make it easier.

HARD BOULDER PROBLEMS: Finally, some actual climbing! Work hard problems -- you may not be able to do all the moves. During the power-training phase, work them however you want. Try not to rest more than one minute between attempts on a single problem and no more than five minutes between different problems. During the power-endurance phase, work the boulder problem from the start and try it two to three times with a 30-second rest in between, then rest five minutes and either move to a new problem or try the same one.

TYPEWRITERS: Grab a pull-up bar or holds with a wide grip. Do a chin-up, but at the top, move your upper body all the way to the left (keeping shoulders square, chin high). Hold for three seconds; then without dropping down, move over to the right and hold for three seconds. This is one Typewriter. Do two sets of eight to 12, with a one-minute rest in between.

WORK SINGLE MOVES: Try just one move, hard enough that you can't do it first try, at a time. Try three to four times with 10 seconds rest in between attempts, then rest a minute and repeat. Do this cycle two to four times before trying a different move.

LOCK-OFF BOULDER PROBLEMS: Climb a boulder problem, but between each move, hold each handhold for three seconds in a locked-off position. Pick overhanging boulder problems. You might need to use additional footholds. Do this three times on three separate boulder problems. Rest one minute between attempts on a single boulder problem, and five minutes between different boulder problems.

FRENCHIES:  Grab a pull-up bar or holds with your hands shoulder-width apart. Hang and do a chin-up. Hold a full lock off for five to seven seconds and lower. Do another chin-up, but this time lower until your elbows are at 90 degrees. Hold this lock off for the same time, then lower. Next, do a chin-up, but lower only until your elbows are at 130 degrees (slightly bent), and hold that for the same time. That is one Frenchie. Do two sets of four to eight Frenchies with a one-minute rest in between.


CLIMBING, ESPECIALLY when it gets steep, uses an incredible amount of core strength. Your core muscles are the muscles that allow you to control your body position (abdomen, lower back). During these workouts, you will be using your core for many exercises, but dedicate time near the end of your workout to target the core.


LEG LIFTS: Grab a pull-up bar with hands shoulder-width apart. Without using momentum, straighten your legs and feet so your body forms an L. Lower slowly. Do not attempt the next leg lift until your body is still. An easier version is to do the exercise with both legs bent at 90 degrees at the knee, or just alternating one leg at a time. Do two sets of 15 to 20 reps with a one-minute rest in between. If you cannot do 15 lifts, ask a partner to assist you or bend your legs. If you can do more than 20, add a small leg/ankle weight

EXERCISE BALL PUSH-UPS:  Place your hands shoulder-width apart on a large exercise ball, and your feet half a body length away. You should be stable when your body is straight and your arms are pushing down on the ball. Do push-ups, keeping the ball stable and the movement slow. This can be made easier by placing the ball against a wall, or harder by elevating your feet on a chair or against the wall. Do two sets of 15 to 20 push-ups with a one-minute rest in between.


LONG AND LOWS:  Start with your upper thighs on an exercise ball. Hold your arms straight above your head and place your hands on t e floor at shoulder-width apart. Your body should be straight with your legs on a slight incline. Lever your body above your hands y rolling the exercise ball closer to your hands and down your legs. Finish this exercise in a pike; head, shoulders and hips above your hands with your feet on the exercise ball. Reverse the motion by rolling the ball back up your legs and away from your hands. Your arms should be straight through the entire range of motion. For added difficulty do a push-up while in the pike position. To make it easier, do not bring the ball as far forward, all the way to the pike position. Do two sets of 15 to 20 reps with a one-minute rest in between.

BACK EXTENSIONS:  Lie on an exercise ball with your lower abdomen on the top of the ball and your hips in contact with the ball. Either brace your feet against the base of a wall or have a partner hold them down. Lie with your body bent forward at the waist. Keeping your back straight, lift your upper back up until your body is straight. When your body is straight most of your weight should be on your hips on the exercise ball. Do two sets of 15 to 20 reps with a one-minute rest in between.

SUPERMAN:  Start with your hands and knees on the ground and your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Keeping your arms straight, lift one arm and point it straight ahead and slightly up. As you are raising your arm, raise and extend the opposite leg straight backwards. Return to the starting position and mirror the exercise with the opposite arm/leg. One full rep is when you return to the starting position after completing the movement with both arms and legs. Do two sets of 15 to 20 reps with one-minute rest in between.


YOUR ANTAGONISTIC MUSCLES aren't necessarily used in climbing, but balance the body's structure and prevent injury.

ANTERIOR FOREARMS: Grab a light weight and place your forearm on a chair or other flat surface with your hand over the edge and your palm facing down. Bend your hand slowly up and down at the wrist. Try holding your elbow in place with your opposite hand.

FINGER EXTENSORS: Using one (or multiple) elastic bands between your fingers and thumb, spread your hand open. The elastic should be tight when all your fingers and thumb are together. Another good exercise is to push your hands into a pile of sand while trying to open and spread your fingers.

EXTERNAL ROTATORS: Climbers typically have bad shoulders, and this simple exercise would help a lot of people out if done after every day of climbing. Affix one end of a bungee to a wall, tree or door at waist height, and stand perpendicular to it. Grab the free end of the thera-band with the arm farthest from the attachment. With your elbow on your hip, and your arm at 90 degrees, move your hand away from the wall, and out to your side pulling the band. Do 15 to 20 reps with each arm, for two or three sets.

DELTOIDS: Bend your body at the waist and place one hand on a chair or bench so your upper back is parallel with the floor. Holding a light weight in the opposite hand, lift your shoulder first, then raise your hand out to the side. Repeat 15 to 20 times with each arm/side of the body.



SOME PEOPLE REFER to cooling down as warming down. Whatever, decrease the intensity of your workout and increase your time stretching. Cooling down properly will aid recovery and prepare you for the next workout.



De-kink With Massage



AFTER A SEASON of climbing, I felt like an old, run-down car. Get a massage, my friend said. I scoffed. A massage? Really?

By manipulating the soft tissue (muscles, ligaments, fascia), massage helps you heal and prevents overuse injuries. It also increases circulation, delivering nutrients, removing waste and promoting faster recovery. Massage separates fibrous adhesions (compacted muscle fibers), and realigns scar tissue. As the muscles normalize, your body can generate more muscle, build strength and increase joint range of motion (ROM), all key to preventing injury and restoring muscles so you can keep cranking.

PROBLEM: Forearms

THE FIX: Myofascial release, Neuromuscular therapy (NMT)

MUSCLES: Forearm flexors/extensors. Biceps, pectorals, trapeziums.

Compartment syndrome is when your muscles grow without an increase in your fascia, the casing around them. This restriction impedes blood flow and causes a chronic pump. Myofascial release stretches and releases the fascia, giving the muscles room to grow.

Myogelosis results in extremely tight forearm, arm and back muscles. The resulting decreased blood flow causes a lactic-acid build-up. NMT loosens and lengthens the muscles and soft tissue to release toxins, increase ROM and blood circulation, and re-educate muscle and connective-tissue holding patterns.


THE FIX: Deep tissue, trigger point

MUSCLES: Forearm flexors

Golfer's Elbow (medial epicondylitis) is inflammation of the forearm flexor tendons, responsible for gripping and forearm pronation (rotating the palm down and out). Pain occurs on the inside of the elbow. Deep tissue employs deep strokes along or across muscle fibers and joints to increase blood flow and reduce scar tissue. For Golfer's Elbow, the therapist should target the forearm flexor attachments in the elbow at the medial epicondyle.

Tennis Elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is on the outside of the elbow. Like Golfer's Elbow, Tennis Elbow often responds well to deep tissue, especially cross-fiber friction technique. In both cases, trigger-point therapy could help. Trigger points are fibrous adhesions characterized by tenderness. Active trigger points could refer [pain] to other parts of the body, whereas latent trigger points are of local tenderness, says therapist Molly Mogavero, who works on climbers. In trigger-point therapy, the therapist employs a deep and solid pressure to the specific point until the adhesions give way and the tissue normalizes. The therapist then flushes the area with deep stroking motions toward the heart.

PROBLEM: Tight muscles, general fatigue and soreness

THE FIX: Swedish

MUSCLES: Affected areas

The most common massage, Swedish, focuses on general relaxation, increased circulation and alleviation of tightness. Swedish massage is the base of massage techniques, and it is often used to warm muscles before deeper work.


  • Look for at least 500 hours of practice.
  • Find someone with experience working on climbers.
  • Massage releases toxins. Drink plenty of water to flush them out of your system.

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