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Ultimate Strength


In last year's Health Issue (No. 167), I detailed a three-month training program that included strength, power and power-endurance. While most people understood the principles and purpose of training power and power-endurance, I received a lot of questions about the strength part of the program. Many people were confused about the difference between strength and power, and wanted to know more about what strength is and why it's so important.

Strength is the maximum contraction load that a single muscle can exert. Power is using the strength of muscle groups to complete a movement in as short a time as possible. Strength is the foundation of what is possible. Power is tapping into the strength of one or more muscle groups to perform an action.

Many people train to get stronger through power exercises such as campusing, system boards and bouldering. These exercises are great for teaching us how best and most effectively to use the existing strength that we have however, they do not create lasting changes in the makeup of our muscles. Power exercises improve the efficiency of the muscles and initially yield an improved climbing performance. Eventually, however, they lead to a plateau in performance when improving efficiency is not enough. Then, more strength is needed in order to improve as a climber.

This article targets climbers who have been climbing for a few years and who boulder regularly. These climbers will benefit most by incorporating strength-specific exercises into their training routines for six to eight weeks, one or two times a year. After completing this period of pure strength, spend a few weeks doing power and power-endurance exercises in order to reach your peak.

Power exercises can result in higher levels of strength, but not as efficiently as direct strength training. If you are predominantly a route climber, you will see improvement in your climbing by bouldering for a few months, indoors over the winter.

These exercises are to be done three times a week with a minimum of one day off in between training days. Some of the exercises are best done in a climbing gym or at least on a hangboard, and others require access to a basic weight room. Ideally, you can work out at a climbing gym that also has weight-training equipment.

During the strength-training portion of a long-term training plan, keep your actual climbing to a minimum. Climbing on training or non-training days will affect either the quality of a workout or the recovery from one. If you need to climb, take it easy. After a few of these workouts, you probably won't be able to climb much anyway. Strength training saps your muscles and will cause you to forget how to climb efficiently. Despite this steep drop in performance, understand that the long-term gains from strength training are worth the few weeks of sucking.

It is important to follow a strength-training program for a minimum of four weeks. Anything shorter won't produce lasting results. You should see improvement after two or three weeks, merely a result of your muscles adapting to the specific exercises. Keep pushing yourself for at least four weeks - it is the lasting results that will make you a better climber.

Hang with your fingers straight on the hold for maximum benefit.
Avoid angling your fingers across the hold.
Also avoid hooking your thumb and crimping.


With weight lifting and hangboarding, you will be doing two sets of some number of reps depending on what week it is. The target range for reps will be 12 to 15 for the first and fourth weeks, 8 to 10 reps for the second and fifth weeks, and 5 to 8 reps for the third and sixth weeks. You will need to figure out in advance how much weight you need to add to fall into this range of repetitions. Keep a log of these numbers (weight/reps/sets) for each exercise after every workout so you know where to start next time. The point of increasing the weight and number of reps is to force your body to adapt.

The length of time you rest between the two sets will depend on the number of reps completed. In general, the higher the number of reps, the less time you should spend resting. This seems counterintuitive, but doing more reps means using less weight, thus placing less stress on the muscle fibers, which therefore require less rest between sets.

Five to 8 reps: Rest two to three minutes between sets.

Eight to 12 reps: Rest one to two minutes between sets.

With 12 to 15 reps: Rest one minute between sets.


Spend one week (three training sessions) doing 12 to 15 reps at the max weight for the 12-rep amount. Then spend a week doing 8 to 10 reps with the max weight for the 8-rep amount. Then spend a week doing 5 to 8 reps at the 5-rep amount.

From the fourth to the sixth week, your goal is to increase the previously accomplished max weight and repeat the same progression. With each training day you should fail at the end of the second set. If you do not fail, do extra reps until you do. Make a note of how many reps you did, and at what weight, and if necessary adjust the weight for the next training day.

For maintaining strength during other phases of your training (power and power-endurance), do at least one set of 10 reps for each exercise at least once a week. The different exercises can be done on different days spread over more training sessions.


While simple stretching has not been proven to reduce the chance of injury when working out, warming the muscle groups is important to performing the exercises properly with the correct range of motion. Warm up by raising your heart rate and moving blood to your extremities. Ten to 15 minutes of light cardio like skipping rope or running will do it. Once your body is warm make sure you prepare for the workout by performing range-of-motion exercises that mimic the exercises you will be doing. Simple range-of-motion exercises can be the exact exercise with little or no weight. In climbing this can be easy routes, easy bouldering or un-weighted hangs off big holds.


The forearm muscles define hand and finger strength and are key to climbing harder routes. Training the forearms requires care to avoid injury. Most people's hands are not built for the strength demands of climbing. Hands are meant for gentle, dexterous activities, not holding onto quarter-pad crimpers on 45-degree overhanging walls. It is essential that you warm up prior to launching into these exercises. Some warm-up activities include easy bouldering or route climbing, non-weighted hangs, low-weight finger rolls.

(In the Weight Room)


finger roll 2
FINGER ROLLS. Only let the bar roll down. Rest the bar on your thighs and use a leg to lift it back into position.

Finger Rolls: Hold a barbell below your hips with your elbows and knees slightly bent. With your hands fully closed, slowly open your hands and roll the barbell down to the tips of your fingers - this is one rep. Don't pull the bar back up: to re-close your hand to do the second rep, rest the bar on your thigh to adjust your grip. The reason for not closing your hand under weight is to train your muscles to resist against the weight, like hanging from a hangboard.

(In the Climbing Gym)

Hangboard: This effective training tool is small and easy to install. Most climbing gyms have at least one. To use a hangboard properly:

> Use holds that are only a single fingertip (pad) deep - nothing bigger than 1.5 pads deep.

> Try not to hang directly off your joints. Keep your muscles slightly contracted and fingers slightly bent. In actual climbing, you want to hang from your joints and stay relaxed, but this is not climbing. This is training. Contracting your muscles will provide some protection to your finger and elbow joints.

> Unless you're doing a pinch grip, don't use your thumbs on the side of the slots. Don't let your skin friction work against the slot sides either. You want to maximize your workout by only hanging straight down.

> With hangboarding, "reps" equal the number of seconds you can hang. Adjust the number of reps you can do by wearing a harness and hanging weights (the plate kind) from your belay loop with a sling and carabiner.

Do two sets for each of these hangs. The rest time between sets depends on the number of seconds you are hanging and the weight you are using.

>Four-finger hangs.

>Outer two-finger hangs (middle and ring fingers).

>Inner two-finger hangs (index and middle fingers).

>Outer three-finger hangs (pinkie to middle fingers).

>Inner three-finger hangs (ring to pointer fingers).

> Sloper hang.

> Pinch hang (if your hangboard doesn't have a pinch grip, see if you can make one using two features on the board).

> If you don't have a hangboard, you can use a chin-up bar in the weight room.



The biceps brachii and the brachialis are the two muscle groups that control arm bending. Both of these muscle groups play an important role in climbing and need to be strengthened.

(In the Weight Room)

Keeping the proper form is crucial when doing these exercises. Watch yourself in a mirror or have your partner check your form. Keep your knees slightly bent, your shoulders rolled back, your abdomen firm and your back straight. Don't lean back or jerk the weights to start the motion.

Bicep Curls: Hold a barbell below your hips with your palms facing out. Bending only your elbows, bring your hands to your shoulders. Lower in control. At the top of the lift your palms should be facing your shoulders.

Reverse Bicep Curls: Hold a barbell below your hips with your palms facing your thighs. Bending only your elbows, bring your hands to your shoulders and lower in control. At the top of the lift your palms should be facing away from your shoulders.

reverse-biceps-curl-1 reverse-biceps-curl-2 reverse-biceps-curl-3

(In the Climbing Gym)

Weighted Narrow-Grip Pull-ups: Grip a chin-up bar or a hangboard with your hands no wider than shoulder width. Do full chin-ups: Start with your arms slightly bent and finish with your hands at your shoulders. If possible do two sets by grabbing the bar with your palms facing away from you (pronated hands in a normal climbing position) and two sets by grabbing the bar with your palms facing toward you.

The two different types of lifts, palms in versus palms out, are necessary to target the bicep muscle and brachialis independently.


The major muscle group in the back for climbing is the latissimus dorsi (the lats). This is the muscle that pulls your shoulders and upper arms down. The chest muscles, pectoralis major and pectoralis minor, are also used in climbing for bringing the shoulder down toward the front of the body. Target these groups using these exercises:

(In the Weight Room)

Lat Pull-downs: Most weight rooms have a machine that allows you to sit and pull a bar down. Grab the bar with your hands wide enough apart so that when pulling down your elbow is at the same level as your shoulder. The bend in your elbows will be 90 degrees. Pull the bar straight down in front of your face until it touches your chest.

lat-pull-down-1 lat-pull-down-2


Internal Rotations: Use a weighted pulley machine or, if necessary, lie on a weight bench. Start with your elbow bent at 90 degrees and at your side in line with your body (your hand out to the side of your head). Roll your elbow and hand in and across your body to finish with your hand below your chest on the opposite side of your body. You can only do this for one arm at a time. Try not to initiate the movement with your bicep. (This is different than a butterfly, where you contract primarily with pectoralis major.) Roll your hand from above your head to below your opposite shoulder, rather than just pulling your arm across your body.

internal-rotation-1 internal-rotation-2
INTERNAL ROTATIONS. Try not to initiate the movement with your bicep, but use your shoulder and elbow to execute the roll. Keep your elbow bent at 90 degrees throughout the exercise.

(In the Climbing Gym)

Weighted Wide-grip Chin-ups: This exercise is similar to the lat pull-down but instead of pulling the bar down you will pull your body up. Grab a chin-up bar in the same wide grip described for the lat pull-down exercise above. You can do this exercise with added weight, or if necessary take weight off by using a spotter, bungee cord or pulley system.


The exercises discussed to this point have targeted the major climbing muscle groups. However, if you only target the major muscle groups, you may develop muscle imbalances that lead to injury. The exercises introduced here should be done every training day and continued during all raining phases. Do two sets of 8 to 12 reps each time. There's no need to vary the sets or reps for antagonistic muscle groups - this is strictly for muscular balance and maintenance. Do at least one exercise for each muscle group listed below.


Tricep Push-downs: Use a weighted pull-down pulley machine. Depending on the available apparatuses, you may have different grip-handle options ranging from simple bars to doubled-up rope handles. Choose one that is comfortable and allows you to keep your hands shoulder-width apart. Begin by gripping the bar ith your ha ds at shoulder height, palms facing out and arms fully bent. Tighten up your core, especially your lower abdomen, and lean slightly into the bar. Push the bar away and down until your arms are straight. Start the motion with your triceps, not by leaning forward.

tricep-pull-down-1 tricep-pull-down-2 tricep-pull-down-3
TRICEP PUSH DOWN. Tighten your gut as you push down and drive with your forearms, not by leaning forward.


Tricep Pull-overs: Lie face up on a weight bench, holding a dumbbell with your palms facing up. Lower the dumbbell behind your head. Tighten your abdomen and try to push your sacrum (lower back) into the bench. Using your triceps, drive the dumbbell up until your arms are straight, and lower. Lower in control.

tricep-pull-over-1 tricep-pull-over-2
TRICEP PULL-OVER. Keep your back flat on the bench and concentrate on lifting by using your triceps.

Close-grip push-ups: Start in a standard push-up position with your arms extended straight under you and your hands at shoulder width. When you lower your body, keep your elbows tight to your sides, then push back up.


Side Lateral Raises: Grab two light dumbbells. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the dumbbells just in front, and to the side, of your body - your palms face each other. Keep a slight bend in your elbows and knees. Raise the dumbbells out to the side until they are at shoulder level, then lower slowly. Squeeze your shoulder blades together during the entire range of motion.

Upright Rows: Hold a barbell in front of your body with your palms facing away, hands just less than shoulder width apart. Lift the barbell till it's at chest level and lower. Concentrate on squeezing your shoulder blades together during the entire range of motion.


Paul Robinson's 10-Minute Hangboard Routine

Warm up: Hang on jugs for 15 seconds. Do 15 pull-ups.

One-arm lock-offs: Do a pull-up on a jug (or pinch) and let go with one hand. Hold yourself locked off for 10 seconds with each hand. (Use a pulley to take weight off if needed.) Robinson does this without coming off the hangboard.

Campus from lower holds to the upper jugs and lock-off in a pull-up. Bring knees up into an "L Hang," and hold for 10 seconds.

More L Hangs: Hold slopers, do a pull-up, lock-off, and raise knees/legs up - hold for 10 seconds. Without dropping off, lower so arms are bent 90 degrees and hold 10 seconds. Do three sets, without letting go if possible.

10 pull-ups on: two-finger pockets, pinches, smallest crimps, biggest crimps, slopers.


Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

Week 6


4 finger, Outer 2 finger, Inner 2 finger, Outer 3 finger, Inner 3 finger, Sloper, Pinch

12-15 second hangs with 1-minute rest
between hangs.

8-12 second hangs with 1-2 minute's rest between hangs .

5-8 second hangs
with 2-3 minute's rest between hangs.

12-15 second hangs with 1-minute rest
between hangs.

8-12 second hangs with 1-2 minute's rest between hangs.

5-8 second hangs
with 2-3 minute's rest between hangs.

Upper Arm

Bicep Curls, Reverse Curls, Weighted narrow-grip pull-ups

12-15 reps with 1-minute rest between sets.

8-12 reps with 1-2 minute's rest between sets.

5-8 reps with 2-3 minute's rest between sets.

12-15 reps with 1-minute rest between sets.

8-12 reps with 1-2 minute's rest between sets.

5-8 reps with 2-3 minute's rest between sets.


Lat Pull-downs
Weighted wide-grip pull-ups

12-15 reps with 1-minute rest between sets.

8-12 reps with 1-2 minute's rest between sets.

5-8 reps with 2-3 minute's rest between sets.

12-15 reps with 1-minute rest between sets.

8-12 reps with 1-2 minute's rest between sets.

5-8 reps with 2-3 minute's rest between sets.

Internal rotations

12-15 reps with 1-minute between sets.

8-12 reps with 1-2 minutes between sets.

5-8 reps with 2-3 minutes between sets.

12-15 reps with 1-minute between sets.

8-12 reps with 1-2 minutes between sets.

5-8 reps with 2-3 minutes between sets.

Cross Training

Tricep pushdowns, Tricep pull-overs, Close-grip push-ups
Side lateral raises, Upright rows

8-12 reps

8-12 reps

8-12 reps

8-12 reps

8-12 reps

8-12 reps

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