Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In



Training Women For Upper-Body and Core Strength

Carolyn Parker has climbed for 28 years, adventuring in all disciplines of the sport. She is an AMGA Certified Rock Guide, Gym Jones certified instructor, and founder of Ripple Effect Training.

Lock Icon

Unlock this article and more benefits with 40% off.

Already have an Outside Account? Sign in

Outside+ Logo

40% Off Outside+.
$4.99/month $2.99/month*

Get the one subscription to fuel all your adventures.

  • Map your next adventure with our premium GPS apps: Gaia GPS Premium and Trailforks Pro.
  • Read unlimited digital content from 15+ brands, including Outside Magazine, Triathlete, Ski, Trail Runner, and VeloNews.
  • Watch 600+ hours of endurance challenges, cycling and skiing action, and travel documentaries.
  • Learn from the pros with expert-led online courses.
Join Outside+

*Outside memberships are billed annually. Print subscriptions available to U.S. residents only. You may cancel your membership at anytime, but no refunds will be issued for payments already made. Upon cancellation, you will have access to your membership through the end of your paid year. More Details

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 240 (February 2016).

Long ago during my neophyte climbing years, I found myself at Vedauwoo, a tenacious climber, possibly not so patient, and determined to be a 5.10 trad leader. Echoes of a friend’s warning about Vedauwoo reverberated in my skull: “It’s an awesome place but damn physical.”

My first day and first pitch at Vedauwoo was Slash (5.10a) at Gorilla Rock. That pitch went fairly well, and I set my sights on Bad Girls Do (5.10d). Let’s just say I learned a lot, possibly bled a lot, and fell all the way.

Back at the base, frustrated, I said, “If I were only stronger … ”

A kind, grizzled “hard man” strolled past. He smiled, winked and said, “It’s better to be a good climber than a strong climber.”

I smiled, and we both laughed. Fundamentally, I still agree—except that it’s better yet to be both good and strong.

Most female climbers who train with me want more upper-body and core strength. Climbers are strength-to-weight-ratio athletes: We want to gain strength without growing bulky, heavy muscle. Training should focus on set and rep combinations structured to that end. As for all athletes, we also want to balance the demands of the sport to avoid imbalance injuries.

The first set of exercises is designed to balance the athlete. Our musculoskeletal system is complex, and human beings are strongest when all systems are balanced and working together. Climbers pull a lot, and need to balance those movements with pushing movements. I’ve found the following basic movements to be the most beneficial initially, yet often the ones women most avoid. The second set of exercises complements the pulling motions of our sport.


To begin: Warm up by doing 10 minutes of light aerobic work or easy climbing, then a few light or easy repetitions of the exercises you will be using. Once you warm up, complete no more than 12 to 25 reps of each exercise, in the following set and rep structures. Repetitions should be difficult, pushing you to failure on the last rep.

5 x 5 Push-ups Too many women avoid push-ups because they feel hard. Do them! Chest to the ground, no cheating. They will become easier. Do five sets of five reps for a total 25 reps of push-ups, the key being difficulty. Make the push-up as hard as possible. Standard toe (rather than knee) pushups may be the ticket, or try push-ups with your hands on dumbbells. Harder still, do them with your hands on gymnastic rings elevated slightly off the floor.

5 x 3 Overhead presses As you pull harder, you have to balance the pulling movement by pushing more weight. Use dumbbells, kettle bells or a barbell. A standing movement pushing a weight overhead, an overhead press is a fantastic counter movement for a climber. To increase difficulty, increase the weight.

6 x 2 Turkish get-ups Another favorite for climbers. Classically done with a kettle bell, this exercise trains single-arm overhead strength, single-leg strength and core strength. Many good videos show the movement, but the basic concept is to control an external object and get up off the floor. Stability and mobility are key. Lie on your back with one leg bent and one straight. Hold a kettle bell in your hand on the same side as the bent leg, with the arm extending straight up. Sit up, pressing the kettle ball toward the ceiling, keeping your arm positioned over the shoulder. Create a bridge between the bent leg and the opposite arm, then pull the extended leg underneath you and place the knee on the ground under your hip. Raise your hand off the floor and come to a lunge position with the kettle bell still pressed toward the ceiling. Stand. Now reverse all movements to the start.

5 x 5 Dips Do five sets of five reps for 25 reps. You can do the dips assisted (feet on an object) or make them harder by using gymnastics rings. Dips are hard, but difficult movements are exactly what we want!


5 x 5 Pullovers Use kettle bell. Lie on your back, knees bent. Stabilize your spine: Create “body tension” that keeps the spine, hips, rib cage from moving while lifting and lowering the heavy kettle bell. Tighten core muscles so that the hips stay in place, the low back does not overarch and the ribcage remains on the floor. Then, with kettle bell placed just above your head, grasp the handle in both hands and pull the kettle bell off the floor until it is directly
over your chest. Lower the kettle bell back to the floor without allowing the core to move. Pullovers are great for learning how to connect the strength of your back and shoulders to your core, a critical concept in climbing. Most climbers need exercises and drills to begin to understand the connection.

6 x 3 Pull-ups Do six sets of three reps for 18 reps, or do five sets of five reps for 25 reps, with one minute of rest between each set. Pull-ups can be assisted (feet on a chair) or, for more difficulty, done with a weight vest or on gymnastics rings.

5 x 5 Bent-over rows Done with dumbbells, kettle bells or a barbell, this exercise strengthens your glutes, low back, lats, biceps and shoulders. Stand with your torso at right angles to your body, back straight. Pull or “row” the object up to the base of your sternum.

CAROLYN PARKER has climbed for 28 years, adventuring in all disciplines of the sport. She is an AMGA Certified Rock Guide, Gym Jones certified instructor, and founder of Ripple Effect Training,