Missing Links: Neglected Strengths to Work on During Quarantine

Categories: Tips , Community

What’s a climber to do? You want to get outside, but traveling to the crag might not be an option right now. Despite having limited access to some of our favorite places, this pause in our regular climbing lives offers a chance to work on some crucial—but routinely neglected—strength and flexibility skills. These exercises can all be done easily out in the sun at your local park, and will have tangible benefits for strength, mobility, and injury prevention when you get on the rock. DISCLAIMER: This was not written by a professional trainer or a coach, just another climber who happens to work for Access Fund and is a huge training nerd.

Hip, Groin, and Hamstring Flexibility

Having a decent (but not hyperextended) range of motion throughout your body will reduce your risk of injury and allow you to use a wider selection of moves when you climb. Having good hip turnout, groin mobility, and hamstring flexibility will allow you to highstep more easily, heel hook in more awkward positions, do bigger splits and stems, and get your hips closer into the wall.

Splits: Groin Mobility. Fairly self explanatory. Keep your feet parallel to each other. Putting your hands (or elbows, as you get more flexible) on the ground can help control the stretch, so you don’t feel like you’re going to pull your groin if you slip.

Head to Knee: Hamstring Mobility. Also fairly self explanatory. Don’t keep your leg totally straight—it’s better to have a slight bend in the knee. The lower you push your head towards your knee, the bigger the stretch.

Frog Stretch: Hip Turnout. Note how the calves are at a right angle to the thighs. Make the stretch harder by spreading your knees further and further apart.

Do three sets each of these stretches, holding for a minute, as often as every day. Don’t push the stretch too far—ease into it, and focus on breathing evenly and relaxing your muscles. Progress the stretch very gradually, sinking a bit deeper into it every week.

Antagonist Muscles - Fingers

Climbers tend to have a big imbalance in our finger flexor vs. extensor muscles. We constantly use the flexors (i.e the underside of your forearm) when climbing, but quite rarely do we intensely use the extensors (wiggle your fingers and you’ll see them ripple in your forearm). A simple exercise like a reverse wrist curl is great for working the extensors. But lacking access to weights, rubber bands and other improvised equipment can work very well.

Finger Extensions with Rubber Bands. Rubber bands like those found on broccoli work great for this, as they are particularly thick. Just wrap as many rubber bands around your fingers as you need to make extending your fingers outward feel hard (closer to the fingertip will equal a harder exercise). You want enough resistance from the rubber bands that doing five to ten reps of extending your fingers outward (i.e. the opposite of making a fist) feels challenging.

Shoot for three to five sets of five to ten reps of this exercise, with three minute rests in between. If achieving that level of tension isn’t feasible, shoot for five sets of 20 reps or so, or whatever it takes to feel some pump in your extensors. This can be done two to three times a week.

Other Methods. You can also work your extensors using other homemade items. Rice buckets are simple to use and there is extensive information online about rice bucket exercises for climbing. If you’ve got a bunch of rice (or sand) and a bucket, it’s extremely easy to make one yourself. Similarly, if you’ve got a heavy enough frying pan (i.e. cast iron), you can substitute it for a weight and do reverse wrist curls using the same set and rep scheme as the rubber band finger extensions.

Antagonist Muscles - Pushing

It's important to work your push muscles (triceps, chest) in addition to the pull muscles that we typically use when climbing (lats, biceps, etc.). Having a major imbalance (which many climbers do) between our push and pull muscles typically leads to overuse injuries like elbow tendinosis (golfer’s and tennis elbow), among other issues. So do some push ups! Hardly novel, but effective.

Easier Pushups. If doing normal push ups is challenging (i.e a set of ten feels like your limit), just start out by doing the following exercise scheme using a standard push up position. If that’s still too hard, start out by doing the push ups on your knees instead of your toes.

Harder Pushups. Alternatively, if you can crank out a set of 20 standard push ups no problem, you’re more in the realm of training endurance than true strength, if you just keep adding reps. To make push-ups harder, simply elevate your legs—anything from putting them up on a chair to going all the way to a handstand push up, likely with your feet touching a wall or tree behind you so you don’t tip over and lose balance. Use the same set, rep, and rest scheme as for the easier version. If you’re already doing five sets of eight full handstand push ups, well, you probably don’t have a huge muscle imbalance to worry about.

Aim for three to five sets of six to eight reps, resting about three minutes between sets, two times a week. Once you can complete a full session of five sets of eight reps*, progress your push up position to make it more difficult. Go all the way down on the reps. No cheating!

*You’ll notice that the set and rep count is higher, and the rest shorter, than some of the later exercises in this article. In this case, that’s mostly because it’s harder to add weight to a push up than something like a squat or pull up. If you can find a clever way of doing hanging dips (i.e. between two park benches, between the bars of a jungle gym, etc.) it’s far easier to add weight, and you can use the same set/rep schemes outlined in the later exercises.

Leg Strength

Truth be told, your legs are almost never the limiting factor on a climb. That said, having strong, stable legs will not only help you push through big stand up moves and toe in harder on overhangs, they will also make it less likely that you’ll injure yourself from the sudden impact of a bouldering fall or if you get spiked on a lead fall.

Pistol Squat. A simple exercise to develop pure leg strength is the pistol squat—basically just a one-legged squat. Worried about bulking up and adding weight to your legs? As long as you keep the intensity high and the reps low, this exercise should add little to no muscle mass, and instead add pure strength by recruiting more of the muscle fibers you already have. If a bodyweight pistol squat is too challenging, steady yourself by putting a hand on a tree, bench, or wall, or only going halfway down to start with. If bodyweight is too easy, throw a few books, some rocks, your cast iron skillet, (you get the idea), into a backpack, and squat away.

Do three to five sets of three reps, at an intensity such that you could successfully complete four to five reps (i.e. have one to two reps in reserve at the end of each set). Rest as long as you want between sets (until you feel fully recovered), and do the squats twice a week.

Strong Core

You’ve undoubtedly done planks before, and probably found them reasonably easy, at least for the first thirty seconds or so. Standard planks are perhaps a bit too low intensity for a true climbing application—but they can be made wicked hard quite quickly.

Elevated Plank. Start by elevating the plank—simply get your feet level with your head by putting them up on a bench, so that your body is in a straight line, not diagonal, from head to toe.

Start with three sets of 30 seconds, and work your way up to five sets, two to three times a week. Then start adding time, until you can get all the way to a minute.

Elevated Uneven Plank. Elevated planks still easy? Make them uneven. Lift up your right arm and left leg (or vice versa), so that you’re planking on only two opposite limbs. Your body is going to want to rotate and torque right away—fight this and keep that solid, totally parallel to the ground, straight-trunk plank position. If this feels too hard, do the uneven plank without the added elevation.

Try holding this position for 30 seconds—15 with the right arm/left leg combination, and 15 with the left arm/right leg combination. Progress the exercise the same way as for the standard elevated plank, eventually working up to five sets of a minute each (30 seconds each side).

Still too easy? Try some dragon flags, Bruce Lee’s core workout of choice…

And, OK, Fine, Pull Ups

Yep, you might as well. While pure pulling strength is a bit overrated for climbing (finger strength, shoulder stability, and a strong core are more important in many ways), pull ups are fun, easy, and still useful. Keeping the reps low and intensity high will make for a quick, powerful workout that rapidly builds pure pulling strength.

Easier Pullups. If doing five good-form pull ups is at your limit, then you’re at the perfect level to start this exercise at bodyweight. If bodyweight pull ups are too hard for you, find ways to take some weight off, and do the same protocol—you can use a chair and put a foot on it, or have a quarantine-appropriate buddy give you a bit of a power spot. Regardless of where you’re at, don’t cheat—no kipping, and go all the way down to almost (but not quite full) straight-arms for each rep.

Harder Pullups. If you can already do this workout at bodyweight without too much trouble, try adding weight. Go scrounge around and find some rocks, a dog, or throw a skillet in a backpack. Aim to progress your pull ups in approximately five pound increments—every time you can complete a full workout of five sets of three reps, throw another five pounds in the backpack and drop back down to three sets of three reps.

Go find a tree branch somewhere and start cranking! Use the same protocol as for the pistol squats: three to five sets of three reps, one to two reps in reserve, as much rest as you want in between, twice a week.

So that’s that, a few exercises you can easily do outside or at home that will make you a stronger, more mobile, and more injury-proof climber. Or possibly just injure you, if done incorrectly. Either way, better than sitting on the couch all day! And don’t forget to put the work in on your hangboard. Seriously. You’ll be glad, when the time comes...

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