Strengthen Your Other Links: Training for Weird Moves
Training time is precious, and we tend to focus on the main event in climbing: pulling down. But the best climbers can do any move the rock throws at them.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 245 (October 2017).
Despair! You powered your way through the steep, crimpy crux, only to get shut down by a high-step, straightforward standup move on the upper slab. Almost as bad as the time you had your hands on top of the boulder but couldn’t mantel out. Or what about when you couldn’t do the heel hook that worked so well for everyone else?
Training time is precious, and we tend to focus on the main event in climbing: pulling down. These days most training literature centers around hangboards, campus boards or anything involving hard pulling, with a bit of supportive conditioning thrown in. It’s easy to neglect training for other moves, the ones that pop up infrequently. But the best climbers can do any move the rock throws at them.
It’s not just about trying problems in a wide variety of styles: to be a truly versatile climber, take the time for a minimum amount of applied training for any technique. Many exercises for “alternative moves” will work the antagonist (opposition) muscles, so the training has a huge benefit of helping prevent the common climbing injuries associated with muscular imbalance. Additionally you’ll be more susceptible to tweaks if you try to crank these moves without doing the supportive conditioning.
The ideal time to train for alternative moves is at the end of a climbing session, so reserve the time and energy. Yet it may be more convenient to do the exercises on rest days, say, at the gym during your lunch break or at home in the evenings. Aim for a minimum of one session and a maximum of three per week. While the routine only takes 15 to 30 minutes, it’s unrealistic to expect to keep it up indefinitely, so shoot for two or three times a week for a couple of months, reduce to once a week for a similar period, then step it back up again and so on.
Start a training campaign by doing three sets of 10 of the below exercises for two to three weeks to build essential base strength. Then drop the reps to between four and six, and do four or five sets per exercise, all except the warm-up set, to failure. Meanwhile, keep trying the target moves on rock as well to promote technique.
Ancillary training shouldn’t take center stage, but when you come across any of these moves, you’ll thank yourself for making the effort. Not much in climbing is given to you, and this type of training could tip the scales and turn a weakness into a strength or a dream into reality.
FOR STANDUP MOVES
It goes against the grain for climbers to train their legs, since gaining muscle bulk in the glutes and quads makes us more bottom heavy. The best exercise, however, which works balance and coordination as well as strength, is the one-legged pistol squat. Simply crouch down and sit on one heel, with the other leg hovering straight out in front of you, heel off the floor. Now simply try to stand up using your arms for balance only. If you can’t, get partial assistance from a finger or thumb on a chair.
You probably won’t build much leg bulk because you’re unlikely to manage more than four or five reps! If you can do more than two or three, you are probably strong enough without the training.
MANTELS AND GASTONS
Full-blown mantels rarely crop up on sport routes but gaston-press moves are ubiquitous and may catch you out if unprepared. You can build the strength you need with exercises that emphasize the pecs, front deltoids and triceps. The best for mantels are dips, performed either on parallel bars or while seated and using suspension straps. To isolate the shoulder component of a Gaston move, dumbbell raises work well, done both to the side and to the front. If you have no weights, use a high-resistance exercise band (Theraband).
To isolate the tricep component for press moves, do overhead triceps extensions using suspension straps. Start standing or kneeling behind the straps. Hold them with palms down, lean forward and pull the straps out in front of you, then curl your arms back so that your hands touch the top of your head. Return to the starting position and repeat. Alternatively, use dumbbells or narrow-grip press-ups with your elbows held close to your sides.
CALVES FOR SLABS
If you’re heading out on a slab crusade, it’s always advisable to do some calf raises first. If you’re training for boulder slabs, then add some weight and keep the reps between four and six to train strength. If you intend to climb trad or multi-pitch routes, then do endurance sets of 30-plus reps and hold each rep for at least 10 seconds to receive the maximum burn. This will work well to help you avoid the dreaded calf cramps and leg shakes.
Some climbers naturally toe hook effortlessly, whereas others have hardly any such shin strength. If you fall into the second category, you may have shied away from toe hooking.
You can build shin strength easily, however. The best exercise is to hang from a bar from your feet using a hand for balance and assistance if necessary.
If your pull-up bar is high up then use suspension straps for safety, with a hand on the ground for help. Simply hold the hanging position for eight to 15 seconds (or failure). This exercise can also be done for longer durations—say, 45 seconds to one minute—using greater assistance from your arm. Climbers who can use bat-hangs for sport climbing are able to take their hands off and gain incredible rests.
There’s a world of difference between dangling passively from a heel hook on a large, positive hold and cranking one on a marginal, sloping feature for a compression- style move. Again, many climbers struggle in such a case, and the way to go, other than practicing these moves frequently, is to strengthen up your hamstrings.
The best exercise is the lying hamstring curl, either on a standard leg-curl machine in a multi-gym, or—better yet—using suspension straps. For that method, lie on your back with your arms by your sides and your feet in the straps approximately 12 inches off the floor (Fig. A). Push your legs up out in front of you so your body is straight and then (Fig. B) curl your legs back, bringing your heels as close to your backside as possible and your torso to an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the floor. Tense your hamstrings and glutes, maintaining stable posture, hold for two or three seconds, and return to the starting position. Repeat.
When you are trying to hug a narrow arete or prow, you may lack the strength to crush. Die-hard boulderers tend to shine on these moves, but they practice constantly, and many perform supportive training, too. The best M exercise is a pec-fly, holding weights out to your sides and pulling them together in front of CM your chest, as performed on a weight bench, an exercise ball with dumbbells, or suspension CY (TRX) straps. Push-ups, in both a wide and narrow position, are CMY the next-best thing. You will also benefit from good pinch strength for narrow compression moves and open-handed strength for wide moves, so work these grips regularly on a hangboard, as well as doing plenty of work for your core such as front-levers, straight-leg raises and dorsal raises.
If you’ve ever tried to hang from a knee-bar rest on steep terrain for more than a minute, you’ll have felt your abs and calves slowly start to cook. Crunch sit-ups work wonders here, especially if you lock your feet down and hold a weight on your chest. Do these in combination with the calf raises. No need for rocket science with reps and sets here: as my former coach, the knee-bar master Stevie Haston once said, “Just do ’em!”
Neil Gresham, an all-arounder, has coached climbing for over 20 years.