As an athlete and a coach, I believe that an organized, effective, and efficient training plan is the best way to improve your climbing strengths, target your weaknesses, and help you get to the next level. That said, deciding which training plan is right for you can be a daunting endeavor. What I have done here is set forth what I feel are the foundations for any successful climbing training plan. Whether you're designing your own plan, trying out a pre-made plan, or working with a climbing coach, if your training is focused primarily on these areas, you are on the right track.
NOTE: The more individualized a plan, the more effective it can be. I highly encourage you enlist the help of a coach/ trainer of some sort. It is important to remember that climbing is a skill sport first and foremost, and as long as you don’t have an injury prohibiting you from climbing, practicing your skills on the wall should be the primary focus of your training/climbing life. For the vast majority of climbers, everything I have identified below should be seen as a supplement to actual climbing, not a replacement for it.
Now, onto the foundations of training for climbing!
As it turns out, finger strength is the most significant determining factor of climbing strength. From a training perspective, you can never have too much finger strength, and increasing finger strength should be a priority in any climbing training program.
If the holds feel bigger, you use less power to pull on them and less energy to hold onto them. This means you will have more power for those crux moves, and you will get less pumped as you are punching it to the chains.
The hangboard might be boring, but it is our best tool for increasing finger strength. There’s a lot of different things that you can do on a hangboard, but I think the foundation for any hangboard training is being able to hang an edge in a proper ½ crimp. In other words, hang with your fingers halfway between and open-handed position and a closed fist. I use 10 second hangs on a 15-20 mm edge as the base for my finger training program and I increase the resistance to make it more challenging. I think this basic protocol is great for beginner and experts alike.
Once you feel comfortable hanging in ½ crimp try five sets of 10-second hangs with 3-4 minute rests in between. If you can’t do that at body weight move up to a larger edge. If that’s too easy, increase the resistance. When it comes to selecting a hangboard, I prefer wood. The tried and true Beastmaker 1000 is a great and versatile hangboard that I highly recommend. My good friends at Tension climbing are also designing all sorts of all wood training tools that will help you develop fingers of steel.
Just like with our fingers, your core can really never be too strong. Especially once you start climbing on overhanging terrain, core strength becomes a huge factor. Ever notice how your feet start to cut more on that steep wall when you start getting tired? Although footwork is always worth practicing and improving it might be a lack of core strength that’s the real issue.
When I talk about core strength, I am not just talking about abs. Sure, that six pack looks great, but doing more crunches is only going to get you so far. Our core is the whole center of our body and our lower back. Engagement with our whole posterior chain is just as important as our abdominals. Think about trying to maintain tension on an overhanging wall, and squeeze your butt cheeks, tighten your lower back and engage your lats. All of that is core! So we train it all to be strong and stable. One of my favorite core exercises is a Turkish Get Up. I also really like using the gymnastic rings (see photos below) to build body tension only, and big power lifts to help build full core strength. The Deadlift might be the single best core exercise there is.
It’s one thing to be able to hold onto the holds. It’s quite another to be able to pull on them so that you can reach the next holds. This is starting to get into the difference between strength and power. The next time you have a move that’s giving you trouble try this test. Can you hang on the holds? If so, you have enough strength to use them––so maybe it’s a lack of power that’s keeping you from reaching the next holds. Developing pull power is another critical component of climbing training. For me the campus board is still one of the best places to develop explosive pull power.
In the following video I’ll show you two examples of medium to advanced campus methods. WARNING: If you're new to campusing, start slow and easy! Go one rung at a time to start. Finger injuries are common with campus exercises, and you don't often see them coming. So listen to your body and ease into it!
Flat out getting pumped? Having enough endurance is certainly important when trying to send long routes. In my opinion, however, there are better ways to avoid getting super pumped than simply logging hours and miles of laps on the lead wall in the gym. Using the concept of interval training, we can use a bouldering wall to train for routes. It can be a more effective way to build up the energy systems we need to continue to try hard on longer routes. Marathon runners don't just run long distances to get better, they also do speed work on the track.
Applying these basic principles is at the heart of any successful climbing training plan. Determining which to prioritize and at what level is appropriate for you is a big part of what I do at The Front Training Room in Salt Lake City. We start by individually assessing each athlete, based on the results as well as your goals and priorities. We then build an individualized training program designed to help you achieve your goals and up your levels. For more info about The Training Room or about working with me, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
After over 12 years of hard climbing Dan still has the enthusiasm and love for climbing that he did when he first started. He is continually trying to improve and is always excited to learn from, and share with, other people who have a passion for climbing.
In the last two years, Dan’s dedication to his own training has turned into a passion for coaching others. The countless hours he has spent trying to improve his own climbing, strength, confidence and mental approach have amounted to a knowledge base that he now applies successfully to helping climbers of all ability levels. Most recently Dan has started working as a climbing trainer/coach at The Training Room at the Front Climbing Gym in Salt Lake City, Utah.
All photos: @mpincus87