With some sports-specific training for rugged climbing, trainers can help ensure their clients ascend greater heights. Learn which body parts to prioritize, and the best exercise choices, and send your clients to the top by programming climbing training.

Lofty Goals

I always loved climbing trees as a child. In fact, when given the opportunity, I still enjoy it! Climbing as a sport has evolved from a young person’s outdoor pastime to an extreme hobby. According to data from the International Federation of Sport Climbing, nearly 1,000 people each day embrace this adventure for the first time, in the United States alone. The appeal of the sport in just about every country around the globe secured climbing a role in the next Summer Olympic Games.

A Climber’s Makeup: Physical and Psychological

This unique form of fitness requires power for explosive movements, balance when traveling up a sheer rock face, endurance in the fingers and hands, and a stable core. Participants must practice and master every one of these components in order to achieve optimal success. Genetically speaking, long fingers and fairly low bodyweight work in one’s favor and tend to define a typical climber’s physiology. Muscles of the shoulder and forearm serve the climber to the largest extent, while antagonists and stabilizer group muscles run a close second as safeguards against injuries.

Aerobic capacity stored within forearm flexors ensures a minimum of necessary pauses in the climb, optimizing for efficient movements.

Elite climbers might describe themselves as endowed with vigor and mental endurance. The combination of an innate ability to moderate tense situations and to remain clear-headed, thwarting off anxiety and fear invokes the moniker “iceberg profile”. Motivated intrinsically towards success, such individuals tend to shy away from extreme risk-taking; rather, they prefer relying upon instinct and confidence to navigate a safe, successful climb.

Get Specific with Training Techniques

Like most supports, the principle of adaptation applies to climbing training. The most desirable method of training for rock climbing requires engaging in the sport itself, either on an actual ascent in the field or simulated on a gym’s rock-climbing wall. However, one may accelerate the other necessary aspects of strength and endurance with more traditional training approaches. By augmenting climbs with other forms of cardiovascular exercise, endurance tends to build in a matter of weeks.

Even though climbing requires highly technical skills, participants still count on strength training to achieve the status of an elite climber and overall athlete. This element often gets neglected by very anxious beginners. However, like most athletes, climbers need to learn how to recruit all their muscle groups, not just those in the torso.

Building Functional Strength in Serious Climbers

When climbing, the full length of the body from fingertips to toes remains constantly engaged. Strength training, while admittedly not the sole requirement for climbing excellence, ought not get overlooked in the course of a complete training regimen.

Following a client’s “off-season”, about 7-8 weeks prior to embarking upon a serious outdoor climb, mastering the following develops a solid platform from which to spring towards more intense ascents. Familiar to most trainers, such moves can easily fit into any strength-building program.

Prior to starting a sports-specific regimen with more advanced climbers, a trainer can attempt to approximate or establish his client’s 1 RM. Once accomplished, begin the training at a load of 75-80% of his 1RM. As always, strive for exemplary form. Even though the client may feel as though he can execute a few more repetitions, ensure that he does not “go to failure” on any of these lifts.

~shoulder external rotation (resistance band)

~shoulder internal rotation (resistance band)

~jump squats

~pistols, also called single-leg squats

~side plank with lateral pulldown (resistance band)

~side plank with overhead press (resistance band)

~Renegade Row: push-up to single-arm row (dumbbells)

Here, the trainer can take note of any overt muscular imbalances, most importantly within the push/pull dynamic. This tends to combat the risk of common shoulder injuries, and often bothersome issues with hamstrings and knees as well.

When putting together a workout plan, knowing the primary muscles utilized when climbing can help the personal trainer decide on the appropriate antagonist muscles to include in training. Think of this as concentric and eccentric work. Attempt to focus on these smaller muscles once or twice a week.

A Beginner’s Training Program

When working with novice or inexperienced climbers, seek to prioritize volume, not focusing solely on complex movements. Volume training lends itself best to efficient climbing. Cultivating a tolerance to cope with the added strain that climbing puts on joints and tendons requires time. Warm-up’s include dynamic stretching and light cardio. Cooling down provides an ideal opportunity for static stretching and core work.

Below are a few examples of exercises to include in a beginner’s program:

Week One

Week Two

These exercises do not require a weight load of 75-80% of 1RM. Rather, very high volumes and lighter weights work optimally here. Aim for 3 sets of at least 20 repetitions.

The Core of the Matter

Core training for climbers need not take up a considerable amount of gym time. In fact, upon mastering the movements, trainers may wish to suggest that clients engage in core work every other day in the comfort of their homes.

Rarely do we find clients who have the time and/or resources to train with us as often as that, so supporting autonomy on core work can feel empowering for both parties involved. Once again, stress that clients remain vigilant with their form and execution.

Having built satisfactory skills, confidently tell your client, “Go take a hike!”


British Journal of Sports Medicine Volume 33, Issue 1, 1999, Pages 14-18
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2017 – Volume 31 – Issue 4 – p 963-970
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Volume 18, Issue 1, February 2004, Pages 77-83

Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!