Climbers often ask me if lifting weights will make them better at climbing. The answer is no. As Steve Bechtel reminds us, “Climbing is a skill sport,” and the only way to improve a skill is to practice the skill. Sure, you’ll eventually need to employ climbing-specific training methods, but even those will still look a lot like climbing (hangboards, systems boards, and the like).
So it’s simple: climbers should only climb to get better at climbing, and avoid the weight room at all costs, unless they want to get bulky and slow. Right?
Here’s the thing. If you do one thing (rock climbing) over and over, you will eventually earn muscle imbalances and injuries. You think you’re the exception to the rule. In that case, please email me in a decade so that I can know what it’s like to receive an email from one of the genetic elites. Simply put, training with weights is the quickest, safest way to incrementally increase your total-body strength and guard against imbalances.
That said, you are a rock climber, and rock climbing is a skill sport. So you don’t want to waste any time in the weight room. You need the minimum effective dose of weight training, and you should spend the rest of your time practicing climbing.
As it turns out, you are in luck. It doesn’t take hours upon hours in the gym to gain strength. You don’t need to think about Leg Day, Back & Biceps, or Chest & Triceps. These are leftovers from the bodybuilding era that your high school coaches most likely lived through. And I’m not hating on bodybuilding, here. I’m a Schwarzenegger and Stallone fan from way back. I’m just saying that the bodybuilding methodology is not the best fit for rock climbers (among other athletes).
It’s time that climbers learned that there is more to lifting weight than getting big. You can build strength without size. You can build a balanced physique that can endure the rigors of hard climbing. Here’s how.
- Use compound movements. This means that more than one joint moves when you’re doing the exercise.
- Keep the reps at 5 or less. Any more than this and you will likely build non-functional muscle mass. If you’ve ever been told that “low reps + heavy weight build mass,” then please know that whoever told you that was wrong.
- Never go to failure. Always leave a rep or two in the tank. For many of you, this will be the hardest rule to follow, but try to be mature in the weight room. Remember, Hemingway always stopped writing for the day when he knew what would happen next. Take the same approach. Leave some ink in the well.
Below is an example of how a climber might set up a strength training program. All of the fundamental movement patterns are covered. The sessions will take less than an hour each. It’s going to take a few months, but you will get strong. If you don’t believe me, try it out and let me know what happens. Come to one of my fitness classes and we can talk more.
|Goblet Squat / Halo||Press||Weighted Pull-up||Deadlift|
|12-20kg Kettlebell||6 Rep Max||6 Rep Max||6 Rep Max|
|Goblet Squat x 5||x 3|
|Halo x 5 Left / 5 Right|
|1||5 x 3||5 x 3||10 x 1|
|2||5 x 4||5 x 4||5 x 2|
|3||5 x 5||5 x 5||3 x 3|
|4||Add 5 pounds and start over||Add 5 pounds and start over||Add 10 pounds and start over|
- Do this two days per week, always with at least one rest day in between. Day 2 each week will be exactly the same as Day 1. Enjoy it.
- If you climb outside on the weekends, then Tuesday/Thursday would be the ideal days for these sessions.
- If you’re climbing in the gym on the same day as lifting, always climb first.
- Once the weight starts to get feel like it’s near max, decrease the weight by 15% and start a new cycle.
- If you stall at the same weight more than once, switch to a different program.
This program is dead simple. It’s absolutely effective. And it will leave you plenty of time for climbing. If you enjoyed this, you may also be interested in my article on progressive overload training.
If you’re unsure of how to execute any of these lifts or if anything above is unclear, please ask for Taylor at the front desk. I’ll probably be around.
Power To The People. Pavel Tsatsouline, 1999.
Logical Progression. Steve Bechtel, 2017.
Easy Strength. Dan John & Pavel Tsatsouline, 2011.
Intervention. Dan John, 2013.
8 thoughts on “Lifting Weights for Better Climbing”
is the ‘Press’ a leg, shoulder, or chest press?
Any type of upper-body pushing movement will work here—kettlebell press, bench press, pushup, etc.
Let me know if you have any other questions!
Week 4 says add 5 pounds and start over. Does that mean that week 4 is week 1 +5lbs? Additionally, if I wanted to add squats to this workout would I substitute it with deadlifts for a week or can it just be added on?
That’s correct—week 4 is week 1 +5lbs.
You can definitely add squats! Put them in the circuit in between Presses & Pull-ups. Any of these variations would be appropriate—double kettlebell front squat, pistol squat, goblet squat, Bulgarian split squat.
Let me know if you have any other questions!
In the program does sets or reps come first?
Good question. It is Sets x Reps—5 x 3 means 5 sets of 3 reps. Let me know if you have any other questions!
What is the recommended rest time in between sets?
Thanks for the question. For strength development, take at least 2 minutes between sets; up to 5 minutes is fine, too. Strength loves rest!