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Training for Climbing – Part 1

We’ve teamed up with Neil Collins from Blackbrook Crossfit based near Ditchling Common in Sussex to bring you a couple of articles on training and improving your climbing.

About Tom and Neil

Tom Hatt
Tom Hatt

Tom – When not getting shot or blown up in his day job as a stuntman, Tom runs a range of our courses and instructor training.

Fitness Instructor and former Royal Marine Commando. Over the years, Tom has put his body through its paces and generally broken it!

Neil Collins

Neil – Company director of Blackbrook Crossfit, a former Royal Marine Commando, Fitness and Crossfit Instructor. What Neil doesn’t know about fitness and training isn’t worth knowing.

While both have a huge love of sport and training, they also have a love of life and enjoy the balanced side to things including a few beers! This article is not for elite athletes, but is aimed at giving those interested a basic understanding of how to improve their fitness for climbing.

Part 1

Playing around with perfecting balance for climbing

This month we are going to look at winter training for climbing. Most of us will not be lucky enough to head to warmer climbing spots such as the south of Spain or Thailand and, as such, will spend more time in the climbing walls honing our skills, strength, stamina and flexibility. Those that are heading to warmer climates are also probably climbing indoors, trying to ensure they get the most out of their trip abroad.

In this post we will look at the basic theory behind physical fitness and a training session. Part 2 will look at the actual session, weekly and monthly training programs, and future progression.

Components of Physical Fitness

There are 10 components of physical fitness:

  1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance – The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.
  2. Stamina – The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.
  3. Strength – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
  4. Flexibility – the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
  5. Power – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
  6. Speed – The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.
  7. Coordination – The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
  8. Agility – The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.
  9. Balance – The ability to control the placement of the bodies centre of gravity in relation to its support base.
  10. Accuracy – The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.

Your overall fitness, not just your climbing ability, can be described by how proficient you are in these 10 skills.

Climbing Fitness

So when it comes to climbing, what do we need? Well we need all of the components in a balanced amount.

Picture a climber severely deficient in agility, balance, and/or coordination… Or in strength, stamina, and flexibility…

Depending on your personal goals, you may decide to concentrate on weaker areas, or train specific type of climbing. For example, people often want to be able to climb over-hangs. For this you will need to improve muscular strength, endurance and improve technique (agility, balance and co-ordination). However if your goal is to go multi-pitch sport climbing in the Mediterranean then you would be more concerned with muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness.

Training Session

Circuit classes are perfect for building up cardiovascular fitness for climbing

A training session can be divided into 3 main areas: the warm-up, main activity and a cool down.

1. Mobilisation

Mobilisation or ‘limbering up’ is simply getting the synovial fluid moving around the joints, lubricating and protecting the joints before the activity. This means performing slow gentle rhythmic movements of the major body joints such as; neck twists, shoulder circles, elbow bends, wrists circles, spinal twists, hip circles, knee bends, ankle circles etc.

2. Warm Up

The goal of a warm up is to prepare (warm) the body for exercise and gradually raise the heart rate. Warm up exercises should be at an intensity level of about 40-70% of your maximum and should take somewhere in-between 3-5 minutes depending on how cold/stiff you are feeling. There are 2 types of warm-up:

General Warm Up

This involves warming the whole body (usually the major muscle groups) but is not related to the proposed activity. For example jogging on the spot, running, press ups etc. do not specifically prepare the body for an exercise such as climbing but they do get the body warm and are good as they allow you to train according to your needs.

Specific Warm Up

A specific warm up is directly related to the activity being performed and also stimulates the neuromuscular pathways of the muscles about to be used. So for climbing this would be starting off with some easy climbs. For example; this could consist of 2-3 easy multi-coloured routes, climbing up and then climbing down. This gives you longer for the muscles to warm up and the added benefit of learning the art of down climbing (comes in handy when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew when leading harder routes outdoors!!).

3. Pre-Stretch

The pre-stretch is used to give you a full range of movement during the ‘main activity’ minimising the risk of injury. This is especially useful on those ‘reachy’ moves or delicate ‘balancy’ slabs! The stretch should be applied to the main muscle groups and held for 6-10 seconds.

4. Re-warm

During the pre-stretch phase the body will naturally start to cool so it is important to re-warm the body before going all out. This can take the form of 1-2 more climbs (harder than the warm up) but at the lower end of your climbing grade.

Main Activity

Strength training and building a strong base are core skills for climbing

This is the main session where you should achieve your training goals. This will vary from person to person and is usually designed to be either cardiovascular or resistance (strength / endurance) in nature. When it comes to climbing at the wall most people just keeping climbing the hardest thing they can, gradually tire, and call it a day. However, if you are climbing more than once a week and are serious about improving your climbing, then you will want to think about splitting your sessions up and concentrating on specific training outcomes. You will also need to train at home by adding in other sports and basic fitness routines.

Principles of Training

We are all beautiful and unique snowflakes, but despite our differing training needs, all successful programs have one thing in common: progressive overload.

In brief, progressive overload is the gradual increase in difficulty, weight, volume, intensity, frequency or time spent training in order to achieve a specific goal.

Cast your mind back to the beginning – remember the 10 physical skills? Cardiovascular / respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.

Improvements in any of these 10 skills come about through sensible practice and effective training. Basically, improvements come from doing a little bit more today than you did last time. That “little bit more”, week after week adds up to an enormous amount in a year…

In order to improve your performance you need to take your muscles to a slightly higher point than they have reached before, this is known as ‘overload’. Overload must be progressive and built up over a period of time, it must also change as the body will quickly adapt to a routine and you will stagnate if using the same program for too long.

Training Focus

Climbing will help develop all 10 physical skills simultaneously, but what if you wish to develop a specific aspect, or bring up a certain weakness?

Progressive overload must be specific. If you want to improve your cardiovascular / respiratory endurance you must do an activity that applies stress or stimuli to your heart and lungs.

If you want to get stronger, you must apply a stress or stimuli to your musculoskeletal system.

Cardiovascular Fitness – The heart is a muscle and the stronger it is, the further you can run, swim, and climb without becoming breathless.

Muscular Strength – Helps with that over hang, or those moves where you need a bit of explosive power.

Muscular Endurance – Muscles don’t fatigue as quickly, and ensure you can hold on for longer.

Flexibility – Allowing you move more freely and reach further.

Cardiovascular Fitness

The CV system is all about getting air (oxygen) to the lungs, thus improving your overall performance. This is best done using different sports (also known as cross-training) such as running, swimming, cycling, rowing rather than trying to achieve this at a climbing wall.

Training for Strength or Endurance

Splitting strength and endurance is quite easy when it comes to training in a gym as you can choose the desired weight (kg / lbs) and train accordingly. To train for strength a high resistance (heavy weight) x low repetitions (6-12 reps). To train for endurance low resistance (low weight) x high repetitions (15-25 reps). This is not so easily done in a climbing wall; however we will look at some methods in the next issue.

The Cool Down

A proper cool down is essential for reducing lactic acid build up and improves recovery

The cool down consists of 2 stages cooling down and the post-stretch.

Cool Down

The main aim of a cool down is to return your body to its pre-training state and this prevents blood from pooling in the legs and to avoid muscle stiffness. This can be achieved simply by making your last few climbs easier. You can do this by either bouldering for 5-10mins or dropping the grade of your last couple of climbs to the same grade as your warm up, and even do some down climbing again.


The post stretch is used to return the muscles to their original state and maintain a healthy range of movement. It can also be used to increase the range of movement which will help not only with your climbing performance but also with injuries, fatigue and poor posture.

Maintenance Stretching

Muscles will remain in a slightly contracted state (shorten) after training so as a minimum you should hold a stretch for 10-15 seconds to return them to their pre-training state. This will help to reduce muscular soreness and a healthy range of movement.

Developmental Stretching

To improve the range of movement you should hold the stretch for a minimum of 15-30 seconds, however many gymnasts and martial artists will hold stretches for much longer (30secs – 1 min).

Next month we will look at specific training sessions, weekly and month training programs and future progressions.

This Article is written by Tom Hatt and Neil Collins.

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