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Climbing training approaches

Climbing should be about fun – climbing injuries are not fun! There are some key elements for all performance training that we can apply to climbing, they will prevent injury and allow you to progress effectively. Below are some topics you may find helpful:

Warm up / Main session / Warm down / Taping / Muscle imbalance / Training principles / Youth climbing / Further reading

Warm up

It’s difficult to get definite statistics on performance and best practice – we’re all different, but there has been some research done looking at sport specific warm ups. The message emerging from this work is that we need to focus on activating the muscle groups that are involved and follow some basic biomedical principles.

Try to have these elements in your warm up:

Pulse raiser – 2 to 3 minutes of aerobic activity to get the blood flowing.

Activate the muscles you’re going to use – reach, grip, press, twist, balance, bounce!

Dynamic stretches (5 seconds or so) are better than long static stretches (30 seconds or more) at this point, especially if we’re going to focus on power in the session. Lengthening muscle before getting it to contract as much as possible has been shown to reduce maximal output.

Theraband resistance exercises, light press-ups, quick yoga routines – whatever you like, mix it up – keep it interesting and fun!

Yoga – Great for balanced movement patterns and mental focus.

Yoga stand Yoga stretch Yoga downward dog Yoga upward dog

Theraband – Great specific and general resistance work, keep the movement slow and smooth to get the most out of it, hold good posture, work opposites.

Rotator cuff

Rotator cuff exercise Rotator cuff exercise

PNF rows – spark up movement patterns and muscle coordination.

Wrists – flexor and extensor work.

Wrist exercise Wrist exercise Wrist exercise Wrist exercise

Hand and fingers – ball squeeze, move through range, press, stretch.

Hand and fingers exercise

10-15 minutes of general warm up before main activity – for elite athletes, look at taking a little longer, especially if the session is going to involve high intensity work, i.e. dynamic powerful bouldering, campus board work etc.

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Main session

Start easy – wake up movement patterns and mental focus. Easy angle, big holds, smooth movement. We all have preferences depending on how our bodies work best as we have different muscle fibre mixtures of stamina, power and power stamina. We also have different qualities of collagen – some of this is genetic, some of it based on the input we give our bodies to adapt to. Knowing your own body helps here, but as you’re building on this knowledge, build intensity towards the middle of your session while you’re still fresh, taper off at the end.

Climbing wall session - warm up

Careful with wild moves at full stretch, this sudden dynamic loading, along with the classic unexpected foot popping off a hold, are probably the biggest causes of traumatic tendon injury in climbing.

Climbing wall session - dynamic moves

Full crimp position – although we need to train for these type of holds, be aware that they place the largest strain on the flexor tendons and their associated pulleys... Try to work more in half crimp or open hand positions. Be especially careful with crimping into mono pockets and during campus board work.

Full crimp position Full crimp position

Open hand position – reduced flexor strain.

Open hand position open hand position

Don’t train tired – especially for high intensity work. As we fatigue, we start to lose our fine motor skills and proprioception. This is prime time for injury – be careful with that 'one last go!’

Hydrate well – what’s easier to break – dry spaghetti or cooked spaghetti?!

Gravity – KEEP ALERT – if you’re going to fall, be aware of your landing zone. Be a cat, not a sack of potatoes!!

Climb safe – know what you’re doing, either for roped climbing or bouldering. If climbing at an indoor wall, follow their safety rules. Look after each other – everyone has that ‘out to lunch’ moment! If you don’t know what you’re doing, find someone who does and learn!

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Warm down

Pulse raiser – 2 to 3 minutes aerobic activity, returns metabolites created by exercise back through the circulatory system.

Long static stretches of main muscle groups, 30 seconds or longer – especially finger and wrist flexors/extensors, pecs and biceps to regain full muscle length, avoiding adaptive shortening and muscle imbalance. If you have any tight areas: hamstrings, back etc. get them stretched too!

Climbing wall stretches Climbing wall stretches Climbing wall stretches Climbing wall stretches Climbing wall stretches Climbing wall stretches Climbing wall stretches

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This is not an attempt at comprehensive taping techniques for climbing – just some basic ideas looking at supportive taping for fingers, wrists and elbows. Tape won’t stop injury, it will only give a little more support to an area and give some proprioceptive input to a structure as it starts to come under load. Always allow for the demands of a fully contracted limb – bloodflow and oxygenation are useful things!! Think about the structure you’re trying to support, be specific to the attachments / ligaments / pulleys / joints you want to limit or back up. Hairy arms? Think about shaving!!

Fingers – Figure of 8 taping to support A2, A3 and A4 pulleys. Not too tight! Use narrow strips of tape to allow some flexibility at the joint while supporting the tendon at the side of the pulley.

Finger taping Finger taping

Wrist flexor support – 2 layers – lay on in overlapping halves to allow a little give. Could be used a little higher to support the wrist joint itself, have a look round for commercially available braces here too.

Wrist taping Wrist taping

Elbow taping for epicondylitis / osis – lay on from inside of the elbow to distal (hand) side of the medial epicondyle.

Elbow taping

Pump up the arm to allow for maximum circumference (or you’ll get pumped later!) and take round the arm.

Elbow taping

Release arm and lay the tape round to join back at the inside of the elbow.

Pat the tape down – should see creases, if not it’s probably too tight.

Elbow taping

Can put further support down the arm – overlapping halves as with the wrist. Can use 2 layers.

Creases before pull up

Taping - creases

No creases!

Taping - no creases

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Muscle imbalance

A perfect symmetrical posture and balanced neuromuscular system is a rarity, generally we all pick up our own behavioural movement patterns, injuries and other foibles as we move through life. We are always adapting to external influences, be it slumping on a couch watching daytime TV or competing in triathlons - it’s all about finding a healthy balance with these influences.

Climbing tends to demand some specific strengths from the body, these are going to vary as to the type of climbing you do. If we concentrate more on one type, let’s say steep bouldering, we tend to narrow our specificity down to a few key elements. These would be finger, wrist, and elbow flexors, lat dorsi, pecs and biceps. Although these are the upper body muscles that ‘get the job done', if we forget about stabilising muscles which balance these muscles, we set ourselves up for injury. Commonly weaker structures in climbers tend to be the core, mid / lower traps, rotator cuff, brachialis and the wrist and finger extensors.

Imagine a pyramid representing activity and performance in a population. For those climbing at a moderate level, and perhaps doing some other sports, this imbalance does not become as apparent; they would be midway on that pyramid. At its top would be the elite climbers – with the peak of performance, comes the peak of possible injury as these structures are given more load. As we get closer to the top of this pyramid, it becomes more important to be doing some work on training core and stabilising structures to avoid injury.

If injury looms, think about lowering the pyramid with some cross training and taking the strain off our compromised structures. You might even find something else you enjoy!!

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Training principles

Good performance and progression come from hard work: building confidence, developing automatic movement patterns, building specific strengths for the activity we want to do. Decide what you want out of your climbing and start to develop the elements you need to get there. If it’s a little bit of everything, and as much fun as you can have along the way, then just mix it up and keep it regular. If there are weaknesses in your performance, for example stamina, you need to focus on them for your body to adapt.

Muscle will adapt to training within three weeks, while tendons and ligaments take several months to see changes. Be aware that there are many different body types, from the bendy hypermobile who can often develop tendon inflammation, to the stocky power-unit who seems to be unbreakable. Be prepared to modify your training to what suits you.

Here’s a few basic ideas to help you:

- Muscle type

There are three different muscle types:

Type I – Aerobic, slow twitch stamina fibres
Type IIa – Power-stamina fibres
Type IIb – Anaerobic, fast twitch power fibres

We all have different mixes in different muscle groups depending on genetics and adaption. An Olympic sprinter might have 80% type IIb fibres in their quads. Here we might think of the different requirements of alpinism, sport climbing and bouldering.

What do you need?

- How to get it...

Think of the heaviest weight you could possibly lift – that’s your single rep max. – your absolute power, highest intensity (normally we reserve this for lifting cars off loved ones!!).

Once we have an idea of maximum intensity, or hardest single climbing move, then we can start to think about training our different muscle types by the volume of exercise and the frequency with which we do it.

Type I – 15 to 20 reps of 30% or so of your single rep max.
Type IIa – 10 reps of 60% or so of single rep max.
Type IIb – 6 reps of 80% or so of rep max.

It’s easy enough to put this into a climbing context – number of boulder problems in a session, sport climbs – volume being number of moves, frequency being rest times between problems or routes. Also think of frequency as the number of sessions you can cope with in a week – power training sessions might take 2 or 3 days to recover from fully, whereas stamina sessions could be consecutive days with phased difficulty levels and less rest days. Remember what we said about not training for power when you’re tired?!

A nice way to train for any strength activity is to look at doing 3 or 4 sets/phases of reps; resting for the same amount of time it took you to do the reps/group of problems/bunch of routes, then doing another set and so on. The first set should feel steady, you should be working hard by the last set. The closer we get to our single rep max, the closer to failure to complete and the fewer the reps. Try and peak difficulty in the middle of the session.

- Phased training

As muscles tend to adapt fastest to their loading over a 3 week period, this is a good way to structure your training, focussing in on making gains in one aspect, say stamina, for one phase, power/stamina the next 3 weeks. To make sure you keep maximum contraction capability in the muscle spindles, always keep a little bit of power work going.

When approaching a specific trip or prime season, focus in on the elements you want most in the phase leading up to it. At the end of this phase, taper off and have shorter, less intense sessions. Work on your on-sighting skills and get your head in gear to concentrate on some serious showboating!!

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Youth climbing – Training considerations and guidance for parents

With the growth of indoor climbing, more and more children are enjoying climbing and pushing their standards. As the body is still developing into late teenage years, there are a few physiological differences that we need to consider when we look at the potential stresses of high standard climbing.

Perhaps the key thing here is to have fun and enjoy learning about a sport – however the fire of competition burns in us all, young and not so young! The climbing community as a whole can support good practice here. We need to foster good injury prevention awareness, careful route setting and pass on a respect for the ideals which make climbing special.

There has been some great evidence-based work done recently by Audry Morrison and Volker Schoeffl on this topic, informing the British Mountaineering Council in some recent guidance on the key issues.
Follow these links to find out more:

Campus board - PDF
Young people - A parent’s guide - PDF
Physiological responses to rock climbing in young climbers - PDF

For more information visit

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Further reading

Neil Gresham
Dan Hague, Self-coached climber: The guide to movement, training, performance
Dave Macleod, 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes
Tom Patey, One man’s mountains
Libby Peter, Rock climbing: Essential skills and techniques


Hochholzer and Schoeffl, One move too many..., 2006
Khan and Brukner, Clinical sports medicine, 3rd edition, 2006
Morrison and Schoeffl, Physiological responses to rock climbing in young climbers

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Training photos taken at Indy Climbing Wall, Anglesey, North Wales
© Jethro Kiernan

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