Just as my brain is processing that my right hand needs to grab the knob above my head, it starts: the dreaded sewing-machine leg—that uncontrollable bobbing from leg fatigue. I get hold of the knob, but it seems to be harder to grip than I expected, and my forearm begins to burn. “Resting!” I call to my belayer after only a few more seconds, and sit back in my harness for recovery.
Climbing continues to surge in popularity, especially as rock gyms pop up and flourish across the Northeast, allowing climbers to keep their passion alive throughout the year. For beginners, AMC offers introductory courses with skilled instructors who know how climbing can tax muscles most of us aren’t used to using, especially for those of us whose jobs require typing at a desk all day. “The biggest challenge I see for beginners is holding on to small things,” says Wes Huang, instructor and program director of the Boston Chapter’s rock-climbing program.
Still, climbing is much more about skill than strength. “Climbing is first and foremost a technique sport, like golf or tennis,” says performance coach Eric Hörst, author of eight books including Training for Climbing. The best thing you can do to improve this winter is focus on technique at a climbing gym, he says. No access? Then work on fitness—and your strength, so it’s not a limiting factor. In addition to staying fit aerobically (Huang likes swimming, for the way it works the shoulders in a non-aggressive way), Hörst recommends doing rock climbing exercises twice per week.
Finger hangs: To build climbing-specific hand strength, hang from a pull-up bar with only the first two joints of your fingers. “Your hand should be in a C-shape, with no palm touching the bar,” says Hörst. Maintain tension through the shoulder and a very slight bend in the elbows, to protect your joints. Do 3 to 5 sets of 1-minute hangs (3 minutes rest between).
Varied-grip pull-ups: The pull-up is the single best climber’s exercise—it works all the key muscles of your arms and shoulders, says Hörst. Do 3 sets of 8 to 12 pull-ups (3 minutes rest between), and change the location of your grip for each set. First set: Place hands shoulder-width apart. Second set: Move hands one foot farther apart. Third set: Bring hands together, fists should be touching. Did you feel how each variation works different parts of your upper body? If pull-ups are too hard, have a partner help lift you up (or use a chair underneath the bar), then, by yourself, lower your body down slowly.
Shoulder press: “It’s very important for injury prevention to work the opposing muscles—the pushing ones—in your shoulders,” says Hörst. Standing or sitting, hold dumbbells with arms bent at 90 degrees on either side of your head, then press straight up overhead until the dumbbells meet. Slowly lower back down to the starting position. Do 2 sets of 8 to 12 reps, using dumbbells of anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds.
Arm lift plank: This variation adds climbing-like movement to the standard core exercise. Position only your forearms and toes on the floor. Keep a flat back and engage your leg and core muscles. Hold for 1 minute, alternately reaching one arm off the ground in front of you for 10 seconds at a time. Repeat the set 3 to 6 times. To make it harder: As you lift your arm, lift the opposite leg, too.
Squats: It might seem unusual for climbers to do squats, says Hörst, but this exercise works the whole body, from hands to toes, and especially your hip extensors, which are key to lower-body stability. With feet shoulder-width apart, rest a weightlifting bar behind the neck with your hands gripping wide and arms pulling down to activate the core. Next, lower downward as if sitting in a chair—knees should track out over the feet and not inward—until the upper legs reach near parallel with the floor, then rise back up to starting position. Do 2 sets of 12 reps with light to moderate weight, 50 to 75 percent of your body weight.
Feel like you’re ready to learn the ropes? Find an AMC rock climbing course near you.