Climbing involves much more than upper-body strength, says Zack DiCristino, a Salt Lake City-based physical therapist with USA Climbing and lead therapist for the U.S. national and Olympic climbing teams.
It should be initiated through the feet and legs with the arms assisting, says Mr. DiCristino. “It’s similar to a baseball pitcher,” he says. “The muscles below the shoulder generate the power, and the arm goes along for the ride.” In many scenarios, climbers rely on leg and core strength to press themselves forward and upward when they can only use their hands for balance on holds.
A strong core helps with balance as well as body control. “As a climber, you want to have your center of gravity in an optimal position at all times for balance and preparation for the next move,” says Mr. DiCristino. “When a climber jumps for a hold or swings away from the wall they need to be able to decelerate those motions to avoid falling and get their feet back to the wall.” In everyday life, a strong core and good body awareness can help you stay upright if you slip on ice or regain your balance if you trip on the sidewalk, he says.
Because climbers are often pulling or pushing with their shoulders and arms when they climb, they need to be diligent about training the small stabilizing muscles around the shoulders to prevent injuries, he says.
Mr. DiCristino likes to add resistance bands to exercises like planks and pull-ups to help cue the stabilizer muscles around the shoulder to fire, and to help reinforce proper movement patterns. Having healthy shoulders makes pulling on a rock hold, or reaching for a jar on a shelf, easier, he says. If you don’t have a resistance band at home, he suggests using a pair of nylons or suspenders. A TRX strap can be substituted with a dog leash or yoga strap.
Why: This exercise helps build the balance, stability and leg strength climbers need to stand up using one leg from positions where the knees are fully bent, while keeping their body close to the rock, he says.
How: Start in a kneeling lunge position. Push down through the front foot to rise out of the lunge, bending forward at the trunk by hinging at the hip while keeping the back straight. Reach both arms straight out in front of you as you extend your back leg behind you. Your body should make a “T” shape. Try to keep your back flat and parallel with the floor and hips square rather than tilted. Slowly drop back into a lunge position. Do three sets of 10 reps on each side.
Option: Place a resistance band around your hands to incorporate the upper body.
Plié Squats With Overhead Reach
Why: This version of a squat is more specific to the way climbers position and move themselves on the rock, says Mr. DiCristino. Like regular squats, they target the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings, but also recruit the hip adductors and hip external rotators. This version also helps promote hip mobility, he says.
How: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, arms by your sides. Turn your feet out so that your knees are pointed away from one another. Bend at the knees, hips and ankles, keeping your back straight and your knees in line with your feet. Raise your arms overhead as you squat down. Press through your heels and squeeze your glutes as you rise. End by pressing through the balls of the feet and bringing the arms down by your sides. Do three sets of eight to 10 reps.
Option: Add resistance by putting on a loaded backpack.
One-Arm Row With Strap
Why: “Rows work the muscles around the shoulder blade such as the rhomboids and middle trapezius, which are important for posture and proper movement patterns at the shoulder complex, especially with pulling-type maneuvers,” says Mr. DiCristino. “By doing a one-arm version you also challenge your stabilizing muscles at the spine.”
How: Wrap a strap around a secure anchor point like a tree branch, fence or banister at head height. You can also tie a large knot on the end of a strap and place it at the top of the door, closing the door so the knot is on the other side as an anchor, says Mr. DiCristino. Hold the strap with your right hand, keeping the arm straight in front of you and extend your left arm straight behind you. Your feet should be hip-width apart and your trunk rotated away from the strap. Slowly lean back keeping your trunk, hips and legs in a straight line. The further back you lean the more challenging the exercise. Perform a row by first pulling your shoulder blade back and down. Avoid shrugging or rounding the shoulder. As you rise, bring your left arm forward and straight in front of you, rotating through your right shoulder. Slowly return to the starting position. Do three sets of six to eight reps on each side.
Option: Step one foot behind you for more stability. Start with a two-arm row if this is difficult.
W Into Overhead Press With Strap
Why: “Climbers can develop muscle imbalances at the shoulder which can lead to injury,” he says. “This exercise can help correct imbalances by strengthening the posterior rotator cuff and lower trapezius muscles, which are essential for shoulder stability and proper shoulder mechanics.”
How: Place a TRX strap around a stable anchor at shoulder height. Hold one end of the strap in each hand and lean back slightly keeping the arms straight in front of you. Squeeze the shoulder blades back and down as you pull your hands into a “W”-shape position. The palms of your hands should end facing forward. Your elbows should line up with your shoulders. Then press your hands up and slightly out to form a “Y.” Return to start. Do three sets of eight to 10 reps.
Option: Challenge yourself by leaning back further, which adds more resistance.
Plank Triceps Press Into Side Plank With Band
Why: “Planks develop some degree of strength and endurance of the core stabilizers, but we are rarely stationary as we are in plank pose,” says Mr. DiCristino. “Combining core activation and body tension with movement teaches us how to learn stability in a more realistic scenario.” This version also strengthens the triceps, and works on stability at the spine and hips. Adding the band will challenge shoulder stability.
How: Start holding a resistance band in a forearm plank. Press through your hands, straightening the elbows to rise into a plank. Keep your right hand on the ground as you rotate your body to the left into a side-plank position. Pull the resistance band up toward the sky with the left hand. Your hips should stack on top of each other. Slowly return to start. Do three sets of 10 reps on each side.
Option: Applying more tension on the band will challenge the shoulders more. Raise your top foot to challenge your balance and core. Step your feet out wider at the start for more stability.
Pull Ups With Band Around Forearms
Why: “Placing a resistance band around the forearms helps cue part of the rotator cuff and the muscles between our shoulder blades to prevent the shoulders from rolling forward, facilitating ideal form,” he explains.
How: Place the band around the forearms right below the elbows. Start the pull up by initiating at the shoulder blades, pulling them down. Don’t let the band pull the elbows forward and inward. Avoid rounding or shrugging the shoulders and flaring out the elbows by meeting the bar with your chest. Do three sets of six to eight reps.
Option: If you don’t have a pull-up bar, monkey bars or a sturdy tree branch are good substitutes. If it is difficult to perform the pull up with your body weight, provide assistance by keeping one foot on the ground, or on a box or rock.
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