As someone who is a big advocate for strength training in the climbing community, I get a lot of questions from climbers about it.
A lot of these questions revolve around certain myths or misconceptions about strength training so I decided to address some of them here.
If you’re someone who wants to strength train but is being held back by certain myths/beliefs about strength training, read on!
Let’s talk about some myths and truths about strength training.
Myth: Strength training will cause me to gain weight and make me heavy for climbing.
Truth: Strength training alone cannot make you gain weight.
Will you gain weight if you start strength training?
Short answer: No.
Climbing is a strength-to-weight ratio sport. So of course, maintaining weight is a concern. The good news is you can make significant strength gains without gaining weight.
It is impossible to gain weight without a caloric surplus.
In fact, many climbers lose a little weight when beginning a strength training program simply because they are exercising more while eating the same as they always do.
Muscle is metabolically expensive. You have to eat a caloric surplus AND stress the muscles sufficiently to build and keep muscle mass.
So unless you are consistently eating a surplus of calories, you won’t get bigger from weight training. It’s that simple.
If you’ve never trained systematically with barbells before you’re considered a novice. That means much of the strength gains you will be making are neurological.
Neurological gains mean you get stronger from strength training because your body gets better at recruiting more muscle fibers at once, NOT because of hypertrophy or enlargement of the muscle fibers themselves.
What About Easy Gainers?
Most people do not put on muscle bulk really easily. If it were that easy then bodybuilders -- whose sport is predicated on having large, well-defined muscles -- wouldn’t have to train as much as they do or eat as much food as they do.
Yes, there is some genetic component to how much and how quickly different people can put on muscle mass but if you correct for calories it’s impossible to gain muscle or weight in general.
If you feel like you put on size easily than the simplest explanation is that you’re probably just eating more during times when you are weight training.
As an aside, I would argue that there are many climbers out there who would benefit from gaining even just 5 pounds of useful muscle. It would help their climbing a lot more than losing 5 or even 10 pounds will. I have seen this in my own climbing, but that’s another post.
Myth: Climbers don’t need lower body strength.
Truth: Lower body strength is extremely important for climbing.
Eric Horst, the author of Training For Climbing and several other climbing training books, argues that unless you campus up every route you actually do employ forceful leg movements while climbing.
“...the muscles of the posterior chain--spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum, glutes, and hamstrings among others--are extremely important in providing the core stiffness necessary for steep, powerful moves…”
Strong hips and legs help us:
Maneuver our bodies into efficient positions
Conserve energy by spreading some of the stress out of the hands and upper body and into the hips and legs
Make rock-overs and long lateral movements easier
Keep us on the wall during steep climbs
Get into better rest positions on routes by taking the weight off the hands
Engage in powerful heel hooks
Execute energy saving knee-bars
Allow us to effectively utilize drop knee techniques
Not only that but being able to produce large amounts of force quickly through the posterior chain can add explosive power to big deadpoints, dynos and lunge moves. The stronger you are the more explosive you can be.
Hip and leg strength training can also help reduce the risk of common lower body climbing injuries such as hamstring strains, groin strains, knee injuries related to heel hooking and drop-knees.
It may also help prevent some ankle sprains indirectly because by making the hips stronger and more stable you reduce the chances of losing balance while hiking on talus, scree or rock and you may have a better chance at controlling some bouldering falls.
In short, you need hip and leg strength to climb well!
If you still don’t think so, then I would suggest taking a closer look at how you currently utilize your hips, legs feet while climbing.
Myth: Heavy strength training is dangerous.
Truth: Strength training, even very heavy, is NOT inherently dangerous.
Just like climbing, barbell training is perceived as potentially dangerous.
How many of you have non-climbing friends, relatives, parents, or significant others who constantly tell you to “be careful” or think you’re crazy for climbing?
In actuality, both climbing and strength training are relatively safe. Especially when certain precautions are taken.
You’re not going to solo El Cap any time soon just like your not going to put 600 pounds on your back on day 1 and try to squat it. You tie a knot at the end of the rope just like you use the safety pins in the squat rack when you’re benching alone.
The exercises themselves are performed using the associated joints within the confines of their normal range of motion. Your muscles are able to stabilize and control the movement without putting excessive stress on any one joint ligament or tendon.
You should follow an appropriate training program that is specifically designed to help you adapt to training and get stronger over time and not all at once. Even less-than-perfect technique is ok as you figure out the movements.
Remember, when you started climbing your technique wasn’t perfect and you were not catastrophically injured.
”Perfect technique” doesn’t exist. Your body is designed to move in all kinds of ways. What it comes down to is:
What is your body already adapted to?
What your body is prepared to handle?
The main reasons injuries happen are because of tissue overload and accumulated fatigue. NOT because of flaws in technique.
There are plenty of 600, 700, 800 pound deadlifters out there who pull with a completely rounded back and NO back pain! Your body can adapt to anything.
If you start out light and progress slowly, your body will have time to learn the skill and technique of lifting while adapting your body to the exercise.
The truth is, more people are hurt running every year than they are lifting weights.
In one review of 20 studies, scientists found that, on average, lifting weights produced just one injury for every 1,000 hours of training. To put that in perspective, if you spend 5 hours per week strength training, you could go almost four years without experiencing any kind of injury whatsoever.
For comparison, sports like ice hockey, football, soccer, and rugby have injury rates ranging from 6 to 260 per 1,000 hours, and long-distance runners can expect about 10 injuries per 1,000 hours of running.
If you keep reading, you’ll see the benefits seem to out-weight the risks with regard to strength training.
Myth: Strength training looks nothing like climbing and won’t transfer well to climbing.
Truth: Strength training doesn’t have to look exactly like climbing to be productive and benefit climbing.
Specificity is important, Yes, But General Strength Training Can Still Help Your Climbing
Do not get caught up in the illusion that you have to train exactly like your sport in the weight room.
Baseball players don’t get better by throwing heavy balls or swinging heavy bats, they get better through strength training separately and then practicing their sport on the playing field.
In fact, there is some evidence that strength training that mimics sport-specific skill too closely can be detrimental to your performance and to skill acquisition.
Pistol squats and box jumps are not efficient or effective ways to train legs and build strength. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just much more effective to learn how to squat properly and do it with progressively heavier weight over time.
The strength gains from strength training transfer over to the more sport specific skills like heel hooks, toe-hooks, drop-knees, rock-overs, and dynos, which should be practiced while actually climbing.
Myth: Strength training neglects to train the “core” effectively.
Truth: Squats and deadlifts are two of the best “core” exercises you can do.
Squats and Deadlifts Are Not Just Leg Exercises
Keep in mind that squats and deadlifts are not just leg exercises. They require a lot of back, hip, and abdominal strength as well.
How much can you leg press on a machine?
How much can you squat?
Are they the same?
Why do you think that is?
The nature of the seated leg press doesn’t require you to use your back, abs or deep gluteals to stabilize your joints and balance as much as the squat does!
So what do you think the limiting factor for most climbers is on the squat? It’s definitely not quad strength, it’s everything else!
Squatting is a “core” exercise and may be the best one out there!
Myth: I’m not interested in performance benefits and there are no other benefits to strength training that are worth my climbing time.
Truth: There are a lot of amazing benefits to strength training other than performance.
Strength training can:
There is even evidence that strength training can improve the regenerative capacity of your muscle!
It’s also safe and highly recommended for youth climbers! GASP!
Strength Training and Overuse Injury
Most of you have not spent any time developing overall body strength to prepare your bodies for the stress of climbing. Climbing is a highly specialized sport and for many climbers, it’s the only sport they’ve ever trained for.
Strength training can better prepare your muscles, tendons, and ligament for the stresses of climbing by increasing your tissue’s tolerance to stress (your tissue capacity).
The popularity of climbing is on the rise and with it, there has been a rise in the number of injuries sustained by climbers. Many of these injuries seem to be “overuse” injuries.
Overuse injuries can be looked at another way--as under-prepared injuries or training error injuries. Meaning the climber was exposed to stresses their body was underprepared for or unable to recover from.
Strength training builds up overall tissue capacity and improves your ability to deal with and recover from stress. Adding strength training blocks to a yearly training schedule seems like a smart choice for any climber.
Strength Training (and Training in General) is for Everyone, Not Just Competitive Climbers
If you have a body you are an athlete. Even if you don’t “train” and just climb for fun you are an athlete. You are still applying physical stress to your body and all these concepts still apply to you.
Myth: Strength training (especially with barbells) strengthens already strong muscles while neglecting smaller weak ones and worsens asymmetries.
Truth: The idea that big muscles can take over for the little muscles is a myth.
If you load the joint you want to train with a heavy enough weight, ALL the muscles around that joint are contributing to the movement.
How can we effectively isolate and measure which muscles are strong and which muscles are weak anyway?
Even if we could, that’s not really how muscle work in the real world. They work in concert with the other muscles around a joint.
There is no need to isolate and train them as you would be limited by the “weaker” muscles anyway. As you train, the whole system gets stronger including the “weaker” muscle.
The nice thing about barbell training is that it’s bilateral and symmetrical and you’ll pick up on it really quickly if you’re doing something weird. The bar will look crooked in the mirror or on video and we can easily adjust our technique if it seems like it’s a problem.
You Are Not Symmetrical
Tiny little asymmetries are normal. Everyone has them and most of the time they’re nothing to worry about. Strength training will not exacerbate them.
Have you ever thought about the following?
One of your lungs is bigger than the other
Your heart sits more in the left side of your chest cavity
You have a big liver on one side of your body and not the other
Your diaphragm is larger on one side
Many people have a leg length discrepancy
Mild scoliosis is very common
Scapular asymmetries/dyskinesia is very common
Many people have one foot that’s a little bigger than the other
None of these asymmetries has been shown to be problematic or correlated with pain in the research. Here’s an interesting post with links to research on that topic.
Humans are not perfectly symmetrical nor should we strive to be.
Myth: Strength training takes too much time away from climbing and requires too much recovery time to be worth it.
Truth: Strength training saves time and when programmed correctly, does not involve excessive fatigue.
Many people complain that strength training requires too much recovery time to be worth the effort. This is usually due to programming errors.
An intelligently designed strength training program can help minimize unnecessary fatigue from training while maximizing gains in strength in the long term.
You are most likely training strength to support your climbing goals so optimizing your training time to get measurably stronger without losing climbing time is important.
Fortunately, an intelligently designed strength training program can help you develop strength while preserving your climbing time.
Don’t Spend Too Much Time on Training That’s Not Climbing
There is no denying that climbing is a skill-based sport. There is a basic level of movement competency that is required for a climber to be successful.
Steve Bechtel, well-known climbing coach and author of Logical Progression, recommends that climbers follow a 75/25 rule. 75% of training time should be spent with climbing shoes on developing climbing skills. The other 25% can be spent in the weight room, on a hangboard.
Eric Hörst, another well-known climbing coach and author of many climbing training books, makes a similar recommendation in his book Training for Climbing.
I agree with their recommendations. Keep the goal the goal. You should spend most of your training time simply practicing climbing and developing the many technical skills required for climbing.
Climbing-Specific Training vs Climbing-Supportive Training
Simon Moore, who is a climbing coach and a good friend of mine, said the following to me recently and I have adopted these terms:
“I describe it as climbing supportive training vs climbing specific training. You need to do the climbing supportive training to handle the climbing specific training. This simple concept seems to help my athletes understand their training priorities.”
Climbing-specific training would be things like:
Anything done on a climbing wall
Climbing-supportive training would be things like:
Things done off the climbing wall
You should spend roughly 75% of your training time on the climbing wall doing climbing-specific training and roughly 25% of your training time off the wall doing climbing-supportive training.
A sport like climbing does require some level of strength to be successful so you shouldn’t write it off completely.
Myth: Climbing alone is enough to get strong.
Truth: Climbing alone is an inefficient and ineffective way to build strength and get objectively stronger.
Climbing Alone is Not Enough to Build Strength
Strength is something that you need to train separately from climbing because it cannot be significantly or effectively by improved by climbing alone.
Strength is defined as your ability to produce force against external resistance. The most logical and effective way to develop strength is to train using movements that allow you to produce the most force by involving the most muscle over the longest effective range of motion.
By “effective range of motion” I mean exercises that preserve optimal length tension relationships in muscles and joints.
If I am training an athlete for general strength, my personal bias is barbells.
Using barbells makes perfect sense for a few reasons:
The more muscle you can involve in an exercise, the more weight you can move. The more weight we can move, the more objectively strong we can get. Barbells are going to be more effective with regard to this.
Barbells are ergonomic, whether it’s 15 pounds or 315 pounds, the mechanics are the same.
Barbells are easily titratable and exactly measurable. You can start as light as 15 pounds and progress in increments as small as a ½ pound.
Myth: X, Y and Z benchmarks indicate that a climber is “strong enough,” if the climber can’t hit these they need to keep working until they can.
Truth: Benchmarks are arbitrary. We don’t currently have data showing us how strong is strong enough in climbing.
“How much strength is enough?”
That’s a question I get a lot. Right now we don’t know exactly.
There are benchmarks that are floating around online like a double bodyweight deadlift or being able to hang on a certain edge with a certain amount of weight or being able to do 5 pistol squats on each leg, for example.
These are arbitrary.
As much as I would like to list some numbers here for you, we just don’t have enough evidence as of yet to tell us how much is enough.
According to some of the literature, objective strength (weight on a bar) may be less important than the act of training to develop that strength.
So maybe “benchmark” numbers aren’t important at all. What may be more important is the ongoing process of strengthening to build tissue tolerance.
There is going to be some genetic variation in the population anyway, with high responders to training, low responders to training and everyone else in between. These supposed “benchmarks” may not be applicable to everyone.
We might have some data soon for performance prediction
At some point, we might have numbers that correlate, on average, with certain performance markers for climbing. These aren’t necessarily strength training numbers though.
For instance, the Lattice folks have a way to measure finger strength (among other things) and they have enough to say that certain numbers/ratios strongly correlate with a certain grade level in climbing. I’m not sure how much of this data they’re sharing publicly, but they have it.
Tyler Nelson (of Camp 4 Human Performance) has been doing RFD measurements and is collecting data that may be able to give us some ideas about what climbers of a certain grade are able to do.
It’s very interesting work and I’m glad someone is doing it but until these concepts have been better studied we can’t say we have any benchmark numbers just yet.
We definitely don’t have them for barbell training.
Myth: Strength is unnecessary for climbing performance since climbing is mostly skill-based.
Truth: Strength is important for improving sport-specific skill.
Strength is an Important Component of Athletic Performance
Climbing is a sport that requires strength. Strength is your ability to produce force. There is a base level of strength required in order for you to be successful as a climber.
Climbing demands that you exert large forces against gravity to manipulate your own body mass on the wall. Pushing, pulling, and isometric contraction of certain joints in climbing involves some percentage of your total strength.
Technique and skill are very important in climbing but those will only get you so far without some level of strength.
“Based on the extant literature, it appears that there may be no substitute for greater muscular strength when it comes to improving an individual's performance across a wide range of both general and sport-specific skills while simultaneously reducing their risk of injury when performing these skills.”
What’s the TLDR?
Strength training is a safe and effective way to increase performance, reduce the risk of injury for athletes without causing weight gain and a potent way to improve certain health markers for the general population.
You should be doing it!
Got questions not answered in this post? Send me a message.
Interested in learning how to strength train? Ask me how I can help you with that.