Friday, November 18, 2016

Strength Foundations for Climbers by Markham Tuck

And now for something a little different.

Below is a guest post by my friend and rock climber, Markham Tuck. Although this is focused towards climbers, it has relevance to those in many other sports as well.


If there is one thing you can count on a climber for, it is being injured. If not currently climbing through an injury, you can damn well bet they have a laundry list of issues or a few scars for show and tell. By nature, climbers tend to be pretty intense & possibly a bit of a masochistic bunch. Once the climbing bug bites, psych for the sport is high & time dwindles so that there is not much else outside of climbing.

The same tenacity that leads to success can lead to problems over time.

One:  Climbing relies on the strength of connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, fascia, etc) in addition to muscle tissue. “Great!”, you say. Well, connective tissue has a limited blood supply compared to muscle or skin. What this amounts to is connective tissue adapts to load significantly slower than muscle tissue. Around ten times slower. “Shit!”, you say.

Two:  Climbing as a sport is on “the fringe” & relatively young. There is not a lot of training information out there & many climbers lack any formal training from other sports. Ultimately, the foundations of athleticism are highly under utilized.

I grew up playing all the typical American sports & even enjoyed some of them! I found climbing during my undergraduate studies. Needless to say, it has stuck & like most climbers, I have sustained a few injuries along the way. Fast forward to my doctorate studies where I learned to love weightlifting just about as much as climbing. I have consumed more literature than I care to recall on both of these disciplines. What I will review here is what I believe every climber should be doing to have a long & healthy climbing career.

  • “Do No Harm” - D.F.Y.U – see reference below

  • Go on a walk daily, take the stairs, & make a habit of the 5-minute flow – see reference below.

  • Practicing the specific without the general usually leads to short term gains followed by injuries. Sound familiar?

  • Spend your time wisely - 80% on your sport, 10% on strength, 10% on everything else.

  • Getting strong is easy, so do it the easiest way possible.

  • Your strength regimen should deliver great strength gains without exhausting your energy or time.

  • Aerobic conditioning has value for all types of athletes, but dose varies.

  • There is value in bilateral lifts, unilateral lifts, & bodyweight exercises.

  • For self trained athletes, some level of coaching has value. Don’t totally go it alone.

  • “A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.” Get screened & tested.

  • Be careful mixing up sport specificity and strength training. If you aren’t sure, do your sport & get stronger in the basic lifts/movements. Skip all the junk.  Do the basic human movements listed and go climb. Anything added to that, you should be more wary of.

  • Keep the goal, the goal.

  • Train barefoot when possible or as close as possible. (i.e. vans, converse, etc.)

If you have made it this far, you are probably wondering, “Now where the hell should I start?” Let’s go through this stepwise to ensure you leave with something actionable.

Logistics: Time & Equipment.
Okay, what do you have? This part I cannot answer for you. Take stock of what equipment & time you have available. You do not need much of either to develop & maintain a strength foundation. Remember, keep it simple. Ideally, access to a set of rings, barbell, dumbbells, &/or kettlebells would be great, but you can get away with little else outside of your bodyweight. If you are looking to purchase equipment of your own, nothing is superior to a couple kettlebells & a set of rings. They are cheap, portable, versatile, & compliment climbing well. Will you be training at home or in a gym? How many times a week will you go? 2 times a week is a good minimum and you can even do a 5 day a week program like Even Easier Strength.

This will go hand in hand with your time commitment. Remember how total training time should be allotted: 80% climbing & 20% for strength, mobility, & flexibility work. Let’s say you climb 3-4 times a week for a total of 6-8 hours. Roughly 5-6.5 hours should be spent dedicated to climbing & the rest should be spent on your strength, mobility, & flexibility work. For instance a gym session could be: you warm-up with strength, mobility, & flexibility work, climb, & then finish with strength, mobility, & flexibility work as well.
How Much:
  • A total of 10-30 reps of any movement broken into a few sets is fine. Don’t go to total failure on any set.
  • Do mobility work in between sets of strength exercises – bird dogs, stretching, joint circles, anything from the Groundwork category below.
  • Get the technique correct, THEN start adding weight or difficulty.
  • Remember, to perform your lifts AFTER climbing so that you don’t pattern poor climbing technique.

For more information on programming, consider the “Easier Strength” & “Even Easier Strength” from Dan John. These could be done year round & I am willing to argue this is all an athlete needs during their “on season.” During “off season”, focusing more time on strength gains may be beneficial, but that is outside the focus of this particular article.

Below you will find a list of the fundamental movements everyone should be training. A session should have a mix of ALL of these movements with proper technique. There is no need for isolation of body parts unless you are looking to compete in bodybuilding. If that is the case, then this article is not meant for you.

  • 1. Push – Push Ups, Bench Press, Kettlebell Shoulder Press.
  • 2. Pull – Batwings, Pull-ups, Chin-ups, Rows, IYT’s.
  • 3. Hinge – Bridges, Bulgarian Goat Bag Swings, Deadlift, Kettlebell Swings.
  • 4. Squat – Goblet Squats, Front/Back Squats, Split Squats, Pistol Squats, Lunges.
  • 5. Loaded Carry – Farmer Walk, Suitcase Carry, Waiter Carry, Sled Push/Pull.
  • 6. Groundwork – Bear Crawl, Crab Walk, Get Back Ups, Bird-Dogs.
  • 7. Core – Ab Wheel, L-Hangs/Sits, Windshield Wipers, Windmills.
  • 8. Climber specific – Forearm Antagonist Work & Shoulder Work.

***The majority of these exercises are able to be performed in some variation no matter the equipment you have access to & if done with proper technique, “core” will be worked in all movements. Using tension properly will transfer over to climbing. Climber’s should be doing forearm antagonist & shoulder work daily or at least before & after every climbing session. Climbers typically have pull covered, stick with IYT’s, especially on climbing days.

During a climber’s (or any type of athlete’s) “on season”, “Even Easier Strength” by Dan John is king. Find more on this type of training in Dan John & Pavel Tsatsouline’s book “Easy Strength” – see reference below.

Are you getting better or just tired?
  • Progression in climbing grades; Ease/Efficiency of movement.
  • Standing broad jump. Should jump body height. Landing measured at heels.
  • 30” dead hang to strict pull-up. Repeat. How many can you do?
  • “Know Thyself: A Climbing Self-Assessment” – Steve Maisch
  • Strength Standards

Strength standards to strive for – see Dan John’s article for progressions.
Push (Bench Press)
1.25x bodyweight
.75x bodyweight
Pull (Pull-Up)
bodyweight + 75%
bodyweight + 50%
Hinge (Deadlift)
2x bodyweight
1.5x bodyweight
Squat (Single Leg Squat)
5 reps at bodyweight
5 reps at bodyweight
Loaded Carry (Farmer Walk)
.5x bodyweight per hand
.5x bodyweight per hand
Strict Hanging Leg Raise
10 reps at 3 sec count
10 reps at 3 sec count
***Groundwork – you either do it, or you don’t. No standards to measure.

In closing, I want to touch on a few last items:
  • Remember that you don’t need to feel exhausted in order to gain strength. In fact, it is better to leave a little in the tank. Why exhaust yourself in the weight room when you really want to be performing while climbing?

  • Check your ego at the door. Is lifting heavy rewarding? Hell yes. Is lifting heavy with poor technique rewarding? Hell no. Poor technique with load ends with injury. The whole point of this is to prevent injury & perform well. Do not be afraid to regress or re-learn the basics. The best of the best know the basics better than anyone. “Move well, then move often.” - Gray Cook.
  • Remember to be intentional about what you are doing. I often see climbers performing antagonist movements with limp wrists, lazily flopping around weight. If you cannot execute technique, then back off the weight. Once again, check your ego. I can assure you, no one gives a shit how much weight you are using for wrist extensions.

  • Developing & maintaining a foundation of strength will aid with injury prevention & promote endless health benefits. Strong is healthy.

  • Climbers like to think climbing is such a unique sport, but we have a great deal to gain from looking at what has worked in other sports. Especially when it comes to foundations. When it comes to sport-specific strength training (i.e. finger strength) trust the experts who have excelled before you. I focus on foundations here since they are largely overlooked in the climbing community.

  • Keep a training journal. For yearly planning, write out goals, dates, & a general plan based on what has worked in the past & what has worked for others. Acknowledge times of year you cannot train much. Make checklists and follow them. Keep your brain free.

Countless discussions with John Karrasch have inspired me to put this down on paper. I owe him a great deal of thanks for contributing to this & for always engaging in a good conversation.

– Dr. Markham P. Tuck, PharmD

“Easy Strength” – Dan John & Pavel Tsatsouline

“Intervention: Course Corrections for the Athlete and Trainer” – Dan John

“3 Flexibility Exercises Everyone Should Do” – Max Shank

“D.F.Y.U.” – Andy Kirkpatrick

“Climb Strong: Strength: Foundational Training for Rock Climbing”  – Steve Bechtel

“Know Thyself: A Climbing Self-Assessment” – Steve Maisch

“Strength Standards” – Dan John

Videos for forearm antagonist work, shoulder work, & IYTs

Basic Movements and Mobility Work Guide from Dan John