The Best Non-Specific Training For Climbers

posted by dpm on 03/05/2012


Ever since legendary El Cap hardman John Long wrote “The Workout from Hell,” climbers have been trying to make sense out of how to apply traditional gym training to climbing. From Bikram to Cross Fit to P90X, you’ll hear of climbers doing things that aren’t climbing specific under the guise of improving at their sport.

I analyzed the various factors of why you would use a non-specific training system last year in the article, “Should You Train?” The summary was that if you are a fit person who is trying to get better at climbing, you are better off focusing on climbing. If you are an advanced climber, with little exposure to other types of training, you can improve your climbing by improving in other areas of fitness.   

I was originally contacted by DPM because the editor’s wife, an expert climber, was seeing her performance skyrocket by staying out of the climbing gym and doing P90X instead. The reality is that at some point most climbers climb themselves into an unnatural, unbalanced state of being. They probably do it regularly and whenever this happens a full body training program is the key to getting you back on track.


Turbo Kick, Zumba, Body Pump, et. Al.

At any fitness center or on late-night TV you’ll see a number of fitness classes and videos, almost all of them promising to make you look better. We’ll lump them all together here.

Pluses: Fun, assuming that dancing or bopping around with friends (real or video versions) is fun to you. Most of these programs work for helping the average Joe or Josephine shed unwanted body weight and they might do the same for you.

Minuses: These are generally not targeted towards improvements in biomechanical movement patterns. “I wanted to make exercise programs that people who hate doing exercise would want to do,” said Turbo Kick/Fire/Jam and Chalean Extreme creator Chalene Johnson. I bet you wouldn’t be climbing if you didn’t like to exercise, so these programs probably aren’t your best option.

Hitting the local gym

Admittedly a broad category, this assumes that you don’t know a lot about training and follow standard weight room protocol.

Pluses: You will probably work on some of your weak areas.

Minuses: Generally time in the gym isn’t very time efficient. You also risk getting absorbed by the local “300 pound club” and mass, as discussed in the Should You Train? article, isn’t your friend when fighting gravity.

"I climb 5.8 at New Jack City."

10 Minute Trainer

A home fitness program that is a series of ten minute workouts, utilizing exercise bands in lieu of weights.

Pluses: While somewhat silly looking this program has a lot of advantages. For one it’s short. Almost anyone can squeeze in 10 minutes a day four or five times a week and that could be about four or five hundred times better than nothing when it comes to keeping your body balanced and staving off injury. It’s also portable and could easily be done while traveling.

Minuses: It’s short. Really short. Ten minutes is much better than nothing but if you really want to climb better you might want to begin with a bigger time commitment. I tend to favor this style of workout during the climbing season to keep little-used muscles from atrophying and creating imbalances.

Click image for video

Insanity, The Asylum

Insanity is an ultra-intense home workout needing no equipment that I would have dumped into the first category if it weren’t for its sequel, Insanity: The Asylum. Asylum does use equipment to put you through a series of torturous workouts designed to make you more athletic.

Pluses: You’ll get super fit using Asylum for sure. Some of its workouts will specifically help climbers movements, especially a lot of the core work and a mega-difficult exercise called “rock climbers” that are absolutely nothing like climbing but ridiculously difficult to do-- even for climbers.

Minuses: Most of the workouts are designed for people in explosive fast-moving sports. This means you’ll be spending a lot of time working on things like jumping ability, lateral movement, and proprioceptive awareness that’s not very climbing specific. It’ll make you fit as a Spartan but, for a climber, there are more efficient ways to spend your time.

Shaun T of Insanity. Click for video.

The Workout From Hell 

Largo’s periodizational old school training program has been evolving since it was published in the late 80s but still works off the same foundation; training your prime mover muscles in three phases, transitioning from endurance to power.

Pluses: It’s sadistically fun and does make you big and strong. Modern incarnations, such as the one I published in a series on my blog in 2010, add more modern movement to create fewer imbalances between stabilizer and prime mover muscles.

Minuses: It takes a long time, especially in the 30-rep phase where you can easily spend 2 hours per session. It’s also decidedly old school. Very few modern movements are used and it simply does not create very solid functional movement patterns.

John Long's Workout from Hell produces a physique that is more suited for El Cap big walls than climbing 5.15. It's also a physique that isn't very tasty and deters potential cannibals. 

Cross Fit

Cult-like functional training system combining old and new school movements in a competition-like environment.

Pluses: Fun, competitive, and time efficient, Cross Fit at its core is excellent cross training for climbers. It’s almost the antithesis of The Workout From Hell as movements treat the body as one entity and stress symbiosis as well as efficiency. The bulk of each workout can take as little as 12-15 minutes (not counting warm-up and cool-down) making it exceptionally alluring to climbers as a “base” training option, or even as a mid-season tune-up.

Minuses: It’s become its own sport and, thus, sports-specific training options rarely exist. In fact, you can hardly do a Cross Fit session without someone trying to proselytize you into their way of life. But that’s not really where Cross Fit goes off the rails. It’s that most facilities love the competitive aspect so much that they’ve allowed adherence to form to fly out the window. The best thing about full body functional movements is also the bane, if you do the movements wrong it’s easy to get seriously injured because you’re stressing your entire kinetic chain. One physical therapist asked me, “What the hell is Cross Fit? Ever since they opened a place nearby I’ve been flooded with injuries, many severe.” Cross Fit can be effective full body training but choose your gym wisely.  (Note: Ed's wife has suffered two shoulder injuries during Cross Fit that have severely affected her climbing performance. Cross Fit at your own risk!)

Chucking giant medicine balls at a wall that says "No Fluff" is just one way to get hurt at Cross Fit. Click for video.


In a recent survey by Outside magazine P90X crushed everything else in a poll on the best training for outdoor athletes. This isn’t surprising since it’s the most popular home fitness program in history. Its 12 workouts are designed to create solid functional movement patterns using a myriad of training systems, from old school weight training to modern core work to martial arts and yoga.

Pluses:  The program is all encompassing, meaning that it’s fairly brainless to follow and all your movement needs are addressed. You’ll get bigger, stronger, and faster but you’ll also increase important factors for climbing such as suppleness, mobility, and isometric strength.

Minuses:  It’s no small time investment, averaging slightly more than an hour a day for 90 days (less, actually, since you get a day off per week but still). It’s also targeted towards a group that cares how they look and, basically, wants to increase their muscle size a bit. And while it’s not a bodybuilding program it is possible to gain more mass than you’ll want for climbing. As an example look no further than the physical appearance difference between P90X trainer, Tony Horton, and Adam Ondra.

Fact: A DPM survey found that 9 out of 10 women were more attracted to a "Fitness Trainer" than a "Wizard."   


P90X2 is the sequel to P90X that uses the latest applied science for a more thorough targeting of all human movement systems. Full discloser is that its development was a major focus of the last three years of my life but, regardless, I’ve also worked on many of the programs here so you’ll have to trust that I’m not being biased. When I make my own training programs they contain elements of everything on this list but, by far, I take the most from X2.

Pluses: X2 is the only system here designed with climbers in mind. Not only climbers, of course, but the goal of this program was to build upon the base you’d get with P90X and create more sports specificity, meaning movement patterns were placed ahead of body composition changes as the program’s priority. We also got to collaborate with some of the brightest minds in the sports world and had access to data on hundreds of athletes.

Minuses:  While not as time consuming as P90X it’s still a big commitment. The other thing is that it’s still not climber-only specific, so if you know a lot you could tighten it up a bit. But for our conversation today that is also a bit of a plus because if you don’t know a lot you won’t skip something you might not feel is important for climbing. You can also easily segment the program (the guide discusses this and even more so my blog) for more specificity around your own climbing training.

X2 requires strength and focus. Click for video.

Now let’s touch on yoga. You probably noted that Bikram, a yoga practice, was in my intro and not evaluated. That’s because yoga is a broad topic that deserves its own discussion but I’ll add that it’s an almost perfect accoutrement to your climbing training and would be right near the top of this list. It’s not as scientifically targeted, making it less appropriate as off-season training, but a good yoga practice will aid your climbing when done at almost any time.

Like Cross Fit, Yoga also comes with a level of inherent risk. Practice with caution. 

As for when to add non-climbing-specific training into your schedule, it should be done in the off-season. If you don’t take time off (even Ondra takes time off) than it should be done as far away from redpoint burns on your project as you can place it. Integration, which is the time it takes to mold your new fitness gains and build the neuromuscular patterns that lead to climbing improvements, always takes some time. The more you’ve changed your body composition the longer this process takes. Assuming you don’t lose fitness the longer you give yourself for this integration the better.

Next time, we’ll look at how to design a weight-training program around a climbing peak.

-Steve Edwards


Ed's Note: I generally work out in my desk chair for approximately 10 minutes per day. Watching Zuzanna on Body Rock TV simultaneously elevates the heartrate and provides stress relief.