The Fantastic Four: 4 Exercises You Need to Know

posted by dpm on 01/27/2010

by Eric J. Hörst

Success on a burley boulder problem or severe crux sequence often seems to come down to having rock solid lockoff strength and a vice-like grip. While you may only call on such top-end strength on the most physical climbing moves, your maximum strength capacity is also very influential in determining your muscular power and endurance. The bottom line: if you’re serious about elevating your climbing performance then you must invest some training time into improving your pull muscle and grip strength. Of course, refining your technique and mental skills is also essential; however the focus of this article is four fantastic exercises for developing more brute physical strength.

1. Hypergravity Bouldering

Avid climbers with several years of bouldering under their belt eventually reach a point where they no longer achieve significant gains in finger strength despite regular, hard bouldering sessions. Fortunately, hypergravity bouldering and the HIT workout (which I’ll described in a future article) are powerful training strategies that will yield further gains in high-end finger strength. To do this, you’ll need to invest in a ten-pound weight belt or fill a fanny pack with ten pounds of scuba diver’s weights. Here is the best strategy for engaging in hypergravity bouldering.

Select a nontechnical, overhanging indoor boulder problem that possesses small- to medium-size hand holds, but no tiny or tweaky features. Since you are climbing with a weight belt on, favor problems that are a few grades below your limit—the ideal problem will be strenuous, but totally doable with a focused effort. Climb the problem two or three times with sufficient rest between each ascent to allow a good effort. Move on to another strenuous problem that appears to target a different grip or arm position, and ascend this problem two or three times. (Consider taking the time to set theme problems comprised only of holds of a certain shape and size—this is the best way to target and train a weak grip position, such as pinch or pocket.) Send a total of eight to twelve problems, twice per week, and in a month or two you will discover a new level of lockoff and grip strength!

2. One-Arm Wall Lunges

One-arm, feet-on-the-wall lunging is an effective form of reactive training for climbers, and it’s fortunately less stressful (and less difficult) than the feet-off campus training that’s popular with lites.Reactive training conditions the nervous system to recruit muscle motor units more quickly. In climbing, your contact strength—how fast you can summon peak grip strength—is largely determined by the speed at which your forearm motor units can be recruited.Therefore, regular training with one-arm wall lunges can improve your grip strength on marginal holds. Here’s how to do it.

Select a section of indoor wall that overhangs anywhere from 10 to 25 degrees past vertical and set a few modular holds specifically for performing this exercise. Set two decent footholds about a foot off the ground, and then set two non-tweaky medium-size handholds, one in front of your face and the other about two feet above that. Climb onto the wall and balance your weight evenly on the two footholds. Grip the hold in front of your face with one hand, and place the other hand behind your back. Begin lunging up and down between the two handholds using only the one hand. Optimal technique is to draw your body toward the wall and to lunge up to the top hold, doing so all in one smooth motion. Upon catching the top handhold, immediately drop back down to the starting hold and, without pause, explode back up to the top hold. Continue lunging up and down for six to twelve total up-and-down cycles.

After a brief rest, step back up on the wall and perform a set of one-arm lunges with your other hand. Perform two or three total sets with each hand. Once you learn to do this exercise it may begin  to feel so easy that you can’t imagine that it’s doing any good. Trust me, it is! Don’t increase the volume of the exercise in an attempt to increase difficulty; instead make it your focus to increase your explosive speed off the bottom hand hold. Like turning a light switch off and on, this exercise teaches your forearm muscles to turn on more quickly. A few sets are all that’s need obtain the desired training effect.

3. Weighted Pull-Ups

Adding weight to your body while performing certain climbing specific exercises (a technique called hypergravity training) is a powerful strategy for boosting pull-muscle strength. If you can do fifteen solid pull-ups at body weight, then you are ready to incorporate this exercise into your program. The training strategy is to wear a ten- to twenty-pound weight belt (or hang weights from the belay loop of your harness) while doing two to four sets of pullups. This extra weight will shock your system, thus causing it to adapt to your higher apparent body weight. After a just a few weeks of training you will come to realize that you feel strangely lighter when climbing on the rock at body weight. And what a great feeling that is!

4. Uneven-Grip Pull-Up

This is an excellent exercise for developing arm power and the ability to hold a solid one arm lock-off. The training technique is to offset one hand about 12 inches lower than the other (the low hand gripping through a loop of webbing slung over the pull-up bar) as you perform a set of pull-ups. This setup will force you to pull much harder with the higher arm in order to reach the top (lock-off) position. Strive to crank out six to ten repetitions, then rest for a minute before performing a set with your hand positions switched.Perform a total of two or three sets with each hand configuration. Increase the vertical distance between your hands if you can do more than ten reps—and get ready to develop some wicked one-arm power!

The Fantastic Four Program

Perform just two—not all four!—of these exercises as part of your gym climbing workout. Alternate your exercise choice every workout or two. Always begin each workout with at least fifteen minutes of warm-up exercises and easy climbing before you proceed on to engage in maximal bouldering and/or roped climbing for up to one hour. Conclude your workout with your targeted strength training, including two of these fantastic four exercises. One cautionary note: Reduce or cease use of any exercise that causes joint or tendon discomfort; some post-workout muscle soreness is, of course, expected! Finally, being the smart climber that you are, perform a few antagonist (push muscle) exercises twice per week in order to maintain muscle balance with your soon-to- be-crushing climbing muscles!

Eric Hörst (pronounced “hurst”) is a veteran climber, coach, and renowned author. His much-anticipated book, Maximum Climbing: Brain Training for Peak Performance and Optimal Experience, will be released in March 2010. Learn more at: