Hard Core for Hard Climbers - Core Training that Works!

posted by dpm on 04/14/2014

Everyone knows by now the importance of a strong core for climbing. What isn’t widely known, however, is how to effectively train the core musculature to bring about climbing-specific improvements that will make a real difference on the rock. If you think doing a few sets of abdominal crunches and elbow planks gets the job done, then think again…and read on to learn how to core train in a way that will really help your climbing!

First, a quick refresher: your core comprises all the muscles between your shoulders and hips, a region that serves as the foundation for all physical movement. So while six-pack abs may be the hallmark of the core, the rectus abdominis is but one of many different muscle groups that contribute to a strong, stiff, stable core. Other often-overlooked muscles that contribute to core stiffness and spinal/hip stability include the erector spinae (lower back), latissimas dorsi, quadratus lumborum, psoas (hip flexor), the internal and external obliques, and even the gluteal muscles, hip adductors, and hamstrings.

In rock climbing the core muscles play a key role in enabling your arms and legs to maximize leverage and transfer torque from hand to foot and vice versa. Furthermore, the core muscles are what provide body tension when you’re trying to make a long reach or twisting body movement. In fact, every full-body climbing movement calls the core muscles into action. Developing a super stiff core will empower you to prevail through thin, steep, slopey, and twisty moves, while a flaccid core will leak energy and make hard moves harder…and ultimately leave you hanging on the rope (or crashing the pad) rather than sending.

So what’s the best method of training these muscles? Abdominal crunches and planks are the popular methods, however, these exercises target only a small portion of your core muscles and certainly not in a climbing-specific way. Below are seven core exercises in the Hörst training program…that you should consider adding to yours!


Ø  Roof Lever-Ups

This strenuous exercise is half curl-up and half front lever. Climb up (or jump or get boosted) to a large jug hold on the roof of a bouldering cave. Beginning from a straight-armed hang, pull up half way (elbows at 90 degrees) then forcefully drop your head and shoulder back and lift your feet upward to latch one foot onto a roof hold as distant as possible. Focus on powerfully firing your entire core musculature at the instant your foot contacts the hold. Match feet on the hold and then relax your core as much as you can without losing the foothold—note the sub-maximal amount of stiffness needed to maintain the hand-foot connection. Now release your feet and return to the straight-armed starting position. Do 6 to 10 repetitions. Make this exercise harder by doing less of a pull-up before each lever-up (super strong climbers can do this exercise with straight arms throughout).

Ø  Steep Wall Cut & Catch

Perform this exercise on a very steep bouldering wall—65 degrees past vertical is ideal. Pick an easy to moderate difficulty boulder problem, and ascend it in the unconventional way of letting your feet cut off after every hand move and then immediately drawing them back up to the wall to catch onto a foot hold. Continue in this way up the entire problem, if possible. While certainly not the most efficient way to ascend the route, this exercise trains the core muscles to fire and relax in quick succession—an extremely important attribute for hard climbing.


Ø  Ring Extensions

You’ll need a set of adjustable rings, TRX straps, or other “sling trainer.” Kneeling on a pad or soft carpet, grasp a pair of rings (or slings) with straight arms positioned in front of your hips. Now push your hands forward and do a controlled lower until your arms are in line with your body. Immediately reverse the movement and return to the starting position, trying to maintain straight arms throughout. Do two sets of 6 to 10 repetitions with a three-minute rest in between.

Ø  Steep Wall Traversing

While the three previous exercises develop core strength and power, steep wall traversing is more of an endurance exercise. Your mission is to traverse on a moderately steep wall (30 to 50 degrees past vert) for two to three minutes. To do this exercise effectively use relatively large hand holds (that don’t pump you out) and the smallest footholds possible. Strive to make long sideways hand and foot reaches that force you to twist your torso and stiffen intensely from hand to foot.


Ø  Squat

Surely you are thinking “WTF, Eric?” Well, believe it or not, squatting is an extremely core intensive exercise. Done right, squatting fires all the core muscles and teaches them to pulse between “full on” and “half on” with every rep—a critical skill for high-level performance in most sports, including climbing. Squatting also trains powerful hip extension, something you do with almost every deadpoint and lunge you perform on the rock.

If your gym has a squat rack, consider adding two sets of moderate squats to each core workout. You don’t need (or want) to go heavy. Begin with just an Olympic bar (45 lbs) and gradually build up to squatting your body weight (no need to ever go heavier). Proper technique is essential—consult a coach if you’re unsure if you are doing them correctly. Key technical points: Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly outward, and the bar positioned behind your neck with hands at a comfortable width. Now squat down until your thighs are parallel to the ground and then immediately stand back up (think about driving your heels through the ground). Throughout the repetition you must keep your lower back straight, chest extended (never hollowed), face forward, and knees tracking out over your toes (knees should not bow inward or outward). A final tip: try to bend the bar over your shoulder by contracting your lat (back) muscles throughout the squatting movement —while I doubt you’ll succeed at bending the bar, you will maximally fire your core! Do two sets of 12 repetitions with a three minute rest in between.  (If squatting is not an option for you, instead do two sets each of Back Bridges and Super Heroes.)


Ø  One-Arm Plank

If you are going to train with Planks, do them with one arm—two-arm and double-elbow Planks are just too low intensity (a simple push-up works the core better than a two-arm Plank!). There are a variety of ways to do one-arm Planks, the most common of which is to assume a push-up position with your feet spread shoulder-width apart and lift one arm out to the side. Hold this one-arm plank position for two seconds, then return to the starting position and lift your other hand out to the side, also holding for two seconds. A much more difficult version is to lift one-arm and the opposite leg off the ground—in this case you’ll need to raise your hand in front of your body to maintain balance as you simultaneously lift your leg upward. Hold this position for two seconds and lift the opposite hand and foot for two seconds. Do two sets of 6 to 12 repetitions.


Ø  Abdominal Crunches

Okay, you can also do a few sets of crunches—actually a pretty good core endurance exercise if you do them correctly. Lie on the floor with your feet off the ground (legs and hips bent at 90 degrees) and your hands either crossed over your upper chest or loosely floating behind your neck (harder). Now crunch upward until your upper back is off the floor—it’s a small range of motion, but with the above body position it will fire the abs nicely. Do two to four sets of 30 to 50 repetitions.


There’s a lot more to be written on this subject, but it will have to wait for a future issue of DPM. Until then, crush on…


Eric Hörst (pronounced “hurst”) is a former world-class climber, as well as a coach and author of best-selling books such as Training for Climbing and Maximum Climbing. Learn more at www.TrainingForClimbing.com