As Vern Gambetta points out in Athletic Development: The Art and Science of Functional Sports Conditioning, in this day and age, people often come into a new sport with little or no base of adequate muscular and movement training to support their efforts. What’s more, they can advance to a relatively elite level at that sport and still possess fundamental deficits in these areas that can potentially impair performance and promote injuries.
“There is a serious decline in basic physical fitness levels and fundamental movement skills at the developmental level,” explains Gambetta. He continues, “This necessitates a remedial emphasis throughout the athlete’s career because it was not incorporated in the foundation.”
This is why a simple, novice-level weight-training program has the potential to make a huge difference in terms of both athletic performance and injury prevention for many sports participants, including climbers. Not only that, but lifting weights regularly can also potentially improve your quality of life and long-term life skills by helping you maintain a strong and balanced body overall, not just a climbing-strong body with potential areas of imbalance and relative weakness that can make you more prone to injuries and infirmities at a later stage in life.
Certainly, you can spend too much time on strength development instead of technical skills work, and you can definitely also learn to use the strength you have erroneously, as we all know. Just think of the climber that “powers through” everything instead of using his feet wisely as the prime example of this. Sometimes, the more technically proficient climber will outsmart the powerful thrutching beast (I always took great pleasure in this, actually, back in my not-as-powerful days; I loved it when I could out-tech a stronger climber). Sure thing, technique can help you need less power or strength to do certain moves and can help you use the strength and power you have more efficiently and effectively, meaning you might need less of it than a less technically proficient climber does to succeed on the same sequences.
However, sometimes that powerful but sloppy-footed fellow manages to flounder and claw his way up harder climbs than his more technically proficient but weaker counterpart can. It’s happened to me too many times to count. That’s because when power or strength is necessary to do a move and there’s no way around it no matter how great your technique, technique loses out to power and strength every time. If you’re not strong enough, you’re not strong enough – as I know all too well. Point being, anyone can develop poor climbing technique and tactics if they misapply their strength and power, but that’s just being lazy and not bothering to work on molding those strengths to support good technical skills. Yes, novice climbers should spend lots of time honing climbing technique, for sure, and lots more time practicing technical skills and refining tactics than elite climbers do – but this doesn’t mean that adding some strength training into their programs early is a bad or misplaced idea.
Even doing a few basic, multi-joint exercises (such as deadlifts, pull-ups, bench presses, and squats) a couple times per week can potentially change a person’s body for the better, adding strength and stability that have the potential to translate into more precise climbing movements or improved endurance, for example. Before you start lifting, get cleared to do so by a health professional and then enlist the guidance of a weights-savvy professional trainer to check and direct your form the first time you try each lift. Take it slowly and use light weights when you start, focusing more on proper form and letting your body adjust to the new exercise program. Do 2 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps of each exercise once or twice a week, taking a couple days off between lifting sessions. Warm-up before you lift with light cardio and dynamic stretches, and warm down after with the same, along with some static stretches as well. Try to lift after climbing, not before, since climbing is a less-controlled exercise and doing it in a muscularly fatigued state can predispose you to injury.
You can increase the challenge of your weights program and potentially see greater results by incorporating additional climbing-relevant resistance exercises into your resistance-training routine. Start by selecting four or five more exercises to perform on a different day from the four exercises listed above – so you will do each exercise one day per week and have a different list of exercises to run through on each day. You might even make up a list of 10 possible exercises for each day and include two or three for each muscle group, and then rotate the exact exercises from session to session in order to keep your body guessing and constantly adapting while maintaining some overall consistency in training. Online databases such as BodyBuilding.com and MyFIT.ca provide illustrated catalogs of resistance exercises along with information about the muscles used for each exercise. Try to choose multi-joint exercises rather than single-joint exercises, and select exercises that reflect movements/muscle groups used in climbing. The exception for multi-joint lifts for climbers would be incorporating lifts/exercises that work the fingers and forearms in isolation. Since these are used so frequently and extensively in climbing, focusing specific resistance training attention on them can be quite effective.
I cringe when I read or hear people say that weight/resistance training or any training outside of climbing is a waste of time for novice climbers or climbers in general. I think that this flies in the face of sound athletic training principles, seeing that most of the more mainstream sports training books and studies I’ve read all seem to draw the same conclusion: that all athletic skills, including technical skills, agility, balance and endurance, ultimately derive from and depend on a person’s maximal strength levels in areas relevant to their chosen sport. In other words, strengthening your body unlocks a greater potential for developing all areas of sport-related skills, regardless of the sport you play or where you’re at in your career.