20 Climbing Training Tips

By Andy McCue


1 Avoid the Plateau and use Shock Tactics

Most likely we’ve all experienced a period when no matter how hard we train we just aren’t improving significantly. The number one reason for this performance plateau is that the body needs a different stimulus. Ask yourself how long you’ve’ been doing the same training routine - same days of the week, duration, intensity, walls, climbs, routes. If you condition yourself in the gym, do you vary sets, reps, tempo and intensity? If you are feeling stale, it’s because your training is. Use shock tactics to get your body out of its comfort zone and try something else. Change the routes, walls, duration, frequency, gym training and even cross train for a short time with a different sport or activity. It’ll be tough, but it’s supposed to be.

Jack Walton, Functional Trainer holistic health and performance


2 Forearm endurance training

Choose a route which is three-four grades lower than your regular onsight grade (i.e. F7a for a regular F 7b+/c onsighter and preferably a sustained route with no awkward crux moves and attempt to repeat the route five times with a rest period of one minute between each repetition. If you can complete the route two-three times fully on your first attempt at the exercise then the route is probably suitable for training on, as long as you push yourself and fight through the pump! If you fail to reach the top on any attempt have a quick rest before pushing on again. If necessary use other holds (not big ones though!) to keep up the pump in your arms. Repeat this exercise once or twice each week and you will notice the difference in your forearm endurance. The aim is to be able to complete the route successfully five times, which may take three-four sessions of this exercise. Once completed, choose a harder route!

Natalie Berry, British Junior Climbing Team Captain and blogger for currentbody.com http://climbing.currentbody.com/

3 Fingers: To tape or not to tape?

  • Some climbers tape their fingers as a preventative measure, rather than curative. Taping a finger prevents the underlying tendons from growing stronger as they will rely more on the strength of the tape than on tendon strength. Later, climbing without the tape may then make your tendons more likely to rupture. Taping is recommended by many medical experts to only be of benefit during the recovery stage of a tendon injury, and when climbing activity increases as the injury heals, the tape should be used less and less so that your body can strengthen and get itself back to normal.

Pete Hill MIC, author of Indoor Climbing: Technical Skills for Climbing Walls for Novices, Experts and Instructors (Cicerone, 2009)

  • Taping is commonly used prior to rock climbing to prevent injury to fibres called ‘pulleys’ in the hand. Pulleys are fibrous tissues which run across our fingers to hold tendons into place. When these tendons are put under a vast amount of tension they can cause the pulleys to rupture or become strained. The problem with taping is that it is a passive intervention and therefore has short term benefits and only aids your ability as a climber, not increase it. However actively conditioning your fingers will have long term benefits and significantly reduce your risk of injury. Conditioning includes a warm up of the fingers, practising new types of holds and then to gradually progress the holds by increasing weight bearing over time.

Catherine Maxwell MCSP, Bournemouth University Climbing Club

4 Don't get psyched out

Don't get too hung up about other people's experiences of climbs, or even scary guide book descriptions. They are all subjective and just because they had an epic doesn't mean you will. You can spend a lot of time avoiding routes that sound scary, or out of your comfort zone. I found once I had despatched a few of these type of routes I had a lot more faith in my own ability and very often they are not as bad as they sound anyway!

Ceri Hutchinson, Climber reader

5 Focus on a goal

What do you want to do? It’s no good training week after week if you don’t have a route or a boulder problem in mind. If you want to be the best climber in the world then train to climb the hardest routes – in fact train to climb the hardest routes better than anyone else. If you want to just go climbing then work out some training that’s fun. Training is everything; if you want to achieve results at the crag then your training needs to focus on every little tiny thing, mental, physical, scary stuff, you need to be ready for it all. And don’t just pull on small holds, read everything on climbing you can, watch everything, climb on everything. Live it. And if all else fails pull harder.

Jerry Moffatt (extract from his autobiography Revelations, Vertebrate Publishing, 2009)

6 Climber's elbow

Simply apply a deep pressure into the muscles that flex your wrist using the thumb of the opposite hand. Keep this ‘lock’ firmly in place and slowly extend the wrist away from your lock. You will feel a deep stretch from your point of pressure to the hand that will ease tension and pressure off the common flexor origin at the elbow, ultimately reducing pain and assisting recovery. This can be performed repeatedly until most of the flexor muscles have been covered.  If you have had a reliable diagnosis from a health care professional of ‘golfers elbow’ (pain on inside of elbow when palm is facing forwards) then you may benefit from performing a simple and quick soft tissue release pre and post climb. Recommended to be used in conjunction with a modification of technique as recommended by your coach or other experts. Excellent for use in conjunction with strapping and taping as prescribed by your physio or chiropractor.  
Paul Martin, founder & owner of Restore Sport & Remedial Massage Therapy www.restoresportsmassage.co.uk

7 Recovery snacks and drinks

Once you get serious about training (i.e. more than two hours of good climbing effort, especially bouldering) consider replenishing with 60g carbohydrate and 10-20g protein to promote recovery and muscle maintenance, preferably within 45 minutes of your workout. Milk is a very good recovery drink with the right electrolytes, whey, protein, and hydration requirements – skimmed milk is easier to drink if very thirsty and need more hydration (powder or normal milk).It seriously doesn’t have to be more complicated than this, though you may need to substitute other carbohydrates at the crag. Here are some examples.

  • Two slices of malt loaf and a yoghurt drink
  • 500ml semi-skimmed milk plus one cereal bar
  • 200g low fat yoghurt plus cereal bar and banana
  • One round of sandwiches (thick sliced) or bagel with cheese/egg/chicken/tuna/ham plus piece of fruit
  • Large bowl of cereal with 300ml milk
  • Single sachet of meal replacement powder made with milk and a banana

Audry Morrison, BSc (Human Nutrition), RNutr, UIAA Medcom


8 Stretching – Are you Working AGAINST yourself?

Here’s a bold statement - most people do not stretch correctly and may be doing more harm than good.Stretching before a solid warm up of at least 15-30 minutes can also damage muscles by creating micro-tears and strains. Warm muscles are more pliable due to increase and you should notice that you will be much more flexible after you have completely warmed up. However, for maximum benefit, stretching after activity will result in the greatest gains in long-term flexibility.

Try and incorporate “active stretching” into your next trip to the gym or crag. Having a partner help you will provide the best results, but is not necessary. You will need something to push against if doing the stretch alone, like a doorway, chair, or wall.

Step 1: Move the muscle you want to stretch to almost the limit of how far you can stretch it. Do not stretch too deep to avoid injuring the muscle or joints.

Step 2: Now actively push against your partner (or solid object) as hard as you can for five seconds to contract the muscle you are stretching (see photo).

Step 3: Relax completely and, once again, move the muscle to the limit of how far you can stretch it.

Repeat steps two and three twice so that you wind up actively contacting the muscle for a total of three to four times.

Step 4: You need a partner for this step. From a fully stretched position, your partner will now try and overpower you by pushing the muscle back to its normal resting (un-stretched) position. The opposite or antagonist muscles are being contracted during this part of the exercise. The partner overpowers the limb by pushing it back to its resting position – the quads are engaged in this example.

Step 5: Now perform a regular, static stretch of the muscle in question. Hold the stretch for at least twenty seconds and up to a minute.

Michael Layton, chiropractor and accomplished alpinist living in Salt Lake City, Utah and author of the book Climbing Faster, Stronger, Healthier: Beyond the Basics.

9 Endurance vs muscle training

My basic training is rock climbing (also in the climbing wall) and running. But there is something you really have to understand. Endurance and muscle training (climbing) beat against each other. So when you focus on climbing then there is no hard endurance training. In reality, before El Cap I was climbing five to six days a week and doing just two 1.5 to 2 hours easy running. The period before the speed ascents I was running five to six days a week.

Ueli Steck, alpinist

10 Adopt the 'no surprises' principle

Vector (E2 5c), Tremadog
Holly Adamthwaite on the ochre slab pitch of Vector (E2 5c), Tremadog. Photo: David Rippin

If you're desperate to climb a classic route that's possibly at your limit and are not overcome with guilt regarding the subjective onsight ethics of the day then researching the route beforehand may be for you. I recently had a very short window of opportunity to climb Vector (E2 5c) at Temadog, which meant I tried to grab as much beta as possible the week before giving me a great psychological boost going into the climb. Research areas included:  - Translating Jim Perrin's route account in Hard Rock into a manageable climbing brief
  - Scouring the forums for knowledge and personal accounts of the climb from others websites
  - Looking at as many photos of others on the route taking into account gear and body position.
  - Chatting to others about the route.
  - Finally I put the key info onto a small piece of card to look at through the days before.

Sad? Maybe, but it didn't spoil my enjoyment of climbing Vector and the prep gave me a much better idea of what I was letting myself in for.

Robin Nicholson, Climber reader

11 Soft tissue injuries

Fully rehabilitate yourself from all current and previous injuries, climbing or otherwise. If you do not then the pain may have gone but the injury is lying dormant hampering your performance and creating compensation movement patterns. Recommended are ‘Myofascial Release’ techniques, or ‘The Bowen Technique’, which have amazing affects on the connective tissue – especially important for rock climbers. 

Jack Walton, Functional Trainer holistic health and performance


12 Explosive recruitment

When climbing gets hard we have to expect to a lot of ‘throwing’, ‘slapping’ and generally ‘laying one on’ for holds. When I was training to repeat Jerry Moffatt’s classic boulder problem Slingshot I learned quickly that being able to hold a hold statically and being able to latch it dynamically are very different. I trained by jumping for and latching onto holds of decreasing widths on a fingerboard one-handed and was amazed by how quickly I adapted – even years later I’m still strong on these kinds of moves.

Adrian Berry, climbing coach, Positive Climbing (www.positiveclimbing.com) and co-author of two Rockfax performance books Sport CLIMBING + (RRP £16.95) and Trad CLIMBING + (RRP £19.95).

13 Keep hydrated

Fluid loss as little as two per cent of body weight (only 1.4L in a 70kg individual) can impair performance. It is recommended that you aim to drink 5-7mls per kilo of body weight three-four hours before climbing and drink regularly throughout to maintain body temperature and concentration. Monitoring the status of your body fluid is easily performed by checking your urine colour – a pale colour indicates you are well hydrated; a dark yellow would indicate severe dehydration.

Debbie Fearnley, Leeds Metropolitan University Carnegie Centre for Sport Performance and Wellbeing 

14 Power to weight ratio

Train hard, rest, don't eat. It's a power to weight thing. In fact it's a weight to powerful fingers thing. It's not rocket science. [My wife] Laurence went from F6a to F8a+. Any man or woman can climb F8a within a year in my opinion. All they have to do is everything in their power to do that and not get injured.

Stevie Haston, top climber and alpinist and still redpointing F9a aged 52 (quote from Climber Interview with Haston)

15 Lock strength

For training lock strength, choose a climb within your capabilities (maybe a grade or two lower than your current onsight grade) and practice holding your hand just hovering above the next hold with your other arm locked for 3-5 seconds before grabbing the hold for each move. Once you have mastered this, try a harder graded route or use a weight belt for an extra challenge!

Natalie Berry, British Junior Climbing Team Captain and blogger for currentbody.com (http://climbing.currentbody.com/)

16 The 100 Club

Setting specific challenges can be a superb way of encouraging and advancing your training enormously. The concept of the ‘100 Club’ - being able to crank 100 pull-ups in 10 minutes, is one example. The challenge has a tangible end-point (being part of ‘the club’), can be easily attempted by anyone with a pull-up bar, and really does help build upper-body strength and endurance.  Challenges work best when there’s friendly competition involved, so grab your mates and dare them to top your record! Other examples of goal-based challenges could include: being able to lock-off, L-hanging for one minute, or being able to crank the dreaded one-armer. 

Jamie Maddison, climber

17 Strength or endurance?

The most common mistake my clients make is to expect to improve at route climbing by only climbing routes. Bouldering is essential. Martial artists, for example, don’t train by having a series of fights – they distil the fight into component moves, and work on these first. If your focus is routes, you should boulder for at least half your training sessions. If you’re not getting out on the rock for a bit, there’s more to be gained from working on strength, then spending a few weeks on endurance as spring approaches.

Adrian Berry, climbing coach, Positive Climbing (www.positiveclimbing.com) and co-author of two Rockfax performance books Sport CLIMBING + (RRP £16.95) and Trad CLIMBING + (RRP £19.95).

18 Get inspired

I do work really hard but it's in a different way. That's why it's hard for me to train in a systematic way. I just get inspired when I find a route and I start working on it. That's what gives me the motivation to climb.

Chris Sharma

19 Shoulder vs arm strength

Climbers wanting to make strength gains frequently dwell on developing arm strength without giving their shoulders enough attention. Shoulder strength allows deeper lock-offs to be possible – great for shorties – in fact you can gain more height on a hold using your shoulder muscles than with your arm muscles. A great way of working locking off low with your shoulders is to use a standard overhead cable pull weight station, put a single hand handle on the end of the cable, get on your knees and pull down until your bicep is fully contracted, now use your shoulders to keep pulling the cable all the way until your hand is directly below your shoulder.

Adrian Berry, climbing coach, Positive Climbing (www.positiveclimbing.com) and co-author of two Rockfax performance books Sport CLIMBING + (RRP £16.95) and Trad CLIMBING + (RRP £19.95).

20 Make your own energy bars

Here’s a really quick, cheap, and easy recipe for calorie packed nutritious energy bars.


-1 Box of Cereal. Go crazy and try something different. Granola is a good calorie intense stand-by.

-1 bag of Marshmallows or 12oz Brown Rice Syrup, Molasses, and / or Honey

-1 Stick of Butter or Margarine, 4oz Olive Oil, or 4 oz Flax Seed Oil


-Approx 8 oz Chopped Nuts: Almonds, Walnuts, Pecans. Add as much or as little as you like.

-Approx 4 oz dried fruit: Cranberries, Blueberries, Raisins, etc.

-Chocolate Chips, M&Ms, Coconut Flakes, or anything else you can think of.

-The only ingredient missing, of course, is your imagination

In a very large saucepan melt or heat on medium heat your choice of oil. Add the sugar in the form of marshmallows (the classic choice), molasses, brown rice syrup, and/or honey. Still constantly, and when the mixture gets bubbly, stir in the cereal, fruit, nuts, and other ingredients you choose. When the concoction is mixed, pour everything into a greased baking dish. To make the bars more packable, try and press as much air out as you can. If you want to make them spectacular, drizzle chocolate and sprinkle coconut flakes on top.

Michael Layton, chiropractor and accomplished alpinist living in Salt Lake City, Utah and author of the book Climbing Faster, Stronger, Healthier: Beyond the Basics.



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