When I tore my ACL last August, I was at a loss for how to keep up climbing strength. I'd never trained and I'd be out the whole season when I'd mentally decided it was going to be my strongest climbing year. There's a ton of exercises online--pull ups, TRX, dumbbells, campus board, etc.--but my problem was figuring out how to put them together into an actual training program that I could keep up with.
This post is about the framework that's kept me motivated and able to sustain, and is especially for those who need to balance work. I don't intend to go into details on individual exercises. If you're motivated, I highly suggest kick starting any training with folks like Team of 2 [update: Team of 2 is no longer together, but Justen provides training as The Climbing Sensei].
First, if you're training because of injury, it kinda sucks. It's not going to be as fun as climbing, but it's rewarding, and you've got to keep a positive attitude. Truth: I haven't missed climbing that much. I still see friends at the gym and still go outdoors when they climb. Training's different, and I'm motivated by correcting what I now know was weak that led to injury.
Find a weekly schedule that works for you. Training isn't as fun as climbing, so it'll be more difficult to get to the gym, especially if you have a busy schedule. I actually recommend setting your goal low here: if your workout goal is more than you can keep up, you'll feel like you're failing and be even less likely to continue. On the other hand, if you maintain a schedule and see yourself getting stronger, you'll naturally want to work out more.
I have a pretty set schedule of getting to the gym 3 - 4 times per week, 3 - 3.5 hrs a session. I've maintained that for the last 6 months. It also helps motivation see your climbing friends and socialize.
Cheats when life gets to you
Reality is that life will get to you. Work will drain you, or you'll be sore from the previous workout, or you just don't have the motivation on a week.
What works for me is doing a short, easier workout to keep momentum rather than skipping altogether. Ideally I still get to the gym and do an easy 1hr workout, or do a yoga class. Worst case I'll do a few sets of pullups and pushups at home. It's just something to get me warm.
Workout Framework: Running Bucket List
I divide each workout into muscle groups and do something for each group each workout. I keep a list of all the exercises I could do in each group and before the gym, I select what I'll do for the day. Having that full list written out has been key. Last thing I want to do is think about what exercises to do after a long day at work.
My baseline workout is:
- 15min warmup on stationary bike or running
- 45min physical therapy for legs
- 45min climbing-specific hangboard, campus board, or pullups
- 15min core
- 15min back and chest
- 30min shoulders and arms
- 30min forearms and pinch strength
My bucket list I choose from looks like:
Workout Framework: Selecting Exercises
Personally, I like to do something from each muscle group in each workout rather than dividing days and only doing legs one day, shoulders then next. However, I concentrate on one body part a workout session.
For example, on my designated "shoulders and arms" day, my warm-up will be kettlebell goblet squats and kettlebell single-leg deadlifts at a reasonable weight--just to get warm and activate those muscles. Then I'll go into a legit workout for shoulders, like a suspension trainer workout.
To keep it interesting, I substitute part of one workout per week with something totally different, like yoga or an abs & core class at the gym. Early on, I substituted a suspension trainer (like TRX) and loved it so much that it's now a staple.
Before I go to the gym, I use the FitNotes app to curate the list of what I'm going to do that day. I've searched high and low for good workout apps and this one's clean and simple.
Modify for Heartrate
The hardest part of starting to train was that I had never "trained" before--I just climbed. I scoured the web for workouts, and most of what I found called for "2 min of mountain climbers, 30 sec rest, 2 min of atomic push-ups, 30 sec rest..." Endurance isn't my strength, and I first wanted to pass out or puke, and second, it made me feel super weak and unmotivated to do those workouts again.
I now pace my workouts with a heartrate monitor.
Bluetooth-connected devices are product that should be simple but are still complicated. The Wahoo has a pretty faultless connection and their app is pretty good. As a bonus, you can use their app when stationary, unlike Strava.
I set heartrate levels for myself, so <160bpm is warmup/recovery, 160 < bpm < 175 is aerobic, and >175 is anaerobic. I'll take the workout and do 2min of mountain climbers at the pace that my HR is in aerobic, then take however long it takes to get back down to like 140bpm, even if it's more than 30sec.
This way, I survive a workout, and I can see small improvements in recovery time or max HR, which is more motivating week over week.
A few tips for climbing-specific exercises that I've loved.
I think the simplest way is to get the Beastmaker app on the Apple store for $2. And yeah, I say that as an Android employee. I even sourced an iPhone to use. It's an effortless way to figure out what the hell to do on a hangboard. You don't need the Beastmaker hangboard, you can get an idea of exercises in the app and use the app's timer on any hangboard you have.
This is an excellent article from Crux Crush (see videos below). I do sets of ladders, bumps, max reaches, and pull-throughs. Each set I start on the large rungs, then medium, then small, with 2 min rest in between. So: Ladders large rungs, rest 2 min, ladders med rungs, rest 2 min, ladders small rungs, rest 2 min, bumps large rungs, rest 2 min, bumps med rungs, rest 2 min, etc.
It's easy to mix this up with variations of 0-2-0, 1-3-5, etc. I only go half way up the campus board so I have energy to do the negatives coming down.
I'm not a fan of Crossfit-like training, but I love suspension trainers (think TRX). I use it primarily for shoulder and abs--it's great for strength, stability, and negatives (the lowering part of each pull) for injury prevention. Great resource for exercises: Team of 2's videos.
I typically choose 5-6 exercises and do each exercise for 1.5min with no rest. At the end, I take a 3 min rest before starting again, and aim for 3 rounds. My favorites are IYT's, ab crunches, and wolverines.
Woss bands are amazing quality at $30-$50, a mere fraction of the TRX's $200 price. The Woss Hurricane is $50 (Amazon link) and comes with 12mm rope on an optional pulley for more stability exercises. The 3000 model (Amazon link) is $30 and is with 1.5" nylon straps like TRX.
Pinches and Forearms
See my dedicated article for forearm training on slopers and pinches!
More Workout Gear
See this post for more details on my favorite workout gear!