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5 “Off-the-wall” Exercises to Incorporate into Your Workouts to Improve Your Climbing

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

There is undeniably a level of expertise and technique that develops solely from rock climbing and spending as much time climbing at a gym or crag as possible. However, there are many gains you can make off the wall that will translate to critical on-the-wall skills. Whether it is keeping body tension, generating power through your legs, or preventing injury in the heavily loaded finger, wrist, and elbow tendons, training off-the-wall should be your new best friend.

To help get you started, we've compiled a list of exercises to incorporate into your workouts to help improve your climbing without actually involving climbing. We know some of these exercises are more advanced, so we've included modifications and progressions for each!

5 “Off-the-Wall” Exercises to Incorporate into Your Workouts to Improve Your Climbing

pull up bar

1. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts (RDLS)

Think heel-hooks. You engage your posterior leg muscles, most notably your hamstring, when you successfully use a heel hook. RDLs, specifically the single-leg variation, allow you to strengthen your posterior chain muscles while emphasizing your hamstrings. Traditionally a deadlift is done with both feet on the ground. However, you are likely to never heel hook with both legs simultaneously. Thus, isolating one leg at a time strengthens the muscles while replicating a movement more realistic to climbing on the wall.

2. Pistol Squats

Pistol squats serve the same single-leg isolation purpose as RDLS, but instead, work your quads and test your hip and ankle mobility. Think of all the times you are climbing and must get a high foot. Then you'll likely have to stand up out of that position. The motion those movements force you to execute is effectively a pistol squat transferred onto a climbing wall. Additionally, a lack of mobility shortens your range of motion, and having weaker quad muscles may make specific climbing movements feel 10x harder. Building leg strength and increasing ankle and hip mobility will allow you to step onto high holds and transfer more weight into your foot.

3. Handstand Holds

As a climber, you spend much time pulling, pulling, and more. Occasionally, you’ll encounter a mantle or press movement, but it’s right back (no pun intended) to the pulling motion. Of course, being strong in a pulling position helps you excel in climbing. You’ll develop strong trapezius, lats, serratus anterior, rhomboids, etc. However, over time you are highly susceptible to developing the “climber’s posture,” aka hunched forward shoulders, due to muscle imbalance. The easiest way to counterbalance all the pulling is to train the antagonist muscles via pushing motions.

Handstand holds are a fantastic exercise to work on pushing while strengthening your shoulders, delts, and upper trapezius. The great thing about this exercise is the vast array of modifications. As long as you have a wall, you can vary the level of intensity by placing your hands further away (easier) or closer to (more challenging) the wall. You can also change the difficulty by choosing to keep one foot at a time or both feet touching the wall. as well as keeping your feet on the wall. Aim to incorporate 3-10 minutes over handstand holds during a training session, but feel free to break it down into the appropriate length holds for your current level!

4. Push-ups (All Variations)

Push-ups are another great exercise to strengthen your chest, shoulders, and other pushing muscles. Nothing fancy is needed, so you can effectively incorporate these into any session, even opting to do a set or two in between climbs. It’s essential to incorporate a variety of push-up types into your training to ensure maximum effectiveness and target more muscles. Some push-up variations to include in your workouts are military press-ups, diamond push-ups, archer push-ups, and wide push-ups.

5. Weighted Wrist Curls and Extensions

If you want to incorporate a few helpful but minimally taxing exercises at the end of your climbing session, consider adding weighted wrist curls and extensions. These fall into the category of accessory training but are vital to the longevity of your forearm tendons and extensors.

If you aren’t familiar with these two exercises, here’s a simple description!

Wrist Curls

For wrist curls, you’ll use a moderately heavy dumbbell. Grab the weight and stand with your arm hanging straight at your side, palm facing away from you. Keep your arm touching your sides to prevent you from bending your elbow, and curl your wrist upwards. You should be able to complete 6-10 reps. If not, start with a lower weight. This exercise will work the forearm muscles that surround your tendons.

Wrist Extensions

Find a bench and grab a dumbbell on the light-moderate side. Rest your elbow and forearm on the bench so your hand with the dumbbell hangs off the edge away from you. With your knuckles facing the ground, pull your wrist to a flat position and repeat for 20-25 reps. This movement will work your extensors, the antagonist muscle to your forearm flexors, and is essential to train in preventing injuries.

With these five exercises, you will find that you can fill in the gaps in your training, and they will pay off on the wall. The great thing is that they are relatively low-taxing exercises that can easily be incorporated into the beginning or end of a regular climbing session or even at home on a rest day. Don’t feel discouraged if some of these exercises are challenging at first. Always modify to your current level and enjoy the process of progressing! Finally, as usual, contact a local trainer or climbing gym for form, volume, and programming questions. Let us know if you have any further comments or questions about exercises for climbing.

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