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Optimizing Rock Climbing Performance Through Sport-Specific Strength and Conditioning

Phillips, Kevin C. BS, CSCS1; Sassaman, Joseph M. MS2; Smoliga, James M. DVM, PhD, CSCS1,3

Strength and Conditioning Journal: June 2012 - Volume 34 - Issue 3 - p 1–18
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e318255f012
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SUMMARY RECREATIONAL AND COMPETITIVE ROCK CLIMBING HAS RAPIDLY INCREASED IN POPULARITY THROUGHOUT THE PAST FEW DECADES. BECAUSE ROCK CLIMBING HAS BECOME A MAINSTREAM ACTIVITY AND COMPETITIVE SPORT, SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH EXPLORING THE PHYSIOLOGY OF ROCK CLIMBING PERFORMANCE HAS EXPANDED, YET THERE IS LIMITED INFORMATION AVAILABLE TO THE GENERAL STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING COMMUNITY REGARDING TRAINING PRACTICES TO HELP CLIMBERS OPTIMIZE PERFORMANCE. THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE IS TO EQUIP THE STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING SPECIALIST WITH THE BASIC KNOWLEDGE OF THE SPORT, DESCRIBE THE PHYSIOLOGICAL DEMANDS OF CLIMBING, AND PROVIDE A FRAMEWORK OF RECOMMENDATIONS FOR DEVELOPING STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PROGRAMS TO ENHANCE ROCK CLIMBING PERFORMANCE.

Supplemental Digital Content is Available in the Text.

1Department of Health and Physical Education, Marywood University, Scranton, Pennsylvania

2Quest, Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania

3Department of Physical Therapy, High Point University, High Point, North Carolina

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal's Web site (http://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj).

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Kevin C. Phillipsrecently completed his Bachelor's of Science in Athletic Training at Marywood University.

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Joseph M. Sassamanis a climbing instructor with the Quest program at Bloomsburg University.

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James M. Smoligais an associate professor of Physiology in the Department of Physical Therapy at High Point University..

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INTRODUCTION TO CLIMBING

Rock climbing is a sport that evolved from mountaineering, which has existed for hundreds of years. During the late 1800s, mountaineers became interested in climbing specific cliffs or rock formations as a training method for mountaineering. As this type of climbing gained popularity, the gear and techniques became more advanced, allowing for increasingly harder routes to be climbed. Rock climbing is now a very popular sport worldwide, with individuals participating for recreational and competitive purposes in indoor and outdoor settings. In the past two decades, accessibility to indoor artificial rock climbing walls has tremendously increased, with a number of colleges and gyms building climbing walls, along with a number of climbing-specific gyms opening. As climbing has progressed into the mainstream, a considerable amount of research has described the various factors that contribute to climbing performance, many of which can be potentially improved upon through targeted training (34,36,53,58). Thus, there is considerable need for the strength and conditioning professional to understand the basics of rock climbing, including its unique terminology, physiological demands, and theories for developing specialized training programs to enhance climbing performance and reduce the risk of climbing injuries.

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BASIC CLIMBING TERMINOLOGY

One of the greatest initial barriers for a strength and conditioning professional to overcome while working with climbers is understanding the terminology used in rock climbing. The following sections, Tables 1–3, and Figures 1–3 introduce the basic terms that may be encountered while interacting with climbers.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

Table 1

Table 1

Table 2

Table 2

Table 3

Table 3

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TYPES OF CLIMBING

Bouldering is the most simple and straightforward type of rock climbing. The path an individual takes to ascend a rock face or climbing wall is referred to as a problem. A typical bouldering problem consists of a sequence of generally difficult moves followed by a final hold or a top out maneuver, during which the climber must pull his/her entire body over a ledge to complete the route. Problems usually range from 8 to 15 feet high, although there is no standard that states a minimum or maximum height to be considered a boulder problem. Because of the height of bouldering (<25 feet high), a safety rope is not used and instead a crash pad or bouldering mat (similar to a gymnastics mat) and a spotter are typically used for protection. Bouldering is commonly performed as a training technique to improve strength, endurance, and climbing technique in a well-controlled environment, although it has become a sport of its own. Bouldering also allows for the repetition of movements to train the neuromuscular system for specific body positions.

Top rope climbing is considered a very safe way to rock climb. An anchor system is set up at the top of the rock, and a rope is threaded through it. One side of the rope is tied to the climber harness, while the other side is attached to the individual on the ground, known as a belayer, who controls the slack with a belay device. This is an act known as belaying. Because the climber will only fall the length of slack given by the belayer, major falls rarely occur during top roping.

Sport climbing is a type of lead climbing, which means that there is no top anchor. As the climber ascends the wall, he/she clips quickdraws (two carabiners connected by a sewn loop of webbing) into preplaced permanent bolts that have been installed in the wall. Once the top carabiner of the quickdraw is attached to the bolt, the climber clips the rope into the bottom carabiner of the quickdraw, therefore creating an anchor. Although sport climbing is considered a relatively safe and easy way to climb routes, it can be dangerous depending on how the route is bolted. A climber will fall twice the length he/she is above his last anchor. This means that if the bolts on a route are spread out every 10 feet, a climber could possibly take a 20-foot fall. Rock climbers might choose sport climbing over top rope climbing because of the time saved in not having to establish an anchor.

Trad or traditional climbing is the other main type of lead climbing. This is considered more dangerous than the above forms of climbing because the climber must place his/her own removable gear (i.e., cams) into cracks or around other features as he/she ascends. Rock climbers often choose trad climbing for the challenge of placing their own protection, and it is often the only method of protection available in remote locations where sport climbing anchors have not been installed or where a top anchor cannot be established.

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GRADING SCALE

As the sport of rock climbing has advanced and routes have become more difficult, the need for a grading scale to quantify the levels of difficulty was apparent. The grade of a climb depends on the technical difficulty, as well as strength, power, endurance, flexibility, and commitment required to complete the climb. Grading scales are often unique to a given country. The grading system used for bouldering in the United States is known as the V scale. Bouldering problems are graded on a scale that ranges from V-0 (easiest) to V-16 (hardest) (10). Each number signifies one level of increased difficulty. The U.S. grading scale used for traditional, sport, and top rope climbing techniques is the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which currently ranges from 5.0 (easiest) to 5.15 (hardest), whereby each decimal increase indicates a more difficult level of climbing. Also, at grade (level) 5.10 and above, a letter (a, b, c, or d; a = easiest, d = hardest) is commonly added to further specify the difficulty. For example, a 5.14 c is 2 grades harder than a 5.14 a, just as a 5.8 is 2 grades harder than a 5.6.

Climbing grades are subjective and are usually assigned by the consensus of the first climbers to complete a route. Because of the subjective nature of the grading scale, it is inherently difficult to understand without substantial climbing experience. For example, there is no set standard to state that a route of length X with Y amount of holds and Z number of unique hold shapes is equal to a certain grade. Thus, climbers learn to apply grades by climbing a variety of established routes of all different difficulties.

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ROCK CLIMBING COMPETITIONS

Because rock climbing has increased in popularity, participation in rock climbing competitions has also increased. The convenience of indoor climbing gyms allows competitions to be held at any time of the year without climbing conditions being affected by weather. Any type of route may be created with the only limiting factor being the level of creativity of the route setter. It must also be stated that plenty of competitions are held outdoors at popular climbing areas.

USA Climbing is the national governing body of competition in climbing in the United States. The organization promotes 3 different styles of competition, which include bouldering, sport climbing, and speed climbing. Competitions usually start in the winter and run through the spring. Competitive climbers must take part in a competition in their home region. If the climber wins, he/she advances to the divisional championship (the United States is broken into 5 divisions). The winners of the divisional competition continue on to the national competition. Finally, the winners of national competition advance to the World Cup (1).

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PSYCHOMOTOR AND COGNITIVE CONTRIBUTIONS TO CLIMBING

Rock climbing is a physically (37,54,58) and mentally (7,25,50) demanding sport. In the climbing community, it is generally recognized that climbers must optimize strength, power, endurance, flexibility, balance, and neuromuscular control to achieve peak performance. Climbing may be considered a whole-body activity because major muscle groups of the upper extremity, trunk, and lower extremity actively contribute to supporting and moving the body (Figure 4). Scientific research generally supports these requirements but remains limited by the lack of sufficient data in some areas or even conflicting data in others. Conflicting data in the climbing literature may result from differences in the types of climbers studied (i.e., boulderers versus traditional climbers), experience level (i.e., recreational/intermediate versus professional/expert), and methodology used (i.e., different types of strength, endurance, and/or climbing performance tests, indoor versus outdoor climbing, etc). Nonetheless, the relevant rock climbing performance research is summarized in the following sections and combined with research and theory from the strength and conditioning literature to synthesize training recommendations to optimize rock climbing performance. A thorough review of rock climbing overuse injuries and recommendations for injury prevention are beyond the scope of this article, and this information is available elsewhere (29,38,47,48).

Figure 4

Figure 4

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COGNITIVE AND AFFECTIVE ASPECTS OF CLIMBING

A thorough review of the cognitive and affective aspects of climbing is beyond the scope of this article; however it is still important to consider their roles in climbing performance. The cognitive aspect of climbing is rooted in a climber's ability to analyze a surface and plan a technical route (41) and plan a strategy that maximizes one's movement efficiency (55). This is based on individual climbing style, ability, and body type. There may be only one way to finish a route or there may be multiple options, and climbing experience plays a large role in how a climber can envision which strategy he/she will use to ascend (41). Familiarity with a climbing route is associated with decreased anxiety (15), and climbers who have confidence in their abilities are more likely to attempt more difficult climbs (33).

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PHYSIOLOGICAL DEMANDS OF ROCK CLIMBING

Metabolic pathways used during climbing

Rock climbing requires a combination of muscular strength, power, and endurance, and therefore, a well-rounded climber must fully optimize his/her muscular fitness by training the 3 major pathways of adenosine triphosphate production through performing metabolic training or metabolic conditioning (4,43). An in-depth discussion of the physiology of rock climbing is beyond the scope of this article, but it has been described previously by Sheel (53) and Watts (58). The extent to which each energy system is used depends on the type of climbing being performed, the difficulty of the problem/route, and the length of the problem route (4,13,60). A typical problem or route may include intermittent bouts of high-intensity climbing (i.e., difficult moves with a high physiological demand) followed by easier segments, during which the climber has a chance to aerobically recover, chalk one's hands, and plan his/her next moves. Time resting during the climb is dependent on the circumstances of the individual climb. For instance, a climber may rest for 30 seconds or more on an easy hold (where intense isometric contractions are not required to remain in contact with the surface), whereas a climber is more likely to minimize time spent chalking when pausing on a difficult route in which each hold requires an intense isometric contraction in an attempt to maximize the metabolic energy devoted to ascending the wall (e.g., on a steep overhanging surface where there is a large horizontal distance between feet and center of mass of the body). Likewise, a trad route, in which climbers may place gear every 10 feet, may take 20 minutes or more and thus has a strong aerobic endurance component. Therefore, the strength and conditioning specialist must take all these metabolic factors into consideration when designing a strength and conditioning program for each specific climber.

Most bouldering relies heavily on the phosphagen and glycolytic systems. This is because of the short duration and high-intensity nature of bouldering (62). Blood lactate concentration is known to elevate as climbing intensity and duration increases (37), which demonstrates the significant glycolytic flux that occurs during climbing. Blood lactate concentration has shown to correlate with decreased handgrip endurance (57) and may serve as a marker of fatigue during climbing (although it should be noted that lactate accumulation itself does not cause fatigue (2)). During very high–intensity climbing, blood lactate concentrations have been reported to reach 3–10 mmol/L (5,6,13,37), and within an individual, the concentration is considerably lower than concentrations measured during cycling or running (5,13). This is likely attributable to the relatively smaller volume of muscle mass with near-maximal metabolic demands during climbing. Anaerobic fitness is important for the strength and conditioning professional to acknowledge because a competitive climber taking part in a bouldering competition may be only allowed very short recovery periods in between attempts at a climb, which may be insufficient to allow for complete recovery via aerobic metabolism between climbs. However, it must not be ignored that recovery from anaerobic exercise occurs through aerobic metabolism and that an individual may boulder for many hours, relying on the oxidative system for continued muscle contraction and recovery from high-intensity bursts of activity (54).

Traditional, sport, and top rope climbing usually rely on a combination of all 3 metabolic pathways. These types of climbing involve much longer routes than bouldering problems, ranging from 2 to 7 minutes of duration on average (58). Climbing research has noted the importance of aerobic metabolism while lead climbing and top roping indoors, as demonstrated by increases in heart rate and oxygen consumption during more difficult climbs (4–6,37,54,59). Peak oxygen consumption (V[Combining Dot Above]O2peak) during climbing is typically lower than that during running or cycling within an individual (5,13). Peak volume of oxygen consumption in trained male climbers has been reported to be approximately 45 mL O2·kg−1·min−1 during cycling and 55 mL O2·kg−1·min−1 during running (5,35). However, V[Combining Dot Above]O2peak during actual climbing is considerably lower, with reported values generally ranging from 25 to 80% of V[Combining Dot Above]O2peak or 20 to 45 mL O2·kg−1·min−1 during high-intensity indoor climbing (3,5,6,13,15,17,35,37,46). There is some evidence to suggest that outdoor sport climbing elicits a lower V[Combining Dot Above]O2peak than indoor climbing (6); however, further research regarding outdoor climbing is needed. Although increased climbing surface angles are associated with different ratings of perceived exertions and heart rate, oxygen consumption and absolute energy expenditure generally remain constant at these different inclinations (60). As with lactate, the relatively low V[Combining Dot Above]O2peak during climbing is likely because of the relatively small muscle mass of the muscles most engaged during climbing. This suggests that cardiac output is not likely a limiting factor in achieving peak climbing performance but rather the maximal oxygen uptake of the upper extremity muscles is limiting. This emphasizes the need for climbers to maximize the muscular endurance of those muscles used most during climbing, while also considering traditional aerobic training (e.g., cycling, running, etc) to ensure that the cardiorespiratory system does not become a limiting factor to optimal performance.

Climbers can benefit from high-intensity interval training using a variety of workloads and recovery periods. The nature of the interval training sessions should consider the conditions a climber faces in competition, such as the intensity and duration of each individual climb, total volume of climbing required, and duration of recovery periods between climbs. For instance, a boulderer may train at very high intensities (near maximal for 10 seconds) using a work to recovery ratio that promotes full recovery (i.e., 1:12) to maximize power output and stimulate the phosphagen system. Additionally, he/she may train at a similar or slightly lower intensity using longer work intervals and shorter recovery periods (i.e., work to recovery ratio of 1:3 to 1:5) in attempt to enhance glycolytic metabolism. The recovery period may be further decreased to achieve a higher metabolic intensity, which requires the athlete to continue exercising while fatigued. In such cases, the athlete may benefit from longer periods of recovery between sets. For instance, an individual may perform multiple sets consisting of 3 repetitions of 90 seconds of intense climbing followed by a 60-second rest interval between repetitions (work to recovery ratio of 3:2), with a full recovery (i.e., 10 minutes) between sets. Climbers who require greater aerobic development should focus on longer durations with equal work to recovery ratios (1:1) to improve aerobic endurance. It should be noted that interval training can be periodized, allowing blocks of training targeting one specific metabolic pathway. Likewise, interval training may include actual climbing, other forms of exercise that target muscles used in climbing, or a combination of both. For instance, an individual may target glycolytic pathways by performing multiple sets of 30 seconds of high-intensity climbing immediately followed by 30 seconds of intense arm ergometry or resistance training before engaging in a predetermined recovery period.

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Types of Contractions

Isometric strength and endurance

Isometric contractions play a key role in rock climbing because they serve to stabilize the body when a climber stops to chalk one's hands, clip bolts, place gear, and contemplate his/her next move. On average 38% of climbing time is spent in static positions (58), which causes a disproportionately high heart rate relative to oxygen consumption, which likely results from increased muscle metaboreflex activation (19,53). Sustained isometric contractions present a unique challenge to climbers because they reduce local blood flow and potentially cause muscular fatigue. Repeated isometric contractions likely induce vascular adaptations (19). With this in mind, it is essential to incorporate isometric contractions into the strength training program because they are highly climbing specific. This can include holding key climbing positions for prolonged periods and incorporating isometric contractions at various joint angles into traditional resistance training exercises (e.g., hanging from a pull-up bar at approximately 90° elbow flexion or maintaining a seated leg curl at 45° knee flexion for a set duration).

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Dynamic strength and power

Highly coordinated concentric muscle contractions are responsible for translating the center of mass of the body during climbing. For example, when ascending a climbing wall, the latissimus dorsi concentrically contracts to adduct the shoulder and decrease the moment arm of the arm segment, while also contributing to the shoulder extension along with the posterior deltoid. As the humerus extends and adducts, concentric contraction of various other muscles that stabilize the scapula (i.e., rhomboids, lower trapezius and middle trapezius (30)) and glenohumoral joint (i.e., biceps brachii, upper trapezius (30)) help to maximize transmission of force to the climbing surface. Concentric contractions also occur over a wide range of velocities during climbing. For instance, while navigating a particularly challenging surface, a climber may perform very slow movements to maximize control and stability. Likewise, in situations where large amounts of force are required to lift the center of mass of the body (e.g., when the climber is in a position where the legs contribute minimally to propulsive forces), sufficient force from the upper extremity muscles can only be developed through slower muscle contraction velocities, in accordance with the force-velocity relationship of muscle contraction. Thus, resistance training programs for rock climbers should include slow concentric movements.

Conversely, whole-body power movements are also performed during climbing. The best example of a quick and powerful movement performed during climbing is the dyno, a movement where a climber literally leaps off the climbing surface in attempt to reach a hold otherwise unattainable (demonstrated in Figure 2, Supplemental Digital Content 1, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A51). The dyno requires considerable activation of various ankle, knee, and hip extensor muscles to produce a large amount of force in a short time, sufficient to maximize vertical acceleration. Power exercises like the hang clean, push press, power switch-ups (demonstrated in Video 2, Supplemental Digital Content 2, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A52), and plyometrics should be considerations in training because they activate large amounts of muscle mass in an explosive manner, much like climbing often does.

Eccentric contractions are also an integral component of rock climbing. When a climber loses contact with a hold (e.g., removing one hand from the surface in attempt to reach the next hold) various upper-body muscles may contract eccentrically to maintain joint stability and control one's position in relation to the wall. This is most evident during the later stages of the dyno (Figure 2), when the climber has reached the hold, but his/her center of mass is accelerating downward. During this time, elbow extension and shoulder flexion occur rapidly, whereas the elbow flexors (e.g., brachioradialis, biceps brachii (30)) and shoulder extensors (e.g., latissimus dorsi (30)) eccentrically contract. Likewise, muscles involved in scapular stability (e.g., rhomboids, serratus anterior, etc (30)) must rapidly contract as they lengthen during this time. A functional method used to emphasize eccentric contractions is down climbing routes. To do this, a climber begins at the top of a route and then descends in a slow controlled manner, relying on controlled eccentric contractions to lower the body, essentially climbing the route in reverse.

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MUSCLE GROUPS USED DURING CLIMBING

Hand and finger muscles

Climbers rely heavily on their finger and wrist flexors to firmly grip holds on climbing surfaces. Hand and finger strength for rock climbing, commonly referred to as contact strength, is different than that in other gripping sports in that there are multiple different types of grips used (see Figure 3a–h) and isometric and eccentric contractions are of greater importance in climbing than concentric force development (58,61). Although sufficient muscular force must be developed to resist against the effects of gravity (21,56,58), holdspecific muscular endurance in the hands and fingers is also critical to climbing success (23,34,57), with different holds imposing varying muscular contributions (52). As such, adaptations to climbing may include altered neuromuscular activation patterns (18,32,44) and faster reoxygenation (42) of the finger flexor muscles during gripping tasks. Furthermore, changes in the fingers themselves, such as increased fingertip pulp dimension or tissue deformation, may optimize hold-specific force by allowing greater friction forces between the fingers and the climbing surface (8).

Whenever possible, climbers should modify strength training exercises to incorporate a variety of different grips. Barbells, dumbbells, and pull-ups bars with large diameter handles, known as thick bars, may be used for this purpose. Alternatively, a towel may be wrapped around these objects to increase their diameter. Gripping a large diameter object requires muscular force to be developed throughout the range of motion where grip force is relatively weak (45) and alters direction of force application, which is more specific to climbing holds (i.e., slopers, Figure 3g) (16,45). Additionally, there are a number of specialized training devices available including hang boards (Figure 5a and 5b), finger loops (Figure 5c), and baseballs attached to rope, which can be used to further modify grip used during pull-ups or isometric hanging exercises. A hang board is a training device usually made of plastic or wood that has a combination of different holds on it. A sample hang board workout is presented in Table 4.

Table 4

Table 4

Although there is much emphasis on training finger and wrist flexor muscles, it is also quite important for climbers to train antagonist muscles. Tendonitis of the forearm muscles is a very common climbing injury likely caused from overreaching, overtraining, and imbalances between the wrist and finger flexors and the less-developed extensor muscle groups (12,40). Therefore, climbers should attempt to regularly include wrist and finger extension exercises in their training routines to correct these muscle imbalances. A number of specialized training devices often used by handgrip enthusiasts are available to train these muscles such as finger extension loops (Figure 5d).

Figure 5

Figure 5

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Arm and shoulder muscles

The pulling muscles, such as the elbow flexors and shoulder extensors, are extensively used during climbing to translate the body vertically and horizontally. The less obvious “pushing” muscles, such as the shoulder internal rotators, adductors, and elbow extensors, must also be acknowledged. For example, during the mantle (Figure 1h), the shoulder internal rotators and elbow extensors are used to lift the body over a horizontal ledge. Another example is on surfaces that resemble a rectangular block, which require the climber to use compression moves to continue ascending. This type of movement relies heavily on the pectoral muscles and the serratus anterior. Also, imbalances in shoulder rotation functional strength (63) and alterations in scapulothoracic motion (49) have been identified in climbers. Thus, training the shoulder external rotators and horizontal abductors could help prevent muscle imbalances and injuries.

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Lower-body muscles

Although climbing is mainly thought of as an upper-body activity, the importance of lower-body strength and endurance must not be overlooked. The more the legs can contribute to climbing, the less physiologically demanding climbing is on the upper-body musculature. Hip flexors, including the iliopsoas, sartorius, and rectus femoris (30), are used to reach footholds to achieve a stable position, whereas the hip and knee extensors, including the gluteal and quadriceps muscle groups (30), contract concentrically to increase the center of mass of the climber while he/she is ascending. Some specialized maneuvers may require a considerable amount of force development in the leg muscles, such as heel hooks, which require strong knee flexors (i.e., hamstrings group and gastrocnemius (30)). Many climbs also involve holds that are out of reach, which means the climber must perform a dyno (Figure 2, Supplemental Digital Content 1) to reach them, which requires a powerful triple extension. Finally, it is important to recognize that many climbers will hike miles to reach mountains, reach cliffs and bouldering areas, and therefore should develop sufficient muscular endurance in their leg muscles through regular aerobic conditioning activities, such as cycling and running.

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Core muscles

Just like all other sports, the core musculature is extremely important in rock climbing. Core strength in climbers has not been scientifically investigated, but core training likely can help climbers achieve greater efficiency in climbing. A strong core is especially important when climbing sections of a rock that are over hung (i.e., >90° angle relative to the ground), which requires the climber to attempt to keep his/her body close to the wall through various degrees of trunk flexion or extension, and torso rotation. If the climber's legs or feet are not in contact with an overhanging surface, it puts the individual at a mechanical disadvantage, resulting in a much greater work requirement for the upper-body muscles. If the legs lose contact with the climbing surface, then the core muscles contribute in reclaiming one's position on the wall. Therefore, climbers should regularly include exercises that train their abdominal, lumbar, and pelvic musculature using a variety of positions to maximize carryover to climbing performance.

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PROGRAM DESIGN

Because of the unique nature of rock climbing, specificity is one of the most important principles of training and therefore climbing itself is a critical part of training. As no two rock formations are the same, a climber will encounter a countless number of holds and body positions during training and competition. The more holds and body positions a climber encounters, learns, and becomes comfortable with, the more efficient one's climbing will become. This is partially explained by the development of climbing-specific strength and endurance, such that an experienced climber has developed sufficient neuromuscular and physiologic adaptations to reduce the metabolic cost for a given movement, as well as the ability to perform maneuvers that would otherwise not be possible. This is shown by the ability of elite climbers to perform more moves on a rock wall than recreational climbers during a set period with the same oxygen cost (therefore, a lower oxygen cost per movement) (3). Familiarity and personal experience with a given route also has an effect on climbing performance, as completion time and energy expenditure for completing a given route are reduced following repeated ascents (17). Likewise, there is a strong motor learning component, such that extensive climbing experience allows individuals to better envision and apply optimized strategies for completing a given problem or route (41).

Indoor climbing gyms provide an optimal training environment because they offer a wide variety of routes and holds that are frequently modified. A climber can train by climbing outdoors also but should visit a variety of different areas to experience many different climbs. Climbers should not just simply climb but rather climb with a purpose, such that each climbing session targets a specific component of performance. Climbers may want to focus on improving general climbing endurance by performing low-intensity bouts of climbing for a long duration. Climbers may also target endurance by performing interval training through performing multiple bouts of high-intensity climbing separated by recovery intervals. Climbing sessions may also focus on mastering specific techniques (e.g., repeatedly performing dynos or mantles). Constraints may be added to provide extra challenge to the psychomotor and cognitive aspects of climbing. For instance, an individual may be instructed to complete a problem or route without using his/her left leg, climb without ever letting both feet contact the surface simultaneously, or to avoid a certain color hold on an indoor wall.

Although rock climbing itself is an integral part of a training program, some rock climbers use climbing as their sole method of training. However, this can potentially lead to muscular imbalances, overuse injuries, and deny the climber the opportunity to overcome physical limitations, which may lead to suboptimal performance. This is why a strength and conditioning program is crucial to maximizing the potential of a climber. As with all sports, the strength and conditioning professional must know the specifics of climbing and the individual athlete. This should include which type(s) of climbing the athlete is taking part in, and weaknesses the climber recognizes in him/herself, as well as those identified through fitness testing and evaluation. The strength and conditioning professional should also consider a competitive climber's competition schedule in an effort to assemble a periodized training schedule that will fit his/her needs. An example of a periodized program for competitive climbers is presented in Tables 5–8. Like any type of sport-specific conditioning program, the training program of a rock climber should incorporate a combination of basic exercises to target the muscles and energy systems used during climbing in a functional manner. Resistance training exercises must achieve a balance between being functionally similar to actual climbing to enhance performance without being redundant. Because the scientific literature regarding climbing performance is everexpanding, there remains much to further understand regarding which exercises are of most benefit to climbers. Therefore, the following training considerations attempt to expand on climbing-specific scientific training recommendations from the general set of principles suggested by Watts (58), while combining scientific evidence, contemporary practice, and theory to provide recommendations for strength and conditioning professional's working with climbers.

Table 5

Table 5

Table 6

Table 6

Table 7

Table 7

Table 8

Table 8

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CLIMBING-SPECIFIC EXERCISES

In designing a training program for climbers, the strength and conditioning professional should be creative in relating climbing maneuvers into traditional and nontraditional exercises to be more specific to climbers (Table 9). For instance, a traditional pull-up involves the same general principle as climbing (translating the center of mass of the body vertically through space), but unlike climbing, the pull-up movement is bilaterally symmetric and performed on a round bar. As such, this exercise can be altered so that hand position is asymmetric and the grip can be modified to replicate hand and finger positions used during climbing (for various versions of pull-ups, Supplemental Digital Content 2, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A52; Supplemental Digital Content 3, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A53; Supplemental Digital Content 4, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A54; Supplemental Digital Content 5, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A55; Supplemental Digital Content 6, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A56; Supplemental Digital Content 7, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A57; Supplemental Digital Content 8, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A58; Supplemental Digital Content 9, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A59; Supplemental Digital Content 10, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A60; and Supplemental Digital Content 11, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A61). Likewise, lower-body exercises, such as step-ups or calf raises, may be performed on an irregularly shaped surface (as long as safety is maintained) to better mimic climbing conditions (11,39). As mentioned previously, it is important to include a combination of isometric and isotonic contractions to strength training exercises because many climbing maneuvers include a combination of these types of contractions. Thus, it is important to incorporate both types of contractions in a training program and even combine contraction types within an exercise (e.g., performing a pull-up through the full range of motion but pausing at various positions using isometric contractions).

Table 9

Table 9

Perhaps, the most functionally specific ways to enhance muscular strength and endurance of these muscle groups is to add resistance to the climber by wearing a weighted vest, a concept referred to as hypergravity training (28). Campusing (Figure 1b) is also an excellent sport-specific exercise to enhance upper-body muscular fitness and neuromuscular control. Likewise, a peg board workout (Figure 6, traditionally used by wrestlers) is another functional upper-body exercise for climbers. Peg board training requires a combination of hand-eye coordination, dynamic joint stability, and strength to propel the body mass up, down, and/or horizontally across the board by grabbing a peg, removing it from a hole (during which the contralateral arm supports the body mass), and placing it in a target hole.

Figure 6

Figure 6

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BALANCE AND STABILITY

Rock climbing requires superior neuromuscular control to maintain balance and stability, especially when climbing faces with limited or tiny footholds (51). Balance training has not been studied specifically in climbers, but in a healthy population, it appears that consistently performing 10 minutes of balance training at least 3 times per week is sufficient to elicit improvements in balance ability (14). Therefore, additional exercises should be incorporated in a strength and conditioning routine, which focus on climbing-specific balance. Because climbing generally involves contact between the forefoot and the surface, standing balance exercises should be performed without the heel on the ground. This should be performed using climbing-specific ankle positions, such as a neutral ankle position with the heel hanging off the surface, as well as in various degrees of plantarflexion. Likewise, balance training exercises should also be performed using the medial or lateral aspects of the foot to further mimic climbing positions. A variety of surfaces, such as foam mats or irregularly shaped surfaces (e.g., rock surface), may be used in balance training. To improve balance through actual climbing, individuals should try slab climbs, which are less than vertical rock faces, which lack holds and require technical footwork. When climbing indoors, climbers should try using as few footholds as possible or just the friction of the wall during a climbing session, known as smearing.

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FLEXIBILITY

Flexibility must also be given consideration to the training regimen of a climber. The few studies that have evaluated flexibility in climbers have provided mixed results on its importance (21,22,36); however, many of these investigations have focused on a limited number of variables of range of motion, not truly representative of the many movements required during climbing. Adequate flexibility can make many situations easier for a climber because of some of the positions that they must arrange themselves in. For instance, in bridging and stemming positions (Figures 1a), where the body must be kept close to the rock surface while the feet are in opposition wide to either side, requiring extreme abduction and external rotation at the hip. Heel hooks (Figure 1f), used when topping out a boulder, usually require the climber to put their heel over the surface edge, approximately at head or shoulder height, and therefore require considerable posterior chain flexibility. High-step moves, where one foot must be brought up and placed on a high rock feature, whereas the opposite foot must maintain a low position for support, requires a great deal of posterior leg and hip flexibility (as demonstrated by the extreme left hip flexion in Figure 3b) (58). Likewise, adequate shoulder flexibility is essential for maneuvers, which require a large reaching component, such as the deadpoint (Figure 1d) or a large degree of internal rotation, such as the mantle (Figure 1h). The flexibility of a climber may also influence the technique used and route chosen during climbing. For instance, a climber who lacks the flexibility to reach a foothold at waist height must expend extra effort, while potentially sacrificing stability, as he/she reaches higher, pulls with greater force, or even jumps to reach the next hold. Therefore, it is important for a strength and conditioning specialist to evaluate a climber's flexibility and develop a stretching routine, which can help remove any limitations in functional range of motion.

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WARM-UP, RECOVERY, AND COOLDOWN

As with all sports, a proper warm-up (20) and recovery strategy while training and competing are crucial for optimizing climbing performance. Climbers should include the 3 major components of warm-up (aerobic, stretching, and sport-specific phases) by performing upper-body and lower-body dynamic stretching followed by easy climbing to prepare for strenuous climbing. In between climbing bouts, climbers should consider active recovery, such as light-intensity cycling, which has been demonstrated to expedite lactate clearance (27,59) and help maintain performance in subsequent bouts of climbing (27). Recently, cold water immersion of forearm and arm was also demonstrated to improve performance in a subsequent bout of climbing (27). Other recovery strategies, such as limb shaking (24), vibration (9,24), and electrostimulation (27), have not been demonstrated to benefit climbing performance, although research in this realm is limited and still emerging (9,24,27,59). Although cooldown exercise is widely promoted, there is little evidence that it is beneficial for improving performance. Although postexercise stretching may not reduce muscle soreness (26,31), climbers should still consider ending a climbing session with static or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching to facilitate range of motion improvements.

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SUMMARY

Rock climbing is an intense activity, which requires a unique assortment of physical demands. Although there are a variety of different types of rock climbing, the physical demands of climbing are very similar for each type. A proper strength and conditioning program should include a combination of isometric and isotonic strength training exercises to optimally meet the neuromuscular and physiological demands of climbers. General strength training exercises should be selected, which require similar movement patterns to actual rock climbing, and modifications should be made to these exercises to better replicate positions used during various climbing maneuvers. Most notably, training programs should emphasize finger and hand strength and endurance by incorporating climbing-specific grips into as many exercises as possible. Climbers should periodize not only their strength training practices but also their actual climbing sessions, as well to ensure sufficient stimulus to improve actual climbing endurance and technique, while also enhancing cognitive performance. As research continues to provide greater insight into the physiology of climbing, and as contemporary strength and conditioning programs become a standard component of a climber's training, recreational and competitive climbers can expect to reach new heights faster.

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Keywords:

climber; bouldering; mountaineering; top roping; outdoor; grip; extreme

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