Vertical Ascent - Muscle & Performance

Vertical Ascent


Rock climbing is equal parts heart-pounding adventure, fitness and mental acuity. To condition your body to scale a sheer cliff by summer, we tracked down some tips and climbing-specific exercises that will power you skyward.


Free climbing uses a system of ropes, anchors and belays to keep you safe while scaling a rock face. So take time to learn about this gear. A lesson or two is enough to get you started. “Once you understand how it works, you can concentrate on climbing techniques and not worry about falling,” says Lara McCluskey, a rock-climbing instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo. “Your climbing teacher will also show you how to transfer the weight of your body during ascent and move deliberately.”


Climbing isn’t so much about arm strength but about the hips, legs and core. Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS, of Seattle’s Body Results and co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (Human Kinetics, 2008), warns athletes to not “muscle up” the rock wall. While she recommends an overall strength-training routine twice a week that includes lat pulldowns with an overhand grip and horizontal rows, she also prescribes a series of lower-body moves to boost flexibility. Start with a nonweighted wide squat, alternating your bodyweight from the right to left side. From there, move into a frog squat to stretch your inner thigh and open the hips. This groundwork will help provide agility to proceed up the wall in a fluid fashion.

Schurman also suggests another exercise to jolt your legs and core: the one-legged deadlift. Stand on your right foot and hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Contract your abs and bend your standing leg into a one-leg squat until you touch the floor with the dumbbell, then return to standing position. Repeat eight times. Remain standing on your right leg, but switch the dumbbell to your left hand and repeat eight times. Then complete the same exercise sequence for your left leg.


During climbing, it is almost guaranteed that you’ll get to a point at which your arms just won’t work. “Hold off fatigue with efficient movements,” says rock climber Phil Watts, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at Northern Michigan University. Efficiency means taking rests in between bursts of effort. After every four or five movements, dangle and shake your arms gently. Bend your hands at the wrist, palm up and then palm down. “This wrist-pump action will keep blood moving into your arms,” Watts says.

Maintain an even movement throughout your climb. Otherwise, your arms will become exhausted and you’ll lose contact with handholds. “Try not to move fast,” Watts adds. “Pace yourself within your fitness level. Frequent rests means you’ll also have a chance to grab something to eat during a climb.”

Finally, don’t underestimate how much mental focus rock climbing requires. Look for a handhold, pull, move your foot to a nub, push, breathe. And so it goes … rock climbing may test limits of mind and body, but it will also satisfy your thirst to reach the top.