Rock climbing takes an odd sort of strength. I spent a lot of time at Hueco Tanks near the Texas/New Mexico border and learned a lot about the unique type of fitness required to get up the side of a rock. Here’s a short rundown on rock climbing from a fitness trainer’s point of view.
Affiliate Disclosure: We may earn a commission if you click a link on our site and make a purchase. For more info, see our disclaimer.
Primary Muscles Used in Climbing – Your Forearms
Oddly enough, your finger muscles are the most used in a regular bouldering route. I say specifically bouldering because the holds tend to be smaller and/or the angles tend to be more extreme compared to sport climbing.
At the beginning you may find your fingers completely giving up after not too long. Your forearms will feel solid as a rock and you won’t even be able to hold a water bottle.
I emphasize the forearms as the primary muscles used because just like doing pull ups, you won’t be able to get a single one if you can’t hold on to the bar. Rock climbers have insanely strong forearms and it takes dedicated training to get to that point. My favorite is the daily use of a hang board.
These mount easily above any door frame and I find myself hanging from it quite often. There are workouts that you can do with these boards to train not only your strength, but endurance. That way you can make the most of your time on the crag.
Core Exercises for Rock Climbing
Any type of rock climbing demands that you get in all sorts of positions. Your core is often the only thing that makes a slight bump in the rock a solid hold. This becomes especially real when you’re climbing the roof of a cave.
The amount of ways you can train your core are as varied as the positions you get yourself into on the rock. I often use my hang board and do knee raises, L-raises or I’ll even bring my toes up to the ceiling. – all while holding a nice sloper to give me a good feel for what will actually be happening on the rock.
Training your core while hanging is my number one recommendation. I found that plenty of hanging core exercises and then supplemented with ab roller exercises do wonders.
Pull Ups Are a Key Part of Rock Climbing
Your pull up muscles should be thoroughly trained. Your arms should be in a very specific position, though – palms face out, just like in a lat pull down machine.
The benefit of having your palms out is that it engages your brachioradialis muscle. This is a key rock climbing muscle. While your biceps are absolutely engaged, they aren’t working at their max when your palms are facing out.
The takeaway here is: Do pull ups with your palms out mainly for climbing fitness.
How Strong Do Your Legs Need To Be for Rock Climbing?
Okay, so you know all of those “Skip leg day, bro?” memes with the buff dudes with skinny legs? Well, that is kind of okay in rock climbing.
Now, my position on fitness in general is that there is nothing more key to overall health and fitness than an ability to generate power at the hip. It is kind of the main joint of our bodies and it ties everything together.
However, you don’t walk up the side of a rock face. So that changes stuff up.
Massive thick thighs actually weigh you down. You’ll see that the top climbers don’t have a lot of bottom weight. So for general fitness, make sure you do your leg workouts but don’t think that a back squat of 2x your body weight is going to help you on the rock.
Specific Leg Muscles Used in Rock Climbing
So some very specific leg muscles you will want to have in tip top shape are:
- hip flexors
- tibialis anterior
Your hip flexors will often be worked along with your abdominal training. L-raises while hanging work them plenty.
Your tibialis anterior is the muscle on the front of your shin.
Calves are pretty simple. Just stand on your toes. Add weight as necessary by holding dumbbells or throw your spouse over your shoulders.
Rock Climbing and the Different Body Types
We are obviously all different. Some of us are short, some tall, some have long arms and short legs, some have long legs and short arms. I’ve personally got a very long torso.
You could say that there is a “best body type for climbing” but there really isn’t. Each route is different. Sport climbing is different than bouldering and each have their own challenges. Some climbing routes make you reach and are impossible unless you have a wingspan of six feet or more. I’ve been hindered before while climbing on the roof of a cave because my long ass legs kept hitting the ground. My short girlfriend just went right along with no problem.
The climbing at Joshua Tree is different than at Hueco Tanks and so on and so on. You’ll find those routes that are beyond difficult for you and others that are easy for only you and your friends are dying.
Embrace them all.
Rock Climbing Injury Prevention
I’ve definitely injured myself rock climbing. I’ll give you a couple of examples and how I could have prevented them.
There was a cave route rated at something like a V6. The start was with two 3-finger holds and I had to keep my legs off the ground by pushing one up and one down. After a longer day of climbing, I decided to go back and try this route. I put my fingers in and my right palm made a snapping noise. It was the tendon that worked my ring finger.
I iced it and hated myself for months. Tried to climb, hurt it again, etc. It eventually healed. Now every time I shake someone’s hand nice and firm, it gives a funny “pop” noise.
This could have been prevented with more two and three finger training on the hang board. I never really saw too many of those holds so I didn’t see the need. That’s why they say hindsight is 20/20.
Another injury was in my shoulder. I had to spread my arms out super wide on a move and apply pressure away from the rock with my shoulder twisted in a weird position. Well, I pulled something and my whole neck locked up.
I could have prevented this by doing internal and external rotations to keep my rotator cuff strong. I could have also worked out my rear deltiods more.
Any rock training program you put yourself on should also involve general fitness. Don’t neglect anything. My recommendation is to have a basic regimen that you do weekly as a minimum and then sprinkle your rock-specific training on top of that.
It is good to have the general fitness because when you go rock climbing, you generally have to hike out to get to the rock. Climbing also has some obvious risks of falling and when you do fall, you want to be fit enough to take it well.
To end here on an even more serious note: If your friend falls, are you fit enough to throw them over your shoulders and carry them to get help?