I’ve got a few questions for you.
How’s your climbing on steep terrain? Are you happy with it, or do you feel like a limp noodle hanging from the holds?
Do you like to impress your friends with your super powers? (Instructions at the end.)
Do you hate doing crunches?
I’ve got great news for you. If you can find something strong enough to hang from, you can get the most climbing-specific core workout you’ve ever had, and you can do it in about five minutes.
Structure the workout with a high work/rest ratio
- Find something strong enough to hang from. (A pull-up bar springs to mind, but a tree branch, door frame, exposed beam in basement/porch/hanging garage all work just as well.)
- Work through the exercises I list below, until you find the one that you can’t do. Back down one level to the exercise that you CAN do.
- Do ten reps, rest for 30 seconds, do ten more. Repeat the rest/work cycle until you can’t do any more.
- Rest for two or three days.
- Train again.
- When you can string together 30 or 40 reps (resting 30 seconds every ten reps) you should be ready to bump to the next level of difficulty.
Why the high ratio of work to rest? Two reasons:
- No one likes “working out” longer than they have to. This work/rest ratio will get you tired, because you’re not recovering much between sets.
- This ratio mimics real rock climbing. We work hard, then we rest a little on the wall, then we keep working.
Before I list out the exercises, get the video below. (Have you ever tried to describe how to do an exercise with just words? I have. I typed up two thousand, then threw it all away and made this 90 second video.)
1. Hang with tight shoulders
Tight shoulders are the foundation of body control while on steep walls. Picture a front lever (picture) without tight shoulders. That’s called “hanging straight from the bar”. Practice “seating” your shoulders.
You certainly don’t always need to have tight shoulders, but you’ll need to be able to do this when the climb/exercise calls for it, so get comfortable.
2. Hang with tight shoulders and tight core
This is subtle, and the biggest visual difference between a tight and loose core is if the legs are hanging straight down, or in line with the body, which my video does not show very well.
Just tighten your core until your torso and legs are perfectly straight. If you’ve got tight shoulders, your torso should be at a slight angle, so your legs should be on the same line.
If you’re like me and your lower back sometimes hurts, by keeping your core tight you’ll never bend your back in an uncomfortable way.
3. Knee lifts
This is getting hard now. But imagine all the times this sort of power is useful. Anytime you are on overhung terrain, you need to move force from your hands to your feet and back, right? Without a strong core, you’ll not benefit from your feet while on steep terrain.
Have you ever tried those really steep V2 problems at the gym, and are flummoxed by how they are rated V2 and seem so freaking hard? Technique+core is the answer. Core power is straight forward to build, so this should all be good news to you.
When doing the knee lifts, do them just like in the video. Keep your shoulders engaged, and don’t swing. Slow and static is perfect.
4. Leg lifts
Now we’re having fun. 🙂
These are just like the knee lifts, but thanks to physics, when you extend your legs, they feel heavier. Keep your shoulders engaged, and work at the leg lifts until you can do four sets of ten, with 30 seconds of rest between.
By now you might notice something else – your shoulders and back are getting tired. If you follow my suggestions, you’ll probably feel sore in your shoulders and lats the day after you exercise. This is proof that you are doing it will.
5. Egg rolls
Egg rolls are a bit of a jump from leg lifts. You’ll need to be able to do a few pullups. If you can’t do a pull-up, but CAN do 40 leg lifts with tight shoulders, leave a comment. I’ll figure out how to get you to pullups.
Watch the video. I could not find any good online guides, so I’ll make one that focuses just on egg rolls later.
This exercise almost perfectly mimics the moves that you’ll make when climbing in steep terrain. Your feet will be cutting, and you’ll need to control the swing and place your feet with precision back on the wall, right where you want them.
6. Side leg lifts
Your obliques are the muscles that run along along your ribs, on the sides of your torso.* When you are climbing, you never use your obliques in isolation. It is always in conjunction with your shoulders and arms. So why would you exercise them in any other way.
Hang from the bar, twist your torso so one hip is in the air, and move your legs up and down in as controlled a fashion as you can. When you start swinging, stop. These are brutally hard to do without swinging.
In the video I was getting really tired by this point, so my side leg lifts look sloppy, but I think you get the idea. I’ve not done core work in a while, and have a delightful tenderness in my obliques from side leg lifts and windmills. (Made the video two days ago. Still feeling it.)
An additional advantage of these “side leg lifts” is you don’t load your arms evenly. One arm takes more of the weight of your body than the other, so this is doubles as a pull-up workout.
You know how they say squatting and dead lifting is good for you because they are “compound lifts” that utilize many stabilizing muscles?
Windmills are the climbing equivalent. So many different muscles come into play to make these work, and when your legs are completely on one side or the other, most of your body weight is hanging from just one arm. Fantastic exercise.
You’ll basically stay in an L-sit position the entire time, but add in a partial front-lever and rotate your legs from being extended on one side of your body to the other.
I’ve taught these exercises to people who say “Oh, I could never do that” who then go back to doing crunches while sitting on the ground. Three months later, they are still doing crunches, when if they’d been consistent with knee lifts, they could be doing egg rolls and have real foot control on steep routes.
They can do tons of crunches, but can’t do an L-sit. Why waste the time? I’m here to rock climb, not get good at crunches. (This is why I have an instinctual aversion to burpees as climbing exercises, too)
My questions for you:
- If you do these exercises, how far do you get? What surprises you?
- If you don’t do these exercises, why not?
- If you don’t do these exercises, but keep doing crunches, why?
So, I promised that practical joke, right? Here’s what you do. Do these core exercises at home for two weeks. Don’t tell anyone you are doing them. You’ll improve a LOT in two weeks. Then, go to the gym and tell your friends about this crazy thing you heard of, and ask them to try it.
Say “it doesn’t seem that hard” and hop up on the bar and do your leg lifts or egg rolls or whatever.
I’m positive that they won’t be able to do the exercises, and you’ll now be regarded with awe and amazement at your amazing powers.
(Why am I positive? We tend to climb with people who are about as strong as we are. If you spend two weeks working on core strength, you’ll be way ahead of them.)
*not the technical definition of what obliques are.
UPDATE: Want guides for how to train into these core exercises? I made a few videos for you!