A Rest Day Workout for Climbers Who Hate Rest Days

If there’s one thing I know about climbers, it’s that they hate rest days …

rest dayAnd if there’s another thing I know about climbers, they don’t actually like to rest on rest days. So instead of just doing a few “cruiser routes” or maybe “just a few boulder problems” that will ultimately lead to you projecting or climbing just as hard as the day before (because let’s face it, sending is way better than resting, and once we start climbing, there’s no stopping it), try this active recovery workout instead.

The goal of this workout is to give your climbing muscles a rest, work your non-climbing muscles in order to maintain muscular balance and avoid injury, and increase mobility where it may have been lost by climbing. None of these movements require any equipment, the order doesn’t matter, and the number of reps and sets you do is up to you. The goal is not failure and exhaustion. It is simply active recovery.

Why active recovery is important

Cellular house cleaning

The way our bodies work at the cellular level is similar to how we keep our house. When we’re climbing day in and day out, we let our house get dirty; dishes pile up, laundry goes unwashed, and the trash starts stinking. We will do the minimum amount of housekeeping just to keep the house livable, but we won’t go above and beyond.

Midnight Lightning
Photo: Mike Penney

Our cells are the same way. When we’re climbing intensely, they focus on the most basic and required functions in order for us to complete our climb. When we’re not climbing, all they want to do is repair themselves. But they’ll do that in the minimum as well. They won’t fully clean house.

Performing low intensity recovery workouts increases blood flow, which then transports more water and oxygen to them to “flush out the bad stuff” like dead mitochondria and other waste cellular chemicals, without further damaging them. 

Gives your central nervous system (CNS) a break

Climbing is pretty exhausting on your CNS. Have you ever been scared on a climb? Projected for a couple hours at a time, taxing your mental and physical limits? Just not really felt into it even though your muscles feel great? That’s all your CNS’ doing.

The CNS is what controls the contractions of your muscles and your brain is what controls your CNS. If you’re scared on climbs or mentally taxing yourself in other ways, your brain is not at full capacity to devote to activating your CNS. Likewise, your CNS is a system by itself and can be fatigued as well. This is primarily after you’ve been climbing at or above your level for days at a time.

Your psychology and your CNS need breaks just as much as your muscles and tissues.

Restores your Range of Motion (ROM)

Don’t get me wrong, we move our bodies in a large variety of movements compared to other sports, but in terms of all the possible movements, angles, and rotations our bodies are able to perform, just climbing is still very limited.

There’s not enough room here to go over every movement every joint in the body is able to perform so you’re going to have to take my word on this one. Have no fear, the following workout will address a vast majority of these movements for healthy joints.

Rest day workout

As I said, these can be performed in any order you prefer because they should be done well below your max intensity and stopped well before your point of failure in order to not damage your recovery. That is, stop each set before failure, and move on to the next exercise before it starts getting too hard.

Push-ups

I will split these up into several categories for your current level of strength and mobility. That is, we’re focusing on your pectoral strength and shoulder and wrist mobility. Much of climbing is obviously back-muscle centric, and our wrists and fingers are typically in flexion instead of extension.

For all of these, if you’re not yet strong enough to perform a regular push-up with your toes on the ground, feel free to do them from your knees. Be sure to keep your core tight and keep your hips, back, and neck aligned, not allowing your hips to sink to the ground or stick your butt up in the air.

  • Basic: If you lack wrist mobility, close your hands into a fist and perform normal push-ups.
  • Fingertip: If your fingers are strong enough but you still lack wrist mobility, try these. Put all 10 fingertips on the ground, locked out and not over-extended, and then perform push-ups.
Correct fingertips
Correct fingertips
Incorrect fingertips
Incorrect fingertips
  • Palms flat: If your wrists are flexible enough, place your palms flat on the ground and then do push-ups. If you are just starting to work on improving your wrist mobility, you can still keep your palms flat, but consider just a partial push-up, as far as your wrists will allow. Working on going deeper each rep, each set, or each time you do this workout.
  • Advanced: Any of these:
Push-ups
Photo: Archived from MensHealth.com; no longer available.

Squats

Let’s face it, climbers don’t want to pay much attention to their lower body. Other than high-steps, heel hooks, and the very rare (probably) dyno, what else do we need our legs for? The approach? So it’s likely we’ve lost some mobility in our hips, knees, and/or ankles.

  • Air squats: Just your standard squat without any additional weight. Go as low as possible without falling backwards or tipping forward. The goal is “ass-to-grass” with your shins perpendicular to the ground. If you lack ankle mobility, you can put something under your heels.
  • Bulgarian split squats: Grab a chair, picnic table, couch, or another person to hold your back leg and squat. Only go as low as you’re comfortable with, try keep your knee behind your toes, and if you still need help, raise your heels again.

This video is from my YouTube infancy, and we will obviously not be doing it with added weight. Please be gentle in your making fun of me, but making fun of me is still highly encouraged.

  • Pistol Squats: Similar to the Bulgarian Split Squat, but this time your “up” foot will be pointed forward. Grab something for balance when you initially start, but work on gradually using less and less support.

This video can help with 2-legged squat mobility too:

YTWL’s

Despite being a shoulder and thoracic spine movement, which we use a lot in climbing, we still want to ensure maximum ROM and strengthen our tendons and ligaments that make up our entire shoulder girdle to protect our rotator cuffs.

Since we will be doing these without any weight, they can be performed standing while bent over at the waist and not adding undue stress on our lumbar spine. If you have poor thoracic strength or just general lower back pain, they can also be done lying face down on a bench or with your chest supported in some other way like in the following video.

  • Y: From the bottom with your palms facing in (neutral position), contract your scapula, raise your arms until your elbows are at a 90-deg angle, then rotate at your shoulders so your forearms are parallel with your torso. Then reverse the movement.
  • T: From the bottom, rotate your palms so they are facing backward (pronated), contract your scapula, then raise your arms from the shoulder so they are perpendicular to your torso. Reverse the movement.
  • W: From the bottom, rotate your palms so they are facing forward (supinated), contract your scapula, then raise your arms from the shoulder up and away until they are in the same plane as your torso but angled away, as if you were screaming into the heavens. Reverse the movement.
  • L: From the bottom with your palms supinated, contract your scapula, then raise your arms at from the shoulder and elbow until your elbows are at 90-degrees, then reverse the movement.

In this video, the order he is performing these is actually Y-W-T-L, just for your reference:

Lunges

These will work similar muscle groups and ROMs as the Bulgarian split squat and pistol squat, but if you’re not able to perform those, these are single leg movements anyone can do (within their personal ROM).

  • Standard: From a normal standing position, step forward with one foot, then bend your back leg at the knee until it touches the ground. If you can’t touch the ground with your back knee, go as deep as you can. Keep your front knee behind, or perfectly above, your toes. You can either reverse the movement and get back to a standing position, or you can stand up by bringing your back leg forward (walking lunge). However you get back to standing position, repeat with your alternate foot.
  • Backwards lunge: Same mechanics as Standard, however instead of stepping forward with one foot, reach backwards. It may take a few tries to get the depth of your reach correct.
  • Lateral lunge: Instead of stepping forward or backward, step to the side while bending your stationary knee and hinging at your hips.You should feel a slight stretch in your groin of the extended leg, but this isn’t a stretch so don’t push it. Just go to where you’re comfortable.
  • Angled lunge: Instead of stepping straight forward or straight backward, step or reach out at an angle but keep your torso facing forward.
  • Crossover lunge: From a standing, neutral position, draw an imaginary line from between your feet straight forward. With one foot, step forward and cross over that imaginary line. For example, if you step with your right foot, you will cross over to the left side of that imaginary line. How far you cross over is dependent on your personal ROM.

Inchworms

From a standing position, bend at the waist (and your knees if you need to) so that your hands can reach the ground. Then walk your hands away from your body until your back is parallel with the floor, into a front plank position. Then walk your feet to your hands.

If you’re familiar with yoga, you can transition from the plank position into the Cobra Pose to get a good stretch on your abs and shoulders, and then return to plank before walking your feet to your hands.

Bear crawls

  • Standard: Get on all fours but raise up to your toes instead of your knees. Keep your core tight and your back parallel to the ground at all times. While reaching forward with your right hand, also step forward with your left foot. Once those are planted on the ground, reach with your left and step with your right. Try to minimize how much your body sways back and forth as you move your hands and feet.
  • Lateral: Instead of reaching and stepping forward, you will be reaching and stepping sideways. You can either cross your hands as in the video or keep them on their own side of the midline.

Putting it all together

For the beginners or if you’re super sore from climbing, you really only need to pick one movement variation from each category, probably the most basic of them. You would likely do multiple sets of each given movement.

  • Example: Basic push-ups, Air squats, YTWL, Angled lunges, Inchworms, Bear crawls. That’s a total of 6 movements.

For intermediate and advanced people, you may want to do the more advanced variations from each movement or just multiple variations for more total movements. 

  • Example: Fingertip push-ups, Corkscrew push-up, Pistol squats, YTWL, Backwards lunges, Crossover lunges, Inchworms, Bear crawls. That’s a total of 8 movements and more advanced.

For either of these, you can either do all of one movement before going to the next, or cycle through them in circuit fashion.

  • Example: Basic push-ups for 3 sets, Air squats for 4 sets, YTWL for 4 sets, Lateral lunges for 3 sets, etc. etc.

Or …

  • Example: Push-ups, squats, YTWL, Lunges, Inchworms, Bear crawls, rest, repeat 4 times

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