If you’ve read any of my articles, you’re probably starting to think I’ve got a bit of an obsession with strength. That may well be true, but for good reason(s). Strength is, simply put, a measurement of your body’s ability to produce force. Every time you stand up from the bottom position of a squat, you are producing force throughout your body and driving it into the ground, resulting in upward motion. Likewise, when lowering down into the bottom position of a squat, you are countering gravity’s pull (and by extension, avoiding collapsing under your own weight) by producing the same force. Strength is control over your body’s ability to produce force. By building strength, we are increasing how much force we can produce.
When we climb, force production is the name of the game. Driving into a foothold, pulling into a handhold, bracing our core to maintain body position are examples of how we use strength when we climb.
If you can’t produce the force, you can’t do the move.
Strength is the King
Something I’ve touched on briefly in the past is the concept that strength is the king of all physical attributes. The reason? Every other physical adaptation is expressed in relation to strength.
Power (sudden bursts of strength)
= Strength x Speed
Endurance (strength maintained for long durations)
= Strength x Time
There tends to be a lot of confusion on this point, particularly as concerns the difference between strength and power. I often speak in terms of “power moves” and “strength moves”.
A power move is any move performed by producing a large amount of force very quickly to create enough momentum to make a move.
A strength move is a constant production of force throughout the move.
The key point here is that we can direct momentum but we can’t control it, so when we do power moves, we relinquish control over our movement for a brief period. When we do a strength move, we are in control for the entire duration of the move. Power is generally more efficient than strength and allows us to get away with a lot in climbing, but without a certain level of strength, your power output is going to be relatively wimpy and you will experience a lot of failure on moves that can’t be done powerfully.
I can make this point even simpler: if you can do the move slowly and pause anywhere in the range of motion, you’re using strength. If you’re moving quickly between holds and unable to pause, you’re using power.
Training Strength Has Universal Benefits
Strength is the only thing that, when increased, also increases everything else. Your energy systems aren’t necessarily made more efficient, but you become less reliant on them being fully developed. Take this example:
Two climbers with very different levels of strength perform identically on an endurance-oriented route; let’s say they both redpointed the climb after climbing it bolt-to-bolt to warm up and decipher the sequences. Climber #1 is relatively weak, but has thoroughly developed his aerobic energy systems. Climber #2 hasn’t spent any time on aerobic fitness, but is much stronger than Climber #1. If the route is an endurance test piece, why did the climbers experience the same performance despite having drastically different development of their aerobic energy systems?
Climber #2 had so much strength that he never became reliant on his endurance. It’s the same reason you can train to lift a 10lb dumbbell for 50 reps by lifting a low weight for a ton of reps, or you can lift a much heavier weight for far fewer reps and achieve the same result. The key difference? Lifting light gets you good at lifting light, but doesnt do much for your maximum strength. Lifting heavy increases your maximum strength and improves your ability to lift light as a bonus.
In the above example, both climbers experienced identical performance on an endurance route, but what happens when they approach a route with a bouldery crux? My money is on Climber #2 to send and Climber #1 to flail. Strength has crossover benefits to endurance, but gains in endurance don’t translate to gains in strength.
For fun, let’s take it one step farther. Imagine that Climber #2 spent a training cycle maintaining his strength (which is fantastically easy to do) and focused on building up his aerobic fitness while Climber #1 simply continues developing his aerobic fitness. Come climbing season, Climber #2 will be able to climb much harder than Climber #1, and be able to keep it up for just as long. The result will be a major difference in performance. If you can’t do the moves at all, you don’t have to worry about doing them tired.
Strength determines your potential power output and reduces the need for endurance on climbs where you operate at a relatively low percentage of your maximum strength. Talk about a winner.
Fundamental Strength: What to Build
Now that I’ve discussed the definition of strength and why it’s important to you, let’s review the specific motor types that you should be training.
There are four primary motor patterns that comprise fundamental human movement: hip hinge, squat, upper body pull and upper body press. Here are some real-world examples of the basic motor patterns in action:
- The hip hinge is a change in the vertical alignment of your body, with the bend occurring at the hips. When you bend over to pick up something light, like a pencil off the ground, you’re mostly hinging. Depending on how far you have to bend over and how (in)flexible you are, you may also squat to lower your hips closer to the ground, resulting in a slight bend at the hips.
- Squatting: the vertical reorientation of your center of mass positions your body closer or farther from the ground. If you’re picking up a heavy object, you’ll probably adopt a squatting posture as you lift, as squatting is easier on the lower back than hinging.
- We pull in order to close the distance between our center of mass and an object, either by moving our own body or the object. Opening a door is pulling the door towards your body while using a handrail to stand is pulling your body towards the handrail.
- The press is the inverse of the pull: it’s how we create more space between our center of mass and an object, either by moving the object or our own body. Using the arms of a chair to assist in standing up is pressing your body away from the chair, and shoving someone who’s intruding in your personal space is moving the object away from your body.
In a real-world sense, we are always combining these motor patterns to create the appropriate movement for a given context. We rarely perform the basic movements by themselves because it’s simply not efficient. By training our movement at this most basic level, we are effectively training all other movements as well. If we strengthen our press and our squat, using the arms of a chair to assist in rising to a stand, this action becomes even easier and more energy-efficient.
Climbing, like life, is an infinitely complex series of movements. We are hardly ever isolating a single muscle or muscle group to achieve the motion desired, at least if we’re climbing well. This is the essence of technique: harmonizing the muscles throughout your body to achieve the desired motion at the expense of as little energy or effort as possible. This is referred to as the “economy of movement”. The better you get at relying less on brute strength, the less brute strength you actually need. That said, there are certain levels of strength that are generally required or recommended in order to perform consistently at certain levels. I’ve outlined these strength benchmarks in a previous article.
Fun fact: many elite climbers have performed at elite levels without being able to “tick all the boxes” on my personal strength assessment. My philosophy has always been that, because strength is time-consuming to build but extremely easy to maintain, it pays dividends to be stronger than you actually need to be. I can think of exactly zero times that I was actually forced to do an unassisted one-arm pull-up on a rock climb, yet I like to make sure I have the ability to do it because sometimes I’m feeling too lazy to “do the climb right”. Plus it’s a neat party trick.
So to sum up, pick exercises that embody the basic motor patterns: upper body press, upper body pull, squat, and hip hinge. Do one exercise for each. Don’t go overboard; you don’t need to do pull-ups, bent-over rows, and ring rows. They all target pulling, so you’re just wasting time, energy, and adaptive potential.
How to Build Strength
Below, I’m going to outline two methods for building strength. There are tons of effective strength programs out there, and you’re free to use whichever one you want. These are simply my two favorite methods because they allow me to reach my strength goals reliably and they’re fairly easy to program into the wider context of a climbing-specific training plan.
Building Strength Method 1: 3-5 x 3-5
I really like this method because it’s extremely simple and will get just about everyone to just about where they need to be. My strength is very well developed and I still employ this method in my own training. Likewise, I often prescribe this method to weaker and less-experienced clients. It’s a basic and effective strategy, which I generally recommend during a strength-building training phase on a linear program because it works quickly and takes a lot of time and energy.
Find a weight that you can do 4-5 good reps with. You’ll know the weight is right if you do 5 good reps and stop because you’re not 100% sure if you could do a sixth rep and maintain good form. That’s positive failure, also known as “leaving one in the tank”.
Take that weight and do 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. Don’t get bogged down worrying about doing a consistent number of reps per set. Total reps are more important to strength development than how they’re divided amongst sets. What you’re looking for here is a total of 12-15 reps across all of your sets.
Slightly varying reps per set is a good thing. For example: 2 sets of 5 and 1 set of 3 is darn near perfect because you’ve done enough volume to stimulate progress, and you know the weight is appropriately heavy because you couldn’t complete 3 sets of 5.
Once you can do 3 full sets of 5 good reps, bump up the weight for the next session. I typically add 5lbs for unilateral exercises and 10lbs for bilateral exercises.
Method Pros: simple to execute, effective, easy to gauge progress
Method Cons: can lead to plateaus in well-trained athletes, can be too much volume at not a high enough intensity during certain training cycles, can be very energy-consumptive, and leave an athlete too exhausted for other activities.
Building Strength Method 2: 5-3-1
This method is annoying because even though it’s supremely effective it’s a total pain to program. When I use this method, I see astounding strength gains with minimal time or energy spent in the weight room. The caveat? I feel like I spend more time and energy doing math than lifting weights.
This method is fantastic for people who don’t have a lot of time to lift weights and/or don’t want to completely tap out in the gym leaving themselves too tired for other physical activities. The mathematical precision makes this program great for breaking plateaus and ensuring consistent long term progress. I recommend this method for off-season strength training because it allows you to focus on other things while maintaining and even building upon your existing strength foundation.
Find your 3-rep max (this roughly correlates to 90% of your 1-rep max). The entire program will be based on percentages of this figure. So if your 3RM is 200lbs, then 200lbs = 100%.
In the chart below, sets are described as weight (% of 3RM) x reps. The “+” indicates that this set should be taken to positive failure (disbelief that another rep can be performed with good form).
*Week 4 is a deload week, which reduces neurological strain and primes your system for another cycle. When programming climbing training, I always program 3 weeks of training and 1 deload week. In the context of a rock climbing training program, I would suggest NOT doing ANY strength training during week 4. If you’re not climbing and just lifting weights, go ahead and do the week 4 workouts.
Method Pros: supremely effective, fantastic for breaking/avoiding plateaus, leaves the athlete with plenty of energy for other physical activities or training.
Method Cons: can be annoying to program, requires a lot of weight swapping during sessions, slower/steadier progress, sessions can feel so easy that some athletes get impatient and do more work than they should.
So there you have it: strength and how to build it. I’m not going to get into how to build a program using these methods because that’s beyond the scope of this article. If I haven’t covered it in a previous article already, then one is probably in the pipe.
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