These four unilateral, lower-body exercises can give you a leg up on the wall.
By Ryan Halvorson
Seasoned climbers know that success on the wall is less about pulling and taxing small upper-body muscles and more about pushing with stronger lower-body muscles. That’s why it’s important to add in a leg day to your weekly training protocol so that you’ve got all the strength and power you need to send that 5.12.
It’s also important to choose exercises that directly correlate to the challenges you might face on the wall. For example, the barbell back squat is a great exercise, but it’s rare that you’ll find yourself in a similar position while climbing. It’s more likely that you’ll face movements that require single-leg strength and balance. Plus, we all have “weaker” sides and so working each independently can help reduce strength, flexibility, and movement deficits.
This article features three variations of four unilateral, lower-body exercises that will help you build strength, power, stamina, balance, and stability so you can climb with confidence.
Each of the following movements are pictured without external resistance and listed in order of progressing difficulty. Complete the desired number of repetitions on one side of the body and repeat on the other side. If the first variation can be completed with clean form for at least 15 repetitions and minimal effort, consider adding dumbbells or kettllebells to the exercise to increase the difficulty, or progress to the next variation on the list.
Due to the unilateral nature of these movements, extra demand will be placed on your core so that you remain stable and under control. Aim to keep your trunk muscles braced during each movement.
If any exercise causes pain, discontinue immediately. It’s also a good idea to consult a personal trainer or movement specialist who can guide you through these exercises safely and effectively.
Finally, fancy moves don’t a strong body make. In other words, not all exercises are good for all bodies so listen to yours and stick to moves that you feel confident doing. The last thing you want to do is push too hard too fast only to become injured and be forced to take a break from training and climbing.
SINGLE-LEG GLUTE BRIDGE
Improve glute and hamstring strength for more powerful hip drives and stronger heel hooks.
Standard (level 1)
Hips down, heels about 6 inches from the glutes. Extend one leg and drive the hips up by pressing through the floor under the working leg. Accentuate gluteal activation by pushing the knee of the working leg away from the center line. If this variation is too challenging, drive the hips up using both legs, stabilize the body, squeeze the glutes, and then extend a leg. While the hamstrings do play a role in this movement, you want to feel the burn primarily in your glutes.
Elevated (level 2)
The directions for this exercise mimic those for the standard glute bridge. The higher elevation increases the difficulty by demanding more range of motion.
Suspended (level 3)
This variation poses a significant challenge due to the instability created by the TRX and should only be attempted by advanced exercisers. You can work up to step 3 by becoming proficient at step 2. Conversely, to progress this exercise further, keep the non-working leg extended throughout.
Begin to develop single-leg balance, stability, and control.
Standard (level 1)
Start in a staggered stance with the rear heel lifted and the majority of your weight pressed into the front foot. Slowly drop the back knee toward the ground and then elevate the body by pushing through the front foot.
Elevated (level 2)
This variation places greater emphasis on the front, working leg and is completed in the same fashion as the standard version.
Suspended (level 3)
The instability of the TRX increases the challenge of this exercise. Start by placing the rear foot through the loops of both straps of the TRX. Like the elevated version, slowly lower the back knee to the ground and then return to a standing position. This exercise can be made less challenging by placing a hand on some form of assistance to help stabilize the body, like a nearby post, tall piece of PVC pipe, or other object. Also, it’s important to keep as wide a foot as possible to prevent foot cramping. So, spread those little piggies out!
Build upward power and momentum.
Forward (level 1)
This is a somewhat straightforward, simple exercise. Place the entire foot of the working leg firmly on a box or step of appropriate height. Brace your midsection and stand up tall onto the box. Return to the start position by slowly lowering the opposite foot to the ground. There should be very minimal ground impact. If you are unable to control the descent, choose a shorter box.
Lateral (level 2)
This movement emphasizes the lateral hip muscles and can help with climbing moves like square position. The mechanics are essentially the same as the forward-facing step, except that it targets your muscles a bit differently.
Heel-Elevated (level 3)
This advanced movement is designed to make you stronger from a toe push-off position which can come in handy on those small foot holds. The goal is to complete the entire movement with the heel lifted. However, this requires significant control and balance. Work up to this pattern be stepping onto the box as you did during the forward-facing variation then lift the heel and try to balance for a few seconds. This can also be made easier by choosing a shorter box.
Being able to stand up from a significant flexed hip and knee position can be a huge game-changer in your climbing.
Standard pistol squats (variation #3, below) are inherently difficult because they require significant strength and flexibility. And they can also kill the knees if you don’t do them correctly.
The limited-range version is a great way to begin training the movement. Stand with the heel about an inch or two in front of a bench (as pictured) or box. Lift one leg and slowly lower the hips to the bench using the working leg to control the movement. Once seated, push through the foot of the working leg to return to the standing position.
One of the challenges of a pistol squat is to generate strength from a mechanically disadvantageous position, ie, the lower range of the movement. Train your body through the extended range of motion with the help of a TRX (pictured), post, or other similar tool. Your arms act as “spotters” that transfer some of the work from the leg to the upper-body. As you get stronger and your technique improves, reduce the amount of effort that comes from the arms until you’re able to go unassisted.
The standard pistol squat is an advanced move that requires practice and lots of patience. It’s best not to rush this bad boy because it can do serious damage to your body when done incorrectly.
Check the video below to see the movements in action. Turn the sound up for verbal cues.