These tactics will help you get stronger, not bigger.

By Ryan Halvorson

Maintaining an appropriate strength-to-weight ratio is a cornerstone of a climber’s ability to send a route with minimal effort. Strong climbers with lower bodyweight tend to be more efficient and capable than heavier climbers. However, the crux is that increased strength is an important factor in becoming a better climber. But is it possible to get stronger in the gym without packing on extra pounds?

The answer is, yes.

In this article we discuss the strategies you can use to build strength and not mass.

STRENGTH FOR BOULDERS

Science has determined that—for the average person—certain repetition ranges will produce specific muscular adaptations.

If your goal has ever been to go from Spidey to the Hulk, you’ve likely employed the 8- to 10-reps per set training plan. However, in order to achieve Hulk’s strength without the size, it’s recommended to stick to 1 to 5 repetitions per set, making sure to lift enough weight to induce muscular fatigue or failure by the final rep.

If you want to get technical, that’ll be about 80-100% one-repetition maximum. Also, keep total volume to 4 to 7 sets per exercise and aim for about 2 to 6 minutes rest in between sets.

This type of program will also prepare your musculature to handle the short-burst-style movements common in boulder problems.

 

ENDURANCE FOR ROPES

If bouldering is like sprinting, then climbing is more like a marathon, which means that to be successful on the tall walls, you’ll want to prime those endurance muscles.

As you might expect, endurance training programs will be vastly different than hypertrophy- or strength-focused plans. In this case, you’ll want to pump out anywhere from two to four sets of 25 to 60 repetitions per exercise with minimal rest between sets.

Naturally, you’ll need to scale down how much weight you lift in order to knock out so many reps; about 40 to 60% one-rep maximum should do the trick.

BUILD DYNO POWER

Explosive, powerful movements are often required to conquer the crux so learning how to generate speed on the wall is an important component of any well-rounded climbing training program. And it’s totally possible to build power without adding weight to your frame.

A power-focused program will look similar to the strength one, except that the idea is to move the resistance at a quick, but controlled, pace.

Choose a weight that’s about 70-100% one-rep max and aim for 3 to 5 sets of 1 to 5 reps. You’ll probably want to take an extended rest between sets because power training will likely cause a significant spike in heart rate and blood flow. It’s a good idea to wait until your heart rate is at 120 beats per minute or below before moving on to the next set.

Power training also requires significant body control so make sure you’ve mastered the movements at a slower pace first to minimize injury risk.

 

CUT THE VOLUME

Hypertrophy-focused individuals will typically follow a 5- to 6-day-per-week training program to induce muscle growth. Strength plans don’t require that kind of volume. Instead, aim to lift weights one to three times per week to minimize muscle building potential.

 

TRAIN COMPLEXITY FOR MAX MUSCLE RECRUITMENT

When looking to build maximal strength, one goal is to enhance muscular recruitment so that you can effectively navigate your training environment (ie, the walls) efficiently. In order to do that, you have to train your brain to activate as many muscles as possible in any given moment. And, since climbing is a multi-joint activity, incorporating multi-joint movements like deadlifts, pulls, lunges, for example, into your workout will teach your muscles to work together more efficiently making you a stronger climber.

 

TRAIN SMART

It’s important to keep in mind that these programs are recommendations and might not be appropriate for everyone. The unfortunate thing about training is that what works for some might not work for others. So, pay attention to how these plans affect your body and make adjustments as necessary. Or, consult a knowledgeable personal trainer or strength coach to create a program designed just for you.

Also, quality movement outweighs resistance always. If you aren’t able to lift the recommended amount of weight under complete control, then cut back the resistance until you can. This especially important for power training workouts where things can get out of control in a hurry and the risk of injury is increased.

Make sure to also get in an extensive warm-up to make sure the body is primed to handle such heavy loads. Try some bodyweight exercises and then move into low resistance movements to practice technique. This shouldn’t be taxing; it’s more like practice for what’s to come.

Consider this a long game; there’s no point in pushing past your ability only to become injured and be forced to stay off the walls until you’ve healed. So, take your time, listen to your body, and seek professional assistance when necessary.