Strength training is critical for endurance and mountain sports. It is also easily misunderstood. What exercises to use, whether to push heavy weights or focus on high repetitions, how to add strength without adding bulk or mass—these are all important considerations for the mountain athlete.
-by Uphill Athlete coaches Steve House, Scott Johnston, and Sam Naney
Why Train Strength for Mountain Sports?
People can and have summited mountains, raced ultras, blazed skimo races, and sent 5.13 without lifting a single weight in the gym. But strength training—everything from pull-ups and squats to focused muscular endurance work—is fundamental to becoming a well-rounded mountain athlete with a long, injury-free career. The Uphill Athlete philosophy of strength training is to build functional strength that translates to improved performance.
A proper strength program will help you develop into a more durable, more powerful, and more efficient alpinist, runner, skier, or climber—a mountain athlete capable of moving well over a period of many hours, sometimes day after day. As with any well-engineered training progression, an endurance-oriented strength regimen starts out fairly general and sharpens into something more specific over time. Ideally it should be geared toward the unique physical demands of your pursuit.
In this article we define strength training and explain how to apply it most effectively to enhance your training diet. You will find several sample workouts you can do in the gym, on the trail, or at the crag. Strength training is a tool that, when wielded expertly, will hone your specificity for your sport.
Steve House doing a hill bounding workout. This specific form of strength training uses explosive bounding movements, where the goal is to maximize “time in the air” not the speed up the hill. M.THURK Photography.
What Is Strength?
In the context of sports, strength is the ability to exert the greatest force with the least effort. Under this umbrella definition, it is possible to account for a broad swath of applications—from the Olympic weightlifter who can snatch 300 pounds to the mountain runner who finishes a marathon with 8,800 feet of climbing in 3:45 (as Kilian Jornet did in July 2017). In both cases, the athlete has to overcome some form of resistance; they leverage an ability—their “strength”—to accomplish that load with great efficiency. However, they are drawing upon very different sport-specific strength qualities to resist and overcome gravity. For the weightlifter, that quality is their maximal explosive power. For the mountain runner, it is the the ability to generate submaximal forces for hours on end without a diminution in those forces.
Speed Is a Form of Strength
An athlete’s speed depends to a large extent on their power (the rate that strength is applied), which is rooted in their strength. In order to move faster, you need to be able to create higher forces (strength) in the locomotive muscles, and you need to be able to do so more quickly.
When a track sprinter like Usain Bolt steps to the line of a 100-meter sprint, his muscles and tendons tension with incredible potential energy. At the moment the gun goes off, his brain communicates a nearly instantaneous signal to those muscles to contract with tremendous power, propelling him off the blocks and into a world-record performance. In this example, we can identify Bolt’s power in two capacities: the contractile force of his muscles and the neuromuscular efficiency of his central and peripheral nervous systems as they command function from those muscles at incredible rates. That, too, is strength.
While Bolt’s display of power is obvious, the same principles apply to the mountain athlete, just in a less obvious way.
An “Ideal” of Fitness
Any athlete interested in maximizing their performance should look first at what component parts make up their “ideal” of fitness. Taking the mountain runner as an example, we can identify the following pieces of this puzzle:
- Aerobic efficiency: This is the metabolic ability of the body to utilize fat as fuel while running (or skiing or climbing) at an overall power output.
- Speed: This is a form of strength or power, as mentioned above.
- Muscular endurance (ME): This is the ability of the muscles to produce a higher work output over longer durations and in a predominantly aerobic state—another form of strength.
- Form/technique: This is the runner’s proficiency at moving quickly over the terrain, which encompasses their ability to avoid injury and maintain good form despite accumulating fatigue. It is yet another form of strength!
Our hypothetical runner may now examine those pieces and decide how to train each one, first individually and then in combination, implementing increasingly complex, specific workouts as their goal event approaches.
Mountain Strong Isn’t Gym Strong
For many, the term strength training conjures images of muscle-bound gym-goers grunting out bicep curls in front of a mirror or chasing a new one-rep max for a particular lift. Banish that from your mind, because that is not what strength training should look like for you as an endurance athlete. A trail runner, mountaineer, climber, or skier ultimately needs to develop event specific functional strength for their given activity, not bulk they’ll then have to haul up a hill, mountain, or route. You simply can’t afford to gain strength at the expense of adding appreciable muscle mass.
Mountain strength training has two primary aims: first, to unlock your full performance potential in your chosen mountain sport; second, to prevent injuries. The goal is not to become stronger at a certain gym-based exercise. You may lift weights to address deficiencies in your general strength, as discussed below. But once you have accomplished that, it will benefit your performance to transition to more sport-specific strength work. In mountain athletics, weightlifting should never be an end unto itself.
Steve House doing a MoonBoard workout—a very sport-specific form of strength training. M.THURK Photography.
General Strength vs. Specific Strength
General strength is usually not sport specific, meaning that it may bear little or even no similarity to the movement, speed, or range of motion of the sport you are training for. For an athlete, general strength provides a base for the more sport-specific strength training that is to follow, and it makes you less prone to injury. Specific strength is sport specific, meaning it mimics quite closely—exactly, in some cases—the demands of your sport. This type of strength training has a direct bearing on your athletic performance.
Most popular gym-based strength exercises fall under the “general” category. They are specific only to themselves: a bench press improves your ability to bench press a heavy weight and is not even semirelated to any of the mountain sports we care about. A pull-up, while not exactly sport specific, does improve your pulling force, which can benefit you in sports like climbing and skimo.
So why bother with general strength training at all? While there certainly are mountain athletes who eschew general strength training, you’d be wise to consider your own needs rather than blindly following what others do. If you are at all deficient in basic strength, you may find it worthwhile to engage in a simple general strength training program before segueing into sport-specific strength training. Addressing your weaknesses first will make the specific training more effective in the long run.
General Strength for the Mountain Athlete
There is ample empirical evidence that improving general strength can positively influence your endurance performance. But when it comes to general strength training, it is easy to get swept up in the “gym strong” mentality and lose sight of your end goal as a mountain athlete: to become a more efficient/faster skier, runner, alpinist, or climber. Spending undue time and effort on general strength can deprive you of the greater benefits gained through specific training. Plus, it is possible to become too strong.
How Strong Is Strong Enough?
Take the back squat, for example: It is a popular general strength movement for many sports because it engages some of the biggest prime-mover muscles in the hips and legs as well as the core. Improving this strength—up to a point—will translate to better athletic performance. But where is that point?
For sports dominated by speed and power, such as sprinting, the field events of throwing and jumping, and American football, increasing squat strength will correlate quite closely with improved performance. When it comes to endurance sports, not being able to squat your own body weight probably indicates that your performance and durability would improve with added strength. However, being able to squat twice your body weight is unlikely to add anything to your performance and may in fact detract from it. Instead of increasing your squat by 20 pounds, it would be a better use of your time to focus on something more sport specific like running uphill.
Time Is Precious
No athlete, especially one with work, school, and family obligations, has unlimited time or energy to devote to training. You need to examine the strength demands of your sport before diving headlong into a program that may have little to no bearing on your performance. In other words, don’t devote precious hours to a bench press program when your goal is to improve your vertical kilometer time. Mountain running, backcountry skiing/ski mountaineering, skimo, cross-country skiing, and mountaineering are all locomotive sports that involve single-legged propulsion. This type of movement relies on good hip stabilization so that the prime-mover muscles can function optimally. Even general strength training for these sports should place heavy emphasis on resisted single-leg movements.
Similarly, if you’re a climber who can’t do a single pull-up, you would undoubtedly see gains by improving this upper-body aspect of general strength. But if you can crank off 12 pull-ups, there’s a very good chance that general pulling strength is not holding you back in your climbing.
Assessing General Strength: Where Are You Deficient?
Mountain endurance sports require many thousands of repetitive movements, and activities like running produce high impact forces with each stride. At the very least, the slightest muscular imbalances or joint misalignments can result in wasted effort. In the worst-case scenarios, these can lead to overuse injuries—the bane of all endurance athletes. To determine if you suffer from any musculoskeletal deficiencies, and thus would benefit from building a solid base of general strength before making a beeline into sport-specific strength work, conduct the following three assessment tests centered on the legs and hips. They are listed from easiest to hardest.
Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart, toes angled out slightly. Squat down as low as you can while keeping your spine as vertical as you can. This action should drop your hips down between and slightly behind your heels. Do your knees cave in toward your center line as you descend and then stand back up? This indicates weak hip (gluteal) muscles.
FIX: Place a rubber band or cord around your knees and squat while resisting the inward pressure. Do 3 sets of 20 squats 3–4 times/week.
Back Half-Squat (Medium)
Caution: Squatting technique requires instruction to do safely. Seek qualified help to learn this movement. Perform a proper back half-squat using a barbell weighing the same as your body. Can you do this without your knees caving inward, with stable shoulders and hips and with no wobbling? Great! You have good general strength. If not, this can be an exercise for you to include in your strength routine.
FIX: Do 4–5 sets of 10–12 reps 2–3 times/week using 40–60 percent of your body weight while working on perfect form. Build toward 3–4 sets of 4–6 reps using about 80–90 percent of your body weight 2 times/week.
Box Step-up (Hard)
Stand facing a box or bench about 12–16 inches away that is about knee height. Place one foot on the box and step up onto the box with a barbell that is 25 percent of your body weight without using the foot on the ground for assistance. Does your weighted knee fall to the inside as you step up? This indicates weak hip (gluteal) muscles. Can you control it consciously or is it an uncontrollable reaction to stepping up? Either of these signs indicates a need for general strength improvement.
FIX: Start with as low a box height as it takes to allow your knee to track over your toes during the step-up. Use no added weight at first and do 3 sets of 20 reps per leg 3–4 times/week. Raise the box height as you gain strength. Add resistance with a barbell on your shoulders or a weighted backpack to make bigger strength gains; in this case, do 3 sets of 8–10 reps per leg 2–3 times/week.
Steve (above) is showing the push-up plank position. For those with less shoulder and arm strength, the forearm plank referred to in the text below places the forearms on the floor. The goal of all these plank positions is to hold the spine in a neutral position (neither flexed nor extended) and to not drop or raise the hips. Note that an imaginary straight line between Steve’s ankles and his shoulders passes through his hip joints. M.THURK Photography.
Assessing Core Strength
The mountain endurance athlete’s midsection stabilizes the hips and shoulders so that the arms and especially the legs can go about their business of propulsion from a solid foundation. Core strength training is general in nature because it is a support that enables effective sport-specific training.
There are several muscles involved in this stabilization, as well as in the flexing, extending, and twisting of the spine. But the principal core stability muscle is one called the transverse abdominus (TA). This deepest layer of core muscle wraps around your midsection like a girdle. It does not perform a movement function the way some of the more glamorous core muscles do, such as the abdominus rectus (“six pack”), which flexes the spine. The humble TA muscle’s sole purpose—besides containing your visceral organs—is to stabilize the spine and hips. Because it does not move any major joints, it is difficult to activate and harder to isolate, meaning it can be challenging to strengthen. A consequence is that the bigger prime-mover core muscles end up taking up the slack for a weak TA. This compensation often leads to a further weakening of the TA.
The Forearm Plank Test
Assume a prone position on the floor. Support your body weight on your forearms and toes with your body aligned such that a line drawn from the base of your neck to your heels would be straight, hips neither sagging nor raised. (Reference the image above for good form, but again, keep your forearms on the floor.) Hold this position for as long as you can before shaking or losing this form. If you can’t maintain good form for 30 seconds, you lack strength and endurance in the TA muscle and need to prioritize this type of strength training.
The TA is one muscle that can never be too strong, so include frequent plank training in your routine. A reasonable program might be 4–5 max holds with a minute of rest between. When you can hold a good plank for over 1 minute, progress by adding resistance or a greater challenge: Use a weight vest or balance a weight plate on your hips. Alternate lifting an arm and a foot so you are balanced on three points during your holds.
Mountain Athlete Strength Training: Converting General to Specific
Specific strength workouts should involve ranges of motion and speeds very similar to the event you are training for. That’s because the brain’s muscle recruitment patterns are a learned skill. Doing very heavy and slow movement in a general strength exercise like a single box step-up will increase strength in those muscles. But when running uphill, the speed of muscle contraction will be much higher than those slow, heavy box step-ups. Your motor neurons need to be trained to produce the sport-specific movement pattern—in terms of both speed and strength. These specific demands are the justification for why many endurance athletes (whether they understand it or not) rely predominantly on specific strength methods.
Before you transition from general strength training to specific strength training, make sure you have a good aerobic base. This means that your Aerobic Threshold, as measured by heart rate, is within 10 percent of your Anaerobic Threshold. With this aerobic foundation in place, you will be more receptive to the loads imposed by the specific power and muscular endurance workouts outlined below. In other words, you will be better able to absorb the work and recover from it. You will gain more from the time you put in, over the short term and the long term.
Targeting Speed: Hill Sprints and Hill Bounding
A simple and very powerful workout for any mountain athlete needing to move uphill faster is one we call hill sprints or hill bounding. Bounding maximizes the distance covered in each stride, whereas sprinting maximizes the cadence. Your speed and the gradient of the hill add resistance (due to overcoming the pull of gravity), resulting in the desired strength training effect, and the action itself involves movement patterns specific to running, hiking, and skiing. This workout develops leg strength and power that will come into play during the subsequent muscular endurance phase.
Steve House doing a hill sprint workout, another form of specific strength for all mountain athletes. The goal of these is to maximize the speed up the hill. M.THURK Photography.
It may strike you as counterintuitive, but speed of movement is directly related to your strength in that movement. In general, the stronger you are the easier it will be for you to overcome the resistance to your movement. For mountain sports, overcoming gravity when going uphill, or resisting it when going down, requires strength. Hill sprints/bounding can form a vital part of your training not just in the Base Period (1–2 times/week) but also throughout the full training cycle. Use them as maintenance workouts—once every 12–14 days—to sustain your leg strength and power.
Hill Sprints/Bounding Workout
Find a steep hill that is at least 15 seconds long at a full sprint. Steeper is better as long as the footing is good. While up to 10 percent grades can work well for road runners, we recommend searching out a hill with at least a 20 percent grade. We have successfully used hills with grades as steep as 50–60 percent, but traction can be an issue. Very steep stairs work perfectly if you can find them. They provide excellent footing, ensuring you derive maximum power from each leg push.
Perform a warm-up that ends with two moderately hard 30-second runs up this hill with an easy walk down between. Then do 6–8 reps of 10-second max sprints or bounding up this hill with at least 3 minutes’ full recovery between each 10-second repetition. You can progress this workout by using a steeper hill or by carrying/wearing up to 10 percent of your body weight in a small and tightly worn pack or weight vest as you gain strength. The workout has had its effect when you feel the power drop off; don’t keep doing more reps after that point or you will be training endurance and not power. Stop at the first indication of pain, and use it judiciously.
Muscular Endurance for Mountain Athletes: The Most Sport-Specific Strength
Muscular endurance (ME) is the ability of a muscle to produce a relatively high percentage of its maximum force for many repetitions without fatiguing. ME relies on a combination of a muscle’s strength and its endurance. The stronger the muscle, the less strength needed to complete the endurance task. The more endurance trained the muscle is, the more contractions it can sustain before fatiguing.
Whether we speak of a rock climber’s ability to climb a difficult (for her) route without getting “pumped” and falling off or the skimo racer’s or mountain runner’s ability to sustain a moderate power output on long climbs without getting dropped, we’re referring to manifestations of ME. This type of strength has a direct impact on performance.
Steve is doing a sport-specific muscular endurance (ME) workout on a Treadwall while wearing a weight vest.
The definition of what constitutes ME depends on your sport.
In the strength and conditioning world, where strength qualities predominate in determining ME, “endurance” may mean 15 repetitions. At Uphill Athlete, it can mean 15 hours. A weightlifter, sprinter, or boulderer can generate very high forces but can maintain those forces for only very short times. Endurance athletes typically find themselves at the other end of this imaginary physiological spectrum in that they need to produce moderate amounts of muscular force over thousands of repetitions without stopping. The aerobic metabolic qualities of their muscles dominate in determining ME. So even though max strength plays a role in ME, it becomes less of a factor the longer the duration of the event.
It is best to focus on localized ME training.
ME is the most trainable of all endurance qualities, so it should not be overlooked. However, many conventional training methods have the athlete getting their ME training effect through high-intensity intervals. This imposes a high global endurance load—combined cardio and muscular—rather than one that is localized in the propulsion muscles. Targeted local muscular endurance training, as described below, can and should be a part of every endurance athlete’s base training. Improve your sport-specific ME, and you will increase the benefits you reap from more traditional endurance training like intervals.
ME workouts should accompany easy aerobic base training.
It is important to maintain a high volume of easy base aerobic work in tandem with any ME regimen. The excitement of seeing rapid gains when starting an ME cycle can lead folks to overemphasize these “money” workouts at the expense of time spent training easier aerobic paces. DO NOT make this mistake. Due to the duration and heavy muscular loading of these workouts, you must supplement your lower-intensity aerobic volume with this training. If you replace rather than add, the gains will be quick—but they won’t last. You will hit a plateau, and eventually you will see a decline in performance. Only athletes with an extensive background in high-intensity work will be able to fit additional high-intensity training on top of the ME workouts detailed here.
Muscular Endurance Progression
A typical ME progression will include one workout per week and last about six to eight weeks. We have a had great luck with ME periods of up to 16 weeks. To begin, allow for at least two days of easy recovery workouts after each ME workout as you learn how your body reacts to them. This training block is best used during the early Base Period for runners and skiers and in the late Base/Specific Period for mountaineers and alpinists.
For many endurance athletes, ME training will be the predominant form of strength training in their programs. There is plenty of evidence to support this approach as the best way to improve endurance performance in the short term. Even athletes with general strength deficiencies will see gains using these methods. However, we hope that our “big picture” arguments have been persuasive in convincing you of the need for an adequate base of general strength.
For mountain endurance athletes, ME workouts typically mimic the movement of the sport very closely but with added resistance. This added resistance can come in the form of steeper rock climbs, steeper hill grades, or additional weight.
Steve House wears a weight vest while doing a muscular endurance hill climb workout on steep, off-trail terrain. Grades of over 20 percent are the most useful for these workouts. M.THURK Photography.
Muscular Endurance Workout for Mountaineers and Alpinists:
Uphill Weighted Carry
Mountaineering and alpinism often involve carrying a heavy pack steeply uphill for thousands of feet. A workout we have prescribed over many years for many athletes—a tried-and-true Uphill Athlete staple—is the uphill weighted carry. The premise is straightforward: Load a pack with water jugs or rocks or use a weight vest. Find a steep hill. Hike up it. For the mountaineer or alpinist, this “intensity” workout would fall in the final preparation phase leading into the goal climb or climbing season. It can also serve as base training to build less sport-specific ME for the mountain runner or ski mountaineer who, after six to eight weeks, would progress to more sport-specific interval training.
When doing these workouts, you want the limitation to come from your muscles, not your lungs. A great gauge we use is that you should be able to carry on a conversation while your legs are burning. The effort should feel sustainable but just barely so, and if you went any harder your legs would give out in a few seconds. Finding this sweet spot of intensity requires that you adjust the steepness of the hill and the weight on your back.
At Uphill Athlete we typically start folks about 10 percent of body weight (BW), if they have no experience with this type of training and are relatively new to hard aerobic work. Many strong mountaineers feel comfortable with a 30 percent BW load. The final goal for this training progression should be a load greater than the weight you’ll carry on the climb. Unless you want the additional strength and stability challenge of carrying a heavy load downhill, we recommend you dump your water before descending to save your knees the extra beating.
Your chosen hill should be fairly steep. We have had good success on slopes with grades that range from 30 to 60 percent (17 to 31 degrees). A 50 percent slope is one on which you can just barely reach out to stabilize yourself with your hands while bending forward only slightly at the waist. Ski poles or hiking poles can be helpful for balance. The length of your hill may require many laps or one long push to the top. If you don’t have a hill, find a tall building. As we like to say, the most common barriers to training are motivation and imagination.
It is important to implement this training in a structured, progressive manner. Ideally you’ll do 6–10 of these workouts over the course of a couple of months, and the training stimulus needs to increase gradually as you adapt to the new loads. We like to progress either the weight or the volume (total vertical) in a stairstep fashion, not both at the same time. Ideally, the final workouts will encompass more vertical and more weight than you will cover and carry on the biggest day of your upcoming climb.
Gym-Based Muscular Endurance Workout for Runners and Skiers
The following gym-based ME program is ideal for runners, skiers, alpinists, and any other mountain athletes who need to prime themselves for steep uphill travel. It is especially well suited to those who lack easy access to steep hills. Whether you are an elite-level athlete or a back-of-the-pack racer, you are guaranteed to see gains from this workout. It is another Uphill Athlete staple.
What we outline here is the beginning workout. Unless you have extensive experience with these exercises, use body weight (BW) only for the first two to three workouts to learn the movements and avoid severe muscle soreness. The progression shown is a suggestion that should work well for most people. However, variations in individual starting strength will mean that some people will progress faster than others. Expect to be mildly stiff and sore for two days after each workout, so allow for two to three days of easy recovery workouts. Most people will not need to do this routine more than once per week to see significant gains. Because it is easy to overdo ME work, start slowly and progress at your own rate.
5-minute dynamic stretch routine
20x air squats
10x Turkish Get Ups
Core: Pick 4–5 of your most challenging core exercises. You can select from this group, or incorporate some others that you like. Do 2 sets and add enough resistance that 4–6 reps of each exercise is all you can manage.
Complete all sets of each exercise before moving on to the next exercise. Do not speed through these. Use a tempo of 1 rep every 1–2 seconds. Rest about 60 seconds after each set of an exercise. On the box step-ups and front lunges, do all your right leg repetitions and then all your left leg repetitions, and rest only 30 seconds between sets. Go through the full circuit once.
Split Jump Squat
Execute the split jump squat with an athletic, forward posture, as if you’re sprinting.
- Do 4 sets of 10 reps on each leg of the split jump squat. If unsure, start with a short split stance of 30 centimeters. Work to deepen your split as you gain strength.
- Rest 2 minutes.
- Do 4 sets of 10 reps of squat jumps.
- Rest 2 minutes.
- Do 4 sets of 10 reps on each leg of box step-ups with minimal rear leg assist. Use a box/step that is 75 percent of the height of the bottom of your kneecap. Watch this video tutorial.
- Rest 2 minutes.
- Do 4 sets of 10 reps on each leg of front lunges. If new to the lunge, start with this Simple Standing Lunge for your first 2–3 workouts. Once you are comfortable with that, you can progress to this stepping front lunge.
10 minutes of easy aerobic exercise
Lunge Variations: Simple Standing Lunge and Stepping Front Lunge
- WOs #1 and #2: Use BW only. Do 4 sets of 10 reps of each exercise.
- WO #3: Increase to 5 sets of 10 reps of each exercise.
- WO #4: May add weight, ideally using a weight vest. Start with no more than 10 percent BW. If you haven’t already, increase to 5 sets of 10 reps. Also add the following new exercises:
- Do 5 sets of 10 reps of goblet squat/overhead press.
- Rest 2 minutes after the last set.
- Do 5 sets of 10 reps of two-hand kettlebell swing.
- Rest 2 minutes after the last set.
- WO #5: Add 10 percent BW. Increase to 6 sets of 10 reps. Cut your rest to 45 seconds per set. Continue to rest for 30 seconds for box step-ups and front lunges.
- WO #6: Add 10 percent BW. Increase to 7 sets of 10 reps.
- WO #7: Add 15 percent BW. Do 7 sets of 10 reps.
- WO #8: Add 15 percent BW. Do 7 sets of 10 reps. Cut rest between sets to 30 seconds for all exercises.
- WO #9: Add 20 percent BW. Do 7 sets of 10 reps. Rest 45 seconds per set, with 30 seconds for box step-ups and front lunges.
- WO #10: Add 20 percent BW. Increase to 8 sets of 10 reps. Rest 45 seconds per set, with 30 seconds for box step-ups and front lunges.
Goblet Squat with Overhead Press
Planning Strength Cycles
Determining the order, relative importance, and magnitude of your strength training cycles will present a number of challenges. As with all forms of training, there is no one recipe that will work for everyone. It’s almost easier to tell you what NOT to do than what TO do. Let’s start with an example of a common mistake.
Have you ever been to a climbing gym or crag and seen the best climbers working on routes right at their limits? If you knew nothing about training theory, you might suspect that the secret to success for you—presumably a climber looking to improve—would be to follow that lead, get on something hard, and flail away until you have to be lowered to the ground with forearms that are quivering masses of jello. However, if you have some knowledge of training theory (which we hope you have gleaned from our book and this website), you will recognize these “climb to failure” workouts as a form of sport-specific ME training that occupy a critical place in the overall plan but can easily be overused by the uninformed.
Don’t make this classic mistake of overusing a very powerful training stimulus.
It is not a stretch to say that this inability to recognize and contextualize different types of strength training is what keeps people doing bench presses or heavy squats when what they want to do is run or climb uphill faster. We see this kind of mistake on a daily basis and it’s why we devote so much electronic ink to the theory of training.
Strength Training Guidelines
Here are some general guidelines for helping you structure an effective strength training program. To a significant extent, the best outcome for you will be determined by trial and error—while keeping these guidelines in mind.
Pick a single goal.
This is especially important if you are new to training and strength training in particular. It can be tempting to think that you can do it all: climb 5.13 and break 20 hours in the Leadville 100-mile race. If you’re new to this stuff, focus first on a single sport in order to learn how to manage the training. Once you’ve mastered the training for one sport, you’ll be much better equipped to branch out to others.
Give yourself enough time.
Unless you are an accomplished athlete with a good base of strength, don’t expect to cram an effective general-to-specific strength program into four weeks. Even if that’s all you have between summer rock climbing season and winter ski touring season.
Critically evaluate your personal general strength weaknesses.
If your knee caves in 4 inches toward your center line when you step up (unweighted) onto a 12-inch box, you probably need to delay the introduction of hill sprints into your program until you develop sufficient hip stability.
This holds true even if you are doing more sport-specific strength; apply the same critique to those methods.
An effective general strength program should be a minimum of four weeks.
And for the beginner or young person, a general strength program can easily extend to 12 weeks. This program would include two workouts per week focused on several basic multi-joint movements in the hips and shoulders. The prescription for general strength starts with activation and recruitment in the proper movement patterns. This means good ranges of motion and proper form as defined above. High repetitions with low loads is the most effective way to engrain these neuromuscular patterns. Only when they are perfected should you begin to add resistance. As you gain strength with proper form, you can increase the resistance and reduce the repetitions.
When you begin a more sport-specific program, be very selective with the exercises you choose.
Pick those that model the demands of your sport. For foot-powered mountain sports like skiing, running, and mountaineering/alpinism, you can’t go wrong starting with hill sprints or bounding drills (for strength) and then progressing to weighted steep uphill hikes (for muscular endurance).
Training Strength for Rock and Ice Climbing
Strength training for rock and ice climbing should follow a similar progression from general to specific, though with a greater emphasis on upper-body exercises. While base training for climbing involves doing a large volume of easier pitches, it is not enough to merely get out and climb a bunch. If you want to see gains in finger strength, dynamic power, and endurance, you have to train those aspects of your climbing specifically.
To determine what you need to work on, assess your weaknesses. Are your climbing skills—footwork, route-reading ability, balance—holding you back from your goals? Or are your skills solid and you lack power and grip strength? Don’t be surprised if you’re deficient in certain skills and certain elements of strength. No matter your weak points, isolate your physical training and your technique training so as to give individual, focused attention to each. By doing this, not only will you be better able to monitor and measure your progress, you’ll also make progress more quickly.
Interested in learning more? Here is a roundup of further reading about strength training for climbing:
- Base Period (4–8 weeks): Climbing marathon session | Aerobic, Respiration, and Capillarity (ARC) training
- Hangboard Training: Steve House’s endurance hangboard routine | Josh Wharton’s recruitment hangboard routine
- Power Period (2–4 weeks)
- Power-Endurance Period: Bouldering 4×4 drills
Ice and Mixed Climbing
Review Steve House’s full rundown of a well-structured ice and mixed climbing training regimen.