By Steve House
Calves burning, hips locked in hard against the ice, one arm locked off low as I swing an ice tool high overhead. I’ve trained for ice and mixed climbing since the first season I discovered it way back in 1988. And today, when I close my eyes and remember all the spectacular places ice and mixed climbing have opened to me, there is no doubt that my training has taken me into some of the wildest places on our planet. Ice and mixed climbing are both core skills to alpine climbing, and fun in their own right.
To know how to train for climbing ice and mixed terrain, you need to know what is involved physically.
The quintessential ice climbing movement taxes the calf muscles, the shoulder girdle muscles, the triceps, and the forearms in particular. The rest of the movement is also physically demanding. Your core must be strong in extension and in convex and concave positions. You have to be able to pull your knees up—sometimes close to your chest—while wearing heavy boots and crampons. You have to be able to stem out laterally with your feet. And last but not least, vertical ice demands you pull yourself up with your arms over and over again.
Mixed climbing terrain—climbing rock interspersed with ice—is especially common in alpine climbing and attracts a small subset of recreational and professional mixed climbers (yes, there is a world cup series for ice/mixed climbers!). This terrain, especially at the crag, can become very steep, and the physical demands are akin to steep sport (rock) climbing. Long reaches, low one-armed lock-offs, and extended toes, as well as more unusual techniques such as dropped knees and figure 4s and figure 9s, make hard mixed climbing one of the most strength-intensive subspecialties of climbing as a sport.
What is the best way to prepare? It all sounds complicated, and movement-wise there are many ways in which we can use our bodies to ascend steep ice and mixed terrain. But underlying it all is a certain basic level of strength. For this reason, ice and mixed climbing training is largely done in the weight room and climbing gym. There just isn’t much aerobic demand in this sport. The notable exception will be for people who would like to lose weight in order to optimize their climbing. If that is you, I recommend adding two to three aerobic workouts per week to increase your overall health and help you shed the weight.
How long does it take to prepare? The answer to this depends on how high you set your expectations. If you wish to be the very best you can be, the timeline will be many years, probably more than a decade, of purposeful, smart training. This is how the world’s best become the world’s best. Training trumps talent every time.
I recommend that people train for at least eight weeks. A two or four-week plan is good if that is what you can wrap your head around, but most people won’t see much progress in that time frame. So if we establish that eight weeks is a good minimum time frame for producing meaningful results, then let me tell you that the more time you can dedicate to progressing, the more significant and bigger the gains you will see. Sixteen weeks is a time frame I often ask people to adopt, and if they can do it, 24 weeks is even better.
The reasons behind these time frames lie in our human physiology and how we adapt to exercise and training stress. Training itself is described by a simple recipe: Apply a training stress followed by rest, then repeat, applying a slightly higher training stress, over and over and over again. Because of our physiologies, we’re locked into this longer-is-better method: it takes a long time to go through enough of these training stress, rest, repeat cycles to make gains.
THE PRINCIPLES: CONTINUITY, GRADUALNESS, MODULATION
Continuity means to train without break. This is not to say that we should train constantly, or even daily. No, that would surely lead to injury. Continuity means to time each subsequent training session so that it corresponds to the period when you are fully recovered—supercompensated, to use the coach’s term—from the last training session.
Gradualness means that you need to, from workout to workout or week to week, gradually increase the training stress. Failure to increase the training stress will result in a plateau. Ramping up the training stress too fast will result first in stagnation, then in regression.
Modulation means varying the training stress from hard to easy. This will be both on a day-to-day cycle or a week-to-week cycle. Correct modulation gives your body a chance to absorb the previous stress.
It is the careful combination of these three elements that best enables long-term gains.
Many people will think, as I originally did, that ice climbing training simply consists of doing a lot of pull-ups. That’s a good start, and if you’re young and motivated and have strong elbow and shoulder joints, this might work. The reality is that there are at least three important components to ice climbing training.
Core strength is, if you think about climbing movements, incredibly important. But oversimplified Fitness Blender–style workouts are rarely useful for more than helping you do something, where anything is better than nothing. P90X, for example, is muscular endurance training misunderstood and misused. Core training, like all training, needs to follow the principles of continuity between workouts, a gradual increase in challenge, and modulation.
Upper-body strength, pulling yourself up and holding yourself up, is the most obviously important aspect of ice climbing fitness. Besides the required continuity between workouts, gradual increase in challenge, and stress modulation, you need to do two things: First, develop a high level of maximal strength in your arms and shoulders.
Second, develop endurance in a strength-sense of the word. I call this muscular endurance, but other authors and coaches may use a variety of other terms, including “strength endurance.”
Developing both of these attributes isn’t that hard, but it requires tackling the process in the correct order. Too many people, including a younger me, started with muscular endurance. I used to simply do loads and loads of pull-ups, as many as I could do in a day, then I’d repeat that again in a few days when the soreness started to wear off. This common approach is backwards. Instead, you need to approach strength development in three phases:
- Conditioning. This is a crucial stage and one of the hardest. The workouts are fairly long, containing a lot of sets and reps, and it can be difficult to stay motivated for the necessary four to eight weeks of this training because the gains are not obvious. Gains come fast and furious in the next two stages, but if you skip step one you stand a good chance of getting injured and derailing the whole process, sending yourself back to square one.
- Maximum strength development. These workouts are fun, quick to do, and you see clear gains from week to week. Everyone loves this stage. The basic principle behind max strength sessions is to teach your nervous system how to fire more muscle fibers together, in concert, to produce more power. Or to put it another way, this is training your muscles to “wire together to fire together.”
- Muscular endurance. This is what many of the current fitness fad workouts consist of because this training feels hard, feels fun, and the gains are fast and noticeable—until you reach the limit of your physical potential, which, by no coincidence, is either what you show up with or what you built in phases 1 and 2.
If you go through phases 1 and 2, your physical limits will progress much further than if you skip straight to the muscular endurance workouts.
The good news is that you can cycle back and forth between phases 2 and 3 many times, at least two or three times, before needing to go back and address the fundamental conditioning of phase 1. That means that you can cycle max strength periods and muscular endurance periods for 32–40 weeks. After that you’ll have to taper and enter a performance phase.
I like to say that climbing injuries aren’t caused by overuse, they’re caused primarily by ignorance (and secondarily by hubris). Every athlete needs to return to fundamental conditioning work at least once a year. The highest level professionals do this, and you should too. Failing to recognize this fact results in injuries. To put it another way, there is no such thing as overtraining, only under-recovering.
Big Enough to be Strong Enough
There is one important caveat: Some people, most commonly teenagers and older athletes who have become de-trained, need to put on muscle mass. They simply don’t carry enough muscle mass to be strong enough for their activity, and no matter how much strength the muscle fibers develop, there aren’t enough fibers. In this case, a muscle-mass-building cycle, also known as hypertrophy, is in order. These are simple to plan and execute as they involve lifting or pulling heavy weights for enough reps to reach muscular failure (usually 8–12). This is so simple, in fact, that it’s why a lot of people who don’t understand the concept of hypertrophy inadvertently get bigger than is optimal for their sport. Climbers have to carry all those heavy muscle fibers around, so we want to keep them to a minimum.
Power to the People
Let’s walk through it now and get down to specifics, because I know you want a workout to do. Here I detail the three crucial workout phases and how you should progress through them to maximize your ice and mixed climbing fitness.
PHASE 1: ICE/MIXED CLIMBING CONDITIONING OR TRANSITION PERIOD
This first phase, the conditioning or transition period, encompasses core work, general strength training, and climbing. It should constitute the first eight weeks of your training, no matter how many weeks you have until you want to peak.
Core Training for Ice Climbing: Do the ten Killer Core exercises as described in Training for the New Alpinism. Start with 1x through. Each week add a lap and drop any exercises that become easy and/or add resistance to keep them challenging. Do each core movement 10 times or 5x/side.
General Strength: Start with one lap of the following circuit, doing the exercises as ordered, 10 reps of each exercise.
- Do this workout 2x/week with at least two days in between.
- Every second week add a lap to the circuit.
- In weeks 4, 6, and 8, increase weight and drop reps by 2 for each exercise.
Climbing: On top of this, I recommend climbing, ideally outside, but a climbing gym may be substituted.
If you’re under 25 years old, do the above gym-based strength workout on Tuesdays and Thursdays and rock climb both Saturday and Sunday. You can reorganize that schedule to climb on weekdays as well, just respect the minimum one day off (nothing resembling strength training, including manual labor) in between those two workouts and two climbing days.
If you’re over 25, you probably can’t recover quickly enough to fit in four strength workouts per week. The only likely exceptions to this are that you’re essentially climbing full-time or you’re coming off of some other longer-term athletic career. For most people this means two gym-based strength training days plus one climbing day per week. If you need or want to train or exercise more often than that, add aerobic workouts, 90% at low intensity, on the other days of the week. Everyone needs at least one full rest day per week. Keep in mind that manual labor, and I would include most forms of climbing guiding in this category, is not restful and does not count as rest.
During this period your rock climbing days should be focused on volume. And for the best results, don’t randomly approach this as “just going climbing.” Here are some ways in which an intelligent athlete can structure climbing days:
- Increase the volume of climbing, easily measured by pitches or vertical feet/meters, by 5% to 10% (maximum) each week.
- Focus on volume of pitches, not difficulty of pitches. Do not get tempted onto harder lines. The climbing days are suggested to be back to back for this reason. Here you can read about why training power/strength in the same session is (usually) a bad idea.
- Search out a style of rock climbing that mimics the style of ice/mixed climbing that you’re training for. If you’re training for Polar Circus, the Canadian mega-classic, then most of your climbing needs to be on less-than-vertical rock. If you want to crack the podium on the ice climbing world cup, then you need to focus on overhanging rock climbing.
- Don’t take this specificity idea too far just yet. The ice climbing world cup aspirant should not (yet) worry about what style of overhanging climbing they seek out; they need it all: dynamic one-move cruxes, multi-move endurance, and power-endurance.
Here is a sample of how to build volume, based on pitches, over an eight-week period:
Week 1: 5 pitches
Week 2: 6–7 pitches
Week 3: 7–8 pitches
Week 4: 5 pitches (this is a planned easy week)
Week 5: 7–8 pitches
Week 6: 8–9 pitches
Week 7: 10–11 pitches
Week 8: 12–13 pitches
If you are under 25, here is your training schedule:
|Climb||Off||Core and General Strength||Off||Core and General Strength||Off||Climb|
If you are over 25, here is your training schedule:
|Off||Off||Core and General Strength||Off||Core and General Strength||Off||Climb|
Respect the Rest: It is important to respect the rest intervals between the workouts. You can move the training days around on the weekly calendar, but space the workouts as I have laid them out above.
Trust the Process: Remember what I said about motivation at the beginning of this article? For at least the first month, it won’t feel like you are doing that much training. But it adds up over time and you’ll begin to carry some fatigue.
PHASE 2: ICE/MIXED CLIMBING BASE PERIOD
This period lasts as long as you have time for: it could be as short as four weeks, or as long as 32 weeks. To get started, here’s a good first max strength protocol in four parts:
- Do a light warm-up of 10–15 minutes of aerobic exercise. If you want you can invent a little circuit of aerobic work, including some floor exercises such as burpees, do some easy climbing, or whatever else you can imagine. It doesn’t matter as long as it is at a moderate pace and leaves you feeling bouncy and warm, typically with a light sweat.
- Pick your four hardest core exercises from those exercises you’ve been doing. Do each of them for 10 seconds or to 4 reps, with a max of 6 reps (3 per side where applicable). Add resistance as needed to limit reps or to limit your hold time. For example, if the hanging leg raise is one of your hardest core exercises (it’s one of the best for ice climbers), then use it as one of the four. If you can do 12 reps without weight, then hold a weight between your feet or wear boots while doing the exercise to limit yourself to 4 reps (ideal), but no more than 6 reps. To summarize: Do 4 core exercises of your choice, 1 set of 4 reps of each exercise.
- Follow the Ice Climbing Max Strength Workout as detailed below:
Ice Climbing Max Strength Workout: First, a note on weight: The typical weight for max strength protocol is 85%–90% of your 1-rep max (1RM). You can estimate your 1RM by doing a given exercise to failure with a weight you think you can handle for 4–12 reps. Then use a 1RM calculator such as this one. In that calculator you will enter the weight lifted and the number of repetitions done, and it will calculate your 1RM. Start with about 85%–90% of that number for each of the exercises listed below.
This weight should allow you to do the exercises without reaching muscular failure or exhaustion. In fact, these workouts should leave you feeling somewhat exhilarated and should have a restorative effect. If you find any given week’s max strength workout to be draining, I recommend that you go back and repeat the previous week.
You will do the exercises as couplets. A couplet is a pair of two exercises. In this case I recommend you do one upper-body exercise and one for core. For example, you do the pull-ups, then switch to max tool hangs, then REST 3 MINUTES. Then you go back to the pull-ups and repeat as a couplet circuit until you’re done with all the prescribed reps. Then you move to the second couplet, in this case incline pull-ups and weighted hanging leg raises.
- Max Ice Axe Hangs
6 sets of 4 reps (6×4)
- Incline Pull-ups
- Weighted Hanging Leg Raises or, for the advanced, a Figure 4 Couplet
6 sets of 4 reps (6×4)
- Weighted Lock-offs. One arm at a time with a weight you can hold for 10 seconds, but hold only 6 seconds.
- Weighted Toe Raises
6 sets of 4 reps (6×4)
Pull-ups: Do them on your ice tools if possible.
Incline Pull-ups: These are best done on gymnastic rings. I have also used a squat cage with the big bar set across the cage and my ice tool hooked over the bar. You can vary the difficulty of incline pull-ups by varying where you put your feet, the starting angle of your torso, and what you put your feet on (try a large ball for an additional challenge).
Ice Axe Hangs: Do 4 sets of one-armed, 10-second hangs. Use enough weight that you can only hang a max of 12–15 seconds. Rest 1 minute between hangs. Keep your shoulder activated and tense throughout the hang. Don’t hang totally relaxed on your shoulder joints with this much load.
Weighted Hanging Leg Raises: Hang from your tools or the bar. Hook your toes into a kettle-bell, and lift your knees as high and tight to your chest as you can. You can also use ankle weights or wear boots.
Figure 4 Couplet: You can learn how to adapt this climbing movement to be a training exercise here. To add weight, if needed, simply hold a dumbbell in your free hand.
Weighted Lock-offs: Lock off on one tool and hang there, holding a dumbbell in your free hand.
Weighted Toe Raises: Put your climbing boots on (it is important to do this with a rigid-sole boot) and do this one leg at a time. It’s common for one side to be significantly stronger than the other.
PHASE 3: ICE/MIXED CLIMBING MUSCULAR ENDURANCE PERIOD
For another eight weeks, add this workout into your program once every 10 days. This is a difficult, and also very powerful, workout. Do not overuse this, as you’ll end up sick and/or injured without sufficient rest. Note that you should not cycle through more than two muscular endurance periods [[in a season? In a row?]]. During a muscular endurance period, I recommend the following schedule:
Ice-Beast Muscular Endurance Workout
Warm-Up #1: 10-minute warm-up run followed by 5 minutes of dynamic stretches of your creation. Dynamic stretches simply mean moving your joints and limbs through their full range of motion. Be creative.
Warm-Up #2: 2x through the following exercises at a steady pace with about 30 seconds rest between exercises.
- 6–10 pull-ups
- 10 burpees
- 10 TGUs (Turkish Get Ups) per side with 10kg/22lb, or an appropriate weight that still allows good form
- 6–10 pull-ups
Rest 3 minutes before starting the workout.
Workout: 60 seconds on followed by 30 seconds recovery. Pace yourself. The idea is not to do this as fast as you can but to maintain quality and form throughout each movement. The training effect comes from the volume of work done, so if you blow up halfway through by going too hard, you will not get the desired endurance effect.
Hanging Leg Raises x 60 seconds. As many as you can do in 1 minute.
30 seconds recovery
Static Lock-off x 60 seconds. Hang on your ice tools with your chin as high as you can manage for 60 seconds. Two-armed for most or one-armed for the advanced.
30 seconds recovery
Hanging Windshield Wiper x 5 each side. If this is too hard, do a weighted windshield wiper (wear boots or grip a soft weight, like a small medicine ball, between your feet).
30 seconds recovery
Pull-ups x 20. Drop off as needed to complete 20.
30 seconds recovery
Grip Strength x 60 seconds. Grip only the shafts of your ice tools, without support from the handle. Hook the weight(s) with your ice tools (kettle bells work best) and hold that weight for 1 minute. Use good lifting posture: back straight, shoulders shrugged up toward the ears, and arms active, with the weighted tools hanging to your sides. The weight should be heavy enough that you could hold it for about 90 seconds. To decrease the difficulty, use the grips of the ice tools.
30 seconds recovery
Incline Pull-ups x 60 seconds. As many as you can do in 1 minute.
30 seconds recovery
Rest 3 minutes. Repeat each exercise one more time for a total of two rounds with a 3-minute rest in between each round.
Do your reps at roughly a 1- to 2-second tempo, except for the pull-ups, which are slower. Set a pace that allows you to make it all the way through.
To progress the Ice-Beast Workout, add rounds per the following schedule:
Weeks 1 and 2: 2 rounds
Weeks 3 and 4: 3 rounds
Weeks 5 and 6: 4 rounds
Weeks 7 and 8: 5 rounds
Climbing during the Muscular Endurance Period: Now is the time to try hard. You won’t be at your peak, actually far from it. You won’t feel exceptionally strong due to the carried fatigue from the difficult Ice-Beast. But I’m willing to wager that you’ll be stronger than ever, and you need the increased difficulty to keep up enough challenge to progress. Structure your climbing day so you do a warm-up of at least 2–3 pitches, then ramp up the difficulty until you’re close to your limit for that day. If you’re top-roping or sport climbing, you can push your limit to the point of falling. This is a fun time as you’ll be discovering new strength, and if this is a new level for you, your technique will probably not be on par with your strength.
Max Strength Maintenance: Every other week you’ll want to add the following max strength maintenance workout to, well, maintain your maximum capacity for strength.
15-minute warm-up run or steep hike: 10 minutes easy + 5 minutes alternating between 1 minute fun-fast and 1 minute easy.
Once you are warmed up, complete your last full core/max strength workout, but cut the number of sets in half from the regular workout. For most people, this will be 2 sets of 4 reps with heavy weights.
Training is not randomized exercise, nor is “just going climbing” going to allow you to improve unless your technique is the primary limitation in your climbing. Training is a strategic process, and it absolutely works! This outline, and the workouts set forth, will put you on your way to your strongest ice and mixed climbing season yet.
The workouts I share here are workouts I’ve been developing, primarily on myself, but also with all our ice and alpine climbing Uphill Athletes over many years. They work like a puzzle, each workout is just one piece of the big picture of the best shape of your life.
Go simply, climb well.