Training for climbing for beginners
Plenty of information to get you ready for almost any climb, covering; training tips, preventing injuries, age, gender, principles of training and goal setting.

Training for climbing for beginners

Training tips

  • Gradually increase the amount of exercise you do, and then progressively overload the system with more intense training.
  • Make your training enjoyable and specific for rock climbing.
  • The amount of time spent exercising is more important than the amount of effort. It is better to run one mile in 10 minutes than half a mile in four minutes.
  • Breathe evenly.
  • Learn to work through fatigue, but also know when to 'back off' before you drop.
  • Do not sit down or stand around when resting between bouts of exercise. Keep moving to keep the blood circulating and remove waste products from your muscles.
  • Do not over train, and make sure you have plenty of rest and recovery time.
  • If you are tired, or not feeling one hundred per cent, adjust the training to suit.
  • Try varying interval between active days and rest days to find out what best suits you.
  • Experiment with light, medium and hard training days for variety.
  • Create a standard warm up regime so that you can assess how you feel before you embark on full-blown exercise.
  • Generally, stamina training requires more time and less rest than strength or power training.
  • A regular training partner will make it more difficult for you to wimp out and you'll get some feedback to monitor your progress.
  • Do not train to total fatigue.
  • Training of one type of exercise will condition your muscles to that need. However, too much training, or training when fatigued can lead to poor technique, overtraining, injury and a lack of flexibility.
Training fallacies

No pain, no gain - Training should not hurt. Pain is a sign of a problem that should not be ignored. Discomfort is different; it is a natural consequence of muscle fatigue. Learn to recognise the difference.

climbing wall © Aleksei Potov
You need to tear muscle to build strength - Weight lifters may traumatise muscles with excess weight but this is not necessary to develop strength. It can take four to six weeks for the muscle to recover from significant tearing of the fibres.

Go for the burn - This is associated with the lactic acid build up in the muscles and although it is not dangerous it is not necessary for effective training.

Lactic acid causes soreness - Lactic acid should clear within one hour after exercise, after that any soreness is due to swelling and muscle trauma. Jogging slowly or squeezing a soft ball after training will help to reduce the trauma.

Muscle turns to fat - Both are specialised cells and while a reduction in training will cause muscle cells to decrease they will not change into fat cells, only overeating creates fat cells.

You must push your body to the point of failure to improve - It may be beneficial a few times and for power training, but the body cannot recover if every session is to your limit. It won't do your mind any good to 'fail' every time either.

Preventing injuries
  • Warm up and stretch. The older climbers will need a longer pre-climb warm up and stretching routine.
  • Don't overdo it.
  • Avoid training when overtired or suffering from a viral illness.
  • Any increase in the amount of training should be accompanied by an increase in rest.
  • It is not necessary to become totally pumped to train effectively. Maintain a balance between technique, endurance, power and strength training.
  • Vary your training to avoid repetitive strains and keep it enjoyable.
  • It takes several years to adapt to high volumes of training.
  • Tape your fingers.
  • Don't fight to stay on. If on a safe climb it's not worth the months of recuperation. If a movement hurts don't do it.
  • Avoid extreme moves as a beginner.
  • Do not use walls that have holds with sharp edges.
  • Rest at the first signs of injury.
  • Increase your carbohydrate intake during periods of heavy training.
  • Ensure adequate hydration to help prevent injury.
'Young people worry too much about training...The time to start training is when you stop improving' Ben Moon
Some top climbers claim that they do not train; what they actually mean is they do not train systematically. All sports people can train to improve their performance and even though climbing, with its myriad of movements, is more complex than other many sports, climbers are no exception. For most climbers, perfecting movement techniques is still the best way to improve. However, for those who are pushing themselves, the time will arrive when gains in strength, stamina and power made purely from technique training will not be enough and effort must be channelled into some form of physical training.
Tip: one day of training is like one day of dieting, it doesn't do you much good over the long term. There are no shortcuts.

Do not expect physical training to turn you into a renowned climber like Ben Moon or Ben Bransby. Everyone's physique, muscle fibre characteristics, heart and lung size and other factors affecting performance are inherited but you can certainly train what you've got, to improve.

Age is no barrier

If you maintain a good level of fitness you can perform at a high standard well into 'old age'. Strength does decline as we get older, especially beyond fifty years of age, because muscles become less elastic and they work less efficiently. There is also evidence that older climbers lose strength quicker than younger ones when they stop exercising. Older climbers should therefore train on a regular basis to limit the regression of their muscles. Do not however, expect the same gains from training, as youngsters whose metabolism and growth hormone saturated bodies are primed to pack on muscle.

The tendons, ligaments and cartilage of older climbers are also more easily damaged, added to which, the rate of healing slows down. Older climbers should therefore be obsessive about warming up and down. Place the emphasis on footwork, balance, flexibility, body position and the development of cunning to get up routes. Be aware that the motor programme we learn does not disappear with age, although the ability to recreate movements may be diminished by decreasing strength and stamina.

Men are, on average, seven per cent taller, have longer arms, broader shoulders, narrower hips and much less body fat than women

Gender advantage

Men are, on average, seven per cent taller, have longer arms, broader shoulders, narrower hips and much less body fat than women. Women are more flexible and possess better balance because of their slightly lower centre of gravity. Despite these physiological differences, there is no evidence to suggest that women should use different training methods from men for rock climbing. Males are better physically equipped than women for strenuous routes, but women tend get around strenuous sequences by developing technique at an earlier stage and being generally lighter than men women do not need the same strength as men.

Women are more flexible and possess better balance because of their slightly lower centre of gravity.
The basics of training

Training does not simply build more muscle; it improves the performance of existing muscles, respiration and heart function. It also builds tougher bones, ligaments, tendons and connective tissue by creating changes in the muscle, its blood supply, the level of enzymes and other chemicals necessary for the muscle to function efficiently. Training improvements are likely to be most dramatic when your initial fitness is low. As your fitness improves, more effort is needed to make any significant gains. In other words, the better you become the harder you have to work to improve!

The following terms will help your understanding of how to train effectively.


This distinguishes training from exercise. If you overload a muscle by pulling harder or for longer than previously, or lift a weight heavier than last time, your body can adapt to allow you to lift the weight or climb the route more easily. The rate of improvement depends on the frequency, intensity and time (duration) of exercise.

Frequency and resting

Your body recovers when you rest and your muscles will adapt to the stresses imposed during the last training or exercise session, to cope better with the stress next time. This resting and growth is called 'super compensating'.

There is only a fine line between a routine that improves performance and one that ruins it. As well as improving the efficiency of their energy systems. Muscles 'learn' by growing and improving their links with the nerves.
If you avoid rest days or climb before the muscle has gone through the process of rest and growth, the recovery will be cut short. Do this a few times and you'll soon find yourself weaker than when you started!
If you climb at the exact point that the muscle has recovered, but at the same level as last time, you will neither improve nor regress.
If training becomes infrequent or not intensive enough its effects will be diminished, and you will lose fitness and strength.
For an average person, training two or three days each week is enough but more advanced climbers may be able to cope with four or five days training. Since the best training for climbing is climbing, training in the gym is best left for those occasions when you can't get to the crags or climbing wall. Training is not a substitute for the genuine article!

For maximum gains, allow 24-72 hours recovery after a training session (the longer period after more intense sessions). The actual time spent training depends on the severity of the work out and your individual genetics.

Don't spend more than six weeks on the same programme.
Vary your training programme before reaching a point where no progress is being made (plateauing).

Beginners can vary their training on a daily basis e.g.
Monday - strength and power
Wednesday - anaerobic endurance
Saturday - stamina

Mix and match the different methods if you feel that you are of 'average level', but as you become fitter, concentrate periods on one component and just do some light 'maintenance training' on the others.

Duration and intensity

This describes how hard you push yourself. The volume (amount you do) of training is related to the duration (time taken for each repetition of an exercise or session) and the intensity of that exercise. Climbing involves periods of both low and high intensity activity, so ensure you build this into a training programme. The training you do may also depend on the type of climbing you specialise in. Are you a one-pitch sport climber, a bouldering specialist, a gritstone fan or a mountaineer?

Give your sessions a rating from 1 to 4, where 1 is easy and 4 is very hard. With this you can then label each session and plan when to do easy, hard, or something in between sessions. Start at 1 and work up to a 4, then take a rest day.

Goal setting

There is no doubt that a structured training schedule is more effective than a haphazard approach. A planned programme of training is always useful to focus attention on improvement and it can help you to feel that you using your time productively. Goal setting must take into consideration your lifestyle and should be designed to develop and maintain technique, flexibility, endurance, strength and power in that order. Above all, it should be designed so that you want to train. It should also be designed to reduce the chances of injury, and maximise recovery between climbs. Keep your training varied to ensure that you can cope with all eventualities. e.g. stamina training on the same gently overhanging wall with small holds does not improve your ability to climb big roofs on big holds. Vary your routine and the angles you hold even on fingerboards.

Set your training targets for the long term (this season or next season) medium term (within the next three months) or short-term (today or within the next two weeks). Most climbers want to 'peak' during the summer or for a specific trip but have short, medium and long term goals, regardless of whether their programme is two months long or over four years (like Olympic standard athletes).

You should identify your weaknesses that are limiting your performance (a good friend can help with this). A slight change in a weak area will have a greater effect on performance than any improvement in an already strong area. Therefore, allocate more time to improving your weaknesses and less time to tweaking your strengths. Often, the most difficult task is to ensure that the goals you decide upon are achievable and the means to achieving them will be enjoyable.

A useful mnemonic to help you focus on your goal is and how to achieve it is 'SMARTER.'

Specific: It is not specific enough to say 'I want to climb harder.' How much harder do you want to climb?
Measurable: How will you know your goal has been achieved unless you can measure it? Use numbers or grades to help you.
Agreed: You must be certain that this is your goal. Do you really want to achieve this?
Realistic: Is this goal feasible? If you goal set too high it may result in failure and you'll not see it as an achievable challenge.
Timed: You need to set a time limit on your goal, otherwise you can put it off forever!
Exciting: Your goal must inspire you to do the necessary work to achieve it.
Recorded and reviewed: Keep a written record of your goal and your training, so that the success of a training schedule can be seen and measured. Share your goal with someone else too - they'll remind you to keep working at your training!

Principles of fitness training

Training can be divided into a number of elements. The same principles apply to all forms of training:

Warming up, warming down

Sore muscles are inevitable when you start training because the muscle fibres are not used to being stretched. Warming up, warming down and stretching will reduce the trauma of training. This can be counterproductive to climbing, so you need to warm up by doing some gentle exercise and stretching your muscles prior to training. Start gently and build up progressively.


Stretching the muscles around a joint on a regular basis will improve flexibility, or at least maintain the current level of flexibility, depending on how long each stretch is held. There are many good books on the subject.

Isometric and Isotonic strength

Strength can be subdivided:
  • Isotonic e.g. pulling up.
  • Isometric strength is the ability to hold a static position e.g. locking off.
  • Endurance (Stamina)
  • The ability to perform a move over and over again.
  • Endurance is divided into two forms depending on how the system uses oxygen.
Muscles rely on Adenosine Tri Phosphate (ATP) for their energy. However, there is only enough ATP in the muscle for 3-5 seconds of activity and so the body relies on the production of ATP through the breakdown of glycogen. The breakdown of glycogen is done aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen). Whether you use oxygen or not depends on the pace (intensity) of the activity you are doing.

Aerobic endurance is defined in climbing terms by a long climb of a relatively low standard where oxygen is in plentiful supply and the waste product of muscle contraction (lactic acid) clears away naturally. Your glycogen reserves limit how long you can go on for. This is the important endurance to work on for mountaineering.

The dreaded 'pump' defines anaerobic endurance

The dreaded 'pump' defines anaerobic endurance. Typically it occurs on steep, strenuous sections of rock climbs that have few rests. The anaerobic pathway also produces lactic acid, which cannot be cleared away and this limits the anaerobic system, because only a certain amount of lactate can be stored in the muscles, it will eventually stop muscle contraction (the pump) and you'll know all about it through the burning sensation in your muscles. The aerobic pathway uses energy very efficiently while the anaerobic pathway is almost ninety five per cent less efficient.


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