Calisthenics for Climbers
A guide to increasing your body strength through calisthenics movements
By David Hallen
Key Types of Training
Within this article, you’ll learn about key calisthenics movements for three types of “pull” abilities, “push” training, and what workouts to utilize for each. These three types of “pull” are max strength, or one’s ability to pull a maximum amount of weight or hold oneself in a lock-off position, power, or one’s ability to launch oneself over big moves, and power endurance, or one’s ability to stay strong over a short series of moves. When constructing a workout routine with the following exercises, aim to train 3-5 exercises of one segment per workout. Generally, avoid training different types of “pull” on neighboring workouts. After all, you don’t want to have weak power endurance in comparison to strength or vice versa!
Key Exercises for Building Strength
Whether moving through a tricky lock-off sequence or statically trying to stretch for a reach-y crimp, pure strength is crucial for climbers. Luckily, a wide array of options are available to build your strength and turn you into a static climbing God. These exercises include: bouldering at your limit, weighted deadhangs, weighted pullups, one-arm lock-offs, and one-arm pullups.
Bouldering at your limit is a fairly self-explanatory exercise. Find a bouldering problem that sits right at the edge of your strength capabilities, climb it, rest for a few minutes, and then climb it again. The more static and strength-based the bouldering problem is, the better. This sort of on-the-wall training helps you hone your climbing skills while getting stronger.
Weighted exercises (deadhangs and pullups) on the pullup bar help build strength through forcing your body to exert greater effort than you’d be able to at pure bodyweight. Adding weight, therefore, can turn exercises that normally would exceed strength rep-limits into perfect strength training. Weight can be added in the form of a weight-vest, dumbbell held between one’s legs, or textbooks in a backpack. Weight should be added to the extent that the user is able to only complete 2-8 reps for pullups and 10-20 second holds for deadhang.
When climbing more difficult routes, one-arm strength becomes more and more important. You never know when you’ll have to lockoff on a small hold to move up to another or hold yourself in place after a foot-slip or dyno. Generally, two main methods are used to build one-arm strength: one-arm pullups and lockoffs. One-arm pullups can be trained through a variety of means, which are covered in greater detail in The Heelhook’s “How to Train for One-Arm Pullups” Guide, but generally include negatives (or lowering oneself down with one arm), assisted (using a rope or cord to help oneself complete one-arms), and static holds (using lockoffs). Completing one-arm pullups, whether assisted or non-assisted, is a great way to build strength. One-arm lock-offs consist of holding yourself, locked off, at a variety of positions within the range of a pullup. These generally include the top, 90 degrees, and about three quarters of the way down. If you aren’t able to hold a lock-off position for the recommended 5-10 seconds, consider using a cord or resistance band to assist you in holding the position.
When training strength, it’s best to keep reps low. Aim to add enough weight that your max reps in a set sit somewhere between 2 and 8. Aim for approximately 2-3 sets per exercise when building your routine.
Key Exercises for Building Power
On the Pullup Bar
There are three key methods of building power on the pullup bar: power pullups, clap pullups, and muscle-ups. Of the three, power pullups are the most beginner-friendly exercise. Start from a full deadhang and pull yourself quickly upwards until your chest touches the bar (higher than a normal pullup). Then, lower yourself back down slowly to a deadhang. This slow lowering is necessary to avoid joint damage.
Clap pullups are a more difficult variation of a power pullup. To complete this exercise, you’ll do a similar motion to a power pullup with a variation at the end. Starting from a deadhang, pull yourself up a quickly as possible till your chin clears the bar. Then, use the force behind the pullup to lift your hands off of the bar and clap them together. Grab the bar following the clap and lower yourself down as slowly as possible.
Muscle-ups are the most advanced of the three variants. While in a deadhang, transition to a false grip. This means that, instead of holding the bar with your fingers, you’ll be holding it with the lower half of your palm (in line with your thumb). Pull yourself up to around chest height and then rotate your elbows up and back, positioning yourself above the bar as if you were at the lowest point in a dip. Finally, push yourself upwards to the top of the dip position to complete the movement. Muscle-ups take quite a bit of training to master. Generally, these can be achieved by a series of progressions. Start out by simply doing power pullups and dips. Over time, start doing negatives, starting from the top of the movement and slowly lowering yourself down. Also consider doing muscle-up with an assisting device, such as a resistance band wrapped around the bar and leading to your feet. When completing muscle-ups, take care not to “chicken wing”, or throw one arm above the bar before the other. Doing so can increase your risk of injury.
On the Campus Board
Though power can be built well using movements on a pullup bar, campus board training is an excellent addition. This article will introduce you to 5 key campus board movements for power and coordination: Ladders, double hand dyno’s, campus board single-moves, jump and catch, and hand switches. It is important to note that camus boarding is incredibly intense on your joints, so make sure to take appropriate rest before and after each workout to mitigate injury.
Ladders are one of the most basic methods of hangboard training. Start with both hands on the same rung in a deadhang. Pull powerfully to throw one hand up to a higher rung and then pull through to throw the lower hand to a rung above the first. When out, consider not skipping rungs. As you grow stronger, you can build into larger movements, such as “1-4-7” (rung number from bottom). Do 3-5 sets, making sure to switch which hand you use to do the first move.
Double hand dyno’s are essential to building overall body power. As with “laddering”, the sequence is fairly simple. Start from the lowest rung in a deadhang and powerfully pull yourself up. Use the momentum from your pull to throw both of your hands (at the same time) to a higher rung. At first, avoid skipping rungs. As you grow stronger, you’ll be able to skip more rungs with each move. Do 3-5 sets.
Campus board single-moves are a useful tool for training for that one, big dynamic move on your project. Starting with both hands on a low rung in a deadhang, pull up powerfully and place one of your hands as high as possible. Keep the other hand on the low rung. Solidify yourself on the high rung and then drop back down. Do 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps on each arm.
The “jump and catch” move is a great way to train for dyno’s and other dynamic movements on the wall. Stand below the campus board and jump upwards. At the high point of your jump, outstretch your arm and grab ahold of a rung barely within your reach. Tighten your core and hold onto the rung till your swing stops and you feel solidified on the hold. Drop down and repeat. Do 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps on each arm.
Hand switches are a great way to build your coordination at the same time as power. To complete a hand switch sequence, begin with both hands on the campus board on large rungs. One hand should be placed a rung higher than the other. Lift yourself into a “tensed” position and, in a single movement, swap the rungs your hands are on. Neither of your hands should be on the board at the midpoint of the move. Do 6-12 switches per set and 1-3 sets.
Key Exercises for Building Power Endurance
Power endurance is a key aspect of sport and longer boulder climbing. Though power-endurance can be trained well on the wall through 4×4 repeaters and similar, there are a few great calisthenics movements that can give you that extra edge. Two of these movements are pullup intervals and campus board laps.
Pullup intervals are fairly self explanatory. One begins with a moderately high number of pullups and, with a low degree of rest between each set, slowly lowers the number of pullups per set until a set hits “0”. Ideally, each set after the first should near “maxing out”. For example, one could start out with ten pullups, rest ten seconds, do eight pullups, rest ten seconds, do six pullups, and continue until no pullups are left. A lengthy rest (5+ minutes) should be taken between each grouping of pullup intervals to ensure recovery.
Campus board laps are a great way to build power endurance while also working on hand-eye coordination. Starting from the lowest rung on the campus board in a deadhang, lift yourself up and grab ahold of the second rung with one hand. Quickly move the other hand up to the third rung and “ladder” yourself up the remainder of the campus board. When doing laps, utilize larger rungs and aim for 2-5 sets.
Key Exercises for Building Push-Strength
When training for climbing, we naturally think about “pull” exercises. After all, climbing is all about pulling hard on small holds to move oneself up the wall! Despite this, calisthenic movements focused around “push” are a crucial part of climbing training. These exercises don’t only build general body strength, but also play a crucial role in injury prevention by exercising the under-used “antagonist” muscles.
Three exercises that play an especially key role in training push-strength are pushups, dips, and shoulder press. Pushups are a central exercise in any training program due to the wide range of push-muscles utilized. To appropriately complete a pushup, start laying on the floor with your palms placed on either side of your chest. Push yourself up to a straight-arm position and then lower yourself back down. Throughout this exercise, focus on maintaining a straight body through core tension and fluidly moving up and down. Do 3-5 sets of 10-25 pushups.
Dips are a great way to train push strength while also improving your muscle up and mantle skills. To complete a dip, start with your chest on the bar (feet in the air) and your arms grasping the bar on both sides of your chest. Your forearms should be near vertical, positioning your elbows upwards. From this position, push yourself vertically upwards, ending up above the bar with straight arms. Do 3-5 sets of 5-20 dips.
The shoulder press is an excellent exercise for training push strength and shoulder stability, especially when done with a kettlebell. Start with a dumbbell or kettlebell raised to shoulder height with your arm horizontal and your elbow facing outward. Lift your elbow upwards until your arm is straightened directly above your shoulder. Return to the starting position. If using a kettlebell, consider holding it in such a way that the weight is positioned above the hand at all times. The balance required to hold the weight in place will lead to increased shoulder stability strength. Do 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps.