The standard pull-up has long been a staple exercise for climbers. Several sets of pull-ups performed a few days a week will provide a base level of “pull-muscle” strength needed to learn all the basic climbing techniques. However, beyond a certain intermediate level of difficulty, climbing requires more specific forms of strength such as the ability to lock-off a handhold (to make a long reach) or make a quick, powerful upward movement. The standard pull-up falls far short of being able to build such specialized strength.
For example, we all know climbers who can knock off a decent number of pull-ups (say, greater than 15 or 20) but cannot regularly knock off 5.10s or 5.11s (or V3 – V5 boulder problems). Although poor technique may be part of the problem, many lack static strength in a variety of lock-off positions as well as the dynamic strength needed to power up hard moves on steep terrain. Consequently, if you can pass the “15 pull-up test” you will benefit little by drubbing yourself with more pull-ups–instead you need to engage in more targeted training of the pull muscles.
Before we dive into the details of some pull muscle exercises, it is important to reconsider what, in fact, is your weakest link on the rock. Surely, pull-up power and lock-off strength are vital, but many climbers fail due to poor technique and mental control or even because their grip strength is sub par. If any of this sounds familiar, then your training time will be better invested elsewhere.
Pull-ups & Lat Pulldowns
As alluded to above, this most obvious exercise for climbers is very useful for beginners, but it’s next to worthless for enhancing the capabilities of an elite climber. If you are unable to do a single set of 15 pull-ups then you should continue training with them about three days per week. However, there are a few strategies you can leverage to enhance the gains that result from this training. In fact, I believe most novice climbers can learn to do 15 pull-ups in under one year of training, given they use the following techniques.
Perform your pull-up training on a bar or a pair of “good” holds on a fingerboard. The initial goal is to train the pull muscles, not the fingers. Train only in the “palms away” position (the way you usually grip the rock) and with your hands initially at shoulder width. Begin by doing five sets to failure with a three-minute rest between sets. Three days of training per week is optimal. If you are climbing during the week, perform your pull-ups at the end of the climbing day, not on a rest day.
If you are unable to do five consecutive pull-ups, employ one of these two powerful strategies. Place a chair below the pull-up bar and step up into a lock-off position with the bar just below your chin. Remove your feet from the chair and hold the lock-off for 5 seconds before lowering yourself down (eccentric training) to a slow five-second count. Immediately step back up on the chair to the top lock-off position and repeat the process exactly. Do five total repetitions, then rest 5 minutes. Perform 2 to 3 total sets. The second strategy is to simply have a “spotter” hold you around the waste and lift a portion of your body weight so that you can do 8 to 10 repetitions. Do three sets in this manner with a 5-minute rest in between. Resolve to use these strategies three days per week, and you’ll be shocked at how fast your pull-up ability improves.
Your long-term goal is to be able to crank out five sets of 10 to 15 repetitions with three to five minutes of rest between sets. When you reach this goal, you will need to begin adding weight around your waist (begin with a 10-pound weight belt) or utilize a lat-pulldown machine at a health club. In using a pulldown machine, use a weight heavy enough to produce failure in between 6 and 12 reps. Do five total sets with three minutes rest in between.
Eventually, you’ll find that doing the same pull-up training becomes monotonous and provides little additional gain in functional climbing strength. In the next article, I’ll provide a look at some highly effective alternatives to “ye ol’ Pull-up.”