In climbing vertical to overhanging rock, the core muscles of your torso play a key role in enabling your arms and legs to maximize leverage and transfer torque from hand-to-foot and vice versa. Many beginner and intermediate climbers making their initial forays on steep terrain often find good-looking holds more difficult and pumpy to use than expected. Furthermore, they commonly discover that modest-length reaches feel surprisingly long when the rock is in their face.The root of these difficulties is probably a complex blend of poor technique and insufficient strength in both the arms (obviously, they are the ones getting pumped up!) and, less noticeably, the torso.
As you might expect, one good way to strengthen these core stabilizer muscles is by climbing frequently on steep terrain.
If your preference is climbing overhanging routes or if you regularly boulder on steep cave-like routes, chances are you’ve already developed a high degree of strength in these muscles (though, you could probably still benefit from additional conditioning).
However, if you are new to climbing or if you have previously climbed mainly vertical to less-than-vertical routes, you would likely benefit significantly from some targeted training of these core muscles.
The gold standard of core muscle strength is two tricks first popularized in climbing by John Gill. The Front Lever (top photo) and straight-armed Flag (bottom photo) both require steely muscles of the torso. If you can do these two tricks, then your training time is better spent on areas other than the stabilizing muscles of the torso. Otherwise, employ a blend of bouldering, traversing on steep walls, and the two isolation exercises listed below.
To best target these muscles in bouldering, you want to force these stabilizers to work extra hard by purposefully eliminating certain body positions and holds that help you avoid undue strain of the core muscles. For instance, when climbing straight out a cave-like overhang, use a straight-on position that disallows drop knee and hip turn moves.
While this is clearly a bad strategy for style points and saving energy (remember, this is training, NOT performance climbing), it does a better job of targeting the core muscles for the purpose of training. Upon reaching the top of the cave, downclimb the wall in the same style–downclimbing steep terrain is the single best method of bringing the core muscles into serious play. A final wall-training strategy is to traverse a slightly overhanging wall with your hands above your head and while keeping your feet low. You will quickly feel the core muscles coming into play as you strain to prevent your body from sagging away from the wall.
Additionally, you can perform several sets of abdominal crunches and hanging knee lifts, a few days per week. These traditional exercises nicely target the upper and lower abdominals, respectively. For best results, engage in all the training methods described in this article–wall training first, followed by the floor exercises.
Copyright 2004 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.