These Rock Climbing Exercises Will Build Meaty Forearms and Ripped Abs
There’s a good chance you’d love to build ripped abs and bulging arms, just in time for beach season. But that doesn’t mean you always want to do it in the gym. Sometimes, you’d much rather avoid dumbbells and barbells on your journey to more muscle, and that’s where the climbing wall comes in.
Hitting the climbing wall for a workout can seem ultra-challenging and intimidating, but that doesn’t mean it’s only for the likes of Alex Honnold, the pro climber who was the subject of last year’s acclaimed documentary Free Solo. Rock climbing can be an exhilarating workout for anyone, which is exactly what I’m learning right now.
I’m only eight feet off the ground on the rock wall at Cliffs of Id, a climbing gym in Los Angeles, but my adrenaline’s already pumping. But it’s not because of the height, and it’s not because I feel like some gravity-defying Spider-Man.
It’s because every muscle in my body is firing to keep me glued to my perch. If my grip or my back or my core relaxes, I slip. It’s a full-body workout as challenging as anything I’ve ever done in the weight room—which may explain why climbing gyms are as packed as weight rooms these days.
The Rise of Rock Climbing
The number of climbing gyms in America has steadily increased, and climbing is a fast-growing fitness trend. Its inclusion in the 2020 Olympics and the anxiety-inducing Oscar-nominated Free Solo are now inspiring even more curiosity. Meanwhile, climbing facilities themselves have evolved from dank warehouses into temples of functional fitness, full of people who are simply there for a fun, hard workout. Some come for simulated adventure, but many come for the community, too. All leave with a buzz.
“I don’t go camping; I’m not the stereotypical man-bun climber,” says Cliffs of Id trainer Eddie Tsang. “But I love the problem-solving aspect of rock climbing, and you can almost feel the neurological pathways firing between your brain and your muscles.”
Tsang goes on: “When you climb, your body spends a lot of time under tension. You’re thinking about what grip you’re going to use on a hold, about how you’re going to shift your weight in one direction, what kind of counterbalance to use, all while keeping your core engaged.” Tsang, 38, is an attorney by day who also climbs and teaches TRX and bodyweight bootcamp-style classes at Cliffs of Id. The former break-dancer and high school wrestler infuses the basic movements of climbing into his classes because, as he puts it, “it’s a smarter workout for building strength while maintaining functionality.”
How Climbing Reshapes Your Body
Karl Buchka, 32, is an engineer at SpaceX who discovered climbing at Cliffs of Id but now works out at Sender One, which is closer to his home and office. Sender One is co-owned by top climber Chris Sharma and has the highest walls in southern California. Buchka, an elite hockey player in high school, says that before he found climbing, he dreaded getting back into shape.
“I had put on about 20 pounds and got to a point where I knew I had to start doing something,” he explains. “But the idea of picking heavy things up and putting them down again bored me to tears. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt excited to go to the gym.” Climbing was an exhilarating alternative, and the workouts have transformed his body. “Once I lost the weight, I had to buy new clothes,” he says. “Once I got really into climbing, I had to buy another set of clothes.”
Buchka says muscle mass just started popping up out of nowhere, the result of the intense anaerobic bouldering workouts he was doing. Bouldering—climbing short routes, or “problems,” that are low enough that they don’t require ropes—is the more accessible discipline, since it does not entail as much gear or technical know-how, or a partner. But it’s also a far more strenuous workout than roped climbing, because, while shorter, the routes are harder.
It demands powerful bursts of strength and delivers a sustained full-body burn as you try to keep yourself from dropping off the often-overhanging walls. “Our bodies were made to climb—made to extend, push, and pull,” says Tsang. “People are looking for a way to utilize all these muscles that we otherwise wouldn’t use.”
Focus on Technique!
As I ascend the wall, I keep reminding myself it’s all about “technique,” which basically means using muscles that aren’t as obvious. It’s often said that if your arms are getting tired, you’re climbing incorrectly. I keep this in mind as I try to hang, rather than pull myself into the wall, and as I relax my arms by propelling myself upward using my legs. The only way I will make it to the top is if I disperse the work through as many muscles as possible instead of powering through with pullups.
As Buchka points out, the resulting six-pack almost feels accidental. “It does keep me pretty lean and strong,” he says. “But it’s the analytical mind-body element that is really stimulating to me. The fact that I’m getting this full-body exercise is almost completely incidental.”
Ironically, Buchka does also lift heavy things these days—but it’s in service of bouldering. “I’ve fallen in love with climbing, so I do other exercises to be better at it,” he explains. “Hitting those opposing muscle groups is useful for injury prevention and taking things to the next level.”
Tsang agrees that climbing coupled with complementary exercises such as dynamic kettlebell moves or TRX training—both of which are available at most climbing gyms these days—is the ultimate workout. Here, he outlines four circuits that climbers use to boost strength and power.
Train like a Rock Climber
These are the exercises climbers do off the wall to increase their power, improve their mobility, and prevent injury. They’ll build stabilizing strength for nonclimbers too.
The foundation of total-body tension begins with hollow-body holds, a favorite of gymnasts. Add a dynamic anaerobic move like mountain climbers to mimic the core-centric movements of climbing. Alternate between them as a HIIT Tabata. Repeat 8 times for a 4-minute routine.
Hollow-body hold: Lie on your back. Press your lower back into the ground. Extend your arms behind you. Raise your straight legs and shoulder blades a few inches off the ground. Hold for 20 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds.
Mountain climbers: Turn over into a pushup position, arms straight. Pull alternating knees up toward your chest and then back out again, as many times as possible for 20 seconds. Rest 10 seconds.
When climbing, you pull yourself upward from odd angles. Hone that ability with the Frenchie pullup variation.
Frenchies: On a pullup bar or large climbing holds, pull up so your chin is at hand level; hold for 3 seconds. Lower until your elbows are at 90 degrees; hold for 3 seconds. Lower again to 120 degrees; hold for 3 seconds. That’s 1 rep. Do reps until failure. Repeat for 3 sets.
One of the best ways to hone your grip strength is to simply grip things in challenging ways, and you’ll do that throughout any climb. Even if you train forearms in the gym, this will feel different and build new levels of grip strength.
Weighted spool: Attach a 10-pound weight to a dumbbell handle with a thin piece of rope a few feet long. The weight should fall just above the floor when your arms are held out straight in front of you. Hold a side of the dumbbell handle in each hand, palms facing the ground. Twist the bar up, “spooling” the rope until the weight reaches the bar. Unspool slowly. Repeat till failure, then rest 1 minute. Do 5 sets.
Rice-bucket drill: Kneel in front of a five-gallon bucket that’s three-quarters full of dry rice or sand. Do each move for 20 seconds. Stab your open hands in the rice and make fists. Pull your hands out. Stab your straight hands deep into the rice and spread your fingers wide. Pull them out. Stab your fists deep and rotate them in circles, going in each direction for 20 seconds, then going back and forth.Grab fingerfuls of rice. Grab and release handfuls of rice as quickly as possible.
Build the posterior chain needed for climbing. Do reps for 20 seconds, then rest for 10. Do 2 minutes per side.
Kettlebell clean + lunge: Grasp a kettlebell on the ground with your right hand, knees bent and hips hinged. Stand explosively and pull the kettlebell to your right shoulder. Immediately step back with your right leg, bending your right knee. Stand up, and lower the kettlebell back to the ground. That’s 1 rep.
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