Gone are the days when mountaineers would roll out of bed, drink some hot whiskey, and climb. Okay, I’ll admit most climbers & mountaineers never did that. But back in the day, core exercises were unheard of. Stretching? That was for yoga fans. Mobility? As long as you can bend over to pick up your pack, you’re gold.
That’s all changed. And with good reason. These days, people are better educated about the potential negative effects of repetitive movements, the benefits of rest and recovery, and how the core is the key to a life of injury-free climbing.
Here’s what we know. “Cold” muscles and joints need some encouragement before they are optimized for strenuous activity. Core exercises not only prime the stabilizing muscles of the body, they get blood flowing to the parts that will power your body up the mountain. Highly mobile bodies are less likely to get injured (despite what 70s climbers might have to say about it).
Note: I’m not a doctor or a physiotherapist. I have consulted with personal trainers, osteopaths, pilates instructors and various other professionals to help gather information for this post. Don’t start any fitness programs before consulting your health professional. Safe climbing!
Tips for getting the most out of these exercises
- Breathe through the exercises. Don’t hold your breath. This helps your body learn to train and breathe at the same and time and it also helps clear the lungs and remove toxins.
- Relax. These exercises are not meant to cause you stress or leave you with tighter muscles than before. Tension under control is the key to strength. Allowing your body to relax at the right time is essentia
This is one of my favourites. Caution: if you’ve got dodgy knees then this might not be the best exercise. But saying that, if your knees are bad, consult an expert before you put them under pressure.
Lunges are bodyweight exercises for the lower limbs. Some people refer to them as single-leg exercises but this isn’t accurate. The lunge performed properly, works the muscles on both legs working. The leading leg gets most of the heavy work but the trailing leg acts in a supporting role. Depending on your flexibility and strength, the supporting leg could get plenty of work.
- Stand in a natural stance and take a step forward with one leg. Drop the back knee to the floor (careful over rock and hard surfaces).
- At the bottom of the position both legs should be bent 90 degrees at the knee.
- Push through the leading foot back to a standing position.
- Change leg and repeat.
If that’s too easy for you try carrying something heavy close to your chest.
Still too easy? Hold that object over your head with straight arms while you lunge.
Don’t let the heel of your forward leg come off the floor when you lunge or kneel down.
Step forward with your feet shoulder width apart. Don’t attempt to follow some imaginary narrow line.
Box Step Up
We’ll refer to this one by its “gym” name, where boxes and platforms are plentiful. You won’t see too many boxes on the mountain. What you have is an abundance of surfaces of differing heights that vary the difficulty of the step up movement.
- Start off by stepping on to a stair step or something of that height. (Increase the height until you get to a surface that allows you to get your quadriceps parallel with the ground before you press through your foot to stand up)
- Step up on to the platform one foot at a time.
- Step back down with the same leg.
- Switch legs and repeat. Feel the burn!
Straight Leg Bear Crawl
You can build abs with the bear crawl. But for us climbers, that’s not the end goal. After all, nobody can see your sculpted abdominals beneath that Rab jacket.
This is an advanced movement. Some people might be familiar with the “easier” bear crawl exercise where your knees bend and the lower leg remains parallel to the ground at all time.
The straight leg variation works the shoulders, triceps, quads, and hamstrings and will test your flexibility. To keep the legs straight and move forward without falling over your body will recruit the stabilising muscles of the core
The faster you move with this exercise the more it turns into a cardio workout. Trust me, 100 metres of this will make your lungs burn.
- From a standing position with feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, bend forward and put your hands on the ground.
- Move one arm forward (about a foot in length) and then bring the opposite-side leg a step forward without straightening the leg.
- Repeat on the other side.
Once you get used to this, you can build up some speed.
I guess someone was looking for a name for this exercise and instead of calling it knee-to-chin, gave a cooler, but more confusing name.
As a warm up exercise, it’s on a par with the dreaded burpee. Mountain climbers will get your heart rate up fast. The isometric strength workout from holding the top of a push-up will also build strength across the chest and shoulders. But it’s the core that really gets worked in this exercise. Controlling the fast movement of your legs while stopping your body from toppling to the floor requires good core strength and coordination.
- Get yourself into a starting pushup position.
- Quickly bring one knee towards the chest and then return to starting position.
- Bring the other knee to the chest and return.
Simple but effective.
Shoulder Opener / Disclocates
Walking or trekking poles are ideal replacements for the dowels that people use in gyms to loosen their shoulders. Or even a broom handle if there’s one available.
Heard of dislocates? Well, you won’t forget them.
- Hold your stick/pole in front of you with arms about double-shoulder width apart.
- Without bending your arms, raise the pole overhead and bring your arms behind you. The goal is to touch the pole off your butt without bending your arms (or tearing your shoulders – be careful)
If you feel pain, stop. If you’re inflexible in the shoulder area, this exercise will be uncomfortable and you might not be able to move the pole through the full range. That’s ok, Keep practising every day until you can.
Another great shoulder opener exercise and one that’s a little easier to do is pictured below. Maintain straight arms. Push your head through your arms, and feel your shoulders and upper back stretch.
Squat (Air Squat)
The squat is one of the best exercises for any sport. It’s also a superb movement for people that have no interest in sport (but want to keep fit). It doesn’t take much time to knock out 20 squats but the benefits are many. Your quads are like a second heart, pumping blood through your body. When you work them hard, as you will when you squat, you’re getting the blood flowing.
But squats do a lot more than just give you the “burn”. They open the hips, stretch out our lower backs, increase stability and flexibility in the entire body, and strengthen the legs and core.
Everyone should squat, every day. Mountaineers and climbers can use squats in the off-season but also to get blood flowing to the quads.
- Standing with arms by your side, engage your core and sit down until your upper legs are parallel to the floor. Hold your arms out in front for balance. Don’t round your back or let your shoulder collapse forward.
- Keep your head up and looking more or less forward (you can look slightly downwards if you feel neck strain).
If you can squat lower than parallel without winking your butt or collapsing into a “dog-taking-a-poo” pose, go right ahead. The further you go the better.
Ignore advice that (outdated) squatting below parallel is bad for you. Ask the millions (billions) of people around the world that squat to sit and use the toilet every day if their knees are ok. They’ll tell you they don’t have back problems.
V-Hold or V-Up
For many people, this is an advanced move. Even super-fit climbers find these difficult. V-holds highlight core weaknesses.
- Starting from a lying position, engage your core (squeeze your abs, glutes, and quads) and bring your legs to 45 degrees and your arms and torso to 45 degrees. Your body should form a V.
- Now the hard bit – hold it for 10 seconds.
- Relax, take 20 seconds break and then repeat.
5 round should be enough for beginners.
When you can do 10 seconds easily, extend the time to 20.
An easier movement than the V-hold, the plank is a classic exercise for the stabilising muscles of the core (specifically the transverse abdominis but also the erector spinae). You’ll also work the back muscles and leg muscles.
It’s a simple movement but take care not to arch or round your back. Again, as with all of these exercises, when your core is engaged you are less likely to out your back in a bad position and end up with an injury.
- Start lying prone on the ground. Come up onto your elbows and toes.
- Keep your entire body in one line from head to ankles. Your head and neck should be in a neutral position.
- Engage the core and hold. After 10-20 seconds you should feel burning in your abdominals. That’s good. Try for 30 seconds.
Work on this every couple of days.
Climbers spend a lot of time pressing against objects to move their bodies through space. Pressing and pushing movements (with the arms) use the tricep muscles. These muscles are powerful but not exactly huge. And they are often tight in people that never stretch.
The tricep dip is a good exercise to get the triceps moving and put them through their full range of motion under load.
- Find a rock, ledge, or platform about hip height.
- Facing away from the platform, place your hands behind you onto the surface.
- Keep your legs out in front and lower your body down by bending at the arms and hips.
- At the bottom of the movement, press through your arms back to the top of the position. If you’ve never done this before, it can be challenging.
These core exercises are double-use. They work the muscles that are important but often neglected and they also help warm up and mobilize your body.
Any downtime in the mountains is a good opportunity to practise these movements. Keep practising and reap the benefits of a pain-free climbing season and years of injury free mountain time.