the joy of strength training


August 16th, 2008 at 8:41 pm

Sporting strength

Bouldering at Clodgy Point, CornwallI have been away from this blog for a while, spending much of my time rock climbing, surfing, hiking, cycling and generally enjoying the great outdoors down here in beautiful Cornwall.

One thing my recent sporting activity has brought home to me is the importance of sport-specific training. If you are a generalist and a fan of cross training – as I am – it is easy to lose sight of the importance of specificity.

Surfing and rock climbing are examples of sports that really are nothing like what you do in the gym. They each have unique requirements in strength terms. If you’ve never done either sport, it is difficult to describe how they are unique, but I will have a go!

Surfing mostly involves paddling with your arms. This is not something that most people do in their everyday lives, so the movement is unusual and exhausting when you are not used to it. Add to this the fact that you often have to battle raging surf in order to get ‘out back’ beyond the breaking waves and you’ve got a pretty good warm-up before you can even think about catching a ride!

There’s no activity that can make you fit for surfing except surfing itself. The same is true of rock climbing. It uses muscles you never knew you had; you need to engage parts of the body that you tend to neglect in other sports, like fingers, palms, toes. Finger strength is particularly important, as is body tension – the ability to hold your body close to the rock so that gravity doesn’t pull you off.

People often assume that if you are good at pull-ups you will be good at rock climbing. But this doesn’t follow, and pull-ups are a lot less important than you might think. In actual fact, in pull-up competitions it is the gym monkeys that tend to do better than the climbers!

But people who use raw power to get themselves up a climbing route won’t succeed when the climbing gets hard and the angle gets steep, as the key is where you place your body in order to be in the most secure and balanced position to make the next move. There’s also the simple fact of whether you can actually hang the position.

So what’s my conclusion from this? That strength is manifested in many different ways and it is not just about how much you can pull off the floor or how many times you can lift your body between two points. It is great fun to explore different types of strength and more ways to defy gravity. And when you add the element of danger or competition to the activity to bring in mental strength, you have the whole package.

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  • 1

    Great, you are back. Have really missed your blog!

    For climbing I find there is a difference between short but hard climbing routes and longer routes in the mountains. The long routes usually demands a lot more endurance, while the short routes mostly are technical and demanding on strength. Getting over the crux on a hard mountain route is often easier for the same grade becouse the mental position is different.
    I always tought core strength and technique was the key to climbing well, in addition to the mental game. Seeing how fast female gymnasts adapt to climbing have convinced me that climbing hard routes is highly dependent on core strength, a high strength to weight ratio and technique. The more gymnastic exercises I try to do, the more impressed I become with gymnastics. I have become so certain that this is the key to strength and flexibility that I have signed up for an adult gymnastics class 🙂

    Rolfe on August 18th, 2008
  • 2

    I agree, Rolfe, core strength, technique and mental strength are of the utmost importance in climbing. I also find that strength endurance for climbing takes a long time to build up and is difficult to maintain. It’s a real area of weakness for me at the moment.

    The guy who runs my local climbing wall – who is himself an excellent climber – was telling me yesterday that he has been training his endurance by climbing 30-40 routes in a session! I can manage a handful before I’m knackered…

    gubernatrix on August 19th, 2008
  • 3

    In addition to the climbing itself, there is usually also a steep/long trek to the start of the route. The extra gear you carry for a longer routes, water, food, hiking shoes for the return etc. also adds up. Usually you climb the longer routes with a backpack carrying 2-5Kgs plus all the climbing gear, rope drag etc.

    The best way I found to train for longer routes was to do cardio in the usual way and climbing a lot without pumping out. Then start on multipitch routes before going to the big climbs. Doing big walls are so much more demanding as you want to be fast but safe and that takes a lot of skill. I found if I pumped out on some really hard routes, it took me a long time to recover and the rest of the climbing that day was of reduced quality. If I was to get back into climbing today, I would differentiate clearly between cardio days, technique days and strength days.

    Please be careful with your fingers, elbows and shoulders if you have begun to climb a lot. My elbows will never be good again after the years I spent “on the rocks”. Proper technique is so very important.

    Rolfe on August 20th, 2008
  • 4


    In case you haven’t seen it yet:



    Chet: on August 27th, 2008
  • 5

    Rock climbing is one amazing sport. I respect any one who can do finger pullups.


    Usman on September 9th, 2008
  • 6

    Chet, thanks for that link. He’s expressing very similar thoughts. Great minds, eh?

    gubernatrix on September 10th, 2008
  • 7

    @ Usman: indeed, I am sadly lacking in the finger pull-up department but my climbing partner can climb walls using only two fingers on each hand and no feet – v impressive!

    gubernatrix on September 10th, 2008
  • 8

    I’ve got a regular weekend date with my local indoor rock climbing gym. It really does work you like nothing else.

    lelak on September 13th, 2008
  • 9

    Indoor climbing walls have made it so much easier to get into rock climbing. You can hone your skills in a safe environment and not have to travel miles to the nearest crag.

    I’ve just been reading a biography of Robin Smith, famous Scottish climber of the 50s and 60s. The differences in kit and technology are huge – it’s incredible what he and his fellow climbers managed to achieve in hobnailed boots with a bit of hemp rope tied around the waist! Truly hardcore.

    gubernatrix on September 13th, 2008
  • 10

    Good article. I totally agree with you.

    There are still people out there who think that performing exercises such as power cleans or snatches is an essential of improving random unrelated activities such as your box jump, or your ability to explode out of the blocks at the start of a sprint race.

    I wouldn’t give any more credit to the cleans and snatches in these scenarios than squats or deadlifts performed at a non explosive pace i.e. any speed slower than “as fast as you can”. If any of these exercises contribute anything, it’s because they strengthen muscle, not because they mimic anything or build “explosiveness”.

    The thing that gets overlooked is that you can massively increase your box jump by practicing your box jumps. It is as simple as it sounds.

    Also, sprinters get better at exploding out of the blocks by, wait for it… guessed it, exploding out of the blocks. If you do it again and again and again, and really work at refining the skill, you’ll get better, fast.

    Remember the saying goes “Repetition is the mother of skill.”

    The saying does not go “Power cleans are the mother of skill.”

    It as simple as it sounds, yet so many people seem to give far more credit to their strength (gym) training program than they do the actual practice of the discipline.

    I’ve just watched a video on Youtube of someone doing a 60 inch box jump. Incredible. He’d probably trained in the gym using a dynamic effort day, a power day, and explosiveness day etc etc.

    So if he’d done all that gym stuff with his barbells and what not but never done a single box jump in his life, would he be able to make the 60 inch box jump the first time he tried it?

    No. Of course not.

    He probably worked at his box jumping progressively. Just like he probably did with his his gym cleans, deads, squats, chins, dips etc.

    The practicing of box jumping probably did more for his box jumping than anything else. It sounds so simple yet so many people would look straight passed that and start going on about training for general explosiveness or some crap.

    More waffle….

    A few years back I spent the day hanging out with some mates. They’re rural types and they collect old tractors. They were going to start one of them up for some reason.

    At the time I was training at a gym, squatting and deadlifting, chinning and dipping and all the rest of it. I was stronger on these exercises than any of the others guys present. I also had the lowest bodyfat. I thought I was in tip top shape.

    This little fat guy told me to turn the crank handle at the start of the front of the tractor to start the engine. I could even get it to move. It was impossible. I tried repeatedly and it wouldn’t budge. Then one of his mates who looked out of shape and weedy came up and turned the thing as if it was a car key in the ignition.

    I was embarrassed to say the least. It wasn’t really surprising though. This guy had been turning these crank handles week in, week out for at least a couple of years, I’d never done it before in my life.

    Lifting weights in a gym, be it machines, free weights, explosively, slowly, 1 rep max or 20 reps, does not cover all the bases. Nowhere near.

    Quite simply, you get good at what you do.

    Gary on September 13th, 2008
  • 11

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Gary.

    Wonder if your rural mates are also really good at tyre-flipping?!

    gubernatrix on September 13th, 2008
  • 12

    Cheers Guber.

    I liked your article.

    I don’t know if the rural guys are good at tyre flipping. They may well be! They’re good at tyre rolling. But then again so am I.

    Speaking of tyre flipping, a friend of mine is currently over in the states competing in WSM. I was chatting to him a while back. He can deadlift 360, although it may be more like 380 kg now. Far more than any of the Atlas stones weigh.

    Yet he was telling me that the first time he tried to lift the lightest of the Atlas Stones, he couldn’t do it. Why? Not because it was too heavy. but because it isn’t shaped like a barbell. Up until then, he had only conditioned his body (practiced) lifting the very specific shape of a barbell in the very specific movement of the deadlift. He’d never tried to pick up a stone sphere before! Barbells are designed/shaped to make it easy to pick them up. Stone spheres aren’t, that’s the whole point.

    This is why he does him gym training and his event training. Take one of them out of the equation and his performance would suffer.

    That said, do you feel that your strength training helps your climbing or do you feel that climbing is the only thing that helps your climbing?

    I’d guess it does help you somewhat, but I wouldn’t like to say how much. I don’t climb so I have no idea.

    Gary on September 13th, 2008
  • 13

    I don’t think my strength training helps my climbing. Occasionally it even hinders. I like both sports so I try to do them both but they don’t particularly complement each other.

    It’s a similar point to the one you were making about the Atlas stones: climbing holds are nothing like holding onto a bar. The strength element is virtually inseparable from the technique/skill element.

    Lifting weights is sometimes a hindrance because of the stress it puts on my system and the recovery time required. If I climb the day after a heavy lifting session I am more likely to injure myself.

    I am having to give serious thought to whether to focus on climbing over the next few months or powerlifting. There is a powerlifting competition at the end of the year that I would quite like to do, but it will mean that I will have to scale back other activities in order to train effectively for it. Difficult decision!

    gubernatrix on September 13th, 2008


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