Photo: Lightfield Studios

The Ultimate Core Workout for Climbers

When you’re climbing, your core—your abs, lower back, obliques, and glutes—hold you on the wall by maintaining tension between each of your limbs.

Maybe you’ve been at the climbing gym or crag and watched climbers delicately pick their way up long overhanging routes, nearly upside down, moving one foot at a time with perfect control as if gravity didn’t exist. The secret isn’t Spidey senses, or even insane finger strength (though that certainly helps). It’s core strength.

When you’re climbing, your core—your abs, lower back, obliques, and glutes—hold you on the wall by maintaining tension between each of your limbs. If your core slackens and your hips sag away from the wall, they pull the rest of your body with them. But if you have the strength and control to keep your core tight throughout a sequence of movements, you’ll find you’re able to grab holds with more accuracy, move more efficiently, and stay on steep routes for longer.

To get there, you need a core workout for building climbing-specific strength, with some pointers below for leveling up if you want to make things harder. You can do all three sets of one exercise before moving to the next, or cycle through them one set at a time. For best results, perform the circuit at least three days a week, either on its own or after a climbing session.

Hanging Raises

Sequence

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps, with 1 minute of rest between each set. Start with the Level 1 variation of this exercise. When you can do 10 reps with ease, progress to the next level.

Equipment: Pull-up bar

Level 1: Hanging Knee Raises

Hold onto the pull-up bar, palms facing forward, hands shoulder-width apart. Keeping your arms straight and shoulders engaged, lift your knees until they form a 90-degree angle and your thighs are roughly parallel with the ground. Hold for one second, then lower slowly back to the starting position. 

Level 2: Hanging Leg Raises  

Assume the same starting position as Level 1. Without bending your knees, hinge at the hips to lift your legs until they’re parallel to the floor (they should form a right angle to your trunk). Hold for one second before slowly lowering your legs to the starting position. Pause here before your next rep—that way you won’t accidentally use momentum to swing your legs back up.   

Level 3: Toes to Bar 

Assume the same starting position as levels 1 and 2. Without bending your knees, hinge at the hips to lift your legs until your toes touch the pull-up bar. Be careful to keep your arms and back straight throughout, and avoid leaning your neck or shoulders backward to rock your legs up. At the top of the movement, hold for one second before slowly lowering. Then pause at the bottom of the movement before beginning the next rep.  

Ab-Wheel Rollouts 

Sequence

3 sets of 10 to 15 reps on each side, with 1 minute of rest between each set. Start with the Level 1 variation. When you can do 15 reps with ease, level up.

Equipment: Ab wheel

Optional: Yoga mat

(Note: If you don’t have an ab wheel, you can simulate this exercise with TRX bands or gymnastics rings: Grip one handle in each hand, palms facing toward you, and keep your hands shoulder-width apart for the duration of the exercise.)

Level 1: Ab-Wheel Rollouts from Knees

Grip both handles of the ab wheel and assume a table-top position with your knees on the floor (cushion them with a yoga mat if needed). Roll the wheel forward until your trunk and thighs form a straight line that’s about a 45-degree angle with the floor. Your arms should extend straight down, with your wrists straight and hands stacked beneath your shoulders. This is your starting position.

Now, round your back and roll the ab wheel forward, keeping your wrists straight and pushing through your shoulders, until your nose just touches the ground. Then use your lats and lower core to pull the ab wheel back to the starting position, being careful to hinge at the shoulders and not at the hips. Your back and thighs should remain straight and in-line, and your shoulders should stay rounded throughout. Stop when your arms are again stacked straight under your shoulders and your thighs are at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. (Roll back any farther than that, and you’ll be in a restful position, which limits the effectiveness of the exercise.)  

Level 2: Standing Ab-Wheel Rollouts

From a standing position, grip both handles of the ab wheel and hinge forward to place it on the floor in front of you. Your legs and arms should both be straight and perpendicular to the floor. Roll the wheel forward slowly, keeping your back and core engaged and your shoulders rounded, until your body is in a plank position, your back is flat, and your arms are fully extended in front of you. Engage your core to roll back to the starting position. (Note: You may only be able to do one or two of these when you begin. Start with 3 sets of 1 rep. Add more reps as you’re able, while maintaining good form.)

Photo: Soloviova Liudmyla

Core Press 

Sequence

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps on each side, with 1 minute of rest between each set. Do 10 reps on one side followed by 10 on the other to complete one set.  

Equipment: Resistance band

Optional: Cable machine

Level 1: Resistance Band Core Press 

Loop or tie a resistance band around a fixed object at belly-button height. Stand sideways with your feet shoulder-width apart and your right shoulder facing the fixed object. Grip the end of the band in both hands by your belly button and side-step out from the fixed object until the band is taut. With both hands, push the band out from your belly until your arms are fully extended, keeping glutes, quads, back, and abs engaged to resist rotation. Maintain that tension as you pull the band back in toward your belly button to resume the starting position. Perform all reps on this side before switching and facing the other direction.

Level 2: Cable Core Press 

You can always grab a stiffer resistance band, but some gyms have a limited supply of bands. Plus, there’s a better way to make this exercise harder: Repeat the above steps using a cable machine. Add weight until you can only do 8 reps at a time.

Side Dips 

Sequence

3 sets of 10 to 15 reps, with 1 minute of rest between each set. Do 10 to 15 reps on one side followed by 10 to 15 reps on the other to complete one set. 

Equipment: None

Optional: Dumbbells

Level 1: Side Dips

Assume a side-plank position: Prop yourself up on your right heel and right elbow. Your right forearm should extend out in front, and your left heel should rest on your right. Put your left hand on your left hip. Keeping your shoulders vertically stacked, your hips vertically stacked, and your chest facing straight forward, contract your obliques (your side abs) to pull your right hip off the floor until your entire body forms a straight line from head to heels. Lower slowly until your hip just brushes the floor, then repeat. Complete all reps on this side, then flip over to switch.

Level 2: Weighted Side Dips 

Repeat the above exercise, but instead of resting your free hand on your hip, use it to hold a dumbbell just below your hip bone. Start with 5 to 10 pounds. When you can easily do 10 reps with that weight, add 5 pounds.

Plank 

Sequence

3 sets of 30 seconds, with 1 minute of rest between each set. When this feels easy, add time. When you can do 2 minutes with ease, move up to Level 2.    

Equipment: None

Level 1: Forearm Plank

Assume a plank position with your weight resting on your toes and elbows. Keep legs straight and quads engaged. Your elbows should be stacked straight under your shoulders and your palms should be flat on the floor, fingertips facing forward. Be sure not to round your back or let your hips sag—you should be able to draw a straight line from your heels through your hips to your neck. Hold this position for the allotted time, drawing your shoulder blades back and down along your back and pulling your belly button toward your spine.

Level 2: Straight-Arm Plank

Repeat the above steps but in a push-up position: Your arms should be straight and your palms should be flat against the floor, fingertips pointing forward. Be careful not to round your back. Keep your feet together for added difficulty.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.