While not as obvious as other areas of the body, strong, fit, and balanced legs can help rock climbers succeed at rock climbing and avoid injuries. However, each individual has to figure out just how much leg training will help, rather than hinder, their rock climbing performance. Read on for warnings about leg training for climbers, and then learn some climbing-specific leg exercises that might help you reach new heights this year.
Some Caveats About Leg Training for Climbing
Bigger, bulkier legs are undesirable for most rock climbers (especially sport climbers and boulderers), since strength-to-weight ratio does play a role in rock climbing success. This is why each rock climber should evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and plan their leg training accordingly. You do want legs that are strong enough to handle a powerful heel hook or a quad-sapping rock-over move. You don’t want huge tree trunks that overtax your arms.
So if your legs aren’t powerful enough to handle that heel hook, or you can’t kick out high enough to get that key rest, or your calves aren’t strong enough to take the pain and strain of a calf-pumping 100-foot face climb, you might want to consider adding some moderate leg workouts. The exercises given below can help you build up your specific area(s) of leg weakness while potentially avoiding future leg-related climbing injuries.
Cultivating Active Leg Flexibility
One of the best ways for rock climbers to develop stronger, fitter, and more balanced legs is to incorporate regular stretching for climbing into their climbing training regimens. This means including some active flexibility exercises along with passive stretches. Yoga and Pilates classes can also help climbers develop more active flexibility overall, including stronger, leaner, and fitter legs.
Specific Leg Exercises for Climbing
Along with striving for more toned, flexible legs, some climbers may benefit from working on strengthening and toning specific muscle groups, depending on their climbing goals and strengths/weaknesses. Common areas that often need attention include hamstrings, calves, and quads. Doing three sets of 8-12 reps once or twice a week of the following simple, at-home exercises can help improve these areas:
- Hamstrings: Hamstring curls can help you improve your heel-hooking power and decrease the potential for pulling or tearing a hamstring muscle. If you notice that heel hooking and pulling with your leg is difficult or strains your hamstring, these exercises are probably worthwhile for you.
- Calves: Calf raises (see photos A and B) can help develop calf power for specific moves and endurance for longer, calf-pumping routes. If your calves are always tired and you have trouble standing on your tiptoes and maintaining this position without calf pain for 10 seconds or more, calf raises will probably help improve your climbing.
- Quads: Squats, with or without a weight vest on. If you can already do a one-legged squat (see photo C) all the way to the ground and back up on both sides, your quads are probably as strong as they’ll ever need to be (or close to it) for most rock climbing purposes. If you can’t, you might encounter a quad-strength-dependent rock-over move that will stymie you at some point. Train quads to address this weakness.
Other Ways for Climbers to Train Their Legs
In addition to the above suggestions, climbers can improve their leg strength by adding specific core conditioning exercises to their climbing training plans. Since core and legs together play a key role in keeping body tension, a regular core workout can help develop and maintain this area.
Adding moderate cardio training, such as dance classes, jogging several days a week, walking, bicycling, and/or swimming, can also help climbers maintain balanced, fit, and toned legs along with good cardio fitness.
Training Legs to Improve Climbing Performance and Avoid Climbing Injuries
Prevent climbing injuries and enjoy better climbing performance by making sure that your legs are strong enough for every climbing position you put them in. Evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses to decide whether or not specific leg exercises for climbing are worthwhile for you.
All climbers should strive for good active flexibility, either through regular stretching or a yoga/Pilates class (or both). Beyond this, consider adding specific exercises for quads, calves, hamstrings, and core training, if necessary. Finally, add in a good core workout and some light cardio to tone and balance your legs for top climbing performance.
One final word of caution: Be sure to rest your legs before attempting to climb at your limit. This means that you shouldn’t go running or do a leg workout (besides light stretching) on the day before or on the day of an anticipated peak-performance climbing day. Though it’s not always obvious, even moderately tired legs can lead to sub-par climbing performance.