Four reasons climbers should deadlift

Alex Huber is famous for saying " It's like I have power to spare".

Simply knowing power to spare is even possible, should inspire us all to search it out. But how do we go about developing this elusive trait? Where should we start?

Strength training, especially deadlifing, are popular training tools among some climbers and coaches. Yet even the most enthusiastic climbers and training monkeys among us can be skeptical of the benefit. What does the crux sequence of my project have to do with bodybuilding? Seeing the benefit can be tough so we've discussed some of the top reasons deadlifts and squats are good for climbers. Just how to implement these lifts and other strength training protocol will be in future posts.

If you're wondering if deadlifting will make you a better climber, the answer is no. Will it make you a stronger climber? Without question. The primary goal of training should be to get better at the sport. But to be strong is to arrive at this goal safer, stronger, more resilient, and injury free, and likely faster. 

Core Strength

The deadlift and squat are two of the most functional movement exercises. These lifts engage more large muscles than any other movements and they target a broad number of muscle groups while building strength through large ranges of motion. They are a fast and logical way to build a strong human foundation from which to scale on more sport specific strength. Your back is part of your core, it's just hard to see it in the mirror. The deadlift activates the entire posterior flexor (as you lower) and extensor (as you raise) chains. Strengthening this oft-neglected part of your core is critical to back health, injury prevention, core strength and trunk stability. Further, a strong foundation increases your ability to do more work, or work capacity. In turn, the hike to the crag, alpine wall or boulder problem, hauling on long free routes or any psychical exercise will leave you less fatigued than before. There for, we often programming the deadlift and squat early in the training cycle to build stamina. This prepares you for the difficult work in the climbing specific strength phase of your training.

Free Drugs and Bigger Forearms

Testosterone and human growth hormone are anabolic hormones produced by the body. The list of benefits, not the least of which is they simply make you stronger, is long. They are also vital for protein synthesis, growth, and repair of muscles, and are produced when we perform heavy deadlifts and squats. The best part for climbers is these hormones are not limited to the muscles worked. All muscles in the body, including the climber limiting forearm flexors, benefits from the free flowing hormones in the blood. So, if you lift heavy on the same day you work finger strength your forearms and fingers will reap all the hormonal benefits created by the heavy lifting.

Unfortunately, hangboard and bouldering session cannot produce the stress required for the body to produce the same amount of these powerful anabolic hormones.

Don't be scared by the word growth. The aim isn't to gain mass. Mass is more a product of ingesting lots of calories and high repetitions of the exercises, neither of which is the proper prescription for climbers. In fact, another benefit of the hormones is an increase in fat loss. Proper programming will provide the strength benefits and hormonal response without becoming a beefcake. This is because of proper programming results with a neurological strength adaptation and limits hypertrophy (mass) of the muscle. And if a climber adds a few pounds, it’s okay, because it’s likely they;  got stronger, increased their insulin sensitivity thereby defending against type 2 diabetes. Given these points and the many other health and performance benefits of these hormones, these lifts should be part of many climbers training. 

Athleticism
 

The truth about core training! Common core exercises like leg lifts, crunches, planks and other bodyweight exercises produce less core activation than classic full body functional lifts like the deadlift and squat. Research has found that "80% 1RM squat and deadlift resistance exercises exceeded the core activation levels achieved when performing body weight and instability exercises.-Source J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1108-12. This and many studies like it show the effectiveness of the deadlift and squat for developing a strong core. It's no wonder they are go-to exercises for many Olympic and professional athletes in an array of sports. 

 Further, deadlifts and squats increase athleticism by informing—the stabilizer, neutralizer, agonist and antagonist muscles—to work together efficiently during a movement. And through weight training, we also teach the motor neurons within a muscle to fire together. This means muscle fibers within the same muscle work together more effortlessly. Increased efficiency and neuron connectivity means less total energy expenditure while climbing.

So the ability, to perform a high step, mantle, toe hard and pull in on steep rock, heel hook and compress, generate body tension and drive the hips into the wall, or simply rock climb, will become physically (not technically) easier because of increased muscle coordination. 

Longevity

The examples of climbers maintaining a high level of performance late into their career are impressive. Even more prolific in our sport, are the large numbers of climbers aged fifty and up who climb on a regular basis. Some fun examples are: Lee Sheftel doing his first 5.14a at age 59, Stevie Haston completing his first 14d at age 52, Steve Hong climbing 5 14’s in his sixties, Jim Donini (70) and George Lowe (69), do the Nose on El Cap in 29 hours, and Herman Golner sending Pump O Rama (13a) in Rifle again, at 69, with two new knees. And of course, there is Fred Beckey, who is still planning climbing trips at 92.

Physical strength and body composition are two critical matrixes in healthspan and longevity. Dr. Michael Roizen, MD of Internal Medicine states “We lose an average of 5 percent of our muscle mass every 10 years after the age of 35—if we do nothing about it.” Losing strength and power because of a decrease in muscles is something we have control over. As we have discussed, heavy resistance training is the best way to maintain strength and extend out health span late into our lives.

The deadlift and squat because of their hormonal response, functionality, and ability to turn on critical muscles groups are optimal exercises for climbers looking to be strong and go long!

Practice your way to climbing harder grades

“We are talking about practice man, not the game……... Practice!”  Allen Iverson  

Why do we always think the climbers who are putting up big numbers are doing so because of physical strength alone?

Are Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Anderson Silva, Tom Brady, or Kobe Bryant synonymous with being especially strong?

It is common to overlook crucial performance attributes outside of physical strength that enable people to climb their best on difficult routes. These “strong climbers” have honed the technical and mental aspects of climbing through intentional practice. Climbing at our best is a representation of our technical prowess, mental acuity, physical strength.  

There is much to learn from training methods implemented in other sports where key performance attributes are broken down into drills and mini-practices. Marathoners don't run marathons to prepare for a race. First, they use coaching feedback and evaluation to optimize their body position, foot striking, and stride length. MMA fighters often use the term “working techniques” to describe a large portion of their practice on the mat. Football teams rarely practice by playing actual games. Instead, they focus on drills and playbook rehearsal.  

 A multi-tiered feedback loop composed of self-observation, video analysis, and coaching are the best tools for improvement. Dedicating some climbing time every week to deliberate practice is an investment into your ultimate progression as a rock climber.

 

Five proven ways to practice

 

Boulder Better

Climb submaximal routes, sections of routes, or boulder problems (this can be sections of your projects) and try to receive the proprioceptive cues coming in, but are often unaware of. This could look like climbing a boulder problem that is 1-2 grades below your flash ability, 5-10 times in a row while sensing the feedback cues and increasing the movement quality on subsequent ascents. You may also try new beta or alter your speed to feel a new movement, body position, or balance point.

A cornerstone of improvement is to realize the feedback we receive, then use that information to produce a more refined ascent with higher quality movement.

Simply Put: Climb 5 boulders problems below your flash limit and repeat each route 5 times.

 

Choose 2

Take 15 minutes while you're warming up, and practice 2 movements in need of improvement. But how do we find movement weakness in our climbing? Ask a climbing partner for feedback, use your phone to record yourself, or watch a high-level climber (in person or on video) and pick out moves that look unique or challenging. As you warm up execute these movement patterns even when it feels awkward or inappropriate. The more places you're able to execute the maneuver the more neurological ingraining is occurring, and the better your eye will get for spotting where the move is best served up.

I have always enjoyed the saying, “Repetition is the mother of all skill, provided there is skill in the repetition.” The flip side is we must experience bad reps to know what a good rep feels like. Be playful and experiment-See where a drop knee works best or how many times on a traverse you can do a foot swap.

Simply Put: Before your warm up choose 2 movements that you would like to improve then execute those movements as many times and in as many situations as possible. 

 

Minimize Your Grip     

The following 4 drills work to enhance your kinesthetic awareness of both your body position and grip position. Relaxing your grip can help you realize the best and the worst body position because you are diminishing your reliance on upper body strength. You can do this drill as a warm up or cool down, while traversing, or on submaximal routes.  

1. Traverse the wall using only your ring and middle fingers to grip the holds. This will cause you to sag into your feet and use your leg strength.  

2. Climb a route without crimping, using only an open-handed grip position. This drill brings awareness to how often we overuse the crimp position and build open hand endurance.  

3. Complete an entire route or traverse using only 1 hand. Analyze every movement and sequence to complete this drill.  It also teaches us about dynamic movement.  

4. While climbing, never readjust on a hold once you’ve made initial contact. Climbers often readjust on holds. Repeated readjusting increases the number of moves on the route, wastes energy, and adds to the pump factory.  

Simply Put:  Use grip minimizing drills to create awareness and feedback of body position and over gripping.   

 

Video     

     Be your own quarterback. The best professional athletes in the world watch a ton of “tape”. We all have phones attached to our hip, so let’s use them to help our training instead of hindering it. Whether your day is dedicated to practice or performance, record and review your climbs. Have your climbing partner take a look and offer feedback. Ask yourself a lot of questions. Did it feel like it looked? Could I have moved more dynamically or statically to preserve energy? Could I do the route in less time or fewer moves to reduce my pump? Were my hips into the wall? How can I increase the efficiency and quality of my movement? After taking in some observations, try the route again with a specific intention and video yourself again.

Review, ask questions and repeat. A critical point here is to repeat the route after watching the video. The more your repeat, replay, and ask questions the more space you have created for learning.  

Simply Put:  Video yourself as often as possible, ask questions, and repeat the route intent on searching for a higher quality ascent.     

 

Fatigue Practice    

 A wise climber once said, “The only thing better than climbing, is more climbing.”  At the end of a climbing day or bouldering session, climbers often take long rests in order to recover for one, or two, last good burns. That is fine if you're trying to perform but a waste of quality practice time if your intention is to improve. Toward the end of your training session when you're feeling fatigued–dedicate 20 minutes to practicing difficult and technical maneuvers that demand quality movement. We rarely get to the crux of a route feeling fully powered up. In fact, many redpoint cruxes on sport climbs must be executed with a deep sense of fatigue.  

Repeat sections of climbs that require technical and precise movement. Pay close attention to the quality of your movement. Use first person visualization to hone the sequence while you wait to repeat another burn.

Simply Put:  Sharpen your ability to execute hard sequences by practicing them in a fatigued state at the end of your training session.