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Functional Core Training

Last summer I bolted a radically steep roof in Clear Creek Canyon. This climb involves approximately 30 feet of horizontal roof climbing–something I’ve never been very good at. I knew I would need to improve my core strength to have a chance at climbing this monstrous roof, so I put together a set of exercises to achieve that objective.  This article will describe those exercises in detail.

Born on the 4th of July, fully equipped and ready for action.

Born on the 4th of July, the motivation behind these exercises.

Before discussing the exercises, it’s helpful to consider the role of the “core” in climbing. The core generally refers to any and all of the muscles surrounding the torso, including the abdominals, obliques, muscles of the back, and perhaps some of the muscles in that region that activate the extremities, such as the iliopsoas (aka “hip flexors”). Athletes in general use the core for two basic purposes. The most obvious is to generate motion, such as when a decathlete rotates his torso explosively to hurl a javelin. The other more significant function is to stabilize the torso, creating a “rigid body” that resists movement, buckling, or rotation against external forces.

While climbers certainly use their core in both ways, the latter is far more common and critical. The vast majority of climbing movements are performed with a relatively static torso, while a hand or foot moves between holds. The act of moving the body upwards, with fixed points of contact, is often relatively easy on the core by comparison, and once the correct body position is reached for the next hand or foot movement, the climber typically regains a rigid posture to execute that hand/foot movement. Of course there are exceptions, and campus regulars have probably noticed their abs are sore the day after the season’s first campus session. However, most of the time when climbers talk about core strength, they are talking about the ability to create a rigid bridge between their hands and feet.

So how do we create this rigid body? By preventing bending and rotation along the spine. A person standing straight up can move about the spine in six “degrees of freedom”:

  1. Bending at the waist so the shoulders lean forward
  2. Bending at the waist so the shoulders lean backward
  3. Bending at the waist so the shoulders lean to the right
  4. Bending at the waist so the shoulders lean to the left
  5. Rotating at the waist so the shoulders turn clockwise with respect to the hips
  6. Rotating at the waist so the shoulders turn counter-clockwise with respect to the hips

Any other spinal movement is essentially a combination of these six basic movements. As climbers, in order to create a rigid body on the rock, we need to develop the strength to resist movement in these six degrees of freedom when sport-specific forces are applied to our hands and feet. Some of these degrees of freedom are more relevant to a given climber than others, based on route selection and the way climbers typically orient their bodies with respect to gravity (i.e., facing into the rock), but in the interest of maintaining good muscular balance about the spine, I recommend training for all six, at least to some extent, even if some are rarely encountered on the rock.

The exercises I selected to improve my core strength are relatively complex movements (involving many muscle groups in a single exercise), which is a departure from my typical strength training philosophy. The first reason for this is practical. I have only so much time and energy, and it’s sometimes more efficient to hit a few birds with one stone. The other reason is that the core is never isolated in practice in the way that the fingers often are (where for a given move, finger strength is everything and any associated arm/shoulder movement is trivial by comparison). Creating a rigid body, or even torsional explosiveness, will always be a “team effort” incorporating the arms, shoulders, and legs. Primarily for this latter reason I think it makes sense to train the core in conjunction with the rest of the “bridge segments”.

Since these are all body-weight exercises, I will present a series of variations that will allow you to progress and document your improvement from easier to more difficult versions of the exercise. The only special equipment required for these exercises is a set of free-hanging rings with adjustable tethers. I use wood gymnastic rings, but TRX Grip Trainers, Rock Rings, or a few lengths of old climbing rope and two scraps of PVC pipe would also work.

The number of repetitions and sets performed should be based on the training phase in which the exercises are performed, as described in Chapter 6 of the RCTM (page 123). I perform these exercises in conjunction with the rest of my Supplemental Exercises (at the end of each workout), and the number of sets varies from one to three based on my goal-driven priorities.

WARNING: Some of these exercises can be quite hard on the lumbar region of the lower spine, so use caution when attempting them.  Focus on engaging the supporting muscles of the lower back prior to and throughout each movement, and immediately cease the exercise if the lumbar begins to hyper-extend.

The Exercises:

Advanced 1-Arm Inverted Row:

The 1-Arm Inverted Row is an old stand-by of the Rock Prodigy Training Program, used to improve pull-strength in a more sport-specific direction than that achieved by the standard pull-up. The standard version involves the core to some degree, but not much. The Advanced version engages the core much more deliberately. This is done by wearing climbing shoes and performing the exercise on the underside of a roof with the opposite foot placed on a foothold (and the other foot flagging). To avoid falling, the climber must maintain consistent pressure on the foothold as the row reps are completed, and this requires maintaining a rigid core that resists motion in the first degree of freedom.  In other words, you must keep the muscles of the lower back flexed to prevent your hips from sagging, or else your foot will pop off.  To a lesser extent, the muscles that control motion in the 5th and 6th degrees of freedom are also trained isometrically* (while flagging) and isotonically** (while rotating to reach with the inactive hand).

[*muscle length remains constant during isometric contractions; **muscles shorten and/or lengthen during isotonic contractions.]

Progression: Increase the difficulty of this exercise first by performing the rows on increasingly steeper terrain (an adjustable-angle systems wall is ideal for this). Focus on maintaining a rigid plank position and moving smoothly, with control, minimizing movement of your foot on the foothold. Once you can perform the appropriate number of reps, with good form and in control on a horizontal roof, select increasingly less-positive footholds to up the ante.  You can further increase the difficulty by selecting ever-more-distant footholds.

Ab Roll From Rings:

Ab Roller

The Ab Roller

TV-watching night owls have likely seen an info-mercial or two for the infamous “Ab Roller”. This device is essentially a wheel with two handles that is used for training abdominal strength in the second degree of freedom. The exercise begins from the knees or toes, with hands grasping the Ab Roller, which is placed adjacent to the knees/toes. You push the Ab Roller forward until your legs, torso and arms are nearly horizontal, pause for a moment, and then strenuously pull back into the starting position. This exercise is nice because it incorporates both isotonic and isometric contractions of the frontal core.

The same basic exercise can easily be done from rings, and doing so provides some advantages over using an Ab Roller. First, it eliminates the need for yet another specialized piece of equipment, but moreover it makes it much easier to incrementally adjust the difficulty of the exercise.   When performing this exercise, it’s important to keep a noticeable arch in the small of your back. The objective is not to form a perfect plank when fully extended (this places tremendous strain on the lumbar). Begin the exercise with the small of your back bowed backward, and maintain that bow as you extend forward and retract to the starting position.

Progression: The best reason to do this from rings is that they make it really easy to adjust the difficulty of the exercise without limiting the range of motion. The higher the rings, the easier the exercise. The further forward your feet or knees are located (relative to the plumb line of the rings), the easier the exercise. All of these can be done from the feet or knees (from the knees is substantially easier). For example, here are several variations from easiest to hardest (note that you could create infinitely more increments of difficulty):

Base Ring Height Base Starting Position Order of Difficulty
Knees 2’ above ground Knees plumb to rings 1 (easiest)
Knees 6” above ground* Knees plumb to rings 2
Knees 6” above ground Knees body-length behind rings 3
Feet 2’ above ground Feet plumb to rings 4
Feet 6” above ground Feet plumb to rings 5
Feet 6” above ground Feet body-length behind rings 6 (hardest)

(*the changing parameter is shown in blue text)

Both height and base starting position can be gradually adjusted as you progress. My recommendation is to begin from the knees, with knees plumb to the rings (i.e., knees directly below the point where the rings are mounted), and gradually lower the ring height until they are just above the ground, then gradually move the base starting position backwards until you can start from body-length behind the rings. Then progress to performing the exercise from your feet and repeat the same order of progression.

Front Lever:

A front lever is performed by hanging straight from a set of rings, and then pulling your planked body up into a perfectly straight, horizontal position* (rotating at the hands/wrists and shoulders). This exercise was introduced to climbers by the legendary John Gill. It’s now quite popular, however, its applicability to climbing is worth questioning. Most climbers will rarely do any movement even slightly resembling a front lever on actual rock. The exception is roof climbing, where the closer a climber gets to horizontal, the more relevant the exercise becomes. In this scenario, the ability to perform a front lever or something like it can come in handy. When you are hanging in a pike position and you need to pull your feet up onto a foothold in the roof, it is often helpful if you can execute such a move as statically as possible, thus allowing you to carefully place your foot on the foothold, as opposed to wildly swinging and stabbing your feet in hopes of hitting the target before you swing back down (and likely off).   Likewise, front lever strength can help when you are stretched out in the roof and you need to remove your feet without causing your body to swing wildly (which will often result in your hands coming off the rock too).

[*some sources suggest performing the lever by first pulling into an inverted plank—with legs pointed straight up and head down—and then lowering into the front lever. I do not recommend this method because it further reduces specificity with respect to actual rock climbing.]

Front Lever strength can help when moving into, or out of, horizontal positions like this, where your feet are extended far from your hands.

Front Lever strength can help when moving into, or out of, horizontal positions like this, where your feet are extended far from your hands.

Specificity aside, another argument in favor of front levers is that they train the strength needed to resist movement in the second degree of freedom, which is helpful when flagging on less steep terrain. I would argue the Ab Roll From Rings trains those muscles more specifically, since the front lever focuses torque more towards the shoulders, while the ab roll spreads it evenly across the body bridge. However, I felt they were specific enough to my goals to be worth my time…and I’ve always wanted to do a Front Lever like my hero Gill 🙂  If you feel like Front Levers will benefit your climbing, here’s how to build the strength to do them….

Progression: The difficulty can be easily modulated, even within a single set,  by varying leg extension. To make the exercise much easier, tuck your thighs into your torso, and bend your knees so your heels are touching your butt. Maintain this posture from the shoulders down as you rotate up into the lever, hold, and return to the starting position. You can progressively straighten your legs as your strength improves. A good milestone is to do the exercise with thighs straight (no bend at the hips), and knees bent. Another milestone is one leg straight and the other tucked.  I find it really helps to flex the gluteus maximus prior to beginning each lever, and maintaining that tension through each rep.

It’s worth considering the advantages of performing sets of a single lever consisting of a relatively long isometric hold in the horizontal position, versus sets of multiple repetitions of mostly isotonic levers. From a specificity perspective, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I would need to hold any front lever-like position on the rock for more than a few seconds at a time. Likewise, it’s easy to imagine the need to pull my feet up into a roof, and/or release them with control, multiple times within a sequence. Furthermore, I tend to favor sets of multiple reps over “max hangs” for strength training. For these reasons I prefer to perform sets of multiple reps with up to a 2-3-second static hold in the horizontal position.

Wings:

I learned of this exercise from the book Gimme Kraft! Wings are performed from a standing plank position, with a ring located at the height of your free-hanging arm. Grasp the ring with one hand and slowly lean to the side of the active hand, bending only at the shoulder (and ankles). Continue to lean until you can go no farther without losing control, pause for 1 or 2 counts, then reel yourself back into a vertical position. This exercise primarily targets the shoulder, upper back, pectoral, and latissimus dorsi muscles, but also trains the core in the 3rd and 4th degrees of freedom. It is the least core-specific of the exercises presented here, and so warrants a lower priority, but I find it’s a useful motion to train the strength needed for certain strenuous gaston moves (especially those where the palm is facing “out” from the opposite shoulder). This exercise can be quite hard on the shoulders, so use caution.

I find the Wings exercise is quite helpful for shoulder gaston moves like this.

I find the Wings exercise quite helpful in preparing for shouldery gaston moves like this. Photo Mike Anderson.

 

Progression: The difficulty of this exercise can be adjusted in two ways. First, by adjusting the position of your feet relative to the plumb line of the rings. For example, if you are performing the exercise with the right arm, the further right your feet are relative to the plumb line, the easier the exercise will be. Second, by adjusting the depth of the lean. The lower you lean, the more difficult the exercise. In the interest of maximizing the range of motion, I recommend starting with a relatively easy foot position and progressing to deeper leans before progressing to more difficult foot positions. I’ve never leaned much beyond a horizontal arm position, so if you want to go deeper, you’re on your own!

A comment on the Windshield Wiper (aka “Metronome”): This is a popular core exercise among boulderers (I hear it’s one of Daniel Woods’ favorites). Windshield Wipers are done by hanging from rings or a pull-up bar, pulling into a pike position with the back parallel to the floor and the legs pointed straight up, and then rotating the legs from side to side. This could be a good way for climbers to train the strength needed to resist motion in the 5th and 6th degree of freedom.   I’ve tried doing these a few times, and I always find they are hell on my back (which has a sordid history of tweaks and strains). I’ve never felt they were specific enough to my climbing objectives to be worth the injury risk, so they are not a part of my program. However, if you are interested in specifically targeting the 5th and 6th degrees of freedom, and your back is flexible enough to handle them, this could be a useful exercise for you. Modulate difficulty by bending at the knees and hips and/or limiting the range of motion.

There are countless more exercises targeting core strength.  If you have a favorite that has produced results for you, we’d love to hear about it.  Please share it in a comment, or on the RCTM Forum.

Many thanks to Phil DeNigris for providing the physiology concepts in this article.

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