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Why Building An Athletic Base Is Essential For Climbing

On a climbing wall or in the mountains fatigue is the biggest limitation that will come between you and success and failure.  This limitation is 100% correctable and trainable if you know how, have the desire, persistence and consistency to commit to a training programme.   Not only will it improve your performance if you are a climber or mountaineer, but it will also improve your durability (Watch my video)  and reduce your risk of injury which has been shown in systematic reviews Lauren et al (2014).

Climbing is a sport which includes the disciplines of bouldering, sport, trad climbing, speed climbing and alpine climbing. These disciplines although requiring different training methods  Mermieral et al (2000) require a well established fitness base. The development of a fitness base is well accepted in all other sports, however, this is not the case in climbing and less so in recreational climbing.  Instead many climbers just climb and expect to improve their performance with climbing and climbing alone.  However, climbing will only get you so far.  The basis of training is to change your physiology so that your physical work capacity is enhanced through an improved ability to deal with workloads that previously were unobtainable.   Now, some of you may feel that this change in physiology can be obtained by just climbing hard at every session( Issurin 2012).

You can only maintain peak of performance for about 2-3 weeks

A climber or any athlete for that matter can never climb at their peak of performance for weeks on end.  Research suggest that you can only really perform at your peak of fitness for about  2-3 weeks after following a bespoke training programme(Turner 2011).  Therefore,  if you don't have a training programme it will be hard to reach your peak, let alone maintain peak performance.  

However, to reach peak performance for climbing you need a system which presents a systematic overload to your muscular and  cardiorespiratory systems to enhance your physiology.   It should offer creative variation of training methods, volumes, loads and  most importantly RECOVERY(Lorenz 2010)   This systematic approach is further punctuated by progression from general physical training methods  to more specific or climbing specific training methods (Turner 2011).   This is why just climbing to get better at climbing will only get you so far!

 So in a practical sence if you are training towards a climbing holiday in 3 months time and you want to climb at a 6c or 7a level outdoors it is not enough to Just Climb.  Just climbing causes two very real problems if you are serious about your recreational climbing

This causes two problems for the would be climber! 

But it is worth saying here that, if you are a beginner to climbing and have been climbing for less that a year, then there is much to be gained from just climbing and refining your expertise on the wall.  However, if your goal is to improve your climbing grades or to climb more than three times per week then just climbing is not enough. 

1. Muscle Balance across joints

If you are like most climbers and all you do is climb, sooner or later you will develop a muscle imbalance  and gradually start too develop overuse or repetitive strain related injuries. This concept of muscle  imbalance and injury risk is well accepted in sports medicine (Wang 2001). This is because climbing strengthens your climbing muscles and not much else.  This can predispose you to unequal muscular forces across your joints  Caldwell 2007.    Additionally, body weight training or climbing is a form of strength training which leads to an increase in connective tissues and contractile proteins in muscles (Langberg 2001)   This leads to muscle and soft tissue stiffness because of repetitive use.   This means that  the climbing muscles over time will become inflexible if you don’t engage in flexibility training to maintain adequate muscle length of the prime mover muscles.

2. The law of diminished returns

As you progress in the sport of climbing  your body will adapt to the demands which are imposed upon it.  To gain the maximum adapatation and to evade fatigue the body needs a broad base of fitness to tolerate repeated exposure to grades above your onsight in sport climbing and hard bouldering moves.   The problem with just climbing to improve your climbing is that the variety of climbing moves, and finger holds and foots holds for each problem render them somewhat useless for improving your individual weakness.   For example, if you don’t have the gluteal and hip strength to get out of a deep squat or pistol position, then you wont gain that strength by repeating that move while holding a crimp as your forearms fatigue.   However, a training programme to improve isolated leg strength with deep squats  and deadlifts, progressing to split squats and then to weighted single leg squats would go a long way to correcting that problem with base fitness training.

So there two types of training for any sport:

  • 1. General conditioning that prepares  the body for sports specific or event specific training

This type of training is the building blocks for injury prevention, durability and for improving your general physical robustness.  The role of this type of training is not to provide immediate benefits to your climbing. This is the training that committed recreational climbers do to ensure they reach their climbing goals.  In fact it is where professional athletes send the largest proportion of their time preparing their bodies for their sports.

  • 2. Specific training that prepares you for the event itself

This type of training is very specific to climbing in terms of the metabolic or energy systems used and its biomechanical similarity to climbing.  The biomechanical and metabolic profile of these workouts model the specific demands of climbing.  For example, this includes activities such as fingerboard, campus board and system board training.  Now there is nothing wrong with this type of training in itself when you have a fitness base to support it.  But all too often, for recreational and professional climbers this is not the case.  There is a distinct lack of base or foundational fitness to support climbing specific fitness.   Also when the climber migrates to this type of training he or she often lacks the durability and robustness in their musculoskeletal system to support this type of hard specific training.(Fry 1992)

This leads to under performance and training plateaus or risks injury because of poorly designed training plans which do not account for balanced muscular development.  For example, it is unlikely that Usain Bolt trained for all his world records by going to the track every day running the 100 metre dash as fast as he could and nothing else.  An athlete trains many components of base fitness that underpinned the event, with only a small fraction of their total training time spent on specific training at full throttle. 

To put it into some context

Many athletes that are world class spend a serious amount of their time training for their sports in non event specific activities in order to build a physiological base to delay fatigue or the dreaded muscle pump.  This ability to resist fatigue regardless of the sport is all about your ability to endure repeated muscular contractions.  It may be repeated muscular contractions at low intensity on your approach march with a heavy rucksack over several hours which is one form of endurance.   Or it may be your ability to sustain near maximal muscle contractions over 2-3 minutes on your attempt to repoint a route while lead climbing.  In each situation Fatigue will make a coward of us all preventing us from achieving our full potential and pose a risk to your safety.

Over subsequent weeks I will be releasing blogs which continue this theme of training for performance and injury prevention.  So keep yours eyes peeled for my newsletter when it comes into your inbox. 

We also create bespoke athletic training programmes for recreational climbers which are sensitive to previous injuries and attempt to minimise injury risk for climbers that want to progress in their sport. If you would like more information please drop us a line at

Uzo is a Specialist Physiotherapist and Physical Development Coach specialising in the health and performance of recreational climbers and mountain runners. He is a Masters of Science Student at St Marys University London studying Strength and Conditioning.

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