after a heap of questions about our training programs im going to devote a bit of keyboard time to training for winter/alpine climbing. theres plenty already out there, but not much of it seems to bring together all the factors i think necessary to be realistic for alpine climbing.

climbing gym training

rage against the machines: medicine ball, a wooden box, kettle bells and some plates and bars. despite the vanity factor a mirror is useful for checking form if you train alone.

i figure too, with 9 months or so until the next northern hemisphere ice season theres time to actually do something useful training wise. ignore most of this if you spend the northern off-season climbing in south america, new zealand, the extreme north or the big ranges, or if you do something already that ticks all the boxes. if not, then heres my thoughts on how to start the next ice season in better condition than you left the last one.

heres what i think needs to go into realistic ice/alpine preparation:

  • injury prevention: conditioning weak spots

  • stress inoculation: upping your capacity to mitigate the bits that arent fun

  • endurance: increasing your capacity to go further under greater demand

  • efficiency: nutrition, recovery, body mass

  • climbing training: vertical hours, systems, contingencies, ergonomics

  • actual (as opposed to virtual) strength/agility: body integrity, ROM, functional strength, dynamic strength

  • non-adaption: keeping active without over-stressing or over-developing the ‘climbing muscles’.

and heres how i divide it up for the sake of training:

  • on-mountain training: real time in the actual environment

  • gym training: using a virtual environment

  • field training: off-mountain but outdoors, cross training, capacity training

  • living room training: familiarizing yourself with ideas, designs, experimenting with food, tweaking gear

im going to start with the most controversial and mis-understood training element for climbing: the gym.

to not understand the gym environment is to not understand training at a very basic level: think of the gym as a simulator. its not real and its not meant to be.

its a virtual environment where you can go into aspects of physical conditioning you cant out on an icefall or alpine route. if you approach it as an alternative to real climbing you have failed – its to compliment actual climbing. gyms offer a place that allows total focus on your physical state so you can see where its at, and a safe environment to push boundaries, making a functional tool for developing indicators. this is a factor common to sports ranging from shotput to ultramarathons. firemen, rescue workers, soldiers, skiers and paramedics all know about it. for climbers to think they are different is ignorant.

gyms come in different shapes and sizes and to be applicable to climbing training dont need much, a bunch of bars and free weights in a garage will do. due to the non-virtual needs of real climbing a more primitive set up (ie without levering machines) is ideal – ‘the gym’ need not actually be a slick franchise of some californian corporation with the walls covered in homoerotic posters, the smell of foam matting and cheesy power-ballads on the sound system. the weight element need only extend incrementally to about double your body weight. as an indicator, i did 6 months of rehabilitation, ultramarathon training and expedition training with a ‘gym’ that consisted of a few lengths of scaffolding, 2 sets of dumbells, a bench to step onto, some boulders, 2 thick ropes and a home-made medicine ball and rings.

from the first list above heres what you can do in a gym and why:

  • injury prevention: strengthen joints and muscle groups that are easily damaged, weakened with age/sedentariness or could just be stronger – joints, knees, lower back, shoulders, forearms and lower legs. bodyweight stuff like squats & pullups, low weight Range-Of-Motion stuff, balance exercises. functional for obvious reasons.

  • stress inoculation: similar to high intensity training but not necessarily as high heart-rate, for longer duration & with a focus on inducing a panic reaction – breathing ladders, static hangs and holds, inverse rest periods, exercises that present elements of risk due to weight, form etc. functional for overriding physical demands with mental clarity, preparing the system for high demand situations and building contingency into climbing plans.

  • endurance: obviously not extended stuff, instead muscular/movement endurance. low, mid & high weight exercises done for long sets at the border of aerobic/anerobic threshold with minimal rests, eg full body lifts that mimic climbing movements repeated with minimal variation. functional for developing an upper capacity to climb within

  • efficiency: using large muscle groups and complex movements to create oxygen/lactic/anerobic demands to be developed. full body lifts, dynamic exercises, movements under weight done to intentionally spike inefficiencies. functional by increasining what you can put out in ratio to the fuel/oxygen etc you have to peform with.

  • climbing training: mimicking climbing elements that translate specificly to climbing (as opposed to generally as much of the other stuff does). one arm hangs, single leg squats, weighted step ups, upper body & arm endurance exercises, grip strength exercises, complex climbing movements under weight etc. both develops the necessary motor skills of climbing as well as keeps the ‘climbing muscles’ firing when not being used. functional in obvious ways

  • actual strength/agility: get stronger. actual strength is about you being able to apply strength when you need it and covers form, integrity, body tension and muscular efficiency along with raw power-output. very misunderstood, actual strength is an indicator of multiple aspects of performance.  olympic-style lifts, progressive weight additions, powerlifts, weighted body exercises, kettlebells etc. functional in a multitude of ways spanning lifting gear to rescuing partners and pushing bogged vehicles.

  • non-adaption: throw in exercises and lifts that mix up the bodys responses. drive blood to the legs then flip to torso-limb integrity stuff, over-stress the limbs then flip to complex, detailed lifts, complex exercises that demand full body attention. keep your body guessing, put your brain across your whole system. functional because you dont climb all the time and it would be stupid to be able to nail WI6+ but not go surfing or play with the kids because you are too over-specialized

of course a degree of these things can be done on-mountain too – but 5 days a week? in amongst other things? in bad weather? safely? quantifiably?in some ways its simply more efficient to make some gains off-mountain, minimizing time spent in dangerous places on peripheral aspects of climbing.

like sex or climbing or anything else, the gym is only boring if you make it so. if wonder, intrepidation, positive-anxiety and the excitement of progress isnt foremost in your attitude to training then you need to readjust your misconceptions, get over your social stereotypes, confront your prejudices and come to a more informed understanding of preparation. to cut out an entire aspect of preparation makes it hard to qualify as a committed climber.