6 ‘DEEP’ EXERCISES FOR EXPEDITION CLIMBING

expedition climbing differs from alpine climbing by how much the day to day stresses effect the outcome. on an expedition youre as likely to get hurt or run down by the loads, the approach and the way you sleep as you are by the actual climbing. you need to be fit and resilient to pull the moves AND to survive the general process, often exposed to altitudes regular alpine climbing may not entertain which means recovery is compromised.

strength for expedition climbing isnt just the obvious bulk capacity to carry stuff upwards. by developing the deeper, unseen elements like breathing musculature, body tension, load bearing musculature etc  you can go far beyond what just endurance and climbing training can cover. Dan DaSilva arriving at 4600m with a 30kg load – he may look like a male stripper but he climbs like like an orangutan.

training for expedition climbing needs to address the specifics often glossed over with regular alpine climbing, namely: the load bearing muscles, the diaphragms and the ‘sleeping muscles’. lots of climbers get very good at the general and the climb-specific elements only to find that endless pull ups and hill intervals havent prepared them for the workhorse stuff. these exercises address that by making stronger max function and increasing range of motion to help prevent injuries.

‘deep’ exercises are ones that develop stuff you cant really see and address weaknesses you probably dont know you have, making them powerful when integrated with the usual climbing training. these sorts of things pull together the rest of your training and increase overall energy efficiency but they are not quick fix only-10-minutes-a-week vanity exercises. these exercises may be targeting things you have never consciously trained before so may find surprisingly weak and deserve to be a fundamental part of any training regime. other types of these sorts of exercises exist, these are just ones that require little/no gear and have direct applications. remember these are all strengthening exercise – do them at about 3-6RM.

 

1) Lung Lifts

the drop in diaphragmatic efficiency as you gain altitude is startling – the other muscle groups that see such double-digit loss of capacity get huge attention but are peripheral by comparison. just as groups like leg and thorax musculature require a blend of max strength and base endurance to optimize, so does the diaphragm. running etc provides the basic base line, but Lung Lifts target the max strength.

  1. hold 2 x weights (combined weight about 90% of 1RM overheard press) at chest level, pushed together to focus the load onto the sternum area. breathing should obviously move the load.

  2. stand against a wall or horizontal bar to prevent leaning back and shifting the load onto the lower back and hips. you should feel a forward pull.

  3. exhale and allow the abdomen to collapse, dropping the shoulders forward to allow the diaphragm to retract as much as possible.

  4. inhale, using the expansion of the lungs and strength of the diaphragm to raise the load and straighten the body against the wall/bar. hold for 4 or 5 seconds.

  5. repeat for the usual number of strength-oriented reps (3 – 5) and sets (3 – 5).

 

2) Tension Push Ups

being able to maintain body tension in a prone or reclining position is key to resting in grim bivvies, long drives on bad roads, miserable belays and cramped tents. its usually a matter of holding a static state of tension from the shoulders to the feet, length-ways AND across the body. Tension Push Ups build the recruitment to body needs to know what is doable and the range of motion necessary to engage it across a spectrum of forms. if you thought you have body tension down, think again.

  1. place hands on floor, arms extended as for regular push ups.

  2. place the soles of the feet flat against a wall with no support aside from friction (no toe holds, no smears etc). height same as shoulders to create a horizontal bridge of the back.

  3. raise your back and use tension to hold feet against the wall. perform push ups. reps as usual (sets up to 12 before adding resistance)

  4. raising feet or placing hands further forward makes it easier.

3) Plate Stretches

carrying serious loads (>25kg) for serious time (>5hrs repeated daily) requires strong hip connections and lateral strength, plus a strong range of movement to keep it safe over uneven terrain. standard core strength focuses on forward -back strengthening that also compresses or fails to elongate the musculature (front squats, front levers etc), limiting the range of movement and overlooking the direction of real-world loading. Plate Stretches are an old school gymnastic exercise used to strengthen the waist for things like pommel horse that require lateral strength to keep the legs and shoulders aligned – sound familiar? they combined several functions linking static holds with stretching and core strength. start light to get the movement before risking lower back strain ie <5kg to begin.

  1. sit with legs splayed as wide as possible, hamstrings to the floor, feet pointed at the ceiling, both ass cheeks evenly seated.

  2. raise load (plate, KB, DB etc) above head, arms straight, body straight.

  3. lower to each side in alignment with legs, aiming to touch elbow to knee and hands to feet. bend by compressing one side and lengthening the other NOT by raising the ass/hips. keep the body straight.

  4. raise the load by lifting compressed side and retracting extended side NOT swinging load upward with momentum.

  5. 5 or 6 reps to each side before adding weight.

4) Squeeze Bridges

bridge exercises are good because they develop the muscles along the spine (ie the stuff thats often weak because they cant be seen in a mirror…). this helps with heavy packs, hanging in a harness, bad sitting positions and steep or awkward moves. but – like sit ups, dips etc – once threshold is reached its easy to keep doing them mindlessly with diminished results and as the rest of the body gets stronger it becomes a weakness again. Squeeze Bridges combined the dorsal development with the lateral development useful for all those climbing moves that require pulling the body into position, perhaps most obvious on ice when climbing pillars and delaminated features where capacity to simply position the body may be undeveloped. lots of exercises strengthen the ability to push with the legs, but in the ugly, gnarly climbing common the mixed alpine pulling and torquing with the body is common.

  1. lay on floor, hands positioned as for a regular reverse bridge. raise feet and position either side of an object thats about twice shoulder width, feet are unsupported aside from friction between them and the surface. exercise balls are easy, sides of a squat rack are hard.

  2. feet should be placed about same height as shoulders when arms are extended into full position. squeeze inwards with the feet and push torso upwards into bridge position with abdomen raised as high as possible. hold until capacity starts to diminish. lower to floor.

  3. get to 6 reps before adding weight (plate on abdomen etc). similar to Tension Push Ups, Tension Bridges are a progression of this exercise.

5) L-sit Levers

we all know L-sits. we all know Front levers. both are usually employed as static tension exercises which is great for hard overhanging moves (and so should be kept) but have little base level function for the other 90% of expedition climbing that isnt at the hard sharp end. L-sit Levers take the body tension of these exercises and combine controlled movement, joint rotation and core connection across a spectrum of function that develop the shoulders for carrying, the waist for moving and the body connection for balance and the stresses of awkward belays/bivvies. the classic gymnasts version is done on rings or a pommel horse, here hexbells (that wont roll) or push up bars will do. dip bars work once you get the motion. hands flat on floor may compromise wrist movement so use bells etc or knuckles to floor if you have the training or even fingertips if youre Bruce Lee.

  1. raise into the L-sit position; legs straight, arms straight, active shoulder.

  2. from the L-pose raise the hips and waist, straightening the body. keeping hands under center of balance, rotate shoulder joints so arm angle to floor drops. at maximum extension return under control to start position.

  3. from start position push waist back and raise knees towards chest. angle of arms to floor opposite to previous stage.

  4. get to about 6 reps of extensions in both directions where the angle between arm and body exceeds 45o. increase angle and/or add weight by putting weight in the lap and moving out along legs with progress.

6) Weighted Hip Rotates

hip rotates are stock-standard warm up exercises usually not thought much about. Weighted Hip Rotates are a way to develop the sort of leg-waist connection strength and quality range of motion that assists with carrying loads, prolonged periods sitting on belays and in tents and athletic moves requiring wide steps and stems. beyond just increasing the function motion of the hip joint, this exercise develops the inside of the upper leg and the static tension of an extended leg – this is the panacea for disco leg.

  1. lay on the floor, shoulders, ass and hamstrings evenly flat against the ground. raise one leg so knee to chest. raised foot weighted (use a leg weight, Bulgarian bag etc).

  2. starting clockwise with right leg (for the point of discussion, it doesnt matter) extend raised leg across the left leg until straight, keeping ass and shoulders evenly against floor. keeping extended, move leg in a wide arc till out from body, foot as close to ground as possible. continue arc, bringing knee to chest.

  3. 5 reps each direction, each leg, before adding weight.

these exercises may look like esoteric gymnastics stuff, but they are all doable like any regular movement and have arguably more real world function that much of what gets done in the name of climbing. done as strength exercises means twice a week is optimum, or once a week if other strength/power work is being done. the effects of this stuff wont be seen as cool abs or vanity muscle but it will be felt when climbing or carrying under load, especially at altitude where its like a plug for energy leaking out of a body that looks strong but actually has unseen weaknesses.