Conditioning for Rock Climbing and Hiking

Dr. Westcott

A few years ago we conducted some research studies on the physiological benefits of rock climbing, using a mechanical rock climbing apparatus that allowed us to collect data on each exercise session. We actually trained 30 men and women for 20 minutes a day, two days a week, for a period of eight weeks on a Treadwall revolving rock climbing machine. Even this rather limited amount of simulated rock climbing produced significant improvements in body composition, muscle strength, joint flexibility and cardiovascular endurance. To say the least, we were highly impressed with the physical adaptations associated with regular rock climbing activity.

Of course, there is another side to the rock climbing coin. Due to the intense nature of this muscle-challenging activity, prior physical conditioning is highly recommended. Based on our research results, we recommend a sensible combination of strength exercise for the muscular system and endurance exercise for the cardiovascular system, as well as some stretching exercise for enhanced joint flexibility.

Strength Training Exercises

Because rock climbing involves essentially all of the major muscle groups, we suggest a comprehensive program of strength exercise. Your strength training program should address the muscles of the legs, torso, midsection, arms, neck and forearms. Although the forearms are not normally considered a major muscle group, gripping ability is particularly important for successful rock climbing experiences. Table 1 presents our recommended single-joint exercises that better isolate the target muscles relevant to rock climbing. These are the leg extension, leg curl, hip adduction, hip abduction, chest cross, pullover, lateral raise, biceps curl, triceps extension, low back extension, abdominal curl, neck extension, neck flexion, forearm extension and forearm flexion.

Table 1. Recommended single-joint strength exercises that target muscles used in rock climbing and hiking.


Muscle Groups

Leg Extension


Leg Curl


Hip Adduction

Hip Adductors

Hip Abduction

Hip Abductors

Chest Cross

Pectoralis Major


Latissimus Dorsi

Lateral Raise


Biceps Curl


Triceps Extension


Low Back Extension

Erector Spinae

Abdominal Curl

Rectus Abdominis

Neck Extension

Neck Extensors

Neck Flexion

Neck Flexors

Forearm Extension

Forearm Extensors

Forearm Flexion

Forearm Flexors

An alternative training approach is presented in Table 2. This program uses multiple-joint exercises that work several muscle groups at the same time. These are the leg press, bench press, seated row, incline press, pulldown, overhead press, assisted chin-up, assisted bar-dip, as well as the rotary torso, forearm extension and forearm flexion.

Table 2. Recommended multiple-joint strength exercises that work the muscles used in

rock climbing and hiking.


Muscle Groups

Leg Press

Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals

Bench Press

Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoids, Triceps

Seated Row

Latissimus Dorsi, Posterior Deltoids, Biceps

Incline Press

Anterior Deltoids, Pectoralis Major, Triceps


Latissimus Dorsi, Posterior Deltoids, Biceps

Overhead Press

Deltoids, Triceps, Upper Trapezius

Assisted Chin-Up

Latissimus Dorsi, Posterior Deltoids, Biceps

Assisted Bar Dip

Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoids, Triceps

Rotary Torso

External Obliques, Internal Obliques

Forearm Extension

Forearm Extensors

Forearm Flexion

Forearm Flexors

Strength Training Design

Exercise Repetitions

Obviously, muscle endurance plays a major role in rock climbing excursions, which makes it tempting to advocate a strength training program that emphasizes high repetitions with low resistance. While this is certainly acceptable, our research has revealed excellent improvements in both muscle strength and endurance from the standard training program of eight to 12 repetitions per set. In fact, we have found no significant differences in strength development when using low (six to eight) or high (13 to 15) repetitions per set, indicating that all of these repetition protocols are effective when training is continued to the point of muscle fatigue. To increase both muscle strength and endurance in an efficient manner, we recommend training with about 75 percent of maximum resistance for eight to 12 carefully controlled repetitions. When you can complete 12 repetitions in proper form, you should increase the resistance by about five percent.

Exercise Sets

Research has clearly demonstrated that single-set strength training is highly productive for stimulating muscle development. Although you may certainly complete more sets if you so desire, excellent results can be attained by performing one good set of each exercise. If you do one set of the 15 exercises presented in Table 1, your entire strength training session should take approximately 30 minutes, assuming about one minute per set and about one minute between exercises.

Exercise Speed

Due to the tensive nature of rock climbing, we recommend relatively slow lifting and lowering movements that work the muscles more effectively. Rather than using fast, momentum-assisted repetitions, it is better to maintain constant tension on the target muscle groups with controlled training speeds. While the standard six-second speed (two seconds lifting and four seconds lowering) should be sufficient, rock climbers may experience greater benefits by performing very slow repetitions. Research studies have shown that four to six 14-second repetitions produce significantly greater strength gains than eight to 12 six-second repetitions in beginning exercisers. While the so-called Super Slow training technique is physically and mentally tough to perform, it would seem perfectly suited to rock climbers.

Exercise Range

Contrary to popular misunderstanding, properly performed strength exercise actually enhances joint flexibility. However, improved joint flexibility is clearly related to full-range exercise movements. In other words, make every effort to train the target muscles through as full a movement range as possible on every repetition.

Exercise Frequency

The general recommendation for strength training frequency is three workouts per week, and recent research reveals that this approach does produce best results in new exercisers. However, these same studies have shown about 82 percent as much strength gain from two training sessions per week, and about 69 percent as much strength gain from one weekly workout. Based on your personal preference, you may therefore increase muscle strength by training one, two or three days per week. Just be sure to allow at least 48 hours between successive exercise sessions, as muscle development occurs during the recovery and building periods between workouts.

Of course, rock climbers do not desire any extra body weight to pull up the side of a cliff. Strength training will add a few pounds of muscle, but it is similar to going from a six-cylinder engine to an eight-cylinder engine. In addition to increasing muscle power, strength training typically leads to an equivalent loss of fat weight. Studies with hundreds of participants have shown two to four pounds more muscle and four to eight pounds less fat after eight weeks of strength training. In other words, strength exercise can improve your body compositiore muscle and less fat) without increasing your body weight, which definitely improves athletic ability.

Hiking Application

While strength training is clearly advantageous for rock climbing activity, its benefits for hiking performance may be less obvious. Generally speaking, hikers should have a strong and balanced muscular system for all kinds of ambulatory actions up and down trails and mountainsides. The basic strength training program is therefore similar to that for rock climbing, and should include exercises for the quadriceps, hamstrings, hip adductors, hip abductors, pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, biceps, triceps, low back, abdominals and neck muscles. With this on mind, both the single-joint strength exercise program presented in Table 1 and the multiple-joint strength exercise program presented in Table 2 are highly appropriate for hikers.

Due to the nature of most hiking outings, strength training technique is extremely important. For example, hiking up the mountain is hard work that places considerable stress on the thigh muscles. However, hiking down the mountain is also hard work that places even more stress on the thigh muscles. This is because downhill hiking emphasizes negative muscle contractions that attenuate the force of gravity and prevent you from tumbling head over heels down the mountain. Negative muscle contractions cause much more microtrauma to the tissues and often lead to muscle soreness the day following the activity.

With this understanding, it would appear useful for hikers to emphasize negative muscle contractions in their strength training programs. We are not in favor of performing negative only exercise routines with heavier than normal weightloads, because excessive muscle overload can cause serious tissue damage. However, we do recommend performing slow lowering movements to accentuate the negative phase of every repetition. For example, if you take two full seconds to lift the weightload and four full seconds to lower the weightload, the negative muscle contraction receives ample attention. This should enhance the overall training effect, and translate into better muscle response to both uphill and downhill hiking.

Because hikers frequently carry packs on their backs, it is important to develop strong upper body muscles as well as strong leg muscles. The recommended training program should be sufficient in this regard, as long as you train with reasonable intensity. One set of each exercise is highly effective if you use enough resistance to fatigue the target muscle group within eight to 12 controlled repetitions. Two or three 30-minute training sessions per week should produce excellent strength gains, and this represents an important investment for better activity performance as well as improved physical fitness.


Strength training provides the best means for increasing the functional capacity of our musculoskeletal system. When performed in a sensible manner, it requires relatively little time and produces significant strength gains that may greatly enhance rock climbing and hiking abilities. The basic strength training programs presented in this article are well-suited for rock climbers and hikers, and are recommended as an integral part of your overall conditioning program.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books including the new releases Building Strength and Stamina and Strength Training Past 50.

©2001 Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D. all rights reserved

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Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021