Rock Climbing Conditioning: Injury Prevention and Core Function Pt 3

Today’s Part 3 in Core Conditioning for Climbers will focus on Core Conditioning Exercises and the requirements for progression.

Today’s Part 3 in Core Conditioning for Climbers will focus on Core Conditioning Exercises and the requirements for progression. The key to success is finding the right start point following your assessments and progressing as quickly as possible through the steps to reach your goals.

…….continued from Part 2

From the assessments you should have been able to indicate whether your ‘Inner Unit’ was firing correctly and whether your lower abdominals could coordinate and stabilise your back and pelvis. Across the health and fitness industry, these tests and concepts are divided in opinion. When used correctly, for the right person, at the right time, they are fantastic tools. When used without real understanding of their nature, then they are a waste of time. Simple. This Climbing Conditioning Excellence program is designed to shift the paradigm and make a difference to performance.

How to program Strength Training

One thing we have learnt extremely well to do as strength coaches is to target muscles/muscle groups and make them bigger and stronger. Using scientific method we can design programs that excel at this goal. However, on occasion, although perfectly achievable and possible, this should not be the first port-of-call.

When there is pain, injury, compensation and motor program dysfunction, we need more tools in the tool box. We need to be innovative and unconventional in our approach. Therefore it is essential that we know what and why we are assessing. The core function we have just assessed is not out and out core strength – the hardware, but more about motor programs and coordination – software. If the previous assessments had been difficult then you need to re-wire the software.

Stimulus Response

As humans, our bodies (and minds) will respond to the stimulus it receives. For example, as cave men/women we were required to be strong and move all day, everyday in order to hunt, build, travel and well…..survive. Today however, we find a situation where for whatever reason we may find that 80% of our waking hours is sat at a desk. Our body will respond to the stimulus that it is given day after day, month after month, year after year. When sat at a desk for 10 years there is minimal demand for your body to develop reflex, balance and coordination skills to prevent falling over or stabilising joints. Try it. Relax completely in your chair and see if you go anywhere. Do you need good balance to sit in a chair? So, quite reasonably the body will lose the ability to balance and fire muscles correctly and in the way they were designed to do. And if you had when you were younger – you’ll lose it 10years later.

Getting the Job Done

Yes, but (you might say) that you haven’t lost the ability because you can get up and not fall over, you can train hard at the indoor wall, participate in kayaking at the weekend, do gardening at home, play football at the weekend, go to bootcamp classes and pick up heavy weights. So does this mean I haven’t got a dysfunctional core? Once again (as with many things), what we are seeing and experiencing here is the body’s ability to compensate and get the job done. It’s part of survival and why the human race still exists today. Even though we aren’t doing it the way that we were designed to do it (the ideal), the body finds a way to get the job done. It is only natural to find a way.

Brilliant, this is fantastic and we are thankful……but we cannot deny that this is compensation and far from the ideal. We cannot deny that if we were working functionally, we would be more efficient, stronger and powerful. If we carry on compensating then we are automatically putting a cap on our potential.

For anyone who loves to climb, climb and climb some more, lift heavy weights, compete in power sports or do strongman training, the above does not state that this is not good training. In fact it is some of the best conditioning going. However, if health is your goal, if you want to reach your athletic potential, if you want to avoid injury, then you ought to make sure that these are the correct exercises for you to be doing right now. If not, then change. Act on it.

Take note that during the heavy exercises and when on the wall you are oddly enough, probably at your safest due to the super compensation of other muscle groups to stabilise you. The Cavalry. They realise how much extra help is needed and provide the much needed protective mechanism/damage limitation. If the Cavalry didn’t arrive then damage would no doubt be done. Given its options, the body provides you it’s best effort.

Typically you will find that it is when you turn around to reverse your car or reach over to get a cup of tea, that you feel something happen, something not quite right and we suffer injury. Caught unawares, the dysfunction manifests itself and it is not without prior warning. In their own way the joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, fascia, energy levels etc have been telling us for a while.

So to the Exercises:

In general terms the following exercises are in order. Each one is also an assessment of where you are in terms of function. Once you are competent at the exercise, then progress to the next. Ultimately, the sequence of exercises would eventually lead you to the strongest and most powerful training exercises and climbing conditioning exercises you can think of. The key is to do them in order and succeed at all the levels before progressing.

Inner Unit Activation

1. Lie on your front

2. Take a deep breath in.

3. As you breathe out your aim is to draw your belly button up off the ground, towards your spine.

4. Ensure that the movement and your effort is only coming from the muscles around your belly button.

5. You should be aware of any unwanted movement and tension in the jaw, neck, shoulders, upper abdominals, hips and thighs.

6. 10-15 Repetitions, 3 Sets.

Lower Abdominal Coordination:

1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

2. Place your hands under your lower back. They should be under the natural curve of your lower back, directly under your belly button. Position your spine so that it fits snug over your hands. This is ‘neutral spine’.

3. Lightly, draw in your belly button to your spine. This engages the core. Ensure you lightly draw in from the pelvic floor as well.

4. Now you have stabilised your neutral spine.

5. Maintaining your right knee bent at 90degrees lift it up until your thigh is vertical. This is the start point of the movement.

6. As you lower the leg breathe in.

7. As you raise the leg breathe out.

8. You should be able to maintain the pressure on your hands all the way through the movement.

9. The knee should be kept at 90degrees all the way through the movement and you should be breathing with the diaphragm.

10. 10-15 Repetitions, 3 Sets.

Lower Abdominal Strength

1. Follow steps 1-4 above.

2. To increase difficulty, you should extend the knee as you lower it and return to 90 degrees at the top. The amount you extend the leg will dictate how difficult it is.

3. Remember to breathe with the diaphragm throughout.

4. Remember you must be able to maintain the same spinal position throughout.

5. 10-15 Repetitions, 3 Sets.

6. Progress this to keeping your leg as straight as possible through the entire movement.

Lower Abdominal Strength Progressions

1. Now it is time to enhance the difficulty.

2. Follow Steps 1-4 above again.

3. This time the start position is with both feet off the floor, with thighs at 90 degrees to the floor.

4. Start as a single leg exercise, lowering and raising your foot to the ground (the other leg stays in the same elevated position).

5. As always, remember the stability of your lower back; you should be able to maintain the natural neutral curve in your lower back whilst performing the whole movement.

6. 10-15 Repetitions, 3 Sets.

7. This is the single leg version. As soon as you can complete 3 sets of 10 repetitions of a straight single leg then progress to moving both bent legs at the same time.

8. You know you have built super strong lower abdominal musculature when you can perform the sets with both legs straight throughout the whole movement.

9. Congratulations for following this sequence, it takes time, effort and patience. The reward is greater pain-free movement and strength.

Tweaking the Exercise

o Pelvic position: Remember that the lumbar spine and pelvis should be held stable in neutral. Avoid performing the exercise with a rocking pelvis, otherwise it will not be effective and will certainly feel too easy.

o Breathing check: Ensure that you can maintain a normal breathing pattern during the exercise. If we cannot it is a sign that we are recruiting other muscles to do the job. This is the body’s way of ‘getting the job done’, but not in an ideal way.

o Diaphragmatic breathing: Pay attention to your breathing pattern and use the diaphragm. An amazing muscle that acts in the breathing mechanism and also as an abdominal muscle.

o Tongue position: If you swallow, your tongue will go naturally to a position at the roof of your mouth behind the top teeth. Held lightly in this position, the neck musculature are helping to stabilise the neck and shoulder girdle. Ensure that you practice this when performing almost any strength training movement.

o Progressing the load: Only when you are strict on your technique points can you begin to extend the leg at the knee to increase the load/difficulty.

o Remember that we are typically re-educating the abdominals to work appropriately. Very important in our society focused on sedentary jobs. It is how many of us earn our keep, so what can we do to counteract it?

o Stumbling blocks: Be sure to contact myself, or a suitably trained exercise specialist if you have any questions on the above.

The 4Point Exercise

Benefits: Excellent for climbers given that the crawling pattern is fundamental to success. This exercise will provide a foundation to more challenging crawl pattern training further down the line.

Although it appears quite a light exercise, it is very subtle and there are many benefits. It is also an excellent way to compensate for faulty movement patterns developed over time, due to injury, through work or sport. The exercise also involves a lot of shoulder and pelvic girdle stabilisation, which is essential for pain-free and health shoulders, neck, arms, back, hips and legs.

Vertical Lift

1. Position yourself on your hands and knees on a mat.

2. Hands directly below shoulders and knees directly below hips.

3. Relax across the shoulder and pelvic girdle.

4. Bend at the elbows until your body is parallel to the ground.

5. At this point it is a good idea to check your neutral spine position. Place a dowel rod along your spine. If you have the correct position it will contact at your hip, upper back and head and there should be a space/curve big enough to fit your flat hand between the rod and your lower back.

6. Adjust to a neutral spine position if required.

7. Bend an elbow to lift one hand 1cm off the floor. Hold this position steady for10seconds and then lower.

8. Repeat on the other arm.

9. Repeat with one knee 1cm off the floor. Do not lift the hip up. Bring the knee forward until it is off the floor. Repeat for the other leg.

10. This is 1 Repetition. Repeat up to 4 times, 3 Sets.

11. Progression involves at the same time as lifting one arm up, you also lift the opposite knee up. This leaves the other hand and knee on the floor to do the stabilising

Pay Attention to;

There are many progressions for this exercise, but ensure that you really perfect this level first. It should feel very smooth with equal distribution through the stabilising shoulder and hip. It is common for one side to be easier than the other, so try it and see what you find out. You must, as always, maintain correct diaphragmatic breathing and neutral spine throughout the exercise. Also, look out for twisting in the spine, dropping the head, loosing the neutral spine position.

4Point Exercise Progressions

Only when you have mastered this level is it time to move on. For some this may be easy and others this may be surprisingly difficult. Do not be tempted to progress too early. Remember, these exercises are for enhancing the function of your lower back and core musculature and are NOT the same as an abdominal exercise designed for aesthetics and aesthetics only. Patience is your virtue with this one.

Horizontal Lift

1. Follow steps 1-6 above

2. Start with the right arm and raise it straight up to the ceiling so that it is the same height as your ear, but a few inches too the right, horizontal to the ground. Thumbs should be pointing upwards.

3. Hold for 10s as during the Vertical Lift exercise.

4. Repeat on each limb.

5. Progress to lifting opposite arm and legs at the same time for extra stabilization.

Dynamic Lift

1. So Far the exercise has involved mainly static holds of 10 seconds. Now we add in more movement.

2. Get into position by again following steps 1-6.

3. The movement involves lifting the arm up into the horizontal position then retuning it to the start position.

4. The extra movement provides the greater stability challenge and you must be diligent with your ability to perform this exercise perfectly.

5. Breath in on up movement and out on down movement.

6. Perform 10 repetitions and then do the same with the left arm.

7. Perform 10 repetitions with the Left leg, extending it straight backwards. There should be a straight line through hip, knee and ankle. Now perform 5 repetitions on the Right leg.

8. Progress as usual to perform this dynamic movement with one arm and the opposite leg at the same time.

9. 10 Repetitions, 3 Sets.

This is weeks and sometimes months of conditioning and ideally once you ace them, you never have to do them again. The ultimate aim is that you never need to isolate your core, because you have integrated it with the rest of your body – as it should be. It should be clear that the value in these exercises is when we need to be innovative and unconventional and have reason for them to be able to enhance our health and climbing performance.

Climbers Core Conditioning - Resources

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Next Climbing Conditioning Workshop – 23rd March 2011

You are invited to attend the Climbing Conditioning Workshop – ‘A Holistic Approach to Climbing Conditioning’ on 23rd March 2011 at the Durham Climbing Centre. Book Your Place:
£10 Entry (includes evening’s climbing) | 7.00pm to 8.30pm
Durham Climbing Centre: Unit 2 St John’s Rd | Meadowfield Industrial Estate | Durham | DH7 8TZ
info (at) | 0191 3789555 |

‘Functional Trainer’ provides Climbing Conditioning Workshops, Corrective Exercise Coaching, The Bowen Technique and Metabolic Typing ® Nutrition. Contact 07792761324 jack (at)


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