For many years, climbers have been marvelling at the upper body strength of the top gymnasts and have often wondered whether it would be useful for climbing. I was curious of this myself (and especially so in the role of manager of the team and organiser of training events) so decided to contact Leeds Met Uni and see if some of the British Team could come down and do some strength and conditioning work. After a little juggling and the usual paperwork, the date was set to coincide with a full weekend's team training at Leeds Wall.
Fortunately our coach for the morning's work was to be Chris Low, who himself is a regular climber. More importantly, he is a biomechanics lecturer who wrote his PhD on the subject of climbing and is a long-time coach for the GB Gymnastics Squad. The session was to be broken down into a warm-up, and then a series of conditioning stations based on various gymnastics exercises followed by a sit-down session with Chris where the team could discuss the details of what they'd been through that morning.
For the sake of completeness of this piece (and for those who are interested in using this for their own training) I will describe the session pretty much as it happened, so that you have a reference for what the whole session entails and also so that you can pick and choose what you use in your own climbing.
Chris started everyone off with a few pulse-raising exercises, which included running or crawling through the foam pits that the gymnasts use when trying new moves for the first time. He then got everyone jumping and walking around and on various bits of apparatus to get the full range of muscles warmed up.
Following the pulse-raiser were a series of upper body stretches which included arm circling at various angles and speeds, followed by some core body stretches. Moving down the body, we performed some pelvic stretches and some lower back rolls. Finally a set of quad, glute and calf stretches were performed. Chris was keen to emphasise that your warm-up before a conditioning session or hard climbing session should contain mostly dynamic stretches (e.g. swinging your leg from side to side or circling arms) rather than hard-core static stretches which may result in you being overstretched, which will result in decreased performance.
A Selection of Gymnastics Circuits:
If any of these exercises seem a little confusing, simply try them at home or at your desk, whilst reading and all should hopefully come clear once you recreate the movement!
1. Perform a traditional press-up, but with your legs raised to waist-height and with your upper body at a 140-160 degree angle. If you feel strong on this, place your hands on a couple of dumbbells to do the exercise.
2. Rotator cuff burn, with a theraband. Raise your arm at a 90 degree angle and draw back your shoulder blade as if you're trying to bring it back down your buttocks. Now create tension in the theraband and perform a series of backward rotating movements as if you were trying to flick your wrist backwards. The range of movement should only be around 4-8 inches and if performed correctly, you'll feel a nice burn in the back of your shoulder!
3. Shoulder warmer, with theraband. Grab both ends of the band, one end in each hand and place arms in a straight position, by your sides. Take in the tension on the theraband and then try to rotate arms straight backwards (with straight arms) using about 12-18 inches of movement.
4. Rings – full rotation. Basically an exercise where by you gain the traditional front lever position and then rotate the body upwards and over until your body almost comes 360 degrees. At this point, reverse the movement.
5. Rings – mantelshelf. A great exercise for those gruesome top outs! Hang straight-armed on the rings and attempt to pull up and then straighten arms until you end in a position with the rings by your hips. Hard.
6. Bars – typewriters. Hang on the bar (or pull-up bar if at home) with a very wide grip and carry out a pull up until the back of your neck touches the bar. Hold this position and process to your right ear to touch your right hand and likewise with your left hand side. Importantly, the moving of your body and head in front of the bar isolates your back muscles better so that you can't bring your pectoral muscles into the movement.
7. Parallel bars – body swings. Hang straight and perform half a pull-up and then swing your feet in front of you to touch the lower bar in control. This can be replicated at home by placing two chairs (one to each side) in front of your pull-up bar and touching both chair backs in a controlled manner.
8. Rope – rope work is popular with the gymnasts and in an ideal setting they will do a series of climbs of a 20ft gym rope without using their feet. Importantly on the way down, make the movement as slow as possible to get the most out of the eccentric movement in your arms.
Post Training Discussion
After everyone had been put through their paces on the conditioning circuit, it was interesting to sit down with a top gymnastics coach to see how gymnasts approach and structure their training compared to the UK's best climbers. There were a multitude of different points brought up – some very contrary to current thought among many climbers in the UK. I will summarise briefly some of these points that may get you thinking.
Gymnasts tend to have a training structure and intensity throughout the week that is based on (starting on Monday) medium, medium, hard, rest/easy, medium, hard, rest. This means that hard training sessions are always followed by a day of rest or very light training. This is contrary to how many climbers train, whereby the first day may focus on power/strength, followed by power endurance and finally endurance on the third day. They emphasise working up slowly to a hard session over a couple of days rather than hitting it hard immediately following a rest day.
Training sessions will consist of 45-60- mins of warm-up followed by 2-3 hrs of training, whether it is conditioning or actual gymnastics. The session will then conclude with a warm-down. Although gymnastics is a discipline that is well rooted in flexibility it should be noted that climbers all need to be much more mobile in the hip area, so proper warm-ups may be of use!
Gymnasts do a variety of hard and intensive condition exercises regularly, not to become good at their individual disciplines, but to train the muscle groups to so they can withstand higher workloads when it comes to gymnastics. An analogy of this would be that you should not do pull-ups and lock-offs on a bar to become better at pulls and lock-offs, but rather so that you can spend more time on routes and boulder problems doing actual moves that require deep locks and long moves. If you spend a certain amount of time each week conditioning the major muscle groups that are involved with climbing, you will be able to climb for longer and harder without fatiguing.