Upper Body Climbing Basics

Finesse over Force
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The guy weighed at least 230 pounds. His biceps bulged beyond his t-shirt cuffs and he looked like he'd been lifting weights daily for the last two years. He was a well-built division one football player who decided he'd take a rock climbing class for a little extra credit. It would be easy, he thought, reflecting on his recent 350-pound bench press. He tied in, muscled up the first 40 feet of the jug-peppered route on the artificial wall, then sagged his weight slowly onto the rope like a deflating balloon. He was finished.

Besides the fact that climbing works a unique set of muscle groups rarely tuned by tossing a football down the field, good performance in the sport is heavily dependant on technique. In fact, efficient technique and delicate style will more than make up for brute strength.

The first muscles you'll feel when climbing are your forearms, and many top climbers resemble a disproportionate Popeye much like a competitive swimmer looks like a mass of chest and shoulders on two sticks called legs. Rarely does a sport other than climbing require such concentrated effort from your lower arms and hands. These are the muscles that help you hang on — your first priority when climbing. The others — your biceps, triceps, lats, and back — mostly help you pull up.

Make It Last

The goal in climbing efficiently is to maximize the mileage you get from your arm muscles. Strength and endurance is one way, fine technique is another. Start by using your arm muscles as little as possible. Rather than hanging on tensed biceps waiting to make your next move, rest instead on your bones and joints. For example, rather than holding your chest in close to the wall by keeping your arms bent, relax, straighten, out, and hang back with your elbows locked. This will allow your muscles to recharge a bit before you make your next move. Think about this while you climb.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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