Youth Training for Climbing – Part 1


9-year-old phenom Ashima Shiraishi winning the 2011 JIBS championship at Philly Rock gym. Hörst photo.

This is the first in a two-part series on age-appropriate training for youth climbers. The overriding goal of a youth training program must be skill and cognitive development, a modest amount of strength training to develop muscle balance and control, AND having fun! Here are ten guidelines for an effective youth training.

  • Most improvement before age 12 comes from motor learning, so climbing 2 or 3 days per week is the most important form of “training for climbing”.
  • Research has identified ages 6 to 16 as the period of accelerated improvement in motor abilities. This period of heightened neurodevelopment should be used to learn a wide range of sports skills. Avoid single-sport specialization during this period; encourage the youth climber to engage in at least one other sporting activity.
  • Coaching of proper technique is critical to wire efficient movement skills that will last a lifetime. Find an experienced youth climbing coach!
  • Broaden skill set with regular exposure to a wide range of terrain and techniques. Expose the youth climber to outdoor climbing!
  • Favor roped climbing over bouldering (60/40). A singular focus on intense bouldering often leads to injury, especially during the adolescent growth spurt (age 11 – 14 in girls, and 12 – 16 in boys).
  • Prior to the adolescent growth spurt most apparent gains in strength come from motor learning, not hypertrophy. Initial strength training (before age 10) should focus on body weight exercises and “light” weight training for muscle balance, control, and coordination.
  • While a fit youth climber can dabble with some forms of climbing-specific conditioning, high-stress and excessive strength/power training is not appropriate and can lead to injury. Gradually introduce a moderate amount of climbing-specific training during the pubescent growth spurt (age 11 – 16). Examples: Fingerboard pull-ups, Campus “Laddering”, Core Exercises.
  • Avoid highly dynamic and excessive high-intensity exercises. Tendons and growth plates are at high risk of injury as body weight rapidly increases during the growth spurt. (More on this next month in Part #2.)
  • Engage in daily flexibility training (dynamic stretching as a warm-up before climbing and a modest amount of static stretching during the cool-down period or before bedtime). Stretching is especially beneficial during the growth spurt period.

Copyright 2011 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.