Top 5 Pull-up Exercises for Climbers

Although your fingers and toes are your primary link to the rock, it’s the larger muscles of your arms, legs, and torso that facilitate most of the upward movement in climbing. Of course, lack of leg strength is rarely, if ever, a limiting constraint on the rock—it’s the large pull muscles of the upper body that are most likely to fail you. Therefore, developing more upper-body strength, power, and endurance must be central to every training-for-climbing program.

While simply climbing a few days per week will build a moderate level of pulling strength and endurance, use of more target training techniques will provide beneficial gains so that the pulling muscles will never limit you on the rock. Toward this end, let’s examine 5 exercises for improving strength and endurance in your pulling muscles.

Exercise #1 is the Pull-up. The most universal exercise used by climbers, pull-ups are indeed a good staple exercise, particularly for persons lacking general strength. That being said, some climbers place too much focus on pull-up training, when they would be better off climbing. As a rule, make climbing on a wall top priority, then finish your workout with a few sets of pull-ups. For climbers lacking access to a climbing wall, you can work a variety of pulling exercises on a pull-up bar, fingerboard, or free-hanging set of Pump Rocks. Regardless of the apparatus used, perform three to five sets with about a three-minute rest between sets.

Pulling exercise #2 is Weighted Pull-Ups (and pull downs). As described in my books, adding weight to your body while performing certain climbing-specific exercises (a technique called hypergravity training) is a highly effective way to develop strength in the pull muscles. Weighted Pull-Ups are the simplest way to get started, however, this exercise should only be used by experienced climbers who can do at least 15 pull-ups at bodyweight and have no history of shoulder or elbow injuries. Wearing a ten- or twenty-pound weight belt while doing your pull-up training will trigger the neuromuscular system to adapt to your higher apparent body weight. Upon returning to the rock to climb at body weight, you will feel noticeably lighter and climb stronger. Do two to four sets of weighted pull-ups at the end of your climbing session, up to two days per week. A cautionary note: First, do not hang in the straight-armed position to rest between repetitions—this is extremely stressful on the shoulders. Also, reduce the weight used—or stop doing weighted pull-ups entirely—if you experience any unusual pain in your shoulders or elbow.

Exercise #3 is the Uneven-Grip Pull-Up (or Chin-up). This is an excellent exercise for developing high-end strength and the ability to lock-off on one arm. This exercise requires a setup that offsets one hand 18 to 24 inches lower than the other. You can loop a sling over a pull-up bar or extend one of a pair of free-floating Pump Rocks. Begin with your hands offset vertically by about 18 inches, gripping with your upper palm facing you (chin-up style, which is a biteasier) or palm facing away (harder). Begin pulling with a focus on pulling hardest with the higher hand. As you ascend to the height of the lower hand, begin pushing downward to aid further upward motion. Continue to pull up with the high hand until it is drawn in tight against the front of your shoulder. Lower yourself to the starting position to a two-second count, then immediately begin the next repetition. Continue in this manner until you can no longer pull up the whole way with your high hand. Rest for a minute or two, and then switch hands to train the opposite side. Perform two or three sets on each side with the goal of five to eight repetitions per set. Increase the vertical distance between your hands if you can do more than eight reps; decrease the distance if you cannot do at least five repetitions.

Exercise #4 is the Pull-up Interval. Whereas the three previous exercises build strength, this and the next exercise are designed to train local endurance. Your goal is to complete twenty, one-minute pull-up intervals that are each comprised of a set number of pull-ups and a rest period taking exactly one minute (in aggregate). Use a Smartphone timing App (or clock with a second hand) so that you can stay on an exact training schedule. Here’s how to do it. Start the timing App, and then immediately mount the pull-up bar or fingerboard bucket holds, and commence doing five pull-ups. Strive for a smooth, steady pace that takes about two seconds for each complete repetition. After doing the five pull-ups, dismount and rest for the remainder of the one-minute interval. At the one-minute mark, begin your next set of five pull-ups. Upon completion of the fifth pull-up, dismount and rest for the remainder of the second, one-minute pull-up interval. At this point, you’ll be thinking that this doesn’t feel like much of a workout—just wait a few more minutes! Continue performing these five-repetition, one-minute intervals for a total of ten to twenty minutes. If you make it to ten minutes, you will have completed fifty pull-ups in aggregate—a pretty good intermediate-level pull-up endurance workout. If you make it the full twenty minutes, congratulate yourself for doing one hundred pull-ups! If you lack the muscular endurance to make it to at least the ten-minute mark, then reduce the number of pull-ups per set to just three or four. Conversely, if you find the full twenty-minute, one-hundred-pull-up routine feels less than grueling, then increase the number of pull-ups per set to six, seven, or more, for future workouts.

Exercise #5 is the infamous Frenchie. It’s been more than 20 years since I first coined the name “Frenchies” and popularized this exercise in my first book Flash Training. This unique exercise incorporates isometric contractions within the range of motion of a pull-up, making this perhaps the best pull-muscle endurance exercise for climbers. They are, however, inherently painful due to the acidosis that develops in the large muscles of your back and arms. The payoffs are significant and obvious, however, both in terms of more lock-off endurance on the rock and a marked increase in pull-up ability. Here are the details on this uniquely effective modified pull-up.

Using a pull-up bar or the bucket holds of a fingerboard (palms facing away, of course), pull up to the top position and lock off with your hands against your chest for a four-second count. Subvocalize one thousand one, one thousand two, and so on, so that you don’t cheat on the four-second lock-off. Lower yourself to the bottom, straight-armed position, and they again pull up to the top position, but this time lower yourself halfway and lock-off you’re your elbow belt at a 90-degree angle. Hold this position statically for a slow, four-second count, then lower yourself to the bottom. Pull up a third time, but this time lower yourself about two-thirds of the way (with an elbow angle of 120 degrees) to perform another static, four-second lock-off. Lower to the bottom position and you will have completed one full cycle. But don’t stop! Without hanging to rest, immediately begin a second cycle of Frenchies; that is, pulling up three more times and doing the three four-second lock-offs positions. Be sure to hold all the lock-offs for a full four-second count, despite the burning that begins to develop. Continue performing a third, fourth, and fifth cycle, if you’re able. Stop when you can no longer perform a full pull-up or hold the lock-off. Rest for five minutes before doing a second and third set. As you will discover, this exercise is gets hard fast, and doing a third or fourth cycle without cheating on the four-second lock-offs is quite difficult and grueling. Use this exercise up to two days per week and you’ll develop a whole new level of muscular endurance on the rock rock!

Copyright 2018 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.