Training for the Fifty Classic Climbs
by Mercedes Pollmeier and Connie Sciolino
Routes like the North Ridge on the Grand Teton require covering a lot of ground with a heavy pack. These—and many other Classics—are not casual outings. We’ve devised a six-week training program—approach, mountaineering, mixed, aid, and free climbing— that will help add a new level of strength and endurance to your fitness. Tackle all workouts over the six weeks, or focus on your weakest category. Bonus: You can bust these out anywhere in the country—even at sea level—and see results on any terrain.
Double-bonus: Scroll down to see a video by Mercedes Pollmeier breaking down a sample circuit workout.
Mountaineering & Mixed Climbing
These demand a high level of general fitness. Aerobic endurance, lower- and upper-body strength, and a strong core will aid your success. For the mountaineering, mixed, and approach circuits, do not rest between rounds.
Mountaineering: Do this circuit two times a week with the mixed climbing workout. Start with four rounds, and add one round per week.
- 10 walking lunges holding 12- to 25-lb. dumbbell: Stand straight with dumbbells at sides. Lunge forward with first leg, and lower body by flexing knee and hip of front leg until knee of rear leg is almost touching the floor. Alternate sides.
- 10 jumping lunges (alternating sides, 20 total): Stand straight and hold hands to sides, on hips, or behind head. Lunge forward with one foot, bringing back knee almost to the ground. Jump straight up and switch legs in mid-air, landing in a lunge with the other foot forward. Alternate sides.
- 2 minutes on treadmill at 8 to 10 percent grade, at a brisk hiking speed.
- 60-second forearm plank: Maintain a tight core with hips, shoulders, and glutes in a straight line while balancing on forearms and toes. Keep forearms parallel to each other for a harder version; interlock fingers to make an upside-down "V" for an easier version.
: Do two times per week. Start with five rounds, and add one round per week.
- 30-second plank: Maintain a tight core with hips, shoulders, and glutes in a straight line while balancing on hands and toes.
- 30-second overhead hold with 12- to 25-lb. dumbbells. Stand straight with feet under hips. Press dumbbells over your head, palms facing forward, and lock elbows with shoulders pushing up into your ears. Hold, and slowly lower; repeat.
- 8 pull-ups on ice tools; 4 knees-to-elbows hanging on tools. If you don't have ice tools, use a pull-up bar. When arms reach 90 degrees while lowering from pull-up, pull knees to your elbows, pause, and then lower knees.
- 60 seconds jumping rope; alternate feet each jump.
An unavoidable aspect of many climbs is a long approach, often at altitude. Aerobic endurance will boost your speed and performance when hiking with a heavy pack.
Do two times per week. Start with six rounds, and add one round per week. Wear a 25-lb. pack, adding five pounds per week. Find terrain that mimics the approach you’re training for (e.g., scree field or steady uphill hike). If that’s not available, stadium stairs, a stair climber—anywhere with an incline—will suffice.
- Hill repeats for 60 seconds: Maintain a fast hike/ jog—not a run—for 60 seconds. Walk back down and move onto burpees; you’ll do the hill repeat just once per round.
- 15 burpees: Begin in a squat position with hands on the floor in front of you. Kick/jump feet back to a pushup position, and then immediately return/jump feet back to squat position. From there, jump as high as possible, and then land back in a squat.
With all that jugging, aid climbing might seem like it’s all about arm strength, but the secret is in your legs. This circuit works to build quad and hamstring strength while giving the biceps some action, too.
Do this circuit twice a week. Do five rounds, resting one minute between rounds; don’t rest between each exercise.
- 50 mountain climbers: Start in a pushup position with hands slightly ahead of shoulders. Bring left foot forward and place it on the floor under your chest (knee and hip are bent, thigh in toward your chest). Right knee is off the ground, with muscles contracted and heel up. Jump to switch leg positions; both feet leave the ground, and right knee comes forward as left leg reaches back. Repeat.
- 10 single-leg squats (alternating legs, 20 total). Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, arms extended out, parallel to the floor. Balance on one leg with opposite leg extended forward (keep it straight), as high as possible. Squat down while keeping the straight leg elevated. Keep back straight, and rise to original position. Switch sides and repeat. Can hold small dumbbells (5-15 pounds, depending on your build) in each hand for counterbalance.
- 10 reverse lunges with bicep curls (alternating legs, 20 total): Stand holding dumbbells at sides with feet hip-width apart. Step back with left food and bend both knees to lower until right knee is at 90 degrees. At the same time, curl the dumbbells to your chest. Reverse the movement by lowering the weights and stepping back leg forward. Repeat on the other side.
Though climbers use legs and core for power, it’s crucial to maintain a high level of upper-body strength. The following circuit intensely works the upper body, but secondarily challenges the lower body and core.
Do this circuit twice a week. Do five rounds, resting one minute between each; don’t rest between exercises.
- 8 bent-arm leg lifts: Using a pull-up bar, pull up until elbows are at 90 degrees. Bring both legs up, lean back (like you’re going into a front lever), and touch your toes to the bar. Lower and repeat.
- 16 pushups with row: Start in pushup position with hands on dumbbells, a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Lower body to the floor, and then rise, completing a pushup. Then "row" the dumbbell to the side of your chest by pulling the weight upward. Lower, and repeat on the other side.
- 30-second side plank: Prop yourself up on your forearm with elbow directly under shoulder. Contract your abs and lift your hips off the floor, maintaining a straight line with your body. Hold, and then lower and switch sides.
One of the biggest challenges about training for big climbs at altitude is living at lower elevations. But there are a few techniques you can use to prep your body to work in environments with less oxygen.
Mimic high altitude by breathing through a narrow tube (like a straw) while doing these circuits. Some manufacturers make special “elevation masks” that can be worn comfortably during a workout. (Check out the Training Mask 2.0 at trainingmask.com, $80.) These can help increase your lung capacity and strengthen your diaphragm. Plus, some masks come with several different “altitudes” so you can customize your training.
Connie Sciolino, MS, CSCS, runs The Alpine Training Center in Boulder, Colorado, a gym that specializes in preparing athletes for their outdoor pursuits (thealpinetrainingcenter.com). Mercedes Pollmeier, MS, CSCS, is a strength and conditioning coach at the Vertical World gym in Seattle.
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