How to Train for Climbing in a Non-Climbing Gym

how to train in a non climbing gym

If you live far from the crags or a climbing gym—or find yourself marooned in a “climbing desert” because of travel or life events—you need not lose sight of your climbing goals. Instead of festering in a climbless despair, hit the local weight-lifting gym nearly every day, conjuring up ways to build climbing strength. On the first day out on rock this year—after going four months without climbing but train a lot— you can feel strong, confident, and shockingly not pumped.

Train with intention

Lifting weights or spinning an elliptical is a drag. But doing those mind-numbing exercises with intention will lead to results that are transferrable to climbing. “I’m a big believer in objective-based training,” says Dr. Phil Watts, a professor at the School of Health and Human Performance at Northern Michigan University. “Every workout has a designed purpose.”

Watts has over 40 years of experience as a climber and a physiologist, contributing to over 80 scientific journals, including studies like “Effects of Rock Climbing Route Ascent and Route Familiarity on Handgrip and Finger-Curl Force.” Watts asserts that it’s important to set a specific goal to work toward and to understand which protocols will help you achieve that. For the climber estranged from climbing, that goal is to build climbing-specific strength, rather than mindlessly toiling with dumbbells to “get swole.”

Your Sample Week

Using my own training merged with input from Watts, I’ve outlined a sample week at your non-climbing gym, with each day’s workout taking 45 to 75 minutes. The overarching goal is to work on power and muscle recruitment, but it’s equally important to set weekly goals, be they for 1 week or 10. As you go through, pay attention to how your body responds, and adjust the weight, duration, or intensity accordingly. As the weeks progress, you should be working toward measurable improvement. (Note: Do each day’s exercises in the order presented.)

Monday: Hands, Grip, Forearms

The most important climbing-specific strength is finger and forearm strength, trainable even in a weight room.

Warm-up Extensions

Why: These will wake up and stretch your finger and forearm tendons to avoid strain during more intense workouts.

How: Wrap a thick rubber band around the tips of your fingers and spread your fingers without bending your wrist. Hold for 20–30 seconds, then rest 30 seconds. Repeat 5 times.

Dead Hangs : how to train for climbing

Why: To gain finger strength and endurance. Look for a flat surface elevated enough to hang from—the squat-rack crossbar or pully machine.

How: Place the first pad of the fingertips on an edge and hang in an open-crimp position, with palm open and thumb out. Hang 20–30 seconds, then rest 1 minute. 5 sets.


Why: Practicing lockoffs will help build the static endurance-under-duress necessary for powerful climbing.

How: Hold lockoff (chin above bar) on a pull-up bar. 15–25 seconds, then rest 1 minute. 5 sets.

Weighted finger resistance

Why: Resisting weight will simulate the feeling of hanging onto small holds and will help build finger strength.

How: Girth-hitch webbing to a weight plate. Wrap the weighted webbing once around your first fingerpads and resist opening your hand. Hold 6–10 seconds, then rest 30 seconds. Repeat 5–8 times on each hand, one hand at a time, to thoroughly pump each side.

Wrist curls

Why: High reps foster endurance.

How: Sit upright and rest forearms on thighs, with hands holding dumbbells and hanging off knees. Curl the wrists upward, then slowly back down. Start with 10–15-pounds. 50 reps, then rest 1 minute. 2 sets.

Pullups to Failure : how to train

Why: Doing pullups will simulate static movement on stone. Doing them to failure will simulate fighting to the very end when climbing.

How: Very slow and controlled pullups with legs straight and core tight, and slow negatives (lowering down) to failure. Go to failure, then rest 3 minutes. 2–3 sets.


Why: Flexibility is beneficial to climbing movement and flow—and it’s a good way to cool down after a hard workout, to prevent soreness and injury.

How: 10–15 minutes of basic, general cooldown stretching.

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