Rock climbing is an activity that challenges human anatomy like no other sport. It is a total-body workout that involves insanely high levels of grip strength and upper-body pulling paired with lower-body pushing. The sport lacks mainstream attention, especially from a strength and conditioning standpoint. But any sport, regardless of its type, deserves a sport-specific warm-up tailored to its biomechanics—just like more popular sports like football, basketball and baseball.
This is a rock climbing warm-up tailored to engage the muscles and energy systems the sport uses the most. Repeat it two times from start to finish. It should take no more than 2 minutes per round to complete.
Kettlebell Swing or Goblet Squat
The Kettlebell Swing (or Goblet Squat if your climbing gym doesn't have kettlebells) is a great exercise to start warming up the entire body. In addition to getting your heart rate up, Kettlebell Swings help the glutes, hip extensors and low back fire up. All of these muscles serve as important hip extensors that will allow a flexed leg resting on a rock to push off powerfully, allowing the body to reach higher up the wall.
Reps: 4 each side
Hip flexibility is a crucial component of climbing. Tight hips compromise your legs' range of motion, which can cut out a lot of the more challenging routes. A Spider-Man Lunge with an internal rotation is a fantastic exercise to open the hips up and prepare the body for climbing. If a low Spider-Man Lunge is too intense, you can instead perform a Lateral Lunge with one knee on the ground and the other foot pointing perpendicular to it. The greater range of motion achieved in the hips, the larger the gaps the legs can cover.
The last warm-up exercise to work on opening up the hips and lower body is an Inchworm to a Deep Squat. Performing an Inchworm allows you to warm up your back, shoulders and hamstrings before dropping into a Deep Sumo Squat. In the Sumo Squat, you can increase the intensity by pushing out on the knees, further opening up the hips.
Side Crunch/Standing Lateral Bend/Hanging Side Crunch
Reps: 10 each
Lateral flexion of the torso is another major biomechanical action during climbing. In addition to stabilizing the body, the torso must bend and flex to allow the legs and lower body to get into position. There are four major muscles of the abdominals, including the exterior and interior obliques, which initiate lateral flexion; the rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscles), which initiate forward flexion; and the transverse abdominis, the deepest muscle involved in stability. In addition to the abdominal musculature in the front of the body, you also need to keep in mind the spinal erector muscles and the deeper muscles in the low back, including the erector spinae and the deeper multifidus and semispinalis, which are responsible for extension of the torso. The Side Crunch and Standing Lateral Bend activate flexion and engage the stabilizing muscles, which are crucial to body position in climbing. I recommend the Hanging Side Crunch only for those who have a strong and developed grip. Fatiguing the grip before climbing can be counterproductive, and a Lying Side Crunch or Lateral Bend works just fine.
Moving up the body, Wall Angels activate the scapula and the muscles surrounding them. Scapular retraction is an important component of the pulling action in climbing. Wall Angels are a low-intensity way to start firing these muscles by working on a slow and controlled retraction of the scapula as you stand facing away from a wall.
The final exercise in the warm-up is probably the most intense. The Inverted Bodyweight Row helps activate forearm muscles, latissimus dorsi, and again the musculature around the scapulas. Back and grip strength help you stay glued to the wall, and the combination of upper-body pulling and lower-body pushing are the major actions that allow the body to successfully move up a climbing wall.