Late To The Party: Climbing Hard-ish While Starting as an Adult

A PT’s Perspective On Training

Who Is This Guy?

What began as a summertime diversion until the next snowboard season has turned into a full blown passion.  I didn’t start climbing until I was 30 but have since jumped in with both feet.  It feels weird and braggy to say but I was able to climb my first V11 a few months ago (although I’m actually pretty excited about it still) which I give a lot of credit to sticking to a training program.  

Professionally I have a doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Washington,  I am a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and work here at Union PT.

My Philosophy

“You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe” is one of our go to PT sayings.  One of the central tenets to our physical therapy education at the University of Washington was the same sentiment put another way: “proximal stability for distal mobility.”   It has always seemed logical to apply the outlook that we learned for treating patients to safe and effective training for climbing.  By being strong and stable in our core or our trunk musculature, it allows for full and safe movement through our arms and legs translating to safe and strong climbing.  Working full time and maintaining friend and family relationships means a limited amount of time for training and I’ve found that capital is best spent with exercises that will translate to the rock (or plastic) and help keep injury at bay.

Short & Sweet

Well established training protocols call for exercises to be performed as:

  • Power – 3-5 sets, 3-5 reps 75-85% of 1 rep max
  • Strength – 2-6 sets, ≤6 reps 85+% of 1 rep max
  • Hypertrophy – 3-6 sets, 6-12 reps 67-85% of 1 rep max
  • Endurance – 2-3 sets, 12+ reps <67% of 1 rep max

Too often I’ll talk to people about their training program and it will involve things like a 5 minute plank, 30 push-ups, 50 crunches, 10 pull-ups, etc.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with these exercises it’s important to think about what it is that we hope to gain.  When performing exercises at such high repetitions one is not training to get stronger but to be able to do a lot of ____________ (insert exercise).  As climbers the limitation to being able to finish a route/problem is much more related to not having the strength to execute a specific move rather than the ability to do that one certain move over and over and over (even you sport climbers).   An added benefit to making exercises harder and doing fewer reps: you get done sooner!

Make it Hard, Don’t Make it Hurt

While we do want to make the exercises hard we definitely don’t want to spend time out injured.  As exercises get harder it gets easier to make compensations that could lead to injury.  It becomes particularly important to check in with our form to make sure we aren’t making substitutions or to ensure the exercise isn’t causing any pain.

Less is More

You can’t train when you are hurt and you won’t get strong from the couch so listen to your body.  If there is pain when performing your exercises: stop. If pain is lasting or if it leads to loss of strength or mobility it could be time to seek care

Let’s Get Into it Already!


I like to keep the core (ba-dum-tss) of my exercises sport specific.  With climbing that can translate to being able to put your feet back on footholds following a cut on overhung routes or the ability to maintain tension from hands to point of toe contact.

Here are a few scalable exercises from a bar that I like from generally easiest to hardest

  • Knee – ups
  • Leg raises 
  • Toes to bar
  • Doorframe
  • Windshield wipers
  • ½ tuck lever
  • ½ tuck lever alternating leg kick outs
  • Eccentric levers
  • Levers – if you can do these you probably don’t need to be looking at this blog for core exercises…

Shoulder Control

For an excellent review of shoulder control and stability exercises and treatment please check out Mitch Owens’ Climber Project  and upcoming virtual workshop on June 4th, 2020.  It will also be recorded and available afterwards.


Be judicious!  Connective tissue in our fingers and hands can take longer to develop than the musculature in forearms.  Especially early in one’s climbing career, technique practice will go a lot further than any benefits that might be had from a hangboard.  

There are a million and one hangboard protocols out there and going into the relative benefits of each is the place for another blog post.  A few key points to keep in mind are: engaged shoulders – don’t hang on your skeleton, neutral half-crimp, straight lines – there shouldn’t be significant angles between your fingers & hand, hand & forearm, forearm & upper arm.

If you are interested in some of the online training platforms available to climbers, please check out this other blog post (link to online climber training post).

These exercises and their variations are done with the assumption of pain-free, healthy tissue.  There are also many personal differences that can influence one’s training from years climbing, fitness and ability level, to state of injury.   To ensure a thorough diagnosis of any active or chronic injury or to get personalized help with training/scaling of exercises please schedule an appointment at our Seattle-based physical therapy office.

About the author:

Jon Sparks, PT, DPT, CSCS is a physical therapist at Union PT in Seattle. He is experienced in treating acute and chronic industrial injuries, postoperative rehabilitation and orthopedic injuries. He enjoys staying up-to-date with evidence-based treatments.  Outside the clinic Jon is thoroughly obsessed with rock climbing.  When not climbing, he enjoys traveling, exploring new restaurants and snowboarding.

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