Training for Rock Climbing: Where Does Cardio Come Into Play?
by Christopher Schafenacker
If you’ve sat around enough climber campfires or hung out in any of the many parking lots turned Sprinter van RV parks around the country, you’ve inevitably heard this topic batted about. Whether cardio has any place in training for climbing is a favorite subject of debate almost as popular as whether kneepads are aid or whether tape does anything at all to stabilize finger pulleys (it doesn’t).
Over the course of such debates, the Anderson brothers’ statement that, “training must be climbing specific in order to develop muscular endurance that is relevant to climbing” is invariably presented. Folks then agree that ARCing is probably the only kind of cardio climbers need to do and then, naturally, nobody does it. ARCing sucks, after all, and unless you’re doing laps on your home wall, it’s hard not to hog so much space that you make it difficult for others at the gym to train.
Luckily, it turns out ARCing isn’t the only form of cardio that benefits climbing (though, yes, it is among the most effective—more on that later). In order to gain deeper insight into how or if running, cycling, and similar activities help your sends, I reached out to expert coach and 9a/+ (5.14d/15a) crusher Marvin Winkler, who had a lot to say.
The drawback of non-climbing specific cardio is the one everyone cites: hypertrophy in the leg muscles leading to a worse strength-to-weight ratio. The benefits, on the other hand, are less well-understood.
The first thing Winkler points out is that general aerobic activities have been shown to enhance recovery (Heyman et al., 2009, Watts et al., 2000). While this is most-true of climbing-specific recovery training (i.e. not ARCing, but climbing very, very easy), it is also true of all activities that benefits your cardio. Better recovery means greater training capacity which, of course, means better climbing.
Improved leg strength is another factor with deep implications for climbing performance. While detractors of this point will cite that iconic photo of Alex Megos showing off his chicken legs alongside speed-climbing champ, Reza Alipour Shenazandifard, empirical data actually demonstrates that lower body power is the distinguishing ability that best predicts climbing performance (Augste et al., 2020). While the cited study looks only at indoor competition climbing disciplines, it nonetheless complicates the widely-held belief that muscly legs are a detriment to crushing.
Another misconception concerning leg-specific cardio (i.e. running and cycling) is that conditioning your lower-body to develop the slow-twitch muscle fibers needed for endurance inhibits your upper-body from developing the fast-twitch muscle fibers needed for power. In fact, Winkler points out, the research shows that such interference effects are body-part specific. One study, for instance, found that after “primarily lower body–dominated endurance exercise activity [decrements] were found in lower, but not in upper-body exercise” (Wilson et al., 2012). This means that you can run to your hearts content without having to worry about jeopardizing those shoulder gains needed to send your project—provided, of course, that you don’t work yourself to the point of skipping climbing training days.
A final point Winkler underscores is the benefit of running (or similar types of exercise) on executive cognitive function. These benefits, he says, play an important cross-over role in supporting high performance, especially in sports that depend on the ability to execute purposeful, goal-directed actions while under stress (like climbing).
Taken all together this does not mean you should be slipping on your running shoes as you finish this article. It simply means that running, cycling, or similar is not bad for climbing performance and may actually be helpful.
So yes, getting an ARCing session in on your home wall is useful, but not all you want to be doing. Lower impact climbing-specific cardio is also important if you want to recover more quickly and a weekly run or two is a fine complement to your other training—especially if you enjoy getting out.
That, and you might want to consider incorporating a few sets of box jumps into your routine because it turns out explosive leg power is surprisingly important to climbing hard.
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Heyman, E., De Geus, B. A. S., Mertens, I., & Meeusen, R. (2009). Effects of four recovery methods on repeated maximal rock climbing performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(6), 1303-1310.
Watts, P.B., Daggett, M., Gallagher, P., Wilkins B., Metabolic Response During Sport Rock Climbing and the Effects of Active Versus Passive Recovery (2000). Int J Sports Med, 21:185– 190.
Wilson, J. M., Marin, P. J., Rhea, M. R., Wilson, S. M., Loenneke, J. P., & Anderson, J. C. (2012). Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-2307.
Augste, C., Winkler, M., Künzell, S. Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlich fundierten Leistungs-diagnostik im Sportklettern (2020). Augsburg University.