Do you have to travel half the length of the country to your next bouldering hall or the next suitable rock, and your climbing training suffers because of it? Worry no more! In this article, we will show you the best equipment for effective training at home. The ideal preparation for your next climbing session!
The two most important tools – not only for home use
The most important tools are not necessarily of a material nature. Or to put it another way, the “hard” tools are only useful alongside “soft” tools such as a plan or a clearly defined goal. “Climbing better” or “more strength” are certainly all well and good to wish for, but unfortunately, they are a bit too vague. The more specific the goal, the more appropriate your training plans can be. Beginners and occasional climbers should question the purpose of climbing training and equipment at home, because up to the difficulty level of about 6th to 7th grade UIAA, the best training actually consists of simply climbing on the rock or in the hall. Training at home only really makes sense when you have already developed enough “basic strength” to put in extra shifts in your chamber of torture at home on top of your “usual” climbs once or twice a week.
Speaking of chambers of torture: in his bestselling “9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes”, Dave MacLeod advises not to place the gym & fitness equipment in a musty, out-of-the-way corner, but in a way that is as “communicative” as possible and right in the middle of the cosy part of your home. This concept allows you to talk, drink tea or watch climbing videos during your breaks between exercises. This can turn monotonous basement training into a much more positive and motivating experience.
Creating training opportunities with little effort
Even for targeted and planned training, in purely material terms, you need less equipment than you think. Or even no equipment at all, depending on what and how specifically you want to train. Ultimately, you can even turn various everyday objects, such as a door or a table, into sports equipment with which you can do a lot of pulling, pushing or holding exercises. You can also perform several exercises using a single object, for example, by hanging a towel or a few rings around a pull-up bar, you can use variations to your grip for more dynamic exercises. Anyone who is active in the sports world is sure to have noticed the bodyweight trend, which promotes training with one’s own body weight. In my opinion, it’s a great trend, because you can achieve a lot with little effort and almost no money, even in the sport of climbing. The following is an example of a really good warm-up and strengthening exercise for your hands and forearms:
Have your upper arms pressed against your torso, forearms bent at 90°, palms facing down. Now, stretch out your fingers as far as possible and spread them out, then pull them together as tightly as possible to form a fist. Now repeat the whole thing as quickly and firmly as possible: open, close, open, close, 50 to 100 times. Your hands and forearms should be on fire after 2-3 sets 🙂
It is satisfyingly easy to create an efficient basic training plan and to gain the “basic strength” mentioned earlier. However, things get a lot more complicated when it comes to fine-tuning your training, which becomes necessary when certain weaknesses become more apparent as you make progress. You will then have to decide what to train, instead of continuing without a focus. Is there a lack of pulling strength in your upper arms? A lack of holding power in the fingers? Or a lack of stability in the torso, known as the “core”? Or more than one of these at the same time? And what about the supporting muscles, the antagonists and your mobility?
In view of these many questions, possibilities and sources of error, it makes little sense to quickly slap a random hangboard over your door and start muddling along with some “super-strong-in-three-months plan”. That’s how I tried it many years ago and, looking back, I suspect it contributed to a stubborn elbow problem I suffer from rather than an explosion in my performance. At that time, I had no idea about the sheer variety of gym & fitness equipment. That is why I have listed a few for you here, ordered from least to most effort to install:
- Training without equipment: from using a towel, to a door frame
- Pull-up bar
- Sling trainers and rings
- Training board / fingerboard / hangboard etc.
- Holds on walls, ceilings, loft beds, etc.
- Campus board
Before we delve into the details here and pick out some toys, we need a few basic pieces of advice and general tips, since the boards in particular have a lot of potential for overstraining, frustration and injury if used carelessly.
“The brain is the most important climbing muscle” also applies for training at home
It is well known that fingerboards and the like can be used to train finger strength, arm strength and, with some restrictions, stamina. This is just as clear as the basic rule that it should only be done with thoroughly warmed-up muscles and fingers fully supplied with blood. But how many (pull-up) moves in how many reps, sets and intervals am I supposed to do? How long do I hang on to which hold at which angle? Should I do more static exercises or more dynamic movements? Should I go slow or full steam ahead? At what point am I “allowed” to train with finger holes without a high risk of injury? What is my personal starting level (performance level, general fitness, experience)?
Questions upon questions, which once again makes it clear that it is not a good idea to simply go with some ready-made plan fished out of the internet or some magazine. Instead, use of your brain muscle is called for – just as a certain Wolfgang Güllich once suggested. It is not for nothing that state-of-the-art training books such as “Gimme Kraft” (or “Gimme Kraft Air for beginners”) are not exactly thin and deal with the complex and detailed relationships between many individual steps. In addition, there are more and more decent climbers who are using vastly different training methods and strategies, who are then happy to recommend them to others. As a beginner, you then find yourself in a maze of sometimes contradictory training tips.
The right start to climbing training
So it’s best to get started “properly”, i.e. with a persistent and regular investment of time and energy. Otherwise, you might just be better off sticking to getting better by climbing as many different routes as possible. Or by simply having fun without big ambitions, seeing as there are people out there who just see it as a hobby (so I’ve heard…). Just steer clear of half-measures that lead to failure, lapses in motivation and injuries.
The main reason for the complexity of this matter lies in the many performance-determining factors of climbing. More and more of these are being “discovered” since climbing is increasingly viewed holistically. Starting with the realisation that climbing requires the entire body, including the head and legs, it has now become necessary to carefully examine pretty much everything from sleep to eating habits – from addictions and vices to basic attitudes to life and social situations. It’s not for nothing that the yoga and mindfulness wave is also passing through into climbing. This is quite a positive thing, even if it does spread a lot of pseudo psychology and invented wisdom along with it. It is well worthwhile to at least refrain from ignoring all the seemingly incidental factors. Maybe it’s not the wrong time of training or way of exercising that stands in the way of progress, but the daily after-work beers, a negative attitude to life or the regular pot of coffee in the office.
However, all of this does not mean that beginners cannot train successfully. It also doesn’t confirm older climbers’ fears, who think there’s nothing left to get after their wild years of youth. In his book, Dave MacLeod refers to top climbers like Stevie Haston and Enzo Oddo, who are in the best shape of their lives beyond 50(!). In order to achieve top personal fitness without injury as a beginner at any age, the following general training tips should be followed:
- Goal setting: A concrete, clearly formulated goal with a fixed time in which to achieve it. This time limit is a point of reference that you can always look to for use as a motivational aid. The more specific and detailed your goal, the clearer and more transparent your steps to achieve it become. So do not phrase it as “I want to climb 8th grade UIAA by next year”, but rather “I want to climb 8th grade UIAA in single pitch climbs at the limestone/sandstone/gneiss of ‘my’ local rocks or any given problem in my local bouldering hall by July 2024.” Even better for motivation are intermediate goals that can be used to measure your progress and, if necessary, adjust your final goal up or down.
- Developing a good connection with your own body. Above all this includes a feeling for the correct use of muscles and muscle groups. This can be attained by really being “present”, i.e. paying attention to your body during all movements. If you are not “fully involved”, you may move “uncleanly” and take too shallow and forced breaths. Whenever possible, your breath should not be held or blocked, even during the greatest tension.
- Muscles get stronger quickly, often after just a few weeks. However, your ligaments and tendons take much longer to do so, because, to put it scientifically, its “cell conversion” is slower. You might be totally psyched about the tiny grips you can hold onto and not even notice the overstraining. This constitutes another reason for starting slowly and managing potential strains very carefully.
- Use only large holds at first. Going full speed ahead with explosive movements can only be performed safely with well-trained tendons and ligaments.
- Create variety and diversity, even if this is more difficult than just training with your favourite routine. After all, versatility is key to good climbing skills.
- Never train your muscles in isolation, but rather look at the entire chain of movement, which is only as strong as its weakest link. Of course, this “holistic” approach also includes consideration of the antagonist muscles (e.g., when the biceps contracts, its antagonist, the triceps, is stretched).
- Create relief opportunities either by using foot benches, slings or beer crates
This list of tips could be extended for eternity and my relatively random selection is based on what seems particularly important to me from personal experience. For a more comprehensive perspective, you either need good mentors, one of the training books mentioned here, or to do extensive online research. It is advisable to start the latter with well-known training luminaries, such as Udo Neumann or Guido Köstermeyer. Furthermore, there are many good private websites, some of which are linked here. Most of the information online is only incidentally related to home training, but it provides a good basis for getting started with one or more of the following home tools:
Training completely without equipment
In the field of bodyweight training, there are many exercises that are suitable for climbing and can increase your strength. A very simple example is the warm-up exercise (“the grab”) explained above. Other than that, you can really use whatever your home has to offer. Besides the door frame, the door itself is also a useful training tool for hanging exercises and pull-ups. Putting a towel over it (only with stable doors) can bring a few grip variations and dynamics into play. The towel is generally a good biceps and forearm trainer: if you stand with your back against a wall, grab one end of the towel with each hand and then place a leg in the sling, you have the starting position for the biceps curl, where you pull your arms up against the resistance of your leg. This is very effective for the chest and forearms as well!
Many a climber will turn up their nose at this topic, because the pull-up bar “is pointless”. However, the two-time Russian bouldering world champion Dmitry Sharafutdinov has a different opinion. Sharafutdinov had neither colourful new bouldering halls nor rocks near his hometown of Yekaterinburg. Therefore, a large part of his physical conditioning “consisted of semi-specific strength exercises, namely pull-ups, and a hell of a lot of them!”. Dmitry also mentions as important success factors in his training: “Experience and listening to the body!”
Installation is possible so long as you have a reasonably solid door frame. There are poles that are simply placed on the frame and that clamp under load. These usually even have additional side holds. The other standard model has telescopic screw threads and is simply extended to the appropriate length by twisting it and clamping it inside the door frame.
Sling trainers and rings
Slings and rings are notoriously wobbly and therefore offer very good training that additionally strengthens the stabilising muscles as well as the entire muscle chains involved in the exercise. This helps especially with holding really strenuous positions and body tensions in complex routes. Besides that, you also gain gymnastic and acrobatic skills.
What is particularly nice is that you can attach suspension trainers and rings anywhere, whether to large screw hooks in the ceiling or to a sturdy tree in the park. Depending on the desired alignment, you can hang up rings and slings using either two cords (for transverse alignment) or just one (for parallel alignment to the suspension). Should you not be able to hang up anything heavy at home: a door frame with a pull-up bar is often feasible, so suspension trainers and rings should be able to be hung over it without a problem. Okay, you might be hanging pretty low and not look your coolest, but a temporary solution like this is still better than no training at all.
You can also hang bolas (a type of exercise balls), towels or anything else that you can use for static or flexible exercise from your pull-up bar.
The pegboard is a wooden cuboid with a grid of holes into which round wooden holds are inserted and pulled out while hanging in the climbing position. It is a very effective exercise without any great risk of injury, as you completely immobilise the wooden pegs for a short time while shimmying and then pull them out, thereby putting a very balanced strain on the entire chain of muscles from the abdomen to the fingers.
With ready-made pegboards, the required assembly material is usually included. In the case of the Antworks Ant Hill Pegboard, for example, these are stainless steel SPAX screws and Fischer dowels, which are mounted directly into the wall or onto a (free-standing) framing device. You don’t necessarily need a spacer here, as the wooden holds prevent you from rubbing against the wall (as long as you don’t do too many pendulum swings).
Probably the most common and well-known climbing gym and fitness tool, this is a synthetic resin or wooden structure with a large number of positively (outward) and negatively (inward) shaped holds, bars, tongs, holes and slopers (overlays). Many climbers swear by the grippy texture of the plastic, others find the smoother grip of wood gentler on the skin. There are many possible opportunities for training and grip combinations for your fingers and arms.
Of course, this area is subject to an increasing amount of versatility as well. Hangboards, as the name suggests, offer the possibility of hanging up the board – although this also requires a stable fixed point to do so. Another special variant is the zlagboard, which comes with a mobile phone holder and a suitable app to control your training.
Assembly is quick if the masonry is solid: drill a few thick Spax screws through the holes in the board and into the wall, and you’re done. In the best case scenario, you will not even need a drill or dowels. However, if the walls are only made of plasterboard, or are hollow exactly where you want to put your new torture device, or there is not enough space above the door frame, you will need a secondary structure. If in doubt, opt for a free-standing frame construction, which you can even take with you 😉
Handholds in the wall – a bouldering corner inside your home
From super simple to highly complicated – anything is possible. A few climbing holds in any sizes, shapes and combinations can be screwed into the smallest corner, as long as your walls don’t threaten to collapse under your body weight.
Drilling directly into the wall is possible, but also requires extremely liberal landlords or plenty of putty when you move out. If your walls can’t take it, a free-standing construction is needed here as well. Given that you have enough space, you can always find a way to make it work. Inspiration for this can be found at any children’s playground or in the student flat across the road, where I’m sure someone will have bolted climbing holds to their loft bed. Other boards, slats, squared timbers and panels can in turn be attached to such stable designs, which serve as a base for holds.
It is best to use solid plywood boards as a base. You could then perforate them with a variety of holes which will enable you to rearrange the holds at any time. The diameter of the holes must of course match the bolts used (usually M10s) and their drive-in nuts on the back of the wall. Small holds and ledges can also be fixed directly using Spax screws. However, don’t bother using an electric screwdriver – this is the perfect opportunity to begin your finger training.
This was invented by climbing legend Wolfgang Güllich and Jerry Moffatt, another climbing legend, swears by it. Dave MacLeod, however, has a not entirely uncritical opinion: “Campus boards are the most dangerous form of training for climbers. (…) almost everyone who trains on the campus board for a long time comes to experience problems with their fingers or elbows sooner or later.”
As always, it is a question of well thought-out and targeted use. Used correctly, the campus board allows for endless static and dynamic pulling and hanging exercises, depending on the number and size of the slats. In addition, depending on the height and quantity of the screwed-on slats, it allows you to climb up and down hand over hand really nicely. However, the requirements for space and sturdiness of the walls or ceilings are, once again, significantly higher than for the fingerboard. Unless you want to scrape against the wallpaper every time you move, you cannot attach it to your wall just like that. On top of this, almost all campus boards feature a slight overhang, which makes an appropriate substructure or rear construction inevitable. Of course, this must also be built using appropriately stable wood or metal, which in turn increases its weight.
English-language building instructions, such as the rock climber training manual, are a great guide to building this huge piece of equipment.
Images of the rear construction, however, are few and far between. In this Wikipedia illustration of a relatively small campus board, they are visible due to a very simple construction of the board. You can also see that, despite its relatively small size, a lot of stabilising metal is already built in. So even with small campus boards, depending on the space available, an extensive hardware store arsenal of mounting rails, beam hangers, frame brackets, consoles, retaining plates, etc. may be necessary. This raises the question, especially for non-peak performing climbers, of whether the training benefits are worth all of the effort.
There are plenty of home training options that can be used to greatly increase your physical performance. Their limitations lie in areas such as technique, strategy and psyche – you won’t really be able to train these three areas in a tangible way at home. The only thing that helps with these is to go into the climbing hall or – better yet – out onto the rocks.