How to Get Better At Climbing… Without Going Climbing

This article was originally written for a client who moved abroad but has particular significance at the point of publication, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless it is written assuming the world is still open so as to remain useful and relevant once the current situation clears. 

The problem with climbers as clients is they often have this tendency to up sticks and run off somewhere exciting around the world on their adventures. It can make it quite tough to coach them, if i’m honest! It’s even worse when they move off in different directions, to places where there is no nearby or obvious climbing, while still wanting to improve or even maintain their standards.

One such friend (who prompted this piece) is currently in the flat countries in the North of Europe. The local wall doesn’t suit his style or the style of routes he’s intending to climb. So what to do? How is he going to continue to develop with nothing that inspires development?

There are obvious options that are very popular, including fingerboards and training apparatus that basically centre on keeping you strong and fighting fit ready for the next onslaught, whenever that might be. But are there other things he could be working on? Are there other ways to improve without actually using any of your climbing muscles or even stepping off the floor?

That is what we’ll look at here: how we become better climbers without going climbing. And to do that, i’m going to break it down using the ever popular TTPP model.


Laying out how to train each individual aspect would fill a book (i’m working on that but it’s not nearly finished yet). For now, i’ll highlight some areas to work on and some further reading for each one. If you’d like any more information or would like a personalised training plan, please get in touch.

Physical Improvement

As much as i’ve said we’re not just going to look at staying strong, a long period away from climbing and the specific muscles we use to climb will wane. So it is important to maintain a level of strength in them, ready and waiting for next time. I will stress though that this is only one of four areas to look at, so don’t get too fixated on trying to do more and more pull ups or deadhangs.

Gym climbing

The best training for climbing is still climbing and the Gimme Kraft handbook suggests 80% of your training should still be climbing. However there is a difference between climbing for fun and climbing as training. Think of the difference as either the goal for each climb or the attitude to failure: when having fun, you want to avoid failure and aim to top climbs often; when training, failure is key and either you should be falling off on the majority of climbs to stress the muscles to failure, or else working hard to achieve muscle fatigue. Hard bouldering can still be training too although less effective than utilising other apparatus and exercises to tick projects.

Further reading: There are myriad exercises out there to utilise, including 4x4s or Pyramid Training. Check out Training Beta for an explanation for 4x4s

Fingerboards et al

This lumps in fingerboards, pull up bars, gym rings, campus boards or anything else of this nature. These devices are designed to target a specific area to maximise strength.

Not having to keep back some energy for actual climbing can allow you the chance to design and implement a training plan that really gets to work on finger strength or other muscles. Sunny weather on a rest day is less of an annoyance when you can’t get to the crag after all.

Further reading: The Beastmaker website has a great explanation for the purpose of fingerboards.


Likewise having time away from climbing can be a good opportunity to work on antagonist muscles and help to prevent injury once you get chance to get back to the crag. Exercises to strengthen triceps or pectorals aren’t done through climbing but they are important to maintain a balance through the body.

While the SAID principle suggests that to get stronger for climbing, one has to work the muscle groups used in climbing, developing other systems in the body again keeps us more healthy generally and less prone to injury. Spending some time running, cycling or swimming might not get you pushing your next grade when the time comes but it may just help you to be more resilient when you do.

Further reading: Who better than Shauna Coxsey to give us some core conditioning exercises. Her video is on the BBC Sport website, as well as a host of other top level athletes showing their own regimens.

Floor exercises

By floor exercises, i mean exercises you can repeat that will target specific climbing muscles. This is based on Replication Training and in essence, copies the movement of rock climbing into something you can repeat on the floor.

During the coronavirus lockdown period, i made a series of videos to help with this, which can be seen here. Episode 4 is shown as a little teaser below.

Technical improvement

Working on your technique when you’ve not got a wall to climb on takes a little thought from outside the box and is covered in the aforementioned video series.

Movement replication

Analysing climbing movement is one way of keeping psyched during a prolonged period away from the crag: i.e. watch a lot of climbing films! However when you’re watching, instead of marvelling at the size of Alex Megos’ guns, look at the way that he is moving.

Now what you’re trying to achieve is to copy this movement somehow. See how he’s done that drop knee? Practice it on the floor! Twist and turn and mimic the movements either standing, sitting or lying on the floor to practice complex climbing movements ready for the next chance you have to put them into practice.

Further reading: Eliot Stephens has some amazing climbing films on his Vimeo page and climbs at an elite level, giving you some interesting movements to copy.

Balance training

The essence of good and effective climbing often comes down to getting your centre of gravity in the right place compared to either your base of support or point of suspension. Thankfully, this is an ideal aspect to train that requires no more than being on the floor.

Spend some time standing on the floor and moving yourself in and out of balance. Progress on to standing on one leg. Pilates and Yoga are two fantastic methods of experimenting with this.

Further reading: Yoga Journal has several good pages for yoga poses for climbers or for something more personal, contact Nalini Yoga here.

Active Sequencing

This is going to be a little odd and not one for the self conscious among you. There’s not really a name for this but many of you will have seen Adam Ondra taking sequencing to extreme levels for his ascent of Silence 9c in the Hanshelleren Cave in Flatanger, Norway in Reel Rock 13.

Active sequencing involves replicating the moves of a route – either a real route or a fictional one – by acting out the moves while on the floor. It can be done standing or lying on the floor and the route can be any of your choice.

I have done this with clients and several things came out of it: we could both feel the muscles tensing; we both learned about movement; and we both enjoyed the process.

Further reading: You can see Adam Ondra trying this in Reel Rock 13 (purchase needed) at 15:23 and again at 30:20. There is also a short clip here at 8:04 where his physio helps by mimicking the holds. Reel Rock is significantly better though.


Watch Ondra sequence the route above but mute it. Now check out the video below, again on mute. Notice some similarities? Dance and climbing are both fantastic ways of getting the body to move in ways that are atypical.

I would love to use dance as a way to warm up for climbing sessions but sadly – as with many people – i am too self conscious to start throwing shapes in public! Well now that you’re not in public, here’s your chance.

Boot up your music player, grab your most energetic playlist and go nuts! Just like these guys


There is much debate about whether slacklining helps with climbing but it has long been symbiotic with rock climbing; even if it’s just because they’re both fun.

Whether slacklining helps you become a better climber or not, certain things are true: slacklining has been popular in Yosemite for decades since the times of John Gill and Pat Ament; many climbing walls incorporate them into their repertoire; there are many transferable skills, such as weight transfer through the feet and balance skills.

Further reading: Gibbon are one of the leading slackline companies and their Youtube channel has videos to teach and inspire.

Tactical improvment

Tactics in rock climbing are much maligned but it is as important for climbers as it is on a pitch in a team sport. It is all related to this phrase:

am i applying myself in the right way at the right time

Training this at home is particularly difficult, especially via a pre-written article on a website! Primarily, it is related to this concept:

Intrinsic Feedback

There are nine types of intrinsic feedback that i’m aware of, six of which are very relevant to climbing. Intrinsic means to come from within, as opposed to extrinsic which is feedback from someone else. To make the most of intrinsic feedback, you need to listen to your body and understand what it is trying to tell you.

To practice this, you need to work yourself somehow, rest and wait to the point where you feel like you’re ready to go again. Repeatedly trying to do a set number of press ups, pull ups, squats, whatever you like, without timing your rests but instead listening to your body to tell you when to go again.

This knowledge of when your body is ready again is imperative when at the crag. Learning about your own body at home will give you a massive advantage when you finally get there.

Analysis Skills

One crucial aspect of your tactics are adjusting your actions once you have failed. It is something that people often lack and again, is something that we can train at home.

Take any task: for example throwing a ball of paper into a bin from a distance such that you find the task hard but achievable. Then follow this four stage process:

  1. Attempt the task
  2. Did you succeed? If yes, make it slightly harder and go back to 1.
  3. Why did you fail? What can you adjust next time?
  4. Plan your next attempt with changes and repeat all stages.

The more complex the task, the more challenging the analysis is but remember: climbing is incredibly complex so finding more and more complicated exercises to try will help to build your skills ready for your next project.

The Louis Repetition

This is named after Louis Parkinson, who told me of this tactic for improving at climbing; one that is also easily applied to any complex movement task.

The premise is simple: we are not interested in simply finishing a sequence, we are interested in completing it as well as we possibly can. So take a series of complex moves (climbing, dance, floor movements, etc) and complete it three times.

  1. The first time is as seen, onsight, as it comes
  2. The second is refined to be a little better
  3. The third and final time you are now striving for perfection

In between efforts, think about the way you moved and what you could do to improve and refine the sequence.

Psychological improvement

Here’s a great one to work on, as it doesn’t require you to be anywhere in particular! You can literally work on all of this wherever you find yourself. What’s more, you don’t need very long to work on it either so even five minutes on your commute can be enough to do some training for climbing.

Music training

Climbing at one’s limit can be very taxing on the mind and require a lot of concentration, so naturally practising our concentration skills would be beneficial. One way of eliminating all the noise that bombards us every day to through listening to music.

The best music for this is complex, with many different layers and instruments but anything with multiple components will suit – you can pick whatever you like. Stick on some headphones, close your eyes and concentrate on the music.

Now try and focus on each individual instrument in turn. Try and isolate the drum, lead guitar, violin, as many components of the music individually. Any time something comes into your mind trying to force it’s way in, practice pushing those thoughts away and following the instrument at hand. Then try changing instrument during the track as you go along. This will help you to work on your mental control.

Flow State

Practising Flow State – the theory developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi among others – on it’s own is more than somewhat difficult but it is possible to research and learn about this theory during our downtime in readiness for that next project session.

Flow State is often referred to as being “in the zone” and can open up new grades that you didn’t even realise were possible, purely by harnessing the power of your mind. The concentration skills practiced with music above are one aspect of Flow, and there are eight more.

Further reading: Flow in Sports by Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or the Flow Centre.  Csikszentmihalyi also has multiple videos online


Meditation is one method to get to Flow State. There are many ways to meditate and the benefits are widely reported, with much to be read.

While i am no expert, i have meditated before on all of my hardest sends, in one form or another. In my experience, meditation involves removing extraneous thoughts from the mind, leaving you either with a clear head or one focused on one sole point to remove the noise we feel and hear every day.

While i would suggest looking into this far more if you decide to go down this path, my two methods of meditative thought were either to fixate my mind on one single item (a blade of grass that day) or to repeatedly run through a sequence in my head until i thought of nothing else.

Further reading: my plan is to research the Buddhist practice of satipatthana. Feel free to beat me to it and tell me what you find.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is the bread and butter of a coach’s work. Short term goals, long term, super-long term, having a wide range of time scales is key and mine are primed around either Autumn-Winter or Spring-Summer, according to my New Years tradition.

I have written an article that will appear soon that guides you through goal setting but in the mean time, think about goals as one of two processes:

  • Outcome orientated
  • Process orientated

Both are equally as important; it’s the journey not the destination but you still need a destination to head to. When looking at your goals, think about which category they fit into and make sure, again, you have a good spread.

Booking a session to improve

The above are all a suggestion of things you could start with to continue to develop as a climber. However finding what works for you is no easy feat and it is far too easy for us to fall into the same old patterns and not make the gains we could.

The good news is that is what a coach is there for! Coaching is all designed to help you in areas you weren’t able to help yourself. The better news still is that this is something that can be done remotely, via a video chat.

One to one consultation: £15 per hour

Get in touch to book a consultation!