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“Training for Winter Climbing” – Part One


George McEwan MIC should require no introduction within the Scottish winter climbing fraternity. The STS2010 Veteran Male Champion has kindly produced this detailed article on Training for Winter.

We have split the article into two and will publish the 2nd half very soon but for the moment get your teeth into the first instalment below:






Training for Winter

I would guess that at some time or another we have all uttered the words “Oh I need to get fitter for winter climbing” which has then briefly sparked a flurry of increased activity, possibly in the gym or climbing wall, which has then gradually tailed off as life, work/family commitments and anything else that appears to be more urgent than “getting fitter” demands our limited spare time.

There is no doubt about it, training to develop your winter climbing fitness such that you make real and measurable gains does demand commitment, a selfish streak as you prioritise your training schedule over other demands and very clear focussed outcomes. Ironically when I had a real job (as an engineer) I had more time and space to train. Now that I work in the outdoors my working life is pretty much dictated by ‘the programme’ and working on the hill which means my spare time can be erratic and when I do have some spare time I might be a bit bombed from being on the hill the past X days. So to accommodate training I’ve made my programme very flexible and I guess realistic. I’m not in the position, nor do I have the desire to become some climbing powerhouse. However I do want too stay climbing fit when the opportunities to climb come along, such as climbing trips or to prepare for the coming winter season.

This short article is less of a how to and more of what you can do. It’s aim is to give you a very brief overview of the background physiology that informs how we train and to describe some dry tooling/steep ice/mixed climbing specific training exercises that can be done either at your local gym, climbing wall, or in your house.

Why Train?

So why should we train for winter? Some typical reasons are listed below:

  • to improve performance i.e. climb harder.
  • greater enjoyment of activity
  • reduce risk of injury
  • increased safety margin
  • develop confidence in physical abilities

What Can We Train?

The diagram below shows the three main energy systems we can train.

Energy Systems

Anaerobic (Alactic) is commonly know as POWER – this where we use brief use of max strength dynamically e.g. pulling up with your ice tools over an overhang, or going for a tool placement just out of full reach where you have to dyno for the hold.

Aneaerobic Lactic Acid System is also know as POWER ENDURANCE – this is where you have repeated use of high strength e.g. pulling through a steep or overhanging section of terrain where you have to make several powerful moves one after the other.

Aerobic Oxygen system is also know as LOCAL ENDURANCE – this is long term use of moderate strength e.g. your average mid grade winter pitch.

One system not shown in the above chart is General Endurance. This is your body’s cardiovascular abilities. Assuming you are a regular hill goer then chances are you already have a good level of cardiovascular fitness. Activities such as running, biking, swimming etc all help develop this system. If you cando hundreds of pull-ups and crank it out on the wall to your hearts content, but as you walk into the climb on the hill your legs feel like lead, your lungs are bursting and your body appears to have sprung multiple leaks then you might want to consider developing this type of fitness!

I’m going to focus on the three main energy systems POWER, POWER ENDURANCE and LOCAL ENDURANCE that are perhaps more appropriate for dry tooling/mixed climbing/steep ice climbing.

Before we start to look at specific exercises and repetitions etc it’s worth just running through what principles are involved in developing a good training programme.

  • GOALS – set yourself goals. Ideally both outcome and process based i.e. outcome = increase ability to do pull ups by 50% within 3 months; process = develop my ability to do pull ups such that they are more controlled and rhythmic.

  • SPECIFICITY – in order for your training to transfer directly to your climbing then the exercises you use should ideally be specific to your climbing. E.g. doing underhand pull ups will make you better at doing underhand pull ups but think about when you pull up on your tools what position your hands are in. To make pull ups more specific to climbing you might want to consider using ice tools to pull up.
  • STRUCTURE – you will get best results if your training plan is structured such that exercises target specific muscle groups in a progressive way.
  • PERIODISATION – is about breaking down your training/climbing time into manageable chunks of specified activity. In simple terms this would be pre-season, active season (i.e. out and about climbing), and off season. This model is too simple for the climbing world so you will need planning depending on specific goals.

Training Specific Energy Systems Specifically!

Most of the exercises I’ll illustrate latter can all be used to train the different energy systems, question is how we do that? It helps to understand how the three main energy systems – POWER, POWER ENDURANCE and LOCAL ENDURANCE – work in practice.

To move ourselves up a winter climb we use a variety of movements involving pulling and pushing. All this upward movement requires intramuscular co-ordination. This process involves various muscle groups have to contracting or relaxing to maintain a constant force as we make a move. To do this we use energy to facilitate this process. Andenosine triphosphate (ATP) is one of the main energy compounds muscles rely on in the contraction process, not necessarily to contract the muscle fibres but rather to reset the contracted fibre to a relaxed state.

Your muscles can manufacture more ATP from stored glycogen aerobically (i.e. with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen). Aerobic metabolism is the most efficient way of burning stored glycogen but it needs a steady oxygen supply hence a steady blood flow. If we constrict this blood flow by contracting our muscles and contract them enough that the capillaries providing that flow of oxygenated blood are shut, then the cells in your muscles can only manufacture ATP anaerobically. This anaerobic process is not as efficient and leaves lactic acid as a by product. That’s the ‘pumped’ or ‘burning’ muscle feeling many of us will be familiar with. If the muscles keep consuming ATP until lactic acid stalls the energy restoration i.e. allow oxygenated blood to flush out the lactic acid, then you are trapped in a vicious circle. The many contracted fibres can’t relax without ATP and ATP can’t be produced until blood circulates. Blood can’t flow into the muscle because so many fibres are contracted. This is why a well trained capillary network delivers oxygen and removes lactic acid more efficiently than untrained ones and why well trained climbers can shake of a pump quicker than say a novice climber with a comparatively less well trained capillary network.

The diagram above illustrates the importance of maximum strength as this dictates how much force we can exert. Maximum strength relies on muscles having good maximum recruitment i.e. what % of the muscle fibres are involved in a contraction. Power is maximum strength used dynamically and relies on good muscle maximum recruitment as well, whilst power endurance is sustained use of around 60 -80% of maximum strength.

How do you work out your maximum strength?

So how do you work out your maximum strength? One way (after a thorough warm up!) is to start with a high load and see if you can lift/pull/push it comfortably for one repetition. This is known as your repetition maximum. For example to work out my RPM for doing pull-ups I would attach a weight to my climbing harness and do a pull up. If I can do that then I would add another heavier weight and so on until I get to a point where I can only do 1 pull up comfortably. For me my RPM doing pull ups is – my body weight (85kg) plus 30kg – 115kg. You would do this for your core pushing or pulling exercises.

What energy system do you use when?

To put the above into a climbing context maximum strength would be used for controlled, slow movements or static lock offs (perhaps using 90 – 100% of your max). Power would be use of maximum strength but in a dynamic, fast manner. These two energy systems whilst commonly used on the crux moves of hard mixed or dry tooling type climbs would tend to be used rarely if ever on your average steep ice climb.

Power endurance on the other hand is used often on the short sharp cruxes of trad mixed routes or short sharp cruxes on harder ice climbs e.g. pulling through some overhangs dynamically. Here you would typically be using 30 – 80% of your maximum strength. Typically you will find you run out of energy rather than getting pumped when training this energy system. Movements in this type of training are dynamic.

Local endurance (or Stamina) is perhaps the most commonly used energy system on typically steep ice or trad mixed climbs. This is where you are making a series of continuous moves using around 20 – 50% of your maximum. On such climbs you will find that you will have to shake out periodically to de-pump, allow the capillaries to open up and flush the lactic acid out of your muscles. Movements in this type of training are rhythmic.

How close you work to your maximum in the ratios given above is going to depend on how well trained your muscles are. For example someone new to training and working their local endurance might start of at 20% of their maximum strength, whilst someone who has been training for a longer period might be working closer to 80%.

I talked earlier about intramuscular co-ordination. If you remember this term describes the different muscles we use to maintain a constant force as we make a move such that we make the move fluidly. An essential component of this process is the smaller muscles that adjust and steer the forces exerted by the larger muscles. Poor intramuscular co-ordination is a factor in climbers developing injuries or injuring themselves whilst climbing. When training it is worth taking into account this factor and use exercises that work these smaller muscles e.g. rather than weight machines use loose weights or boulder using axes on a training board etc.


% shown are based on your repetition max or RPM – this is the heaviest load you can lift/push for one repetition.


Loading is high (90 – 100% of RPM);

Reps are low (1 – 7);

movements are slow (think lock off type moves here)


Loading is high (90 – 100% of RPM)

Reps are low (1-7)

Movements are dynamic.


Loading 30 – 80% of RPM;

7 –12 Reps;

Movements are dynamic


Loading 20 – 50%;

Reps are high (20 – 30+)

Movements rhythmic

Physical Training Principles

Training Volume

Any improvements and regressions are based on a balance of work (catabolic) and ‘rest’ (anabolic), this is known as Training Volume. There are four components of Training Volume:

  • F – Frequency: how often you do it.
  • I – Intensity: how hard you work at it.
  • T –Time: how long you spend doing it.
  • T –Type: what energy system are you training.
  • A –Adherence: are you sticking to your programme.

So before throwing yourself at the nearest pull up bar or stack of loose weights it’s worth designing a basic programme that is focussed at what you want to achieve in the timescale you have available. This might mean looking at your year or season, setting yourself goals then breaking down that timeframe into smaller chunks so you can work at specific energy systems. This should allow you time to bring it all together in time to appreciate and see your new found training advantages put to use on your climbs.

Specificity It is worth stressing the concept of specificity – that is making your training both mirror the type of movements you will be making in your winter climbing and also training the appropriate energy systems. Simply put there is no point in training power for your upper body and arms i.e. your ability to dynamically lift your whole body weight over several moves if you are planning on climbing long Grade IV routes on Ben Nevis. In this example you would probably benefit more from training your lower body e.g leg muscles and cardiovascular than your ability to do power pulls on your ice tools.

Part Two Looks at Designing a Training Programme !

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