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Core Strength Training:

pilates for climbers

  Maybe you think that Pilates is for joga-mat-carrying, twenty-something single girls who eat granola in the morning and not much else the rest of the day.  But Pilates is also a great way to get in shape for climbing.

Not since the days of Bruce Lee has there been a true master...
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:BruceLee14.jpg

This stuff will be a piece of cake, I thought.  If these girls with 50 kilos can do it, I can do that plus half as much more than them, seeing that I got 75 and I’m a man.  Wrong.  That shit hurt.  I couldn’t do as many sets as the divers, and even the gay guy was better than me.  What’s going on here?  I soon learned that Pilates- much like climbing- isn’t about how strong you are, but how strong you are in relation to your body size.  In the following months I improved in Pilates, and I saw a dramatic improvement in my climbing power as well.  Coincidence?  Not quite.  Some of the same principles that apply to climbing movement also apply to Pilates.  What’s more, Pilates allows you to isolate and strengthen the core body muscles that are so important in bouldering and overhanging sport climbs. 

The Iron Man himself: Tony Starks, Pretty Tony, the Wallaby Champ.
Source: www.blender.com

For several years now, I have been using Pilates as a way to stay fit- to build up climbing specific strength even when I can’t climb.  A wise man once said, ‘Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.’  With that in mind, I present to you the following principles and practices that have worked for me.  I am no expert; I am just a guy who went to classes to look at girls and ended up learning a thing or two.  I advise you too to take some classes, for the obvious reasons.  Since this is a rather distant way to learn about Pilates, I would rather go over the principles first, and then let the pictures do the talking. 

Jeff using pure core tension and friction to stick to the tricky arete of Iron Lion, 7B.

photo by Andrew Burgoon


Number one, Pilates is about moving your body with control, fluidly and in unison with breathing.  This means that nothing in Pilates should be done quickly.  Quick movements can lead to muscle strains and tightness- and they give your muscles less of a workout.  Volume is not as important as the control in which you do the exercise.  This is true in almost every isometric exercise there is. 

Movements need not be drastic or long to get a good workout.  What I mean is you don’t have to extend your body past its natural positions in order to strengthen it.  For example, while doing side leg lifts it is not important to reach the sky with you leg, like in a Jane Fonda workout tape.  Most important is to move the leg both up and down with complete control, slowly.  You will be surprised how 20 of these will make your legs burn more than a 100 sky-high leg lifts. 

Possibly the most important aspect of the Pilates workout is breathing.  Muscle contraction should be timed with a strong, audible exhale; relax the position with an inhale.  Let your breath be your cadence.  Exhale-contract.  Inhale-relax.  This is very beneficial to climbers-the coordination of breathing and muscle contraction- because it is with this same rhythm that we climb hard passages on rock.

So three things to remember while trying the exercises below:  slow movement, controlled movement, and movement coordinated with breathing.  If you can do 50 reps in a set you’re doing it wrong- guaranteed.



The Basic 'Crunch'

Starting position the standard 'crunch'

photo by Honza Jelínek

The basic unit to my workout is similar to a crunch.  Lie on your back, making sure that it is elongated and strait.  Legs should be in a 45 degree position with the soles of your feet on the floor.  Arms strait behind your head.  Now begin.  Exhale and slowly bring your arms up to your legs.  At the end of your contraction your shoulder blades should be lifted from the floor- slightly.  If any more of your back is lifted you are doing it wrong.  Remember that big movements aren’t necessary- just good contraction in unison with your breath.  I usually do 20 in a set, but obviously it can vary.  If you can do more than this to start, you are probably doing them too fast, or without proper breath control.  You should feel a deep burn within your abdominals.

final position for the standard 'crunch'

photo by Honza Jelínek

Legs Lifted 90 degrees

photo by Honza Jelínek

The second exercise is an improvement on the first.  Back in the same position- legs lifted to a 90 degree angle where your shins are parallel to the ground.  Keep your legs in the same position during the whole set- don’t let them droop or fall back towards your chest.  Move the same as the exercise above. 

photo by Honza Jelínek


photo by Honza Jelínek

Now your getting serious.  Starting with your back strait on the ground, one leg held out strait, the other pulled back towards your chest.  As you exhale and pull your shoulder blades up pull back the extended leg and extend the other.  Repeat 10 times, and on the tenth switch legs and do ten with the other opposite leg extended.  A serious workout which gets our obliques (the sides of your abdominals) really well.

photo by Honza Jelínek

Strait Leg/ Lever

photo by Honza Jelínek

So you are a hardman/woman and so far this shit has been easy.  I see you have mastered the Wu-tang style of Shaolin boxing, but have you read The Tao of Jeet Kune Do?  Try these- both legs extended, holding them just above the ground while you grind out as many contractions as you can do with good form. 

photo by Honza Jelínek

Backward Leg Lifts

photo by Honza Jelínek

If you are going to train the front of your core, you need to address the back as well.  These leg lifts are the best exercise I know for it.  Chuck Norris used to be able to crush a beer can with his back muscles, that was before Walker Texas Ranger and his soft, touchy-feely side came out.  I’m talking some real Return of the Dragon, Col. Braddock stuff.  There are two variations of this exercise: one where you raise the opposite side arm and leg, and the other where you raise just your legs.  Again- you don’t have to move too far- just always in control and never resting on the ground.  I also heard that Chuck Norris’s tears cure cancer, its a shame he never cries. 

photo by Honza Jelínek

The V

See how long you can hold these little puppies.  It was rumored that Dolph Lundgren could hold one for an entire chess match against Sylvester Stalone during the filming of Rocky IV. 

photo by Honza Jelínek


I usually do about 8-10 sets of 20 reps in a workout, but your workout will depend largely on your conditioning.  It is better to start slow and ease into any training program.  With that being said, once you are used to the movements, you could train as much as 6 days a week- the abdominals are some of the fastest regenerating muscles in the body.  Remember that many shorter workouts during the week are better than fewer longer workouts, and equal attention should be paid to streching as well.

The above images were used reverently by the author, Andrew Burgoon, to illustrate the powers of those men whose ideas are glossed over in this article:  Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Denis Coles, peace be to them. 

Andrew Burgoon   [edit] 10:00 18.10.2007Print 



...new commentsNew comment 

 :D20:26:13 18.10.2007
I love it!

 I going to start pilates right now09:03:50 19.10.2007
So well written. Awesome!

 thanks for good tip21:40:22 25.10.2007
Great, Pilates are good for climbing, indeed.

 Nice article man!17:36:06 29.10.2007
That's just what I needed.

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