Mountaineering Training | Upper Body Strength Training for Ice Climbers
Ice season is almost upon us here in Bozeman, Montana with many other U.S. ice destinations soon to follow. I find it very difficult to train for ice climbing this time of year - you want to get comfortable on your tools again, but there isn’t any ice forming yet. These are a few of my favorite pre-season workouts that can get you stronger before you get to swing those picks into a column of ice.
First, I say any climbing is better than no climbing. The rock gym can be a great place to start building upper body strength, balance, and grip strength. I usually warm up by pulling on plastic for an hour or so, mostly easy to moderate routes with two or three that really push me. The goal is to get a little pumped but not so spent that I can’t do a workout after. I take 10-15 minutes to cool down, drink some water, get out of my climbing gear, and transition to the weights.
When I am training specifically for ice climbing I focus most of my efforts on forearms and triceps with some shoulder and bicep work to stay balanced. In my opinion, the best exercises mimic the actual motions done in ice climbing. So, my first go-to ice climbing workout is simply to grab a light dumbbell, 6-12lbs, and hold it like you would an ice tool. If you can watch yourself in the mirror it can help to make sure you maintain good form. Loosely hold the weight in one hand and cock it back over your shoulder, keep your wrist, elbow, and shoulder all in line, and slowly swing the weight like you would an ice tool. Finish with the wrist flick so the weight is just in front of your body, I like to keep my other hand touching my elbow, which helps to encourage good form.
Dead hangs are another great exercise you can do almost anywhere. If you can use your tools that’s the best; I put the picks of both ice tools over a pull-up bar, grab both tools, and hang with elbows slightly bent for 10 seconds. If you are doing it correctly your shoulders should be engaged. I try to draw my shoulder blades towards each other. Do this for 10 seconds on, 10 seconds off for 10 rounds; that is one set for me, and I try to do 3 sets per workout. Don’t push yourself and tweak a shoulder though, or all this training is for nothing. Start with what makes sense for you and then slowly add repetitions, sets, or increase the time of each dead hang. I often integrate sets into my whole workout so I don’t get too bored.
Next: pull-ups. Find out what your max is and then go for 50-80% of that for three sets. If 10 pull-ups is your threshold, do three sets of 5-8. Try to increase this number over time. Again I mix these into the whole workout so that I have some time to recover.
There are a number of great exercises for grip strength and forearms; I constantly switch it up. The standing bar – rope - weight workout is a great one. With a small bar, stick, or dowel, tie a 5-foot rope to the center and a weight on the other end of the rope. With your arms straight out in front of you slowly twist the bar in your hands to wrap the rope up and lift the weight then reverse the motion to lower it back to the ground. Maintain good form and keep your arms parallel to the ground.
Another forearm workout that I really like is to grab two dumbbells of moderate weight, 5-15 lbs, and hold one in each hand. Slowly I let the weights roll down my palm and fingers until they are close to falling out of my hands and then bring them back up. The first few will leave you asking, “what is the point of this?” by rep 20 you will be screaming for mercy.
The plate pinch is both a forearm and grip exercise. Grab two plates, 2.5, 5, or 10lbs, and position them together so the smooth sides face out. Simply pinch them together with one hand and let them hang by your side. You are going for time here, see how long you can hold it first and then aim for three sets in each hand. Gradually add more and more time over a few weeks. Finally, another fantastic grip strength workout is a spring or rubber doughnut trainer. I keep one in my car and try to use it at every red light.
These are just a few of the upper body workouts that I use when I am patiently, or not so patiently, waiting for temperatures to drop and ice to start forming. I hope you enjoy these and I look forward to seeing you all out on the ice soon.
Geoff Schellens is a certified AMGA Rock Guide, Apprentice Alpine Guide, and an avid ice climber. He lives in Bozeman, MT, and will be leading an expedition to Denali’s Upper West Rib this spring.
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