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Mountaineering Training | Core Strength Routine for Mountaineering

By Geoff Schellens

Climbing big mountains is all about cardio, endurance, and strong legs, right? Wrong. While these are important areas to focus on during training, our core is easily overlooked. Our core connects our upper and lower body and is a vital part of stabilization when climbing. Carrying heavy packs on our backs, moving through uneven terrain, avoiding injury and maximizing efficiency are just a few examples of the need for a strong core. Below are five exercises for climbers that encompass our entire core: specifically the transversus abdominus (the cylinder providing stability) not just our rectus abdominus (that sexy six pack). Do these exercises slowly and with proper technique; please don’t risk injury forcing another rep. I recommend doing this routine two to three times a week and bumping up to four to five times a week after a month or more.

First, identify your core muscles and engage these. Lie down on your back and place your fingers 1 inch from the rim of your pelvic bone in towards your center. Push those muscles upwards. Those are your stabilizing core muscles.

Plank and Side Plank: Hold a push-up position with toes on the ground, legs together or shoulder-width apart, and hands on the floor directly under your shoulders. Engage your core and hold it. It is called “plank” for a reason; don’t let your back or hips droop or your butt rise up. At some point you will probably start shaking and it will become exponentially more difficult: hold it just a little longer. I keep a stopwatch on the floor in front of my face and try to hold the plank position 10 seconds longer each time. Keep your face relaxed with calm breathing. You can build up to forearm plank (instead of on your hands). Side plank is the same but rotate your body 90 degrees so you are facing the wall (or mirror). Remain lifted on one straight arm and the outside of the same foot. Keep your hips high: most likely you will droop towards the floor. If at first it is too difficult to keep your hips up with your legs straight, bend to your knee the leg closest to the floor. Don’t forget to get both sides.

Wood Chop: This is a great one for strengthening many of the smaller muscles in your core including some in the lower back. Start with a small weight (i.e. a full Nalgene water bottle), you can add weight later after you build technique. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the weight about six inches to the left of your left foot. In a controlled movement, lift the weight with both hands across your body ending with out-stretched arms high above your right shoulder. Control the weight back to the starting point and repeat. I go for 25 reps on each side and add weight after a few weeks.

Russian Twist: Sit on your butt with knees bent, feet hovering a few inches off the ground, and a straight back angled slightly away from your knees. Again start with a light weight and add more later. Hold your weight, a Nalgene or a small medicine ball, with both hands and in a controlled movement twist your torso to touch the weight to the floor on your left side then slowly twist to touch the weight to the floor on your right side. Start with reps of 25 and go from there.

Toe Touches: Lie on your back. With your legs together, lift them straight up, feet flat as if trying to stand on the ceiling. Take your two peace sign fingers together and cross your left fingers to the outside of your right foot. Come back to center, then cross your right fingers to the outside of your left foot. Keep moving back and forth with control. Start with 15 reps/side. The goal is to keep your shoulders off the floor and your legs & feet stationary.

Bicycle: Start with your back flat on the ground knees at 90 degrees above your hips and feet in the air. Your hands will be behind your head with elbows pointing to the sides. Extend your left leg out so the foot is about six inches off the ground and bring your left elbow to your right knee. Again don’t strain yourself: this is a slow and controlled, twisting crunch. Now bicycle your right foot out and bring your left knee up as you crunch your right elbow to this knee. The goal is to bring your elbow to your knee (not vice versa). Start with 20 reps and add more as you go.

These are five of my favorite core exercises that are easy to do anywhere. Hope you enjoy!


Geoff Schellens is a senior guide for RMI Expeditions, guiding trips around the world. He has extensive experience on Mt. Rainier, in Alaska, the Himalaya, and Antarctica. Geoff is also an AMGA certified Rock Guide. He lives in Bozeman, MT.  

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