Winter Climbing Part II – Training


Winter Climbing Part II – Training


Before I get into things I want to suggest that anyone embarking on winter specific training has a good level of aerobic fitness and strength already in place. If this isn’t in place, then the following isn’t going to be very helpful.

If you missed part I on getting started with winter climbing, you can find it here >

We are going to focus on two areas that should set you up well for this season. Firstly, getting some good grip strength built up before you find yourself hanging off your tools on some steep ground and, secondly, winter climbing specific strength exercises for the arms, back and calves.


The general rules here are:


  • Overload – your muscles gain strength by overloading them and giving them rest and recovery time and then repeating. Make sure to increase weight or resistance as your muscles adapt to a given load.
  • Rest and recover well and don’t over do it! Listen to your body and if pain/soreness persists for more than a couple of days after any workout, then rest till symptoms subside.
  • Consistency is key, so plan your workouts well.


Workout Vocab:


A ‘rep’ is one movement e.g. one sit up.


A ‘set’ is a chosen number of reps e.g. I did 3 sets of 20 sit ups.



GRIP STRENGTH – Two and/or Single Arm Tool Hangs



















At the beginning, start with two arm hangs and and as you progress move to one arm hangs.


“I have yet to find any exercise that builds the specific strength of hanging off an ice tool other than hanging off an ice tool.”

‘Ice and Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique’ by Will Gadd




Two Arm Hangs – hang for 30 seconds or till grip failure and then rest for 30 seconds. Repeat three to four times to complete a set. Do three to six sets of these.


One Arm Hangs – hang till near grip failure (could be as short as five seconds) and then swap to the other arm and hang till near failure. Two hangs on each arm are to equal a set. Do four to six sets of these and rest three to five minutes between each set.


When you can hang for longer than 30 seconds on two arms you are probably ready for one arm hangs or you can add weight. When you can hang for longer 30 seconds on one arm then add weight using a weight belt, loaded pack or some other way of attaching weight to your body!




Gloves, ice tools and a pull up bar. Be sure to connect your tools in a way that isn’t going to ruin the pull up bar at the gym!



Do this workout twice a week.


SWING ENDURANCE – Over head hammer swings



Get a lightweight dumbbell and do 30 to 40 hammer swings on one arm and then switch to the other. This makes up one set and you want to do three to four sets per session. Your goal is to be able to do 30 plus reps as you are aiming to build up muscle endurance i.e. being able to swing your tools all day.



Lightweight dumbbells



Do this workout twice a week.




















PULLING POWER – The classic pull up but with a twist



Pull ups are the benchmark exercise for the upper body for climbing, but often times it is difficult to get started. I personally find pull ups to be a real challenge and and am currently doing this program. The program comes from ‘Training for the New Alpinism’ and has been tested and used to build pull up power by many who have struggled to either move beyond a certain number of reps or who can hardly do even a few pull ups. It uses the tested method in weight training that by increasing the resistance to near max effort (where you can only complete one to two reps) you increase your strength.


This exercise is for those who can complete five or more full weight pull ups. If you can’t then you will want to start with assisted pull ups first e.g. having one or both of your legs behind you on a raised box or bench and using your legs to aid you in doing the pull ups.


For those who can already do five or more pull ups you will want to find the right amount of weight where you can only just complete the rep(s). I am currently using a 20kg weight to do 1 rep set and 15kg for two rep sets. Adjust according to your current level.



Pull up bar and weight belt or a way to fix weight to yourself. I use a pack and just put in the weight I want.



Do this workout twice a week.




Calf stands are a simple exercise to help you get ready for long routes where you put a good amount of strain your calves. Essentially, you need to find a curb, stair or box and place the ball of your feet on the edge and then stand on one foot till you lose balance or get pumped. Then switch to the other calf. If you want to make it harder, then slowly lower and raise your heel up and down. Do as many as you can stand, but do make sure you are warmed up and also stretch out afterwards!



Edge, box or curb



Do this workout twice a week.


UP & DOWNS – Climbing up and down and up and down!


I don’t really know what else to call these, but here we go: if you have access to a climbing wall where there are auto belays, then you are ready to go. Take your harness and winter climbing boots to the climbing wall and find an auto belay wall that has two to three easy routes with big holds. Then clip in and climb up one route and then down climb using any holds to just above the ground. Then climb up the next easy route and down again. Keep doing this for 15 to 30 minutes straight without any rests on the ground. Start with two sets of 15 to 30 minutes and then just increase the time for the two sets as your endurance improves. You can also add weight by using a pack loaded with kit equaling 10% of your body weight to increase resistance. 


I would take an ipod with some good music or podcasts to listen as it can become a bit boring. This is going to give you the endurance you need for those 300m ice routes you want to climb on Ben Nevis – it’s all about getting in some mileage!



A final word of advice for getting ready for those dream routes:  it is really important to have a good level of general strength and aerobic fitness as I mentioned at the beginning. You need to do your push ups, bar / box dips, core workouts, strength and aerobic training. This cannot be over emphasized as it prevents injury.


Aerobic Training


For aerobic fitness I would highly recommend getting a heart rate monitor. There are some really great ones that track your recovery from your previous workouts – I find this very useful in really knowing when I can keep pushing or when I need to lay off!


A general principle for running is that you want to do one long run a week (20 to 30% of your total aerobic training for the week) where you are running at 50-75% of your max heart rate (HR). This is a slow steady run and you should be able to carry on a conversation if running with someone. You want to build it up slowly over time. A good rule is to increase the time you run for by 10% from the previous week. This builds up your ability to sustain all day mountaineering activity. Then you want to do one to two runs that are 75-80% of your max HR. These runs should make up 10% percent of your total aerobic training for the week. Then the rest of the running should be done at 75% of your max HR.


Example running regime:


Two hour long run at 75% or less of your max HR on Saturday morning

One hour run at 75% to 80% of max HR Tuesday after work

Three shorter runs at 75% of max HR or less on Thursday and Friday after work.


These exercises have been drawn from two main sources, both of which I highly recommend:


  1. ‘Training for the New Alpinism’ (House and Johnston)
  2. ‘Ice & Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique’ (Will Gadd)


Everything worth going for in life takes tenacity, hard work and commitment. So train hard and climb hard!

Categories: Ice Climbing, James, Top Tips, Training, Winter
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1 Comment

One Response to Winter Climbing Part II – Training

  1. Iron Mind says:
    15 June 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    What a great post. Very informative. I ended up getting the Adam Glass training program for improving grip strength (world record holder). After the initial first few weeks my grip had improved immensely. Now a year down the line and my grip has improved so much compared to what it was like before. I recommend Adam Glass’ hand and forearm training guide 100%. You can find it here if you’re interested in checking it out.

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