The Best Exercises for the Mountain Athlete
Mountain climbing is a physically demanding sport that requires a high level of endurance, strength, and agility. Strength training is crucial for mountain climbers as it helps to build the necessary strength and endurance required to tackle steep hills and challenging terrain. In this article, we will focus on the best strength exercises for mountain climbers.
Back squats are an excellent exercise for mountain climbers. Squats help to build lower body strength & endurance. They target the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. These muscles are the primary muscles used for ascent and descent during mountain climbing.
Strong squats will translate to the strength to take big steps up and down without having your legs feel wobbly.
To perform back squats:
- Place a barbell on your shoulders behind your neck
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Feet should point out 30°
- Squat down as if you’re sitting on a chair until your thighs are parallel to the ground
- Return to standing, focusing on squeezing your quads and glutes on the way up
It’s essential to start with a lighter weight and work your way up to heavier weights as you progress. It’s also important to keep the weight centered over your midfoot. Not only is this the most efficient movement, but it also helps prevent strains and injuries due to poor form.
Deadlifts are another great exercise for building leg strength and overall body power. Deadlifts work your back, hips, and legs and will help you develop the strength to carry heavy packs up steep mountains.
Strong deadlifts will translate to feeling confident leaning over with a heavy pack and stepping on uneven terrain.
To perform a deadlift:
- Stand with your hip-width apart (closer than squat)
- Center bar over mid-foot
- Bend at hips to grab the bar
- Bring shins to the bar (without moving the bar)
- Pull tension against the bar then straighten to standing with back straight core tight
- Bar should drag up your legs
Good form and an appropriate progression are crucial to slowly build back strength without risking strain or injury. This exercise can be the best thing your back ever got for preventing injury! However, it can also be the thing that injuries it when performed poorly.
Knee Stability Exercises
Knee stability is crucial for mountain climbers to strengthen their knees in the more extreme ranges of motion. Some ways to focus on stability are to work good range of motion in the knee and perform exercises that focus on lower leg strengthening and balance. I love deep lunges where I purposefully get my knees over my toes. Weighted step-downs and shin-strengthening toe raises can also be helpful.
There are numerous exercises focused on stability that can be useful depending upon what is a baseline for you. Most of these are helpful to practice only with body weight until full range of motion and balance can be achieved.
Core Strength Exercises
Core strength is essential for mountain climbers as it helps to maintain balance and stability. While climbing uphill, energy will be transferred from your arms through your core and to the legs. This happens even more when using trekking poles, ski poles, ice axes, and scrambling. It’s important to integrate some core and upper body work into training. The following exercises accomplish this.
Presses, such as bench press and overhead press, are useful exercises for strengthening your upper body. Strong upper body muscles will help you carry heavy packs and maintain your balance during climbs.
- To perform the bench press, lie flat on a bench with a barbell over your chest with your core remaining flat on the bench, then push the barbell up and down.
- The overhead press involves standing with a barbell at shoulder height, then pushing the barbell up and down overhead.
Planks are a great way to target the core while integrating arms and legs. Isometric holds (staying still) and twisting movements will engage the deep muscles of the abdomen such as transverse abdominis. This is far more important to train then the superficial muscles of the rectus abdominis (the thing that gives us a 6 pack).
- Front planks involve holding your body in a push-up position with your forearms on the ground, and your body in a straight line.
- To side plank, lift your body with one forearm on the ground, and your body in a straight line.
- You can add a twist by reaching for the ground with the upper arm and rotating the torso then returning to the side plank position.
Cardio & Endurance Training
Cardiovascular exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, is essential for building endurance and improving overall cardiovascular health, which is crucial for mountain climbing. Climbing at high altitudes can be especially challenging due to lower oxygen levels, making it important to have a strong cardiovascular system.
Cardiovascular exercises as endurance training are one of the most intuitive modes of training for mountain climbing, but it is often over-emphasized and poorly trained. By this, I mean that strength training is equally as important as endurance & cardio-based training. In fact, a strong base of strength will enhance endurance.
As a golden rule, you can’t effectively train both strength and endurance at the same time. You can do both but you won’t be able to reach your peak potential in both at the same time. I find it best to rotate through blocks of time where I train strength and maintain my endurance, then switch to training endurance and maintaining strength.
Lastly, the most effective form of endurance and cardiovascular training is training done in your aerobic zone. Essentially, exercises with a moderate output and heart rate. Something you can maintain all day. Making HIIT workouts very ineffective for translating to good endurance gains and anything specific to mountain climbing. Conversely, quality cardio training will enhance endurance and help with long physical days and high-altitude hiking. So train cardio, just be intentional.
I prefer to focus on movements most similar to mountain climbing so hiking and running, however, there are a variety of options for endurance training such as:
It’s important to note that proper form is crucial when performing these exercises to prevent injuries. True training needs a measured progression. This allows you to consistently see gains in strength or cardio (depending on your focus). It’s often a great idea to recommended to work with a trainer or coach when starting a strength training program. You can also seek out programs that help give you the support you need to eventually train yourself in both strength and endurance (I offer a program like this specific to mountain training.)
To tackle steep hills and challenging terrain, strength and endurance training are essential for mountain climbers. Incorporating exercises such as back squats, deadlifts, presses, core strength exercises, and knee stability exercises into your workout routine will help you build strength and some endurance. Remember to start with lighter weights and progress slowly to heavier weights as you build strength, and always maintain proper form to prevent injuries.
In addition, a good progression of aerobic exercises will begin to grow overall endurance for long days of mountain climbing. Be sure to focus on aerobic-based exercise rather than sprints, HIIT, and other high-output cardio sessions.