Alpine climbing rarely involves V-hard crux moves, but it’s exhausting for the entire body. Deep muscle fatigue accumulates in both the legs and the arms throughout long days of high-stepping and pulling, usually while loaded down with a pack, and all after a grueling approach.
In short, alpine climbing is a very muscular activity that rewards athletes who strength train intelligently.
Not all strength training is the same. The bodybuilding approach of lifting moderate loads to failure, i.e. the classic three sets of 10 reps, is a great way to stimulate hypertrophy, or muscle growth, but with alpine climbing we must carry the engine. That added muscle is metabolically expensive in that you’d need to both fuel it and lift the extra weight.
Moreover, lifting high reps to failure ramps up fatigue, which increases recovery time, and the muscular tension is too low. In our opinion, the CrossFit method, which most alpine training programs adopt, reflects a poor understanding of the mechanisms of strength training. The workouts are simultaneously too hard and not nearly hard enough.
When we train from a maximum strength perspective—low reps or short isometric holds at or just below max. effort—we trigger a whole host of neuromuscular and structural changes that increase force production without bulking up. Those adaptations include an increase in tendon stiffness, neuromuscular recruitment, rate coding, early-stage neural drive, lateral force transmission, and sarcomerogenesis, to name just a handful.
It’s this strength training method we want to use for human-powered adventures. Here are our three favorite moves to build alpine climbing-specific strength:
Why: The X-Axis is a staple of our strength method. The isometric hold trains full-body tension from the feet to the hands, along with anti-rotational stability, and it requires zero equipment. This core-centric exercise activates the anterior chain—the muscles along the front of the body—in a way that translates well to moving through complex terrain. It synchronizes upper and lower body movements and strengthens the key link between them in the kinetic chain.
How to do it: Enter a high-plank position with your hands below your shoulders (on your fists), arms straight, and your body in line from heel to head. Then simultaneously lift the opposite arm and leg. Keep your hips level and body in a rigid plank position. Hold this, reset, then repeat on the other side.
High-level athletes can modify the move by pushing onto the toes of their grounded feet, which challenges stability even further.
Protocol: Hold the position for 6 to 8 seconds, then immediately switch to the other side and repeat. Rest for 20 seconds, and repeat again for a total of three reps. Aim for three sets, with 2 to 3 minutes of rest between efforts.
2. Single-Leg Step-Up
Why: No amount of jogging will prepare you for the slow, steady grind of a steep alpine approach. Why? Because running involves short ground contact time and less flexion in the knees and the hips compared to steep scrambling. By comparison, alpine climbing involves long ground contact times and a large range of joint angles in the knees and the hips in order to complete each step, not to mention you’ll likely be loaded down with a pack.
By nature, alpine climbing is more muscular than running. The single-leg step up simulates steep uphill terrain and allows you to heavily load the movement to make significant gains in max strength.
How to do it: Use a box that’s approximately 70 to 80 percent of the height of your lower leg (i.e. between mid-shin and knee height). If you have a history of patellofemoral (knee) pain, start a bit lower.
Place a foot on the box and hold a weight (kettlebells or dumbbells work well) on the same side. Then drive through the elevated leg to stand (the elevated leg should be doing all of the work, with little assistance or push off from the lower leg). Don’t come all the way up to full extension to maintain tension in the target leg. Slowly reverse the movement and repeat. Perform all reps on one side, then switch to the other.
Protocol: Aim for three to five reps on each side, and a total of three sets. Choose a load that allows you to complete those reps with good stability, while leaving one to two left in the tank.
3. Pull-Up Isometrics (Lock-Offs)
Why: Being able to generate high pulling forces will see you through alpine climbing’s hardest cruxes. But instead of doing endless pull-ups, the isometric version (also known as a lock-offs) will allow you to increase the intensity, and build strength and tissue capacity in the most useful ranges of the pulling motion.
How to do it: Stand on a box or chair below a pull-up bar so you can start at the desired joint angle, as opposed to pulling up, into it. Grab the bar with both hands, palms facing away. Then lift your feet to slowly load your arms, and hold the lock-off.
Vary the joint angle between 90 degrees and 170 degrees each set. Progress by adding load via a weight vest or weights clipped onto a harness. High-level climbers can progress to single-arm lock-offs, and even add weight to those.
Protocol: With two arms, hold the lock-off for 6 to 8 seconds, shakeout for 20 seconds, and repeat for a total of three reps. Aim for three sets, with 2 to 3 minutes of rest between efforts.
For one-arm lock-offs, hold for 6 to 8 seconds on one side, then immediately switch to the other side for 6 to 8 seconds. Shake out for 12 to 14 seconds, and repeat again for a total of three reps on each side. Aim for three sets, with 2 to 3 minutes of rest between efforts.