Don’t Skip Leg Day! Here Are Five Leg Exercises for Climbers
Build strength, stability, and flexibility in the quads, hamstrings, and calvesPhoto by: Daniel Gajda/IFSC
Although most training for climbing is focused on the fingers, shoulders, and back, hard climbing also demands strong, stable, and flexible legs. As climbers, we are constantly pushing with our quads and calves—sometimes explosively—driving our bodies upwards from squatted positions on a single leg. We also rely heavily on our hamstrings to keep our feet pressed into holds on steep terrain and stable in heel hook positions. To improve leg strength and safety throughout these movements, it’s a good idea to perform dedicated off-wall leg training once or twice a week.
Here are five great exercises you can throw into your training routine. You can perform them all together on a dedicated leg training day. Or, you can split them up and do different exercises on different training days. Rather than just killing time during your rest period between your next finger or shoulder set, squeeze in these exercises to improve your lower half.
1. Jump squat
Jump squats are pretty simple. You perform a standard two-leg squat but at the top of the position you continue to drive up with your quads and calves until you’re airborne. Control your descent, absorbing your downward momentum with your legs, and then blast back up.
When warming up, you can aim for just a small amount of airtime. Once fully warm though, try to be really explosive and get more height with your jumps. These squats are great for building the explosiveness in your legs required for dynos and big deadpoints. Do 3 sets of 10 reps. Rest at least 2 minutes between sets.
2. Single-leg compass squat
This fun variation of a single-leg squat is great for building strength and balance in one-legged pressing positions. It runs through four phases. First, perform a single-leg squat on your left leg with your right leg hovering out in front for balance. Then come back up. Next, squat again but keep your right leg out to the right for balance. This mimics flagging positions in climbing. Come back up.
Next, squat again, keeping right leg hovering behind you for balance. Come back up. Finally, squat again, and flag your right leg out left, in behind your left leg. This mimics back-flagging positions in climbing. A sequence of these four positions is one rep. Now do the same sequence again but switch legs, squatting with the right and flagging with the left.
Keep the knee that you’re squatting with oriented vertically. Do not let it dip diagonally inwards as this puts a lot of strain on the structures of the knee. In other words, keep your knee lined up with your hip and ankle. Do 3 sets of 5 reps for each leg.
3. Single-leg calf raise
These raises are great for building calf strength for slab smears, tiny vert edges, and keeping foot pressure on overhanging terrain. Stand on an elevated platform with the front half of your foot. Start from a position where your foot is parallel with the ground. Drop your heel down and then explode up onto your tip toes. Hold this upper position for a second and then come back down slowly to the dropped heel position. Do 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps per leg.
You might find it helpful to hold onto something to help keep your balance. If you find these too easy, hold a set of dumbbells for added resistance. Feel free to do this exercise without shoes to really target the toes.
4. TRX hamstring curl
These TRX leg curls are excellent for building strength and power in the hamstrings. Start lying on your back with a TRX system (or something similar) hanging above your feet. The TRX should hang at mid-calf height. Place your heels or toes in the straps, engaging your core, glutes, and hamstrings to lift your body off the ground from the shoulders down.
Use your hamstrings and glutes to drive your knees up, lifting your lower back off the ground. Hold the flexed position and then lower back down in a controlled motion. Do not let your lower back sag. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps. If you find these too easy, check out the progressions in the video below. You can also add resistance to these curls by placing a dumbbell or weight plate on your lower abdomen.
Another great exercises that’s highly customizable for building hamstring strength for heel hooking is the leg bridge. Check out our explainer here.
5. Single-leg Romanian dead lift
An additional exercise to build strength and flexibility in the hamstring is the single-leg RDL. Watch the video below to understand the form and movement. Keep your core, glutes, and hamstring engaged throughout the exercise. When first learning the movement, do not use additional weight. As you progress over time, increase resistance by holding heavier dumbbells or kettlebells. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg.