5. What Mountaineers Need to Know About Strength Training
Catching up on the Mount Rainier 11-Day Planning Challenge? Find all the posts here.
So yesterday I shared the most important thing you can do to train for Mt. Rainier. I really believe that aerobic endurance is key to your summit success, and it definitely makes the climb more enjoyable, too. So if you haven’t read that post, I recommend checking it out.
But don’t worry, I still have plenty of uber-useful, super-actionable training tips to cover. Because Coach Sarah does not do fluff, woo-woo, or sparkle-dust-farting #unicorns. Because I want you to actually climb this mountain!
So today, let’s talk about the #2 most important thing you can do to train for Mt. Rainier:
Strength Training (aka how to get sexy mountain thighs)
Now this is actually one of my fav topics. Because I am one of those crazy aliens who lifts weights for fun. When I get tired of climbing mountains, I’m going to quit and switch to bikini competitions. (Just kidding.)
But aside from being fun, strength training is going to make a huge difference in how you feel on Mt. Rainier. Because even if your aerobic endurance is amazing, you still have to carry a 40+ lb. pack up 6,000 ft.
Your leg muscles will need to contract thousands of times against resistance to get the job done. Meanwhile, your back and shoulders need to support the pack weight. And your core will need to stabilize you, balance you, and transmit the power you generate with your ice ax through your lower body.
So don’t neglect your strength training. It’s a huge part of your preparation
And no, at the volumes I’m recommending, it won’t make you a super-jacked muscle chick (or dude).
OK, let’s dive in.
Strength Training Tips
Mountaineers need to prioritize aerobic endurance, which is time-consuming to train for. You’ve got less time for strength, so let’s make your workouts targeted and efficient.
Some basic strength training principles for mountaineers:
- Do two full-body strength sessions a week.
- Take at least one rest day between sessions. Your muscles actually weaken when you lift and get stronger when you rest.
- Whenever possible, use free weights instead of machines. This will help you to improve your core strength and body stability as your train.
- Be fanatical about form. Lifting heavy weights or high reps with sloppy form is a fast and foolproof way to wreck yourself. Keep resistance light until your form is dialed in.
- Use enough resistance so that you feel your muscles fatiguing by the end of the set but can continue with good form. If your form starts to fall apart, stop right away and adjust your reps/weight on the next set.
- Build strength gradually by lifting more weight, adding reps, or taking shorter rests.
- Always log your strength training workouts carefully. This will help you to ramp up consistently, gradually, and safely.
How to Make a Strength Training Plan
When choosing strength training exercises, remember that the major muscle groups work in opposition. So for maximum function and performance, it’s important to train both groups together.
When choosing exercises, try to balance the following:
- Upper Body: Push/Pull
- Lower Body: Quad Dominant/Hamstring Dominant
We’ll talk about some specific exercises that fall into each category in just a minute.
Don’t forget core strength
You should also include at least 15 minutes of core exercises in each workout. This is especially important for athletes who are climbing Mt. Rainier with a heavy pack.
When you’re carrying a load on snow, your core has to work extra hard to keep you upright and stable. Also, when you’re using your ice ax as a cane or belay, your core muscles will transmit any power you generate through your entire body.
The 10 Best Weight Lifting Exercises for Mountaineers
You could put together your strength program an infinite number of ways. But these are the exercises that are probably most helpful when you’re preparing to carry a heavy pack up Mt. Rainier.
1. Pull Ups (Upper Body Pull)
An awesome exercise for the entire upper body. It’s fine to use a machine or band to assist yourself if you need it. Or place your foot on a bench and give yourself a little push. Lower slowly for extra resistance and benefits.
2. Push Ups (Upper Body Push)
Another exercise that works multiple muscle groups in your arms, shoulders and back. Use your knees if you need an assist. For an extra challenge, wear a weight vest or raise your feet onto a ball or bench.
3. Step Ups (Quad Dominant)
This is about as close as you can get to climbing a mountain in the gym. Be careful to raise yourself with your quad rather than jumping off your bottom foot. To increase resistance, put on your pack or hold a weight plate in each hand. Raise the height of the step for an extra challenge.
4. Reverse Step Ups (Quad Dominant)
A great complement to the step up that works slightly different muscles. You’ll need to lower the step to make it work. Step down lightly and raise slowly. Use your quads instead of pushing off the ground.
5. Back Squats (Quad Dominant)
A workhorse of an exercise that works your lower body and your core at the same time. Start with an empty bar (or no bar) until you perfect your form and can maintain a neutral spine.
6. Deadlifts (Hamstring Dominant)
Another free weight exercise that builds leg strength and core stability at the same time. If lifting a barbell, start with an empty bar until you’ve got your form dialed in. You can also perform this exercise on one leg while holding dumbbells. The one-leg deadlift is a great way to correct imbalances or rehabilitate after an injury.
7. Standing Calf Raises (Hamstring Dominant)
Perform this exercise slowly, squeezing your calf muscle at the top of the movement. As you lower, drop your heel far enough to give your calf a nice stretch. I sometimes break my own rule and use a machine for this one, because my calves can lift more weight than I can comfortably hold.
8. Decline Bench Russian Twists (Core)
Start with a 10-lb. plate and a low decline angle. As you twist from side, focus on using your obliques (the sides of your abs) instead of your arms. When you get the movement right, you’ll definitely feel it!
9. Hanging Leg Raises (Core)
Works multiple muscle groups in the core, especially those hard-to-engage lower abs. If you’re a beginner, you can start by tucking your knees up to your chest. For extra resistance, straighten your legs, put on some heavy boots, or raise your feet above your head.
10. Crunches (Core)
It’s the workhorse of all core exercises for a reason! If the standard flat-on-your-back crunch feels too easy, switch to cable crunches or decline bench crunches for more resistance.
Periodicity for Strength Training
To get the most out of your strength training program, you should periodically change your workout to meet different goals. Here’s how you might progress through the season:
General Conditioning Phase (6–8 weeks)
If you are new to weight lifting or just coming off a break, it’s a good idea to ease your body into training. Perform all exercises with medium resistance. You should feel your muscles fatiguing by the last few reps, but still be able to complete them with good form.
- 4 sets/8 reps
- 3 sets/10 reps
Power Phase (4–8 weeks)
Lifting heavier weights strengthens your muscles and “recruits” new muscle fibers to help power your movements. For this phase, focus on fewer exercises. As always, watch your form and don’t lift to failure.
- 6 sets/4 reps
- 5 sets/5 reps
Endurance Phase (4–8 weeks)
This period prepares your muscles to contract repeatedly for hours without fatiguing. It’s actually a great phase to get outside and hike uphill with a heavy pack.
If you take this approach, carry enough weight so that you really feel the workout in your legs. You can lessen the stress on your joints by carrying your weight in water bottles and emptying them at the summit.
While it’s less fun, you can also train for endurance in the gym by using more reps and less resistance.
- 3 sets/12 reps
- 2 sets/16 reps
So there you have it.
Everything you need to lift smart for mountain climbing. Hopefully you’re now feeling confident and walking around that gym like you OWN IT!
And if you are really excited about this and want some mountaineering-specific strength workouts to tackle, you will love my new:
It includes a 21-week training plan with all your strength workouts mapped out for each period. Plus an ebook, trip planner, workout log, wall calendar, and gear checklist. It’s a comprehensive training roadmap all laid out for you, so you can skip the math and focus on fun stuff like gear shopping.
So at this point, you may be all, “Sarah, this is great, but I did NOT get into mountaineering to sweat my face off in the effing gym!”
Well never fear. Because I’ll be back Monday to talk about training hikes.
We’ll talk about how a weekly training hike can help to prepare you for the big time, even if you’re in a flattish place like Florida.
And if you have some travel time during the training season, we’ll look at some climbs on real, big-ass mountains that can help to prepare you for Rainier.
See you then! Have a kick ass weekend.