Preparation Makes Perfect 

The 2018 documentary ‘Free Solo’ made a huge splash when it premiered, and an even bigger splash when it easily won the Best Documentary Feature Award at the Oscars in early 2019. 

But long before climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to free climb El Capitan, a famous vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, the filmmakers, being climbers themselves, took their time. 

They’ve said in a number of interviews, as well as the documentary itself, that they just didn’t want to take anything away from Honnold’s climb by documenting it. This was his project, his dream, and they needed to try to be flies on the wall from beginning to end

Unintentionally, the makers of ‘Free Solo’ highlighted two of the most important aspects of climbing and climbing culture: independence and support. 

Sure, fellow climbers enjoy receiving support at times, and during trips that utilize belay techniques, support is a constant feature. But there are also times when support gets in the way, when a climber wants to challenge themselves completely. In the process, they learn something valuable about themselves and their own abilities.   

For every climber, that challenge starts long before they head to a mountain or challenging rock formation. Training and exercise are absolutely vital, regardless of how or where you want to climb. 

Indoor rock climbing gyms have sprung up all over the U.S., but experienced and aspiring climbers alike can make progress in a simple gym or even the comfort of their own home.

We asked world-class climber Deborah Albuquerque to share some free weight exercises for climbers. Depending on the amount of weight used, these techniques can work for you throughout your climbing career. 

free weight exercises for climbers

Deborah Albuquerque in action during the Tristate Bouldering Series.

The Dead Bug

Up first is the Dead Bug, a common strength training exercise used by runners, but one that works just as well, if not better, for rock climbers and other endurance athletes. 

Albuquerque explained that at first, you don’t need to start with weights of any kind when doing your Dead Bug. In fact, if you’re a beginner, it would be best not to use free weights, just the weight of your own limbs. 

“The Dead Bug is great for core strengthening and balancing both sides of the body. You have the option of starting without weight in the beginning, but if it’s too easy, you can start using some free weights. I do my Dead Bug with two-kilogram dumbbells in each hand and a one-kilogram ankle weight on each leg.”

Next, Albuquerque gave us a quick run-through of how to safely execute the Dead Bug exercise. We also recommend watching the video below if you need clarification on any of the details. 

“Lying on a mat on your back, lift your arms straight up and lift your legs. Reach back with one arm while reaching forward with your opposite leg. Keep your lower back against the floor the whole time. If you can’t keep it down, the weights might be too heavy, or the leg weight may be lighter than the hand weights. Reset and do the other side. Three sets of eight reps for each side is a good rule of thumb.” 


As with all of these exercises, form is key. If you find yourself rushing through reps or losing your form, you won’t gain the benefits of the exercise. Don’t be afraid to decrease the amount of weight you’re using until you’re ready for more. 

Split Squats

Next up on the list is Split Squats. If you’ve ever done any long-distance running or played any soccer, you’re probably already familiar with squats and lunges. 

Split squats are a variation on the formula that utilizes free weights for maximum gains. 

“Split Squats are great for improving balance and lower body strength, it compensates the upper body strength that is naturally developed in climbing, avoiding injuries and improving leg power.” 

Amateur climbers sometimes neglect leg strength in favor of making their arms and cores as bulky as possible, but a balanced build will be the best bet in the end. 

“Start from the bottom, kneeling with one leg while stepping forward, make a 90-degree angle with the other leg. Lean slightly forward. Your bodyweight should be on the front leg. Again, three sets of eight reps on each side is a good limit.” 

The Deadlift

The next two exercises can technically be completed using free weights, but they more traditionally use barbells. 

The Deadlift is a popular gym exercise, and is used by many powerlifters as well as athletes of other stripes.

DO NOT use more weight than you’re comfortable with when attempting the Deadlift. This is a good rule for every exercise listed here, but especially important for the Deadlift. Using too much weight on the Deadlift can cause serious injuries. 

Here’s Albuquerque’s breakdown of the technique:  

“The Deadlift, with dumbbells or kettlebells, is great for getting better at pulling your hips closer to the wall when climbing. Squatting with your legs separated, straight back the whole time, lift the weight with both arms straight. Finish the movement by contracting the abs, buttocks, and quadriceps.”

The Landmine Press

The Landmine Press is another exercise that would be best performed with the use of a barbell. If you’re just starting out, feel free to use a weighted barbell without any additional weights attached to it. 

Making the Landmine Press a normal part of your workout routine will help make you a monster when you get to the hill or climbing wall. 

“Landmine Press is an excellent exercise for upper body strengthening and stabilization. Kneeling on one leg and stepping forward with the other leg, creating a 90-degree angle to the floor, push the free side of an anchored barbell upwards with the hand that is to the same side you’re kneeling. Start with your elbow one fist away from your body and finish the movement with a straight arm, leaning a bit forward and up.”

Safety Tips 

In closing, we’ll offer a few words of warning. When performing any kind of focused exercise, safety should be your first priority

Completing free weight exercises slowly not only keeps you safe, but it also guarantees that the targeted muscles will benefit. 

Albuquerque gave some simple and effective advice on where your focus should be when using free weights. 

“When working out with free weights, be aware of your back when carrying lots of weight and remember to bend your knees, activating leg strength rather than lifting with your back, which can be hazardous. Be aware of your feet when lifting weights or when near weight racks.”

As an additional safety measure, it’s always helpful to have a spotter with you when going through these exercises. If a friend didn’t come along to the gym with you, don’t be afraid to ask another gym-goer for help. Chances are they’ve been in your situation before and will be happy to help out. They might even have a few tips to help perfect your form.