Strong statement right? Stick with me on this one though, I’m not writing this just to be controversial, quite the opposite. I love these 2 movements just as much as the next person, and they’re in no way futile, but they’re also not the be all and end all. If the true goal is climbing improvement, these 2 movements might not be what you need in your program. So let’s break it down…
The problem as I see it, is that there is a real emotional attachment to the pull up and the overhead press. They’ve become synonymous with great upper body strength and lauded as the gold standard of pulling and pressing movements respectively. In all honesty, they’re sat on a bit of a pedestal from where I’m sitting. Many who can’t do them look down upon themselves as weak, yet those who can often overplay their importance in climbing. I’m not saying do not do them, I’m simply saying doing them may not be the best use of your time.
Simply put, when emotional attachment is placed on something we often fail to remain impartial to it. Chasing something down without stopping to question its value and kicking back at the suggestion of dropping it from our routine can pose a real problem for the improvement hungry climber. If we want to progress we have to be open to different perspectives. In particular when it comes to improving strength for climbing. If we can’t be open minded to our training we can get trapped by our biases. When ego takes over from curiosity, that’s a red flag!
Do you need these 2 movements and if so to what extent should they be included?
Mechanically, pull ups and the overhead press can be tricky. In order to execute them properly we need to be mobile enough, engage the right muscles and in the right sequence. Particularly the case with the overhead press, if we’re fighting too hard to press straight up due to the immobility of our shoulders/spine, is it really worth the time and effort trying to correct this if we’re never going to be pressing straight overhead?
Think about it, when ever in climbing are you pushing straight up with your body perfectly under a load? You could argue in some boxy, cave-like problems an overhead pressing like position is adopted, but A) This is pretty rare and B) Boxy, cave-like problems are best attacked by doing more (you guessed it) boxy, cave-like problems
Likewise with a pull up, when are we ever pulling in a perfectly straight, vertical line, with our feet detached from the wall? Again, rarely. Climbing often requires pulling at more horizontal angles, with the feet much more further forwards than the shoulders. Furthermore, like the mobility required for the overhead press, the length of time it takes to develop pull ups if you can’t do 1 plus the potential for the wrong muscle groups to be used – Is it really worth investing our time so heavily?
One question I find useful to ask climbers in this situation is, ‘Do we want to be better at climbing or better at pull ups and overhead press?’ If the former is the answer but we feel our upper body strength is lacking, it may be worth performing rowing movements (like the ring row) and punching movements (like the landmine press. Both are much easier to execute technically and mobility wise, with the added benefit of being more specific to climbing. Even if pull ups and overhead press are in your remit, it’s worth turning an eye to the 2 alternatives mentioned simply for specificity?
In any sense though, gym work for climbers wants to be short and punchy. Legends like Dave McLeod recommend climbers spend a maximum of 1/5th of total training time in the gym vs actual climbing – Remembering this is paramount. The gym has its place, it can be SUPER useful but not necessarily if it’s at the expense of actual climbing (we’ll explore the situations when gym work should be incorporated in my next blog post). Climbing is resistance work at the end of the day and muscle groups can still be targeted on the wall (like in the gym) with the added bonus of being able to learn technique and tactics simultaneously.
Make no odds if pull ups and overhead press are a doddle for you, great use them, just don’t expect them to help you too much from a performance aspect. Likewise if you can’t do either or struggle with them, seek out other exercises, you are no less a climber by choosing something different. The best exercises are the ones you can do well, not the ones others think you should do. Personalisation and context always when it comes to what to include in your training program.