The drive for distance has led the top pros in golf to look for new ways to increase their physical strength, and ability to generate force, to hit the ball further. In her exclusive interview with RSNG, Lydia Ko revealed how taking up rock climbing had helped her to come back stronger both mentally and physically, and reach the World Number Three spot, winning her first LPGA title in three years.
So what is it about grabbing multicolored plastic handholds in the gym, or latching onto real rock outside, that makes climbing such a good fit as a way to crosstrain for golf? (ED: other than for when you need to climb a tree to hit a wayward ball – we’re looking at you Sergio Garcia.)
Could climbing even be a legitimate alternative to pumping iron if you occasionally find traditional gyms to be uninspiring? Read on to find out how you can up your game, and refresh your mindset with an exciting new challenge…
1. Climbing Is An Adjustable Full-Body Strength Workout
To be effective, any strength-building session needs to be repeatable, measurable and progress on the last workout. Yes, you can achieve that with a pair of dumbbells but you can also do it with your own bodyweight. Climbing is unique among bodyweight training modes because the holds get smaller, and the angle of the wall gets steeper as the routes and boulder problems get harder.
This means that you have to generate and transfer more force through your body as you climb, when compared to simple bodyweight exercises. And more training stimulus means that more strength gains are available… As professional climber and Scarpa athlete, Robbie Phillips, says: “Climbing is an all-round functional body movement that works strength as well as flexibility and core.”
What’s more, every route or boulder gets its own grade, so you can tailor your effort to your ability, and track your progress as you get stronger. Particularly when done indoors, in climbing gyms, this activity allows you to complete multiple reps and sets within a single session, just as with weight training.
And on days when you want to focus on power and maximum strength output, you can concentrate on bouldering, which features a small number of powerful moves, often on steeply overhanging walls.
Phillips points out that you can make it as intense as you want. “Choose boulder problems on steep overhangs for maximum power. These work your shoulders, your biceps and your triceps.” To really focus on upper body strength, you can select problems that require you to ‘cut your feet’ for a move, and then replace them on the wall.
Climbing relies on the core to transfer power from the lower body into the upper body and arms – it’s much like golf in that respect
If you want to do more of an endurance, strength endurance or fat-burning day then you can switch to roping up and climbing longer routes on more vertical terrain. This means you can easily tailor your climbing to your strength and body composition goals.
Everyone automatically assumes climbing is all about the upper body, but it’s a whole body activity. In fact, it’s the lower body that often contributes the most power, because the muscles there are larger. It then falls to the core to transfer that power through the upper body, and then into the arms. Again, it’s much like golf in that respect.
2. Your Grip Becomes More Powerful And Accurate
As Lydia Ko pointed out to RSNG, grip strength is a key factor in climbing, and doing the sport will automatically improve it. You are uniquely motivated to hold on tight when it means falling if you don’t, even if your forearms are burning up and completely pumped out!
So, if you’re having trouble achieving a strong, stable grip on your golf club, and stamina in your forearms to last throughout 18 holes, then climbing could be the solution. You can train grip strength in traditional gyms, but it requires doing things such as Farmers Carries and heavy Barbell Deadlifts (without hand straps), so your grip strength can fall behind the rest of your gains.
Something that climbers are very aware of is that latching onto tiny holds puts your fingers under a lot of strain. Fortunately, climbing routes increase in difficulty in increments, so you can get accustomed to one size of handhold before moving up to harder climbs and smaller holds. This allows the ligaments to strengthen over time.
What’s more, you won’t just get a stronger grip through climbing. There are a plethora of different climbing holds, from edges, to pinches, two-finger pockets, slopers, sidepulls, underclings and yes, I could go on…
This means that your fingers and hands are constantly adapting to new positions, and your unconscious awareness of your grip is also heightened, so your hands become millimeter-accurate when forming and repeating a grip. This ensures that they hold on with the optimal positioning and maintain the grip under extreme forces – just the thing you will need when increasing your club-head speed and accuracy!
3. Hips, Shoulders And Knees Gain More Rotational Mobility
Something else Lydia Ko credited climbing with was introducing more ‘twisting and manipulating the body’ which transfers over into achieving optimal golf swing positions, and form. You can spot a climber using good technique on the wall because they are constantly rotating their wrists, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles, in order to get their hips closer to the wall. Good climbers look like they are dancing up the climb, rather than just scaling a ladder, face-on.
This is because the closer your hips are to the wall, the less your own body weight is trying to pull you off it. And turning side-on to the wall also allows you to open up your shoulders and lengthen out your arm span, in order to reach higher.
These movements transfer to your golf game, lengthening your golf swing, and making it more powerful at the same time
Crucially, this increased mobility all happens under load, which means that you are not just increasing your joints’ range of motion – you’re also increasing their strength through that range, reducing the risks of injury.
These kinds of movements will transfer to your golf game, where you will now safely be able to lengthen your golf swing, and make it more powerful at the same time.
4. You’ll Transfer More Power
The latest thinking around the golf swing is less about rotating the halves of the body in isolation, and more about generating ground force, which is then transferred through the kinetic chain of the muscles involved.
This movement chain goes all the way from your feet to your fingers, and include the heavyweight muscles of the glutes and the lats, but it’s the core that has to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of transferring the force.
Once again, what’s true in golf is true in climbing, where you often have to push the strength of your whole body down through your toes and then spring up against gravity, while your core maintains high levels of body tension, and quickly grab a new hand hold, immediately using a whole load more force to hold on. In golf it’s the strike of the club head against the ball that requires peak force, and speed.
In both sports, tremendous forces are going through your core and spine as you perform their respective explosive movements, which also both involve degrees of rotation, and many repetitions. The movement patterns are subtly different in each sport, which is a good thing because you will be hitting your core from different angles, and making it more 360°-resilient.
As the [RSNG article on training your core](LINK TO Training Your Core For Golf Isn't Just For Power – Getting It Right Makes You More Resilient Too HERE) shows, a key strength of the core is to resist forces applied to it, which will help protect the delicate structures of the spine against injury. Another point in climbing’s favor is that it requires the core to continuously resist the force of gravity as it attempts to peel you off the wall, at the same time as resisting the forces of your muscles, which are simultaneously pulling (arms) and pushing (legs) at the wall, in order to hold on.
The usual caveats apply when avoiding injury, however, in that you need to allow sufficient rest and recovery between sessions of climbing. For instance, if you want to do two bouldering sessions in a single week then Robbie Phillips recommends taking at least 24-48 hours of rest between them.
5. It’s A Mental Puzzle You Solve Under Stress
Most of a game of golf happens in the head, and it’s the same with a good climbing session. After I got into a routine of climbing training, I found myself automatically visualizing the route I would take up a climb, in an attempt to decipher the 3D puzzle of how to unlock the correct sequence of movements between the holds. I would even mime the types of handholds I would try to use, as I did this. (OK, this does sound more than a little eccentric, but know that you see people doing this all the time in climbing walls.)
Part of the reason for this is that climbing – like golf – requires you to make split-second, semi-conscious, athletic adjustments and decisions during an explosive movement. In golf, it’s when you’re trying to maximize your club head speed and the accuracy of your golf swing. In climbing, it’s when you’re using your whole body to leap for an elusive handhold, that’s almost out of reach.
Later on in the climb, and the round of golf, you have to make judgment calls under mental stress, and physical fatigue, in the face of failure. If you are sport climbing (using pre-installed bolts in rock) or indoor climbing and bouldering, and using best safety practice, then the consequence of failure is merely an exhilarating fall into space, to be caught by a rope or land on a crash mat.
But facing the fear of failure, in an environment that has zero consequence for your golf handicap, will improve your mental resilience out on the course, and stop you from choking or crumbling under pressure, while fine-tuning your ability to visualize and execute.
5. It Automatically Boosts Your Power-To-Weight Ratio
While body mass assists hitting the golf ball harder, carrying excess baggage on the golf course can be tiring, and affect your general health. If you want to shift some pounds, then climbing is a fantastic route to hitting your goals while having fun. I personally find climbing to be utterly absorbing, to the point where I don’t realize I am ‘working out’.
Climbing is all about trying to cheat the relentless pull of gravity, which makes it a classic power-to-weight ratio activity. As with any workout or sport, your body will adapt to its specific demands. In this case, that means it will ruthlessly burn away anything that’s not useful for climbing up a wall: ie body fat. And because climbing is a full-body activity, it will also boost your metabolism, helping you to burn more calories at rest.
So long as you don’t slack off at the driving range, you’ll keep the muscle mass relevant to golf, but gain some additional strengths, making you more generally resilient, and able to withstand the stresses and strains of the game, and life in general.
6. It Helps You Enter The Flow State
A common feature of the experience of pro athletes, across many different sports, is entering the ultra-high performance mental zone of the Flow State, AKA ‘The Zone’. If you can clear your mind of everything else, and achieve total focus on the moment, then you’ve entered the zen-like Flow State.
As pro climber and The North Face athlete, James Pearson, once told me: “‘On very hard routes I start climbing and I’m so focused that everything else disappears. From leaving the floor to topping out on the route, there’s just me and the rock in a magic little bubble.”
It just flows and you have this magical performance moment where everything is just perfect
This isn’t just some short-cut to transcendence, it has a very practical value, because the activity suddenly seems to take no effort, and you don’t even have to consciously direct it. “You almost don’t even remember the climbing,” Pearson said. “It just flows perfectly and you have this magical performance moment where everything is just perfect.”
Pros across many sports report that this becomes easier to do the more often it happens to you. I personally find climbing to be such an immersive activity, that while I am doing it I am thinking about literally nothing else. The Flow State always seems very close at hand, and I can recall numerous times when a particularly challenging, or mentally absorbing climb, triggered it.
Once you become familiar with The Flow State, you learn how to transfer it to other sports and activities. So if you haven’t experienced it playing golf yet, then give climbing a go...
7. Your Self-Confidence Will Peak
The best climbers I know all exude a quiet kind of internal confidence in themselves. It’s as if facing down their fears on the wall, and reconfiguring their sense of what they can achieve (by progressing through the climbing grades) they have lost the need to constantly prove themselves to others, in everyday life.
And the best thing about this effect is that you don’t need to be a pro climber – or even a mediocre climber – to benefit from it. Every climber faces exactly the same challenge, in terms of the fear of falling, and every climber has to overcome this basic fear that’s hardwired into us all – with good reason!
When a climber trusts their partner to catch them, as well as their own ability, then they rationally know that they are safe – but they still have to quiet that primal part of the brain that will forever be a panicked animal. This is a skill that pays dividends wherever you are, including on the golf course, and will give you an unassailable bedrock of self-confidence.
When you combine this self-confidence with the reward loop of steadily moving up the climbing grades as you improve, then you’ll be able to keep the bigger picture in mind whenever you feel you’re stuck at a certain point of your golfing progression.
Golf and rock climbing might seem a surprising mix, but scratch beneath the surface of how each activity works, and there’s more than a little crossover. So if you’re looking for a new challenge to spark up your brain and take your physical capacity up a notch, then know that climbing could be just what you’re looking for…
WHAT NEXT? For more on the biomechanics of golf, read the RSNG interview with Rory McIlroy where he tells us how he builds his powerful drive…
Photos: Adobe Stock