Climber Tommy Caldwell is one of the featured athletes on SI's 2019 Fittest 50 list, ranking the best-conditioned athletes in sports right now. For more on the annual list, click here.
Tommy Caldwell is a wildly accomplished climber, but his crowning jewel of achievements came when he became the first person to free climb the nearly vertical 3,000-foot Dawn Wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan—a feat so immensely difficult that it went unaccomplished for centuries.
The physical strength it took for Caldwell to climb the Dawn Wall is unimaginable to most, but the climber takes training day by day to reach each goal he sets for himself. Caldwell puts in four-to-five days per week of intense, hours-long training to stay in peak climbing shape, but his routine is based on a paradoxical combination of repetition and flexibility. When he’s home, it’s the same structure. But given how often he travels, he goes with the flow when he’s on the road.
That ebb and flow of freedom and routine mimic Caldwell’s sport—as important as it is to stay in form and focused, climbing is very much about figuring it out as you go. That’s what Caldwell has done with his training regimen over the years, too.
After beginning his routine with a morning run, Caldwell moves to his garage, where he has a custom-crafted training facility complete with a few key climbing tools: his “woody,” or a small bouldering wall, his tread wall, which is “basically like a vertical treadmill with climbing holes,” and his campus board, or a slightly overhanging piece of plywood with numbered rungs of various sizes.
“You do different combinations of moves with your feet dangling so it’s all finger and arm related exercising,” Caldwell says.
Finger and arm exercises—specifically movements that strengthen your grip—are the center of Caldwell’s workouts. The 40-year-old climber’s post-run “power workout” begins with a warm up on his tread wall. He’ll start with 400 to 500 feet there to get ready for the next few hours that he’ll spend doing hard bouldering on his woody. Campus boarding comes next and, if he’s feeling extra motivated, Caldwell will tack on some weight training or head outside to a climbing area for some sport climbing.
Just north of Denver, Colo., his Estes Park home is the perfect spot for the type of training that Caldwell needs to keep in peak climbing condition.
“I’m right in the heart of the mountains. That’s probably why I’m a professional climber really, because I just happen to live right in the middle of the best place for training in the country,” Caldwell said. “My dad was a mountain guide and a school teacher but they moved here for the climbing before I was born. We moved to Colorado literally for the climbing.”
Caldwell can’t remember what his body felt like when he began climbing because he was so young. For most, learning to climb is an incredible physical challenge. But when a three-year-old Tommy would join his dad when he set out for climbs, tagging along on the miles-long hikes to reach a climb, his body adapted to the unique somatic requirements at an early age.
“I went from this really frail, kind of under-grown little kid to being kind of a mountain badass by the time I was like 12 just because we were out doing it all the time,” Caldwell says. “If you looked at me, you wouldn’t notice that. I looked tiny, but I had just been on so many [climbs] my body was molded for it.”
As his career progressed, his body, training routines and eating habits continued to morph.
Caldwell is now “trending very close to vegetarian,” an environmental choice that he says has also helped him maintain the delicate strength-to-weight ratio that climbers crave. As evidence from his current training plan, Caldwell does a substantial amount of his training indoors when he’s home.
“Being outside and climbing used to be the most important but people are realizing that the very scientific, indoor style of training is really effective,” Caldwell says. “So even I’ve adapted more and more of that in the last few years which has made me stronger. I’ve realized how much about [climbing] just comes down to finger strength, and that really is most efficiently gained through indoor training on the woody, on the campus board, on the tread wall, hang boards all that kind of stuff.”
Even if you’re not a professional climber or don’t have access to indoor climbing equipment, there are other ways to reap the benefits of the sport, says Jin Zhen, a personal trainer and physical therapist assistant at Manhattan-based gym, The Dogpound.
“Rock climbing utilizes not just the arms and back one may think—it requires one to have full body control,” Zhen says. “When one climbs regularly for a period of time, grip strength will significantly increase.”
Zhen recommends exercises like plate pinches to get your grip ready for climbing: do two to three sets of 30-second holds for each arm, gripping onto multiple stacked up five-pound plates, only using the end of your fingertips.
Developing strength in the mid-back and the rest of the upper body is also important. For someone like Caldwell, those muscles were developed as his body grew. For climbing newcomers or those interested in the sport as a workout, those muscles might need a little extra help.
Seated cable rows and lateral pull downs will help develop the muscles needed to help ascend during climbs, Zhen says. Inverted rows, using your bodyweight, are also a good choice. Place a bar at about hip width and take a grip wider than shoulder width. Position yourself hanging underneath the bar with your body straight and your heels on the ground. Pull your body upwards towards the bar. Zhen recommends four sets of 10-12 repetitions to “improve mid back and grip strength, and muscular endurance.”
Zhen also recommends chin-ups and pull-ups; single arm rows and farmers walks. All of the exercises incorporate the multiple areas of fitness that climbing requires: cardiovascular health, muscle strength, flexibility, range of motion and “mind and body control.”
“The most difficult aspect of climbing is mentality—one will need to keep the mind clear and strong, and you can’t easily give up,” Zhen says. “We all have our own unique body and will require you to try different climbing techniques. The best reference would be famous bouldering climber Kevin Jorgeson [Caldwell’s partner during his Dawn Wall climb] from the film The Dawn Wall, where he attempted and failed a traverse Pitch 15 for days. He did not give up and after multiple attempts over days, he finally completed it.”
Caldwell echoes the importance of perseverance and commitment to a climb. But for beginning climbers or those participating in the sports as a hobby, he also emphasizes the camaraderie between climbers.
“[Climbing gyms are] like a combination of going to the pub but also working out at the same time. That tends to be motivating,” Caldwell says. “And it’s way more fun than running on a treadmill.”