How To Train For Caving: 5 Good Exercises That Work

Written by Jim Belt in Caving tips
Runners on a mountain trail

Do you remember your first real caving trip? I do. The memory is mostly painful. Two days later I felt all kinds of muscles I didn't even realize I had. There are some unexplored muscles in your inner thigh, on top of your shoulder as well, and I remember some previously unknown calf-muscles.

If you're a novice, like me, after a few days the strain on your muscles will get the better of you. So how to get fit for caving, and reach those hard-to-reach muscles?

In this article I give 5 good exercises that will definitely help you prepare your body for any intense caving trip. I'll first give you the summary, then I'll go in rant mode about exercise and how the body works.

How to train for caving? You should definitely consider yoga. Caving mostly requires stamina, agility, and flexibility. The most effective way to train these is by using your own body as fitness equipment. Some exercises to quickly increase core strength and flexibility are the good old push ups and sit ups. Some rock climbing will also really help you improve.

Do You Need Training?

If you're just doing quick excursions in some simple cave structures, you need no or little real training. But if you're serious about caving, and want to go as deep as humanly possible, you'll quickly find that you need a solid fitness level. Especially if you're doing extended excursions of multiple days at a time, training can help.

Caving requires a great deal of hiking, crawling, and climbing.

If you're doing more advanced structures, you'll definitely need basic climbing training, as climbing in caves is more difficult than regular outdoor walls, due to moisture and mud.

If you expect to go wet caving in deep caves, you'll probably want a cave diving scuba certificate to ensure you'll be safe.

Context is also a major factor: the terrain and climate for example. If you're caving in mountainous, humid terrain, you'll need another kind of fitness than if you're caving in Arizona, for example.

But even a simple caving trip can come down to playing an entire rugby game of 90 minutes - without taking a break. So in any case, you should be reasonably fit.

What Muscles Do Caving Require?

  • Shoulders
  • Strong abs (overall core strength, not six pack)
  • Quads
  • Upper body strength

What Techniques Are Important?

  • Prussiking
  • Traversing
  • Rock climbing
  • Walking/hiking
  • Crawling
  • Stamina
  • Agility and flexibility
  • Good body control
  • Efficient movement
  • Balance keeping

So How To Train for Caving?

The best training for caving is, obviously, to go caving. Though not everybody is so fortunate as to live near some decent caving areas. Sometimes we can only go in once a month, or even just a couple of times a year. In that case you'll need to stay in shape without the help of real caves.

So what are the best exercises for training the particular muscles and skills you'll need?

You want to train the body as a whole as much you can. It's best to train without weights, using your own body. This helps you to gain better coordination between the muscles.

Why? Because when you're out caving, you always use the entire body.

If your exercise routine consists of ie. lifting weights, you're not working the stabilizing muscles. You only work an isolated group of muscles, and after that you generally do the opposite direction. We call these the agonist and antagonist muscles. This helps you to become strong, yes, but it doesn't help your muscles to learn to work together.

If you train without equipment, you automatically incorporate the stabilizing muscles into your workout, meaning you increase the strength of the muscle group, while at the same time improving your control over it. Which is a huge win when you're preparing for caving.

Going to the Gym Might Not Be the Best

If you go to a gym - and do it in a very disciplined way: meticulously, and thorough (everybody does it this way, right?) - you can get quite large. This can be a problem as caves can be very tight. You could lose the ability to squeeze through some passages. Also, carrying around the extra weight isn't great for your energy levels.

If you do a lot of weight-lifting, it may also reduce your prussiking technique. Weight lifting is great for some sports, but not for caving. You get top-heavy, placing your center of balance high up, making it more difficult to keep your balance.

So going to the gym might not be the best thing for a caver.

1. Hidden Gem: Yoga for Flexibility and Balance

I want to start of with this one immediately since it has been, surprisingly, the most helpful to me personally.

Yoga and stretching in general are great exercises for cavers, and are recommended for practically all people, as it will improve your overall body control and grace of movement. Practices such as yoga are great to improve your muscles' co-ordination and your overall flexibility and balance.

Yeah, I know, yoga is great for everything lately. But it's no coincidence it pops up all over the place. It actually is great for many things.

Yoga is something of an undiscovered gem amongst cavers. It has done wonders for myself, and I've heard plenty of friends agree with me, if they were willing to give it a shot. In a way, yoga helps your muscles to reorganize, making your entire body move more effectively. Which is practically a cavers wet dream.

It also greatly increases the strength of your connective tissue, which greatly reduces your chances of injury. And this is no joke: your connective tissue will become like Kevlar. After a couple of years of yoga, it becomes just about impossible to injure yourself.

But it can be intimidating to have to learn an entire new discipline from scratch, right?

To prove to you that it actually will work wonders, and to help you hit the ground running, I've actually asked a yoga teacher I know for some cool beginner yoga poses for cavers. Please really consider giving these a couple of shots (I've added links to pictures of the poses and the explanation).

She came up with the following poses:

  1. Tree Pose (Vrksasana) - simple and great balancing pose
  2. Boat Pose (Paripurna Navasana) - core: strengthener for ab and deep hip flexor
  3. Side Plank - powerful arm and wrist strengthener
  4. Locust Pose (Salabhasana) - back, leg, and arm strengthener
  5. Cobra Pose - increases flexibility in lower back, arm and shoulder strengthener
  6. Extended Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) - strengthens the thighs, knees, and ankles, stretches hamstrings, calves, shoulders, chest, spine, and hips
  7. Extended Side Angle Pose (Pasvakonasana) - increases stamina and stretches and strengthens the legs, knees, and ankles
  8. Downward Facing Dog (Svanasana) - stretches hamstrings, shoulders, calves, arches and hands, increases strength in arms and legs, energizes the body
  9. Plank Pose - strengthens the arms, wrists, and spine, good core exercise
  10. Four Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana) - great strengthener for arms, wrists, and core

To be fair, pose 10 isn't really a beginner pose, it's actually quite hard and requires a lot of strength.

Please note: you shouldn't use power to force yourself into any of these shapes. Instead, you should use your breath to relax the muscles and to deepen the stretch. Using force might result in injury.

This video shows you a short series called a 'Vinyasa'.
It consists of the poses (8) Downward Facing Dog, > (9) Plank Pose > (10) Chaturanga, > (5) Cobra, > (8) Downward Facing Dog.

2. Stepping, Swimming and Running for Core and Stamina

A strong core helps to improve your stamina and balance. Of course you can do sit ups all day (I can't), but endurance activities such as swimming are a great way to train larger muscle groups and improve your condition at the same time. All durability exercises are great for improving your overall caving fitness.

Anything you can think of that simulates the caving conditions will help you improve. For example, running up a mountain.

People running up a hill
Running up a mountain is not so bad either

3. Anytime Routine

The European Space Agency has created a great training routine for their underground astronaut training course. The best thing is: you can do this routine anytime you like (hence the name I suppose). In this routine you make great use of your own bodyweight, and will definitely use the stabilizing muscles as much as any others.

The Anytime routine consist of the following exercises:

  1. Sit up variations
  2. Plank variations
  3. Push up variations
  4. Squats
  5. Pull-ups
  6. Burpees

The cool thing about these exercises is that you can do them literally anywhere, for example, outside while on a hike, doing pull-ups on a tree.

Check it out:

4. Rock Climbing

So we have a good all round training schedule, but if you want to get around in any advanced cave structure, you need climbing skills. Cave climbing is somewhat more difficult than dry wall climbing, due to residue and moist (meaning: it gets slippery) - but a general level of climbing ability will help you a lot. Best way to train this is to get to one of those indoor climbing walls. Nowadays you'll find them literally all over the place; they're not all too expensive so you should be able to do a decent amount of rappelling, climbing, and chimneying.

People on an indoor climbing wall

5. Backyard Training Course for Specialist Caving Skills

Alright, we're nearly there. We're in great shape, know how to climb a wall, and can maneuver around and through all kinds of corners and holes. But if we want to absolutely dominate any cave, we'll need to work on our specialist skill set as well. These specialist skills are prussiking, chimneying, and traversing. So how to train them?

With a bit of imagination you can easily create a backyard training course. Well, some in the backyard, others just at home.

To practice prussiking, simply hang a rope from any tree. If you don't have a backyard, you should definitely go into the forest or the local city park.

To practice your traversing technique, you can either work on a climbing wall, but there's also an opportunity in urban areas. Walls made of larger, more raw blocks can actually be a really good traversing work out (check out this guy).

To practice your chimneying technique, you can again work on a climbing wall (most climbing walls have a special spelunking wall, where two walls nearly meet). You can also go into your hallway, or find an alley outdoors. The beach generally offers some large boulders in the surf, allowing you to practice your chimneying while enjoying a nice sea breeze.

These kinds of outdoor and improvised practices are most of the time actually way harder than a controlled climbing environment, and require more creativity, which means you'll improve a lot quicker.

6. Bonus Exercise: eat a decent English fry-up in the morning

English breakfast or fry up

Whatever way you look at training, a solid English breakfast is key to long lasting caving success!