Train Like A Pro: Ryan Atkins


Few athletes dominate their sports the way Ryan Atkins has dominated OCR in recent years. He has emerged victorious at World’s Toughest Mudder four years running, most recently completing 105 miles with partner Jon Albon, and Atkins also finished on top in the first ever Spartan U.S. Championship Series.

At the Spartan World Championships, he has finished in second place three years in a row, missing first place by just 00:27 in 2016. The fourth main event in the sport, OCR World Championships, hasn’t slowed him down either. He won the 3k short course this year and finished second in the 15k Classic.


If you follow him on social media, you may not be surprised at all of the accolades. Atkins is an avid climber, runner, mountain biker and skier, not to mention proud Alaskan Malamute owner. A typical winter day for him includes a morning ski, fatbike ride and even a snowshoe hike or run for up to three hours. That’s usually followed by an afternoon climb or workout.

Below is one of those afternoon workouts, with climbing included. Atkins will generally warm up with four or five easy bouldering routes. 


Do part one followed by part two and repeat four times.



Boulder near your limit for approximately 20 minutes. If you are unable to find a place to climb, perform the following six exercises as a circuit, doing 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest. Repeat four times:

Dead hang – Plank – Pinch-plate carries – Kettlebell swings – Pull-ups – Wall sit

Pro Tip: Try to avoid using chalk to make previously easy routes seem harder, or to simulate wet hands in a race. After you have warmed up, go hard for the bouldering session. You’ll want to rest about one minute between difficult routes.

Writer’s Note: I don’t normally have easy access to a rock wall or mountain, so I opted to do the 30/30 circuit. I also used my homemade hang board, at times, to feel a little more like I was actually climbing. To mimic bouldering, I placed a chair a bit behind the board so that my toes were the only part of my feet touching. I then worked back and forth on the board, sometimes moving my feet from the left side to right side of the chair. Because I added this in, I did the circuit three times as not to over-exhaust my muscles and increase injury risk. 




  • Wall Balls (20 reps): Stand in front of a wall and assume a squat position. When you come up, throw a medicine ball up in the air towards a target above you on the wall. As you catch the ball, return to the squat position. Atkins uses a 35-lb medicine ball.
  • Mountain Climbers (40 reps): Get into a pushup position. Bring one knee towards your chest and tap your toe on the ground. As that foot returns to its original position, bring the opposite foot up and tap that toe. That is one rep. Be sure your butt does not stick up. Your body should form a straight line from head to toe.
  • Side Planks (2 minutes per side): Lay on the ground facing sideways, with your hand, forearm and elbow on the ground. Your elbow should be under your shoulder. The only other part of your body touching the ground will be your bottom foot. Raise your body up so that you form a straight line and hold that position. Your free hand can either be on your hip or in the air. Focus on not allowing your hip to dip down toward the ground. 
    • Writer’s Tip: Use a yoga mat to make it more comfortable for your supporting arm.
  • Toes To Bar (8 reps): Grab a bar with an overhand grip, your hands shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and bring your toes to the bar. Be sure to perform each rep slow and controlled. Your body shouldn’t swing at all when you come into the lower position.
  • Weighted BOSU Ball Lunge Squat (20 reps per leg): With a BOSU ball under each leg, stand in a lunge position. Hold weights at each side or at your shoulders. Lower until your back knee almost touches the ground, making sure your front knee doesn’t pass over the toes. Return to the starting position. Atkins uses 20 lbs. 
    • Writer’s Tip: If you struggle too much to have a BOSU under each foot, start off with one and work your way up. 
  • Weighted Goblet Squat (20 reps): Hold a kettlebell or one end of a dumbbell at your chest, with your palms facing in. Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart. Squat down, retaining a straight back, and return up to the start position. Atkins uses 30 lbs.
  • Calf Raises (30 reps per leg): Stand on one leg, either flat on the ground or on a step with only the toes and ball of the foot touching. Raise your heel up, then lower it back into the starting position. 

Pro Purpose: Part two is a great way to allow your arms to recover from climbing. It also gives you some good leg and core strength training.

Pro Tip: Pace yourself during the strength section. The main purpose is to rest your arms and build functional, injury-free fitness.


Writer’s Note: Thank you to Ryan for sharing this workout. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram. For more workouts from Ryan, check out his Obstacle Course Training (a joint venture with Jon Albon and Matt Murphy): they are offering 20% off for the holidays.

Photo Credit: Ryan Atkins, Spartan Race, the author

Check out past Train Like A Pro articles:

How I Built My Own Hangboard

I’m a competitive person, by nature. So when I completed my first Spartan as well as first (also last) BattleFrog within two weeks of each other, I learned quickly what my strengths and weaknesses were. One common theme was grip strength.

Because so many obstacles put your grip to the test (rigs, monkey bars, heavy carries, etc), fatigue can become an issue. Going into both races, I had trained grip strength pretty heavily by doing various towel pull-ups, weighted carries, and dead hangs. After them, I still wanted to improve.


A friend of mine, who had done BattleFrog Xtreme, gave me an idea. If you’re unfamiliar, BFX had racers complete as many 8k laps as possible. Each lap for this particular race included a jug carry, monkey bars and two rigs, which is where I struggled. He had completed both rigs in the elite lane all three laps he ran. When he could see how impressed I was, he mentioned that he was a rock climber.

I had known that climbing improved grip strength, but this had me sold. Unfortunately, I don’t have easy access to a mountain or rock wall and buying a hangboard/fingerboard can be a bit pricey. So I decided to do the next best thing: make my own hangboard.


Because I’m not the most handy person in the world, I began doing some research. After taking some advice from various online sources, I dove head-first into building a board that would fit my mounting location. I didn’t need the board to be pretty. Function here is the most important aspect. The space available to attach the board was about one foot tall and three feet wide. As I said before, I’m not contractor. This setup has worked for me but, depending on your situation, you may want to do things a bit differently.

What I used:

  • Plywood (½” thick) – My local hardware store sold it in 2’x4’ sections, so I cut it in half and doubled it up to make a 1” thick piece for more stability.
  • Several 2″ x 4″ pieces – I used these to mount the plywood to, but also as my holds. Most hardware stores have scrap piles sold up to 70% off.
  • Wood screws – To hold the two pieces of plywood together so that I could drill, which will come later. If you go with a 1” thick piece, you may not need these.
  • Bolts/washers/nuts – For the holds, I used ½” thick and 3” long hex head bolts matched with the proper washer and nut. Hex head lag bolts (½” thick / 5” long), with washer, were used to mount the board above my door frame.
  • Tools – This includes a drill, drill bits, torque wrench, socket set, wrench, and whatever you normally use to cut wood.


How I used it:

  • I cut two lengths of 2×4 at one foot to attach to the back of the plywood, serving as a gap between the plywood and mounting surface. This helped because, when changing holds, I needed space behind the plywood to use my wrench so that the nut could be either tightened or loosened. This makes the board completely adjustable!
  • I then cut the plywood into my two 1’x3’ pieces. I used the wood screws to attach these pieces to the previously cut 2x4s. This kept the two pieces of plywood together so that I could drill the holes.
  • I used my ½” drill bit to put holes about 2” apart in the plywood. You can use whatever distance you’d like, but just make sure that if you cut a longer hold, you measure the holes to match.Drilling-the-holes-for-holds
  • Using the remaining 2x4s I had purchased, I measured and cut various lengths for holds. Some were 3” wide, others 4” and a few as long as 8-10”. I used a spade bit to drill down into the wood slightly so that the hex head was recessed. I also did this to the corners of the plywood for when I was ready to mount. Be sure to make it large enough for your socket. I then used my ½” drill bit again to make a hole in the 2×4 pieces. In the larger ones, I put two. Once the holes were drilled, I sanded down each edge to prevent splinters.
  • (This part may require a friend) I had my dad hold the board on the mounting location so that I could pre-drill the holes for the lag bolts. Since the hex head lag bolt still needs wood to grab onto as it goes in, I pre-drilled the holes a few sizes smaller than the bolt.
  • Once all the holes were drilled, I used a torque wrench to insert one lag bolt into each corner. A washer was used so that the hex head didn’t dig into the wood.
  • After the board was mounted, it was time to attach the holds! To attach the hold, I simply lined up the hole in the 2×4 with the plywood, inserted the bolt through the front and attached the washer and nut on the back. Holding the nut with an adjustable wrench, I used the proper socket size to tighten via the front hex head.

How-to-attach-the-holdAnd there you have it! With only a few items from the local hardware store, I was able to build my own hangboard. Now I have been able to add a variety of deadhangs, pull-ups and even hold transitions to my training.

Vertical “Gainz” – OCR in the climbing gym

I’ve seen you, wearing your Spartan Race or TM Finisher tee, white socks loosely sagging out of your ill-fitting rental shoes as you thrutch and claw your way up some jug-haul, attempting pull-up after pull-up, believing in your mind that you’re one step away from becoming the next American Ninja Warrior…

(Bolded terms are defined below)


Although this is a (slight) exaggeration, many obstacle course racers have been flocking to climbing gyms in an attempt to improve their grip-strength, widen their repertoire of movement skills, and raise their “bad-ass” quotient*. And yes, a few are thinking it’ll prepare them for American Ninja Warrior**.  Aside from the latter it’s true that climbing skills are an excellent addition to an obstacle course racer’s toolbox. The kinesthetic awareness, core strength, and improved grip that result from climbing will improve your ability on just about any obstacle – not just the obvious one such as Spartan’s Z-wall, but also the Tyrolean traverse, wall and rope climbs, “Herc” Hoist, Spartan Rig, monkey bars, and even a bucket or jerry-can carry.

Since I’ve been teaching climbing technique for the past few years I figured that I would put together a précis on how to maximize your gains while not coming across like a total amateur in the gym. In climbing we call beginners “gumbys,” it’s a phase everyone goes through, but hopefully this advice will speed up your transition to becoming an experienced “rope gun.”

First, don’t whine ceaselessly about how afraid of heights you are. Everyone is afraid of heights. That fear is the product of millions of years of evolution and it kept your ancestors from waltzing off cliffs. That fear/rush is what makes climbing exciting. Your fear will never go completely away, but as you learn to trust the equipment, your belayer, and your skills you will learn to accept the fear and, eventually, even enjoy it.

On your first visit you’ll need to decide whether you’re going to work boulder problems (the short walls with pads under them) or learn how to belay and climb routes. Realize that the easiest boulder problems start around an advanced-beginner level of route difficulty – so expect to flail and fail if you start there. In a nutshell bouldering will increase upper body and contact strength, while climbing the longer routes will foster the development of endurance in your grip and is more conducive to learning proper technique. If you’re going to hit the climbing gym on a regular basis the best possible scenario would be to do both. However, if you choose to try both just remember to take off your harness and chalk bag before bouldering, they’re not really necessary and look silly.

The next thing to do if you’re planning on being a regular is to buy your own gear. Have shoes properly fitted by someone who knows what they’re doing. Don’t believe the hype and get a pair of $200 shoes that require a crowbar to force your foot into; you don’t need them and won’t for a couple of years at least. Choose a comfortable harness and pick up a chalk bag that, unless you’re 14, isn’t shaped like a stuffed animal.

At this phase in your climbing career the fastest route (see what I did there?) to be a better climber is to climb; the more frequently the better. Climbing involves a very specific set of physical skills so, in general, other types of exercise don’t transfer to improved climbing ability. Also, notice all those strength training apparatuses at the back of the climbing gym—things like campus rungs and finger boards? Stay away from them! Until the tendons in your fingers, elbow and forearms mature, which occurs more slowly than the muscles, they can be a fast track to injury, especially if used incorrectly.

Routes start with your hands on the start hold(s). They finish when you reach the top and “match” both hands on the finish hold or top of the wall surface. Do not smack the taped X on the wall – that screams gumby!

Familiarize yourself with the grading systems (YDS for routes and V-scale for bouldering) and chose your projects appropriately. Try to pick routes where you can make moves only using the holds that are “on” (i.e., taped or colored) for that route. If you can hardly make any moves at that grade choose an easier route.

Although the holds bolted to the walls generally approximate the varieties of real rock you’ll encounter outside (except for the ones shaped like dinosaurs or the Buddha) they are made of plastic – don’t call them rocks or grips; they are holds. Here’s a handy guide to some common types.


Good climbers can make hard movement look easy. Don’t be fooled! This PSA is for you those of you who can “lift big”: don’t follow female climbers around the gym jumping onto everything they climb thinking it might be easy. I find nothing more amusing and irritating than watching guys trail my wife around the gym falling off the first move of her warm-up problems.

Good technique isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t particularly intuitive and can be difficult to learn by just watching. It’s mainly about being efficient and adjusting your center of gravity to avoid “barn-dooring” off the wall. It begins with good footwork (edging, pivoting, smearing, switching feet) and then progresses to more advanced moves like back-steps, drop-knees, heel hooks, and flags. Here are some basic moves:


When you climb remember to use your legs to drive you up the wall, instead of scrambling them up after you. Don’t “over-grip” and squeeze more than necessary with your hands. Look down, choose higher feet, and stand up off of them rather than trying to do a “pull-up.” If you become tired try sinking down into a straight-armed stance, loosely hanging off your joints. This will allow the relatively inefficient large muscles in your upper body to recover before the next move. Sometimes it’s easier to attain this stance with only one foot on a hold and the other pressed up against the wall. Having “three points of contact” frees you to more creatively play with your center of gravity.

“Campusing” is a term that means using only your upper body to provide momentum to move between holds. It’s incredibly inefficient in terms of stamina and is used outdoors only in specific situations. You may see more advanced climbers campusing as part of a strength training workout. However, it’s not a substitute for good technique (ditto for dynos between holds). Learn how to use your feet!

After you’ve gone to the gym a few times take a class to learn proper technique. This will prevent bad habits from becoming ingrained and slowing you down later on. Also, be friendly and ask for help from other climbers who look like they know what they’re doing. They will be happy to spray you down with some beta if you’re stuck on a move.

After a few visits you’ll begin to notice an increased awareness of your core and how it can stabilize your body while climbing. Your grip strength will improve as will your ability to “read” the sequences in a route. All of this will not only increase your efficiency and success on obstacles, but it will also allow you to start climbing more difficult and interesting routes.

Eventually you may want to test your skills outdoors on real rock. Being on the sharp-end of the rope or topping out a boulder problem outside are incredibly rewarding. Learning to lead outside takes a lot of additional instruction, but once you can flash 5.9s in the gym consider taking a lead climbing class. If you want to boulder outside all you need is a guidebook and a crashpad and some spotters. Another great way to get a taste of the outdoors is to hire a guide at an outdoor climbing area. With a guide you can spend the day outside climbing safely and getting instruction at whatever level you require.

Most important, remember to have fun! Climbing is an amazing sport with a rich and colorful history. It spans across a wide range of endeavors as diverse as mountaineering, big wall, and multi-pitch trad to gymnastic sport routes and burly “high ball” boulder problems. A wealth of books and websites are available to help you learn more about the sport. For example, Dead Point Magazine is a free e-zine with a great video library that’ll get your palms sweating and itching to send on real rock!

Climb on!

* Obstacle racers are pretty obvious in the gym because they do burpees between routes.

** The successful contestants on American Ninja Warrior with climbing backgrounds are generally 5.13-5.14 climbers (i.e. professional level). If ANW is your goal and you’re banking on climbing skill to get you there then you only have 8-10 years or more of hard training before you begin to approach their level of ability.


Gumby: beginner climber.

Jug-Haul: route with lots of large, easy to use holds.

Thrutch: popping to the next hold as you begin to “barn-door” – evidence of poor technique.

Spray: talking about a climb, can also be excessive boasting about one’s ability.

Beta: insider information about a route (from watching a “Betamax” – anybody remember those?).

Dyno: using momentum to jump to a hold that’s too far to reach.

Flash: doing a route cleanly, no falls, from bottom to top the first time you’re on it.

Crash-pad: portable cushioning for outdoor bouldering.

Send: to complete a route or problem successfully.

About the author:


David Kalal has been stick-clipping bolts and giving bad spots around the world since 1999. For the past few years he’s taught Fight Gravity – a technique class for beginner climbers at The Gravity Vault gyms in New Jersey. He got hooked on OCR in 2010 when he realized that due to his tremendous grip strength he could excel at OCR if only he could learn how to run really fast…and how hard could that be?

Check out the author’s videos if you’re bored at Note that none of them have been recorded in the gym. Please take this to heart and resist the urge to post videos of yourself sending projects on plastic!

Many thanks to Mya at for allowing me to use her wonderful illustrations!