How long has it been since you noticed a real improvement in your climbing? If it has been a year or two, then you are probably still reaping the benefits of your previous breakthrough. If it's been three or four years, then frustration may be creeping in. Half a decade or more and you may have given up all hope of reaching the next level. We all get stuck at various points in our climbing, and it's easy to haul out the same old excuses: insufficient training time and the same uncooperative body in the same gym. Surely everyone plateaus after a while, and perhaps your genetics only geared you up for 5.11d and not for .12a? Bunk!
Beating plateaus is not necessarily about training harder, but training in a more strategic way. The body adapts quickly to training stress and it's vital to keep one step ahead and trick your system into improving.
Here are three common plateau stages and tricks to move past them.
Don't worry, you are not about to be sent to the campus board. The first thing that causes so many 5.9/10 climbers to plateau is a loss of momentum in their training as a result of enforced breaks or an erratic approach. Aim to use the climbing gym a minimum of three (and a maximum of four) times a week during training phases, and once or twice a week during climbing phases. Heeding this advice alone will make a huge difference. The next big step is to start doing separate sessions for bouldering and for endurance. A recommended split is two endurance sessions per week, and one bouldering session. For bouldering, still climb the vertical and slabby problems, but know that the improvements from now on will come predominantly from using the overhanging walls. This will help you gain specific strength, and teach you an entirely new way of moving to use that strength efficiently. Don't be intimidated by the guys who live on these walls; soon you will be able to play their game.
With bouldering, spend at least two-thirds of the session on steeper walls, but make sure the angle isn't so steep that you can only use jugs. Finger strength is always a greater priority than arm strength. You can usually use technique to compensate for weak arms, but if you can't hang the holds then you're out of the game. Try problems with a range of different holds and moves so you don't develop a weakness. The problems should be between four and eight hand moves long, and at your absolute limit. The classic issue for the 5.9/10 climber is to lose interest if you can't flash a problem or get it on your second or third try. But harder climbers may spend weeks working moves and it's this process that builds strength. Rest well between attempts so no lactic acid builds up. On alternate weeks you may wish to substitute the bouldering session with a home fingerboard session, doing a combination of dead hangs, pull-ups on jugs and leg raises for body tension. For endurance, stop traversing altogether and instead aim for between six and eight successful repeats of routes that are gently overhanging and as close to your limit as possible. You'll be climbing 5.11 before you know it, and when you do, you'll need to throw much of what you've been doing in the trash.
The biggest mistake made by intermediate climbers is to undervalue bouldering. You think you fail on real climbs because your endurance lets you down, and as a result you treat fire with fire, and carry on with endurance training. But you still don't get results. Why? Because your diagnosis is wrong. You are pumping out because your muscles are working at such a high percentage of your strength limit. Simply put, you are too weak.
It's difficult to see how a few moves above a crash pad will help you conquer a 30-move enduro-fest, but a typical sport climb requires a 50/50 split of power and endurance. If you're only training endurance you're only working one half of the equation. Endurance training has a minimal effect on power but power training (ie: bouldering) has a great effect on endurance. The reason you don't get pumped on 5.9s isn't because you've got great endurance, it's because the moves feel easy. You'll never do the moves on 5.13s if you can't first make them at ground level. So, get bouldering. If you don't already really enjoy bouldering, learn to love it. Here's how: Climb four times a week during training phases. Keep your endurance on the back burner and go for a 3:1 bouldering to endurance split for the majority of your training. The right type of bouldering (see chart, next page) should be all you need to make huge gains, but a little supportive fingerboard work can also keep things buoyant. Although bouldering is the main area of focus, you can also tweak your endurance work to keep things moving. It's time to stop doing what you enjoy, which is trophy hunting on the lead wall. Get over it. You know you can onsight 5.11c and lap easy 5.11s. It's time to hit the bouldering wall and start doing circuits. You won't be able to massage your ego by ticking off the grades, but you'll sure as hell need to massage your forearms afterward. All elite-level climbers use circuits extensively for power-endurance training. You can vary the length from 20 to 50 moves, which will also test your memory for long sequences. Make the circuits sustained (with no rests or cruxes) and vary the style from session to session. To get fit for trad routes or longer sport pitches, start going up and down on the leading wall or doing long stints of random movement on easy sections of the bouldering wall. I know it seems boring, but if you want to be able to recover on longer routes, then this is the only call. Don't forget your supportive aerobic conditioning and your antagonist exercises either. Do four sets of 10 push-ups and a three-mile jog twice a week. This bit of light exercise may just be the missing link to help you capitalize on your training. Remember, it's the things that you haven't done before that will make you improve. Once you've milked these ideas and onsighted 5.12c here's what's next:It's time to increase the intensity of your training. You may have dabbled with system training and campus boards in the past, but you generally use bouldering for your core-strength training simply because it's more fun and requires less discipline. No one is disputing that bouldering provides the best overall way to train strength and technique in unison, but sometimes you need to shock the system and favor methods that maximize overload, even if it is at the expense of technique and play. Campus board, system training and bar exercises such as assisted one-arm pull-ups, lock-offs and leg raises are the main ones on the list.
Split your strength training into phases. Four to six weeks is a good length. For the first phase do one bouldering session and two campus or system sessions per week. For the next phase do two bouldering sessions and one campus or system session. If you're looking to break 5.14, you'll need to constantly adjust to your week/day structure to keep shocking the system.
The key is to train as hard as possible without injury, but the big question is how. A simple method is to push your training in waves with a hard two weeks followed by a lighter week, and so on. The most productive approach is to follow a peaking cycle that is planned months in advance. Don't switch off here because this is the part that will make all the difference. It's also not as difficult as it sounds. Start with a light phase of general conditioning, then go for a month of endurance work to provide a base. Then try running two strength phases, which are structured differently (as described above) back-to-back, and then run an endurance phase as the season approaches. Finish with a tapering phase, where you reduce the frequency and intensity of training, and tune the machine to address any minor weaknesses. There are other threads that you can keep running through each training phase, for example, in the first half of a phase try to increase the extent of training (ie: do more work) and for the second half, try increasing intensity (harder work). The scope for minor variations is almost endless, it's up to you to take control and be creative.
Regardless of the grade you climb, another classic plateau buster is to pay more attention to nutrition and lifestyle factors. If you haven't used protein supplementation during strength phases then give it a try, or if you're used to surviving on seven hours sleep then watch what happens when you up this to eight. There's no point polishing your training program if you're not fueling the machine and maximizing your recovery time.
Neil Gresham is based in London and has climbed 5.14X (E10) on trad, 5.14a sport and M10 in winter. He has just released a two-part instructional DVD, Masterclass, which covers technique, training and crag skills. See climbingmasterclass.com.
Train more and train regularly - three times per week
Train bouldering and routes separately
Greater emphasis on routes, but try steeper ones
For bouldering, short, hard, steepish problems not on jugs, with good rest between attempts
Greater emphasis on bouldering (three bouldering workouts to one endurance)
Circuits for power endurance (15 ± 35 moves)
Longer stints for stamina (up and down on routes)
Remember antagonists and cardio
Higher-intensity strength and power-training methods such as a campus board, system training, bar work and body-tension exercises
Push your training in waves or cycles so you don't get injured
Experiment with periodized training principles