I slacked all winter and didn't train a lick, and still want to dominate on the rock this spring/summer. How can I whip myself into shape in short notice?
—Duane Raleigh, Redstone, CO
Wait! Stop! There is no such thing as a quick comeback in climbing unless you are a super-talented young hotshot, and even then you are risking injury. If your performance curve looks a little like a roller coaster, it's time to consider a few home truths. We all know how frustrating it can be to take time out and lose strength and technique, but the worst thing you can do is jump back in the deep end. Don't hit the campus board. Chances are that if you attempt to play catch-up too fast then you will get hurt and slide further down.
Any sound training program should be based on this progression: start at a low level, build back up to your current level and then reach past it. You should also start with volume-based training such as laps on easy routes, and only move on to high-intensity training such as bouldering or campusing once you have built a solid base. These are the basic principles of a peaking cycle for any sport. A typical peaking cycle is usually between four and eight months, and the longer you take to peak, the higher the level you will reach and the longer you will be able to sustain it. But if you don't have much time, you can construct a mini-peak. This will still need to be a minimum of six weeks:
Phase 1: Endurance base. Two weeks of climbing one day-on, one day-off. During climbing days do up-and-downs or double laps on easy routes. Do plenty of stretching and CV conditioning on rest days.
Phase 2: Increase intensity. Two weeks of day-on, day-off with bouldering and routes on alternating days. Bouldering: After a thorough warm-up, do the usual format of short, steep, powerful problems with plenty of rest to prevent premature burnout. Endurance: Do harder single routes (one grade less than your onsight max, 6 to 8 reps with 5 minutes rest between reps). Keep the rest-day conditioning sessions going.
Phase 3: Prepare for peak. Two weeks of two days on, one day off. Do bouldering and bar exercises (such as pull-ups and leg raises) on Day One, and climb routes on Day Two. Stronger climbers may substitute the bouldering session with campusing. Reduce or cut out CV training on rest days but keep stretching.
Phase 4: Recovery and peak. One week of light maintenance training (one light boulder session and one light route session) to taper for the climbing season or trip.
Remember, though, that the best advice is not to let your performance slide in the first place. Even if you are busy with work, try to do a couple of hangboard sessions a week, just to maintain. Climbers don't respond well to fits and spurts. Try to climb a minimum of twice a week, every week, and you won't need to ask this question again!