You’ve hit a barrier. You can’t break through to that next level. You’ve been climbing for a year now, progressing quickly through the grades concentrating on technique. Even as a weekend warrior, you’re getting up some respectable routes, steeper, more strenuous. But you’re stuck at the same grade. You decide you’re too weak and train like a fiend: pull-ups and weight lifting during the work week, fingerboard workouts to top it off. Maybe, you even do some wind sprints.
Come the weekend, though, you’re still banging your head against the rock. What’s up? Improving climbing performance is not simply a matter of getting stronger. Too many climbers, however, follow just that credo. To be truly effective, training has to be focused, well-planned, and designed to meet your specific needs. Climbing is a movement-oriented activity, requiring mental calm for efficient execution. Strength and flexibility help, but pale in importance next to technique and cerebral might. Determination and concentration will take you further in the sport than any number of pull-ups.
Rock climbing is a multifaceted sport, and the motor and mental processes involved are overlapping and complex. In this article, we’ll break them into several categories that you can reassemble to best fit your needs.
We’re all different—in our goals, strengths, weaknesses and the amount of free time we have. Most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to climb and train full-time. We work, do other things. But most of us want to climb better.
Determining your climbing goals sets the stage for a training program. Ask yourself a few questions. How much of a priority is climbing in my life? How much time will I devote to training? What type of climbing am I interested in—long, multi-pitch cracks; short, steep crag routes; alpine rock; or powerful boulder problems? Or all of the above? If vicious boulder problems are your objective, don’t worry about working on your endurance; power is all. On the other hand, if you aspire to climb long, relentless cracks, all the power in the world isn’t going to get you up them; instead, work on being able to hold on until you’re blue in the forearms. In any case, set specific and measurable goals, both short- and long-term. Often, your immediate goals will be stepping stones to bigger ones down the road.
THE WEAKEST LINKS
Now that you have sharpened your focus, ascertain your strengths and weaknesses. Then, forget about your strengths—attack your weaknesses. An incremental improvement in a weak area will have a far greater effect than a big gain in an already strong one. Focus on only one or two weak points at a time.
If you have good technique (rare), but find your lack of hip flexibility is limiting you, by all means stretch more. If you have natural finger strength, but are wasting it by overgripping and letting your feet skitter around on the wall, zero in on your technique and footwork. If your climbing is too static and you’re hesitant to fire even the occasional lunge, work on dynamic movement, using the momentum of your torso to propel you from hold to hold. If you yearn to do long, alpine rock routes, but get winded just walking around the block, get some lungs—ride a bike, trail run, walk. Need power? Go bouldering, either on real rock or at a gym, where the availability of problems is unsurpassed, and you’ll also be able to get pointers from locals who have the problems dialed.
CLIMBING FOR CLIMBERS
The best way to train for climbing is climbing. The most efficient place to train is in a gym, where the routes and protection are set—all you need to do is tie in and climb. Check your local climbing shop for the location of a commercial wall in your area; most larger towns have at least one. Or build your own; they’re fairly simple and fit in a corner of a basement. Even an eight- by eight-foot “woodie,” made of plywood and basic framing lumber, can produce great results, at least for power. For endurance, you’ll need a much larger wall, which, unless you have an endless garage, means you’ll need to purchase a punch pass to a commercial gym.
Cross-training can be an excellent supplement, especially if it’s movement-related, such as modern dance, martial arts, yoga, or gymnastics. Again, focus cross-training to address your weaknesses. For example, if you’re flexible as Gumby but lack explosive power, you might enroll in a gymnastics class and bag the yoga.
THE MIND/BODY CONNECTION
Beginners (and most other climbers for that matter) should focus their training on technique, and on developing a repertoire of moves. We learn climbing movements and positions through complex neurological processes; as we climb, our brains store sensory feedback from our bodies to be doled out to the muscles and nerves on the next similar execution. At first, you may find a particular move awkward and be herky-jerky in doing it, but with repetition the move becomes ingrained and instinctive. The mind and body work together to execute it more effectively. For this reason, particular boulder problems or routes become easier the more we climb them. It’s called getting the climb “wired”—not a bad analogy. The more you repeat a certain type of move, the more efficiently you perform it and can apply it to different situations.
The most efficient way to pick up new techniques is under minimal stress. You’re not going to learn much on a runout route where you’re shaking in your boots, or flailing on a sport route where you can’t get off the ground. Pick a comfortable situation to work on a move or technique, such as a low boulder problem or a toprope in the climbing gym. You should learn to perform the move relatively quickly. Tap into accomplished climbers at the gym for pointers.
Just as you’d have difficulty figuring out that new quantum physics problem at the end of a stressful day, working on a new move or hard problem when you’re fatigued can result in a sloppy effort and ingrain bad habits. Try new techniques when you’re fresh and warmed up, when your coordination and confidence are high. Then, as moves become second nature, you can up the ante by applying them in progressively more difficult and stressful situations—on more overhanging rock, smaller holds, a harder route or one with a runout or when you are tired. Developing good technique requires positive reinforcement, so work up in small increments. You don’t have to get sloppy to get a pump; as you tire, step down in difficulty so you can perform moves in good form.
The mind-body connection is complicated and amazing. For whatever reasons, we all have periodic, forced layoffs from climbing. We fret about getting out of shape. Then we’re surprised to come back and fire that boulder problem that had slapped us before when we were fit. We certainly aren’t any stronger. What gives? In the 1990s book Performance Rock Climbing, the authors, Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann, attribute the process to “restructuring of neural command loops” by the brain. Mental breaks, therefore, can have a positive effect, and are worth considering if you’re frustrated by a plateau in your climbing.
THE MENTAL GAME
Many climbers will blame their failed attempts on not being fit enough, but it’s usually lack of mental, not muscular, strength that is holding them back. Learning early to control your head will help compensate for what you may lack in strength or technique. The best “talents” in the climbing world are not always the best athletes—they may just have a great ability to focus on the moves at hand, and can push fear to the back of their minds. You should always maintain a healthy respect for the dangers of the sport, but improving the ability to focus—to ditch extraneous baggage like the fear of falling, personal travails and peer pressures—will result in more successful ascents than commensurate gains in pure muscle. If you’re tense and nervous, you’re going to climb that way.
Perhaps the best and simplest advice for staying calm is to breathe, and keep breathing. It’s amazing how many people hold their breath through climbing sequences. Nothing ticks unless you breathe. Not only will you be tense, but your muscles won’t be getting the oxygen they need.
The three-time World Cup champion Robyn Erbesfield would often breathe abnormally loudly to establish a good pattern for an ensuing workout or climb. Other climbers may sound like they’re in a Bruce Lee movie, grunting with each move. They may sound funny, but at least they’re breathing, and at the right time. Just as you would on a bench press, exhale as you perform a move. If you find yourself sketching (struggling to do moves or climbing inefficiently), take a few deep breaths.
A good mental-training exercise is visualization. As mentioned previously, practicing turns moves into second nature. But you don’t have to go to the cliff to work on a climb; visualization is something you can do in the comfort of your living room. The brain does not necessarily distinguish between actually climbing and visualizing a climb.
Imagine yourself flowing up a hard climb you’ve done before, unfettered by tension or fear, focused and alert. Pay attention to all elements of the situation, including gear placements, rests, even the feel of the rock and the environment. You can visualize internally by seeing your hands and feet move to holds as you would while actually climbing, or externally by watching yourself outside of your body, seeing your whole body flow up the rock. You’ll be amazed at the results.
You can also visualize an on-sight ascent, where you climb a route you know nothing about, first try, without falling off. Even though you won’t be able to figure out every move, you can imprint a positive image of yourself moving smoothly, incorporating specific features you can pick out from the ground. Once you’ve prepared for what’s on the route—the runout section, the overhang—you will be ready to deal with the unexpected; the hold that breaks, the bird that flies out and hits you in the face. For a multi-pitch climb, you can visualize a positive state of mind, setting yourself up for success.
Smile or joke before you hop on the rock. Smiling helps you to realize the mind-body connection—essential for improving —and for enjoying the moves. When you are tense and fearful, you are more likely to over-grip and less likely to flow. Mauro Calibani, a champion boulderer from Italy, has attributed success on many difficult problems to relaxing. Try to intuit the minimum effort necessary for certain terrain, and produce only that much.
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
Climbing neophytes who jump into hardcore physical training—which puts tremendous forces on tendons, joints and muscles not necessarily designed for them—often end up hurt or with muscle imbalances that can make them injury-prone. Climbing stacks of moderate routes when you’re learning allows the body to build climbing-specific muscle and connective tissue gradually. Strength-training principles also work best if preceded by a strong foundation.
From a physiological standpoint, beginners who lack decent overall fitness would do best to start with a base-level program, incorporating good old pull-ups, pushups, dips and sit-ups, before delving into a more climbing-specific regimen. Some type of aerobic activity (running, biking, power walking, swimming, etc.) will improve your general endurance. A weight-training program can also enhance overall fitness. Start with low weights and high repetitions, augmenting with bench and military presses, bicep curls, wrist curls, lat pulldowns, bent-over rows, leg presses and calf extensions, and limit these sessions to an hour. Hand-strengtheners (the squeeze type) offer beginners a safe option for developing finger and forearm strength. Another good exercise is finger curls with a free-weight bar. Consult weight-lifting books or your local gym trainer for correct technique and other exercises that can juice up your climbing.
Hangboards can be useful for developing that all-important “contact” strength, but be careful—untold climbers have tweaked tendons using them. Start out on the big, comfortable holds, and work into the smaller, more dangerous ones, doing both dead hangs and pull-ups. Avoid the finger pockets, especially the monos.
So, you’re getting proficient at climbing technique, and you’re fit. The local hotshot says your technique is “there.” But you feel you’re pumping out on enduro routes, or lack the power to pull crux moves. Maybe you should get a bit more scientific and focused with your training.
Where do you start, though? The buzzword is “periodization.” It means partitioning muscular training into segments—long-endurance, power, power-endurance and rest—and working them individually during a cycle, aiming for a peak period, after the rest cycle, where you’ll do your hardest climbing. The length of the cycle depends on individual needs. The longer the cycle, the more predictable the results, and, of course, the longer the peak period. But shorter cycles allow more peaks per year, probably more fitting to the Average Joe’s schedule. A cycle can run from six weeks to four months.
Vary your cycles, with hard, medium and easy days and weeks. Listen to your body; if you’re tired or sore, make it an easy or medium workout so you’ll be ready for the next hard day. During a cycle, many climbers will simultaneously train long-endurance and power, working in power-endurance near the end of the cycle; for those who don’t have the time or inclination for a strict cycle, this is a practical alternative.
Start every—yes, every—workout by warming up. Climbing workouts (and hard climbing) can put great forces on finger and forearm tendons not designed for such loads; make sure you take time to stretch out and loosen up, especially in the shoulders, fingers and hips. Warming up allows your mind and body to get in sync, and significantly reduces the chances of injury. One simple but effective method is to raise your arms straight above your head and strongly flick your fingers, as if flicking off water. Do three sets of at least 10 flicks, first with your arms above you, then straight out to the side, and then hanging at your side. Out at the crag, climb one to three easy routes to get your blood flowing and hone your balance—this will help prevent the dreaded “flash pump” that occurs when you hop on a difficult line too quickly in the day. To get the whole body warm and loose, go for a walk or short jog, or do a few calisthenics.
Long-endurance trains the muscles to hang on for extended periods at a fraction of their peak power. Developing a strong foundation during this phase is important. Long-endurance also works technique. Perhaps the best exercise here is to stay on the rock or wall for 30-minute stints. Toprope a route or traverse a boulder problem you have wired. Pick something with relatively moderate moves, and make sure you keep climbing—sorry, no hands-down rests. The continuous movement is excellent for technique, encouraging you to keep your weight over your feet, and it develops a flowing style.
Power refers to short bursts of activity—for example, climbing a 10-foot boulder problem at your limit. Power training develops maximum strength, which you need for performing especially hard moves. Concentrate on problems of no more than 10 moves (half that is more like it), and vary the style—from big holds and big reaches to small tweakers. Power workouts are intense and require more rest afterward than enduro sessions. Generally, two hardcore power workouts a week are the maximum.
Power-endurance puts the two together. A sport route, for example, or a linkup of several hard boulder problems to simulate a route would constitute a power-endurance climb. This is the most intense phase, and readies you for the real thing, that hard on-sight you’ve been saving or that redpoint you’ve been dreaming about. Training for this phase, then, should simulate real climbing situations as much as possible. At a certain point, you’ll plateau with power-endurance, and you should step back before you get injured or frustrated, i.e. rest. Your resting phase (anywhere from four to 10 days) will allow your body to mend and your mind to jell in order to enter your peak period. Now it’s time to send!
PLANNING YOUR WORKOUTS AND CLIMBING DAYS
If you overlap the various phases, or if a periodization program seems too structured, you can optimize your workouts or climbing days by paying attention to the order in which you do certain types of climbing. Of course, warm-up first. Then work power when you’re fresh, while you can still recruit your maximum strength, followed by power-endurance. Finally, go to long-endurance climbing, which will be least affected by loss of maximum strength.
For most people, training for climbing specifically two to three days a week (one to three hours per session) should be sufficient, especially if you plan to climb on the weekend. A typical schedule for the dedicated weekender might be:
- Saturday and Sunday: Climb hard at the crag.
- Monday: Rest.
- Tuesday: Train power and/or power-endurance.
- Wednesday: Either rest from climbing or work on endurance; do something aerobic; stretch.
- Thursday: Simulate the climbing you’ll be doing on the weekend.
- Friday: Rest, stretch, visualize yourself climbing well.
Obviously, there are endless workout permutations and combinations—do what suits you. Some people do better with more rest, up to 48 hours between training or climbing sessions. Overtraining is worse than undertraining. Listen to your body, and do what it says. You’ll get stronger and experience fewer injuries.