“ANDY” WAS A LEADING JUNIOR climber in the United Kingdom in the mid 1990s. He won the British junior comp series three years in a row and onsighted numerous low-end 5.13s on rock. The pressure was on for him to move up to international level, even though the coaching support wasn’t there. Andy kept pushing and pushing, until one day it all began to fall apart. His knuckles became swollen, but he ignored the pain and continued training. Soon, his joints hurt every time he touched a hold and he was forced to stop. Andy couldn’t face a year of rest and the laborious rehab, so he hung up his rock shoes and hasn’t put them on since.
Strength training is the most difficult and sensitive component to incorporate into a young climber’s training program. Most serious young climbers want to get strong as quickly as possible, but rushing strength training may disrupt the ability to learn good technique, as well as increase the risk of injury. The flip side is that any young climber who wishes to do well needs to take advantage of a critical productive age window for strength building. When is it safe for young people to start strength training? What sort of methods should be prescribed, and how much rest is necessary? This article combines the consensus views of many climbing coaches with mainstream sports research in order to develop a model for safe training practice for young climbers. First, it is vital to look at some of the fundamentals of exercise physiology and the development of young people.
GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT
Girls invariably climb better than boys until they reach their early teens. Junior girls below the age of 13 tend to be leaner, stronger and more agile than their male counterparts. The growth spurt, which occurs at the onset of puberty, usually accounts for significant improvements in boy’s sporting performance. They develop a wider shoulder girdle, gaining biomechanical advantages for steeper climbing. Puberty also causes boys to lose fat and girls to gain it (25 percent is the average body-fat level for 17-year-old girls and 14 percent for boys of the same age). This development is natural, and most of us know the risks of young female climbers who attempt to over-compensate. Although the growth spurt usually occurs slightly earlier in un-trained girls (ages 10 to 12) than in untrained boys (12 to 14 years), menarche (first menstruation) occurs significantly later in female athletes than in non-athletes.
The effect of the muscle-cell patterns to which we are predisposed from birth comes into play at puberty. In adults, muscle-fiber type may be biased toward either strength or endurance activities, but children are far less physiologically specialized. For this reason, a child who wishes to reach his or her peak in climbing would be unwise to specialize greatly in his or her training until the mid to late teens.
AEROBIC AND ANAEROBIC CAPACITY
The heart stops growing at roughly 20 years for both sexes, but experts speculate that there might be adverse effects of heavy exercise until this age. In general, aerobic endurance exercise is better than anaerobic exercise for the development of youngsters. Children have a higher anaerobic threshold than adults, which means it takes more time and effort for them to get pumped, but once they do, they have less capacity to hang in there, since their muscles tolerate less lactic acid. Kids seem to have unlimited amounts of energy when climbing. In crude terms, this is because they can’t get as tired, and hence they need less recovery time.
FATIGUE PERCEPTION AND HEAT BALANCE
Children have an undeveloped response to the fatiguing effects of exercise. Their urge is often to get up and have another go, even when they might be dangerously fatigued. This is where disciplined coaching is valuable. Additionally, because children produce more body heat than adults relative to their mass, their sweat glands are significantly less able to cope and they are prone to overheating. Great care must be taken to cool off between routes, especially indoors or when it’s hot. Children also suffer more from voluntary dehydration than adults because their thirst levels are often out of synch with fluid requirements and they forget to hydrate.
MOTIVATION AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUES
Ironically, while many adults enjoy climbing because it is non-competitive, most kids are simply oblivious to this notion. For so many youngsters, climbing is all about competitions, and while some may thrive in that arena, others are crushed by it. Sports psychologists suggest that peers are far more likely to influence the psychological and emotional development of a young athlete than the sport itself. Studies show that parents and coaches who encourage young people in their sports by interacting with them in a positive, subtle manner will enhance their confidence and enjoyment, which, in turn, may assist their performance. Negative or overtly pushy behavior often has the reverse effect.
Very little specific research data is available on incidences and causes of child injuries in climbing, or indeed in mainstream sports. Researchers agree, however, that the juvenile injury rate in sports is rising due to higher rates of participation and competitiveness. High-impact, repetitive sports (which include bouldering or hard sport climbing) place major shock loads on the cartilage plates at the end of each bone. Some studies show that excessive strain on these plates before they have fully calcified may lead to the stunting and distortion of long bones. Further research has indicated that osteoporosis may be linked to excessive physical activity during the critical early years of bone growth. Bouldering and strength training have often been blamed for causing injuries in young climbers, when the reality is that poor supervision or incorrect practices have actually been the cause. As with many other sports, young athletes who want to reach a competitive level need to train for strength. The key is to train strength safely and progressively in accordance with a long-term plan.
Before prescribing a strength-training program to any junior, assess the individual’s level of commitment and maturity. Will this climber train safely in the absence of a coach? If not, the coach must work hard to sell the importance of warming up and come down hard on those who throw themselves at dynos or don’t rest adequately. With more responsible junior climbers, the coach’s role can be to plan training sessions that a young climber can carry out without supervision.
AGE-SPECIFIC STRENGTH AND POWER TRAINING
The following plan is for the progressive implementation of strength training and overload into a young climber’s training schedule.
BUILDING TECHNIQUE & CONFIDENCE
Bouldering sessions: After a thorough warm up, the focus should be skills acquisition rather than strength building. Stick mainly to vertical walls to minimize overload on the upper body. Overhanging bouldering should be confined to a short period of 30 minutes maximum and should be carefully supervised. Avoid surfaces that are steeper than 25-degrees overhanging.
Key rules: Take long rests between attempts and don’t try the same move too many times. Problems should be flashed, or completed very quickly. Emphasize controlled movement with good form, and avoid cutting loose, or powerful slaps or dynos. Avoid using sharp or tweaky holds, and favor rounded holds. The half (open) crimp is the safest utility grip for overhanging climbing.
Practice crimping and hanging on vertical walls only. Use these sessions to ingrain steep-rock body positions (twist-lock, outside-edge, flag, drop knee, etc.) Remember that physiologically, the best time to learn motor skills is during early childhood, whereas peak strength gains occur during the late teens and early 20s. It is also vital not to push too hard too soon, in order to avoid mental burnout. Success develops a positive and confident attitude, as well as providing the first critical foundation of low-intensity training upon which to build.
Gym work: Sessions should develop a foundation of general body strength. They should include body-weight exercises only, such as push-ups and sit-ups and repetitions should be kept between 15 and 30, with no more than three sets. Pull-ups should be conducted with a foot on a hold, stool or bungee to provide off-weight assistance. Avoid campusing, free weights and hang boards.
Maximum frequency: One strength session, plus a maximum of two endurance climbing sessions per week. Never prioritize strength in microcycles—that is, a block of training with a set theme that lasts between four and eight weeks.
13 to 14 years old
SPECIFIC STRENGTH FOUNDATION
Bouldering sessions: At this age, climbers can place more emphasis on bouldering on overhanging walls for strength, but should still avoid dynos and campus-style, footless climbing. Cutting loose is OK occasionally, but avoid dropping onto straight arms. Increase total time spent on overhanging walls to one hour but take a 10-minute break for every 15 minutes of steep bouldering. Surface angle can increase to 35 degrees. Use the half crimp as the utility grip, but introduce, with great caution, a small amount of crimping and hanging on overhanging problems. Introduce short-term goal setting.
Gym work: You may carefully introduce hang boards to gym sessions to provide a more specific focus, but keep reps high and sets very low. Optimum exercises are pullups on a bar (aiming for less assistance from feet), hanging knee raises, and two-armed fingertip hangs. Introduce them progressively. Three sets of 15 (with assistance) is optimum for pullups and knee raises and three sets of six to 10 seconds for hangs. A very light foundation of general weight training is also advisable to prevent muscular imbalance and ensure that the antagonist (opposition) muscles are trained. Weight should be set at 50 to 70 percent of maximum overload for 15 to 25 reps. Three sets maximum per exercise. Seek additional advice from a qualified gym instructor. A minimum requirement is to do three sets of pushups (10 to 20 reps) twice a week, in order to train antagonist muscles. The importance of antagonist training cannot be over-stressed.
Maximum frequency: Two specific strength sessions per week during strength phases, and no more than four sessions total. Two antagonist sessions per week. You can prioritize strength in microcycles, but keep phases short (four weeks or less) and to no more than three per year.
15 to 16 years old
Bouldering sessions can now include powerful moves and dynos, but continue to avoid campus-style, footless moves. Cutting loose is OK, but emphasize control and good form—body tension is a major priority. Total time spent on overhangs can be increased to 90 minutes, but continue with the short breaks every 15 minutes. Surface angle can increase to 45 degrees. Crimping and hanging can be used extensively.
Introduce goal-setting: For example, to improve bouldering by a grade and/or to win a bouldering competition in six months time or at the end of a periodized program. A periodized training schedule will involve a series of short training phases, or microcycles, organized into a collective program with an overall theme or priority. For example, four weeks endurance, four weeks power, four weeks power-endurance, rest and peak. These programs may typically run for anything between two and eight months.
Gym work: Introduce power exercises like pullups at speed, with selective use of campus exercises, such as touches—in which the climber hangs with both hands from a low rung, pulls up and touches a high rung, drops back down and then repeats, leading with alternate arms—are best. Go easy with ladders and avoid double dynos. Attempt front levers or high leg raises for body tension. Number of sets can increase to five or six and optimum number of repetitions is now between four and six, for pure strength gains. An inverted pyramid structure will organize overload correctly to maximize strength gains. It is vital to maintain the same attention to antagonist muscles, so continue the pushups.
Maximum frequency: Three strength/power sessions total per week during strength phases, and two antagonist sessions. Increase the length of the strength/power phase to six weeks and run up to four per year.
17 years old and up
UNRESTRICTED HIGH-INTENSITY TRAINING
Bouldering: You should now introduce the most powerful dynamic or campus-style moves. Increase time spent on overhanging problems to the maximum level for adults. The increments may range from 90 minutes to three hours, depending on session structure and use of intermittent breaks. Problems can also be grouped to create “system style” workouts on overhanging panels (crimpy problem, then pinch problem, then undercling problem, etc.). Long-term goal-setting should now be introduced.
Gym work: Introduce high-impact campus exercises such as ladders and double dynos. These must be practiced correctly and with appropriate rest structure. Avoid the harshest forms of maximum overload training, such as weighted bouldering or campusing until a climber is 18, when bones and connective tissues are closer to full development. Maximum recruitment sets (one to two repetitions) can now be introduced at the tip of the pyramid. The purpose is to organize overload correctly to maximize strength gains. Climbers may be tempted to increase the weight in antagonist training and use exercises like bench press or shoulder press to gain strength. These methods can result in excessive muscle mass/weight.
Maximum frequency: Four strength/power sessions total per week during strength phases. Increase strength/power phase to eight weeks and run up to four per year.
Research suggests that the younger an athlete, the more he or she should emphasize endurance training rather than strength. Endurance training provides the foundation for building strength and power safely. Longer, aerobic endurance and stamina training is less stressful to the young athlete than more intensive middle-distance anaerobic endurance training. Younger climbers must remember to be very strict with rest intervals between bursts of effort during anaerobic training.
REST, NUTITION, HYDRATION
With younger climbers (8 to 12 years old), allocate approximately 10 to 15 minutes for cooling off and hydrating for every half hour of climbing.
Incorporate phases of full rest into the overall periodized program for juniors. The younger the climber, the longer and more frequent these should be.
For endurance-climbing sessions of over an hour, take an electrolytic replacement drink.
Junior girls may be tempted to reduce their caloric intake during training. Thoroughly explain the dangers. Girls who allow their fat levels to fall below 16 to 18 percent risk injury and may temporarily cease menstruation, as well as becoming susceptible to anorexia nervosa. Dieting may seriously impair long-term progress and athletic improvement.
The strength-training plan outlined in this article is generic and can be adapted to the specific requirements of individuals. If only Andy, our case-study junior climber, had adopted a similar approach. The most talented juniors who want to stand on podiums and onsight 5.14s will always be tempted to jump the gun. Make sure that they are fully aware of the associated risks. There is room for more research on the subject of training for young people, especially in climbing. Above all else, focus on technique, build a firm foundation of endurance before attempting to gain strength, always make time for antagonist training, keep the pressure down and most of all, have fun!
The Children’s Lifetime Physical Activity Model (C.L.P.A.M) (Corbin et al 1994).
The Physical Activity Model for Adolescents (Sallis et al 1994).
E.W.Brown & C.F.Branta 1988 : Malina et al (1978,) Barker (1981).
Scanlan & Lewthwaite, Kabara & Morris, Rogol, Wells & Plowman, Loucks, Micheli, Brown (all 1988)
Loucks (1988). Health Education Authority Literature Review (1997) Williams (1989) Sharp (1989).
Neil Gresham is a London-based writer and trainer. He has just released a two-part instructional DVD, Masterclass.