Even as a weekend warrior, you’re getting up some respectable, steeper and more-strenuous routes. But you decide you’re too weak and you need to do specific training for climbing: pull-ups and weight lifting during the workweek, fingerboard workouts to top it off. Maybe, you even do some wind sprints.
Yet you aren’t improving. What’s up? Becoming a better climber isn’t 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 chapter, we’ll break them into several categories that you can reassemble to best fit your needs.
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 weighttraining 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.
Fingerboards can be useful for developing that all-important “contact” strength, but be careful—untold climbers have tweaked tendons using them. See the accompanying article on how to use a fingerboard.
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!
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 go to school, 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, multipitch 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
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. 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 over-gripping and letting your feet skitter around on the wall, zero in on your technique and footwork.
THE MENTAL GAME
Many climbers shy away from the subject of mental training for climbing, partly because the benefits can seem less tangible than those of physical training, and also because the subject can appear excessively complicated. Entire books are devoted to mental training, but the topic can be boiled down to a short list of fundamental problems and solutions.
Do a pre-climb mental routine. Everyone understands the importance of a physical warm-up, but not all see the value of mental preparation. In high-pressure situations, we get anxious and want to rush through; but the best way to neutralize your worries is to face them with control.
Visualize. Rehearse the sequence, or if you don’t know it, then just imagine yourself climbing well in the first person and in real time. Take your time. Make the image feel as real as possible. Don’t imagine the route being easy, rather that you are coping with the difficulty.
Black box. List all the factors that are worrying you, come up with some positive solutions and then place them in an imaginary “black box.” Return to the box and open it after the ascent, and you will find that the majority of your worries were unfounded. This helps you to trust the process further in the future.
Give yourself a final pep talk using positive words. Smile. Listen to music that helps to raise the mood.
Flip the negative. Nerves can bring out the best in your performance. In general, if you feel down, the only way is up. If you don’t expect to do well, then the pressure is off and you may surprise yourself! If you are prone to blowing it at the anchors then imagine there are still another two or three clips to go. This can have the effect of helping you stay calm and prevent punting at the top.
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.
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.
HOW TO USE A FINGERBOARD
The first step with hangboard training is to split your workouts into either strength or endurance. Anyone who is training for sport climbing will need to do both, using longer and shorter intervals. However, the endurance sessions are perhaps better for hangboard novices as they are less stressful on the fingers and allow you to build a fitness base. For endurance it is better to perform longer, less intense hangs for longer overall sets, whereas for strength training it is best to perform shorter more intense hangs for shorter overall sets.
A great dead-hanging structure for novice endurance training is to place one or both feet on a chair positioned three feet behind the board and to do one-arm alternating hangs of 15 to 25 seconds. Hang straightarmed from one arm while shaking the other. You can also experiment with hanging from both hands, perhaps with your feet off the chair, and then switching back to alternating with your feet on the chair in order to shake out and recover. These alternating hangs should be repeated to failure and you can experiment with sets of up to 20 hangs at a time (8 to 10 minutes total hanging time). If you do sets of 10 minutes, then rest 10 minutes and repeat. You may not be effective for any more than three or four sets total.
Another important issue is what grip to use. Use the half-crimp as the utility grip, but do a minimum amount of full-crimping and hanging to develop versatile grip strength and endurance. Do this by switching grips alternately from hang to hang.
For strength, the difficult part is calibrating the intensity of the exercises to conform to the short hang times. Beginners can simply do footless hangs with two arms, but intermediates will soon reach the point where they need to hang on the smallest and most damaging holds to achieve the short hang times. This is the classic mistake.
A golden rule is never to hang on holds that are smaller than your first finger joint. You can solve this problem up to a point by going for slightly slopier holds, but the solution is to use a weight belt and hang with two arms or to switch to one-arm hangs with a minimum amount of assistance from your spare arm (hang a knotted sling from the board and hold it as low as possible).
For strength workouts, either do single or alternating hangs, which should last between two and 10 seconds. Any longer will place unwanted strain on your joints and tendons. For alternating hangs use the same method as described for endurance but keep the hang times to between four and eight seconds. Try using the knotted rope for assistance rather than standing on a chair. Simply step on the floor and swap over as quickly as you can. There is no need to alternate more than three or four times. A total of four sets will be plenty for beginners—five or six for intermediates.
TRANSITIONING FROM GYM TO CRAG
No matter how many hours you put in at the gym, the first few early-season outdoor excursions can be frustrating. Why is it that you can tolerate a pump while running laps indoors, yet it overwhelms you as soon as you have to hold on to place gear or hang draws? Often it feels like you’re back to square one.
While some climbers appear to make a seamless transition from plastic to stone, for most of us there is a gulf of difference between these two contrasting vertical media. Of course, there’s no substitute for experience, but nonetheless a few key tips can minimize those early-season problems.
1. Pace Training: Slow Down.
We all tend to sprint up gym routes at three times the speed we climb on rock. Outdoors, the holds are nearly always harder to see and the sequences trickier to read, so for your last few sessions at the gym, force yourself to climb slowly. Pause for three or four seconds for each hand and foot move to simulate the rhythm of a typical sport onsight.
For sport onsighting, stay on the wall for eight to 12 minutes and for trad stay on for up to 15 to 20. Climb up and down if necessary (using an easier
route for the down climb), or lower off quickly, pull the rope and continue leading upward. If you can’t find a patient belayer, then perform this exercise on a bouldering wall by following circuits or climbing around at random, provided the territory isn’t too tough and you’re not hogging the
2. Pointer Training.
Whether we care to admit it, when training for climbing, most of us gravitate toward sessions that we find comfortable—both physically and mentally. Rock is rarely so generous, especially when it comes to onsighting. Even if you are familiar with the rock type, you never know what’s coming next and the route may dish out an uncomfortable surprise.
To break out of the common trap of climbing in your comfort zone, add a rock-specific onsighting element to your endurance sessions—but you’ll need a motivated and like-minded training partner. Take turns using a stick to point each other around randomly made-up sequences on the bouldering wall. The idea is to maximize the element of awkwardness, for example by suddenly going quiet and leaving your partner stranded in an awkward position, desperately awaiting instruction. Give the person hard moves and sustained sections, interspersed with awkward resting positions, and aim to be as unpredictable and sadistic as possible. After all, your friend will soon be returning the favor! However, don’t overcook it to the point that your partner keeps falling. The longer you keep the climber on the wall, the more pain you will force him to endure. It’s no surprise that few people do this type of training for climbing, as it is arguably the hardest of all.
3. Boulder on Rock.
The first thing you’ll notice when you touch rock is that the handholds are less positive and more complicated to grip than plastic, so it pays to look
more carefully and check alternatives before pulling on.
Next, of course, is that the footholds are smaller and more subtle, so try slowing your footwork down a little to maximize precision. A common mistake is to go for the bigger footholds rather than the best positioned ones, so only step high or wide as a last resort and generally try to make small steps. Additionally, the body positions may be subtly different than in the gym and require a refined degree of balance. Make a conscious effort to direct your hips all the way over the highest foot after stepping up. Concentrate on grassroots techniques such as smearing and feeling your way up features. Scan and consider using every part of the rock rather than climbing from hold to hold as you do at the gym. Even the most experienced climbers will find the need to revisit these techniques before they can expect their rock grade to align with their gym grade after a winter inside. And, of course, do an easy warm-up route (or two) as well, in order to get that all important warm-up pump. Beware of the classic trap of warming up on something too easy through fear of over-cooking it.