This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 238 (November 2016).
For training endurance, climbing gyms are the default setting. The standard procedures of lapping routes or circuits will always deliver the pump, increasing your stamina.
But what if you can’t get to a gym and need to up your endurance for a trip or project? If you’ve been in this situation and dismissed hangboards as only useful for training power, think again! It is possible to show up at Rodellar or Kalymnos with killer endurance, despite not having worn your rock shoes in weeks or months. The only question, since this type of training is not common, is how.
The best and simplest approach for intermediate climbers is to start by splitting endurance into two categories: strength-endurance and long-endurance. Elites can benefit from parsing endurance into four categories (anaerobic power, anaerobic capacity, aerobic power, and aerobic capacity), but we will go with the majority rule.
STRENGTH-ENDURANCE ON A HANGBOARD
Strength-endurance is the type of fitness required for sustained sequences of approximately 15 to 40 moves, as are typical on sport climbs. The priority is on the fingers, but you can also work the arms and core in isolation.
This is the main exercise for targeting the fingers, and consists of sets of deadhangs performed in blocks and in close succession, with strict rest times. A popular method to help hard project climbing is to do six to seven seconds on, with two to three seconds off. For onsight climbing, go eight to 12 seconds on, with four to five seconds off.
Perform these sequences for blocks of anything between 45 seconds and three minutes of continuous work, then rest an equal amount of time (e.g. 45 seconds on, 45 seconds off; three minutes on, three minutes off). Rest times may be slightly longer than work times if the work is set at a harder level. Most routines would involve a minimum of four and a maximum of 10 rounds, depending on whether you’re performing a dedicated session or adding a session after climbing.
Calibrating the difficulty of the exercise is key. Work with a pair of holds/edges large enough to enable you to complete the session. Aim to complete the first two or three rounds fairly comfortably, to struggle on the next two or three, and to hit failure toward the end of the last two or three.
You can either stick with the same grip (the half-crimp is the default, with fingers bent at 90 degrees), or vary the grip by doing some sets with an open-hand grip. For example, you could do the first half of the session with the half-crimp and the second with an open-grip, or you could alternate between grips, either between each hang, or between each set. The first option attacks the same muscle groups without respite, meaning that you will tire out faster. The second allows you to push longer by spreading the load between muscle groups.
You have many valid options. You can either increase the length of each block, or reduce the rest time between blocks, or do another block, or use slightly smaller holds over time. Using a smaller hold will train strength better, while increasing the number or length of blocks will be more endurance oriented.
To work the fingers and arms in combination for strength- endurance, do sets of fingertip pull-ups grouped into blocks, again with a strict rest time in between. For example, start your timer, and do a fixed number of pull-ups every time the minute comes around. Intermediates, start off with two or three. High intermediates or elites, do as many as eight to 12. Do this for three to eight minutes without stopping, then take a three- to six-minute rest and repeat between three and eight times.
To work the arms for strength- endurance without taxing the fingers, do the same thing using the jugs on the hangboard.
To train the core, do hanging leg raises, either with the legs straight or bent, subject to your level. The most logical method of progression is to increase the number of reps in each set over time.
Long-endurance is the type of fitness you need for most sport onsights, long redpoints or trad climbs, with sustained climbing in excess of approximately five minutes. Long-endurance work is done on a hangboard by using footholds on the edge of a doorframe, or placing a foot on a chair for partial assistance. “Climb” randomly around the board, moving your hands from hold to hold. Increase the pump by using finger holds, then switch to the jugs periodically to shake out and recover.
If you’re fit enough, cut loose intermittently and perform a few footless pull-ups, deadhangs or leg raises, then replace the foot and continue. Typical combinations would include four to 10 minutes of work, followed by approximately four to 10 minutes of rest, for a total of three to six blocks. These sessions are especially tough and require much discipline, but the results can be impressive.
Neil Gresham has been training and coaching for two decades. In 2001, he made the second ascent of Equilibrium (E10 7a/5.14X) on Peak District gritstone, and last year established Freakshow (8c/5.14b) at Kilnsey, also in the U.K. On October 13, 2016 he made the first ascent of Sabotage—an 8c+ (5.14c) extension to Predator (8b/5.13d) at Malham Cave, North Yorkshire, England. Sabotage is Gresham’s first climb of the grade.