by Steve Bechtel
“If more information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” - Derek Sivers
What if you had never read a book about training for climbing - or about training at all? What if you didn’t have Training Beta on your bookmarks bar and had never seen a climbing video? What would you do to get better at the sport?
Herbert Simon famously wrote “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” It is estimated that the total information available to us is increasing at a close-to-exponential rate (I hate when people misuse the term “exponential,” because most of us have no concept what it means.) It is estimated that this number doubled between 1900 and 2000. It doubled again by 2010, then doubled again by 2013. Clearly, we are dealing with a wealth of information.
In our tiny little corner of the world, climbing training, we see a glimpse of this. There are any number of training programs, plans, and shared systems out there for climbers. There are pro tips, Instagram training accounts, and even an increased interest in training from the print media. Gear manufacturers and retailers such as Black Diamond and Backcountry have stepped in the game. So what to do? Whose advice to follow?
I contend that most climbers are trying to make too many adaptations at once, and are not sticking with a program long enough to see results. We jump from this plan to the next, and every time we finish listening to a new podcast we change our training. So how do we stay on course? Following principles is a start.
So if you’re not lucky enough to hang out with Steve Maisch or Will Anglin on a regular basis, what can you do to get better? An understanding that it’s not your particular methods but principles is a good place to start. Principles are rules. Principles are laws that transcend the sport and apply to the basic adaptation of human biological systems. Underneath every successful training program is a set of principles that are its foundation. If you follow the principles, your method doesn’t matter. Fail at the principles, and your training will simply be exercise.
The body adapts to stress via overload of its systems. You’ve probably read Mark Rippetoe’s excellent suntan analogy. If not, here you go:
“It's June 15th, and you decide that this is the year you're going to get a suntan – a glorious, beautiful, tropical suntan.
So you decide to go out in the back yard (to spare the neighbors and innocent passersby) to lie out at lunchtime and catch a ray or two. You lie on your back for 15 minutes and flip over to lie on your belly for 15 minutes. Then you get up, come in and eat lunch, and go back to work.
That night, your skin is a little pink, so the next day you just eat lunch, but the following day you're back outside for your 15 minutes per side sunbath. You're faithful to your schedule, spending 30 minutes outside every day that week, because that's the kind of disciplined, determined person you are. At the end of the week, you've turned a more pleasant shade of brown, and, heartened by your results, resolve to maintain your schedule for the rest of the month.
So, here's the critical question: what color is your skin at the end of the month?
If you ask a hundred people this question, ninety-five will tell you that it will be really, really dark, but fact is it will be exactly the same color it was at the end of the first week. Why would it be any darker? Your skin adapts to the stress of the sun exposure by becoming dark enough to prevent itself from burning again. That's the only reason it gets dark, and it adapts exactly and specifically to the stress that burned it.
Your skin doesn't "know" that you want it to get darker; it only "knows" what the sun tells it, and the sun only "talked" to it for 15 minutes. It can't get any darker than the 15 minutes of exposure makes it get, because the 15 minutes is what it's adapting to.
If you just got darker every time you were exposed to the sun we'd all be black – especially those of us who live in sunny areas – since we all get out of the car and walk into the house or work several times a day.
The skin doesn't adapt to total accumulated exposure, but to the longest exposure – the hardest exposure. If you want it to get darker, you have to stay out longer to give the skin more stress than it's already adapted to. The widespread failure to comprehend this pivotal aspect of adaptation is why so few people actually understand exercise programming.
Exercise follows exactly the same principle as getting a tan – a stress is imposed on the body and it adapts to the stress, but only if the stress is designed properly. You wouldn't lay out for two minutes and assume that it would make you brown, because two minutes isn't enough stress to cause an adaptation.
Likewise, only a stupid SOB lays out for an hour on each side the first day, because the stress is so overwhelmingly damaging that it can't be recovered from in a constructive way.”
Not only do you have to overload the system, but you need to do so in a way that your body adapts the way you want it to. Adaptation is specific to what you do in training: training in the bouldering gym won’t make you a better runner, a faster skier, or a better husband. It will, however, make you lots better at bouldering in the gym. Our adaptations are very specific, so much so that there is little crossover between discrete facets of the sport.
With this in mind, we train many different grip positions, wall angles, rock types, set durations, etc, just to be able to do the sport at a passable level. Get psyched on one particular pitch, and you can get almost infinitely specific.
Your training specificity occurs on two levels: motor specificity and metabolic specificity. The more your training follows the motor patterns and metabolic intensities of your sport, the better you’ll adapt to performing the real thing. Movements are motor specific - that’s why climbing on an artificial wall helps you get good at climbing rock. Training intensities are metabolic specific, so the more you can address the duration and difficulty you are trying to improve, the better.
Specificity can be confused with “simulation,” where an athlete overthinks specific adaptation and goes one step too far. An example of simulation gone wrong was the use of weighted basketballs in the 1950s and the weighted golf club fad of the 1970s - both methods were intended to make the players move the ball better, and both backfired. I contend that bouldering with a weight vest will have the same effect.
The principle of individuality simply shows us that two different climbers will adapt to the same training overload differently. Genetic factors, age, experience, lifestyle habits, and many other factors come into play. This is the make-or-break principle, and is the reason you want to avoid trying to follow the workouts of the elites.
Reversibility reminds us that unless we keep stoking the fire, the fire goes out. If you stop climbing or stop training a particular facet of the sport, those skills degrade. This is part of a natural training cycle, but is psychologically difficult to contend with.
Depending on the facet of fitness you are training, the rate of reversibility will vary. Persistent factors such as strength and power tend to decline slowly, where things like mobility and cardiovascular fitness can decline in a matter of days if left untrained.
You’ve got the principles covered. So why are you still flat? It is going to be one of two things.
I am ordering you to open up your training program and get out a black Sharpie. Look at the exercises from the ten-thousand foot level. What is the overload? How much strength, power, or endurance? What is the movement you are training? You need to be able to break your workouts down into their components to see what adaptations you are asking for. It’s not uncommon to look at a program that consists of strength, power, strength-endurance, endurance, and cardiovascular endurance all in a single day. Although it’s admirable that you want to make all these changes, you are unlikely to succeed. We refer to this as “Taco Town” training.
With your Sharpie, black out one exercise from each session. Do it again. Do it again. Once you get down to about 50% of the exercises you had in the program before, you might start seeing progress again.
One of the fundamental errors we see in training is trying to train too broadly. This is not the same as trying hard or going deep - it is asking your system to make multiple micro-adaptations to a variety of sometimes conflicting stimuli. In our performance clinics, we use the analogy of multitasking at work: Let’s say you have three tasks to complete one day. How effective are you going to be if you focus on completing task one, then moving on to task two, and finally moving to task three? Probably very effective. What if you spent ten minutes on number one, then ten minutes on number two, etc? What if you switched between then every minute or every thirty seconds? What if you worked on ten tasks a day? What if you tried thirty?
We can’t really afford to work on just one system - the sport requires more. Focusing our main efforts in one direction, though, is the key to continued progress. This is the basis of our block periodization programs: Put most of your effort toward one adaptation, and keep everything else coming along at a maintenance level. Our inclinations to train “hard” on everything lead to a reality of training everything “medium” instead (see the 3-hour session above), which just isn’t enough to improve after you have gained any experience at all.
The more you excel, the more your body resists further adaptation. When we try to push the boundaries on too many levels progress all but stops. The way around? Focus.
Most climbers I meet will have at least ten exercises per training week. Some I have consulted have had as many as sixty. Sixty discrete exercises in a week!
Here is the most interesting part: The ones who had the fewest performed at a much higher level exercise-for-exercise than those who did the most. Additionally, they tended to be better overall performers.
How many exercises are on your list? Any more than twenty and you’re spinning your wheels. Fewer than ten and I’ll bet you’re wondering what a plateau even feels like. Do yourself a favor: for one month, do only four exercises in the weight room, only 1-2 hangboard positions, and only 2-3 boulder problem types/angles. Get rid of everything that is not absolutely essential, and get ready to start getting strong again.