The key to climbing hard comes down to two things, really – holding on to small holds and doing hard moves. We can break these components down into discrete exercises, or we can package them together into the best climbing exercise there is: bouldering. Bouldering, for most of us, should be about going into the gym and trying at a close-to-maximal level. The most effective bouldering sessions tend to push climbers past their limits, to a point where they fail attempt after attempt, sometimes for many sessions in a row.

A typical boulderer might warm-up by just doing easier versions of the same style of problems, for maybe 10 minutes. Although this is an acceptable strategy, there is probably a better one. For the same time commitment and without the need for other tools, a boulderer can have a  full “warm-up upgrade.” By varying the speed of movement, the work-to-rest ratio, and by careful overload of the fingers, we can enhance the results we get from training and can reduce our chance of injury.

Although I am a big fan of general warm-ups such as rowing or the air bike, these won’t be discussed here. (For more on this, check out Effective Warm-Ups.) This is a bouldering-gym only sequence, and should take less than 15 minutes to complete. It is also a good readiness check: if you do the warm-up and you’re not feeling snappy and ready to go hard, you will want to opt for an easier session or a recovery day.

To do this warm-up, you’ll want to note your limit grade. This is the maximum grade you climb in hard training, perhaps the hardest grade you have bouldered. We use this as a reference when setting up difficulty of the warm-up.

 

Step 1

Using various boulder problems on as many angles and hold types as possible, do as many easy V0/V1/V2 problems as it takes to add up to your limit grade. For the sake of this exercise, count V0 as V1. For example, if you are climbing V9 for your limit problem, you might do V2, V1, V1, V2, V2, V1. If you are climbing V4 at your limit, you might do V0, V0, V1, V1. These should be slower than your normal pace. You want to force control and static movement.

 

Step 2

Rest and stretch for a couple of minutes, then do three problems in a row with little rest, which also add up to your limit grade. In our V9 example, this might be V2, V3, V4. These should be done as quickly and explosively as possible. You don’t need to be dynoing out of control, but climb with aggressiveness and power.

 

Step 3

Rest a few minutes, then do two problems that add to the limit grade, so maybe V4, V5 in our V9 example. Our V4 climber might do two V2s. These, you would do at your normal pace. This allows the athlete to flow into the session primed for hard movement. For very hard or fingery training we do a bit of specific hold-type work on the hangboards or on problems similar to the work problems for that set.

 

My friends Brad Hilbert and Kerry Scott of Butora Climbing teamed up for a nice video that details this sequence:

 

Alex Bridgewater Demonstrates a 1Arm Hang Lock Off

The Logical Progression book details a surprisingly effective program of nonlinear training for rock climbers. The program is simple, flexible, and enjoyable…and follows a simple series of workouts. In general, athletes are asked to do an Integrated Strength workout, followed by a hard bouldering session, followed by a session designed to increase their endurance.

Although I wrote the program with route climbers in mind, the book has taken on some amount of popularity with boulderers, too. Although the plan can work well to develop a boulderer’s ability as it’s written, I have developed a modification of the original plan that is more suitable to the needs of bouldering.

 

To review…

The nonlinear approach involves sequencing several different sessions which aim at specific performance variables. By switching between the foci of sessions, we are better able to sustain high levels of performance across strength, power, endurance, etc. Although you could conceivably focus on one style of training for a few sessions at a time before switching to a new focus, we have found that switching efforts each session seems to produce the best results and keeps athletes interested longer.

Boulderers needs differ only slightly from the needs of route climbers. They won’t need as much ability to recover actively, but they still need to train for capacity – without a fairly robust recovery system in place, they aren’t going to have very many goes per day before their power wanes. It is critical for boulderers to get past the idea that they don’t need endurance, and get into the mindset that being able to do more work means being able to do more high quality bouldering in any given period.

 

Bouldering Is Not Training

We go to the gym and boulder with our friends, which is fun and usually helpful to our overall progress. Bouldering with our friends should not be considered training, though. Let’s call it practice or performance. By separating un-organized climbing sessions from our structured training, we can keep things quite focused in each type of session.

I like to program the majority of an athlete’s training as practice-style sessions; climbers should spend most of their time just climbing, and (more importantly) developing skills. A mindful workout structure will help here, with the climber planning a thorough warm-up, a short section of skill-development, and then a nice, fun session of bouldering to finish the day. Let’s call these Bouldering Days.

The focus of these days should be fun and should involve mastering movement as well as spending time with others. These days will be slightly less intense than a limit bouldering day, and should be of higher total duration for this reason.

 

Also, Training is Not Bouldering

In addition to bouldering days, you’ll also train. Too much time focused exclusively on training the physiological factors of the sport such as finger strength, explosive power, or endurance can limit or dull your skills. For most climbers, I argue that ceasing climbing for a month to focus on finger strength is, at best, a lateral move. Most climbers lose so much in skill over that period that the finger strength gains are of questionable value.

 

In Logical Progression, the second session in the series in a Limit Boulder session. This will be considered a normal bouldering day as far as the training/practicing relationship is concerned.

In this plan, a boulderer would do 2 skill/bouldering sessions for each of the training sessions. A 3-week plan might look like this:

 

M T W T F S S
Integrated Strength Limit Boulder Bouldering Day Capacity Training
Bouldering Day Integrated Strength Limit Boulder Bouldering Day
Capacity Training Bouldering Day Integrated Strength Limit Boulder

 

Capacity for Bouldering

In the original program, the third-day sessions were about building endurance for routes, i.e. being able to maintain power in an active state for short periods of time. Although some boulder problems lean into the endurance realm, the majority of boulder problems take less than a minute to complete. Where endurance comes into play is in developing the ability to have several good tries per session at very high levels of intensity.

Instead of training “deep” into the anaerobic system, we train “wide.” We don’t worry too much about sustaining efforts over longer durations, but rather about being able to elicit more quality repeats per training session.

 

Step 1 is to build up to 90 minutes of bouldering in a single session with no more than 5 minutes rest between problems. For a normal boulderer, this might mean backing off to easier problems at first. Once you have done the full 90 minutes 2-3 times, start tracking the V-Sum of your sessions. A 6-session cycle of capacity should see your V-Sum (always at a fixed 90 minutes) go up by about 5% per session. You’ll really be working hard toward the end of the cycle.

After 6 sessions, back off for 1-2 weeks, then start in again with a goal of matching your V-Sum from session 3 or 4 of the previous cycle.

 

If, for some reason, you can’t hit 90 minutes each session, you can divide the V-Sum by the number of minutes you trained to get a “session density” number.

For example:

V-Sum = 110

Minutes=75

Density = 1.47

 

If you followed this with a second session that was 90 minutes, you could compare density numbers rather than V-Sum. i.e.:

V-Sum = 129

Minutes=90

Density=1.43

This is an inferior practice, though, because we really want to look at total work in sessions and want to be pushing for more over each cycle.

 

Do the Work

A tendency of many climbers (and most humans) is to look only for the things they agree with and excel at. When boulderers start training capacity, many of them struggle. They think it is “useless” or is “stupid.” It is important to keep in mind that if your training is working, if you’re regularly sending harder and harder grades, then you should not change your program. If you’re stuck, be willing to assume that your plan might be at fault. And if you decide to enter a new program, understand that the least attractive parts of it might just be the most useful things you can do.

By Steve Bechtel

“Work is never fun, especially when you’re measuring it in watts per hour.” – The Man

In part two of this article, we’ll talk about contrasting work capacity (WC) with your normal strength training (ST), and why you really can’t maximally train both. In WC training, it’s all about tolerating a high, but not maximal workload, and being prepared for the next one as quickly as possible. Strength gains necessitate maximal workloads, and are therefore trained in a lower volume session.

In the realm of alpine or wall climbing, WC means improving your ability to do more frequent and sustained efforts such as simul-climbing or swapping leads and to to it pitch after pitch. Work capacity efforts also help at the crag where you’re trying to redpoint single pitches. With proper training, you can get more tries per day with less rest between pitches.

By creating a better “general” work capacity, theory suggests that all other training attributes will be more attainable, regardless of specificity. Although this is stretching the truth a bit (there is ample proof that well-rounded athletes tend to be way below world-standard in specific disciplines) it is indisputable that work capacity training within specific motor patterns and specific metabolic pathways leads to improved performance.

To effectively train work capacity we traditionally trained general qualities to build volume, then converted the training to more specific means while maintaining training hours per period. At the beginning of a phase, a climber might run, lift weights, swim, and boulder for a total time of 6 hours per week. As the phase progressed, we’d up the volume first (by about 10-20%), then force more and more climbing into the mix. This worked.

These days, I tend to like the ideas of coaches like Sam Leahy and Charlie Francis, where we go from specific training to very specific training. I know an awful lot of very strong (in the weight room) and highly conditioned climbers that absolutely suck when it comes to getting up a cliff.

Naturally, the less “real climbing” your goals involve, the less specific you have to become. Let’s admit it; climbing El Cap involves a whole ton of work and not very much crimping and pulling. Same with alpine climbing…better to get ungodly good at hiking uphill and stay off the hangboard. Keep this in mind as you build your training plans.

As a side note: There is an aspect to WC training that involves a fair amount of suffering. You are forced to endure quite a lot of pain, and the easy assumption to make is that we are building mental toughness by doing it. Whether this is actually happening is anyone’s guess, but the better question is whether this same mental toughness can increase climbing performance. My suspicion is that the answer is no.

In the gym, work capacity training is easy to quantify. Imagine a climber with a 400 pound 1-rep max squat. In a strength session, he might do 3 sets of 2 reps at 90% of this number, for a total of 2160 pounds (3x2x360). In a work capacity session we’ll back the load off to 75% of max, where the athlete can usually complete 8 reps. By doing 3 sets, the athlete creates a total workload of 7200 pounds. He still overloads the system enough to maintain strength, but delivers a huge wallop to his system with over 3 times as much load. This is the essence of work capacity training.

The following program is a 4-week build designed for a climber looking to do some longer alpine routes or grade V walls. Since aid climbing isn’t real climbing, we assume the climber is trying to free these routes. Therefore, the plan calls for plenty of technical climbing during the training phase in addition to the extra work imposed by our supplemental sessions. The program is designed for a climber with a fixed schedule; this athlete only has 3 hours to train during the week and a long day on the weekend. For this reason there is little variation in volume, just variation in load and exercise selection.

The Plan:

Week 1:

Monday – no training

Tuesday – RT, Progressive Session, 40 min. Density Bouldering 20 min.

Wednesday – RT, Strength-Endurance, 25 min. Route Laps 35 min.

Thursday – RT, Strength Session, 30-40 minutes.

Friday – no training

Saturday – Climb @ crag. 8 pitches. 2p Warm-Up, 3p @ onsight level, 3p at onsight -1. Rest 30 min. Density RT session 30 min. Rest 30 min. System Ladders 45 min.

Sunday – no training

 

WEEK 2:

Monday – no training

Tuesday – RT, Progressive Session, 40 min. Density Bouldering 20 min.

Wednesday – RT, Strength-Endurance, 20 min. (same session, faster.)  Route Laps 40 min. Look for increase of 2 pitches.

Thursday – RT, Strength Session, 30 minutes, 30 minutes bouldering at up to 85%.

Friday – no training

Saturday – Climb @ crag. 8 pitches. 2p Warm-Up, 4p @ onsight level, 2p at onsight -1. Rest 25 min. Density RT session 30 min. Rest 25 min. System Ladders 45 min.

Sunday – no training

 

WEEK 3:

Monday – no training

Tuesday – RT, Progressive Session, 40 min. Density Bouldering 20 min.

Wednesday – RT, Strength-Endurance, 20 min.  Route Laps 40 min. Look for increase of 1 pitch.

Thursday – RT, Progressive Session, 60 minutes.

Friday – no training

Saturday – Climb @ crag. 10 pitches. 2p Warm-Up, 4p @ onsight level, 4p at onsight -1. Rest 25 min. Density RT session 30 min. Rest 20 min. System Ladders 45 min.

Sunday – no training

 

WEEK 4:

Monday – no training

Tuesday – RT, Progressive Session, 40 min. Density Bouldering 30 min.

Wednesday – RT, Strength-Endurance, 20 min.  Route Laps 40 min. Look for increase of 1 pitch.

Thursday – RT, Progressive Session, 60 minutes. Add short run at end if time allows.

Friday – no training

Saturday – Climb @ crag. 10 pitches. 2p Warm-Up, 5p @ onsight level, 3p at onsight -1. Rest 25 min. Density RT session 30 min. Rest 15 min. System Ladders 45 min. Rest 15 min. Repeat Wednesday’s 20 min STR-END session.

Sunday – no training

——————————————————————————————————————-

The Sessions:

PROGRESSIVE SESSION

WU: 8-10 MINUTE MOVEMENT PREPARATION + 5 MIN MULTIPLANAR DYNAMIC WARM-UP

      DO THE PRESCRIBED NUMBER OF SETS EACH OF THE FOLLOWING GROUPS:

1) A1: KETTLEBELL CLEAN + PRESS 2-4-6 REPS EACH SIDE

   A2: STEP-UPS WITH DUMBBELLS 12 REPS EACH SIDE

2) B1: SPIDERMAN PUSH-UP 6 REPS EACH SIDE

     B2: KETTLEBELL SWING 50 REPS

3) C1: BACHAR LADDER 6 MOVES (3 EACH ARM) – NO DOWNCLIMB

    C2: RACK HOLD FRONT SQUAT 10 REPS

 

WEEK 1: 3 SETS OF EACH GROUP

WEEK 2: 3 SETS OF GROUP 1, 4 SETS EACH OF GROUPS 2 AND 3.

WEEK 3: 4 SETS OF EACH GROUP

WEEK 4: 5 SETS OF GROUP 1, 5 SETS OF GROUP 2, AND AS MANY SETS OF GROUP 3 AS POSSIBLE.

—————————————————————————————————————–

DENSITY BOULDERING

YOU MIGHT KNOW THIS ONE FROM OTHER ARTICLES I’VE WRITTEN. SET A TIMER FOR THE PRESCRIBED SESSION TIME, AND THEN DO AS MANY BOULDER PROBLEMS AS YOU CAN (+ OR – 2 GRADES FROM YOUR ONSIGHT LEVEL) WITHIN THE ALLOWED TIME.

——————————————————————————————————————

STRENGTH ENDURANCE SESSION

THIS IS A REALLY SIMPLE SESSION WHERE WE OVERLOAD 5 MOVEMENT PATTERNS FOR 5 ROUNDS. YOU CAN ADAPT THIS TO ALMOST ANY GYM SITUATION. FOR THIS WORKOUT, OUR ATHLETE CAN SET UP IN A POWER RACK AND STAY THERE FOR THE WHOLE SESSION.

45 SECONDS WORK, 15 SECONDS REST. 5 ROUNDS:

INVERTED ROW

FRONT SQUAT

PUSH-UPS (FEET ELEVATED)

JUMP SHRUG

ANKLES TO BAR

——————————————————————————————————————–

STRENGTH SESSION

THIS IS A 4 EXERCISE SESSION. 4 SETS EACH, REPS AS NOTED.

A1: 2X DEADLIFT

A2: 4X BENCH PRESS

 

B1: 4+4X SPLIT SQUAT WITH REAR FOOT ELEVATED

B2: 4X PULL-UPS (ADD LOAD TO KEEP REPS LOW)

——————————————————————————————————————–

ROUTE LAPS

THIS IS A PRETTY OPEN-STYLE WORKOUT, BUT WE PICK ROUTES THAT ARE CLOSE TO THE AVERAGE OF THE GOAL ROUTE. DOING ASTROMAN? 5.10S ARE APPROPRIATE. FREE RIDER? MAYBE 5.11S. FIT AS MANY LAPS AS YOU CAN IN THE GIVEN SESSION. TRY TO REST AT LEAST 1:1.

——————————————————————————————————————–

DENSITY RESISTANCE TRAINING SESSION

THIS SESSION IS 30 MINUTES IN DURATION. IT INVOLVES FIVE EXERCISES, WHICH WE LOAD UP WITH THE ATHLETE’S 10-12 REP MAXIMUM. HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT THIS IS? WE EXPERIMENT. WE LOOK FOR TECHNICAL FAILURE RATHER THAN ABSOLUTE FAILURE. THE ATHLETE MOVES AS QUICKLY AS HE CAN THROUGH THE EXERCISES, DOING 5 REPS EACH IN CIRCUIT FORMAT FOR THE ENTIRE 30 MINUTES. FOR THE DURATION OF THE CYCLE THE LOADS ARE KEPT THE SAME. THE ATHLETE’S GOAL IS TO FIT MORE TOTAL SETS IN EACH WORKOUT.

HANG CLEAN

SINGLE LEG SQUAT (5 PER SIDE)

DUMBBELL PUSH PRESS

INVERTED ROW

BARBELL ROLL-OUT

——————————————————————————————————————–

SYSTEM LADDER WORKOUT

CRIMPS 5 X 1-1-2-2-3-3 WITH 30 SEC BETWEEN LADDERS

LOBS 5 X 4 LOBS EACH SIDE WITH 30 SEC BETWEEN

LOCK AND HOLD 5 X 4 5-SECOND HOLDS EACH SIDE WITH 60 SEC BETWEEN

Genetic Drifter Wooden Hang Board

by Steve Bechtel

This is the second article in this series. The first, on training for novice boulderers, should be read before this one, training programs for bouldering-intermediate.

 

As I wrote in the last article, we often like to think of ourselves as being more advanced that we are. I tend to do this in the realms of cooking, finance, and personal hygiene. I’ve been dealing with all three of these things since I was a teenager, but have never really put in anything more than minimal efforts. Since I still tend to mess up cooking spaghetti, don’t have an impressive investment portfolio and I cut my own hair, I should still be considered a novice in these areas.

 

I use the terms novice, intermediate, and expert to give an indication of training age and experience breaking through plateaus. This was not my idea – it’s borrowed from coach Mark Rippetoe, who writes wonderful books about weight training. It’s a good model for judging how one should be training…why try to do an advanced program when you don’t have to?

 

If you have never really stopped getting better by just climbing, you’d be classified as a novice – no judgment attached. This article is intended for climbers who have been at it for a few years or more and have found what they fear is their “level” – a place where they just seem to be stuck at the same grade season after season.

 

As frustrating as this can be, it’s often an easy fix. We usually try to move the climber away from climbing-only as training and look at scheduling specific weeks for overload and recovery. In the two programs I suggest below, you’ll see that we focus one step deeper than just getting better at bouldering, and instead look at trying to develop specific facets of the sport over the course of targeted training cycles. This gives us the opportunity to once again provide an overload to the body’s systems, something that likely no longer occurs with the same old bouldering routine.

 

The training of the intermediate is more restrictive and focused than the novice’s plan. There is a big caveat here that I think a lot of people miss: advanced programs aren’t somehow magically better than less advanced ones – they simply apply greater structure and load. These are two things that one should not seek out until all other avenues have been exhausted.

 

The intermediate program is where you’ll start seeing two major categories of exercises that are outside the realm of climbing. General Preparatory exercises will range from cardiovascular-style training to weights to mobility work. Specific Strength exercises will be more climbing-specific tools used to advance particular facets of climbing movement. These include deadhangs, lock-off training, systems work, power bouldering, etc. None of these exercises will be unfamiliar to most climbers. How to implement them correctly might be. I don’t cover specifics in this article – this is simply about building the program.

 

We use two basic training plans for our intermediate boulderers: an Alternating Linear Cycle and a 3-Stage Accumulation Cycle. I’ll outline each of them below.

 

Alternating Linear Cycling

I’ve covered this one before. It’s the best of the simple periodization models simply because it’s the most simple. Training is planned in 4-week or 1-month blocks, and you alternate between two different training “months”. Month 1 is a strength and power focused month with three weeks of gradually harder training followed by a recovery week. Month two is aimed at developing work capacity and, God forgive me for recommending it to a boulderer, endurance. The second month is structured the same as the first, with three weeks of build followed by a recovery.

 

The best way to start this program is to look at exactly how much you have been training each week for the past several weeks. If you have no idea at all, I suggest you do the novice program for a month and figure out what kind of volume you can handle. Once you know how many hours per week you’re training, you can plan week 1. Weeks two and three will be roughly the same duration, but with an active effort toward going harder (doing harder problems, more difficult hangs, etc.) rather than for more time. Week four will see you maintain the same intensity from week three, but with half the total training time. This rule is critical and non-negotiable.

 

The sessions in month 1 should include 2-3 bouldering sessions per week, 2 hangboard strength sessions, 1-2 strength resistance training sessions, and 1-2 special strength sessions on the system wall or doing skill training on the bouldering wall. You’ve got to understand why my recommendations here are not more explicit – this program is for ALL BOULDERERS. No two of us need the same exact things out of training. Want more exact recommendations? Shoot me a question via email.

 

Month 2 will consist of trying to do more stuff at a lower intensity. Each week, you’ll look for more total work to be completed, which is usually a reflection of more training time. You don’t want to let your strength and power slip, though, so make sure to keep 1 hangboard strength session and 1 bouldering session in the plan. On top of that, you’ll want to add 1-2 density sessions, some linked-problem workouts, and at least two “extensive endurance” type sessions. The latter are simply long traverse days, mileage days on a rope, or ARC-style sessions.

 

The traverse days have to be done with impeccable technique and should be done on a variety of angles and hold types. My main criticism of ARC training is that most people just do “open” traversing in a climbing gym, reinforcing their bad habits and crap technique. Don’t do this and you’re golden.

 

I’m also a big fan of “cardiac output” training in this phase. This is slow-paced cardiovascular activity that should aid in recovery, general endurance, and weight management. Remember, this phase is all about accumulating lots of work, so don’t worry about pushing the intensity. Activities that use your upper body muscles such as rowing, skiing, or easy circuit training are arguably better for building endurance and work capacity for climbing, but it hasn’t been studied extensively.

 

3-Stage Accumulation Cycling

This is a similar plan to the last, but features a peak of sorts at the end of the training cycle. This is appropriate for people trying to build for specific trips or projects. The plan starts with a 6-8 week “accumulation phase.” This phase features a gradual build-up in overall training volume while trying to see modest improvements in strength and power as the cycle progresses.

 

We follow the accumulation phase with a solid recovery week, and then start a 3-4 week intensity cycle. This cycle involves really upping the difficulty of every session, and usually results in a drop of about 20-25% training volume per week. We need to be careful about dropping off too much, as that tends to result in a decrease in overall conditioning.

 

After the intensity phase, we roll out to the peaking phase, where for three to four glorious weeks you just try to go bouldering. The way you “earn” this is to build enough of a fitness base that your strength and power stay relatively persistent and allow for a long-term peak. The longer you make the accumulation and intensity phases, the longer this peak can last.

 

An example 3-stage cycle might look like this:

 

Accumulation

Week 1:

2x bouldering for difficulty (45 min)

1x bouldering for volume (75 min)

1x hangboard strength (30 min)

1x hangboard repeaters (30 min)

1x system training – limiters (60 min)

2x power resistance training (45 min)

 

Weeks 2-4:

same format with increases in overall total work each week.

 

Week 5:

back off as needed, probably to volume of week 2 or so.

 

Week 6:

3x bouldering for difficulty (45 min)

1x bouldering for volume (75 min)

1x hangboard strength (20 min)

1x hangboard repeaters (30 min)

1x system training – limiters (40 min)

2x strength-endurance RT sessions (45 min)

1x PE climbing session (45 min)

 

Weeks 7,8:

same format with increases in overall total work each week.

 

Intensity:

Week 1:

3x bouldering for difficulty (45 min)

1x hangboard strength (30 min)

1x system training – tension (40 min)

2x strength resistance training (30 min)

 

Weeks 2,3:

same format as week 1, except trying to increase training load / difficulty each week.

 

Peak:

Weeks 1-3:

Hard bouldering with rest as needed. Probably most effective at 3-4 short sessions per week.

 

The nutshell version of this plan is this: do as much stuff as you can for the first few weeks, then do harder stuff, then do even harder stuff with more rest.

 

Again, remember this is an example and not your new training program. You’ve got to build a plan from where you are, not from where you wish you were.

Charlie Manganiello spots a child as she climbs in the climbing gym

by Steve Bechtel

One of the most powerful tools we can acquire for getting better is to figure out how much getting better there is to be done. I first wrote the Novice Bouldering Program in 2010, re-released it a couple of years back, and am revisiting it again now. Why? Because it is one of the most effective programs out there. Here’s the thing, though…nobody thinks they are a novice.

One of the great things about web analytics is that you get to see great detail on which articles are getting the most traffic. Of course, Advanced Bouldering is crushing, followed by a distant Intermediate, and an almost-unread Novice article. Thanks for reading it, dad! Here’s the thing: climbing is complicated enough – a complicated training plan is only useful when a simple one has not worked. Even when you plateau, I urge you to revisit simpler methods first, before adding complexity. What follows is the Novice article, and a few tweaks to the plan I have made over the last couple of years.

I know…nobody’s a novice. Nobody wants to be thought of as one, and no one likes to consider themselves one. However, in building climbing training programs, we’ve adapted a really useful classification template from strength coach Mark Rippetoe that works very well. Depending on how long a climber has been at it and how much he climbs each week, his training program design differs. We categorize these levels as Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced, and there’s more to it than the grade you can boulder. The distinctions come as indicators of “training age” – a measure of how much of your life you’ve spent actively trying to get better at this sport.

Training age is a really neat thing. Let me give you an example: take a avid climber of 20 years and a triathlete with the same amount of experience. Have the two switch sports for two years of dedicated training on the world’s best training plan. At the end of those two years, what do you think will happen? Will the triathlete be a better redpoint climber? Will the climber win in a head-to-head triathlon? I think you know the answers.In the early stages of climbing…say the first 2 years, almost anything will cause a boulderer to get better. At this level, simply adding any kind of climbing or (in some cases) even general physical activity is the best path to improvement. “Training” is a waste of time for climbers at this level; their climbing should be looked at as practice and measured in hours. Anyone who has not put in at least one to two thousand hours (and by this I mean actual hours of movement – not hours spent at the crag or gym) in the sport is probably still a novice when it comes to training age.An intermediate-level climber begins to really know failure (and the desire to succeed) on routes and problems. Bouldering, hangboard sessions, and disorganized “training” can be employed to help this climber improve.

Usually, by the time a climber has reached this level, he is already at 60-80% of his genetic potential for strength and endurance. Progress really flattens out for the intermediate and these climbers will often hit a long-term plateau; the result of progress simply taking too much work. Many climbers will never leave this plateau, a spot business guru Seth Godin describes as “the dip.” The intermediate stage can last several years and will take a climber to around 90% of his genetic potential. Training for intermediate athletes has to be organized and tracked, but probably not to the degree and advanced climber’s must.Advanced climbers are rare. These are the ones who continually creep up the improvement ladder, even years into a training career. They follow structured plans, and expect to perform at top levels only a few short weeks each year. These climbers are generally well-rounded, and don’t have a particular “style.” Their hard-won efficiency decreases the stress or overload that normal training plans can provide. The better you are, the harder you must train.Rippetoe describes the advanced (Weightlifting) trainee well:”Advanced trainees are very close to their genetic potential. Huge amounts of training result in  relatively small improvements. Advanced trainees require fewer movements than intermediates.

Advanced trainees require large volumes of intense work to disrupt homeostasis. This means the stress required for progress will creep nearer and nearer to the maximal tolerable workload that the body can perform and recover from.”Don’t be deceived. There are climbers performing at very high levels that have not reached the advanced stage; they simply have more potential that they have not tapped. Likewise, there are boulderers that might climb only V8 that have attained advanced status simply because they are performing very close to their absolute genetic limit.

So how complicated must a novice training program be? As uncomplicated as possible. Here are my rules:

  1. Beginning boulderers should keep a training log. In this log, you should track the details of every climbing session. Note warm-up, each problem’s grade and style, how you performed on it, and anything significant that occurred in the session. This could be a particular send or an injury.
  2. Overload should progress through a training month. This means the total number of problems you complete at any given grade or the grades you send should increase steadily over three weeks’ worth of sessions. The fourth week of each month is an unloading week where you will aim to do half the volume of week three. Lean toward trying harder grades rather than building more volume. The months should progress, too. You should see better performance in November than you did in the spring.

I like climbers to track three numbers for each session. First, the total number of problems. Second, the V-Sum (add up all the V-grade numbers of the problems you did). Third, the Average V for the session. The last number is simply the V-Sum divided by the number of problems. These three numbers are key to building progressively harder training session-to-session.3. If you can’t do a few pull-ups or you can’t do a one-legged squat (pistol squat), you might consider a few days each week or resistance training. Bouldering is a massively strength-oriented sport, and some total body strength will go a long way. Our Foundation Strength workouts are a good place to start, though good weight training plans are pretty easy to find. Avoid group high-intensity training as well as bodybuilding programs.

The 3 weeks on 1 week off program is a really good one. A climber can continue to see improvements here for years, so no other program is really necessary until you see a hard plateau. There is some wiggle room, too: if you get sick or have to travel, you can slide the off-week around a little bit and not blow the program. Take the off week seriously, though. If you’re pushing it hard on your three weeks on, you’ll slowly be “digging the hole” – really stressing your body to adapt. That fourth week is your body’s chance to recover and catch up. If you’re doing it right, the strongest you’ll climb will often be just after a recovery week.Once you start to go flat, assess what’s going on. Are you getting really good at one type of problem? Are you weak on certain moves? Are you having flexibility or technique issues that hold you back? These things should all be addressed before you decide to intensify your training. Once you feel you’re climbing a pretty good grade on a variety of rock types and angles, you might be ready for more advanced training. A warning, though…this plan is way more fun than the ones I build for intermediate and advanced trainees. Before you decide to move on up to a “higher level” program, make sure you’ve seen this one through.