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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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)

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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.

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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

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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

By Steve Bechtel

Most of the articles I write are aimed at improving performance in single-pitch rock climbing. Understandably, there are big questions when it comes to converting your single-pitch fitness into longer efforts such as big walls or alpine routes. When it comes to performing at a high level for a long day or days on end, a climber needs to develop work capacity. Work capacity is exactly what it seems; the ability to execute high levels of effort over time.

When we talk about work capacity for climbers, we are talking about being able to consistently climb / work at a given level all day long. In a later article, we’ll discuss multi-day efforts. The concept of all-day fitness is easy to grasp. If you normally project and send 5.12a routes, you could easily consider climbing 10+ pitches of 5.7. But as the grades increase, your capacity declines slightly. 10 pitches of 5.10 might really push you. When it comes to your limit-level routes, 3 tries might seem like a lot. Work capacity training seeks to change that.

If your goal is to do long free routes or even get more tries on a project at your local crag, there’s more to the equation than simply being strong enough to hold on to the holds. In fact, there is a limited amount of work capacity your climbing-specific fitness can handle. Your skin, joints, and hand strength all become limiting factors before your body’s physiological capacity is maxed out. Add to this that most of us have jobs and families, and just “climbing more” isn’t possible.

In order to develop greater total work capacity for climbing, then, you have two choices: climb many climbs at a significantly reduced level or climb fewer routes at a slightly-below-max level supplemented with other forms of exercise. The latter is more fun, and probably more effective in the long run.

The key to building work capacity is deceptively simple: do more total work. If you have some open time to train, or poorly allocated time (you know…Facebook), you can add more workouts to your plate. Instead of watching Narcos, you could hit the gym for another hour each week. However, if you are like me, you can’t just add training hours. Athletes working against a fixed number of hours each week can still increase their ability to do work, they just have to go about it differently.

If you have, say, 5 hours to train each week, you can simply ramp up the difficulty of what you’re doing. Climb harder problems. Rest less between tries. In the weight room, up the weight, drop the rest periods, and accept the inevitable suffering that will come.

 

Before you sign up for this kind of training, though, look at the name. Work.

 

A great method of sneaking more work into your workouts is to break them up a little to keep the mind occupied and change the stimuli to the system. Be warned: training for climbing is nothing if not a world of compromise. Although blocking workouts together like this is fun and does build work capacity, your specific climbing strength and power may suffer. You’ll have to choose: do you want to climb your hardest, or do you want to climb a lot?

We’ll build training days that look something like this:

  1. Movement preparation + dynamic warm-up (15 min)
  2. Climbing warm-up (5-10 min)
  3. Bouldering or power work on system wall (30 min)
  4. Low-skill climbing training such as hangs, system ladders, rhythm intervals, etc. (20 min)
  5. Resistance training: tri-sets and interval weight training (30 min)
  6. Cardiovascular interval training (30 min)

This would be typical of a long training day. The shorter sessions can be blocked similarly, or can be sequenced throughout the week. We move from high-skill sport specific movements to non-specific, lower-skill movements as fatigue sets in. A huge error climbers make is to train limit-level climbing under fatigue…your body’s capacity to learn motor patterns is rolling whether you’re fresh or not, so don’t teach your body crap technique just to get a pump on.

We build this training in 4-week cycles. It’s important to test yourself at the beginning with a performance test such as trying to see how many 5.11b-11d routes you can redpoint in a day. You can then repeat the test at the end and get some idea whether you’ve improved or not. We also have our climbers do an in-gym work capacity test at the beginning of week 1 and at the end of week 4.

In the second part of this article, I’ll outline a 4-week work capacity training plan aimed at long routes, as well as detailing some of the sessions in that plan. Although I’ll give you a specific plan, the take home is that you have got to do more stuff each week until you can convert that to specific climbing capacity.

Before you sign up for this kind of training, though, look at the name. Work. The fun part will not come until you’re done with the route and back at the car. The training is brutal and will, in the words of Jimmy Jewel, take all you’ve got if you’ve got what it takes.