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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
|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.
V-Sum = 110
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
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
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:
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)
same format with increases in overall total work each week.
back off as needed, probably to volume of week 2 or so.
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)
same format with increases in overall total work each week.
3x bouldering for difficulty (45 min)
1x hangboard strength (30 min)
1x system training – tension (40 min)
2x strength resistance training (30 min)
same format as week 1, except trying to increase training load / difficulty each week.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
by Steve Bechtel
One of the greatest things about climbing, and I think one of the things that attracts many of us to the sport, is that no two moves are ever the same. Even the very same climbs can be executed differently each time you do them. This is endlessly entertaining for the mind, but creates a challenge for the body. The fact that there are so many facets to the execution of a boulder problem or climb give the climber many avenues of progress. This opens success to more than just the very strong, very flexible, etc.
As great as this variability is for enjoyment of the sport, it is a hurdle when it comes to training. Training is about overload and recovery. At the top end of one’s ability, overload has to happen along a razor’s edge – too much and you get hurt, too little and you stay stuck. The difficulty in quantifying climbing can easily interest us in other, less effective, training modes. This is not because they are superior but because we can measure them more easily. If I can do more pull-ups this week than last week, I’ll believe my training “worked”…whether it actually made me better at the sport or not.
In climbing, climbing is everything. It doesn’t matter how good you are at the parts of the sport if you can’t send. I’ve seen fabulously flexible climbers fail miserably at stemming because of bad footwork, strong climbers fail because they couldn’t get the balance right, and some of the most bold climbers come peeling off long before they needed to be brave. Yes, strength training and hangboarding and campusing can help you, but you still have to move. That’s why there is no better training mode than bouldering.
So, how do we make sure that our bouldering is advancing? How can we come up with a way of measuring the sessions so that we force progress or recovery when it’s needed? The first step is to take a pencil to the gym with you. In order to assess what you did, you’ll need to keep track of a few numbers for each session:
1. The total duration of the session, and the duration of the “work sets” after warm-up. In general, your warm-ups will drift toward a standard format and length, and will not be as important a factor in calculating what you did in training.
2. The grade and nature of the problems you do. I recommend noting the angle of the problem, length, and type (i.e. crimpy, technical, slopers, explosive, etc.) The grade will be the only quantifiable part of this, but noting that you spend all your time jughauling on the steep walls should raise a red flag and explain why you can’t seem to climb anything outdoors.
3. Your general feeling of how each problem felt. A simple 1-5 scale of crappy to awesome is useful. This shouldn’t be tied to whether you send or not.
4. Whether you sent or not. In general, if my athletes fall low on a problem, we call it a scratch and start over. Likewise, an almost-send gets counted. This is because we are tracking what is happening physiologically in the session, not whether you made it to some arbitrary stopping point. Naturally, you can detail the actual results of each try, which give you better perspective on the data.
Like I said above, the only thing you can quantify is the grade. These are all over the place and can be somewhat inconsistent. If a grade is way off, don’t worry what others think. Note the grade you think the problem is. Using the data you recorded above, the following numbers can be noted for each training session.
– Total number of problems. Keep track only of problems after warm-up.
– The “V Sum”. This is all the grades of the climbs you did that session, all added together. For example, if you did V1-V2-V4-V4-V3-V4-V2-V3-V4, the V Sum would be 27. V0 should be counted as V1…you actually did some climbing, so we can’t have it count for zero.
– The “Average V”. This is your V Sum divided by the number of problems. In our example above, that would be 27 divided by 9, or V3. If you were to do an extra V3, your V Sum would kick up to 30, but your average V would remain the same. Tracking this to one decimal place (i.e. V3.1) is useful.
– The Session Density. To calculate this overall indicator of session load, you take the V Sum and divide it by the duration of the session. Therefore a 1- hour session where your V Sum is 60 would have a density of 1, where a day where your V Sum is 80 in the same time would have a density of 1.34…a huge change in load.
Using these numbers, you can get some good information on your sessions, the most important being whether you are progressing at all. A higher Density, V Sum, or Average V will indicate higher loads than the previous session.
So what do these numbers mean?
When trying to increase power or strength (ability), the most important number to track is Average V. This gives you an indication of session intensity – the number one measure of how hard you worked.
When trying to increase work capacity or all-day endurance, you will want to pay closest attention to the V Sum. This give you a picture of how much overall work you did, and is easy to add to. In an eight-week program, you might have to compare a dozen different sessions, and can “increase” your volume by simply adding a few easy problems at the end of a day. This is easy at first…when it gets less easy is when you know you are making progress.
When trying to increase long power or power endurance, Session Density is the measure to watch. This is where endurance route climbers can really tune up their fitness.
Like I said before – it’s a challenge to quantify training in this way, but these simple measures can be used quickly and effectively. The biggest error we see in climbers is non-progression. This is not because they can’t move forward, it’s simply that they don’t know how.