By Steve Bechtel
You wouldn’t read this if you didn’t want to get better at climbing. Many of us are on a constant search for a new training program, a new tool, a secret formula that somehow someone figured out that makes it all easy. Getting better isn’t complex, it’s simple. It’s simple, not easy. It’s about getting great at the basics and not worrying so much about the details.
Author James Clear wrote a very good article about our obsession with the last 10% and why we fail because of it:
We love to obsess over tactics and strategies that make the last 10% of difference.
For example: Didn’t have a good workout?
Well then, let’s debate all of the reasons why it could have been something other than you. Maybe you need to have your post–workout protein shake 30 minutes after working out instead of 60 minutes after working out. Maybe you need to get a better pair of shoes. Or a belt. Or a sweat–wicking shirt. Or knee sleeves.
What’s incredible is that these are things we actually waste time on! I’ve heard all of those crazy excuses mentioned in conversations. I’ve even said some of them myself.
Why? Because it’s easier to waste time debating the last 10% of improvement than it is to just do the thing that makes 90% of the difference. It’s easier to claim that you need a better diet plan or a new workout template or different gear than it is to admit that what you really need is to not miss a workout for the next six months.
This same idea holds true for diets and nutrition, business and entrepreneurship, writing and art, and virtually any other endeavor we attempt. We want strategies that scale. We want tactics that are optimized. But eventually, you realize that the biggest difference between success and failure comes from mastering the fundamentals.
Maybe a faster computer will make Stephen King a better writer … because he has already mastered the fundamentals of writing every day.
Maybe optimal meal timing will make an Olympic swimmer a better athlete … because she has already mastered the fundamentals of eating healthy and training hard.
Maybe a better guitar will make Eric Clapton a better musician … because he has already mastered the fundamentals of playing consistently.
But for most of us, the final 10% of optimization will rarely lead to the difference we’re looking to achieve.
Getting better at climbing is not unlike getting better at every other thing, and the same general processes and rules apply. With the idea of focusing on the 90% I looked back on several of our training tips and articles to build this list of ten things to do before you start worrying about that last 10%:
1. Hold to the Schedule
A quick 5 minutes on Facebook will find you a link to a cheap 4-week program for improved climbing. Remembering the triangle of constraints will help you to understand whether this is a good program for you or not. The triangle of constraints tells us that when looking at a new idea or program, you’ll be sold on the idea that they are fast, inexpensive, and effective, yet in reality you can only have two of the three. You can have a program that is fast and effective, but it won’t be cheap. You can have a program that is cheap and effective, but it won’t be fast. Such a program (4-weeks for $25) as I mentioned above is both fast and cheap…but guess what? The shit don’t work.
If you want to get better at climbing, climb first. Once you are hitting 12-15 pitches or 30-40 boulder problems a week, then you can start specific training. What you do doesn’t matter near as much as that you do it long enough for your body to adapt to the stress. Plan to climb and train 2-3 days per week for 6 months or 9 or 12 before you expect to see big improvements. If you’re feeling tired, show up and go easy. If you are injured, train around the problem. Starting and stopping and doing this or that intense program simply doesn’t work. Look at your training log if you think I’m wrong.
2. Stick to the Basics
I get a lot of questions about details of adjusting loads in hangboard sessions, about which holds are the “best” for building strength, about nutrient timing, carb cycling, supplements, hand angle for inverted rows…you name it. Your program doesn’t need to be super-complex. You simply need to make sure that you follow the basic principles of overload and progression, and stick to exercises that have a “big bang for your buck.”
This means you need to lift more weight, add more pitches, try harder boulders, crimp smaller edges, and do it progressively over the long term. You also should stick to exercises that use compound movements. Curls and back flies and planks can easily be replaced by simply doing pull-ups. Forget about calf raises, leg extensions, and the like…just squat. Bouldering regularly on a variety of holds will get you a hell of a lot further than trying to train all of the joint angle variants of all the finger positions at all the elbow flexion angles possible on the hangboard.
You might think it’s a joke, but often the best tactic with coaching new people is to simply take what they are currently doing, cross half the activities off the list, and turn them loose with their “new plan.” It works like gangbusters.
- Lift weights a couple of days a week at an intensity that would allow you to climb afterward.
- Boulder on hard problems a couple of days a week.
- Climb hard routes on the weekend.
- Eat vegetables at every meal.
- Wear good shoes.
3. Alternate Your Focus Between Volume and Intensity
We tend to always train in a “medium” comfort zone. We try to maintain a bit of conditioning, keep our fingers strong, and keep our power up. The problem, of course, is that if you keep up on everything you’re maximizing nothing. There’s no need to get super fancy with your programming – you just need to switch what you’re progressing every once in a while.
Instead of having a strength phase, a stretching phase, a power phase, etcetera, plan to switch between a focus on doing more for 4-6 weeks, then focus on doing things harder. Volume, then intensity. Try to both and you’ll hit the skids.
4. Look for Measurable Improvement
Is your training plan working? Just being tired at the end of the day or after a couple of sessions doesn’t mean anything. You should pick a metric to test at the beginning of a training month, test it day one, train for the month, and test it day 30. If it didn’t improve, your plan was bad. Training is about focusing on discrete parts of performance and trying to improve them, then applying them to sport. If you want stronger fingers, test your max 10 second hang weight on a 20mm edge. A month’s training on this edge should make that number go up.
Endurance can be measured by several metrics, both in the gym and at the crag. Power will manifest in a higher vertical jump or improved dyno distance. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Oh, and when you are in a sending phase…redpoint-level performances are your measure of success.
5. Keep a Training Log
The best training plan in the world for you is probably very similar to what you did leading up to your past best performance. The problem for most climbers is that they have no idea what, exactly, they did last time. How much did you weight when you sent? What kind of volume were you doing? How was your sleep? Your relationship?
If you don’t keep a log, start with yesterday’s training. You can start as simple as jotting down what kind of training you did, how long it took, and your impressions of the effort. The more time you spend and the more information you record, the more useful it is. Personally, I like to track bodyweight, high-quality efforts, pitches or distance climbed, and sends. The more detailed I am, the more useful the data.
I like to write my training down in a notebook. Once a month, I enter the numbers into a spreadsheet for analysis and to help with planning the next phase.
6. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
Related to the previous tip, I find that repeating training from a previous season can be very useful. However, doing the exact same thing can slow progress. If you bouldered for 90 minutes twice a week and worked V5 and V6 problems, you will need to up your game if you want to send harder this season. We teach our athletes that lifting more is a key to progress…but what if you stall out on weight/difficulty?
If you just can’t increase load, consider adding a bit of volume. Let’s say you build up to 5×2 squats at 225#. At 230, your form began to waver. You can still progress and its as simple as adding maybe a rep to each workout for a few weeks. Work up to 11 total reps (5×2 and one set of one), then 12, then 13, then 14. Eventually, you might be able to fire off a set of 3 in there, and then you can go back and test 230 again. Try harder in training to climb harder outside.
7. Good Training Doesn’t Always Mean Sending
There is preparation in everything. As the old saying goes, if you have 5 minutes to cut down a tree, spend the first three sharpening your axe. There are facets to your fitness that are holding you back. If you want to advance, you’ve got to improve those facets. Sending problems or routes are simply pleasant side effects in a training session – they are never the goal of training. What you should look for in training is to give redpoint-worthy efforts, efforts you are proud of.
In the weight room, we don’t really care about how many of your sets equal what we had planned on paper. More frequently, we are looking for you to do the movements right, to maintain tension, to harness your intensity. This should happen session after session – the slow build-up of quality work. When you are feeling strong, focused, and powerful, you can back off on the training and let performance on the rock become your goal…and perform you will.
8. Don’t Just Prepare
Somehow, some of us get this idea that we are going to get to some spectacular level of fitness in training that will make all climbing easy. We get sucked into the numbers, into the easy gains that come in the gym, and we forget to apply this training. You can’t ramp up for more than 6-8 weeks without hitting some kind of peak. The choice is yours: are you going to use this peak or are you going to pretend that you’re not there yet.
I have never met a climber that can’t build a peak and perform at that level for at least ¼ of the year. This means that about every third month you should kick the hell out of things – and stop just preparing for them.
9. Long-Term Training Matters
The old coaching adage goes like this: The sharper the peak, the quicker you come off it. What that means is that the more quick and intense your preparation, the more quickly that fitness will decline. CLimbing is not like single-event sport preparation – few of us care about being able to perform well one specific day as much as being able to perform well for season after season.
Addressing training in a long-term framework with a mind toward not just next month, but next year, and five years after that. Climb a lot of splitters? Work on ankle and wrist stability now so you can continue to jam and enjoy it ten years down the road. Pocket climber? Keep working those positions regularly, in low volumes, all year…forever. Ramping up pocket fitness starting each April will land you in the A2 Injury Club every single time.
Volume-driven strength planning is a necessity for all older athletes. You’re going to be one someday, so you might as well get a head start on it now.
10. Give Everything Once in a While
How often do you give everything to a training session or redpoint? How often to you go so hard you surprise yourself and feel pride even in failed attempts. Going way past the redline is not a good practice in training, but once or twice a month, it’s important to see how deep that well goes. Ideally, you’d end up with a hard redpoint. At the very least, you want to come away with a “redpoint-worthy effort” which is what will get you to higher and higher grades in the long run.
Remember, the details of your hangboard session are sort of bullshit. It’s not the micro, it’s the macro that matters. Don’t worry about the little things if you continually miss out on the big ones.
Oh, the glory days when we used to actually get better at climbing! I remember well doing a 5.6 one weekend, a 5.7 the next, a 5.8 and so on up. That whole first year, things just got easier and easier and the grades rolled by. The next year, progress slowed. The next, I had to suffer days of projecting to gain another letter grade. Then it was a couple of years before I progressed again.
Part of the pain of plateauing is that the work required in that getting off the plateau seems so much harder than the last step did. Indeed, the closer we come to our potential in any facet of physical fitness, the more focused and refined our work has to become. Unfortunately, our first reaction when we get stuck is to change what we’re doing rather than to get better at it. If hard bouldering isn’t paying out any more, the attraction of moving to something – anything – where you can progress is very attractive.
The funny thing about plateaus is they are not an indicator that you’ve messed up. On the contrary, they are an indicator that you’re doing something right. If you train your body to the point that it now easily handles what was once a difficult workload, you did well. The hard next step is to understand that a little more effort, or a refined effort, is in order.
Step one is to look at your schedule. Have you really been training consistently? Are you making all the workouts you planned at the beginning of the training cycle? If you’re not making it work, your first goal should be to get training or climbing with regularity. Frequently, we’ll see a sub-60% adherence to a training plan. Doing 80% of the work planned by a reasonable coach is pretty good. If you start to fall off from here, it becomes more difficult to predict outcomes…not to mention the constant feedback in your head letting you know you fell short, again.
If you are good on schedule, look at the sessions themselves. Are you just punching the clock? Are you doing your “routine?” For more than a year, a member of our gym would come in each morning, run a few minutes on the treadmill, do a few curls, then set up for 3 sets of 8 on the bench press at 95 pounds. I was on the training floor with another athlete during his training time a couple of days each week, and we had a friendly relationship.
I was annoyed by the static nature of his session, so one day i stopped him and added two 1.25 pound plates to the bar, taking his press up almost imperceptibly to 97.5 pounds. Naturally, he did it easily. I suggested that he add just 1.25 pounds to the bar each week, no matter what, until he couldn’t do more than 5 reps in each set. By the end of that year, he was working at 50% more load than before. Easy progress.
Sometimes it’s hard to go harder. Look at bouldering. It’s not uncommon to get pretty well stuck at a given V-grade. Most of us simply accept this level, and go on with our normal Tuesday-Thursday bouldering for 90 minutes routine, with a special focus on juggy cave problems because that’s what we’re best at. Pushing grade on a climb or load in the weight room (both indicators of intensity) sometimes just doesn’t work. What does work, though, is to add volume.
Say you are stuck, just like I wrote above, at about 8 or so V4 problems each 90 minute session, two days per week. Look at your total weekly sends (16) and consider aiming solely at increasing that number. You could easily do this by switching to three shorter sessions where your aim is to complete just 6 hard problems per session. Alternatively, you could aim for longer sessions focused solely on getting to 9 sends per session.
Once your total volume has increased and you feel you are handling the new workload well, you could then switch your focus to sending at least one V5 per session, but no longer worrying about maintaining volume. Over time, you’d increase the metrics slowly, and eventually, you’ll have a new “normal.”
Above all else, consistency is the key to progress. The great thing about consistency is that it isn’t expensive, doesn’t require a giant facility, and is much easier than psyching up for a hard session, a long session, or a particular project – all you have to do is show up and punch the clock. Dr. J had it right when he said that “being a professional is doing the thing you love to do on the days you don’t feel like doing it.”
A common error is to think that motivation is the key, when it’s really discipline. Motivation is the desire to do the job/workout/thing. Discipline is the ability to get yourself to do the job/workout/thing when you aren’t motivated. Planning and sharing the plan are two great tools in discipline. For example, I like my athletes to write down a plan for the crag when they are going out, and then to share it with their partner. The night before or week before a climbing day is a great time to sketch out a plan. Too often we have a desire to climb a route, but then when we get to the base of the crag, we get nervous and decide to bail toward the climbs we are sure of performing well on.
A plan as simple as trying to push your total pitch count up 2 from your average, trying to redpoint all the pitches today, or committing to doing three burns on the project might be enough to get you unstuck. Planning lets you build a cohesive long-term strategy toward climbing harder. Sharing it helps keep you on task.
Using age or genetics or some slight injury as an excuse is really bullshit. Training is hard, and none of us thrive in a constant state of discomfort. You can progress, I am convinced, with almost any set of circumstances. If you get hung up, step back and assess what’s holding you back. It might be as simple as just showing up.
As a young climber, I would frequently talk to my parents about climbing. They were genuinely interested, and my father even did a few climbs with me early on. They wanted to know enough to be sure I was safe and careful, but didn’t need to know more. As I improved, I started to talk route beta and movement with them and I usually missed the blank stares when it came to jargon they didn’t understand. They had no idea what a gaston was or a smear or a flash pump…and didn’t really care to know. It didn’t stop me from sharing, though.
Years on, I started teaching training techniques to athletes and although many of them understood the language of fitness, many did not. It wasn’t until the blank stares I’d remembered from my youth registered that I realized that we weren’t speaking the same language. Over the past few years, a large portion of the questions I get about my books have to do with simple notation. The error is mine – assuming someone understands how to read a workout or a plan is the worst first mistake. If they can’t even read the thing, how can we expect them to do it?
This notation is important. It is something that is easy to understand once you have the hang of it, and it opens up a valuable communication channel for athletes and coaches once both are on the same page. What follows are the most common terms, phrases, and notations you’ll see in our training plans and articles. These terms are used consistently in our work and although you may see some variation from other coaches or cultures, with a good grasp of the basics you should be able to figure things out soon enough.
This might seem obvious, but an exercise is a specific pattern of movements designed to overload the athlete in a way that improves her function either as a human or as an athlete. Exercises are grouped together to form training sessions. Examples of exercises might be a squat, an edge hang, or a campus ladder.
Sessions are groups of exercises. Also called workouts, sessions are primarily aimed at overloading a specific kind of fitness such as strength or endurance. Sessions are ideally grouped into a series that would then form a Training Plan, which is usually 4-6 weeks in length.
These are groups of sessions aimed at eliciting a specific response from an athlete. This is a fundamental building block of progression, but is sometimes ignored, even by very good athletes. A training plan is generally 4-6 weeks in length and will focus on improving only one or two fitness qualities at a time.
Programs are groups of training plans. Most programs are 6 months to 5 years in length, and are build around long-term performance goals. Programs are normally quite detailed in the near-future and become less-so the further we look down the road.
These are individual cycles of exercises within a session. Most exercises are repeated several times in a session. For example, you might do 3 sets of squats and 3 sets of pull-ups in a given session. This means you would visit each exercise 3 different times in one session. Sets are divided into reps, which are the individual performances of the exercise.
Reps (or repetitions)
Reps are the number of times you perform an exercise in a given set. A session might call for 3 sets of 10 repetitions of a pull-up. This would mean you’ll perform 10 pull-ups, then rest until recovered enough to do pull-ups again, do 10 more, rest, and then do 10 more. Static exercises such as planks or edge hangs on a board are usually noted in seconds, with each second held counting as one “rep.” If you are training limbs individually such as in a lunge or single-arm hang, reps are generally noted in terms of # + #, such as 8+8…which means 8 reps per limb.
These are groups of several different exercises done in sequence. In a circuit, you perform on set of an exercise before moving on to the next exercise. Once you have completed one set of ach exercise, you would start the circuit again. Sessions that feature circuits will usually call for 3-8 circuits of 5-10 exercises. These are typically more endurance/conditioning-based sessions.
Supersets are two exercises done in an alternating fashion. In many of our programs, we’ll superset a leg exercise and an upper body exercise, with the goal being a shorter, more efficient session. While exercising the legs, the upper body gets some degree of rest, and vice-versa. In a session, this might be noted as:
5 bench press
A1: 5 deadlift
A2: 5 bench press
Tri-Sets (or “Giant Sets”)
Tri-Sets are groups of three exercise performed in series. This can be seen as a “mini-circuit.” In tri-sets, it is best to alternate movement patterns, such as doing a tri-set of upper body, core, and lower body. This is a very efficient way to train in the weight room or on the hangboard. Our Integrated Strength sessions are based on this model, and usually follow the hangboard, weight exercise, mobility exercise model. If you need a testosterone boost, you can also call these “giant sets.”
3×3 or 4×5, etc.
A “number x number” notation is indicative of sets x reps. If an exercise calls for 3×5 you should plan on doing three sets of five reps. Recall that an exercise performed for reps on each side is indicated by the plus (+) sign, so you might see 3 x 8+8 to indicate 3 sets of 8 reps on each side. Reps might also be noted on a set-by-set basis. In this case, you might see 5-3-2 in your session plan, indicating that the first set should be done for 5 reps, the second for 3, and the last for 2. This is usually followed by an explanation of loading parameters.
RM stands for “repetition maximum.” This value is useful in determining the intensity of loading in weight training. For example, your program might call for 3 sets of 3 at 85% of 1RM. In order to effectively use this information, you will need to calculate your 1-rep max for a given movement, then take the percentages. We also use variations on this idea. %MVIC, or the percentage of maximum voluntary isometric contraction, is used in calculating holds of static positions. “Sec max” is also used. This number, such as “10 sec max” is used in prescribing static holds, usually on the hangboard.
#:#, such as 7:3
This notation is used to describe timed intervals. Simply put, the first number is the work duration and the second is the rest duration. So, then, 6 x 7:3 would mean 6 sets of 7 seconds work followed by 3 seconds rest. If the rest is not passive sitting on the floor or walking around the gym rest, it is usually noted. For example, in a Rhythm Interval, you have an active rest. The sessions are usually noted as follows: 4 x 30:30, but in the session’s description you are instructed to move up and down the board for 30 seconds then rest on a big jug for 30 seconds.
Rounds (or Series)
This is an indication of how many times you would complete a circuit or group of exercises. To use the Rhythm Interval example, you may be instructed to do 3 rounds of 4 x 30:30 with 4 minutes between. With this information, it is easy to figure out just how long your training should take, in the example above, you’d do 4 minutes of intervals in set 1, rest 4 minutes, do 4 minutes of intervals in set 2, rest 4 minutes, and do a final set of 4 minutes…20 minutes total.
The era of bodybuilding ushered in the idea of training to absolute failure. This was relatively safe to do as the exercises were highly isolated – curls, calf raises, leg extensions and the like. You keep trying to move a load with worse and worse form in search of the elusive “pump.” In the early 2000s high-intensity timed circuits became popular and with the advent of Crossfit so did including compound lifts in these circuits. Training to failure was encouraged and many injuries and serious medical issues were the result.
We encourage athletes who are trying to develop strength or power or skills to train only to the point of technical failure, the point at which you can no longer do the movement with the same quality or speed as you could at the beginning of the set. There is little value in going past this point except in the pursuit of hypertrophy. Since hypertrophy is rarely our goal, we rarely go there.
I plan to keep updating this post as questions arise. If you have any questions at all about notation please post a comment below and I’ll add this information to the text.
We get good at pushing hard into training. We all have been in that super-pumped zone or so sore we can barely move the next day, or so exhausted from a week’s training that we stay on the couch the whole weekend. As good as learning to go hard is, there is a critical Yang to that Yin that can make all the difference in training.
For most of us the opposite of training hard is simply not training. Taking it easy in the afternoon or having a couple of rest days or sleeping in on Saturday is about all there is to it. When you’re young, this can be all you need. But as we age or start to train harder, we have got to turn up the recovery dial.
You’ll often hear coaches caution against not going so hard and to recommend reducing volume or intensity to maximize gains. This isn’t bad advice, but I just don’t see avid climbers willing to do that. Since I know you are going to be hard to convince to do less training, what I want you to do is get serious about recovering. In fact, I insist that my athletes think of recovery training instead of rest. Once you’re as serious about recovering as you are about training, you’ll see gains you can’t believe.
Recovery is a huge growth area in sport science. Understanding that we can actually improve athletes quality and speed of recovery has led to some really good practices over the past couple of decades. From better tissue care, to better fueling, to better session design, there are many ways to recover better so you can train better. Below, I’ll outline the eight strategies that we’ve seen the most successful and easy to implement. I have only included strategies that are workable in the real-world with a normal person’s budget.
Sleep More. Most of us have a habitual sleep pattern, and will go to bed roughly the same time each night. At the other end, we wake to an alarm and race into the day. Although there are still many unanswered questions in the realm of sleep’s relationship to exercise performance, it’s been shown over and over that deprivation of sleep is exceedingly damaging to motor coordination and sport performance. Some studies suggest that adding as little as 15 minutes more sleep per day can enhance recovery by nearly 5%. We do know that sleep enhances protein synthesis and boosts immune function, so there are many reasons to help yourself to more. It’s hard to add sleep in the morning – most of us leave just enough time to race through our routines and get out the door. The best tactic is to get into bed just 15 minutes earlier. Believe it or not, climbing a grade harder should be more important than watching the last season of Narcos.
Eat After Training. You’ve heard the hype – “Eat a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein within 40 minutes of a training session, ideally in the form of x brand recovery drink.” Although simple enough, it’s hard to justify trying to get an exact ratio of macronutrients in a specific time window when you don’t really need to. The more research into recovery nutrition they do, the more flexible it seems to become. The current wisdom is simply to eat within a couple of hours after a session, and to make sure that you have a full serving of protein at that time. Although a recovery drink or a glass of chocolate milk are decent choices, a sandwich, a salad with steak or chicken, or even an omelet would be fine, too. Aim for 150-250 calories, unless your training falls right before mealtime, in which case a normal meal would be appropriate. Things to avoid would be alcohol in excess or a purely carbohydrate snack.
Drink More Water. I am not one of those obsessive hydration people who buy into the idea that somehow we’re always dehydrated. The thirst response, it turns out, is a good indicator of whether you are thirsty or not. That being said, many athletes drink very little actual water. Coffee drinks, energy drinks, soft drinks, and alcohol make up a huge percentage of typical intake. Although all of these drinks help us to stay hydrated to some degree, water tends to absorb better and is markedly less expensive. We’re sold the idea of electrolyte energy or recovery drinks so often that we take the idea as gospel. Here is a nice informational video on sports drinks, and here is a good study that looks at using water as a means of rehydration. Our concern is not improved cardiovascular performance, however. It turns out that being under-hydrated can prolong soreness and extend recovery times. The easy solution is to drink a bit more during sessions than you normally do, and then to drink 20+ ounces of water after a session. This ties in well with your recovery meal above. A sandwich and a glass of water after training will provide a good base for being able to train hard again tomorrow.
Take a Nap. The benefit of short naps during the day is huge, especially when it comes to recovery from exercise. More sleep at night is good, but naps are great. The major benefit of napping is an increase in anabolic hormonal activity, but getting you out of the “Go-Go-Go” cycle is probably good, too. A nap can increase release of hormones, increase protein synthesis, and improve cognitive function. Optimal napping for athletes occurs within 2 hours of your main training for the day, and should only be 15-25 minutes in duration – longer naps can negatively affect nighttime sleep.
Do Your Cardio. OK, I know this sounds crazy coming from somebody who continually argues against nonspecific training for climbing performance, but bear with me. When we look at recovery, one of the big keys is movement of “bad stuff” out of the muscles and movement of “good stuff” into them. One simple way to accelerate this process is to elevate the heart rate and body temperature slightly. It’s important that you look at heading out the door for these sessions as recovery rather than as a chance to burn a few calories or improve your endurance. As a general rule, you should look at doing 30-60 minutes of easy activity- such as hiking, easy cycling, or easy running – most days of the week. You should keep your heart rate below 60% of your maximum at all times, and most of your time should be spent well below even this mark.
Take a Cold Shower. This one sucks, but it is surprisingly effective, especially if your muscles are sore. Cold baths or showers (10+ minutes in duration) have been shown to improve strength and power recovery times, and should be part of your arsenal of recovery modes after especially intense training. You can also explore contrast showers or baths. In this recovery mode, you’d spend 2-3 minutes under the coldest water you can stand, followed by the same duration under the hottest you can stand. Repeating this cycle 2-3 times in a session, and ending with cold has been shown to have a greater effect on reducing soreness than cold alone. Some research suggests that it can help improve recovery times, but it doesn’t seem as effective as cold alone.
Back Off on the Beer. Although kicking back a few beers at the end of a climbing day can be called an integral part of our culture, it’s probably not the best way to recover. As much as we want our alcohol to be a good thing, research shows that consuming more than a couple of drinks will increase the time it takes you to recover from training. The good news is that one or two beers or glasses of wine seem to have no ill-effect on recovery. This one goes hand-in-hand with trying to drink more water. Before you hit the bar, drink a full glass of water…you’ll save money and climb better the next day.
Eat Protein Before (or During) Training. There is some benefit to consuming small amounts of protein before or during training to jumpstart the recovery process even before you’ve beaten yourself down. Researchers suggest consuming small portions (so as not to upset the digestion) slightly before or during exercise. Because protein digests slowly, you can only do so much…try starting with around 30-50 calories in the form of a small snack or protein drink, and work your way up from there.
Recovering from training is easy at first, but as you advance in what you can load yourself with, you should be advancing how you deal with it. This is not an exhaustive list, and the suggestions here are merely starting points. The point I want to drive home is that there is more to getting better than going hard. If you put some focus into what happens after training, you will get more out of each session, and it might be the secret sauce you’ve been looking for to gain that next grade.
If you’ve never done a 20mm edge static hang to absolute failure, you’re missing out. This pleasure cruise of forearm endurance is not to be missed. I had the chance to try out the Zlagboard Contest a couple of years ago. The contest involves one simple test: grab the “medium” sized edges on the board and hang from them for as long as possible. To add to the experience, your time is projected on a large monitor by the board, so the weaker your ego, the harder you’ll try.
The contest’s world-ranking is a who’s-who of the best climbers around, and you’re sure to recognize the names on the top of the list. Although deadhanging for those durations is probably of limited value for real climbing, the ability to display your endurance in such a way is challenging. The Zlagboard team have even correlated hang times with redpoint grades, and as you’ve guessed, the names at the top of the board have been up some of the hardest climbs in the world.
Since I don’t really have time to become one of the sport’s elite, yet I do want to improve over my time last year, I decided to build a training plan for it. If this seems like a fun challenge for you, give this program a shot. First, two things:
- This training will take time away from your other, more useful, training.
- This program does improve your static muscular endurance…but you might not need it for anything else.
Isometric endurance efforts are best improved by attacking them from two directions. First, you want to be able to go the duration at a lighter load. Second, you want to build up durations at the contest load. You won’t need to be able to execute at a greater-than-needed load. For the light-load hangs, we back off to a bigger hold, such as a jug or large edge or even a pull-up bar. For the contest-load, you’ll use the 20mm edge.
I set this up as a 4-week, 4 times per week session. We start with a test: hang the 20mm edges for your max duration. Since training isn’t miracle work, we look to add no more than 25% to your total the first training phase. Anything over a minute of hanging is pretty good, so let’s say you test out right at 75 seconds. Getting to 90 seconds will put you in the top 100 in the world, so 25% is a very good increase.
The plan is like this:
Warm-up well with some bouldering or climbing. You want to be feeling very warm (sweatshirt off) and loose.
- Start with the light-load hangs. We know you can do 90 seconds at this load, so we do 2 efforts at about ⅔ this load, or 60 seconds, separated by a few minutes.
- Do 10x hangs on the 20mm edge, 10 seconds on, 10 seconds off.
You can do some normal bouldering or climbing after this, because we still want to enjoy the day and not just be stuck on the hangboard.
Session 1 and 3
- Easy hang for the duration (90 sec), rest 2-3 minutes.
- 20mm edge 9x 10 sec on, 10 sec off, rest 2-3 minutes.
Session 2 and 4
- Easy hang for ⅔ duration (60 sec), rest 2-3 minutes
- 30mm edge 6x 15 sec on, 15 sec off, rest 2-3 minutes.
On the easy hangs, your goal is to keep your shoulders in the right position, keep your breathing going well, and try to keep your face relaxed. This will be especially good for your swagger when you step up to the Zlagboard “unprepared” and easily win the contest. We don’t add time or load or change the holds…we just hang.
On the edge hangs, you will progress them as you succeed. You will always be doing 90 seconds worth of hanging each set, but we reduce the rest between hangs on session 1 and 3 by one second if you are successful in the previous session. We’ll be increasing hang time on sessions 2 and 4 by 2-3 seconds per hang. Hold total hang times to 90 seconds per set.
A progression might look like this:
|Session #||Hang Time||Rest Time|
Your improvements won’t be linear – some sessions you’ll regress or fail early. This should be of minimal concern. Only when you trend downward for more than 3 sessions in a row should you reassess…and this downward trend probably means your training volume is too high.
After 4 weeks of training, your edge hangs will probably be down to 2-3 seconds rest between sets of 10 second hangs. At this point, you should take 2-3 days off and then plan a test day. Warm-up the same as any of the workouts, rest several minutes, then let it rip. Chances are you’ll hit your 25% increase on the first try. If you fall short, rest a few days and hit it again.
There’s no reason, other than the ridiculous nature of the challenge, that you couldn’t do this program for several cycles and continue to put up really good times. Just remember…it probably won’t help your climbing in the least.
Training is the thing that makes you stronger. Warming up right is the thing that makes training work. For most of us, warming up has an intuitive “feel” to it – we start easy, and after a few minutes of gentle activity we feel ready to go. Younger athletes do, and need, less warming up. Older athletes sometimes joke that warming up is all they do.
The warm-up functions as a way to get the body working right for hard activity. It increases blood flow and respiration, runs the body temperature up a couple of notches, and gets the mind in the right place. In climbing we usually just climb to get going, but there is probably a better and more effective ways to prime yourself for a good session.
The warm-up should be tailored to the requirements of the session. A long, pumping route first thing in the morning might help you get warmed up for other similar climbs, but might not be the best choice for a route that requires a lot of power. Likewise, bringing a hangboard to the crag to warm-up for endurance climbing is not the best choice. Just like your training, your warm-ups should be specific.
Most organized warm-ups consist of both general and specific components. More intense sessions also have what’s called a progressive warm-up, or one in which the athlete slowly ramps up the intensity doing lighter versions of the main exercises in the coming session. In this article, I’ll line out what each of these includes and what their benefits and limitations are.
STEP 1: General Warm-Up [5-15 minutes]
The general warm-up’s main goal is to raise the operating temperature of the body, prime the blood vessels for activity, and to increase your capacity for delivering oxygen. We do this part of the warm-up naturally, as part of the approach to most crags. For low-intensity activities such as hiking or easy alpine climbs, the act of walking from your tent to the cliff is more than enough to prime your body for the climb.
In a gym setting, it’s hard to get this same first step taken care of. When we’re psyched to climb or even to lift weights, it’s sort of a downer to start with this kind of low-intensity crap…there is not much that is more boring than walking on a treadmill for 10 minutes. Do it anyway.
A general warm-up consists of steady, easy activity ranging from 5-15 minutes. I like my athletes to feel warm by the end, stripping off warm layers and possibly starting to sweat a little. Breathing should be up, and your heart rate should start to make itself known. Keep it simple and conversational. This is the time to transition from the outside world to training time, to catch up with training partners, and to finalize the details of the session.
STEP 2: Specific Warm-Up [5-10 minutes]
The specific warm-up follows directly behind the general warm-up. For many of us, it will involve a movement preparation sequence, a set of 8-10 exercises that take you through full ranges of motion and start to cross over into strength training. Movements like bodyweight squats, inchworms, inverted rows, and toy soldiers are appropriate here. If you are going to be climbing, your warm-up should include progressively harder movements for the upper body, working on getting the fingers ready for small holds, and getting the hips and shoulders ready for full-range activity.
The specific warm-up should feature movements and durations similar to your coming session.
At the crag, warming up is a bit more complicated. It’s very easy to over or under-shoot your goal. Simply doing some easier pitches doesn’t always work, either. Although you’ll follow a slow intensification of the moves of the sport, this will vary a bit depending on what you’re training for. I’ll discuss this in detail in the Crag Warm-Up section below.
STEP 3 (variation 1): Progressive Warm-Up [10-30 minutes]
For especially intense sessions, we follow specific warm-ups with progressively more intense versions of the training exercises. This allows your body to ramp-up to the intensity required by the coming session and primes the movement patterns you plan to use.
A great example is a max-strength session. You’d spend the first 5-10 minutes with your general warm-up, then progress to some heavier work such as push-ups, light goblet squats, and swings. If your primary lift is the deadlift, you’d progress through a few reps at 135 (keeping the reps below 4 or 5 even though the weight is light to avoid leaving alactic metabolism), a couple at 225, and then a couple at 315. Take as much time between these lifts as necessary, and do some jumps and other quick movements between to keep reminding the body to be powerful and quick.
You might do one final warm-up set of two about 10% below your training weight, maybe 365. Finally you’d move on to your work sets, in our example a few sets of doubles at 405.
The same set up works for campusing and for hard bouldering: start easy, keep the durations below 10 seconds per set, and work your way up until you are feeling primed. This part of the session is critical to success and should take as long as you need…anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.
STEP 3 (variation 2): Crag Warm-Up [15-60 minutes]
At the beginning of the article, I talked about how the approach to most crags is an ideal general warm-up. If you’re roadside cragging, you might have to take a short walk before the “approach” begins. Remember, you should feel physically warm by the time you reach the crag. Once at the objective, almost all boulderers and climbers can plan on starting with an easy pitch or a few very easy boulder problems to start their specific warm-up.
If your day is going to involve a lot of pitches that are onsight-level or easier, simply ramping up the grades from your warm-up is appropriate: 10a, 10c, 11c, and then into the 12a and 12b (or whatever your level) routes for the day.
If you are projecting an endurance-oriented route (let’s say a 12c for this example), I suggest starting with one easy pitch (10a), followed by a back-to-back pair on a route 4-6 grades below your objective (maybe an 11b). The first time up, focus on climbing slowly and precisely, the second solidly and quickly. Take no break between the two laps other than to lower back to the ground. We want to build a slight pump toward the end of the second lap. Follow this with one more pitch, maybe 1-2 grades harder (11d), then rest around 20 minutes before you easily send your project.
Strength and Power Warm-Up
Warming up for power-oriented and strength-dependent climbs is more difficult. Bouldering on tiny holds is hard to prepare for by bouldering on big holds. For routes that feature hard moves or difficult grips, doing the warm-up circuit at the crag is also of limited value.
In the early days of the Wild Iris climbing area (an area notorious for tweaky pockets) climbers installed hangboards in several locations in the trees near the cliffs. Over time, though, various shitheads stole the hangboards and local climbers began doing warm-ups as much as an hour before climbing, at the gym or at the car.
These days portable hangboard are so well designed and light that warming up is a breeze. With a suspended hangboard we like an 8 minute warm-up sequence:
Minute 1: One pull-up every 10 seconds
Minute 2: Hang, large edge 20 sec
Minute 3: Hang, large edge 20 sec + 2 pull-ups
Minute 4: Hang medium edge 10 sec, rest 10 sec, hang medium edge 10 sec
Minute 5: Hang small edge 5 sec, rest 20 sec, hang medium edge 10 sec
Minute 6: Hang, large edge 20 sec + 3 pull-ups
Minute 7: Hang small edge 5 sec, rest 5 sec (x4 rounds)
Minute 8: Hang small edge 5 sec, rest 5 sec with elbows at 90 degrees (x4 rounds)
These grips can easily be substituted for specific grips on that day’s project.
STEP 3 (variation 3): Bouldering Warm-Up [15-30 minutes]
This is where you start climbing after your general warm-up and movement prep for a gym session. I like to split this up in a simple and fun series, which is longer and more intense for more advanced climbers. Using various boulder problems on as many angles and hold types as possible:
- Do as many easy V1/V2 problems as it takes to add up to your limit grade. For example, if you are climbing V9 for your limit problem, you might do V2, V1, V1, V2, V2, V1. These should be slow and in control. 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 example, this might be V2, V3, V4. These should be done as quickly and explosively as possible. Rest a few minutes, then:
- Do two problems that add to the limit grade, so maybe V4, V5 in our example. These, you would do at your normal pace.
- Finish with some specific hold positions on the hangboard if necessary, depending on the nature of your work problems.
Simply doing some climbing is a fair warm-up. Optimizing performance takes a little more effort, but can mean the world to a climber who is pushing against the hardest climbing they’ve ever done.
By Steve Bechtel
Your fat roll is killing you. OK, as a climber, and especially one who is reading an article about training, I’ll bet your body fat percentage is pretty low. On the flip side, though, you are reading an article about weight management. Chances are you’re holding the same weight you usually hold, and those stubborn last few centimeters under the harness waistbelt are not budging.
Most fully-addicted climbers cover about 90% of the distance between novice and their total genetic potential within about three years. Spend a couple more years working power, doing hangs, bouldering, whatever…the point is you’re just not going to get those huge gains again. If you’ve been in the game long enough, you know the cycle. Some years you send two or three hard things, some years you don’t. The problem is, “hard” has become a fixed point or grade for you, and you’ve been there too long.
Climbing well is about “relative strength” or strength-to-weight ratio. Consider this (very oversimplified) example: A climber that weighs 200 pounds can do one pull-up. We would say this climber’s relative strength in the pull-up is 100%. Now, if he gets a little stronger or a little lighter, this ratio can change. Let’s say he hangs some weight on a belt and can eventually do a pull-up with 20 extra pounds. His relative strength is now 110%.
Same thing if he loses weight. Let’s say he gets no stronger (just like me!) but loses some mass. By losing 10 pounds, his relative strength goes up by (about) 5%.
Relative strength is the top predictor of high performance climbing. The real problem is this: training can only take you so far. If you’re maxing out your training and your technique is top-notch, your only way forward is to get lighter. And by forward, I mean way forward. By reducing your weight by just 5%, you’re looking at increasing your economy in a way you’ve not seen since you started climbing. How’d you like to advance a grade next year? How about two grades?
As much as I love climbing and talking about training for climbing, it doesn’t pay for shit. The way I pay for food and a place to sleep is helping people get skinny. Needless to say, I pay really close attention to what works and what doesn’t work.
Where you’ve failed in the past, and where you’ll undoubtedly fail again is to try and get light while also getting stronger. Like chasing two rabbits at once, you’re bound to fail. So how do you set it up so you can lose those pounds and kill it next season?
A few big, important rules that we are going to follow:
- Getting stronger and lighter at the same time is really hard to do. Because of this we are going to focus on fat loss when we’re not focusing on training hard for climbing. This is a simple enough concept: muscle building and hard training require lots of fuel. In order to get lighter we want to restrict fuel. Training under these circumstances results in lower performance and longer recovery times. For fat loss, just take a few weeks, maintain, but don’t advance your climbing, and focus on the scale.
- Calorie counting sucks and doesn’t really work. Eating the right foods is more important than how much you’re eating. I’m not saying calories-in doesn’t matter, I’m just saying there’s a reason people fail to make it by just limiting the amount they eat. This ties directly into the hormonal regulation of fat in the body. The super-simple version is this: eating simple carbohydrate (sugar and refined grain and a few other things) leads to insulin secretion which leads to fat storage, which then leads to more desire for simple carbohydrate.
Check out this study. Two groups of people were asked to eat either 1000 calories of nuts (protein and fat) each day or 1000 calories of candy (simple sugar). The remainder of their diet was not controlled. At the end of six weeks, the nut-eaters lost about 2.5 pounds each (1.1kg) where the candy-eaters gained around 4 pounds (1.8kg). This study, and several like it, help illustrate the hunger-producing effect of simple sugars and the satiating effect of fats and protein.
If you really want to lose, stick to vegetables, protein sources, and minimal amounts of fruits and even grains. Keep sugars and other “white” carbohydrates out. The grain and fruit thing varies, but for people who are really stuck, this can be a primary factor in losing weight. Remember, there are no essential grains.
- Long, slow, distance training doesn’t really work, either. This one always gets some resistance from die-hard runners. The fact is that plodding along on the road or trail burns very few calories, especially in comparison to the appetite increase seen from long-duration training. If you want to run, do intervals.
Interval-style efforts are superior for two reasons. One, the duration of the workouts is shorter and usually results in a lesser hunger response when compared to long efforts. Second, high-intensity training has a profound effect (both acutely and chronically) on resting metabolic rate. By changing your RMR, you burn more calories all the time, not just when you’re exercising.
That being said, I’m not a huge fan of running or cycling for climbers. If you love those sports, fine. But don’t take them up as a weight-loss method only. There are better ways.
- More training does not equal more weight loss. In almost all of our athletes, we’re concerned with only fat loss. With climbers, total bodyweight is a big factor, too. Training a whole helluva lot seems like a great way to get lean, but people frequently take this too far. Too much training can add to lean muscle gain, but more problematically, can lead to over-consumption of food.
For our climbers really trying to lose those last few pounds, we try to limit the training to short, hard sessions and no non-specific training. I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal examples of someone running a bunch and getting skinny. I’m just saying that’s not the rule.
Nutrition is about 80% of the war on fat. Training helps, but is not the key. You’re never going to train hard enough to outpace a crap diet.
In the second part of this article, I will outline some specific weight-management plans, and talk about how one can maintain a “competition” weight without losing too much strength.
By Steve Bechtel
There is a war going on, and it’s not the one you think. The war is not between the right way to eat and the wrong way to eat, it’s between what’s right and what’s “righter.” Should we go low carb? Low fat? Paleo? Vegan? In the end, it doesn’t really matter all that much if you can take care of the basic keys to losing fat. The basic keys? Mobilizing existing fat to be used as fuel and controlling hunger while you do it. Simple, not easy.
First, let’s talk just a little bit more about hormonal regulation of fat storage. In the first part of this article, I gave an example of a study where scientists compared a primarily high-sugar diet to one primarily made up of fat and protein. It’s important to understand that the study I cited was not an anomaly, dozens of studies done with hundreds of different foods all point to the same thing: simple carbohydrate, particularly fructose, encourages fat storage. The culprit in this cycle is the hormone insulin, which is responsible for most of the fat storage that occurs in the human body.
I’m a kind of simple-minded guy, so I like a simple explanation of how this works – this comes from Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat:
You think about a carbohydrate-containing food.
You begin secreting insulin.
Insulin signals fat cells to quit releasing fatty acids and instead start storing them.
You start to get hungry.
You begin eating.
Eating carbohydrate causes you to secrete more insulin.
Blood sugar levels rise.
You secrete more insulin due to blood glucose levels.
Fat storage is accelerated and carbohydrate is converted to fat in the liver.
Fat cells get fatter.
Fat stays in the fat cells until insulin levels drop.
I’m not a big fan of kicking all the carbohydrate out of your diet, just all the bullshit food. Want to eat rice? Fine. 6 beers after climbing? You’ve earned the gut.
I am a big fan of high-fiber carbohydrate foods for fat loss. Our standard nutritional recommendations for our athletes call for protein and fat-based foods as well as carbohydrates containing at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. By following these simple guidelines, an athlete will feel full longer and probably perform better athletically, too. Here’s a diagram that makes a pretty clear picture of how our fat-loss clients eat on a daily basis:
Following our 3 grams of fiber recommendation, you can see we allow unlimited vegetables, one serving of whole grains, and one serving of fruits each day. Now before you go all crazy on me (I received a little over 200 comments on part one of this article, most vilifying my recommendation to eat less fruit) understand that this is a diet you’ll use to lose fat. If you’re at your Optimal Hotness Level (OHL) already, eat whatever the hell you want. If you’ve tried “everything” to lose fat and still aren’t happy, try some different tactics, even if it means dumping the banana and yogurt for breakfast.
If you’re not accustomed to eating high levels of protein and fiber when trying to lose weight, you might be pleasantly surprised that you aren’t starving and can actually train. This is probably the biggest key to holding weight-loss and still performing well.
Give yourself a break, too, when it comes to implementing new nutritional habits. Aim to lose a few pounds, then maintain for a month or two while you go climb your hardest routes. Once your peak climbing phase tapers off, try to hit a few more pounds. If you somehow lose more than 1-2 pounds per week, you might be risking a decline in performance; something we can’t afford. I’d rather have you look like the Russell Crowe on the left and climb well than look all gladiator and be toproping all day long.
As far as training goes, we see better fat loss results from higher-intensity training than we do from low-intensity steady state training. Cycling is fine. Running is fine (The other major category of hate mail is the “endurance sports are good for climbing” type). The truth: if you want to climb well you need to understand that there is almost no carryover from slow-endurance sports to hard rock climbing. Additional long slow distance activity might assist in fat loss and it might not actually hurt your climbing, but most of the people we work with have a limited schedule as far as training time goes. Fat loss expert Alwyn Cosgrove outlines the hierarchy of fat-loss training like this:
- Metabolic Resistance Training
- High Intensity Anaerobic Interval Training
- High Intensity Aerobic Interval Training
- Steady State High Intensity Aerobic Training
- Steady State Low Intensity Aerobic Training
If you have 3 hours per week, use only #1 above: metabolic resistance training
This can be three, one-hour training sessions, or four 45-minute training sessions. It doesn’t seem to matter.
However, once you’re getting three hours per week of total body resistance training, in my experience I haven’t seen an additional effect in terms of fat loss by doing more. My guess is that, at that point, recovery starts to become a concern and intensity is impaired.
This type of training involves barbell complexes, supersets, tri-sets, circuits, density training, kettlebell combos, etc.
If you have 3-5 hours, use #1 and # 2: weight training plus high intensity interval work
At this point, any additional work is usually in the form of high intensity interval training. I’m looking to burn up more calories and continue to elevate metabolism.
Interval training is like putting your savings into a high return investment account. Low intensity aerobics is like hiding it under your mattress. Both will work, but the return you get is radically different.
If you have 5-6 hours available, add #3: aerobic interval training
Aerobic intervals wins out at this point because it’s still higher intensity overall than steady state work so it burns more calories. There appears to be a fat oxidation benefit and will still be easier to recover from than additional anaerobic work.
If you have 6-8 hours available, add #4
If you’re not losing a lot of fat with six hours of training already, then I’d be taking a very close look at your diet. If everything is in place, but we just need to ramp up fat loss some more then we’ll add in some hard cardio – a long run or bike ride with heart rate at 75% of max or higher.
Why not do as much of this as possible then? Well, the goal is to burn as many calories as we can without negatively impacting the intensity of our higher priority activities.
If I have more time than that, I’ll add # 5.
Now, I’m not advocating dumping your climbing in favor of getting under a barbell. I think keeping high-intensity climbing such as bouldering or hard routes as the core of your training is critical. It seems like a huge number of the questions I get these days are some version of the question “What can I do besides climbing to get good at climbing?” At a low level of performance, of course anything would probably help. But as you get better, you have to get pretty damned specific to get any better at all.
Keeping up as much climbing as you can handle. Add metabolic resistance training where you can. Avoid doing too much stuff, or you risk upping the appetite. Keep in mind your goal for the 4 or 6 or 8 weeks you allot to this is to lose weight. Who cares if your climbing sucks? Who gives a damn how much your “cardio” suffers? As Dan John says, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.”