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.
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
I wrote a newsletter a few months back where I discussed the idea of “big rocks first.” The general gist is to take care of the most important things in your life before you obsess about the minutiae. People, not just climbers, tend to fixate on the wrong things. We obsess over the things that we perceive as holding us back when we should be leveraging the hell out of the resources we already possess that can move us forward.
Along the same lines, I think we too often imagine ourselves making big changes if we commit money to the cause. As a person who makes his living from building climbing training plans, this might seem like strange advice, but I’ve found that there are some huge basic issues that climbers can and should cover before they start paying…for anything.
I remember trying to justify my first computer purchase by telling myself all the possible ways a computer would make money for me: I could write articles for Climbing Magazine, write guidebooks, keep track of my money, etc. Of course, I wasn’t doing any of those things before in, say, a notebook. The framework wasn’t in place, and the tool only briefly increased the motivation.
We see this sad story play out time and again in the weight room at Elemental. People who want to lose weight or get some strength come through the door and want to jump right into a 12-month contract with the belief that it will keep them motivated to keep working out. The problem is the same as my computer issue. If they weren’t committed before, a few bucks won’t make the difference.
There are any number of resources for training information in climbing these days. Once you are fully committed to getting better a the sport, it’s a good idea to start using them. I firmly believe in the value of paying for expert services (as well as steering clear of anyone who offers “expert” advice for free). For the most part, you get what you pay for. Free advice and “coaching” can be easy to find, and they’re worth the money you spend. Buy a book for $30 and you’ve got a great resource, but you still have to do the work of reading it. Higher up the ladder, say hiring Justen Sjong to coach you, would an unbelievable value at twice the price.
Again, the problem is some of us think we can ignore our glaring errors if we just throw some money at the thing. As Rob Robinson famously quipped back in the late 1980s, “You can’t buy 5.13.” Here is my list of eight things you need to do before you buy a book, join a gym, or hire a superstar coach. Take care of these, and you’ll either not need to drop the cash or you’ll get more out of the experience. I guarantee it.
1. Get Some Shoes That Fit. It might seem crazy, but good shoes mean more to your performance than anything. Forget beginner or all-around shoes. Look for a high-performance shoe from a reputable brand, and keep trying different ones until you get one that fits you perfectly. Yes, they need to be tight, but shoes are so good these days that they don’t need to hurt to work well. Also, dump the untied, loose “training” shoes. Every time you lace up you should be looking for maximum performance from your shoes. Sloppy shoes mean sloppy technique. All the training in the world won’t make up for that.
2. Train, at all. It’s not uncommon to see a climber “train” by occasionally hitting the gym and doing a tough bouldering session. The problem? Training is repeated stress designed to elicit a long-term result. There is nothing wrong with hitting the gym randomly for a workout, it’s just that unless you teach your body that it needs to adapt by repeating similar stresses regularly, you can’t be sure you’ll adapt at all. Get into some kind of regular routine, even if it is as simple as climbing every Tuesday and Saturday. Build the habit first, then start investing your effort in improving what happens during those sessions.
3. Take Yourself Seriously. Somehow the laid back dirtbag attitude has been romanticized in the climbing world. There is nothing wrong with being laid back about things unless you want to improve. Yes, there are climbers that get very good without formal training. Yes, there are some that keep it pretty casual. As a rule, though, this doesn’t work. If you want to perform well athletically, you need to be focused at the crag, eat to perform, and think about the importance of injury prevention, mobility, strength, and the like.
4. Eat Like an Adult. Eating right is more than keeping your love handles in check. We all know that too many sweets and too much beer makes us fat, yet it also diminishes our ability to perform. You have little to gain from processed food, loading up on breads, drinks with calories in them, and sugars. You know that lean proteins, vegetables, and good fats are the right thing to eat. Make a rule for yourself that 9 of 10 things you put in your mouth are going to be good for the machine. Eating “anything you want” works until you’re about 16. Time to grow up.
5. Climb For Yourself. There are a few ways we commonly see climbers behave at the crag. Some climbers go to “just have fun.” Those people never get better and are generally a lost cause. Some pick projects based on what their friend/significant other is trying. Although diplomatically correct, it’s probably a great way to limit your own improvement. It’s best to have the trade-off talk, and push for equal time on the routes you want to climb. This goes for training, too. The rule of thumb is that training should be done alone, or simply in the company of someone else that is doing his/her own program.
6. Focus on Things You Can Control. You are going to fail. When you do you have two choices: you can look for ways you can improve your future efforts, or you can lay blame. Falling off and complaining about your shoes, conditions, or your friend’s beta are all great ways to stay stuck. Looking at ways you can act more efficiently, improve your tactics, or focus your efforts better are going to get you up the route. Highly successful people tend to take responsibility for everything they do, good and bad.
7. Stack The Odds. Want a reality check? Figure out how many climbing days you have left in your career. Once you have this number in mind, I’d hope you’d understand that your great days are going to be very limited. Each climbing day is a precious commodity. Get a good night’s sleep before a redpoint day. Eat a good breakfast. Warm-up well. Take your redpoints seriously – relax, rest, and then turn up the heat. Most of all don’t do stupid shit like drinking beer between burns. I know, I’m not cool and probably not that much fun at a party, yet my athletes send.
8. Consider That You Might Be Doing It Wrong. Your whole program might be upside-down. You might train too much, might not warm-up enough, or might be missing a fundamental facet of your fitness. If your beta is always different, it might be because you can’t do it right. You might get the most out of three hours a week stretching rather than campusing. Watch video of yourself. Ask your friends what they think of your climbing. Most of all, be willing to toss out what you are doing in favor of what you should be doing.
Behaving like a professional means always making decisions with your goals in mind. If your goals are to have fun and spend a day with friends, good for you. But if your goals include getting better at this very difficult sport, you need to give it the attention it demands.
by Steve Bechtel
It’s a great honor for me to be asked training advice, but it’s also a circle of frustration. The only thing that keeps me from strangling the climbers that contact me, receive advice, and ignore the advice is the fact that I do the same thing myself. Most of us inherently understand the value of, say, eating well and being flexible, but most of us have a hard time doing the “needed” stuff.
Over the years, I’ve found two things to be true:
- Most people are stuck.
- The way out is obvious, but they won’t do what it takes.
Oh, and there is a third thing:
- We think that the solution is to do more “stuff” when in fact, doing less is the answer.
The athletes that contact me are driven. They typically have trained for years and have had great success in the sport. They have access to all the tools, travel hours each week to climb, and make many of their daily decisions by how those decisions will affect their climbing. Most of them even have clear goals and a plan on how to get there.
But the answer to the question, “What does a typical training/climbing week look like?” shows the flaws of almost every plan.
“I boulder twice a week for about an hour, do a hangboard program 3 times per week, do a full-body weight workout Tuesdays and Fridays, and I go for a short run on my rest day. Also, I do some forearm endurance work 2-3 days a week after climbing. I need to be doing more Yoga, but only get there a couple times a month right now.”
A good coach looks at an email like this and sees not activites, but intensities. He doesn’t see workouts, but required rest numbers. In short, he sees that no matter what is going on, everything comes down to adaptation potential and recovery ability.
Adaptation potential is your ability to improve the facets of your fitness. When you are young, you have this in spades, yet as you age this ability decreases. You also adapt relatively quickly to new activities, moving from awful to OK just by doing the activity for a month or two. Think back to when you moved from 5.6 to 5.8 then to 5.10…many climbers will do this in a few weekend trips, followed by slower and slower progress.
Adaptation potential is very limited, and can be all but stopped if you are trying to master too many exercises or movements at once. This is not to say that trying to master multiple disciplines is not entertaining: we all know people who perform at a high level in several sports, and clearly enjoy their lives. For many athletes, though, performing at their very best it their major motivator. In order to fully master any facet of the sport, that facet needs a lot of your attention for a very long time.
The longer you’ve been climbing and the older you are, the more you need to focus your efforts. The positive thing here is that even taking a couple of months away from your normal training to work on a specific skill will see your other skills decline very little. What you give up in potential you make up for in experience and “muscle memory.”
Let’s take a look at the week described above:
Resistance Training 2x
Forearm Endurance 3x
We are looking at 13 sessions that are aimed at developing six different fitness qualities. Although several of these qualities can be developed at once in most athletes, I’ll reiterate that the first solution to stalled progress should be to simplify the demand for adaptation on the system. Total training volume aside, you could ease the burden on the athlete (and advance progress!) by simply reducing the number of qualities you are trying to develop. This is just as simple as you’d imagine:
Resistance Training 2x
Forearm Endurance 3x
With the newly altered program, we allocate more of our energy to getting strong and powerful. We reduce the number of adaptations the body, and particularly the forearm muscles, are trying to make. Most important of all, we start getting better again. You can even go one better. Do you really think a month of the following would be the end of the world?
Resistance Training 2x
Forearm Endurance 3x
Resistance Training 2x
Forearm Endurance 3x
The other factor to consider beyond your adaptation potential is your recovery ability. Even if you were consistently able to move all of the different training factors forward, the total training volume might be too much for you to endure. Sure, the first couple of weeks are OK, but as each session intensifies through the cycle, many athletes find that their performance starts to level off or decline. In such a case, we ask the question, “How much training is necessary for progress?”
Those of us that are fans of “Rocky” always seem to think that more is the answer. And this being an Olympic year, who can’t get a little fired up about flipping a tire down the street a few times in the hopes of breaking a plateau? For most climbers, excessively high volumes of training rarely result in a better level of performance.
If you’re thinking recovery is your issue, you have two options: recover better or train less. The easy answer is to simply reduce the training load by 5-10% and see what happens in a couple of weeks. Most of us don’t like to do this so we’ll just stay on the gas until we start seeing signs of overtraining or we go ahead and get injured. Trust me, backing off is not that bad.
Short of a load reduction, you can always take an honest look at how well you recover. Al Vermeil’s advice of “train hard, recover harder” shouldn’t be overlooked. How much effort do you put into recovering? Some factors to consider when trying to improve recovery:
- Post-session meals. I’m not too concerned about the 4:1 ratio, but you should eat right after training, every single time.
- Sleep. Is TV really more important to you than climbing well? Figuring out how to sleep even 15 minutes more per day can make the difference between a season of injury and your best season ever.
- Eating enough good stuff and eliminating meaningless calories. You know what’s good for you and what might not be helping. I am becoming increasingly convinced that it doesn’t matter if you’re keto or paleo or vegan so much as whether you’re paying attention to what goes in your mouth at all.
- Eating enough at all. If you’re trying to lose weight, you cut calories. Cutting calories also means reducing your strength gains, hindering your endurance, and extending your recovery times between workouts. If you’re training hard, don’t diet. If you’re dieting, don’t train hard.
- Massage, stretching, heat and cold, and the like. The more attention you give to recovery, the more you’ll recognize that actively not training is really the big key. Simply going home after a hard day and grabbing pizza and a beer just won’t cut it after a while…
If you’ve been training a while, you have a pretty good picture of what your current program is providing. Sticking with the same plan and just trying to force yourself to go harder occasionally will only get you so far. If you really want to get better, pick one or two facets of the sport, and dedicate yourself wholly to them for a month or two, letting everything else go. I promise – nothing bad will happen.