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.
by Steve Bechtel
You’ve heard it many times – when someone sends their hardest it feels effortless. We talk about it as the “flow” state or as having an out-of-body experience. No matter what you call it, it’s a performance state you’d like to recreate as often as possible. We usually see ourselves get to this point toward the end of several weeks or months of consistent climbing. If you find it a few time a year, you’re lucky. The worst part is it’s hard to predict when such a performance will happen.
One of the reasons I think these performances are rare is that we tend to “train” too much and “practice” too little. Our training too often overlooks the real performance factors in favor of false ones, such as a feeling of fatigue or the thrill of sending a problem. Sure getting tired training can be important, but it’s not an indicator that anything useful (except a possible endurance overload) has occurred. Likewise, sending is the name of the game in our sport. In training, success on a problem in the gym does not mean that you improved as a climber.
Think about projecting. You go up, learn what the route is all about on the first few goes, then you start to try sections, cruxes, and links. With each time up the project you are probably improving your conditioning, but you’re also ingraining efficient movement patterns and “performance habits” such as where you are looking and the style of your breathing. Breathing? Yes.
When we first try routes, most of us tend to be amped up to some degree. We are nervous (either excited or afraid) and tend to have shorter breaths and a higher heart rate. Over time, the breath calms and the heart rate drops…and the climbing miraculously feels easier. Research into gymnastics shows similar patterns of behavior. Early on in learning a routine, gymnasts’ movements will be forced, choppy, and tight. Their heart rates are high. They lose concentration easily. But over time, the routines smooth themselves out, become more natural, and eventually seem effortless.
This doesn’t happen because they tried to get stronger or more flexible. It happened because they were trying to do their movement perfectly. The task for us as climbers is to learn where “perfect” is. Is it control? Explosiveness? Speed? Pacing?
In climbing, we seek performance. We look to finish the pitch or the problem, and frequently de-focus technique or perfecting movement in favor of completion. Your first task in getting better is to chunk it down. Instead of being focused on the whole problem, you’ll need to analyze each position and movement. Let me give you a personal example: Over the years, I acquired a “hold-based” view of climbing. What I mean is that my sequencing normally only went as deep as which limb goes where and in what order. Left hand: 2 finger pocket, right foot on the little edge… What I realized a few years ago is that body position is one of the big x-factors that separates the average from the elite. It’s not finger strength, not even conditioning most of the time. I could get on the same holds as elite climbers, could even hold them, but the movement failed me because my positioning was wrong.
If you look purely at training parameters such as time to failure on a given edge, pull-up maximums, campusing data, etc., you’ll see that for every elite performer, there are dozens of much-less accomplished climbers that will produce the same numbers. What makes top performers better is better body positioning and movement economy. These are non-training factors – they are practice factors. They aren’t easily quantifiable so we tend to drift toward pursuing things we can more easily attach numbers to.
This is frustrating territory for most of us, more art than science. This is when you need to start really paying attention to how you move and “where you are” in the movement. Although you get a lot of feedback from proprioception (feeling) and your vestibular (balance) system, you might not be getting the full picture. The best way to see what’s happening is to see it. I know, it feels dorky or egotistical to video your own training, but it’s the fast track to owning movement. Many climbers avoid watching themselves perform because they don’t want to see it. But whatever it is you don’t want to see might just be the thing you most need to.
Start with simply videoing yourself on one problem or set of moves. Do the sequence several times, watching the video between each go. Analyze what you think might be improved next try, and attempt to clean it up. 4-5 repeats and you’ll see that there is a lot going on. The most frequent comments I’ll hear from people is that they didn’t realize what it was that made a sequence feel easier until they saw it on video. After doing this exercise only a few times, most climbers see noticeable improvements in specific patterns. And don’t worry…everyone is videoing themselves these days, so you won’t seem out-of-place.
The next level is to get some coaching. I’m not talking about hiring an online climbing coach (how’s this for irony: I don’t recommend ANYONE hire an online coach if at all possible, for this very reason.), I’m talking about spending time at the gym with a movement coach or simply bouldering with a friend who climbs as well as or better than you do. All you need from the friend is honest feedback on how your climbing was on a problem. Feedback such as “it seemed like your hips sagged” or “your feet looked ‘light’ on that move” help you to focus on improving position each time.
Further, simply climbing the same problems as another climber and discussing movement might be the simplest, and most enduring way of improving over the long haul. In such sessions, keep the movement in mind, knowing that getting the parts right is what your goal is. As I said before, sending is secondary to successful movement.
Another simple tactic for success related to the point above is to repeat movements. In some regard, this is the true beauty of the symmetrically-built System Board; you can exactly match left and right movement. This isn’t necessary, though, if you have enough bouldering terrain to keep you climbing different problems all the time. What you’d do in a bouldering session is to pick maybe five problems as your “exercises” for that workout. The problems should be easy enough that you can repeat them each 4-6 times in the session, and should cover a variety of angles and movement types.
The session is set up so that you go through each problem several times, and take time to assess and fix between each move. This is a session for a more advanced climber, as it requires having a “feel” for what correct movement is. You can combine this with video analysis for a thorough skill development session. Again, it doesn’t really matter what you send, it’s whether the movement comes out correctly.
There is a hidden benefit to working hard on technique. By default, the training volume has to be fairly high. By spending the requisite hours working at the sub-maximal “learning zone”, you are also gaining low-intensity fitness. Sport science shows us that capillary density and mitochondria are built not only by continuous training volume such as ARC traversing, but by total load over time. The take home? It’s not the number of moves you do in a row, but the number of moves you do in a training month/year that determine mitochondrial density and the need for blood flow changes.
Focused practice eventually transforms into grooved patterns or habits. Once you have mastered a basic skill such as heel hooking, you can identify when to use the skill and how. You can then add layers to the skill, learning to heel hook on slopers, how to pull further on them, etc. The irony of practicing skills is that the more advanced you are as a climber, the more you’ll have to work at it. Climbing high grades is far more about refined skill than maximum strength or power, and the window for growth gets smaller and smaller as you improve.
I know… it sounds crazy to suggest that a twenty-year veteran of the sport go back and focus on skills. It wasn’t until I started looking at elite climbers’ performance data that I saw what I didn’t want to see. People climbing 5 or 6 grades harder than I do were no stronger, had no greater endurance…they just did the sport better. The greatest gift you could give yourself just might be to step back and see how well you actually climb, and then do something about it.