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.
By Steve Bechtel
When I was in college, I got interested in which physical traits and abilities were consistent among high-performing climbers. At that time, in the mid-1990s, there were some basic assumptions and many things we considered common sense. It was clear that climbers had to be relatively thin, relatively strong, and somewhat flexible. We did exercises that made our arms tired, and knew that “the pump” was the key to getting fit for long routes.
A few years earlier, Dr. Phil Watts and Dave Martin (now also an exercise physiologist) did an interesting study at one of the international comps at Snowbird: They tested crushing grip strength and body composition of several of the elite athletes competing that year, and compared those numbers to performance in the competition. The results were interesting: of course the competitors all had very low body percentages, but the grip numbers didn’t correlate well. In fact, the climbers that had the strongest grip were Americans who didn’t even get to the finals, and the eventual winner, Didier Raboutou, was among the lower scores in grip strength.
Later, we did a grip test and survey at the International Climbers’ Festival, but I never did anything with the data. For one, I didn’t understand how to interpret it, and two, I’d asked the wrong questions. Some twenty years later, I finally put together a survey that I like, the 2014 Survey, and we had a whole host of rock climbers fill it out. The survey confirmed much, but raised even more questions. What follows is the data we collected, and the points of interest we came across. A disclaimer: I am not a statistician, and I barely made it through college, so when you find flaws in my numbers…you’re probably right!
These data are assembled from 19 survey questions and three tests administered by our team. We tested 76 climbers who ranged in age from 16 to 67 years old. Originally, we collected surveys from climbers that “self-tested”, but I did not include these results in order to maintain consistency.
Below, I’ll present the questions, the mean answers from those questions, the tests, the mean results of those tests, and then some correlations.
What year did you start climbing? (We calculated years climbed based on counting back from July, 2014.)
1-3 years: 15%
3-6 years: 31%
6-10 years: 22%
10-15 years: 18%
15+ years: 14%
On average, how many days per month do you climb?
Fewer than 3: 6%
12 or more: 14%
How many roped pitches do you do in an average climbing week?
20 or more: 42%
*Of special note, Alex Honnold filled out the survey and asked if the pitches needed to be roped. Our distinction was between bouldering and route climbing, so we allowed him to count solo pitches. He admitted that he might not get 20 pitches on a rope some weeks…
How many different climbing areas do you visit in a typical year?
Fewer than 3: 30%
12 or more: 12%
How many different rock types do you climb on in a given year?
2 or fewer: 33%
5 or more: 12%
What is the grade of the hardest climb you have redpointed?
Have not led: 2
5.10a or b: 5
5.10c or d: 7
5.11a or b: 13
5.11c or d: 9
What is the grade of the hardest climb you have flashed?
Have not led: 2
5.10a or b: 11
5.10c or d: 12
5.11a or b: 11
5.11c or d: 14
What is the grade of the hardest real rock boulder problem you have climbed?
Have not bouldered on real rock: 2
What is the grade of the hardest indoor boulder problem you have climbed?
What is your height in inches?
This one ranged from 51″ to 79″. I haven’t listed the numbers here because the data set would be huge. I am interested in a height/weight comparison, but it would probably tell us what we already know – climbers tend to be thinner than average and can climb well at almost any height.
What is your body weight in pounds?
Same story here…numbers were all over the map. You’d need to be smarter than I am to make sense of this. Of course, then you might come up with something like the BMI if you did, which is a ridiculous measure in and of itself.
Approximately how many unique routes do you redpoint at your limit level each year?
1 or fewer: 72%
4 or more: 16%
Approximately how many “second tier” routes do you redpoint each year? (Second Tier is defined as 2-3 grades below your best-ever.)
Up to 5: 21%
16 or more: 22%
How many days per month do you climb outdoors?
Fewer than 3: 16%
12 or more: 5%
How many days per month do you climb indoors?
Fewer than 3: 8%
12 or more: 3%
Do you do any supplemental training for climbing? Please detail type and days per week.
This one is beyond the scope of this article. However, of interest is that about 45% of the respondents do no supplemental training. About 25% run or cycle at least two days per week. Nearly 80% do pull-ups and push-ups regularly. Also of note is that two of the climbers listed Crossfit as their one form of supplemental training. This did not correlate with climbing high grades.
Please mark all of the training modes you employ regularly (76 respondents):
Indoor Bouldering: 66 (87%)
Campus Board Training: 21 (28%)
Strength Training: 43 (57%)
High Intensity Group Training: 12 (16%)
Hangboard Training: 34 (45%)
Stretching or Mobility Training: 33 (43%)
Yoga: 9 (12%)
Running, Cycling or Hiking: 67 (88%)
What is the longest period you’ve been forced to lay off climbing due to injury or illness?
Less than a month: 14%
1-6 months: 45%
7-12 months: 30%
More than a year: 7%
- Strict Pull-Ups. These were done from a straight-arm lock position to a point where the entire head is above the bar. No swinging / kipping / etc. allowed.
20 or more: 5
- 1.5 cm edge deadhang, both hands.
Can’t do it: 3
1-4 seconds: 3
5-15 seconds: 25
16-30 seconds: 22
30+ seconds: 23
- Static Grip Strength. We measured left and right hand, and compared the difference for each climber.
Less than 50#: 8
150# +: 10
Less than 50#: 9
150# +: 11
Average strength deficit (difference between left and right strengths): 14%
A few interesting correlations:
Static hang endurance (1.5cm edge hang) correlated almost directly with surveyed climbing ability. Our three strongest redpoint climbers were in the top five hang durations.
Grip strength (crushing) didn’t correlate at all. Two climbers maxed out the dynamometer at 200# (confirmed by testers), both with the right hand, and both from Casper, Wyoming (not sure if this is significant…). Two other climbers (including one famous writer!) were unaware that the dynamometers maxed out at 200# and claimed higher numbers, having reset the device before handing it back to testers.
Pull-ups (upper body endurance) were generally high – the average American male between ages 20-30 can do only one – but didn’t necessarily correlate. Eight of the ten highest values came from climbers who redpointed in the 5.12 range.
In general, climbers who spent more days per week climbing outside, and had been climbing the longest, were the ones with the highest redpoint grades.
High bouldering ability correlated very well with high redpoint ability.
The old adage that you can redpoint about one full number grade higher than your onsight seems about right. 60 of 74 climbers were either four or five number grades apart.
Climbers who climb on at least three rock types seemed to have higher abilities in onsight, redpoint, and boulder.
By Steve Bechtel
Imagine, if you will, two friends that are the same age, same height, weight, etc. Imagine they both start climbing at the same time, both follow the same training program, and both show steady progress. They climb at the same crags, usually together, and start projecting the same route. You might think that they would both send at the same time, but one friend, let’s call him “Steve”, sends faster. As time passes, Steve gets better and better, despite the two friends’ still training and climbing together. No matter how hard the second friend (let’s call him “Jonathan Siegrist”) tries, he falls behind. Slowly, Steve starts to put distance on Jonathan, and the gap never closes again.
We tend to think that just getting out there climbing and doing some training are the only factors in performance. These are the factors easiest for us to grasp and control, so we focus on them with almost all of our conscious effort. But is there more? Are there other factors that are at play that mean as much as the training we do? Further, are some people just naturally gifted with the ability to pull?
In Stuart McGill’s book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, he touches on a lot of really great material having to do with back pain and performance. In the book, though, he covers an interesting array of issues that come up with program design. In this section of the book, McGill outlines seven variables that can limit ultimate performance. I have adapted from this list below:
1. Trainability – The ability to progress depends on many genetic factors ranging from chemical and cellular function through to anatomical variables. In addition, many previously trained adaptations can be re-obtained much more quickly. Did you know there are people that are “non-responders” when it comes to training for strength or endurance? It’s true: There are people that get no stronger on a training plan.On the flip side, there are high responders, too. If you give a training plan to a dozen different athletes, you’ll get a dozen different results…and trainability is part of the problem.
2. Neuromuscular Efficiency – Dr. Roger Enoka (1994) has documented extensively the science in understanding the enormous contribution of factors such as the ability to recruit / de-recruit muscle fibers, sections of muscles, etc. Improvements in strength for climbing are hugely affected by one’s ability to learn to recruit more muscle fibers at the right time, in the right order. It’s also about going from a max-tension state to a totally unloaded state in a moment.
3. Biomechanical Efficiency and Suitability – Leverage characteristics are determined by body segment length proportions to one another, muscle connection areas, and architectural features such as muscle to tendon length ratios. Of course, control factors overlay the biomechanical factors and influence joint stability and loading, and ultimately safety and performance. A key component in pulling ability is the flexor tendon insertion point above the elbow. Climbers that have a high insertion point will be able to pull more efficiently than those with a normal insertion.
As yet, the ideal rock climbing body proportions have not been identified. That being said, it doesn’t really matter: you’ve already got your body and you have got to (or get to) deal with how it’s built.
4. Psychological Factors – Factors such as aggression, motivation, concentration, pain tolerance, perception of spectator behavior, adherence to programs, event pressure, general mental toughness and the ability to relax are just a few of the variables that constrain performance. CLimbing performance is so mentally driven that physical strength almost doesn’t matter.
5. Social Factors – Societal influences and expectations impose perceived limits and define acceptable behavior often to the detriment of performance and in some cases, safety. We’ve seen countless examples of climbers rising to the level of a very accomplished peer simply because the limits were not known. We also see the opposite. How often is a talented climber held back by a performance-limited mentor? A woman who holds back so she doesn’t surpass her boyfriend?
6. Pain and Fear of Pain – Distinguishing between the pain of injury and the pain of effort is very important. Pain prevents injury when utilized effectively and limits performance when utilized ineffectively. Further, the presence of pain inhibits specific motor and muscle patterns that may be essential to both injury avoidance and and ultimate performance.
7. Fatigue – Mental and physical fatigue inhibit performance over a workout session, but can also build throughout a poorly designed, and poorly periodized, training schedule, so that the athlete remains continually fatigued.
By Steve Bechtel
It happens every year at a hundred different climbing areas. There is a glimmer of talent, a hint of drive, and a motivated climber is born. He cruises up through the grades, doing several 5.10 and 5.11 routes with his friends, he makes progress, and then he starts to pull ahead. Finally, one weekend, he sends the 5.12a classic at the crag, and HE HAS ARRIVED! He is now a 5.12 climber.
And this is when he blows it. Like Milo with his bull, the man keeps going, setting his sights at the next higher grade – in this case a 12b. Unlike Milo, he is not a legend, and he is doomed to fail. Day after day, week after week, he struggles to send, and let’s just say he does the route eventually. Either way, he’s in trouble, because if he does this route he’ll just go on and get busted on the 12c next door.
The problem is one of motivation and ability. Instead of trying to become a better climber, he seeks to succeed on routes of higher grades. Instead of honing his skills to perfection, he thrashes his way up an arbitrarily graded route, and his performance as a climber has not necessarily improved at all. He was motivated by the achieving the grade, not mastering the sport.
It reminds me of the time a traveling hardman arrived at our local crag and asked, “Which is the easiest 13a?” Why, the one covered in chalk, fixed draws, and other climbers, of course!
Don’t misunderstand. There is a time for the project. There is a time to get in way over your head to see what you’re up against. But it is not the way to quick progress. Time and again we see climbers who do one hard route per season. If you stick with climbing for a long time, that gets you 15-20 hard sends per life. So how would you feel if you could get that many sends each and every year? Would it be worth swallowing some pride and trying a little something different?
The redpoint pyramid is nothing new, it’s just something most climbers don’t use. The basics are simple. Start out at a grade that you can do in 1-2 tries (say 5.11a) and climb. There are several different set-ups for this, but my favorite is to build a 4-tier pyramid with six boxes at the bottom, four at level 2, two at level three, and one box on top.
At the bottom level, you write 5.11a, 11b on the next, and on up to 11d on top. Then all you have to do is go out and REDPOINT a route for each box in the pyramid. As easy as it sounds, this is where most climbers just can’t execute. It’s easier to be “working” a hard route than to go out and send.
It should take 2-4 climbing days to fill in the first pyramid. Try to start at the bottom and work your way up, but the only real rule is to fill the whole thing out before moving on. Once it’s filled, start another, but bump the grades up by one level (in our example they would now be 11b, 11c, 11d, and 12a.)
You should progress pretty quickly through the second pyramid, too. See, as you get used to doing all these redpoints, you GET GOOD at redpointing. Almost everything you try will fall in one or two goes. Often, climbers go climbing with no goal in mind. With the pyramid you’ll be laser-focused on what has to happen next climbing day, and the one after that.
Within a couple of months, your former project levels will be showing up at the top of your new pyramid, but his time, instead of multi-week projects, they will succumb in just a few tries.
There are many ways to advance as a climber, but for God’s sake, advance! Maintaining an “eternal project” mentality is comfortable, but it will not get you too far. Try something new, and you might just see something good happen.
By Steve Bechtel
Once the fever to train sets in, awareness of one’s body becomes paramount. Buying into the excitement and perhaps difficulty of this or that training fad, an athlete can actually change direction and drift further from his goal by training harder. Unfortunately, in the world of difficult climbing, simply working hard does not equal progress.
A climber must first find a goal to be attained through training, then find the best path to that goal. Only after this path is found can the business of hard work be effective.
These days, athletes are subjecting themselves to some of the hardest workouts ever designed. Talk to many of our top climbers and you’ll hear details of workouts that would cripple your average weekend warrior. But these workouts are neither the starting point in their training nor the secret of their success. To move forward in any program, the climber needs goals, needs to really want to reach these goals, and must have the self-discipline to execute the plan.
Unfortunately, many climbers reach a performance plateau and seek to break through it via training modes outside of climbing such as running, yoga, or high-intensity weight training. Although these are all valid modes of exercise, each is highly unlike climbing and will offer only limited training value.
The first step to effective training is understanding what, exactly, needs to be trained. Take a good, long, and most of all, honest look at your performance before you decide to double your time in the weight room. Training has just a few basic rules:
Specificity – Our bodies adapt to very specific demands of training. The more training mimics activity, the greater the benefit. This is why we get better at climbing when we spend time climbing. Pretty obvious.
Accommodation – If continually subjected to the same stimulus, our bodies cease to respond. If you climb at the same area on the same routes, you can actually lose fitness.
Overload – Related to accommodation, in order to advance in sport, the athlete must face regular stresses that are more challenging than current levels. This can come in the form of more time, harder grades, steeper routes, etc.
Reversibility – When training ceases, the body begins the return to pre-training baseline levels. This is the depressing reality of taking long breaks from the rock.
The most important of these when designing your plan, of course, is specificity. But that’s not enough. You’ve got to get really serious about being specific. Say you’re a boulderer and you want to get better at heel hooking on overhanging problems. Well, you can’t just go bouldering and hope to find some heel hooks. It’s better to focus a portion of your weekly sessions on this, then go into your normal climbing plan. A normal bouldering session in the gym doesn’t allow for enough adaptation.
The problem is that very few of us apply specificity to our goals, either at the crag or in the gym. We go out, gravitate toward climbs that suit us, get tired after a while and call it a day. Occasionally we’ll get with a motivated partner or just happen to go a bit harder. We’re wiped out and sore the next day, but did we move closer to that goal route?
When getting ready for a workout, ask yourself a few key questions:
– Does the plan for today address the demands of my goal routes or my limiters?
– Are the duration and intensity of the workout going to adequately tax my system? Will I be overdoing it?
– Are my training partners appropriate for this session?
“Going for it” really hard for 3 hours during the Thursday night session rarely makes a better climber. Consistency, specificity, and attention are all critical components of any good plan. There is no amount of intensity you can add to one session that will compare to a well-planned week. Your training needs to be focused on making you better at climbing, not just getting pumped silly.
As an athlete nears his natural potential, improvements no longer come in big leaps but rather by inches. Remember that simply walking up to a cliff and working on a hard climb is not enough. Finding the route that best leads you to improve is the real key to success.