Dragon Flag B&W Movement in Climb Strong Class

This is not the first article on “core” training I have written, but I felt the need to expand on the previous ones and to highlight what we are doing in our current programs. In general, the way we look at training the midsection has not changed, but over the past couple of years we’ve refined the program and the focus of the training. First, I’ll start with what core training is not and should not be:

 

Core training is not going to get rid of fat on your belly. By now you should know this, but for those who have not been keeping up, I’ll explain. The abdominals, obliques, and transversus are the primary groups that most of us try to target when doing ab exercises. These are important muscles to strengthen, but exercising them to reduce the fat that happens to lay on top of them is futile. Once again, I’ll reference the University of Virginia study that showed you’d have to do 700 crunches a day for a year to burn a pound of fat. Since spot reduction has been proven over and again to be ineffective, even doing those 365 workouts might not give you the desired results. If your belly fat is bugging you, it’s time to step away from the donut box and buy some spinach.

 

Core training is not “back strengthening.” Strong abs do not mean a strong low back. The exercises I’ll describe are safe for the low back if done properly, but should not be seen as a direct way to make the back stronger. A huge misconception for sufferers of low back pain is the idea that spinal flexion exercises, such as the abdominal crunch, are good for the back. In fact, it has been shown that repeated spinal flexion is overwhelmingly a bad idea if you have back pain. Dr. Stuart McGill has several excellent books on low back disorders and injuries, and if you have back problems I recommend picking up Back Mechanic http://amzn.to/1T7zno6 .

 

The core should not be treated as a prime-mover. There are many exercises that target the abdominals, but the abs should be trained the way they are used- as structural support. Most of the ab exercises we learned as young athletes use the rectus abdominus to create either hip flexion (as in supine leg raises) or trunk flexion (as in crunches or sit-ups). Although these do “work” the abs, that’s not how we use the muscles in normal movement. The core muscles are almost exclusively stabilizers, and are best used to control movement rather than to initiate it. The one exception which may be specific to climbing is the hanging leg raise and its variations.

 

It’s more than abs. The core, or what we prefer to call the midsection, includes all of the muscles that connect to your pelvis and low back. We include:

The rectus abdominis

The transversus abdominis

The internal and external obliques

All hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings, etc.)

The hip flexors

The spine extensors (spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum)

The hip adductors and abductors

The latissimus dorsi

 

“If you can’t see your abs, put down the cookies”

We want to be strong, so clearly, crunches won’t do the trick. We are looking for high-load, integrative exercise that will actually change the way your core functions in climbing. Being able to crank out five more reps of a rectus abdominis-focused exercise won’t do it.

 

Our training program focuses on creating a strong midsection to effectively transfer strength from the arms to the legs, and to maintain tension during climbing movements. I don’t feel you always need to mimic climbing movement to train the core properly. I do feel you need to train very intensely. A good rule of thumb: if you can crank out a few more reps once fatigue sets in, your exercises are not hard enough.

 

Telling you what not to do only helps so much, right? Here is what I am going to tell you to do.

 

We train four patterns for the core. By integrating the four main categories of movement, you can effectively train all of the muscle groups listed above. By training them with the correct intensity, you can have a stronger midsection that you’ve ever dreamed.  

 

Stability. This is where you hold your body in a tensioned, static position in which the muscles around the spine and pelvis must be held isometrically. The one that pops to mind for most people is the plank, but as you’ll see below, you can do better.

 

The plank can be regressed or progressed as needed. We stick with a general rule of twenty seconds: if you can hold a given position for a 20 count, move on to the next level of difficulty.

In order of difficulty, the plank progressions look like this:

Elbow Plank on a bench

Palm Plank on the floor

Elbow Plank on the floor

Plank with one limb raised

Plank with one arm and one leg raised

TRX Plank

Hardstyle Plank

 

Dynamic Stability. The plan is the same in dynamic stability as in stability, except that you try to hold to body in a rigid position while moving one or more limbs. There are dozens of great exercises that fit this category, but our favorites are:

Stir The Pot / Cauldron

Plank/Pulldown

T Push Up

Lever Variations

 

Anti-Rotation. We use the obliques to initiate rotation, like in the Russian Twist, but we also use them to avoid rotation. The anti-rotation abilities of these muscles are under-appreciated, but are implemented every time you move. For Anti-Rotation, I like to train the Core Press and the Plank with Weight Transfer.

 

Hip Flexion. This is the exception to the avoid-spine-bending guideline. We have to train the way we play, and we do train a series of movements that involve pulling the knees toward the chest.

Our progression is as follows:

Hanging Knee Raise to 90 degrees

Hanging Straight Leg Raise to 90 degrees

Seated Straight Leg Raise

TRX Pike

Knees to Elbows

Dip Bar Straight Leg Raise

Hanging Straight Leg Raise – full range

 

When implementing high level midsection training like this, you’ve got to respect the exercises. These movements should be a major focus if you are to do them and benefit from them, not something you throw in after a bouldering session. Start with 3 sets of 5 reps in any given movement, and progress to the next harder movement only of you can do them flawlessly. Plan on doing 2-3 exercises per training session, picking from separate categories. You should do these exercises three days per week.

 

A strong midsection makes all other strength easier. Be patient, and keep focused. Forget the burn…and if you can’t see your abs, put down the cookies.

Jordan Jack Demonstrates a Push Up in Climb Strong Class B&W

We’ve been training strength for a long time. For years, I struggled with just how to fit all the hangboard training, general strength training, and supporting exercises in a normal climber’s week. Many of us try to get by without the extra work, opting to just go climbing instead. A look at the big picture, at the idea of climbing effectively and injury-free over the course of a 30+ year period, forces us to understand that just climbing is not enough.

This article is not an attempt to convince readers to start strength training. What I am going to outline here are variations on a climbing strength program known as Integrated Strength. For those unfamiliar with the program, it’s a simple combination of:

1 General Strength Exercise + 1 Finger Strength Exercise + 1 Mobility or Stability Drill

 

We do these as a small circuit, each of which takes less than 5 minutes. The standard Integrated Strength Program looks like this:

 

3 sets each of:

General Strength Exercise 1

Finger Strength Exercise 1

Mobility Drill 1

 

3 sets each of:

General Strength Exercise 2

Finger Strength Exercise 2

Mobility Drill 2

 

3 sets each of:

General Strength Exercise 3

Finger Strength Exercise 3

Mobility Drill 3

 

This session takes most athletes about 45 minutes. If you can complete a session in a lot faster than this time, you’re not lifting heavy enough and not trying hard enough on the hangboard.

The standard implementation of these sessions is to do them 3x per week for 4-6 weeks in an off-season phase. The sessions can be used in-season once a week to maintain strength.

Variations

There are times of the year or training goals that ask that we diverge from the basic format. With the growing understanding that strength is fundamental not only to injury prevention but to climbing performance, we are constantly testing and finding ways of keeping strength year-round. The critical component, of course, is continuity. Training strength for short periods separated by months of performance is not only risky, but frustrating. How would you like to always be stuck at the same level in each and every facet of your training? If the standard 3×3 format above isn’t right for you, try one of the following variants:

Varied Arm Positioning

This template is based on focusing the hangboard efforts on upper body strength rather than exclusively finger strength. The three hangboard exercises all feature the half-crimp position, but we vary the angle at the elbow. The series then looks like this:

 

3 sets each of:

Hip Hinge Pattern

2 Arm Hang, Straight Arm, Half Crimp

Hip Mobility

 

3 sets each of:

Squat Pattern

2 Arm Hang, Elbow 90 Degrees, Half Crimp

Shoulder Mobility

 

3 sets each of:

Overhead Press Pattern

2 Arm Hang, Full Lock Off, Half Crimp

Core Stability Exercise

 

Long Circuits

In the Long Circuits variation, the athlete aims to complete two big circuits per session rather than three circuits of three exercises. Each of these big circuits is done 3 or 4 times, depending on the time available and the desired volume of training.

 

The standard Long Circuit session is as follows:

Circuit 1

Hang position 1

Horizontal Pull

Hang position 2

Core

Hang position 3

Squat

Mobility

 

Circuit 2

Hang position 1

Vertical Press

Hang position 2

Core

Hang position 3

Hip Hinge

Mobility

 

This protocol is excellent for those looking to add a bit of volume to their finger strength, as it allows 6-8 sets each for all three positions on the hangboard. We try to keep the hang times in the 5-10 second range, and aim for bodyweight or simple (i.e. a single weight for all three hangs) loading.

 

Separated Circuits

In the Separated Circuits sessions, the athlete completes the weightroom and hangboard portions of the training separately. This is ideal for climbers whose facilities are in different locations or whose gyms are really busy. The standard series looks like this:

 

3-5 rounds:

Hip Hinge

Hip Mobility

Press

Shoulder Mobility

 

3-5 rounds:

Squat

Hip Mobility

Pull

Shoulder Mobility

 

3-5 rounds:

Hang position 1

Core 1

Hang position 2

Core 2

Hang position 3

Core 3

 

Ideally, you’d complete all three portions of the session with just a few minutes’ rest between. If you are dealing with two different facilities, a break of up to about 90 minutes is OK before a full re-warm is necessary.

 

High Volume Circuits

This variation features more exercises and hangboard positions, but generally you’ll train fewer cycles of each. The standard set-up is as follows:

 

Circuit 1, 2 rounds:

Hang position 1

Squat

Hip Mobility

Hang position 2

 

Circuit 2, 2 rounds:

Hang position 3

Press

Shoulder Mobility

Hang position 4

 

Circuit 3, 2 rounds:

Hang position 1

Hinge

Hip Mobility

Hang position 2

 

Circuit 2, 2 rounds:

Hang position 3

Core

Shoulder Mobility

Hang position 4

 

Each of these circuits takes about 10 minutes to complete for 2 rounds. If you have the time and have a need for higher volume, three rounds of each can be completed. If you find that you can complete the circuits significantly faster than this, it’s time to consider whether you are lifting enough weight and using challenging enough hang positions.

All of the above variants still address the main goals of Integrated Strength: big muscle work with finger strength training, a focus on mobility, and an efficient way to bring in all the critical components of strength for climbing.

 

Steve Bechtel Overhead KB Press, b&w, Photo by Mei Ratz

by Steve Bechtel

Over the years, many climbers have started weight training at my urging, but it doesn’t take long before the questions start rolling in. So you started lifting, now what? How much? How heavy? How many exercises? It always depends on the athlete, but we keep coming back to a few guidelines. The most important is this: training is not something you do instead of climbing, but rather something you do to support climbing. Our goal in performing any training is to create more high-level performances and to reduce injury.

Weight training allows us the fastest path toward total-body strength. By building this strength, we can then develop all of the other qualities of fitness more quickly and safely. There is a limit to the efficacy of any training mode, though. We need to always try to figure out the just-right amount of volume and avoid letting our training get away from us. What we always look for is getting away with as little non-climbing as possible.

One of the big rules of training is specificity, but this is often over-simplified into simulation: trying to pattern climbing movements with a weight vest on, building a machine such as the Versa Climber, or doing climbing-like moves on a pull-up bar. Simulation is dangerous because it can compromise motor learning, teaching the athlete wrong movement patterns as he tries to develop specific strength.

What we need is to build strength in full human ranges of motion and to build strength that is specific in duration and intensity to what we’d experience in climbing. I am fully aware of the movements we use in climbing as well as the patterns you see in the weight room. Trying to mesh the two too closely results in insufficient overload to get strong as well as, as I said above, learning bad patterns in climbing.

There are two goals we try to reach through supplemental resistance training. First, we want to get strong enough to perform the skills of our sport correctly. This is all the obvious stuff: being able to keep your hips in, being able to press your body upward with the legs, being able to hold lockoffs, etc. Once we attain this strength, we begin to focus more on our secondary goal: injury prevention. We want to maintain enough strength and mobility in our antagonists to help mitigate overuse injuries in our main climbing movement patterns.

How Strong is Strong Enough?

This is probably the most important question you can ask yourself in strength training for climbing. More important than actual numbers is to look at your ability to manage the skills of your sport with correct and efficient movement. Can you hold a lock-off position? Can you keep your hips in on steep rock? Can you use the strength in your legs for big high steps? Can you get your feet back up on the wall when they lose contact on steep terrain?

Here are a few specific strength parameters we like to see when assessing strength for good movement and injury prevention:

 

Exercise Females Males
Deadlift (2RM) 1.5x Bodyweight 2x Bodyweight
Single Leg Squat 5 reps at bodyweight 5 reps at bodyweight
Pull-Up (2RM) Bodyweight + 50% Bodyweight + 75%
Bench Press .75x Bodyweight 1.25x Bodyweight
Strict Hanging Straight Leg Raise 10 reps on 3 second count 10 reps on 3 second count

Whether you hit these specific numbers or not isn’t as important; it’s whether you are lagging way behind in one of them that matters. When you find a big weakness (probably upper body pressing strength), this is a good place to concentrate your efforts. I understand: bench pressing and deadlifting don’t seem specific to climbing. They’re not. They are specific to being a strong human being – a base on which we then build our special strength for climbing. If you’re still getting better doing what you’re doing, keep doing it. In Dan John’s words, “If you can improve your sport through general training alone and actual performance work in your sport, then why should you do extra training? You shouldn’t.”

A simple strength plan might be as follows:

Monday

4 sets of 3 reps each:

Inverted Row

Single Leg Squat

Overhead Press

Deadlift

Seated Straight Leg Raise (reps on 5 count)

Thursday

2 set of 5 reps each:

Weighted Pull-Ups

Split Squat

Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

Ankles to Bar (reps on 3 count)

If you want to fast-forward strength, three or even 4 days per week can show good results. In order to avoid overtraining, you can build two short sessions that you can do on alternate days. For example, you could do your press/hinge workout Monday and Thursday, and do your pull/squat workout on Tuesday and Friday. Like so:

Press/Hinge

3 sets of 3 reps each:

Overhead Press

Deadlift

Ab Roller (reps on 3 second count)

Pull/Squat

3 sets of 3 reps each:

One-Arm Pull-Up (use regressions)

Front Squat

Levers

Once you get strong enough for your current level of performance, you can back off significantly on the amount of work you’re doing. Strength can be maintained on a fraction the volume it took to gain it. If you spent the winter on a 3 day per week, 5 sets of 3 plan, you’ll start by dropping one day per week and one set of exercises. You’ll look to hold the load steady from your previous weeks’ training.

A final note: training never should replace practice of the sport. Of course you’ll still climb. As you might have guessed if you’ve read many of my programs, about 75% of your time needs to be spent climbing – and only 25% getting stronger.

Alex Bridgewater Goblet Squat b&w, Photo by Mei Ratz

by Steve Bechtel

I wrote my first article on strength session design a few years back, and I thought it might be useful to update that article with the changes we’ve made to our programs over the past few seasons. In general, climbers agree on the need for climbing – sport specific movement – to get better. More controversial, though, is strength training. No matter what evidence supports the activity, there is always someone who comes forth with the “Ondra doesn’t do this” argument, or “climbing is the best training for climbing.”

I understand and agree with both sentiments. The sad fact of the matter is that Ondra doesn’t sit at a desk all day, either. Nor is he 40. Nor is he comfortably in the middle of the bell curve, which is where most of the people who need strength tend to sit. I would love it if climbing were the only activity needed for total athletic development. However, the high level of sport-related overuse injuries coupled with the massively imbalanced musculatures we see in the sport tell a different story.

I think many climbers’ opposition to strength training is based in fear: fear of “getting big,” of looking silly in the gym, of self-confrontation. I have always held that strength should take up as little time as possible, and that climbing should always be your primary focus. With this in mind, I suggest that you assess the weak links in your athleticism and address them through targeted training…with the goal of climbing more and training less.

I do not presume that the programs I design are the best strength programs, just that they are programs that have worked to make climbers stronger…with actual performance improvements down the line. I don’t care how far you can push your squat or deadlift numbers, I care how hard you send.

Our programs are fairly simple and feature a focus on quality movement. I believe it is better for the athlete to find the training too easy than to feel they fall short each and every session due to time, or intensity, or complexity of movement.

Our strength sessions are divided into four parts:

  1. Movement Preparation and Warm-Up: This is the most boring and under-valued part of the session. Warming up prevents all kinds of injuries, but it also creates a situation in the body where maximum efforts are possible. If you don’t have time for the warm-up you don’t have time to train. We look for 6-8 minutes of multiplanar bodyweight movements, including lunges, rotations, presses, and easy pulls. More than anything, you want to feel loose and warm by the end. This is also a good time to address specific issues such as tight lats or immobile hips.
  2. Strength Sets. We program strength from four basic movement patterns. Although we usually train all four patterns in a session (upper body press and pull, hip hinge, and squat), more advanced athletes can’t handle this much load. In such cases we then program just two patterns, plus a few midsection exercises during the strength sets. This “split program” is illustrated below.
  3. Finger Strength. Three hangboard positions, three sets each, 5-10 seconds. You’re right, it doesn’t feel hard, so how can it possibly be working? The same way investing $1 each day works.
  4. Other Stuff. This is where you can tailor your training a bit. We work things such as lock-offs, stability drills, and some power movements. You can also add your energy-system work in here if you need it and have the time. The big key with Other Stuff is to avoid looking for more to do – simply do it at the end of the session if you need to.

 

A specific example of a session might look like this:

Movement Prep and Warm-Up (Minutes 1-10)

~1 minute of each:

Arm Swings

Side Lunges

Rebound Runner Lunge

Windmills

Prying Squats

Inverted Row

Climber Push Up

Arm Bar

Strength (Minutes 11-30)

3 sets of the following circuit:

5+5x Overhead Press

3x Deadlift

3x Lever

45-60 seconds Hip Mobility

Finger Strength (Minutes 31-45)

3 sets of the following circuit:

10s Open Hand

30-45 sec Shoulder Stretches

5 sec Pocket 2,3

30-45 sec Hip Mobility

5+5 sec Pinch Block

Rest 3 min

Energy System Work (Minutes 46-55)

High End Aerobic: Airdyne 5 minute test.

Weighted Pull-Up, Photo by Mei Ratz

by Steve Bechtel

Sometimes, the simplest movements are the hardest to master. When we look at the value of particular resistance exercises, it’s hard to dispute that a very few movements can make or break a training plan. Working with just a squat, a deadlift, a push-up variant, and pull-ups, you can develop a life-long fitness plan that will serve to support your climbing for years to come…but you have to do it right. This is where pull-up progressions come in. In an effort to get what we think of as “more” out of a session, we sometimes cheat the movements to get the reps in. Add in the popular fad of timed weight training sessions, and an athlete’s execution can really go in the toilet. Unfortunately, doing tons of crappy reps translates directly to your performance. Mess it up in the gym…mess it up at the crag.

In order to master the pull-up, every athlete should make sure his execution is perfect before adding any additional intensity. You might think you’re already good at pull-ups. A quick check would be to video yourself to make sure your bottom starting position is correct and that you are truly getting your whole head above the bar.

The accepted rules for a legitimate pull-up are as follows:

Rules for all pulls include:

The poor shoulder position (left), and the engaged shoulder (right), with the arms “pulled away from the ears”.

  1. Start with straight elbows and shoulders packed (imagine ears are red-hot and you’re trying not to burn your shoulders…) Yes, your shoulders need to be “engaged”. Despite what you might have heard, straight elbows are safe at the bottom of the pull-up.
  2. Pull through the whole range of motion with control and with a tight core.
  3. Finish with the neck or collar bones touching the bar.
  4. Legs should be held straight or slightly forward.
  5. Abs braced like you’re going to be punched.

To get to the point you can do a perfect pull-up, start with the basic variations. Unless you are very weak, stay away from pull-downs on machines and those anti-gravity assisted pull-up thingies you see at Planet Fitness. These are similar in movement pattern but don’t translate well to real pull-ups. Another popular regression is to use elastic bands to help.  My friend Rob Shaul told me that bands didn’t work about five years ago…it just took me about four years to listen. Better to start with the non-assisted variations as they teach you proper position, but limit range of motion.

I finally put together a list of Pull-Up progressions to get our athletes from not being able to do pull-ups to being able to do them very well. Much of this progression is based on a list I got from Josh Hillis. The climbing-specific variations are beyond the scope of many athletes’ needs, yet for this audience they are a necessary progression.

Assisted Variations:

Pulldowns – This is a good place to start, but its effectiveness is limited. Work on palms forward and getting a full range from locked out elbows to hands at shoulder level. Don’t get addicted to these.

Band Assist – This variant is of limited use as it helps you the least when you need it most. Any athlete needing more than one thick and one thin band (1 ½” total) should do partner-assist pulls instead.

Partner Assist – With a partner standing behind and holding near the bottom of the ribs, do a full range movement.

Non-Assisted Variations:

3 Second Hang, top position, reverse grip – Step up to the bar on a box or chair, then slowly pick your feet up and hold for a full one second. Advance to three, then five seconds before moving to negatives.

3 Second Negative, reverse grip – From a top starting position, lower slowly and evenly through the full range of motion.

¼ Chin – From the top start position and using a reverse grip, lower ¼ of the way to the bottom, and pull yourself back up.

½ Chin – From the top start position and using a reverse grip, lower 1/2 way to the bottom (elbow to 90 deg.), and pull yourself back up.

¾ Chin – From the top start position and using a reverse grip, lower 3/4 of the way to the bottom, and pull yourself back up.

Chin – Full range of motion. Starting at bottom position and using a reverse grip, chin until neck touches the bar , then lower back down under control until elbows are locked.

Pull-Up – With a hands-forward grip, pull through a full range of motion, elbows straight to neck touching the bar.

Tactical Pull-Up – Set up as for the normal pull-up, but with thumbs on the same side of the bar as fingers. Pull to the top position (neck to bar), pause 1 second, then lower to the bottom. Pause 1 second, then repeat.

Weighted Pull-Ups – Use a tight-fitting belt (not a dip belt – a harness waistbelt is best) and be a total stickler for ROM. Progressions beyond 5 reps are not necessary.

Pull-Up, one hand on towel – Use a hand towel (gym rag). Place one hand over the bar, the other will hold on to a towel that has been folded over the bar. Follow the same range of motion rules as a normal pull-up. Start with the “strong hand” on the bar for specified reps, rest briefly (10-15 sec), then repeat with the “stronger hand”.

To really progress your pull strength, you need to focus on two things: perfect form and high volume. Work on avoiding failure, rather stop at about half the reps of which you think you’re capable. This way you can get twice as many fresh reps per session or per day. Both the “Grease the Groove” tactic, and Ladders will be effective. Grease the Groove will consist of doing several sets of 2-4 reps throughout the day or workout, separated by ten or more minutes. Ladders effectively manage fatigue by keeping the reps very low on most of the sets. If you can do five reps of a particular variation of the pull-up, you could effectively train ladders of 1,2,3 reps repeatedly in a session. Instead of eeking out 3 sets of 5 (15 reps), you might do 3 ladders of 1,2,3 for 18 reps, seeing higher levels of strength for each pull.Pull-ups are but one of the staple exercises a climber needs to master, but without the fundamental strength they provide, he’s not going to get far.

Close up of Systems Board, Photo by Mei Ratz

By Steve Bechtel

The System Board is simply a small climbing wall outfitted with regularly spaced matched pair of holds. Although anything from 2 pair to 10 pairs are common, most companies providing packages of these holds sell them in sets of 6-8. More critical than cool tiles, however, is to set them up with feet that are spaced the same as the holds. You’ve got to be able to replicate exact left and right moves for 1-2 moves each side to get much out of the board.

This board is a great addition to a climbing gym, or can function as an all-in-one home gym. Yes, it’s boring. Yes, it is limited. However, it produces real results and helps shore up weak kinetic links. We use this tool to address problems with core tension, awkward joint angles, and difficult body positions. The system board can also be used to develop finger strength, upper body strength, and even endurance.

The major benefit of system training is to eliminate weak movement patterns and create bilateral strength. These are two major problems with a “just climb” mentality in the gym. When training on gym routes or problems, we just don’t balance the loads to the left and right limbs – it would be impossible to boulder symmetrically. The problem is exacerbated when we set our own problems. Whether we mean to or not, we’ll adapt climbing around our weaknesses. With system training, we force full range of motion and clean movements to help shore up these weaknesses.

System sessions are usually designed much like a weight training session: we do repeated efforts on specific exercises, build a progression of difficulty over several sessions, and work toward overloading specific systems to elicit desired gains. The major result of a dedicated system program is an improvement in upper body strength and in our ability to hold core tension. By using smaller holds on the wall, we can develop functional finger strength slightly better than we can with a hangboard. By using the bigger holds, we can develop strength and power in the bigger muscles of the upper body.

The wall also lets us force hard upper body moves and awkward body positions. By repeating these in the normal system-set format, the body more quickly adapts to these movement patterns. Random learning through sheer volume of climbing just takes too long, especially if you’ve built bad motor patterns to begin with..

System Wall Set-Up
A system wall can be as simple or complex as you like. I am a big fan of small, simple boards since they help keep you focused and they seem to produce results just as well as bigger ones. A minimum board size is probably a 4×8 sheet of plywood, with T-nuts drilled in a 4″ grid. If you can go to 10 feet in length, it’s even better.

The wall needs to be overhanging. If it is too vertical, there is not enough overload on the big muscles of the upper body. If it’s too steep, the angle necessitates the use of large holds for every exercise. The ideal angle for a system wall seems to be between 20 and 35 degrees overhanging.


You’ll need a variety of holds, but these are frequently available in big, do-it-all system holds, too. Although system holds are more compact and economically a good idea, we still haven’t found one we absolutely love. The Revolution tiles are nice, and take up a small footprint. I think the Pusher tiles are turds, but their system feet are decent.

At the bare minimum, you’ll need six jugs, six large edges, and a couple of “rest ” jugs in the center of the wall. Additionally, you need to place several footholds at the base of the wall, in a symmetric pattern. You want to be able to do the exact same movements left and right, so pairs or sets of identical footholds are critical. Again, the footholds should be placed in relation to the handholds so that vertical movement is patterned the same for two to three moves.

Building Sessions and Plans
The strength sessions you’ll do in on the systems wall don’t really work unless you do them in a regular and progressive way over the course of several weeks. Like flossing your teeth, occasional just doesn’t work. The whole key to this type of training is doing the same exercises until you bump your ability.

So when do you want to do systems work? We like to do it anytime there is a clear limiter or weakness that shows itself in a climber. It doesn’t matter what phase or season you’re in – if you have a big limiter, you have to take care of it for anything else to progress.

Ultimately, we’d do systems work in a strength or power training phase. The phases we usually program are 6 to 8 weeks in length, which is an appropriate amount of time to expect positive changes in a strength component. During strength and power phases, we do systems 2 to 3 times per week. During other times of the year, once a week can really help you maintain upper body strength and quality of movement.

In general we’ll lay down one or two workouts to be repeated and intensified regularly (each week) for 4 weeks. After 4 weeks, we change the template, and continue to the end of the phase. Undoubtedly, this training can be tedious. You should plan to keep the sessions short and focused on just a few movements. Look for progression in these few movements, not an overall feeling of fatigue.

Progression
One of the great benefits of system training is that it is measurable and progressable. This is of great motivational benefit, not to mention the fact that you can tell if you’re getting stronger or not. We can progress system workouts by:
increasing load
increasing number of reps per set
increasing number of sets or exercises
slowing movements down
creating more challenging positions ( higher feet, worse footholds)
increasing movement range or decreasing hold size

Climbing coach Neil Gresham talks about three pillars of good climbing movement, all of which can be mastered with a good system board training plan.
Precise footwork
Fluid movement
Correct pacing

With this in mind, I’ll lay down the golden rule of training for climbing: always focus on technical correctness – perfect movement. By making small adjustments to form and keeping the sets short, the climber using a systems wall has the ideal opportunity to fix errors.

Finally, when planning a system board training program, remember that building the same workouts up over a 4-6 week block is the only way to see clear progress. Occasional system board work is no more effective than simply going bouldering.

We loosely categorize the exercises into three general types: Body Position, Strength and Power, and Power Endurance. I’ve listed these all out below, and we’ll be adding videos to the members’ section that detail each of these.

Body Positioning
2-3 days per week. 2-3 skills, 4 sets each. 10-15 seconds per set with 3x rest.
lobs (BAD FEET)
gastons – shoulder intensive – relies on creating a cross-body vector
underclings
sidepulls (STEP THRU)
step-thru
flags inside / outside
high steps (inside / outside)


Strength / Power
2 days per week. 4-6 exercises, 5 sets each. 2-3 moves per side or 8-12 seconds with 3-5x rest.
ladders
diagonal locks
pull-into-position
lock + hover
lockdowns
1-up
2-up


Endurance
Up to 4 days per week, details with each exercise.

Rhythm Intervals: Start with 2 rounds of 4 x 30:30, with 4 min rest between
timed statics (MOVE – HOLD FOR TIME – MOVE – HOLD FOR TIME): start with 3 sets of 3 moves per side, 5 second pauses. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets. 2-3 exercises per session.
static dynamics (2 REPS / 10S PAUSE. REPEAT 3-10 MIN) Start with 2 exercises, 1 set each with 5-10 minutes between.

Charlie Manganiello Inverted Row TRX b&w, Photo by Mei Ratz

By Steve Bechtel

Fingers aren’t the only part of a climber that can be weak. On hard routes and particularly in bouldering, we often see arm and back strength as a limiting factor. The ability to move between holds effectively, to lock off on holds, and the ability to keep your body close to the stone can all be improved by increasing upper body strength.

The muscles of the upper back and arms can be strengthened many ways. One can climb in specific ways and on certain types of problems, use a systems or campus board, or use traditional resistance training methods.

Any specific supplemental training should be started only when a weakness has been identified that can clearly be rectified by this type of training. It is important to understand that all training takes valuable time, and thus you should only train toward goals that you think are worth your time commitment.

Arm and back musculature should be trained as specifically as possible. In order of specificity, our training modes are as follows:

  1. Train specific movements in a climbing environment. Take care to note that repeated overload and bilateral development (using both arms equally) will earn better results. This might include climbing on steep ground, using difficult hold positions, or working on pulling holds very low. Note that it is very hard to train strength at the crag. This is better done at the gym.
  2. Train strength on a systems board. Don’t just climb; use big holds and use a systematic and progressive attitude toward this workout. The systems wall is a great tool to see measurable and balanced results.

System training walls can be used for several different training purposes. For the intent of improving arm and back strength, exercises should be limited to BIG holds and feature:

– 4 or fewer exercises per workout

– 3-5 sets of each exercise

– 1-4 movements per hand

– 2-10 seconds per movement

Suggested system board exercises include: Lock-offs (underclings, side-pulls, gastons, and straight pulls) Foot drops, High step/lock-off, One-arm pulls, Downclimbing, and Typewriter-type exercises

  1. Use traditional resistance training to gain upper body strength. This might include pull-ups, planks, ladders, or weights. Keep in mind that isometric (static) and eccentric (negative) components of movements are usually as important as concentric movements in climbing. Think specificity at all times. It is terribly easy to fall into the 3×10 mentality if you are stuck in a weight room. Training strength and bodybuilding are not the same thing.

When planning your workout, keep strength in mind. Workouts should feature:

– 2-4 exercises

– 2-4 sets each

– 2-4 reps per exercise

Intensity has to be very high with plenty of rest between exercises. Fatigue does not increase strength. If you are getting pumped, you are not resting enough.

Upper body training can integrate well with core training, as the muscle groups are almost always used in concert. Some examples in the weight room might include L-pull-ups, knees-to-elbows, and x-planks. Because the training of core and upper body are complementary, it makes sense to train them during the same sessions.

Suggested exercises in the weight room might include:

Pull-ups

Dips

Curl and hold

Tricep press with hold

Dumbbell rows

Lock-offs

Levers

L-dips

Uneven grip pull-ups

In closing, keep in mind that any worthwhile training plan should show results. If you don’t notice a significant improvement in strength after 4-6 weeks, your plan is flawed. If you designed it yourself, go back to the drawing board and review your principles. If someone else put together the plan, fire him. After a few months of focusing on strength, move to training endurance or power for a month or so. If you still feel weak, come back to strength and get after it.

Charlie Manganiello Weighted Pull-Up b&w, Photo by Mei Ratz

By Steve Bechtel

There’s nothing like a title almost everyone disagrees with. It’s a sure-fire way to make people at least look at the article. So, now that you’re looking, I’ll be more clear. If you’re interested in actually improving your climbing ability, you’d be wasting your time if pull-ups were a major part of your training. It’s not that the movement is inherently bad, it’s just not specific enough to what we do on the rock to justify spending valuable training time developing it.

Think about it a little. The pull-up is biomechanically a “vertical pull” movement, one where resistance is encountered along the same vector as the vertical torso. When this vector is encountered in the real world it’s on vertical or slightly less-than-vertical rock, a situation where (if you’re any good at all) the much stronger legs are doing most of the work.

When rock gets steep (and routes generally more difficult), the vertical pull is vastly diminished. Rather, the movement of the arms becomes that of a horizontal pull, or a rowing motion. Force is directed perpendicular to the torso, and the use of the legs is somewhat compromised. In climbing, this scenario plays out multiple times on each route. Try this: set up an Olympic bar in a rack and do a horizontal pull-up a.k.a. inverted row (like in the photo below, except with your shirt on). When you get to the top, release one hand and see if you can hold the position. If you can’t…well that’s something you can work on that really will help your climbing.

Now, think about this: It’s rarely the raw strength of the lat and arm that fails a climber anyway. When a climber can’t pull a move, more likely than not it’s a neurological inhibition of that muscle group, which can’t be overcome no matter how strong your pull is. Since the nervous system will only “allow” the body to work up to the strength of its weakest link, the hand (and the hold it is using) determines how much you can actually pull.

Now let’s talk about time. Unless you’re some rich trust-funder, you probably don’t have a lot of it. With a sport as complex as rock climbing, building raw strength in an arguably non-specific movement should be considered a waste of this resource. Outside of general work capacity training, we can see that running, cross-training, and the like are not good uses of our training time. Climbing is a performance sport and the only measure we really use is how well a climber performs. It’s not like we’re all sitting around the crag watching some dude flail on “The Madness” thinking, “Wow, he sucks at climbing, but you should see him do kipping pull-ups.”

I’d venture to say that anyone who even talks about how many pull-ups they do is trying to cover up for knowing their climbing is weak in a major area. It’s like the crappy father who always counters with a comment on how much money he makes…lots of dough, still a shitty dad.

The advice always goes the same way: assess what’s really holding you back, and get after it. 999 times out of a thousand, pull-ups won’t be on the list.