by Steve Bechtel

When you look at intensifying training, there are really just a few ways to make it happen, each having a different result. You can increase the volume of training, such as doing more total pitches in a climbing day. You can increase the intensity of the training, such as trying to do more difficult pitches or problems in a day. Finally, advances in density training involve how you can manipulate the density of your training, where you hold the intensity constant, the training duration constant, and attempt to fit more work in with each session in a cycle.

Let me give you three real-world examples of how these factors play into training:

Volume Increases

If you were structuring a bouldering session, you could improve your endurance and capacity for training by holding the intensity constant (say at the V3 to V6 range) and work on increasing the total number of problems you do. Your sessions could work up to 90 minutes, then two hours, then three, and you would see notable gains in your ability to boulder for prolonged periods. But manipulating volume alone gets you little more than that – you probably won’t miraculously start sending harder grades by doing more easy stuff.

Intensity Increases

Intensity increase is how you get stronger or more powerful. This is a basic truth that many climbers miss out on: you’ve got to increase the force demand of your training in order to increase the force you can generate on the rock. If you consistently try to increase the Average-V (average difficulty of your sessions) over the course of a training cycle, you’ll see a necessary increase in force production. Over time, attention to generating more force (whether it be on the hangboard, boulders, or weights) will result in gains in strength.

Density Increases

You have 30 minutes to do as many V4-V6 boulder problems as possible. You rest as needed and at the end of the time, record the V-Sum of your session. By keeping the intensity fixed in a small grade range and keeping the time fixed at 30 minutes, the only factor you can manipulate is density. Over the course of 6-8 sessions (the recommended number in a 4 week cycle) you should see this number creep slowly up, and at the end you’ll see a huge increase in your anaerobic capacity.

A few years ago, a friend suggested that we go to the crag and to 10 5.10s. Great, it was a good volume day, and a different kind of load. Toward the end of the day he suggested that next time we do 11 5.11s and then work up to 12 5.12s toward the end of the season. Simply looking one or two steps further up the line makes the error in such thinking apparent. The great error many of us make is to think that if we are increasing things in one facet, increasing in two or three would lead to even better results. Imagine setting up a weight workout where you start off with three sets of 3 reps at 200 pounds, resting as needed. The total load of this session is 1800 pounds, and is borne primarily by the anaerobic alactic energy system. No problem. You could add load, still work in the same energy system, and expect to get stronger. You could add volume and expect work capacity to go up. But what if you added a couple of sets, a rep, and some weight? 5 x 4 x 225 is now a load of 4500 pounds…more than twice what you looked at before, yet on paper it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

This is where carefully looking at which factors you’re increasing starts to really matter. Since most of us are fairly experienced with both intensity increases and with volume increases, I see most people note the biggest increases in how “fit” they feel from manipulating the density of sessions. There are appropriate times to do density training, such as after a long strength building phase, or right before a trip. Too much of it and you spoil the sauce, so to speak – there is only so much metabolic adaptation you can make in any given phase.

I look at density sessions in two different categories: high-load density and low-load density. The high-load density sessions tend to help increase your ability to handle lots of hard climbing or work (glycolytic capacity), where the low-load sessions tend to increase your ability to do harder climbing in endurance situations (aerobic power). These are not discrete adaptations, however, and should be looked at more like a venn diagram, as noted below:

A high-load session might look like this:

30 minutes of as many rounds as possible:

3x OS-level boulder problems

5x Pull-Ups

1x 15 move traverse or 2 problem link

rest 10-15 minutes, with mobility work

30 minutes of as many OS or OS+1 problems as possible

You’ll see each is difficult, and you need plenty of rest between. Over the course of a training phase, your density will only increase slightly.

A low load session might look like this:

15 minutes of as many OS-3 or OS-2

rest 10 minutes, with mobility work

15 minutes of as many rounds as possible:

1x OS-level boulder problem

5x Inverted Row

10x Kettlebell Swings

rest 10 minutes, with mobility work

15 minutes of as many OS-3 or OS-2

Over the course of a 4-week cycle, such a session would show significant increases in performance (due to the greater reliance on metabolic factors for progress). Both styles of sessions are appropriate, but you should stick to one style per phase of training so you can really see the results.

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