If you haven’t heard by now, the way you get better at doing harder things is to do harder things. If you are constantly playing it safe, building volume, and avoiding discomfort, well guess what – you’d better get used to doing the same routes over and over again. For those who want to advance, there are some obvious questions that come up and sometimes the answer isn’t so obvious.
In training (and by training I mean working on the hangboard, weights, campus board, etc.) it is generally easier to quantify, and thus progress, training values. When we are out at the crag or bouldering in the gym, there are so many factors to address that it can be a struggle to tell if you are getting better at all.
Some things are obvious: if you can do one pull-up, a good goal might be to aim for two. If you can hang the 25mm edge on the Grindstone, 20mm is an excellent new target. If you can bench 135, well, you need to get your butt in the gym more often, and aiming to add load is a good starting point.
At some point, things just stop. This is a best-case scenario…often they go south for no known reason. There is no reason to despair. If you are punching the clock and training regularly, you should be able to get better and stronger and maybe even prettier for a long time to come. What factors to increase, and when, and by how much, will determine your training outcomes. Don’t forget: if you’re happy where you are, no need to try harder.
Progressing Load (Weight)
Asking your muscles to do more work is the fundamental principle behind getting stronger. I’m sure you love Conan the Barbarian as much as I do, so I’ll remind you of the “Wheel of Pain” scene. After his people’s village is destroyed and he’s captured, young Conan is chained to the gigantic Wheel and forced to push it around in circles along with a dozen or so other children. Over time, the weak presumably die or get transferred to another department. After several years, and we should assume a few days where he switched to the other side of the spoke and pulled to even out the development of his back, Conan is the only one pushing the wheel. This is how progressing weight in training works: keep the sets and reps the same, but increase the weight you have to move.
So let’s say you are doing 5 sets of 2 reps in the deadlift. You start out as a new lifter at, say, 225 pounds. For the first few weeks you can add 5 pounds to the bar each workout, and pull the same load all the way across 5 sets. (i.e. 225-225-225-225-225, 230-230-230-230-230, 235-235-235-235-235, etc.) After several cycles of training, the work starts to add up and your gains level off. One workout, you get 345-345-345-345 and then only one rep on the last set. Hmm…
Your next workout’s goal would be to get 345 across all sets. Because you hit this stopping point, you know that progress won’t be easy anymore. At this point, you are going to do two things:
- Stick to ten reps (5×2 was the original structure) even if you have to do a couple of singles.
- Progress the load one set per workout.
So, your next session might be 345-345-350-345-345. You did a couple of sets to get “lit” before trying a new max (350), and then finish up with a conservative last two sets at 345. Subsequent workouts would find you going 345-345-350-350-345, then 345-350-350-350-345, then 345-350-350-350-350, and then finally 350 across all five. Then, you start into 355s with the same progression.
To point 1 above, it’s OK to not get all the reps in the planned sets. If you’re not injured, though, you should always have the discipline to get all the reps, no matter how many sets it takes. Often, when we are pushing strength, we might end up with a few reduced sets…not something to worry about. Do the work and it will all come together. This holds true in almost all strength training, whether you are attempting 2 reps per set or six. If you are aiming for higher reps, add some damn weight to the bar and force yourself back to a respectable rep range.
Sometimes, even the strongest of us stop advancing the load we can push. For almost all athletes almost all of the time, we want to generate more force or do it more quickly. One thing that is inevitable in any program is that progress stalls out in that ability…and such a plateau can last for months or years. Luckily, our bodies also respond well to increased volume at slightly submaximal loads. Yes, we all understand that doing more work per session or per week or per _____ time period can increase our work capacity, but it can also increase maximal strength.
This concept is especially useful in situations where the ability to create force with the muscles outpaces the strength increase of the connective tissue. This isn’t uncommon in finger strength building. As the grip strength increases, the fingers themselves don’t keep pace and we end up with a tendon strain or pulley injury.
The wonderful thing about strength training that most of us forget is that loads even as low as 60% of our maximum can really increase strength if training is regular and of high enough volume. What does this mean in the real world? It means that even a bodyweight-only hangboard program or doing exercises where you can do more than the standard 3-5 reps can still really work…and your injury risk is a lot lower.
Our favorite way to add strength through volume is to use ladders in our programs. A ladder is simply a repeated cycling of reps (or static hold times) done at the same load across all sets. For example, instead of doing 3 sets of 3 reps at a load near 85% of your maximum, you might do a set of 1, then a set of 2, then a set of 3 at maybe 70-75%. Next session, instead of adding load, you’d aim to go 1-2-3-1 (adding just one rep), or even 1-2-3-1-2 (adding three more reps), to advance the session.
We’ve had great success with a loading scheme of 2-4-6 ladders at 75% of max for building big strength gains in our athletes. This is a very safe rep range for older athletes and for people who are coming back from injury. In one six week period, we had a woman who was stuck at a 200 pound bench press max jump to 222.5 while training at only 155 pounds.
This is also the basis for the hangboard ladder program that is “too easy and boring” to possibly work. Think of ladders as your savings account – easy slow progress, and if you stick with them, great long-term rewards.
You can be less formal with volume progression, too. A great way to improve your pull-up is to simply do more of them. This is the basis for “grease the groove” programs, but the general idea is to start with around 6-8 total reps of a hard exercise (one where you can do no more than 4 reps per set) and add just one rep per session across a 4-6 week series.
Let’s say you can do just three good pull-ups. Training them twice per week, your volume program might look like this:
W1S1 (week one, session one): 3-3-2
Once you have progressed volume like this to about double your starting volume, you can cycle back and try to increase load again to continue progress.
Despite what Charlie Manganiello might tell you, there is more to life than just getting wickedly strong. Occasionally, we need to develop strength endurance (the ability to exert high loads for greater durations) or capacity (the ability to do work over several intervals or even days). One of the best ways to do this on a limited schedule is to increase the density of your sessions. Density is simply a way of looking at how much work you can do in a given timeframe.
The general protocol is this: pick 1-3 exercises that you could do for about 10 repetitions, then do them for 5 reps each in a circuit format for a fixed amount of time. Over the training cycle, you’d keep the load the same, keep the time the same, but try to do more sets of work. In the weight room, you might do 5 rack squats, 5 pull-ups, and 5 levers in sequence for 15 minutes. If you got through three sets of each in the first session, your goal for session 2 would be simply to get one additional set of squats. Workout three, the goal might be to add another set of pull-ups, and by the fourth workout, you might get through 4 full circuits.
One of our favorite climbing-specific drills is to do density bouldering. Set a timer for 30 minutes and do as many mid-level (around your onsight grade) problems as you can. To quantify this, you would add up the V grades of all the problems you completed in the session, then divide by the time of the session. Although I recommend sticking with the same session duration for an entire training cycle, you can still improve density even with slightly varied times. An example:
Session 1: V-Sum of 35 in 30 minutes: Density = 1.17
Session 2: V-Sum of 38 in 30 minutes: Density = 1.27
Session 3: V-Sum of 34 in 26 minutes: Density = 1.31
Session 4: V-Sum of 46 in 35 minutes: Density = 1.31
This is a good method for ramping up to bouldering comps or for a destination bouldering trip. It is also pretty useful for climbers who just can’t seem to handle doing more than a few hard moves in a row. After as few as 5 sessions, most climbers show a noticeable improvement in strength endurance. Most importantly, the structure of the sessions is such that your performance is easy to track and it is pretty clear when things are getting better.
Decreasing Rest Between Like Sessions
I hesitate to suggest this one, as it is almost universally the most-abused and least useful way of progressing training. However, if you are keeping track of performance during these sessions and have the discipline to back off if you go flat, it can be a useful way of jumpstarting progress. Let’s say you are bouldering twice a week for 90 minutes and have been flat for 6 months. An option is to try to increase the number of sessions in an effort to force adaptation. In this case, we’d add a third session to the week, but start by maintaining the same total volume overall. So instead of splitting your 180 minutes of bouldering into two sessions, you’d simply do three one-hour sessions to start.
If your elbows don’t hurt and your fatigue levels don’t go up (and your boyfriend isn’t pissed because you’re missing out on yet another movie night each week), you could then try for 70 minute sessions, then 80, and eventually 90. Yes, we are increasing the weekly volume, but in reality, we are decreasing rest between similar sessions. In other words, weekly volume can be increased via any means, such as adding a kettlebell session. Decreasing rest between like sessions is slightly different, in that we are trying to fast-forward specific adaptations.
This method should be used sparingly and conservatively. Once you have ridden this train for a couple of months, you’d better get off and try something new.
Adding Assistance Exercises
If you are going flat doing your 3×5 pull-up workout or the Beasty 6cish hangboard session isn’t showing you the results it did earlier in the cycle, you may consider adding assistance exercises to these rather than swapping your workout altogether. Sometimes, it’s a matter of adding just a little more non-specific work to your primary exercises to get the progress started again. This can be a simple result of a slight angle change, a change in the sequence the muscles are fired, or an increase in training volume.
For example, one might add a couple of sets of dumbbell rows or trx rows to a pull-up workout, or maybe some heavy finger rolls to a hangboard session. Adding in an integrative exercise might be of benefit, as well. These are usually multi-joint compound movements that include, to some degree, the primary pattern you are trying to improve. For example, if you are working on an overhead press, a Turkish Get-Up would be an excellent assistance exercise.
Start by adding just a couple of sets of movements per session and look for progress in the primary exercise. If, after 2-3 weeks, you still don’t see progress, consider trying a different exercise, or try adding a bit more volume.
Session stacking is an advanced programming decision that can result in overtraining or injury if abused. The general idea is to perform a training session, recover incompletely, and then perform a second session. In some cases, you could even do a third session. To look at it more deeply, you’d start at full readiness in session one, start session two at, say, 90% readiness, and then session 3 at 70-80%. The incomplete recoveries cause you to go deeper into fatigue, with the general idea of getting much more fatigued than is possible with any single session.
Session one should be the most intense and the following session should be both less intense and feature simpler movement to reduce injury risk. Inadvertently, many of us do this already. Tuesday bouldering is followed by Wednesday route laps. Saturday redpointing is followed by Sunday mileage.
The result of stacking, whether intended or not, is an increase in work capacity. This is a simple intervention that requires much less focus and motivation than simply going harder or longer in a single session.
Advancing load is a pivotal choice for athletes. Deciding to add even more hard training to your program should not be taken on without thinking carefully about what you need as an athlete. Are you really needing more training? Is there a better way to achieve the same result? Too often, we think of advancing load as the only way to make ourselves advance when really it should be the last intervention considered. When it comes time to add more to your training, do it carefully, incrementally, and keep good notes on what you do and what the true results are.