by Steve Bechtel

It doesn’t really matter what I write. It seems that within two hours of putting an article up, I get a “yeah, but…” email explaining how whatever I wrote just won’t work in x program and could I please explain how one might do y… Clearly, most of us have all the time in the world to dedicate to analysis and planning, but have very little time for execution and review. A few weeks back, I put out a piece on intermediate bouldering, which prompted emails and Facebook messages asking me to write an article for a V3 climber instead. I got almost the same email from someone asking about a V11 article.

A good first step would be to read the article and realize that it’s not about the grade, but about the climber’s adaptation level – chances are you can adapt at the intermediate level whether you climb V3 or V11. The article you’re reading now is similar. Regardless of what your max grade is, the following information might not be appropriate for you. This is a highly advanced training strategy that you can use for breaking hard plateaus, but should not be taken lightly. When your plan is failing to produce and you seem to just be getting back to the same level season in and season out, a major change is needed. Short of moving to a new area or taking an extended holiday in Flatanger, there is one technique supported by science that stands out above all others:concentrated loading.

Concentrated Loading is characterized by planning a large increase in volume of training while holding intensity constant. Along with this increase comes a big decrease in sport-specific indicators (i.e. you’ll start to really suck at climbing). As the volume is reduced in the ensuing weeks, those indicators go up, and within a short period, should exceed the levels you could attain using a normal training program. OK, so clearly everyone should get on board, right?

Well…the problem is that only a climber with a very high work capacity (built over several years) will be able to handle a concentrated loading block and come out on top. Most of us will overreach dip below baseline levels, and suffer the effects of overtraining for a month or two. Only a climber with 5+ years of solid training should consider such a plan. You’ll want to be the kind of climber that can climb two days on with no decline in performance. You’ll want to regularly train 5+ days per week, and have optimized your body composition and your total body strength and power. If this is not already you, it’s best to stick with a normal “distributed” loading program until your capacities are up.

Along the same lines, you’ll want to make sure all your “big rocks” are taken care of first. Are you sleeping 8-10 hours per night? Are you getting enough protein? Are you keeping the simple sugars down? Do you have good base strength?

You’ll remember that I am not a big fan of seeking out fatigue or soreness as an indicator of good training. Likewise, a well-planned training program carefully touches these areas, and an athlete can progress successfully by avoiding both most of the time. In concentrated loading programs, substantial soreness and fatigue are both acceptable and expected outcomes. Though neither is an indicator of the program’s efficacy, both will occur, especially in the latter half of a concentrated loading week.

Pistilli’s (2008) research utilized blocks of 1-3 weeks of “functional overreaching“, followed by a resumption of normal training volumes. Athletes were subject to a 100 to 200% increase in total weekly volume, then were asked to return to normal training in the following weeks. Somewhere between two and five weeks after the overload cycle, they experienced the expected supercompensation.

Zatsiorsky introduced yet another term, the impact microcycle, for a concentrated loading week. He suggested athletes double their training load for a 1 week period followed by 3 weeks of normal or reduced load. The results of both of the above examples appear to be similar.

Introducing Concentrated Loading Into Your Training

When you are ready to start testing this on yourself, make sure to review whether you are ready for it. You should be free of injury, feeling good emotionally, and be coming off a recovery period following a high-performance season. Load parameters are suggested in the table below:

You should have really solid data on how many hours per week you’ve been training and at what intensities. If you don’t, you’re not a good candidate for success with this type of training.

I suggest backing off by about 10% the week before your concentrated load week, then simply double the volume of each of your sessions. If you are typically bouldering for 90 minutes each week, simply boulder 180, and don’t worry about how you split it up. If your weight training involves doing 5×2 deads, take it up to 10 sets, but stick with the same 2 reps and hold the weight the same. Don’t change the order of the exercises, the weights, the difficult of the problems, or any other intensity parameter.

In just looking at total training hours, your loading cycle might look like this:

Last “normal” week: 10 hours

Pre-concentrated loading week:9 hours

Concentrated loading week: 20 hours

First week after: 6-10 hours

Second week after: 8-10 hours

Third week after: 10 hours

Did it work?

This is where training data come in. Just feeling better or stronger or more powerful isn’t enough. Your performance parameters must improve in order to declare the program a success. Depending on the cycle, these parameters will change. If, for example, you are on a strength-building phase, you should know your 10 second max hang, your 1RM pull-up, and some measure of total body or leg strength. Regular campus board users can use standard board moves as a test of explosive strength. The trick is to eliminate parameters where technique can help you, such as simply testing on hard boulder problems.

Once again, I’ll reiterate that this plan is not for everyone. If you’re not physically at the top of your game, this type of cycle will be more destructive than useful.

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