Controlled Intensity

By Jacob Carr – NSCA CPT, MS Strength and Conditioning, MS Sports Nutrition


When you workout or climb do you always go for that next grade? Do you always try and get that extra rep? That probably means you have grit, determination, and goals to progress. These are great qualities to have, especially as a climber. It allows us to persevere under pressure. We should be pushing ourselves to the limit at the crag, not just in the weight room. The gym is the place to assess and progress what a climber needs to work on. The crag is the place to perform and climb HARD. Do not go to the crag with a mindset to assess what you feel are “weak areas” in your strength or endurance. The crag is the place to fail, learning where your weaknesses are and the gym is where you suss those weaknesses out. The crag is the stage on which you perform everything you have been practicing and rehearsing at the gym. 


In regard to your training, what if I told you that always pushing yourself past what you may be able to do that day would end up hurting rather than helping you? What if instead you were to do a strength session with perfect control and perfect technique for every rep? This allows your body to be more controlled overall and allows you to get stronger without hindering your ability to climb whenever you want to. What if you practiced your climbing at a lower intensity more often so that you may be able to do more consistent climbing practice in the long run? With this approach, it’s possible to meet and exceed your goals quicker in terms of training time than if you were to always train at a high intensity all the time. There is a time and place to train at a high intensity, but not all the time, and not for a long time. Doing this can cause you to be overtrained and susceptible to injury.


I had to learn this personally, as my background was in football training. I was taught that if you weren’t dead and unable to walk by the end of the workout, you weren’t working out hard enough and would not see progress, or even be competitive. This did not translate well to my climbing training. Whenever I would get to the gym or the wall, I would make sure by the end of the session I was failing on every route I tried or I was too hungry to continue the workout. 


After about a month I was climbing below my flash grade and my upper body mobility was affected so greatly it hurt to do everyday movements. I was in a perpetual state of soreness and pain. I finally realized that my intensity was too high for too long and I was hurting myself slowly because of my “go for it” mentality. 


Learn from my mistakes. Understand that being the person we want to be takes a long time and trying to fit years of training into a shorter amount of time will only make you frustrated and injury prone. So do yourself a favor, control your intensity. You can train long and you can train hard, but you can’t train long and hard. Control the intensity of your training to a manageable level where you can do your exercises and climb with total poise. Once you can do that easily, bump up the weight, amount of reps, or the number of sets. Choose ONE variable to change not all three.




You are currently doing:

 Pull-ups 3 sets of 8 reps

 When this becomes easy, you can change the number of sets

 Pull-ups 4 sets of 8 reps

Or you can change the number of reps

3 sets of 12 reps

Or you can change the weight 

3 sets of 8 reps +5 lbs

Change one variable depending on what your goals are. If you want to achieve a greater amount of total work to increase your work capacity, try adding sets. By keeping the same number of reps and increasing the sets you are not training the amount of work you can do at a time but the total amount of work you can perform. Conversely, when increasing the number of reps done in a particular set, you can increase the amount of muscular endurance or total work done in a specific amount of time. This allows your muscles to decrease their susceptibility to fatigue. Finally, when you want to increase strength you can add weight. If we look at our pull-up example again and you can complete 3-4 sets of 8-12 perfect pull-ups it may be time to add weight. Adding weight overloads our muscles to adapt to a new stimulus so they can get stronger and we can pull harder. As I said earlier, though, be careful to control your intensity and not add too much weight in too short a time. A little goes a long way. 


Stick with one change for a while and then continue the cycle. I am confident you will see a change in your strength and feel better too. That way when you ask your body to go all out it will be able to perform at a higher level. This isn’t easy to do, but if you are disciplined with consistently controlled work, you will see results you may not have been able to achieve previously. 


So if we take a look at younger Jacob, had he controlled his intensity by scheduling his workouts further apart, or programmed a few of the exercises he wanted to accomplish that week instead of all of them 3 times a week, or had changed one variable of his training instead of multiple, Jacob could have been climbing pain-free, or at higher grades. He could have worked on skilled movement at the gym instead of learning poor technique because of how painful his movements were. He could have slowly built up a base of strength to be able to focus on climbing hard at the crag, not just in the gym. 


We should be poised and ready to give it our all at the crag and not just in the gym. We have to be obsessed with the long view of things whether in our climbing, or personal development. Be aware that what you do today will affect where you are in five years. Do you want to be Jacob in the example and not climbing in five years because you are burnt out? Or do you want to be Jacob who is climbing pain-free and projecting grades he never thought possible before? Be deliberate, be disciplined, and control your intensity. 

Jacob Carr is a personal trainer and climbing researcher. He holds Master’s degrees in Sports Nutrition and Strength and Conditioning. Jacob was the spring 2020 intern at Climb Strong.
Posted in: ,

Leave a Comment