by Steve Bechtel

We can train to improve or train to hold our ground. This is an important distinction, and one worth keeping in mind when you are training. Most of us think only in terms of trying to get better – to push more weight, to hold smaller crimps, etc. Most of us think in terms of continually advancing, and usually do so until that training takes a hard stop, which usually comes in the form of an injury or a switch to an altogether different focus. Smart planning will allow you to make the most of your schedule, and will keep you from losing ground, and having to spend valuable time regaining it, every year.

Maintenance training is critical to our long-term success, and let’s face it – even when you are pushing hard for higher performance, you sometimes don’t go anywhere. It’s better to take control over these cycles and actively pursue developmental loads at times, and maintenance loads at others. If you actively address your training as maintenance rather than development, there is a lot less pressure to perform, lower risk of injury, and a greater sense of satisfaction with your training.

I am a big proponent of nonlinear training (switching sessions between strength, power, and endurance foci) for many climbers for most of the year. Once this strategy fails to produce better and better results, I really like moving to block programming, in which ⅔ of your training time is focused on developing a particular area of fitness, and the remainder (usually all within one session) maintaining your other fitness. This is where the keys to maintenance loading come in. 

Mindset is the first key, as I mentioned above. You don’t need to be getting better, you just need to not be getting worse. Most of your facets of fitness can be maintained with a low-volume, short session once a week. In the fall of 2019, I went through a big strength build during the month of September, and then moved back to maintenance loading once per week through October. My numbers tested out at the exact same levels after 4 weeks at 1x per week, approximately half the volume of a hard session… about 15 minutes of hangboard a week. In November, I backed off to once every 10 days, even taking an unplanned 8 day break at the end of the month. Strength was down 1.5% left hand and 0.7% right hand. Pull strength stayed the same. In December, I went down to two sessions in the whole month while focusing on strength endurance, and didn’t lose any strength…right hand strength actually went back up to September levels. 

It freaked me out to do so little, but by doing so little, I was able to give all of my energy to the strength endurance work I needed to be doing. Mentally, it was a relief. Even though it made me nervous to avoid the hangboard, I was delighted with the result.

To develop my strength endurance, I trained in a very focused manner to build more capacity at submaximal loads during two sessions each week, plus a little bit of time at the crag. These were long, single-focused sessions, featuring lots of work and several sets per exercise. All of the work was aimed at building aerobic capacity, and I was really focused on improving both my general endurance tests and my specific endurance tests. Most importantly, I didn’t focus at all on building any strength or power…because all I needed to do was keep it.

There are some general guidelines to the loading and intensity of both types of loads. They are as follows:

DevelopmentalMaintenance
2-3x per week1x per week or less
Long sessionShort session
Session has one focusSession can have several foci
3+ sets per exercise1-2 sets per exercise
Appropriate intensityAppropriate intensity

 

Let me give you a more concrete example. We’ll look at the difference between a strength session done in a developmental phase versus a maintenance phase. 

Strength / Finger Strength Session:

DevelopmentalMaintenance
3x per week1x per week 
Approximately 75 minutesApproximately 35 minutes strength, 25 minutes endurance
Upper body strength and finger strengthFinger Strength, Total Body Strength, Aerobic Endurance, General Grip Strength
4 sets per exercise2 sets per exercise
All loads 75-90%All loads 75-90% for strength, 50-65% for endurance

 

By harnessing a good mindset toward what you can and should be developing in any session/season/phase, you reduce a lot of training stress, both physically and mentally. If you feel like you can manage to develop all of your areas of fitness simultaneously, I have good news for you…it can get even better if you focus.

 

What is Maintenance, Really?

Most of us have a really clear understanding of what developmental loading is about. You pretty much just do a lot of something faster, or heavier, or longer, and you get better at it. The problem is that it takes a lot out of you to keep increasing everything, and one of the first things to go is any facet of fitness that you aren’t chasing. 

In the charts above, I suggest training for maintenance once per week. You’ll recall that I maintained strength close to 100% even on just a couple of sessions a month. What I urge you to look for is trying to keep all fitness facets somewhere above 90% of your year-best all year long. This means being ruthless in allowing yourself to train less (even less than once a week). It also means experimenting with doing even less… and seeing if it still works. 

Over time, you’ll find a frequency that works for you, and this frequency might be different for different qualities of your fitness, depending on the persistence of those factors. In Karsten Jensen’s Flexible Periodization he gives us a good glimpse into about where the main facets of fitness drop off:

 

Residual effect of different motor abilities after cessation of training:

Biomotor AbilityResidual Effect (in days)
AEROBIC ENDURANCE30, +/-5
MAXIMUM STRENGTH30, +/-5
ANAEROBIC GLYCOLYTIC ENDURANCE18, +/-4
STRENGTH ENDURANCE15, +/-5
MAXIMUM SPEED5, +/-3

 

The take home is this: Your fitness will decline if you stop training it altogether. Stay after it, even if it is once every few weeks, and when you come back to push it again next season, you might actually get better rather than “back in shape.”

 

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