Foundation Strength: What You Do All The Time

When people train, they generally fall into two categories:

  • The ones who get in shape a month or two before “the season.”
  • The ones who “train” all the time at about the same intensity.

It’s likely the most effective program is in some sweet spot in between. We are learning that there are certain things that every climber should do year-round, no matter the season. A basic level of athleticism is key to continued improvement and health. On top of that, it is important to assess the needs of upcoming trips and goal routes, and ramp up for them during certain parts of the year.

Avoiding dropping too far away from your highest levels of fitness makes those levels all the easier to re-attain. As W.C. Heinz wrote in The Professional:

“He looks in perfect shape.”

“He’s never been far off in seven years,” Doc said. “When you come to the last step it shouldn’t be any steeper than the rest.”

Foundation is the hard-earned strength you don’t want to pay for twice. Getting strong is a real chore and can take years and years. Staying strong, well, that’s the key to being able to do all the specific stuff. If you don’t have to worry about strength, conditioning is a snap.

Foundation strength is what you do every week. It is not forced, it is coaxed. It is the kind of strength that you can’t fake, and it’s the kind you want to prioritize in every phase of your training.

Why strength as a foundation and not power or  endurance?

Strength is the basis for all the facets of fitness. Power is strength displayed explosively, and is fully dependent on how strong you are. Endurance is your strength (or power) displayed over time. Strength is what is called a “persistent” factor of fitness, meaning it is slow to build, but tends to stay around once you build it.

Having the ability to stand from a squatting position, to maintain an erect posture, to pull your body up to an overhead bar, or to maintain torso stiffness sets the basis for being able to do all of those things faster or for greater durations. The easier a movement is for your body, the more you can repeat that movement.

Although explosiveness is the basis of movement in our sport, it can be dangerous without the strength to keep the body intact. Without the ability to create massive amounts of tension, our efficiency in explosive movement suffers. The same idea goes for endurance – if you are maintaining or building base by doing lots of easy pitches, you are going to have a very hard time when the moves get hard. Without a high level of strength in the fingers, you’re going to risk injury and you’re going to be working at a high percentage of your maximal strength when you really shouldn’t be.

What does foundation strength look like?

Think about it like you’re building a house: the deeper you pour the concrete footings, the wider the slab, and the thicker the sub-floor, the bigger you can build the house. You can add a garage, a second floor, an addition. Fitness is the same way – the more force you can apply and the more strain your connective tissue can take, the further you’ll go in any sport. In order to build elite-level athletes, smart coaches have broken strength training exercises down to movement patterns. This is simply looking at fundamental human movements and designing ways to overload those patterns in the gym.

We used to train muscles, cruising the machines in the gym to wear out the pecs, the biceps, the delts, etc. until we tired out all the “parts.” The problem was that just tiring out a muscle doesn’t make it function correctly in a real-world setting, nor does it necessarily make it stronger. By letting muscles work together in natural movement patterns and by doing ground-based exercises, we better mimic what happens in sport. In climbing training, we address five standard movements plus finger strength – a factor that is fundamental to climbing but almost unnecessary in most other activities.

I look at foundation strength for climbing as the ability to apply high levels of force in six different ways:

  1. Squatting: Climbers should have the ability to stand from a sub-parallel (butt very close to the ground) squat position with an additional load somewhere near bodyweight. Alternatively, they would display the ability to do a single-leg squat with either leg from the same position at bodyweight or a little more.
  2. Hinging: The “posterior chain” of muscles are responsible for keeping our bodies upright and, in climbing, our hips against the wall, even in roofs. The hip hinge exercises are likely the biggest bang for your buck in general strength. Climbers should be able to deadlift around 1.5 to 2x bodyweight and hold the Sorenson Test position for 2 minutes.
  3. Pressing: We downplay the need for pressing strength in climbing, but strong pressing muscles – the ones we use to push loads away from the body in training – are fundamental to good movement, joint stability, and continued progress in our pulling strength. A foundation level of strength for women would be a ⅔ bodyweight bench press or a 1/4 bodyweight single arm overhead press. For males, a bodyweight bench press is a good number, and an overhead single arm press between ⅓ and ½ bodyweight is good enough.
  4. Pulling: We all pull as an adjunct to our climbing, yet most of us already have much more than enough strength in this movement. The rowing motion is more useful to train than the pull-up, and our standards reflect this. Female climbers should be able to do a strict dumbbell row at half bodyweight, and complete 5 tactical pull-ups. Male climbers should be able to row ⅔ bodyweight, and complete 8 tactical pull-ups.
  5. Midsection Strength: We won’t confuse midsection strength with having a six-pack or being able to hold a plank for 3 minutes. We look only at performance and the ability to maintain tension. Our standards for good midsection strength are 6 knees-to-elbows with no breaking tension (i.e. swinging) and the ability to do a front lever.
  6. Finger Strength: There are many ways to test grip strength. Our favorite tests are to hang a 5 second max on a 20mm edge with each arm individually, and to squeeze the equivalent of bodyweight for each hand on a dynamometer. More than any other factor we test, this is a highly individual measure. More important is to test regularly and look for improvements over each cycle of training.

How Often Do You Do It?

“I don’t want any messages saying ‘I’m holding my position.’ We’re not holding a goddamned thing. We’re advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding anything except the enemy’s balls. We’re going to hold him by his balls and we’re going to kick him in the ass; twist his balls and kick the living shit out of him all the time. Our plan of operation is to advance and keep on advancing. We’re going to go through the enemy like shit through a tinhorn.” – General George S. Patton

We try to improve foundation strength all the time. One of the biggest mistakes you can make as an athlete is to build strength in the off season, and then let it dissipate through your performance seasons. Strength is so easy to keep and is so useful when maintained, that it is worse than foolish not to keep it.

We recommend looking at your strength in two separate phases, either building quickly or building it slowly in a “maintenance” phase. The build phase needs to occur just once or twice a year for 4-8 weeks, and maintenance of strength happens the rest of the time. In a standard year of thirteen 4-week cycles, count on 3 of them to be strength builds, 9 to be maintenance phases, and one to be dedicated to rest, vacation, illness, etc.

In the build phase, most athletes will train strength 4-5 days per week, and usually integrate resistance exercise and hangboarding/grip training. We still climb during this phase, but the mindset shifts from trying to perform on the rock to trying to get stronger.

The maintenance phases normally feature low-volume sessions done in combination with climbing or specific training days. Your maintenance sessions should be such that you could climb hard the same day – no tapping out in the gym. In fact, good research indicated that training strength before performance can enhance performance. (If you’re interested in exploring this, search for “strength potentiation” on PubMed.) Even in a maintenance phase, you can still see increases in your strength in some exercises.

Maintenance

Build

Recovery

Exercises

3-5

5-8

2-4

Sets Per Exercise

2-3

4-6

1-2

Reps Per Set

4-6

2-5

6-10

Sessions Per Week

2-3

3-5

1-2

Consistency Wins Every Time

Too often, climbers get in the mindset of “getting in shape.” No matter how hard you go in an on-again-off-again program, it will never measure up to a simple punch-the-clock program. Chris Sommer, Olympic coach and creator of the Gymnastic Bodies program, put it best when he said, “There is no amount of work you could do today that will offset the progress you could have made in a properly structured week.” The same goes for a month, for a year, and a career.

When designing your training, then, look at what you can manage on a long-term basis. Look at what you could do if you weren’t feeling great, had low motivation, and were training alone. Whatever you can make yourself do on those days is really where your foundation training should start.

One of our older athletes comes to the gym no matter what. Sometimes he’s not feeling it and will do nothing more than a few minutes of jogging and some movement prep. Other days are fantastic and he trains for 2 or more hours. The habit of showing up is the key to his long-term success.

Training Plans Are Built On A Strong Foundation

So you want to train for bouldering or alpine climbing or have a month planned at Ceuse. Everything starts with the base. Most of our programming involves planning which times of year to place a good strength cycle, and which times of year to let athletes loose to perform. The real beauty of having a good base of strength is that you can just build a specific conditioning cycle right on top of your low-volume strength training. The phases, then, are not discrete, but are “stacked.”

An athlete might spend November and December building strength in the weight room and on the hangboard, then back off to 2 days per week of 20-30 minutes of strength work. They’d maintain this level for the next three months  while ramping up power and maybe their anaerobic endurance before focusing completely on sending for 2 more months. In June, it would be back to a strength cycle, before heading into another low-volume strength period where the climber again develops power and conditioning before the fall redpoint season.

The key that differentiates this kind of thinking is that strengthening never stops, which is fundamental to long-term athletic success.

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