Foundational Bouldering (or Why Being a Novice is a Good Thing)

One of the great blunders of training is over-complication. It goes like this: You get interested in getting better so you go to the gym a bit and you get a little stronger and you get psyched and so you read about training and you get inspired to try some more stuff and you keep going to the gym and you are adding more and more ideas to your plan and the whole thing starts to level off so you listen to a podcast with a professional athlete and decide to replicate his/her training and it’s really hard to manage and your elbows hurt and you’re climbing worse now than you were a month ago and you can’t figure out why.


Around ten years ago, I was inspired by the novice – intermediate – advanced concept put forth by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore, so I wrote a few general training guidelines for boulderers. I wanted to highlight the idea that training adaptation happens at a slow and steady rate as long as your training stimuli are correct. We mistakenly think that by doubling our volume, choking down a bunch of supplements, or trying a more advanced program will accelerate these gains and we won’t have to do the basic stuff. What I did was write three articles, aimed at training Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced boulderers. What happened? All of the interest (according to Google Analytics and the number of questions I got) was on the Advanced program.


Here’s the thing: being a novice has nothing to do with your hardest send or your worth as a person. It has everything to do with how easily you can adapt to training. If you can improve significantly by simply increasing your climbing volume for a few weeks, you are probably at a novice adaptation level. This is a good thing. You don’t have to have a spreadsheet, training log, recovery plan, and monthly appointments to visit Tyler Nelson for testing. Your future is wide open and you’re really going places.


From the original article:

I know…nobody’s a novice. Nobody wants to be thought of as one, and no one likes to consider themselves one. However, in building climbing training programs, we’ve adapted a really useful classification template from strength coach Mark Rippetoe that works very well. Depending on how long a climber has been at it and how much he climbs each week, his training program design differs. We categorize these levels as Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced, and there’s more to it than the grade you can boulder. The distinctions come as indicators of “training age” – a measure of how much of your life you’ve spent actively trying to get better at this sport.


Training age is a really neat thing. Let me give you an example: take an avid climber of 20 years and a triathlete with the same amount of experience. Have the two switch sports for two years of dedicated training on the world’s best training plan. At the end of those two years, what do you think will happen? Will the triathlete be a better redpoint climber? Will the climber win in a head-to-head triathlon? I think you know the answers.


In the early stages of climbing…say the first 2 years, almost anything will cause a boulderer to get better. At this level, simply adding any kind of climbing or (in some cases) even general physical activity is the best path to improvement. “Training” is a waste of time for climbers at this level; their climbing should be looked at as practice and measured in hours. Anyone who has not put in at least one to two thousand hours (and by this I mean actual hours of movement – not hours spent at the crag or gym) in the sport is probably still a novice when it comes to training age.


An intermediate-level climber begins to really know failure (and the desire to succeed) on routes and problems. Bouldering, hangboard sessions, and disorganized “training” can be employed to help this climber improve. Usually, by the time a climber has reached this level, he is already at 60-80% of his genetic potential for strength and endurance. Progress really flattens out for the intermediate and these climbers will often hit a long-term plateau; the result of progress simply taking too much work. Many climbers will never leave this plateau, a spot business guru Seth Godin describes as “the dip.” The intermediate stage can last several years and will take a climber to around 90% of his genetic potential. Training for intermediate athletes has to be organized and tracked, but probably not to the degree and advanced climber’s must.


Advanced climbers are rare. These are the ones who continually creep up the improvement ladder, even years into a training career. They follow structured plans, and expect to perform at top levels only a few short weeks each year. These climbers are generally well-rounded, and don’t have a particular “style.” Their hard-won efficiency decreases the stress or overload that normal training plans can provide. The better you are, the harder you must train.


Rippetoe describes the advanced (Weightlifting) trainee well:

“Advanced trainees are very close to their genetic potential. Huge amounts of training result in relatively small improvements. Advanced trainees require fewer movements than intermediates.

Advanced trainees require large volumes of intense work to disrupt homeostasis. This means the stress required for progress will creep nearer and nearer to the maximal tolerable workload that the body can perform and recover from.”


Don’t be deceived. There are climbers performing at very high levels that have not reached the advanced stage; they simply have more potential that they have not tapped. Likewise, there are boulderers that might climb only V8 that have attained advanced status simply because they are performing very close to their absolute genetic limit.


Recently, I watched Adam Ondra: Road to Tokyo #8 – Training day based on a couple emails I received asking for more detail into what Adam’s training involved. In case you didn’t know, Ondra is a very high-level climber from the Czech Republic and I have nothing whatsoever to do with his training. Nevertheless, I was asked about training details, probably because a lot of what Ondra does in the video is above and beyond what we recommend. “Why so many sessions in a day?” “Doesn’t training endurance diminish power gains?” “I thought you said to do high-skill movements first in a session.”


We see the best climber in the world doing these things and we assume that the difference between him and us is the training he’s doing. The important question is this: Do you really think this is the difference?


I remember reading that Stephen King’s work habit was to write 50+ pages per day. Would it then follow that if I wrote 50 pages each and every day that I would somehow become a writer on King’s level? Of course not. I’d run out of ideas the first afternoon, have to stay awake for 20 hours just to finish and would do jack shit on day 2. So… don’t copy, but be inspired.


More importantly, follow some basic principles of all training and see where that gets you.


  1. Progression: If you increase the difficulty of your sessions over the course of a 4-6 week cycle, you are way ahead of most athletes. You can do this by either slightly increasing the intensity of the training or slightly increasing the time you train.
  2. Specificity: You can add weight training or mountain biking or Yoga to your climbing training, but don’t expect it to make you better. Those are what we would call “supporting activities.” In order to advance in bouldering, your training should focus around creating as many moments at your threshold ability as possible. This might mean hard moves, balancy moves, or weird holds – not just maxing out on the Beastmaker.
  3. Overload: What you do at the boulders or in the gym has to be outside your comfortable ability. This means harder grades, adding load, etc.
  4. Mastery: You should continually pursue being better at movement, including the Parkour-style bouldering that you whine about every time you go to the gym. Sending 7A on the Moonboard is awesome, but will only get you so far…


With this in mind, how complicated must a novice training program be? As uncomplicated as possible. Here are our rules:


  1. Beginning boulderers should keep a training log. In this log, you should track the details of every climbing session. Note warm-up, each problem’s grade and style, how you performed on it, and anything significant that occurred in the session. This could be a particular send or an injury.


  1. Overload should progress through a training month. This means the total number of problems you complete at any given grade or the grades you send should increase steadily over three weeks’ worth of sessions. The fourth week of each month is an unloading week where you will aim to do half the volume of week three. Lean toward trying harder grades rather than building more volume. The months should progress, too. You should see better performance in November than you did in the spring. I like climbers to track three numbers for each session. First, the total number of problems. Second, the V-Sum (add up all the V-grade numbers of the problems you did). Third, the Average V for the session. The last number is simply the V-Sum divided by the number of problems. These three numbers are key to building progressively harder training session-to-session.


  1. If you can’t do a few pull-ups or you can’t do a one-legged squat (pistol squat), you might consider a few days each week or resistance training. Bouldering is a massively strength-oriented sport, and some total body strength will go a long way. Our Foundation Strength workouts are a good place to start, though good weight training plans are pretty easy to find. Avoid group high-intensity training as well as bodybuilding programs.


The 3 weeks on 1 week off program is a really good one. A climber can continue to see improvements here for years, so no other program is really necessary until you see a hard plateau. There is some wiggle room, too: if you get sick or have to travel, you can slide the off-week around a little bit and not blow the program. Take the off week seriously, though. If you’re pushing it hard on your three weeks on, you’ll slowly be “digging the hole” – really stressing your body to adapt. That fourth week is your body’s chance to recover and catch up. If you’re doing it right, the strongest you’ll climb will often be just after a recovery week.


Once you start to go flat, assess what’s going on. Are you getting really good at one type of problem? Are you weak on certain moves? Are you having flexibility or technique issues that hold you back? These things should all be addressed before you decide to intensify your training. Once you feel you’re climbing a pretty good grade on a variety of rock types and angles, you might be ready for more advanced training. A warning, though…this plan is way more fun than the ones I build for intermediate and advanced trainees. Before you decide to move on up to a “higher level” program, make sure you’ve milked everything you can out of being a novice!


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