by Steve Bechtel
Strength is fundamental to athletic performance. Many climbers get it, and they hit the weight room regularly. The problem with most weight training is that it only addresses one speed of movement, and most of us select bilateral exercises for most movements. By training in such a narrow path, we miss out on a lot of movements and speeds of contraction that can be really useful to climbers.
In the standard Full Combination workout, we train five different facets of strength in five different movement patterns. The idea here is to break the habit of doing a single tempo in resistance training – which most of us adopt unconsciously. We train the same pace in squats and lunges and presses and pull-ups…and our muscles learn to work according to those rules. When we hit the rock, though, things change. We have to stand in a crouched position for 30 seconds. We have to lunge for a jug. We have to lock off to place our next finger lock.
These sessions are built to help bridge strength from heavy “normal” exercises, to doing the exercises in ways that are more like we’d encounter in the real world. Let’s take a quick look at the movement patterns. You can pick any exercise you like, but most human beings benefit most from training all five patterns in every training session.
Upper Body Press – things like push-ups, presses, bench press, and dips.
Upper Body Pull – this can include rows, pull-ups, cleans, and the like.
Hip Hinge – these are deadlifts, swings, levers, etc.
Squat – squats, lunges, step-ups, sledwork, and most other “leg exercises.”
Core – planks, leg raises, and stability work all fit this category.
I’ve written a lot on the movement patterns, but as I said above, we usually stick with normal tempo training. This means a 1-2 second lowering phase, no pause at the bottom, and a 1-2 second concentric phase, followed by little or no pause at the top. This is a good way to train, but it isn’t the only way to train your muscles. In sports, we need to look not only at the muscles and movements being used, but the way in which they are used, as well.
In the full combination sessions, we address several ways to use muscles, as follows:
- Bilateral – Exercises are done with both arms or both legs at once, using the same pattern. Examples include pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, and bench press. You can use a barbell or a pair of weights for most variations. This is where most of us spend the most time. This is essential to most programs, as a heavy bilateral movement is where we can put out the most force.
- Unilateral – Exercises are done with one limb at a time or using different patterns. Examples include step-ups, single arm presses, dumbbell rows, lunges, and single-leg raises. These are excellent for balance, creating stability, and for recognizing left/right imbalances in strength.
- Isometric – Holding a static position, normally not at the beginning of the range of motion. Exercises include almost anything you could do concentrically, but held against an immovable object: Iso hold pull-ups, presses, squats, planks, etc. You can hold at any of several joint angles, and the strength gains tend to be greatest at the angle trained.
- Explosive – A power version of a strength exercise. Jumps, explosive push-ups, doubles on the campus board, and medicine ball work all fit the bill. Often, power work is separated into whole different training phases. I think this is OK, but you should be training some speed/explosiveness at all times.
- Concentric-Only – In climbing, we often move under load, and then reach up with an unloaded limb. Contrast this with a typical pull-up where the arms are under load for the entire movement. There is good research that supports concentric-only training for strength gain without hypertrophy, as well as specific sport adaptations.
- Unstable – A destabilized version of an exercise. You can use an uneven surface, unstable surface, or a variable resistance tool such as a sandbag. Exercises can include core work on a stability ball or medicine ball, elastic band work, offset deadlifts or squats, or Airex Pad lunges. These are usually done at lighter loads than the stable exercises above.
The standard sessions are built on doing one of each exercise variation and one of each movement pattern. This is where your programming can be a bit creative. The important things to keep in mind are a s follows:
- This is still strength training. Keep the intensity high, and rest enough between sets to be fresh for the next set.
- Do 2-3 sets per exercise, and 4-6 reps per set. Isometrics should be held for 5-10 seconds.
- Combine this session with a hangboard or climbing session. A Full Combination workout might take 30-40 minutes, which you can then follow with some finger strength. You can also integrate a hangboard session if your facility is set up for it.
- You can do the exercises as one big circuit of five, as a couple of groups, or as single sets combined with mobility or finger strength. As long as you keep pushing strength, it doesn’t really matter.
A simple large circuit session might look like this:
3 rounds of:
Front Squat x5 (squat / bilateral)
Dumbbell Row x 5+5 (upper body pull / unilateral)
Double Kettlebell Swing x5 (hip hinge / explosive)
Bench Press Iso Hold x8 seconds (upper body press / isometric)
Sandbag Get-Up x1+1 (core / unstable)
Full Combo Sessions can also be broken down into a bi-set or tri-set format. These are more effective in crowded gyms or if you have limited equipment. An example set-up might look like this:
Group 1, 3 rounds:
Step-Up x5+5 (squat / unilateral)
Iso Hold Pull-Up x5 seconds (upper body pull / isometric)
Group 2, 3 sets:
Deadlift with Drop x5 (hip hinge / bilateral / concentric-only)
Power Push-Up x5 (upper body press / explosive)
TRX Knee Tuck / Body Saw x5+5 (core / unstable)
If you prefer to integrate the Full Combo idea with hangboard training, a simple idea is to structure it in simple bi-sets. Lots of people have a hard time moving away from the idea of just standing below the hangboard for an entire session. A great set-up is like this:
3 rounds of each group:
TRX 1-Arm Inverted Row x5+5 (upper body pull / unilateral)
Edge Hang x8 seconds
Rack Squat x5 (squat / bilateral)
Pocket Hang x8 seconds
Single Arm Kettlebell Swing x5+5 (hip hinge / unilateral + explosive)
Pinch Hang x8 seconds
Hardstyle Plank x10 seconds (core / isometric)
Edge Hang x8 seconds
Iso Overhead Press x5 seconds (upper body press / isometric)
Pocket Hang x8 seconds
4-Week Example of Variants
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3||Week 4|
|Upper Body Press||Unilateral||Concentric-Only||Bilateral||Unstable|
|Upper Body Pull||Explosive||Explosive||Unstable||Isometric|
There is no need to change the exercises as often as listed above. This example is just used to train a bit of breadth for an athlete who has mastered several variations of each exercise. If you haven’t mastered an exercise in each category, the smart move is to avoid programming them.