By Alex Bridgewater 

I work with an athlete that has had some recurring issues with his fingers. He is a strong boulderer and despite his efforts to keep his fingers up to snuff, he often would develop some sort of joint inflammation that would set him back. For a while we would drop back on intensity and work on building his fingers back up only for it to happen again. 

Eventually, we came to the conclusion that he needed to take a more aggressive approach to healing his fingers. Part of this approach was finger development and part of this approach was skill development. We chose to incorporate skill development as a part of his strengthening plan to keep him on track, motivated to stay the course, and to take advantage of the time that he was going to give to his fingers. We could have easily focused only on his hands and left out other aspects of his climbing, leaving that up to chance. 

Instead, we developed a specific plan for a specific type of rock climbing…slab climbing. He worked diligently for some time to build back his ability to smear on granite, non-footholds, and taught his body the positional aspects of keeping his hips and weight over his feet, and to rely less on pulling with his hands. In the end, this athlete was able to execute and send a few of New England’s harder, pure friction slabs. I bet at this point he could climb the slabs on Lurking Fear on El Cap.


Within our “Wheel of Development” at Climb Strong we have mental abilities, physical abilities, and technical abilities. In each of those three categories, you can choose to develop skills to bolster your ability to climb in any different style or terrain. Here we are talking about developing technical skills and the drills that we use with our athletes to develop specific skill facets. When we start out asking athletes to work on skill development, the logical first step is to start with positioning based drills. 

These are going to be about learning how to use your body and move into the most efficient positions on stone. We do this for economy, to conserve energy, and for safety. Consider things like clipping stances or being able to rest in specific positions. The positioning drills that we use are going to incorporate aspects like footwork and hip positions, body tension, balance, and flexibility. What's important to remember is that these aren't necessarily strict categories of technical skill development, and so there is going to be overlap between positioning drills, movement drills, and momentum drills. They tend to build off of each other in a cyclical fashion, so there will be a lot of overlap in terms of drill development.

When we're looking at building out a drill session there are some parameters that you want to follow and some specifics in terms of being able to progress or regress the exercises. The first thing we want to think about is how long do you engage with skill within a climbing session? We aim at 20 to 30 minutes total. Any longer and you're looking at technical movement breakdown and fatigue setting in. These are going to be your identifiers for stopping the skills sessions. 

You’ll start to notice that your eyes may be darting all over the place or that you're having a harder time placing your hands and feet where they need to go. In these cases, you should discontinue the drills work and move on to the next part of your session. It’s worth cutting the session short as opposed to committing to the 20 or 30 minutes of work. We do not want to teach ourselves poor movement during this aspect of a session. We want to make sure that masterful movement is really the focus of what we're doing when we're doing this work. I like to talk to athletes about how they might look if they were trying to show off to someone while climbing. Climb in that way for the duration of the drills session, and if at some point it doesn’t feel that way, stop the session and move on.

The Wheel Of Development
The Wheel Of Development

After timing, we want our drills sessions to be measurable so that we can track progress or regression and adjust accordingly. Measuring drills or skill development is going to include anything from the height of your high step in inches to the number of good technical foot movements that you've done per session, or the number of moves you maintained good eye contact with within a session. As you track these metrics over the length of a cycle you can begin to understand how many touches to that drill you've had over any given amount of time. In this way we can provide ourselves with confidence that we are putting in the time to get better at a skill, and to work on overload.

Ultimately, I want you to have an increasing number of touches to any drill during an entire week over the course of a cycle of training. This might look like 50 total draws clipped during week one and graduating that number to 60, 70, 80 draws clipped throughout the coming weeks. Deliberate exposure to your drill work is a great marker of progress. 

Keeping that in mind, you want to make sure that your drill session is manageable. If you can't do the baseline drill, for example: explosiveness, trying to develop the skill of moving fast; if you can't link together five or six powerful movements in a row then we need to regress the drill itself.

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What do you do to make that session manageable? You can reduce the number of repetitions that you do in a row. Instead of doing an entire boulder problem to develop specific power you might only do half that boulder, or you might link one or two moves together at a time. To go back to tracking, you can note the ability to be able to do two or three power movements in a row and see that your capacity to deal with this drill is improving. 

Regressing any drill involves slowing the movement down, reducing the number of repetitions that you do, reducing the complexity of the movement - take it from a steep angle to a less steep angle or more vertical angles. Counterintuitively, you might do the drill more frequently but for less time during the session itself. If I'm having a hard time with power development, instead of spending 20 or 30 minutes trying to work on being explosive, I might reduce that to 5 or 10 minutes per session but engage with that session three or four times during a week. Slowly, you'll start to see progression there and with that progression you can begin to pull back on the frequency and increase the duration of the session itself. 

Conversely, if the drill is too easy, then we need to progress it. We always want to make sure that we're working against ourselves, pushing ourselves a bit out of our comfort zone. To progress drill sessions we want to be able to increase the complexity of it or or put more demand on ourselves. This might look like increasing the angle of the climbing, making the holds smaller (hand holds and foot holds), you might make the distance between those holds farther, you might increase the amount of repetitions that you're doing within any given drill session, or you might reduce the frequency that you're touching that session throughout a week or a cycle.


We want to make sure that athletes aren't focusing on too much at once. We like athletes to spend one month working on one to two skills at a time. This doesn't seem like a lot of skill development, but if we look at this as a habitual framework, if you're working on one to two skills per month, over time this develops a whole athlete and a better climber and you have a better ability to judge whether or not you're improving on those skills. Time. 

Next, you want to pay attention to thinking masterfully. What we mean by that is what are you going to pay attention to that keeps you intent on what you're doing. If I'm having an athlete work on footwork skill, I'm going to ask them to focus on some specific things so that we're not just looking at footwork globally. This might be -  “I want you to pay attention to the way that your eyes focus on your feet and track how often you lose your attention away from your feet. I also want you to try to grab the foothold with your toes when you step on each individual foothold.” You want to be specific in what you're asking yourself to do when you’re engaging with any kind of drills. Being this specific, as with any aspect of life, creates clarity for the task at hand and provides a clear roadmap for how to execute complex tasks. If we keep task demands too vague or global then it becomes harder to track progress and creates more room for doubt in our ability to improve.

Lastly, plan for the drills within your individual session. Make sure that you're scheduling your drills sessions within your training so that you can actually do it. Additionally, this allows you to reflect back on your training and say “oh I keep skipping this drill session… why am I doing that and where else could I place it? 

Often when we work with athletes we hear the same story, I was thinking about doing some footwork drills, but I showed up late to the session and I talked with the front desk staff for 20 minutes too long, and then felt like I had no time to climb, so I skipped the drill and went straight to the Kilter board. This is fine, and very common, but what can be done about it? Schedule your session differently. 

Try going earlier or later in the day to the gym. Make sure that you are scheduling transition times between your daily obligations so that you can get to the gym on time. If you find yourself short on time, don’t skip drill work altogether for the Kilterboard, creatively work these drills into your warm up. The creative athlete always wins. 

You can shorten the drills portion of the session to one minute if that’s what you have, but never throw it out all together. To follow this Foundations of Drill Development article, we will have introductions to Movement, Momentum, and Positioning and our favorite drills associated with these aspects of technical movement. Additionally, we have several YouTube videos encompassing these topics and a book covering this wide range of development.



Alex is a high-level rock climber that originally moved to Lander to train at Elemental as part of the Climb Strong Program. He has been climbing for fifteen years and is well versed in anything from big wall free climbs to hard boulder problems and competition climbing. He has lived in Lander since 2016 and has worked and trained with Climb Strong since day one. In seeing the success of his own climbing Alex has since taken a role in passing on this valuable knowledge to others eager to push their own limits. Currently a graduate student in sport psychology, Alex is available for training consultations and for long-term climbing coaching.



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