It has never been a better time to be a performance-oriented rock climber. In the past few years there has been an explosion of good information on training, and a huge number of great tools to help you train. From better handhold designs, to improved hangboards, to ingenious tools such as the Tension Block, we have better hardware than ever. We also have better “software”: great training apps for tracking hangboard sessions, good plans for bouldering sessions, and well-tested protocols for getting good and pumped in the gym.
What we don’t have is a solid view of how much to use each tool, and how often to do each individual session. Many of us are stuck “training” the same every Tuesday and Thursday night and going to the crag each weekend hoping that something will click and we might send. The problem is that today’s hard-working climber wants to get things done and wants to know when those things might happen. If you have one week to send at the VRG this spring, you want to be firing on all cylinders. Step one to success is good program design.
In this article, I want to detail the principles of good programming, and help you build a framework for success.
Start With Why
When you start to build a training plan, everything you put in the plan should be for a logical reason. We all know that there are a multitude of facets to training for our sport, so when it comes to training, you want to be sure that developing a given facet is necessary for you during this training phase. Yes, we all need more flexibility and endurance and finger strength (and money and compassion and beer) but each facet needs to be reviewed and assessed as to whether it is fundamental to today’s training.
- Going to finish the session with 20 minutes of easy traversing? What is the desired benefit? What are the possible drawbacks?
- Trying to eat a bit less to drop weight this phase? Why? What negative effect might this have on your strength gains?
- Going to add some running between climbing days? Why? Weight loss? Endurance gain? Are there better alternatives?
This is a great time for being honest with yourself. When I look at my own climbing, I see some serious gaps. I tend to do much better on overhanging terrain, where mobility and balance and footwork aren’t as important as pure endurance on big holds. Thus, when I am trying to add even more endurance training to my program, I have to pause and consider whether that will lead me to the results I want.
Everything is Too Much
It’s easy to fall into the trap of training everything. The problem with having five priorities in training is that you allocate so little attention to each of these goals that progress either stalls or is so minute as to be negligible. It’s not hard to want all of these improvements…most of us see that there are many weak links in our capability. The more advanced we get, the more effort it takes to improve any one facet of the sport. A novice can see improvements by leaps and bounds because everything is novel and it’s easy to go from terrible to bad. When you don’t suck anymore, it takes more work.
Most people try to improve everything at once because they are afraid of backsliding. Look at it this way: you’ve come back from long layoffs before – backing off a bit and aiming at, say, just finger strength for a month won’t have too negative an effect on your overall ability. Additionally, working in that magic range of 8-12 focused sessions will show you measurable progress. Once you have seen a bump in ability, switch over to the next weakness, and the next…and repeat the sequence for the next 20 years.
Really be willing to strip it down. Try focusing on just one kind of climbing, just one system, or just a handful of exercises. This is the magic of the 5×2 and 2×5 strength sessions…you set limits for yourself and can’t help but get better. For people who claim to really want to get stronger fingers, I suggest this: Download the Beastmaker app, pick the simplest program for the board you have, and do the workout 3 days per week for a month. Yes, it’s boring. No, you can’t finish off with 4x4s. You won’t think it’s working at the end of the first week. If you get out of your own way, you WILL get stronger.
Begin With the End in Mind
Where do you want your training to be at the end of the cycle? I write training rather than performance because we can control the training outcomes much more easily than performance outcomes. Thinking about building to 10 pull-ups or a certain number on the deadlift or completing ten sessions of repeaters makes mapping your training simpler.
Write your last training session’s structure first. Work backward, inserting rest days, other training, other commitments, and anything else that matters until you get back to today. Think about your progress realistically, ideally mapping it from previous years’ training. Your endpoint training should be near the bottom of your predicted improvement – hope is not a strategy.
With each training week, you can check in on your progress toward your planned training loads. This is an excellent way to keep yourself on track, and to give an endpoint to your training. Too often, our “end” is some infinite number of sessions in the future. Set the task, give yourself a time constraint, and push toward it. After a few cycles you’ll have a really good idea what you are truly capable of in training.
Let’s say you want to get to where you can do 8 pull-ups in a row, but are only capable of 4 at this time. Many of us would just keep doing max sets of pull-ups until we someday, hopefully, would reach that number. Research and experience show us that most strength protocols level out after fewer than 20 sessions, though. So you might want to set up your training with an end-goal of a total volume of pull-ups that should lead to your 8-in-one-set goal. Like this:
|Week #||Session 1||Session 2||Session 3|
|1||5 sets of 2 (10)||6 sets of 2 (12)||2 sets of max (7-9)|
|2||4 sets of 3 (12)||5 sets of 3 (15)||3 sets of max (11-13)|
|3||4 x 3 | 1 x max (15-16)||6 x 3 (18)||2 sets of max (7-10)|
|4||2 x 4 | 2 x 3 (14)||3 x 4 (12)||3 sets of max (12-14)|
|5||3 x 4 | 1 x 5 (17)||4 x 4 | 1 x max (20-22)||2 sets of max (9-12)|
|6||2 x 5 | 3 x 4 (22)||6 x 3 | 2 x 4 (26)||1 x 6 | 1 x max (12-14)|
|7||2 x 4 | 1 x 5 (13)||2 x 5 | 1 x max (17-18)||2 x max (15-17)|
It’s the Number of Sessions not the Number of Weeks
There is a common tendency of athletes to train to the calendar rather than the body. I see climbers so obsessed with checking the box for training on Monday that they are willing to sacrifice what could have been a much more productive session on Tuesday. A one or two month program, laid out in full color and detailed down to the minute is attractive, especially if it comes with endorsements of wild success attached… but what if you work a long day on Tuesdays? What if you are older than the endorser? What if your index finger starts to ache at the end of week two?
What many of us fail to understand is that there is a wide range of ability to overload and recover between individual trainees. I have even known twins whose rates of recovery differed – possibly based on training experience, work stress, sleep, and diet. The great news is that even if you’re ten years older than you were ten years ago, you could still do the same training plan as you did way back then…it just might take a little longer.
When a coach says that her program takes 8 weeks (and it’s a 3-day-per-week program), you should understand that a younger athlete might be able to push to 4 days per week and thrive (making it a six week program), and an older athlete might succeed best at 2 days per week, making it a 12 week program. The magic is in the number of sessions you actually do, not the days that pass during the phase.
This is my major point of contention with many programs that supposedly “didn’t work.” Did you do all of the sessions? Were you optimally recovered for them? Did you slow down when performance declined? Did you get past “being bored” and give a damn about the future for a change? The number of stimuli in an adaptation matter. Don’t cheat.
What Goes Up
Milo of Croton was supposed to have walked out in his field one day, picked up a newborn calf, and carried it across the field on his shoulders. He did this again, day-after-day, until the calf grew into a full-grown bull. Although we must admire Milo’s consistency, we can’t accept this progression as reality: you can’t just keep adding load and expect your body to keep up.
Our lives are built on cycles. We live by daily cycles, monthly cycles, and yearly cycles. To think that one could keep progression going, every single session, while the body’s natural cycles occur at the same time is silly. TO think that somehow you could add just a quarter-pound to a lift every day seems possible, but is ludicrous when seen at scale. Let’s say you can do one pull-up at bodyweight. We add ¼ pound next session, then another quarter, then another. A month out and you’re at bodyweight plus 7 pounds. A year out and it’s bodyweight plus 84. Nine more years, and you’re pulling a cool 840 beyond bodyweight. Not happening.
It is a fact of life that your training will cycle back down from peak values. We can’t avoid it, but we can control it to some degree. There are basically two ways to control the cycles of your training. You can work on slow, steady increases in persistent factors such as strength and power, or you can ramp up the intensity of the training you do for transient factors such as power endurance. The former results in long, slow, smooth transitions between peaks and valleys, while the latter tends to result in quick, noticeable, and temporary jagged peaks in fitness followed by quick returns to lower levels of performance.
Our preference is to base most training on persistent factors interspersed with some short peaking cycles that last 2-3 weeks at a time. By allowing for ups and downs, you not only increase your future chances of success, you can give your hard-charging self a break now and then…which makes you and everyone around you happier.
Recovery is a Real Thing
Getting better between the beat-downs is the name of the game. Many of us think that if we can just go harder, if we can just force our will that little bit more, then we can finally reach our potential. I am a big fan of getting better at the go-hard, but the real secret is figuring out how to come back to the gym fully ready more often. Recovery Training, instead of simply sitting on the couch with a beer, is the key.
A simple aim of getting more rest, higher quality nutrients, and a bit of mental recharge is a good first step. Recognizing that as you get older you will have to get more dialled in is another. The big key here is to try and over-recover so that you aren’t starting any sessions in the hole.
This is the easiest part of training to dismiss, because no matter what you do you’re going to recover anyway…eventually. What’s more, you’ll find yourself recovering at different rates than your friends and even at different rates than you did last phase. The starting point is to place more recovery days in the schedule – which means you get to do nothing but low-intensity and moderate duration activity during that day. No easy climbing, no 10-mile trail runs, no bolting routes.
As your training increases, so, too, must your recovery. Things like massage, Yoga, and foam rolling might or might not work to speed recovery, but I firmly believe in the value of “gearing down” to help recovery processes. Spending an hour face-down on a massage table (without your phone) is going to be more restorative than doing yard work.
Go One Better
Perhaps the most important factor in good planning is sorting out how to get yourself to go up a notch with subsequent training phases. Our tendency – which our bodies fight for desperately – is to stay at the same level. Biologically, it is “safer” to keep metabolism lower, body fat reserves at a high level, and activity at a moderate zone. It also feels right emotionally to stay in that “safe” zone, not venturing too often into doing what we can’t do well.
Getting better is about finding ways to demand more of our bodies so that we are capable of more and harder activities. All the factors of training come into play here: recovery, discipline, good planning, skill…but making sure you are pushing is the underlying concept. This is also where you can get in trouble. Many people hear these words and see it as a license to just thrash their way even further into medium-level semi-hard “fitness.” Adding one more pumpy lap on the boulder circuit or another 10 minutes on the trail can only be carried out so far.
When we talk about going one better, we want to try to do more high quality and high intensity efforts. Let’s take pull-ups for example. If your current level is to do 3 sets of 5 pull-ups at bodyweight 3x per week (45 total reps), and you want to be stronger, you would need to add load or intensity to improve. More reps per set would build endurance. More days training would build capacity. What you’d want would be to add 5 pound to your bodyweight with a belt or vest, and then try for 3 sets of 3-5 pulls of excellent quality.Your form can’t degrade. Once you can get back to 3×5, you’d work to add a bit more.
Some sessions might not see you be able to get all 15 reps in 3 sets, so you might have to add a fourth set, for example: 5 reps, 4 reps, 4 reps, 2 reps. The next workout might be 5-5-4-1, and so on.
You can’t do this with every exercise, every session, every phase, of course…so you’ll want to pick a focus exercise or two to build and just coax all your other fitness along. After 4-6 weeks, switch it up and continue.
It is only once you’ve mastered these principles that volume and intensity variability, recovery weeks, and periodization tactics really come into play. I love playing with these things as much as anyone, but unless you are taking care of the easy stuff, the minutiae of advanced programming is of little consequence. In the next few months, we’ll wade deeper into the world of program design, but for now, just remember why you are plugging in the exercises you do and get another 15 minutes of sleep…