By Steve Bechtel

Do you remember back when you used to get better at climbing? Month after month you could climb harder routes, you could feel yourself get better at jamming, at lock-offs, at edging, and it felt like the sky was the limit. Now you know that the limit is right about 12a, and you’re good and tired of it; it’s time to get out of your rut. Your plateau is inexplicable; you still go out and climb regularly and you boulder just as much as you used to. So, what the hell happened? Have you reached your “genetic potential?” 

Not likely. Chances are you’re in what Seth Godin refers to as “the dip.” In performance training, we usually just call it a plateau.

Let’s look at it backward, first. I’ll start off by telling you a couple of good ways to set up and maintain a solid plateau.

My favorite one it to “just climb.” The problem with just climbing is that most of us tend to do only things we really like, defaulting to doing what’s easy and “fun” instead of doing the things we need to do. This is where a training plan designed out in advance will really help you. To quote my friend Mike Anderson (a climber who has broken through many plateaus), “Training is a pre-meditated routine that is planned intelligently with the hope of attaining some tangible goal. It should be designed deliberately to transform your body towards whatever end you have in mind, then it should draw from the body of knowledge available by using specific exercises to create the gains that are desired.”

Sure, you’re going to give the an example of someone who’s really good that “just climbs,” but I’ll remind you that for every one person like that there are a hundred just like you.

Along the same lines, many climbers are inconsistent in the frequency and duration of their climbing days. Just getting out and climbing can bring you back to the same base performance level several times a year, but unless you can progress your volume (how often/much you climb) and/or intensity (the grades or difficulty) tangibly, you’re just not going to get there.

A quick fix for most plateaus is simply change. Changing rock types, or the length of pitches you do, or the angle you train on will often jump-start change. The real key, though, is to find a way to progress your training. Hangboard or system board workouts are great in this way. Add time / weight / smaller holds and a few weeks later, you’re stronger. Take this out and apply it to the rock, and voilà, you’re better.

Another huge problem with many athletes is an unwillingness to recover. I read a great study a few months back where two groups of college students were given the same exercise plan, 3 sessions a week, 10 exercises, 3 sets each. The only difference between groups was that one group took an entire week off from weight training every fourth week. Guess what? The athletes that took the week off each month were significantly stronger at the end of 16 weeks.

Supercompensation is the term used to explain the small gains in strength we see as a result of an overload and rest cycle. This occurs on a between-workouts basis, but more importantly it occurs on a between-phases basis. This between-phases supercompensation is what occurred in the study above.  As a climber advances, the time required to see supercompensation from training increases. At first, you might see strength gains in as little as a week. Advanced climbers can go as long as 6-8 weeks between short periods of supercompensation. We’re talking as little as 1-2% improvement, so you’d better make the most of it.

Highly structured training isn’t trendy and it isn’t easy, but it might be the only thing left you can do to get better. Building a training plan and following it through to fruition rarely leaves an athlete disappointed.

Remember, discipline is the key to advancement, and discipline usually means the opposite of what you feel like doing.

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