by Steve Bechtel
There are any number of statements that tell you that you’re not trying hard enough. From “Go Hard or Go Home” to “Compete Every Day”, we are fed the message that in order to progress, we need to set records each and every time we are in the gym. The truth, thank God, is not so challenging.
When it comes to getting aerobically fit, we should look to professional skiers and runners to see what to do. When it comes to being an alpine badass, look no further than Steve House for advice. And when it comes to getting fantastically strong, you should look to the world’s strongest athletes.
Last fall, I had the great opportunity to attend a two-day lecture called Plan Strong, taught by Pavel Tsatsouline. The entire event was designed around building effective long-term strength programs. Although supported by strong research, most of what Pavel taught was gleaned from looking at the actual training data of world-class performers rather than university research, which tends to use less-trained individuals. (This method appeals to me on several levels, most of all being that climbers rarely seek my advice until they are reaching the top level of their game. Research done on untrained or less-trained people, almost always 18-20 years old, doesn’t always apply to experienced, older athletes.)
Among the many takeaways from the weekend was the fact that at the very top-end of athletics, performers spend the majority of their training time working at loads of 70-80%. The actual distribution of loads in weightlifters, gleaned from several researchers and coaches is remarkably similar. Over the course of several years, in many countries, and in multiple sports, a normal distribution of loading appears.
Last winter, we applied some of these “medium-intensity” sessions to both our climbing training programs and to some weight training programs. Several of our Climb Strong athletes followed a six-week strength cycle, which focused on a single lift and was supported by several other exercises. The sessions involved building more and more volume in a specific movement, but held the load constant. An athlete would do a simple ladder of 2-4-6 reps in a bench press, pull-up, or squat, or a 1-2-3 ladder in deadlift. Loads were constrained to 75% of max.
One female athlete had been stuck at a 200 pound max bench for nearly 18 months, and had tried several different loading strategies from Wendler’s to Westside to 1RM-only training. In the six weeks of this plan, she never lifted more than 155# but built up to 50 reps per session. When we tested at the end of six weeks, she hit 215. This is a big jump for anyone, but is almost unreal for a highly-trained female. We saw good results in all of the lifts, but what I liked more is that the athletes were never working too hard and they were never risking injury by maxing too often.
The climbing implications are there, too. Yes, it’s harder to quantify where 75% of your maximum is, but the zone is no less valid. Through trial and error and a lot of conversations, we start to see that somewhere around your onsight limit is probably about right. This doesn’t mean that you should actually be onsighting, but rather climbing a lot in that grade range for the most overall benefit. The pathway is the same as it is in weight training: you are able to do more high quality volume at a level that still challenges you.
Our bouldering sessions are almost always about developing power, so we tend to limit them to about an hour. A normal boulderer can usually do 7-10 hard attempts in this timeframe, especially if he’s trying to maintain intensity. When we back him off to 75%, the structure of the session changes a bit. At a lower intensity, our climbers tended to not rest enough, instead turning the session into some kind of long power or anaerobic capacity effort. To avoid this pitfall, we allowed for a longer session as volume was added, but required at least 4 minutes per problem. On a two-day bouldering program, we saw good improvements by adding 3-5 problems per week over a 4 week cycle. Naturally, these drifted out of the 1-hour range, but we kept long rest periods to avoid going too “lactic”.
Week 1 (2 sessions): 12 problems at OS level
Week 2 (2 sessions): 15 problems at OS level
Week 3 (2 sessions): 18 problems at OS level
Week 4 (2 sessions): 22 problems at OS level
The more intense the style of training, the more this type of plan can aid you. Remember that you don’t need to prove yourself each and every time in the gym. We don’t care how hard you train, we care how hard you perform. If you train for 4 weeks and never reach past V8, yet can send V9 or V10 on your trip, everybody wins.
Likewise, operating close to your max on strength endurance exercises such as pull-ups can crush you for days. If you can barely do 15 pull-ups, doing 15 pull-ups will really tax you. However, doing multiple sets of 8 will both increase your max reps and keep you from needing three days off after. This is the same principle we see in the Fighter Pull-Up Plan.
Training at 75% is a tool, not the solution to all your needs. Look back on the volume distribution table above. You still need to train above and below this level to see optimal improvements. It’s easy to neglect the middle – most of us warm-up easy then work on the hard stuff. If this sounds like you, a few cycles focusing in the right zone might make a big difference.