By Steve Bechtel

This is how it goes:

You go to the gym with friends and you do some easy climbs and it’s fun. Then you try a harder one or two, and maybe almost do them. Your hands are sore that night and as you fall asleep you're thinking of how you nearly did that problem, and you call your friends and plan to go back the next weekend. You repeat this for a month and then you buy some shoes of your own. The month after you realize that a membership is better than two day rates a week, and it seems like every time you go to the gym you figure out something that makes the climbing more fun.

You move to a higher-performance shoe. You start working on steeper problems. You level up again and again. In your second year, you take a couple of months off and have to start from way back at what feels like zero again. Weak skin, sore feet, sloppy movement. But you get it back. And then, just a few weeks in, you send your hardest ever. 

You start to develop a preference for certain kinds of problems. You start to see where you’re naturally more able than your partners, and probably where it feels like you’re limited.

And then you go flat. Months or a year of no advance in grades. You feel weak for a month and then back in shape and you can’t figure out why. You still can’t climb that one problem on that one wall. 

Here is where you have a big choice to make. You can accept the situation: that this is your level and you’re just going to have some ups and downs and you need to get used to this being the extent of your climbing experience. Or you can train.

I suggest you train.

Training, if it’s fun and comfortable, is probably not going to be effective. Sure, you can still get in the gym and do a lot of bouldering, but when our adaptation becomes too narrow, we should see the red flags come up. If your desired outcome of a program is to climb a specific grade, you can fall into the trap of chasing the wrong outcome. 

Let me give you an example.

Many boys in the US come through a weight training program that is not based on science or performance, but rather on some sort of crazy oral history of how previous generations of PE teachers trained. In this program the bench press and the back squat are the primary exercises, and progression in load is the key. The bench is pretty hard to cheat, but the squat, as we add load, starts to creep. We squat less and less deeply, add more and more load, and eventually, any reasonably strong kid can “squat” with 225 pounds on his back.

The problem is that the number two hundred and twenty five is more important to these boys than the ability to squat.

In climbing:

Back in the 1990s, one of the strong women of the era visited my home crag of Sinks Canyon. She was climbing that day with Paul Piana, who had established or climbed most of the hard routes in the area. My friends and I were excited to watch her climb, so we were sort of hovering around them as they got ready. 

She asked Paul, “What’s the easiest 13a?” 

To which Paul replied, “Probably Cartoon Graveyard…but most people call it 12d.”

It was funny at the time, and now 30 years later, I think it was brilliant. She wanted the grade, not the ability to climb at the grade. It’s a subtlety, but it’s not much different from squatting to half-depth. 

So…train.

Training is actually a fairly simple concept. You take a thing that you’re not doing well, break it down to a practice of doing a small but achievable step, repeat that step over and over until you can do it, then advance the difficulty again and again until you reach your goal. So why is it so hard to put into practice? 

Once you commit to training (and not just moving your performance indoors), it comes down to two errors:

  1. Making the steps too big.
  2. Trying to make progress in too many things.

In Leo Babuta’s great book The Power of Less, he explains that making change can be pretty straightforward if you keep focused on one thing at a time. People can change a habit around 70% of the time if they are just making that one change. Add a second change, and the success rate drops to about half that. A third change to juggle, and our chance of success drops to the teens. 

Let’s assume you’ve been climbing and training for a few years. You got pretty good and you got pretty strong, but now you can’t move that needle forward at all. The answer is not to try and find more motivation. It’s not to commit to throttling yourself in the gym even harder. The answer is more than likely to pick one thing and address it with your whole focus. 

There is a concept in strength and conditioning called “the interference effect.” It deals with the possible interference of training stimuli, with some studies finding that there is some level of conflict between strength adaptations and conditioning adaptations, i.e. if you run and lift in the same day, your results in one or the other might be negatively affected. I’ve addressed this over the years, and the pendulum swings back and forth as to how much you’ll lose, but the basic concept is worth noting. Even if I could both run and lift in the same day, would it be the best choice?

Some of us really can hold onto a ton of power while building endurance. But can we also work on our isometric strength with enough focus to improve it? Can we also build our overall cardiovascular conditioning? At some point, something has to give, and I believe that it gives a  lot sooner than we’d like. That’s why just going out and being an outdoor athlete generally results in somewhat mediocre performance across all of our activities. And yes, there are the Dani Arnolds and Josh Whartons of the world who perform at elite levels in multiple disciplines…but who are also subject to the same rule. 

When I talked to Josh about his wanting to send a mid-5.14 a few years back, he was clear about having to focus heavily on his bouldering power and sport climbing in order to get it done. A change away from generalism is essential. 

As Gorinevsky put it, “One may not be a universal athlete...such universality is amateurism.” 

More focus. Better results.

It’s not about going in and dying in the gym, either. It’s about setting a goal, progressing the goal over time, and making sure you are adding load or duration in order to force a change. 

So…train.

Let’s take a look at something we consistently overdo: finger strength. We all know that there are a ton of holds on the hangboard, and several ways we can use them: open hand, full crimp, etc. We can also use a bent elbow, one arm at a time, added load, offset positions… and many of us try to fit all of these variants in a super-mega session. 

But what if we started out with something so simple and so easy that we were almost certain it could never work? What if for the first week, you did something like the "Ten Minutes of Hangs" Emil Abrahamsson suggested a couple of years back? Or simply did this: 5 sets of 10 second hangs on the minute, on a 20mm edge. And then progressed it. 

Slowly. 

Understanding that tendons take time to adapt.

Understanding that slow and steady progress over months is the way.

The second week, you might use an 18mm edge. Add one set. And so on.

Unless, of course, hangboarding is “your thing.” In which case, I suggest trap bar jumps.

An upward tick is all we need. When I am working on my pull-ups, I don’t need to double my strength, nor do I need to keep kicking against it once I’ve seen a jump in strength. I need to accept the gain, then move on to the next thing. The gain/maintain cycle is a whole different animal, but one we need to master as well. This comes after we begin to train in the first place.

Hold Fast,

Steve

ABOUT STEVE BECHTEL

Steve is the founder of Climb Strong, and is proud to be the worst coach on the Climb Strong team. A climber for nearly 40 years, he has traveled to globe bouldering, sport climbing, and doing first ascents of some of the world's biggest walls. 

He is co-owner of Elemental Performance + Fitness, and is the author of several books on training for climbing. He lives in Lander, Wyoming, with his wife Ellen and children Sam and Anabel. He includes low-intensity training in almost everything he does these days...since it feels pretty tough.

 

 

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