By Micah Elconin
There are few absolute truths in athletic training, but this might be one of them. General qualities should be developed before seeking to create specific adaptations. Build the engine before you start fiddling with components. One might also point out that racing with an inferior or neglected engine is not really a winning strategy.
Don’t expect to climb for 8 hours if you can’t do 8 hours of chores. If maintaining threshold level aerobic activity (i.e. a jog) for more than 10 minutes makes you want to puke, that 40 meter project is probably not in the cards. If simply lifting a few heavy objects off the ground leaves you crippled in bed the following day, you’ll likely never get anywhere near your real limit on a boulder problem.
I imagine that anyone reading this piece gets the idea, but perhaps not all of us are fully embracing the concept in our training for performance climbing.
For many climbers these days, the daily routine looks something like this:
- Spend at least 8 hours sitting at a desk
- Drive to the gym, walk 100 ft inside the building, put on climbing shoes, and boulder until exhaustion
- Walk 100 ft to the car and drive home
- Sit on couch and watch Youtube video
Even if we are generous and include the couple hundred extra steps taken grabbing lunch and a mid afternoon snack, this schedule is in no way developing the general capacity of a high performing athlete.
Oftentimes when I begin working with a new athlete, our first item of business is to take a step back to build out their general strength and capacity. Some (many) people, however, are bored by the “monotony” of this program. Things like circuit training, lifting weights, and doing “cardio” are not nearly as interesting as projecting the new set at the gym. At times, I feel like a salesman continually pitching someone on a product they don’t really want. Let’s just say this isn’t the best part of my job.
That being said, I’ve spent some time thinking about creative ways to help more people build a better foundation to ensure they get the most out of their time training for performance climbing.
Anything is Better Than Nothing
Strength and capacity do not have to be cultivated in a gym. In fact, many people find that it’s actually more fun, productive, and likely more effective to build this engine doing real world activities.
At its core, general capacity is simply our ability to do stuff. The more stuff we can do, the more general capacity we have. Strength is our ability to generate force. It takes a lot of force to move heavy things around. It’s a pretty simple formula.
If you’re concerned about this element of your fitness, but aren’t sure how best to address it, begin with just doing more physically engaging activities. It’s not a final solution, but even just walking a few extra miles every week is going to move things in the right direction. You gotta start somewhere….
Not sure where to begin?
We have training plans available for any level athlete!
For those seeking a slightly more nuanced approach, here are some qualities of superior activities for developing the general strength and capacity of a performance rock climber:
Uses the whole body: This helps lay a better foundation for a full body sport like rock climbing. If jogging is your thing, that’s great, but just know that your arms are not getting the same sort of benefit as they would from something like rowing or cross country skiing.
Integrates a variety of movements: Ditto the point above, but also variety helps avoid repetitive motion strain and usually allows for longer and more sustained efforts. There is also opportunity here to expand our general movement patterns.
Intense enough to elevate heart rate, but easy enough that it can be sustained for more than a few minutes: Again, anything is better than nothing, but ideally we are hanging out in the low to moderate intensity zone. The activity may integrate short bouts of high intensity efforts, but should back off relatively quickly. We’re not looking to destroy ourselves in the first 5 minutes. High intensity efforts create more general strength gains and that’s definitely a good thing.
Takes place outdoors in the elements: This is certainly not essential, but if your ultimate goal is to climb well outside, you will benefit from getting used to spending time outside dealing with heat, cold, rain, wind, snow etc.
Fun and mentally engaging: There’s a much better chance that you’ll stick with things if your brain is involved in the action. Boredom is probably the number one complaint from those that struggle to integrate general strength and capacity training.
Goal directed with outcomes that create value: This is primarily pragmatic, but also helps create enthusiasm for participation. If you’re going to invest hours of your life in some physical activity, you might as well use that time to build, create, or accomplish something that you’re stoked about.
Some Options to Consider
Hopefully the list above inspires ideas to get you started. I really can’t stress enough that anything is better than nothing. However, if my ramblings on the subject have now over complicated things, I’ll offer a few more specific ideas that have worked well for me and others in my life.
Develop The Crag
I’m certainly biased, but this is without a doubt my favorite way to build general fitness. Whether it be bolting routes, scrubbing boulders, or building trails, crag work builds a great foundation for future climbing pursuits. It checks all of the boxes for me. While it is certainly hard enough to create the physical adaptations that we are looking for, this odd combination of tasks is especially helpful because it integrates a wide variety of movements across many planes of activity and necessarily includes exposure to the elements. It’s also incredibly satisfying to open new routes/boulders or improve the hang for everyone.
If crag stewardship is outside of your comfort zone or current skill set, consider simply spending more time exploring your local area. Take the hike out to that sector you’ve heard about, but have never been motivated to check out. You don’t even have to bring your climbing gear. However, lugging that heavy pack is not the worst thing considering our goal of building general fitness. Of course, explorations don’t have to be climbing focused either. Take a long day hike or ride your bike somewhere new. If you’re tired of the day trip options, commit to an overnight adventure or go big by spending the next vacation backpacking, bike touring, or river running rather than just sitting on the beach drinking piña coladas. If that sounds intimidating, but intriguing, you’re welcome. You now have a great goal to motivate those boring cardio sessions.
Have you ever noticed that your friends who work in the trades have incredible “off the couch” fitness. Why is that? Well, their job asks a bit more from their bodies than coding new apps. Take a line from the blue collar book. Invest more time in building, fixing, or maintaining things around the house. Whether it be gardening, painting, remodeling the bathroom, or simply hauling all that old crap you don’t need to the dump, home improvement is incredibly physical. It almost always includes some combination of carrying heavy things, manipulating hand tools, and getting up and down off the ground in awkward ways. Sounds like training to me!
Half Hour Sets
Maybe you are truly strapped for time and/or live somewhere that doesn’t accommodate home maintenance projects or regular access to the crag. Maybe you need your workouts to look like “workouts.” Whatever the case, I’ll share what is perhaps the best general strength and capacity workout I’ve ever come across.
Enter the Half Hour Set.
Pick three different exercises drawing from the major movement patterns. If pull-ups and pushups are in the mix, you’ve made good choices. Consider rounding it off with hanging knee raises or squats and things are really starting to look good.
Do a few reps of each exercise every minute for a half hour. Again, emphasis on “a few.” Those new to this workout almost always overshoot on the reps. A good place to start is something like 15-20% of your max reps for the given exercise. So if you can do 10 proper pull ups in a row, 1 or 2 reps is a safe place to start. Another good check is that the total work time is less than the total rest time each minute. If the reps are taking you 45 sec to complete, you’re doing way too much.
An example might looking something like this:
Every minute on the minute for 30 minutes:
3 hanging knee raises
In this example, the athlete will complete a total of 60 pull ups, 90 knee raises, and 120 pushups, which is quite a bit of work! And the sweat glistening on their face is a sure sign that heart rate was well above app coding levels.
I can’t stress enough that this workout is most effective when relatively easy to complete. Will power, rather than muscle fatigue should be the limiting factor. Some of the fittest people I know swear by the Half Hour Set. Want a practically guaranteed way to feel more generally fit and perhaps drop a few unwanted pounds? Carve out time to complete three of these every week for a month.
A Season For Everything
If our goals are specific, general training does need to become specific at some point. The closer one gets to performance season, the more their training should emulate the performance activity. So, while I’m espousing the immense benefits of general strength and capacity work, we can certainly get too much of a good thing.
Those looking to layer in a solid helping of general training should do so during the off season. If integrated properly, even the most “under trained” athletes really only need to focus on this quality a few months each year. However, those few months of focused effort may be the most effective element of their annual training program. Do the work now and then ease off and reap the benefits.
ABOUT MICAH ELCONIN
Micah has cultivated his climbing practice for more than twenty years. Based in Eugene, Oregon he coaches local athletes through his business Good Stone, and offers remote coaching as a part of the team at Climb Strong. Micah has climbed all over the world including dozens of first ascents on the Central Coast of California and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Despite entering his fourth decade in 2021, he continues to slowly, yet steadily, improve.
As a coach, Micah draws on a variety of experiences to support his athletes. He is well versed in climbing specific training modalities and holds multiple Performance Climbing Coach Certificates. He spent the first half of his twenties deeply committed to Ashtanga yoga practicing under the guidance of Steve Dwelley and Michele Nichols. He also spent 3 months at Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. As a former professional chef, Micah has extensive culinary experience and holds Nutrition Educator and Natural Chef’s certificates from Bauman College. He’s also earned an MBA in Entrepreneurship from University of Oregon and a BA in Philosophy from University of California at Santa Barbara.
Tags: capacity, climbing, Fitness, Micah Elconin, Tactics
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