By Steve Bechtel

If you drill down with anyone in the gym, the goal of their training session might very well be “to get tired and sore.” Their objective, of course, is greater sport performance or a change in the way their body looks and functions. But in training for a sport, and using the gym as a tool leading toward performance, we have to step back from simply pursuing performance. The true aim of training in the gym is to make sure things go well out at the crag. In this regard, we don’t simply want to mimic the experience of doing the sport, but to enhance the parts of our preparation that sport performance might not cover.

We all go to the gym with sport performance in mind, so it’s easy to go in there and start trying to perform…when the emphasis should be on building a foundation. A simple mindset shift, from going in and doing the hardest moves ever to going in and creating a good athlete, is all it takes.

With the proper mindset, we can get much more out of the gym time, and the crag time, than ever before. Thus, it is important to remember the objectives of training when we are training. They are as follows:

Objective 1: Prevent injuries during the training process.

I call this the “prime directive.” As a serious climber, it is inexcusable to get training-related injury. How do you know if it is a training-related injury? Unless you got hit by something or fell down, it’s probably something you overdid. It’s key to remember that “does it hurt?” is a yes or no question. If something feels better after a warm-up, the answer is still “yes.”

When performing a series of sessions, part of your assessment between exercises (or even reps) is whether it’s pushing the body too far. Understanding that stopping at the first hint of pain is a key to a long and productive career. It’s worth noting that in most of the strength and power exercises we do for climbing (limit bouldering being a performance activity, not a foundational exercise), working at less-than-maximal loads is more than enough to develop high levels of strength. Instead of chasing the heaviest load you could possibly hang, you’re probably going to get just as strong, just as fast loading at 80%…and your chance of injury plummets.

Injuries in training are the fault of the coach or the programmer. If you wrote the program, you need to be sure that it’s not injury-inducing. That means that if you ask the athlete to do exercises they don’t know how to do, or ask them for intensities they have not trained for, you can’t blame them when things go awry.

Part of coaching has to be teaching your athletes to hold back, especially when the gym sessions are causing more harm than they are preventing.

Objective 2: Reduce the incidence of performance-related injury.

We want to reduce the incidence of injury in the performance environment (at the crag, on limit problems, in comps), and we must understand that we can't totally prevent it. This is part of the risk of being in the performance environment… You are pushing your body to the absolute limit, and things break when they are pushed too hard.

How do we keep from blowing shoulders, tweaking ring fingers, and wrecking knees? We build a strong base of strength in a situation where we don’t care about performance outcomes. In the gym, my athletes are not super worried about sending a particular set of strength exercises. It’s just training. Some days it progresses, some days to doesn’t. In the bouldering workouts, we are explicit about desired outcomes, such as “4 problems with 3 minutes rest between, at medium difficulty. Focus on maintaining tension.” This is different than, “do four problems.”

The more we can assure the athlete has good general strength as it relates to climbing, proper mobility as it relates to climbing, and proper capacity, the greater that athlete’s chance of performing outside without injury becomes.

Objective 3: Improve performance.

What seems like it should be the main goal of training is truly the third goal of training. The aim of any training program should be to create more potential days of high performance per season. If my athlete has more chances at hard routes in a trip, they’ll send more hard routes or problems. If they are not up to the load of a full climbing day or their fingers can’t take the strain, or their feet start to hurt, it’s an error in the preparation of the athlete.

We should cover these bases in the training program rather than trying to perform in the gym. Thus, with each time we climb or train, we must ask:

“What is my goal?”

In the gym, almost all of the time, my goal needs to be to prevent injury and slowly coax improvement in my strength and skill. Sending hard problems should be secondary. At the crag or out on the boulders, we should try to really perform. Too many days of “base building,” of lapping routes for fitness, or of tentatively top roping start to muddle the idea of what is supposed to happen out there if we are trying to improve.

There is only one place where we can have all of the pieces of performance at play, and that is where we intend to perform. Don’t waste these days on something you should have done last Tuesday night on the spray wall.

As Dan John reminds us, "The goal is to keep the goal the goal." If you're not sure what your desired outcome is, it might be best to stop the session, sit back, and think a little.


Hold Fast,



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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