Maybe We’re Approaching Power Wrong

By Steve Bechtel

It might be semantics, but it might also be a trap. When we throw around the terms we use in training for climbing, the word “power” gets used a lot. The problem is that although power is a performance metric, we struggle to build training that directly addresses it. Thus, when we build a program for power, go in and do “power” on the campus board, or do “power” exercises in the weight room, we might not be increasing our power at all. Let’s look at this a little more closely.

Power, as defined in sport science is strength applied at speed. If we built it as a formula, it would be strength x speed, and measures of power greatly increase if we increase strength at a fixed speed, or speed at a fixed load. If we look at the force-velocity curve, we understand that power is maximized halfway between the strength and speed ends of the curve. It follows, then, that we can’t really “train power,” but rather must train strength or speed in order to increase power.

Strength can only be increased by heavy overload of the system. It’s easy to be deceived into thinking that “hard” exercises such as highly integrative stability drills or awkward bodyweight movements will increase maximum strength, but this is only possible in relatively weak athletes. The adaptations here are more about coordination and energy delivery than pure strength. Like it or not, you need to really overload the muscles to make them stronger.

Similarly, we can only increase speed by doing very high speed movements. So we

have to train fast if we want to gain power at any load along the curve. Chris Beardsley put it well: “If transferable increases in maximum power are required (and not simply increases in power with a certain load in a specific exercise), it seems likely that these are best achieved by a combination of heavy strength training and fast movement training, and not by moderate load, power training.

Not sure where to begin?

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I’m as guilty as anyone. We did a few fast movements, called them “power.” We talk about doing
Power sessions when we boulder or campus, but is that really what we’re doing? Are we really increasing power, or are we just getting a bit more skilled at the campus board? 

Here is what I propose. It is not changing the exercises we do, exactly, but rather the way we think about them. If we step back and really look at what’s happening when we climb, it’s often a really high force (strength) set-up, a quick unloaded movement to the next hold, a dynamic catch, and then high force with little or no movement from that limb as we set up for the next move. So… jumpy jumpy might not be the best method.

First, Strength

If we truly want to display power, the foundation is strength. Yes, of course, those little fingers are important, but having the general ability to, say, get out of a chair or to pull yourself over a fence is of great use both on and off the rock. As a human being and a member of society, you shouldn’t be the person people avoid asking for help.

There are a billion or so articles on getting stronger, and a million instagram superstars telling you how to optimize this or that facet of training. I hate to tell you that it’s a waste to follow their advice, but I’ll say this 90% of getting stronger is really damn simple. If you show up in the weight room 3 times a week for the next 12 weeks, do 3 sets of 5 reps of pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, and overhead press, you’re going to get really strong. Oh, and add load. You’d be surprised how many people don’t add load.

Hang from your fingers. It’s a fast way to get strong. If you don’t already do this, almost any protocol will do. Don’t get hurt. 

Once you’re about 3 months into training, start applying it more vigorously. Do some harder boulders (some of which might require a bit of speed), some campusing, and some more “sport-specific” strength and stability work.

Next, Speed

Move quicker than before. That is speed training in a nutshell. Start with some easier boulders, climb them and time them. Even increasing movement by a second per problem is going to show an increase in your power output.

I say be intentional and controlled in your speed work. Plan on 5 problems, then back to normal hard bouldering. Work up to “fast sets” on more boulders over time, all with the mindset of speed. You can do this really effectively with weight room exercises, and it’s not wrong to do on the campus board, either. 

We’re not faking “power” here…just going easy and fast.

Strength With Intent For Speed

Once you’ve played with speed and strength for a couple of months (Use a calendar to figure this out. A couple months is not next weekend.) I think adding intent for speed is a good next step. 

We start this with simple, controllable exercises. A heavy weighted pull-up is a good start. This can be your training weight for “normal” pull-ups, but do each rep with the aim of moving as quick as possible up to the bar. Lower at normal speed, then quick again on the next rep.

Key here is to stop the set when speed declines. If you get three, fine. Four, fine. But two fast followed by slowly burning out on a few more is counterproductive. 

Slowly add this intent into other weight exercises, into hard campus sets, and finally on your boulders. 

Strength, then speed, and then finally both.

As Mark Rippetoe puts it, “power is in fact trainable by competent strength coaches, because it is defined by three variables:

“P = (F x d)/t

“where F is force, d is the distance over which the force is applied, and t is the time of the force application. The distance is largely determined by the test and the dimensions of the athlete: a punch is as long as the boxer's reach, and a snatch ROM is limited by the lifter's height. Time is the “explosion” variable, the one you can't control very well since it is dependent on genetic neuromuscular endowment, and F is force. Force is strength. 

“The value of P goes up if the value of t goes down or the value of F goes up. The algebra shows us that if strength goes up, even for a person of average standing vertical jump capacity, power has gone up too, in the complete absence of any improvement in explosive capacity. As we have seen, it is hard to significantly affect explosive ability, but it is possible to improve strength for years, and an average man can double his deadlift in a relatively short period of time.”

 

Let’s not get too bogged down in using the word “power” when we talk about climbing performance. Power is a result, not an application.

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. 

Steve lacks power on all fronts, but still rages against its loss.

He is cofounder of the Performance Climbing Coach organization, 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.

 

 

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