By Steve Bechtel
Minimalist training has been around in some form or other for years. And when I talk about minimalist training, I’m not just talking about doing jack shit and calling it good enough. I’m talking about doing the minimum necessary training to see continued progress. Undoubtedly, doing more of a particular thing works wonders for a while, but eventually you run out of time. Then you have to get smart. I like the idea of climbing all the time as much as anyone, but I like the idea of having a house and food and a family more. Most of us are the same in this way. Climbing five or more days a week is great if you live in a truck, but it’s hard to pull off if you’ve got a straight job and kids.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
For those that want to get good at bouldering, doing less might just be the ticket. When I was a bit younger and had more time on my hands, I was lucky enough to train with much stronger climbers. We occasionally would do 4-5 hour sessions bouldering and would be wrecked for days afterward.The problem was we’d get better at doing long sessions of moderate-level bouldering, but would never develop much top-end power. I’ve said it before: fatigue creates endurance. Heavy loads (difficult moves) create power and strength. So it works really well to build power when you don’t have tons of time.
Test this yourself. Write down all the problems and grades you send in your next bouldering session. Note the session length, level of fatigue/soreness post-session, and the number of days between sessions. Now, reduce the duration of your session by 25%. If you trained 2 hours, train only 1.5 hours next time. Do a couple of sessions at this new duration, keeping the same notes as before. After 2-3 sessions of 1.5 hours, reduce your time again by 20-30 minutes. Repeat the process again, then reduce again, in our example, you’d drop to 45 or so minutes per session.
What you’ll see is a drop in volume (duh!), but an increase in overall performance at high levels…which leads us to minimalist training. Say, for example, you have a brand-new baby in the house or you just got a full-time job. Does this mean you’re done climbing forever? It doesn’t have to. You just have to get rid of all the useless training you’ve been doing and focus on the important stuff. Things that have to change:
- Long sessions and easy volume. Easy climbing and lots of hanging out between attempts are often a waste of time. You need to focus on quality.
- If you do resistance training, get rid of everything but a couple of full-body exercises. Every time I see someone doing crunches, it makes me want to scream. Want to get strong or skinny? Get intense full-body work done.
- If you are doing any cardiovascular training (running, cycling, etc.), dump the long, slow efforts and turn yourself into an interval-master. There’s never been anyone who got better at climbing by jogging. I constantly get disputed on this, but I’m not wrong.
- At the crag, forget about projecting for a while. Crag days take hours and hours, so focus on hitting routes you can do in 1-2 tries. Besides, onsight climbing close to your limit kicks the crap out of you.
- Track what you’re doing. Rather than adding more time to workouts or pitches to climbing days, make each effort harder.
Let’s say you don’t have access to boulders or a climbing wall. I don’t really want to wade into the argument on whether lifting weights is a good substitute for climbing, so I’ll just say this: if you have to train in a weight room don’t waste your time with single joint exercises. I think the best short resistance workout for climbers would be something along the lines of 2-3 full-body movements performed at medium to high loads with insufficient rest. Things like cleans, kettlebell snatches, pull-ups, or get-ups are miles better than kickbacks and leg extensions. There are hundreds of good, hard workouts that fit the bill. Find something that fits your schedule and then do it, and go really hard.
If you have access to a hangboard, there are hundreds of shitty workouts you can do…you can usually find these at manufacturers’ websites. For a really good workout, check out the Hangboard Ladders.
You might be surprised how little regular training can keep you at a level of relatively high fitness. Numerous studies (and tons of anecdotal evidence) show that a person can maintain maximum strength levels for months with just one intense workout every 5-7 days. Endurance is harder to maintain, but also easier to get back.
When you’ve only got a few minutes to train, train to be strong.