By Steve Bechtel
I remember the first time I learned about classical periodization plans. The whole idea of planning out my training according to easily defined phases which would lead to spectacular results appealed to the eternally plateaued climber in me much the way x-ray specs appealed to me as a nine-year-old. I tried a few different variations on the idea (which took many, many months) and saw decent results. Decent, but not spectacular. And although the appeal of switching from strength to power to endurance leading up to my few glorious weeks as a superhuman was strong, my desire to climb better, more often, was stronger.
In 2002, I wrote an article on periodization for Climbing Magazine (as a side note, it’s the first of many training articles I wrote for them and the only one they ever bothered to pay for. I know, I’m an idiot). Don’t bother looking up the article…the model I suggested doesn’t work all that well. Udo Neumann’s example in Performance Rock Climbing is much better. I’ll argue, though, that it’s still not the best we can do.
“Clearly, finding a way to spend longer cycles at high-levels of load are critical to one’s progress.”
One of the reasons classical models of periodization are attractive is that they make intuitive sense. Start with a broad base of fitness, hone it to a sharp peak, and you’ll improve. The really cool thing is that they work; almost every training plan, followed to its end, results in positive changes. But for advanced athletes, and almost every climber that decides its time to start training should be pretty advanced, classical models start to fall apart.
For those unfamiliar with the classic model, it features a shift from general physical preparation to specific training while moving from low intensity to high intensity and from simple movements to complex movements. Visually, it might look like the graphic below:
And that’s when we started seeing problems…
The Problems with the Model
- Volume (or the lack thereof): As a climber and a coach, I couldn’t figure out how to tell myself or athletes to increase their intensity and reduce the amount of time climbing, all in the hope that hard redpoints would result. The massive reduction in volume (explained by proponents of classic models as needed to decrease CNS [central nervous system] fatigue) ran counter to what I saw every day at the crag. In the real world, more volume, or at least sustained volume, was needed to perform better.
In a classic model, one trends from high-volume / low-intensity training to low-volume / high-intensity training. In many classic models, we’re looking at a total drop in training time of up to 90%…do any of us really want to go from doing 3000 moves per week to just 300? These reductions in load are so severe the climber faces a real problem with fitness in order to develop maximum power and strength.
One thing we can see in almost every elite-level climber is that they put in the time…a lot of it. Perfection of movement requires a lot of movement, and at a high standard. Climbing loads of 5.10 will not translate well to climbing 5.14. A top-level climber (or one who has been hovering at the same grade for a long time) will not receive enough practice at high levels with just one or two months’ work a year near his limit. Clearly, finding a way to spend longer cycles at high-levels of load are critical to one’s progress. Elite climbers in our sport don’t waste very much time at all with anything except hard climbing.
- Retention of Fitness: One of the great things about concentrated training, i.e. working exclusively on one facet of your fitness for 4-6 weeks, is that you see substantial improvements. The big drawback? When you stop working on that facet and move on to the next, your fitness in that facet gradually declines. In general, the more highly-intense the exercise, the more quickly the gains are lost. This is of paramount importance to climbers and should be a major concern in any training plan.
If a climber performs maximum power training only twice per year for, say, 4 weeks, there is every indication that power gains made during these brief periods will be completely lost by the next phase, resulting in a zero-gain season to season.
- The Curve: By the curve, I mean the very rapid increase in intensity that is prescribed in the classic plan. Although some ground-based sports such as soccer or baseball might allow one to intensify their training this rapidly, the demands of climbing most definitely will not. Since much of the prescribed training in a classic build-up is low to medium intensity, we’re asking climbers to start pulling on little holds a whole bunch once the intensity phase is reached near the end of the training cycle. Again, going from big holds, close together, on less-steep walls doesn’t prepare us well for the opposite. Two or three rapid increases in intensity per year are almost certainly a recipe for injury, and likely will lead to CNS overload, which leads us to a shorter performance window.
A beginning climber would probably benefit from this model, having a need for both strength and volume, and having a lot of room to “grow.” But when you’re a veteran and your multi-season goal is an advance of one letter grade, you’re wasting serious time hanging out on the easy stuff. If an athlete is capable of climbing 5.12s without needing a terribly long time to recover, they’re wasting time climbing lots of 5.10 and 5.11 routes.
- Injury: Climbing stresses the delicate tissues of the hand and upper extremities in ways that no Eastern Bloc weightlifting coach could have possibly comprehended when the classic models were first planned. The intensification curve at the end of these sequences is too much for the small muscles of the forearm to handle, let alone the tendons of the fingers and hand. We’ve got to understand that there is a disconnect between the intent of the model and the way climbers apply it. Follow Bompa’s model, and you’ll either undertrain or get hurt.
It’s imperative that climbers realize the magic in training is not the plan but the execution, not what happens on Excel, but how hard they can push when it comes time to push.