By Steve Bechtel
Program design is complex. Figuring out how to arrive at the weekend fresh for climbing is tough enough, let alone building a high peak for a trip or competition. For years, climbers have tested out different versions of periodized programs, mostly stolen from track and field or weightlifting. In typical periodized plans, we’d first build a base, then build some endurance, then we’d “peak.” Yet in this problematic approach, our peak was only capable of optimizing one energy system and that only for a short time. No big deal for an Olympic lifter, but a major bummer on your first trip to Siurana.
The problem with peaks in general is that our performance is optimized for only a very narrow window…and that window is hard to hit. More often than not, we’ll see climbers on a well-designed program have a great week or two just before their big trip, only to feel sluggish and weak when they finally get to the destination crag. Timing a peak, which is essentially overtraining and then stopping overtraining at the right moment, can be a real challenge. Most of us end up missing.
I have fought against this potential outcome by arguing in favor of nonlinear or alternating linear programs. I advocate a nonlinear program in my wildy popular and best-selling book (Over 100 copies sold!), Logical Progression. In such a plan, you switch the training focus each workout for a 3 or 4 workout cycle, such as strength, then power, then endurance. An alternating linear plan sees you focus solely on one energy system or session type, such as strength for 3 full weeks, then switch to another system for the ensuing three weeks, such as endurance. In such a plan, the idea is to come back to a system you have trained up within a brief enough time (21 days) to assure those abilities don’t degrade too much. Then, you simply go back and forth between the two.
Both of these styles work great, as do the more complex (and maintenance-heavy) block programs. More recently, though, I have started working on cycles that follow the “Pendulum Principle”, a planning model first used in the 1960s and 1970s to extend the duration of peaks in sports with long competition seasons. This appealed to me because of the nature of our sport and the long seasons of performance we all seek.
In such a cycle, you would build up a high volume of training in, ideally, strength and power over the course of 4-8 weeks. You would then alternate between two microcycle structures:
- The Sport-Specific Microcycle (7-10 days) wherein you do high-intensity sport-specific work, such as hard bouldering and specific route-length conditioning / intervals. For boulderers, you could skip the second part, and focus more on building capacity for longer sessions.
- The Contrasting Microcycle (4-7 days) during which you would do easy aerobic exercise, work on mobility, and rest a lot.
In the most common pendulum model, coaches prescribe sport-specific cycles to contain competitions, or if there were none, mock competitions. Athletes would switch between the two types of cycles up to four times before moving onto other training, about 6 to 9 weeks. This type of plan would be appropriate during a run-up to comp season or during weekend trips to the Red in October and November. Ideally, your overall training load (a combination of volume and intensity) would increase each sport-specific cycle, and would decrease each contrasting cycle, adding bigger and bigger variations in the load as you progress.
Performance days would fall toward the beginning of each sport-specific cycle, and then you’d train and work hard until your next big break. I know…4-7 days of not climbing seems crazy, but it can work wonders for athletes that have over-adapted to “mediumness”…climbing too much to climb well, and staying stuck. This also works great for people who are “trying to seem like they care” – giving plenty of time for long walks and bike rides with your alleged loved one between dedicated training time at the gym or on the boulders.
An Example Sport-Specific Cycle
Day 1: Bouldering Comp or comp simulation – 3.0 hours hard bouldering with long rests.
Day 2: Mobility and 30 minutes easy walking
Day 3: Medium-Hard Bouldering 45-60 minutes | Hangboard Strength Maintenance
Day 4: Boulders On The Minute 2 x 20 with 10 min between
Day 5: Mobility and 30 minutes easy walking
Day 6: Limit Bouldering 120 minutes | Campus Power Maintenance
Day 7: Mobility and 30 minutes easy walking
Day 8: Bouldering Comp or comp simulation – 3.0 hours hard bouldering with long rests.
An Example Contrasting Cycle
Day 1: Start new Netflix series | Shop for food | Meal prep
Day 2: More Netflix | 45-60 minutes EASY activity, walking or cycling
Day 3: Start second Netflix series | Pay attention to kids/pets/spouse | Check email
Day 4: More Netflix | 45-60 minutes EASY activity, walking or cycling
Day 5: Meal prep for next cycle | 45-60 minutes EASY activity, walking or cycling
- Please don’t contact me for specific programming details. We play with a lot of possible session sequences, and I don’t really have anything solid yet. When we have pendulum-style plans tested, they’ll show up in the Plans section of the site.
- A lot of the programming models I suggest fall far away from our standard 3x-per-week-and-climbing-on-the-weekends plans. This doesn’t automatically make them stupid or not capable of working. If you are stuck and not getting any better, you owe it to yourself to try something new and give it a real shot…you are running out of time.