By Steve Bechtel
I get a ton of questions about whether periodization is effective. The answer, unequivocally, is yes, periodized training works. The confusion comes in that many climbers don’t really know what periodization is. In fact, many climbing coaches read an article or two about classic periodization models (i.e. Bompa or Matveyev) and they quickly decide that periodization doesn’t apply to hard climbing, or is too hard to implement on a normal climber’s schedule.
It’s a lot simpler than that. Periodization is simply planning to focus one’s training efforts more heavily on certain facets of fitness than others at certain times of the year. There is not an elite-level athlete in any major sport in the world that doesn’t work off some kind of periodized plan, whether they mean to or not. Would you rather decide how you’ll perform, or would you rather have it decided for you?
“Climbers can perform well without planning, but can they climb their best?”
The problem most people find with classic models of periodization, is that while you develop one facet of your strength, the other facets suffer. For those unfamiliar with this type of model, you can reference it HERE. Whole books and courses have been dedicated to this model, and it works pretty well for many athletes. A graph of a typical model:
Pretty attractive, eh? It doesn’t really work that well for climbers, though.
How about the chart below? Looks great, but you’re dreaming if you think you’re going to follow that kind of plan for a whole year. Most climbers I know can’t even stick to the plan for a day.
Although I do love spreadsheets, I like plans that work even better. Over several years of writing and testing climbing training plans, we’ve found a few important changes to such a model that really help our athletes get the most out of training.
Most climbers in North America are on a winter/summer plan, and often you’ll see a climber who boulders indoors in the winter, climbs routes in the spring, cycles back for a few months, and then redpoints again in the fall. Although this climber might perform pretty well during parts of these phases, there is a 3-5 week transition phase between each of these “seasons” where the climber doesn’t do much of note.
This is not a problem isolated to climbing, and modern coaches have come up with several more functional models of training to try to improve year-round performance. A few of these are explained below:
First popularized by Charles Poliquin, this model of periodization solves the major volume/intensity problems we see with the classic model. In classic periodization, volume decreases in a linear fashion, while intensity increases. In this model, both qualities undulate over the training cycle. He described his phases as accumulation (increasing volume) and intensification(increasing intensity or load).
In unduating periodization, weight lifters would work on increasing the total number of sets in a given workout during the accumulation phase. Intensification would follow for three weeks, where the athlete would attempt to add heavier loads to training. In our world, a boulderer might work on building up the number of problems per workout, and then cycle into increasing the difficulty, and then back. This would be done on three-week phases, and would not feature any recovery or unload weeks until performance season begins.
This model of planning is based on cycling through workouts that each focus on different facets of fitness. For example, a climber might do a hangboard strength session on Monday, a bouldering session on Wednesday, a linked-problem workout on Friday, and a volume day at the crag on Sunday. He’d then repeat the sequence, regardless of which specific day of the week the sessions were performed. Some weeks might feature five workouts, others just two. The nice thing is that performance stays pretty high the whole time.
On a slightly more organized level, one could focus training by adding in additional sessions for types of climbing that he needs to develop. Care must be taken to ensure one is working on facets that need improvement rather than those the climber prefers. An example of a sequence for a climber trying to transition from winter bouldering to route climbing might be: Strength – linked problems – bouldering – linked problems – volume – linked problems.
This is a more intuitive method, which provides short-term rewards such as year-round sends and decent overall fitness. Although attractive, we’ve not seen peak performance from athletes on such a plan. I’m guessing that bringing in an unload week every 4-5 weeks might help, but we haven’t run athletes on this program in a couple of years.
Conjugate Periodization (The Westside Method):
Conjugate training is a method of training powerlifters that is a variation of classic concurrent training models. There is a serious “cool factor” to Westside, but we’ve got to remember that their model is based solely on powerlifting. The general idea is to focus one’s efforts on improving one quality in a given session or phase while maintaining others. This sounds a lot like what climbers do, but Westside’s training demands are much more focused than a climber’s. Powerlifters are trying to develop maximum strength for one repetition.
There is no climber that doesn’t address multiple qualities in each and every workout; we’re trying to develop strength to stay in contact with the holds, power to move between them, coordination, strength-endurance, the endurance to climb entire pitches, and the stamina to make it through a long climbing day. Even if we don’t train all of these, there is no way to avoid cross-over; the sport demands it.
Although extremely popular, there is not a lot of evidence to support these methods. Westside athletes put up impressive numbers, but this type of training is often accompanied by performance-enhancing drugs, which makes it difficult to see how non-enhanced athletes might perform. And remember, these guys are training more narrowly than we are. Where Westside’s training goals are all synergistic (strength, power, recruitment), climbing for endurance and climbing for power are divergent, and in most cases counter-act each other.
Progressive Resistance Exercise (PRE):
Stuart McRoberts advocates a really simple system for training. In this system, an athlete lifts progressively heavier weight each week. For inexperienced athletes, this is a great plan, for more experienced ones, it’s very good. This is a really easy system to apply to climbing, and although simplistic, is astonishingly effective if carried to fruition.
Think about it: you’re bouldering for an hour at a time in the gym, two days a week. You do 15 problems each day on average, but each day you force yourself to do harder problems. By the end of eight weeks, the necessary load has advanced both your power and your strength. As simple as this is, it’s the single-best preseason training we’ve ever done, and despite our love of spreadsheets and formulae, this is simple enough that even aid climbers could figure it out.
Climbers can perform well without planning, but can they climb their best? An important consideration for any athlete is to assess whether talent and training are both being maximized. There are limitless possibilities when it comes to organizing training. The only real failure you can make is to not organize it at all.