By Steve Bechtel

When it comes to performance, every single climber I have ever known has struggled with plateaus. In fact, when someone I talk to seems to just keep getting better, I’m more inclined to punch them in the face than to hear another word of how fun it all is and how they can’t wait to go apply their fitness on some big wall somewhere. As coaches, the first time we get to meet most of our athletes is when they get stuck—and usually by the time they contact a professional about fixing the issue, they’ve already tried “everything.”

Everything, except discipline.

Here’s why I’m not a good influencer: I just tell people the same stuff, year after year. I’m not promoting a new supplement, or some silly bodyweight-only training, or a miracle training device. I’m not going to debate the finer points of hangboard protocols. I’m just going to say that if your training isn’t working, it’s probably worth stepping back and reassessing… and them making real changes. If you’re weak, it might not be your sets and reps. It might be that you don’t try very hard. Or you chase fatigue. 

Today, let’s look at one of the things that all of us know we should be doing but are not doing. This is a simple fix and it works like crazy for almost everyone who tries it. Best of all, it doesn’t take even a moment more time than you’re already spending. It’s simple session variability.


Most of us base our session length on two factors: Available time that day or available energy for training. Life schedules are a real thing and fitting training time into the day is a constant issue. We can deal with that separately. The issue at hand is our adaptation to training load. We each have a fixed amount of possible energy for activity. We either get tired, are too sore to train again, or risk injury with too much training. The essential point of session variability is to enhance our bodies’ ability to make the changes desired in training.

With this in mind, I propose we let go of our default session, which for most of us is probably a somewhat fixed amount of time we spend in the gym at a somewhat fixed intensity. I can’t tell you the number of climbers who “don’t have time to train” simply because they have fewer than three hours that day!

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Three Types of Sessions

In our simple session variability model (hat tip to Jack Daniels and to Joel Jamieson), we look at three primary types of training sessions. (And a fourth...)

Developmental Sessions

The first is what we call a developmental session. In this session, we are seeking to overload the system in order to develop a new level of performance. These sessions can be focused on greater intensity (going harder / heavier on exercises or climbs) or on greater duration (going longer). It is rare that we benefit from doing both in the same session, as the overload is probably too much for our reluctant bodies to adapt to. 

Most of us like the idea that each session we do is a developmental session. We seek out physical markers of having worked hard, such as sweat, weak muscles, nausea, or soreness. There is a twofold problem here. First, our bodies have a hard time adapting to constant increases in load and volume. Most of us can truly handle just two developmental sessions per week. Second, the perceived markers of a successful workout are not really that at all. We can create any of the states listed above during submaximal efforts, in poor environments, or with novel training we’re simply not used to. For example, we could do a general grip training workout with weights, ropes, grippers, etc. and leave a strong climber very sore…and not trained in the direction of greater climbing performance.

Developmental sessions are essential to progress. When reviewing many athletes’ training, we can see that either their average session is too hard to provide good recovery (and thus hard enough training within these sessions), or they tend to be too conservative with their hard training. These sessions are asking more of your body than it wants to give, and the body will tell you so. You’ll feel tired. Thirsty. Like you’ve done enough. In these sessions, you want to look at what you did in a similar session last time, and do a bit more.

Reinforcement Sessions

The second category of training sessions is the Reinforcement Session. These sessions are not throw-away “medium” sessions, but an essential part of reminding the body that the previous training loads should be “expected as normal from now on.” This session is probably going to be around your average length of training currently, and although the loads/grades will be hard, you’re not going to try to break any records. You go in, do the work, get out. 

These sessions are really good. The crazy thing is that many of us have never even considered trying to just go into the gym and not go harder, so it feels really odd at first. You’ll feel strong enough to go heavier, but you won’t. You’ll feel like you could do more problems, but you don’t. Could do one more pitch, but your discipline overrides, and you pack it in. In the classic parlance of “go hard or go home,” you go home.

A person doing two developmental days a week can probably do a couple of reinforcement sessions each week without much problem, and the effect will be just that, reinforcing the improvements you made in the hard sessions. The long-term result will be longer improvement curves, fewer injuries, and probably less dread of the gym!

Restorative Sessions

Restorative sessions need to be seen as “un-training.” When we think of restorative sessions, we think easy bodyweight circuits, warm-up level climbing (or easier), hiking, easy swimming, and the like. The hallmark of a restorative session is that we will be better prepared for subsequent sessions afterward. This means that your restorative session cannot leave you with a need for recovery. A long ski day, hour-long trail run, or the like might be “easy,” but did they assist with recovery, or did they prolong it?

I like to see an athlete start with at least two sessions per week of intentional restoration. The simple starting point is to plan two 30-minute walks each week. Clearly, these can happen even the same day as a reinforcement or developmental session. As an athlete seeks to add harder training on the developmental days, I ask that they add more restorative sessions, too. If they simply can’t imagine it, it’s clear that they don’t have the capacity for more hard training. 

Restorative sessions move waste products out of muscle, relieve soreness, and enhance the metabolism. If done correctly, they can reduce recovery time between developmental efforts, and are 100% worth the time you invest in them.

A Muerte

There is one other session format I find useful, but not for the reasons one might think. Once each training cycle, it can be useful to give everything to an effort, whether it be in the gym or at the crag. This should be a long session with lots of intensity, lots of rest, and ending with lots of volume. It’s more about seeing what you can handle emotionally and mentally. Physically, these sessions will leave you wiped out and requiring a lot of recovery. They don’t make good training sessions on a weekly basis (and if you’re always going to the death, I say you’re never going all that hard…). 

A good weekly session structure will usually include one or two Developmental sessions, 2-3 Reinforcement sessions, and anywhere from 2-5 Restorative sessions. Some weeks might be heavier on hard training, and some will be mostly restorative. Some of us think of “rest weeks” as 100% chill time on the couch, but many of us can get quite restored by simply changing the makeup of our sessions and sticking to the same schedule of training.


As noted in the title, this is a simple intervention. It is a very effective one. If you're stuck, it's probably not detailing out a more complex workout that is going to get you unstuck. It's going to be doing simple things better.


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 the globe bouldering, sport climbing, and doing first ascents of some of the world's biggest walls. 

He lives in Lander, Wyoming, with his wife Ellen, and children Sam and Anabel.



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