by Steve Bechtel
We prescribe training. We write down a list of exercises, hand them off to climbers, and the climbers go off to the gym and follow the instructions. Some of them come back and are pleased, some are underwhelmed. Some of them get great results, and some stay flat. It’s not necessarily that one program is good and another is not. Frequently, it is the mindset and the skill set of the athlete that makes all the difference.
It would be convenient if all we had to do was to go through the motions. The reality of training is that progress is hard fought and can drop away quickly. There are several ways of getting more out of each gym session. Josh Hillis has been a leader in the fat loss and performance training realm in the last few years, and a few of his insights apply well to what we do in the climbing gym. I want to expand on these ideas and address a few of them here.
The Two Mistakes
Probably based on our athletic history and our genetics, people tend to trend toward enjoying either strength-based movement or endurance-based movement a bit more than the other. At its most extreme, people will either way over-do it in a workout or way under-do it. Some people really like the feeling of getting warm and breathing hard. When told to do three sets of ten reps, they will pick a moderate weight, do a quick ten, impatiently wait until a few seconds have passed, and then launch into the subsequent sets.
Strength-focused lifters will see three sets of ten on the workout board, load up the weights they’d usually use for sixes, and go to the death on three sets, resting ten minutes between. Both were three sets of ten, both had the same intent when the coach wrote the session. Neither athlete got what the coach had hoped out of the session.
If we go too light, lift “toning” loads, very little happens. No, we don’t build endurance. No, we don’t burn fat on top of the muscles. Nor do we tighten, lengthen, or strengthen. Too heavy is also a problem: if we over-load the exercises, we risk injury, extend required recovery times, and learn to use “whatever it takes” form.
For the most part, exercises should be hard enough that you can do all the reps prescribed, but barely. If you could have done 15 reps, your loading was too light. If you start to sway and swing and slow down the movement at rep 8, you picked too difficult a load.
This also happens at the crag. I think we all can agree that just getting some pitches in sometimes is ok. We can also agree that having a project is a great learning experience and motivator to focus our training. The issue comes when we do nothing except one kind of climbing. Here is a simple little rule for those who tend to go too easy: Never have two “no falls” days in a row. We don’t have to be throttling ourselves, but we do need to push. 5.11 doesn’t do much to prepare you for the strain of 5.13.
A top skill to build in the gym is understanding your internal focus. Internal focus includes all of the things going on inside your body during a training session. This can include awareness of muscular tension, of breathing, of holding the breath, and even your mindset during a particular exercise. One of the things I notice in my own bouldering is that sometimes I’ll do a sequence poorly at the beginning of a boulder, and will decide that the whole attempt is shot. Occasionally, I’ll climb well up to a crux, but get intimidated by the move, worry about an injury, or let some other thought creep in and destroy my focus. Mastering internal focus reduces these errors.
In movement, many people just do the exercise without an awareness of what they are doing. Are they bracing? Are they creating enough power or tension in the correct parts of the movement and enough relaxation in others? The most difficult part of strength training is keeping your mind on the movements, and continuing to build the skills every session. Too often our internal focus becomes thinking about the rest of our day, what we’ll do after the session, etc.
Developing an awareness of what goes on inside the body and mind during a movement will dictate your success both in that movement and in the entire training session. One good tactic for learning to pay attention to internal focus is to log it. A simple short sentence after each boulder problem or set in the gym will reveal a lot about your training session, and will show immediate good results, especially if focus is an issue for you.
Your external focus is what is going on with your movement and with the environment around you. How are you holding the weights? What position are your fingers in on the hangboard? Are your feet placed properly on the holds? The external focus encompasses everything you are gathering through your sight, hearing, and other senses. The quality of your balance, of how the weights move, and the way you move on the boulders are all largely driven by external focus.
Your external focus also encompasses distractions. Loud music in the gym, another person training close to you, conversations people are having around you (or with you) all serve to compete with your focus on executing your training.
Good movement requires both internal and external foci, and the same recommendation of writing things down applies to external focus as it does to internal – write down or video each exercise or set and then review. Keep in mind that we rarely climb as well as we feel like we are, and a ton of good feedback comes from observing our external cues. You might feel silly videoing yourself, but the progress is worth it.
Strength training is really just a vehicle for people to learn to create tension. This is a big part of the Strength Training portion of the forthcoming Performance Climbing Coach Certification. From Charlie Manganiello’s section in the certification textbook:
“One of the most powerful techniques is the ability to create tension in all your muscles to perform what is called muscle irradiation. If athletes create more tension in other muscle groups, that energy will spill over and make them stronger and more stable.
In short, there are a few key muscle groups that athletes should fire when pressing weight overhead or for any big lifts (squats, deadlift, turkish get-up, etc).
Tense your forearms (Make a tight fist or crush the barbell)
Abs (Brace for the punch)
Quads (Draw the kneecaps to the hips)
Glutes (“Crack the nut” between your butt cheeks)
By tensing all these muscle groups, it makes the Central Nervous System (CNS) feel safe and athletes will find they will generate more power.
Have you ever tried to jump and kick as high as you can, with crocs on your feet on a wet linoleum floor? The CNS doesn’t feel safe and will shut it down before you do your best Bruce Lee impersonation. Sometimes, 18 year old males can trick their CNS into trying it anyway. “Hold my beer CNS, and watch this!” Not a good time to display power!
Another cue for athletes is to have them imagine they are screwing their feet down into the ground. Without actually pivoting on the feet imagine driving the heels into the ground. By doing this, athletes will actually flex the quads and glutes, which is what we want.
Being able to tense these major muscle groups while performing your lift is something that needs to practice, just like practicing movements on the wall. It will take some time to feel like everything is firing all at once. At first it will feel clunky for the athlete. However, if athletes practice it enough it will become second nature and they’ll feel the strength in their lifts and on the rock.
A quick tip: it can be hard to clench the bare hand if a single arm lift is being performed. Try squeezing a hand towel or water bottle. It may feel better and stronger at first when you’re learning.
One really great way to practice full body tension is the hardstyle plank. It’s hard enough to practice while athletes are still learning a new lift and practicing tension techniques. In the hardstyle plank they can focus just on tension. This is also a great core exercise and puts a little spice on the traditional plank.
The hardstyle plank is hard, if done correctly, and should be held for about 10-20 seconds. No more two minutes planks!
Remember, if you’re “feeling the burn,” you’re not training strength. Feeling the burn is the kind of muscle fatigue you get when you’re sweating profusely, painting, and having the rubber arm feeling you get after 10 back-to-back top rope laps on some climb you shouldn’t be doing laps on.
In the hardstyle plank, an athlete is on their forearms, elbows and shoulders in-line, feet about shoulder width apart, and on the toes. When the timer starts, draw the knee caps to the hips (tensing the quads), crack the nut (tensing the glutes), brace for the punch (tensing the abs), and squeeze the fists. The athlete should be quivering and don’t forget to tell them to breathe by taking small sniffs of air through the nose and purge air out through the mouth with a “tsst…tsst…tsst,” then have them take another sniff of air. We call this breathing “behind the shield.” (To make the “tsst” sound, put the tongue on the roof of your mouth, flex the abs, and force air out). Tell them to give their best Ondra or Sharma try hard!
Put these hardstyle planks in between sets to reinforce this new skill. These tension techniques should be used with any strength lift. Does this feel any different then the tension required for a really hard move on the wall? It shouldn’t. This is yet another way to practice keeping tight when we are trashed from climbing the day previous or our skin is wrecked.
Having athletes learn the movement and how to create tension is a mandatory prerequisite before lifting heavy loads or doing really hard bouldering.
Relaxation on Command
Relaxation is the yang to tension’s yin. The more quickly a climber can relax after a hard movement or section of climbing the quicker she’ll recover for what’s coming next. In endurance climbing, I don’t believe that getting better and holding on tight is the secret to success, I think learning to turn down your level of excitement/arousal/fear is miles more important.
The “Hold on Loosely” drill is a good place to start. You can practice this anytime you are climbing. Simply pause mid-route/mid-boulder, and try to loosen your grip and relax your midsection until you just reach the edge of slipping from the holds. If you give it enough time, the practice becomes more comfortable (a bit scary on lead at first!), and more automatic.
You can combine the aforementioned drill with breathing skills, such as nasal-in breathing, belly breathing, and simple deep breathing. In the weight room, exercises such as the kettlebell snatch can help teach you to switch between high power and static relaxation quickly. The quicker you can calm yourself both physically and emotionally, the greater your level of relaxation.
There is a huge emotional hurdle for many climbers here – fear causes tension, raised heart rates, and elevated shallow respiration. As fear grows (often as the climber gets higher and higher from the ground), endurance capacity plummets…no matter how many hours they trained on the Treadwall. It is essential to deal with fear before considering developing more physical capacity for endurance. If you don’t deal with the big issue, the small value you get from increasing your ability to hang on is inconsequential.
The most useful role of a personal trainer is to help with movement cueing. A good coach on the training floor can make up for hundreds of hours of trial-and-error and YouTube learning. I can’t tell you the number of people whom I’ve seen struggling with a lift that they’d learned online that “get it” almost immediately with a few good cues in person.
As strength coach Lee Brown put it, “If you’re not sure you’re doing it right, you’re not doing it right.” Although this idea applies in the weightroom, it applies doubly in the rock gym. Great movement coaches like Justen Sjong and Alex Bridgewater are worth double what they charge for hands-on coaching time. Why? Because the cues they can give are easy to remember and instantly applicable.
Yes, you need tension. Yes, you need to relax. But remember that climbing is a movement sport, and if you do that part badly, none of the rest of what we do matters. We should not endeavor to be the strongest 5.7 climber in the world, but the weakest 5.14 climber!
Sets and reps and sends matter. I can’t tell you, though, how many climbers I see struggle to progress because they can’t master tension or can’t relax, or just plain don’t move well. There is so much more than just checking the boxes in a workout. If you’re “doing everything right” and still not putting up the performances you expect, chances are it’s not the workout, but your workout skills that need work.