By Ty Mack
A Cautionary Tale
My good friend and longtime climbing partner Kirk Billings used to spend his winters bouldering in Hueco Tanks and cooking at Todd Skinner’s training compound. He got to climb with many of the top climbers of the era and witness all manner of novel approaches to climbing and training. One of Kirk’s stories from his Hueco days serves as a vivid example of the challenge of applying too much specificity in climbing training.
The tale revolves around two strong British climbers. Undoubtedly they were named Dave. In Kirk’s memory, all the British climbers in the 1990’s were named Dave (except of course Ben and Jerry). To distinguish between them, the Hueco crew were forced to give visiting Brits descriptive nicknames, like “Dave the Brit”, “Stinky Dave”, “Strong Dave,” and “The Troll.”
Two of these 1990’s Daves were determined to repeat New Map of Hell, a legendary Hueco testpiece that checked in at V12, which was pretty much the pinnacle of difficulty at the time. Before they departed from their first Hueco visit, Kirk spotted the Daves engaged in a curious project. They were meticulously creating tinfoil molds of every hold on New Map of Hell, packing them gently in Tupperware for transport, and then using strings, tapes, and protractors to measure the precise positioning of the holds.
Upon returning to the UK, the Daves built a “perfect“ replica of New Map of Hell in their home gym, undoubtedly situated in a dank cellar or stifling attic. For the next 11 months, they dedicated themselves to training on this replica until they could both run multiple laps on the problem in a given session. Success on the real boulder problem assured, the Daves flew confidently back to El Paso, sped to East Mountain at Hueco Tanks, and shoed up under New Map of Hell. Instead of quickly sending, they were shocked to discover they still could not climb the problem! It turned out their replica wasn't quite accurate; the actual holds were smaller, more peculiarly shaped, and positioned farther apart. Despite all the coordination and highly specific strength they had built, it did not translate to success on the genuine New Map of Hell.
The postscript to this story is instructive as well. One Dave quickly reoriented and had a successful Hueco trip, taking advantage of his fitness and notching ticks of multiple classic boulder problems. The other Dave never recovered from his New Map humiliation and spent the trip despondently failing to climb a footless dyno eliminate that he created. Perhaps this could be deconstructed in a separate essay about mindset…
Replicas are one extreme version of specificity in climbing training. Modern 3D scanning and digital fabrication technologies are a quantum leap past tinfoil molds, and companies specializing in replica holds are already springing up. This is an exciting trend, and Will Bosi’s recent success on Burden of Dreams after training on a replica highlights the potential of this technique. However, replicas are still impractical for most climbers. Thankfully, there are many more options for introducing more specificity into our climbing training.
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What is Specificity?
Climbing is a remarkably diverse sport. The demands of a three move boulder problem are much different than those of a 20-hour alpine ridge traverse. As such, specificity should be a pillar of our training for rock climbing. At its most basic, specificity means training that simulates the sport. But it can be broken down further into two categories: motor specificity and metabolic specificity. Motor specificity means training movement that is similar to the performance event. Metabolic specificity means training the same energy systems as the performance event.
Motor specificity is easier for most climbers to understand. If your project involves static moves on a horizontal roof, training on slabby coordination problems at your bouldering gym is not going to be very specific. The biggest factors for motor specificity are hold size and type and wall angle, as those elements determine the nature of climbing movement. So you can make your training more specific by training on terrain (indoors or out) that resembles your climbing goals in wall angle and hold size.
This type of specificity can be surprisingly hard to implement. Plastic and wooden footholds rarely resemble real rock. Many hold types, like sharp crimps, are rarely found in modern climbing gyms (for obvious reasons!). And the Moon Board in my garage is way steeper than every single one of my current projects!
Most climbers find metabolic specificity is a bit trickier to wrap their heads around. We use a combination of different energy systems on nearly every climb and some of the differences are subtle. Did I fall because I was powered down or pumped? The terminology is also confusing: power-endurance, intensive endurance, anaerobic alactic…yikes!
The standard approach to achieving metabolic specificity is to mimic in your training the loads, durations, and rest periods found on your actual performance climbing goal.
“Exercises are not specific, adaptations are.”
This quote from Dr. Tyler Nelson of Camp4 Human Performance makes a very important point about specificity. What really matters is the changes (adaptations) our bodies make in response to our training, not the training itself. So just doing random exercises and workouts, even ones that seem “highly specific,” is not the best path to higher performance over time. We are better served by first identifying the types of adaptations we need to make. Then we need to choose not just the right exercises but also the proper intensity and duration. Finally, because the adaptations we desire don’t happen immediately, we also need to get the frequency right.
When to Get Specific
One common approach to sending projects is to simply climb on them as frequently as possible. For those blessed with projects near home with a nice long season this might be a reasonable strategy. “Might” is the key word though. Most climbers are ill-served by the endless siege approach to projects. The inevitable periods of lack of progress can lead to frustration and mental hurdles. For others, the repetitive stresses are a quick path to injury or burnout.
A better approach may be to start general and gradually increase the specificity of your training over time. For a Wild Iris project with long pulls between monos, I know I need the adaptations of pulling muscle recruitment as well as coordination and tendon stiffness in my middle fingers. So I can start to work in a general way on these particular adaptations by doing one arm rows and hangboarding on monos. Then I move to more specific applications of these adaptations: boulder problems on a spray wall involving pulls between monos. Finally, I start spending time on my Wild Iris project, or bribe the setters in my gym into setting a replica for me.
“Climbing is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical”
The actual Yogi Berra quote was about baseball, and while the numbers don’t quite add up this quote applies nicely to rock climbing. In addition to the physical, we should all be spending time training our mental skills and specificity can be effectively incorporated here as well.
Think about all the subtle elements of your climbing goal. Will the crag be crowded? Try going to the gym during peak hours so you are accustomed to the frenetic energy. Will conditions be particularly hot (or cold)? Crank the heat or open the doors and windows at your home wall. Does your project have slippery holds? Put some of those on your spray wall to get used to the feeling. Is the crux move well above a bolt? Spend some time taking practice falls and put yourself into similar situations whenever possible.
Practicing your pre-climb rituals during your training with an eye toward specificity is also a great approach. Many climbers benefit from a brief visualization of crux sequences, as well as breathing exercises to adjust their energy levels before attempts on projects. Working these exercises regularly into your training will undoubtedly improve their effectiveness for you in the performance setting.
Even things like wearing a tight knee pad, a full rack on your harness, or a backpack can be distracting if you are not accustomed to them. Consider adding these elements to some of your training sessions if they are required by your projects. Better to endure a few confused stares or snickers at your gym or sport crag than to feel flustered and uncomfortable when the time comes to fire the crux pitch of your dream route.
Specific but Simple
A lot of this discussion of specificity sounds complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Many aspects of specificity boil down to mimicking in your training the characteristics of your climbing goal to the greatest degree possible. Start with angle, hold type, and number of moves, as those are the biggest factors. But don’t limit yourself to that: get creative, get specific, and have fun!
ABOUT TY MACK
Ty was fortunate to grow up as a climber in Lander, WY during one of its many “golden eras” and now has more than 30 years of climbing under his belt. Though a sport climber at heart, Ty is a generalist with a myriad of diverse ascents: big wall free climbs in Yosemite and Zion, ice and mixed routes, headpoints, and highball boulder problems.