By Steve Bechtel

Training for bouldering is a little bit different than just bouldering. I submit that just bouldering itself is great for getting good at the sport, just as going running is a good way to get ready for a 5k. As you know, though, top runners don’t “just run.” In order to develop a strong set of skills, we need to address specific facets of the sport in a planned way. This is especially true for more advanced athletes – most of us get to a certain grade, then spend the rest of our career getting in and out of shape for this grade. If this is you, listen up.

Bouldering is a special sport. It is a high-skill sport as well as being physically demanding. Because the climber must develop multiple qualities all at once we tend to throw around a lot of terms such as strength, power endurance, stamina, and power. Although these terms are fairly well understood by rock climbers, they don’t necessarily translate to the accepted use of such terms in the field of strength and conditioning. Further, in our sport, we use multiple qualities all at once, so it’s hard to say whether you’re just training one particular facet of the sport. Is bouldering power? Is it strength? More importantly, does it matter?

“When you’re with me, you only need two minutes… because I’m so intense.”

With this in mind, I have structured this article not on these general terms, but on what we’re trying to achieve while bouldering. First, we have to hold on. Then we have to move between holds. For long problems, we have to keep moving. These roughly translate to strength, power, and power-endurance.

It is important to understand that a maximum level of strength and power cannot be maintained even by doing the most intense bouldering. We need to do other exercises to maximize bouldering. This does not contradict the principle of specificity, but reinforces it. The reason we do training outside the arena of bouldering is because bouldering’s multi-faceted nature doesn’t allow for sufficient focus on strength and power. When high levels of the sport are reached, training must become “partitioned” in order for the climber to advance. The hardest moves on rock simply cannot be correctly executed without sufficient strength.

The goal of training should be to maximally develop skills while minimizing damage to the body. Many of us are stuck training “medium.” We train too frequently to really train hard, still being tired from the previous day’s training. That feeling of fatigue might feel right to some. It’s not. Life in the middle is rough…it’s too hard to recover and too easy to get you strong. Think of it this way: getting your ass kicked on a problem doesn’t make you feel like you had a good session. Performing well on the rock makes you think you had a good session. Training should be performance directed.

Strength, or the ability to “Hold On”

OK, this might seem a little elementary, but bear with me. The fingers are the connection point between the body and the rock. The stronger the fingers and hand are, the easier this connection becomes. With this in mind, I believe that a dedication to developing strength in the hand and fingers should be a year-round career-long endeavor.

Although every bit of climbing you’ll do contributes to this strength, there is a point at which the random loading of everyday climbing is no longer enough to stimulate progress. That’s when planned training becomes critical. In order to get strong for climbing, we need to follow principles of overload and recovery as well as those of specific training. We’ll use multiple tools to develop this strength, using what are called “special preparatory exercises.”

These are exercises similar in movement pattern and/or metabolic demand to climbing. They are not “climbing itself” but rather parts of movements done to increase specific parameters of fitness; “just climbing” would not provide sufficient overload. This is especially useful when mastering new hold types (i.e. pockets) or new movements (i.e. heel hooks). By focusing on small improvements in key areas, our motor learning speed is multiplied.

The mechanism by which supplemental strength training helps climbers should be understood. The basic idea is that for any given move, a stronger climber will use a smaller percentage of his maximum strength, and will thus be better able to climb with technical correctness and will be more resistant to fatigue. If you can go two rounds with Tyson, you can go the distance with anyone else…

When we train for strength we want to:

  • address sport-specific motor patterns
  • address sport-specific metabolic pathways
  • progressively overload the system to cause an improvement in force generation
  • avoid doing anything that will negatively affect our climbing

A common theme we see is when a climber adds more time training (in the weight room or in special preparatory exercises) it leads to less – less improvement than expected, and possibly less performance overall. We’d rather see perfect work done in the gym with a totally fresh athlete, and see that athlete going all-out. Too much work at lighter loads tends to reduce the possibility of big strength gains.

The principles of developing strength are the same as developing power. Intensity is always king. You’ve got to come to each session ready to break records, not just “get a workout.” With that in mind, you need to have a way of measuring the work you do and the progress you make. And you need to make progress. Within a given training phase, you should see improvement with each and every high-level session. As soon as you are flat for two consecutive workouts, the phase should end, and you should transition to at least 1 week of active recovery. Have a goal for a strength day. Attain the goal. Go home.

Strength Session Design

I covered this a while back in a different article, but I want to put down the basic structure again before getting into specifics  Here is how we set up one of our “normal” strength sessions in our facility. I want to try to keep this as general as possible, so bear with me. A few things to keep in mind:

  • In strength training, the goal is to increase the strength of the athlete. If we train to fatigue, we screwed up.
  • We try to stick with the minimum amount of general supplemental training possible (i.e. non-climbing). This means, again, that we want to increase the strength of the athlete with as little work as we can. You don’t need to do super long sessions to do this. The easiest thing in world is to kick the hell out of an athlete. I like this saying: You can train long, and you can train hard, but you can’t train long and hard.
  • We have the advantage of having a climbing gym and weight room in the same location, so a “combined” workout is possible.
  1. Warm-Up: This has evolved a lot over the years. The whole goal is to be ready for strength training, so we do an eight exercise range-of-motion movement preparation sequence (a basic one is here), featuring shoulder and hip mobility drills, lunges, inchworms, and such. There are a lot of “movement preparation” workouts available online and in books. I really like Mark Verstegen’s movement prep in Core Performance. For athletes who are especially tight, we like to use foam rollers and medicine balls for self-massage.

After about ten minutes of this we try to get the hands and forearms warm. We do 2-4 sets of finger rolls on an Olympic Bar, a few reverse wrist curls, and 3-5 sets of long (10sec) edge hangs on big holds. Again, this is pretty easy and not designed to tire anyone out.

  1. Hangboard: We pick the three most common hand positions (open, half-crimp, and full crimp) but also consider the goal routes for that season, and add a fourth “goal” position, such as a shallow pocket or pinch. The session I like for 90% of the boulderers I talk to is 3-5 circuits of the four exercises, held for 3-5 seconds each (obviously on holds you can only hang onto for around that long). We want to rest a lot between sets of these; your tendons and joints are the limiter, not the forearm muscles, so you won’t “feel” the need to rest. On max strength workouts, I like to do one 3-5 second hang every 90 seconds, with hip and shoulder flexibility between.

We are also starting to use more single arm hangs in these sessions, which doesn’t really extend the sessions at all. The rationale? Many of our climbers are 20-30% stronger on one side than the other. By doing single side hangs, we force the weaker arm to do its share of the work.

  1. Systems Work: I’ve become really re-enamored with system training for quickly addressing weaknesses in a boulderer’s “structure.” This includes things like lock-off training, holding gastons, functional turn-out, and efficient undercling / sidepull body positioning. These sets require lots of rest between – even though you might be working on body tension, you’re always hammering the forearms. Frequently, we’ll back off the hangboard sets and add more system sets if the climber is really deficient in one ability.

For these sessions, we’ll pick two or three patterns to work, and do 3-5 sets of each. Total work time per set (per “side” of the body) should stay below 10 seconds to maximize strength gains. Going longer is fine during certain times of the year and is clearly something we do in real climbing. For creating maximum strength, though, we want to keep the intensity maxed.

  1. Resistance Strength Sets: If we are lifting weights, we do 4 exercises in two pairs with most of our climbers: Upper Body Pull (i.e. Inverted Row) + Unilateral Leg Exercise (i.e. Pistol Squat) and an Upper Body Press (i.e. Bench Press variation) + Hip Hinge Exercise (i.e. Deadlift). Athletes do a couple of warm-up sets, then it’s on to the work sets, which vary depending on the training phase. During performance climbing phases, we stick to 1-3 sets of 2-4 reps, never trying to push maximum numbers, but rather maintaining the levels achieved in the build phase. Maintenance levels are pretty easy to hold with not very much training time. Four exercises, 1 set each, and only 2 reps can be done in 10-12 minutes.

In a build phase or if a climber is really weak, we’ll allow a lot more focus on total body strength, trying to push out 12-15 good reps over 4-8 sets. This might be 3 sets of 5 (meaning you need to up the weight) all the way up to 8 sets of 2. I don’t really care which specific rep and set combos get used as long as the athlete is seeing progress. Total reps in a workout are more important than how many sets it takes to get there.

We do more mobility (2-4 minutes) between these sets. I’ve experimented with putting the hangboard work in these “rest” periods, but I’ve never been satisfied with the timing.

Fatigue should not be a factor in this workout. Take your time.

  1. Big Muscles: We do lock-offs, reach repeats, fly-aways, and other skill sets for 15-20 minutes. These are programmed according to the athlete’s goals and weaknesses, again. A note: We use huge holds for most of this stuff. If we use small holds, neural inhibition screws things up, plus it’s hard on the skin and joints. It also makes for a power-fest of deadpointing and crappy movement. We shut it down when quality of movement declines.

Power – the ability to move

Power is defined in strength and conditioning as roughly strength x speed. What it is in bouldering is the optimal sequencing of body positioning and movement to initiate travel between holds. There’s no secret that sometime you’ve got to give it some juice to make hard moves. Coordinating these perfectly is what it’s all about.

One of the greatest things I learned from reading the books of Charlie Francis is his belief that sprinters are “un-made” by doing too much medium-intensity training in their early development years. With this in mind, and by careful observation of top-level route climbers, we see that power development should underlie the initial and long-term development of almost every climber, not just boulderers.

Power training causes fatigue of the central nervous system (CNS) rather than peripheral muscular fatigue, so climbers often have a hard time telling when the training stimulus has been delivered. In an effective power session, we don’t feel a pump and we rarely breathe all that hard. But toward the end of the session coordination is down and we usually just can’t make the moves. When this happens, the session goal has been achieved. Any further training will be counterproductive.

It is still possible to overtrain this system, even without muscle fatigue. Overtraining the CNS occurs when we train to frequently, with too much volume in a session, or when we add too many hard sessions early in a training phase. A great rule of thumb is to end any session after a great send – no need to push the system when it’s clearly performed a new best level. Beyond that, the session always should end immediately when we see a visible decrease in performance or a degradation of technique. Adding volume will not improve strength. Adding volume will not improve power. It will only slow recovery. How hard is hard enough? Try this: Do a V0. Do it again. And again. Do it until you have to stop. Why did you have to stop? Skin? Boredom? It sure as hell wasn’t a failure in strength or power. Turn it up.

Complete recovery from a high-level session will require a minimum of 48 hours (more likely 72 hours) recovery before a similar session is performed. As a climber reaches higher and higher levels of performance (and power output) so too does his CNS fatigue increase. A great workout should be followed by two to three low-level workouts. Our inclination is to really turn it up the workout following a breakthrough in hopes of a spectacular performance. This performance never occurs, and the more common result is injury or prolonged recovery time.

Depending on the training focus, high-intensity bouldering should make up anywhere between 10% and 50% of every rock climber’s training time. Dedicated boulderers should shoot for 30-70%.

Power Session Design

Power is some seriously intense training, usually lasting 1 to 8 seconds per work set. Any effort greater than 8 seconds in length is regarded as “long power” which we’ve arbitrarily defined as 8-30 seconds. Interestingly, almost all boulder problems fall into this “long power” category. And although we still prefer normal bouldering as our primary power exercise, it should be noted that it is not the most effective mode for developing that quality (more on this in a moment). Because these sessions significantly tax the CNS and the peripheral musculature, we don’t program max power bouldering more than once every 5 days.

We follow the same rules for warm-up when power training as we do with strength sets. I’ll put them down again so you don’t have to scroll back up.

  1. Warm-Up: This has evolved a lot over the years. The whole goal is to be ready for power training, so we do an eight exercise range-of-motion movement preparation sequence, featuring shoulder and hip mobility drills, lunges, inchworms, and such. There are a lot of “movement preparation” workouts available online and in books. I really like Mark Verstegen’s movement prep in Core Performance. For athletes who are especially tight, we like to use foam rollers and medicine balls for self-massage.

After about ten minutes of this we try to get the hands and forearms warm. We do 2-4 sets of finger rolls on an Olympic Bar, a few reverse wrist curls, and 3-5 sets of long (10sec) edge hangs on big holds. Again, this is pretty easy and not designed to tire anyone out.

Our climbers then move to boulder problems as a final warm-up, doing 2 problems of “medium” difficulty with big moves on 3 different angles, for a total of 6 problems.

  1. Power Sets: For these sets, we usually do hard, explosive problems on generally good holds or a special “power exercise” from the list below. Your failure point should be the ability to move rather than the ability to stick. The plan is pretty simple: we pick 2 power exercises and do 5 sets each. I like to alternate between the sets to keep it interesting. We do these with a work-to-rest ratio of 1:5 all the way up to 1:15. (A rule of thumb: if performance of the exercises declines in the first 3-4 sets, you aren’t resting enough.)

I especially like to 1-up, 2-up and power bouldering for their “concentric-only” nature. Weight training is normally an eccentric-isometric-concentric series of muscle actions, where bouldering is normally concentric-isometric with a relaxed eccentric movement.

Power Exercises – Climbing

1-up: One hard move. Good holds to good holds – make the movement hard, not the contact. Think awkward, diagonal, and twisty. This is a good one to do with a partner, as we tend to play to our strengths, even when we think we’re not.

2-up: Like 1-ups, but do the hard move and link it into another. Ideally these would be symmetrical, with “mirror-image” problems. These are best done on a system wall, or a bouldering wall with a ton of holds available.

Drops: Supremely effective and terribly risky, start on a high hold and “reverse dyno” down to a hold at waist level or below. Control the drop.

Dynamics: You know…jump to a big hold. I actually think that all-points-off dynos are cool, but limited in their real-world value (like a convertible car). What we’re looking for is a big move to the outer edge of what you can hit without cutting the feet, which is far more common on boulders than “going big.”

Power Bouldering: Big, challenging moves, up to 5 in a row. We use parts of problems, try to avoid tiny holds, and keep the time down to under 8 seconds. As an aside, if you’re familiar with American rodeo: There is an 8-second limit to the riding of a saddle bronc or bull. This is because the animals see a significant decline in power and need much longer to recover if they are ridden any longer. Crazy, huh?

Campus Board: There are a ton of exercises on the Campus Board, but for developing max power, we like big moves on big holds. Surprised? Also, I know it’s anathema, but I like the big moves from the bottom rail, using a kick board start. It’s just more specific to how we usually move. Normal campusing isn’t all that powerful, in a total body sense; we move pretty slowly, and develop more accuracy and contact strength than body power.

  1. Weights: Our power resistance training workouts look a little different than our strength workouts. Like strength workouts, though, we maintain some level of power training throughout the year. For athletes in a power-development cycle, we use the following guidelines:

Off-Season (several weeks out from performance climbing): 2 sessions per week, 2 exercises, 3-5 sets each, 1-3 reps (working at 85%+ of 1RM)

Pre-Season: (in the 4-6 weeks before a “peaking” time): 1 session per week, 2-3 exercises, 2-4 sets each, 1-3 reps (85%+ of 1RM)

In-Season: (during a peak climbing time): 1-2 sessions per week, 1-2 exercises, 1-3 sets each, 1-2 reps (95%+ of 1RM)

I like to combine the power exercises with core and mobility sets, effectively creating a tri-set that forces rest between hard efforts. For example, an athlete might do 2 reps of a power clean, followed by a set of knees-to-elbows for the core followed by a set of shoulder wall slides (a mobility exercise). Without having to pay too much attention to time, the athlete is pretty much ready for his second set of power cleans after the other two exercises.

We need to keep the power movements “easy” enough (low volume / simple) to learn, that the athlete can dedicate almost all skill acquisition time to climbing. This is my big argument against teaching adults the Olympic lifts. Why spend tons of time acquiring what is essentially a useless skill when we can get similar results out of easier-to-learn movements? If you know the lifts, use them, if not, use one you know how to do.

Power Exercises – Weights

The following is a short list of possible power-development exercises that can be done in the weight room. I’ve added video links to these, since describing exercises takes hours. Selection of specific exercises should be an individual choice.

Hanging Power Snatch

DB Snatch (from knees)

KB Snatch

Clean

DB Clean and Press

KB Clean

Medball Slams

Medball Chest Pass

Dynamic Push-up

Dynamic Pull-Up

Switch Grip Pull-Ups

Box Jumps

Muscle-up

These sessions, including Warm-up, Power Sets, Weights and Cool-down are usually less than 90 minutes. As I stated earlier, you’re going to need (whether you think so or not) 48-72 hours between hard sessions.

If you perform boulder problems or power sets without enough rest between, you don’t improve your overall top performance level. What you improve is your ability to endure multiple submaximal problems. That doesn’t make you happy.

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Strength Sessions – 2 examples

Session 2012-08-22 Straight Strength Sets

Warm-Up:

  • Movement Prep + foam roll lats, upper back – 10 minutes
  • 5 minutes kettlebell Snatch
  • 3 x 8 Heavy Finger Roll (135 – 145 – 165) paired with 8+8 Reverse Wrist Curl @ 25
  • 5x boulder problems – 45 degree wall, big holds

1) Hangboard – Straight Sets (weights are noted as pounds, bodyweight + additional load)

  • half crimp: 5 sec @ 195, rest 45 sec, 5 sec @ 195, rest 45 sec, 5 sec @ 195, rest 45 sec, 5 sec @ 200, rest 2 minutes (stretching during rest)
  • open hand (single arms): 5+5 sec @ 177.5, rest 40 sec, 5+5 sec @ 177.5, rest 40 sec, 5+5 sec @ 177.5, rest 40 sec, 5+5 sec @ 177.5, rest 2 minutes (stretching during rest)
  • full crimp: 5 sec @ 185, rest 45 sec, 5 sec @ 185, rest 45 sec, 5 sec @ 185, rest 45 sec, 5 sec @ 187.5, rest 2 minutes (stretching during rest)
  • half pad pocket, first pair: 5 sec @ 180, rest 45 sec, 5 sec @ 180, rest 45 sec, 5 sec @ 180, rest 45 sec, 5 sec @ 180

2) System – Circuit Style – 3 rounds

  • Gaston – large 2+2 (2 moves per hand) @ 2 sec per move
  • Lock + Hover – 1+1 @ 5 sec each
  • Pocket Ladder (small pocket, middle and ring fingers) – 2+2 @ 2-3 sec per move

3) Weight Training – Bi-Set – 3 rounds

  • Dumbbell Row 3+3
  • Pistol Squat 3+3

4) Strength Climbing (4 sets)

  • lock-off bouldering, 4 moves each arm x 6 second locks per side – open holds
  • pair with 45-60 seconds shoulder mobility work

Session 2012-09-12 Ladders

Warm-Up:

  • Movement Prep + Stretching
  • 3 x 10 pull-ups + 10 goblet squats
  • 3 x 6 Heavy Finger Roll (155 – 160 – 165) paired with 8+8 Reverse Wrist Curl @ 30
  • 5 min traversing small holds, feet on floor
  • 3-4 easy problems

1) Hangboard – Ladders – Circuit Style (weights are noted as pounds, bodyweight + additional load) Three rounds of the following ladder (~20 sec rest between hangs):

  • half crimp: @ 190, 3 sec, 6 sec, 9 sec
  • open hand: @ 190, 3 sec, 6 sec, 9 sec
  • full crimp: @ 175, 3 sec, 6 sec, 9 sec
  • 3-finger, 234: @ 175, 3 sec, 6 sec, 9 sec

All 3 sec hangs are completed, then all 6 sec hangs, then all 9 sec hangs before starting round 2 back at 3 sec hangs.

2) System

  • Undercling to crimp –  2+2 @ 2 sec per move
  • Pocket Ladder (small, first pair) – 2+2 @ 2-3 sec per move

3) Weight Training – Bi-Sets – 2 sets per exercise

  • A1: Inverted Row 4
  • A2: Step-Up 4+4
  • B1: 1-arm Kettlebell Overhead Press 4+4
  • B2: Romanian Deadlift 4

4) Strength Climbing (6 sets)

  • lock-off bouldering, 3 x 4 second locks per side – open holds
  • reach repeats (static) 3+3
  • pair with 45-60 seconds shoulder mobility work

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Power Sessions – 2 examples

Session 2012-11-29 Power Build 1 – Workout 2

Warm-Up:

  • Movement Prep + Stretching
  • 3 sets: 10+10x KB Snatch plus 10x Push-Up
  • 5 min medicine ball warm-up

1) Power Sets – 5 rounds:

  • 1-up
  • rest 30-60 seconds
  • 24″ Drop 1+1
  • rest 2-3 min (stretching+ hip mobility)

2) Weight Training (4 rounds)

  • 2x Power Clean (from floor) + Push Press
  • 10x front lever
  • 60-90 sec shoulder mobility

Session 2012-12-13 Power Build 2 – Workout 2

Warm-Up:

  • Movement Prep + Stretching
  • 2 sets: 8+8x KB Snatch plus 10+10x Alt. KB Overhead Press
  • 3 sets: 3x Hang Power Clean (progressive)

1) Power Sets – 5 rounds:

  • 2-up
  • rest 30-60 seconds
  • Power Boulder Problem – 4 moves
  • rest 2-3 min (stretching+ hip mobility)

2) Weight Training (4 rounds)

  • 2x Muscle Up
  • 12-15x Incline Sit-Up
  • 60-90 sec shoulder mobility

It’s like Jemaine Clement says, “When you’re with me, you only need two minutes… because I’m so intense.”

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