by Steve Bechtel
The first time I worked out, I was amazed at how hard repeating a specific move over and over again could feel. I had been in PE class and had played around with other kids my whole life, but when I joined the football team in fifth grade was the first time I had ever done “reps” of anything. I was terribly sore the second day, less sore the third, but admittedly destroyed by push-ups, sit-ups, and running the perimeter of the field by Friday
By the end of the first month or so, I could do a few real push-ups. I really could run the whole perimeter of the field. I understood for the first time that we could get better by repetition. It was a revelation, and as all revelations go in fifth grade, I stopped exercising the day the season ended.
I would start again at zero the next year and the next until I started participating in a sport that mattered to me more than almost anything. I would learn that the long weeks of getting back to baseline cost me time out on the rock, and that the careless times in the restful offseason were not worth the trade.
I dove into studying planning for sports, and it didn’t take long before periodization came up enough times to get my attention. The idea was this: by slowly building up for several cycles of training ahead of the competition season, I could get my fitness just where it needed to be to perform my best. We see this play out in every marathon program. Week after week, someone completes the cycle of building up volume for 12 or 16 or 20 weeks, tapers a couple, and runs a fast 42k race. We see bodybuilders gain and gain and gain muscle, then switch to a fat shred, and then strut out on stage covered in oil and little else. It works. But what if we don’t have a one-event competition? What if, instead, we want to be awesome every single weekend for six or eight or ten months each year?
Following a 8-week strength-only phase, followed by a power phase, followed by a power-endurance phase, followed by an endurance phase leaves me months into the year without focusing on performance, and sacrifices gains in each of these critical training facets as the new ones come into focus. Not only is this less effective than other methods, but one might argue it is perfectly designed to avoid performance! We all know that being able to hold the tiniest of holds matters at our limit, yet if we have not trained the strength of the fingers in two months, how are we supposed to do that?
Do we throw out organized training completely? Do we just go back to hitting the bouldering gym twice a week and working back into sending shape on the weekends?
It is essential to remember the maxim “what got you here won’t get you there.” Yes, you saw great gains just climbing a lot and getting pumped on the weekends back in ‘04, but I am sorry to say you punched that ticket. You’ll never see those great gains again.
Many people seek to constantly vary in the hopes of gaining some super high level of fitness. The popular model of fitness, Crossfit, aims to do just that. The promise is to build fitness across ten major facets of fitness all at once by throwing random shit at the group of exercisers. I’m all for variability, but we don’t learn anything long-term by random methods. Training across broad domains is lazy programming, can be reckless, and the sessions end up aiming at how fatigued or sore you can get rather than how awesome you can get. Training should give you more than it takes away.
Constant variability leads to limited gains. Imagine, even in the realm of rock climbing alone, if you only tried any given hard move one time, then went on to the next route. Yes, you’d be “fit” for climbing because you’d do da whole lot of it. The downside is your learning would suffer, and you’d end up being able to do massive volume at a very modest grade. The solution, then, is to build variability into our weeks of training, but not go so hard that we can’t perform. If you arrive at a practice opportunity (any climbing day) so tired from training that your movement suffers, I feel like you blew it in training.
As climbers we want to climb or simulate climbing all the time. We want to be ready to send every weekend for months on end. This is a tall order, but not impossible. The key is to climb all the time, but be willing to radically vary the intensity and volume. No matter what you do, you’ll only be your best a couple of times a year. What matters is what you do when you’re not there. How far off peak will you fall?
Nonlinear and Block Programming
If you’ve followed Climb Strong for any amount of time you’ve seen the models we suggest for longer performance phases and avoiding all the problems with classical programming. In nonlinear programming, we still build specific strength, power, and endurance sessions, but instead of doing just one kind of training for a whole phase, we switch each and every session. Thus, on Monday you might do a strength session, Tuesday a power session, rest a couple of days, do endurance on Friday, strength again on Sunday, and so on. You don’t have to train on specific days, and you just try to progress through the three styles of sessions for 6-8 workouts before changing their structure. You get to go out and climb whenever you want.
In block plans, we start to focus on really developing one particular facet of fitness. For a full 4 weeks, we’d do two strength-focused sessions, maybe a day or two apart, followed by a session aimed at maintaining explosiveness and endurance. Like the nonlinear program, you’d then just repeat the sequence. In this way, we don’t lose all our endurance, we don’t lose power, and we gain strength. The following month, we can switch foci based on training needs and upcoming goals. This is one step more effective at gains than nonlinear training, but is an advanced programming framework. By this, I mean you probably shouldn’t worry about building strict blocks until your fitness levels out.
But what of the athlete that finds even nonlinear programming too restrictive? What of the climber that wants to have four or six or eight month performance cycles. There is always compromise, but there is a solution that is much better than “go hard all the time.”
Long-term focus on adaptation is inarguably the best way to get great results from your training. But what if you want to be pretty strong and have pretty good endurance almost all the time? What if instead of being a person that gets out to the Red on every weekend, you were a special forces operator that could be deployed at a moment’s notice? What if your day job was on a SWAT team? For people in these roles, occasional peaks of fitness are out of the question. Being as ready as possible as often as possible is the only way to go.
The way we do this is to focus on short-term planning and faster adaptation principles. It is to understand that high performance peaks always follow—and are followed by—valleys of lower performance. Instead of waiting for these valleys to arrive (and fighting them), tactical periodization forces them into the plan so that the athlete is frequently being asked to do a lot less than he wants, and sometimes is asked to do a whole lot more.
Research shows that sharp and frequent changes in volume and intensity of training produces better adaptation with an overall lower training load. For climbers, this can mean we get more out of our training time in the gym, saving us precious minutes that we can then apply to the rock instead. In this model, the training difficulty and duration are both manipulated, and combined in multiple ways. Traditionally, we might do a very intense session for a short duration, or go for a big volume day on easy stuff. With tactical plans, we break free of that limiting model, with surprising results. Some days end up way too easy on purpose. Some days end up harder than you could possibly imagine.
“Waviness” of Load
It makes intuitive sense to work your way up to your maximum load on an exercise, then to lean into it until you can lift it. By hitting set after set, eventually, we really can move that number, but it’s not the only way. Remember, too, that pursuing one level of intensity over and over again can lead us to a peak of fitness, and we’re trying to avoid peaking. Instead, we want to change the loads we are trying to lift (or hang from our waists).
Knowing that strength gains can be stimulated anywhere from about 60% to over 100% of a person’s one repetition maximum load, it makes sense to allow for some variation. It doesn’t need to be an exact science, either. Remember that you have become very strong by rock climbing, which has been variable in what it’s asked of your body. For loading, we look at three board categories:
High Load: 85%+ of your 1RM. This is usually exercise you can do for fewer than 5 reps.
Medium Load: 60-85% of 1RM. These exercises can normally be done for 5 to 12 reps.
Light Load: Below 60% of 1RM. These are movements that can be done for more than 12 reps.
We’ve all trained this way. We know these numbers. But varying them frequently is not something a lot of people allow for. Consider, too, that to truly vary your training you will have to let go of the most obvious rule of all: that low loads are trained at high volumes, and high loads are done only for short sessions. In tactical periodization, each variant has its purpose.
Waviness of Volume
Too often we go to the gym for the same durations at the same times of day on the same daily schedule, week after week. We can go “hard,” but eventually we adapt to whatever stress is applied by that schedule, and our improvements level off.
To combat this, we can construct rules about the amount of training we do each day. Like intensity, we can aim for three broad categories of training:
High Volume: 5 or more sets per exercise, total training duration 90 minutes or more.
Medium Volume: 3-4 sets per exercise, total training 45-90 minutes.
Low Volume: 1-2 sets per exercise, total training less than 45 minutes.
I get more pushback on volume than on intensity. “Well, I always train for more than two hours.” Sure you do, but I promise it’s not at high loads. In fact, if you are “always” training at high intensity, I say you might not know what high intensity is. Trust that you need to have significant and clear distinctions between the three, and plan a few weeks of training with this in mind.
Medium:Medium – This is where we usually train. Go pretty hard for a little while. Then stop before too tired.
High:Low – Capacity building starts with high volumes at low loads. This training should continue occasionally even when in peak fitness.
Low:High – We gain strength best here, most of the time. This training is key, but can’t be allowed to take over the whole program.
High:High – Doing a long and very intense session is difficult physically and mentally, and should only be done occasionally. In these we build mental toughness, make breakthroughs in power endurance, and can do final prep for comps.
Low:Low – Real recovery starts here.
It must be stressed that tactical periodization does not apply to beginners. They will make better gains on low volume / low intensity, nearly daily practice for a long time. Once your training starts to feel routine or “flat,” start trying out combinations that fall outside the high volume / low intensity or low volume / high intensity habit. Beware of trying to be a hero. Too many days of high:high will land you in the PT’s office.