The 90 Percent That Matters

By Steve Bechtel

You wouldn’t read this if you didn’t want to get better at climbing. Many of us are on a constant search for a new training program, a new tool, a secret formula that somehow someone figured out that makes it all easy. Getting better isn’t complex, it’s simple. It’s simple, not easy. It’s about getting great at the basics and not worrying so much about the details.

Author James Clear wrote a very good article about our obsession with the last 10% and why we fail because of it:

We love to obsess over tactics and strategies that make the last 10% of difference.

For example: Didn’t have a good workout?

Well then, let’s debate all of the reasons why it could have been something other than you. Maybe you need to have your post–workout protein shake 30 minutes after working out instead of 60 minutes after working out. Maybe you need to get a better pair of shoes. Or a belt. Or a sweat–wicking shirt. Or knee sleeves.

What’s incredible is that these are things we actually waste time on! I’ve heard all of those crazy excuses mentioned in conversations. I’ve even said some of them myself.

Why? Because it’s easier to waste time debating the last 10% of improvement than it is to just do the thing that makes 90% of the difference. It’s easier to claim that you need a better diet plan or a new workout template or different gear than it is to admit that what you really need is to not miss a workout for the next six months.

This same idea holds true for diets and nutrition, business and entrepreneurship, writing and art, and virtually any other endeavor we attempt. We want strategies that scale. We want tactics that are optimized. But eventually, you realize that the biggest difference between success and failure comes from mastering the fundamentals.

Maybe a faster computer will make Stephen King a better writer … because he has already mastered the fundamentals of writing every day.

Maybe optimal meal timing will make an Olympic swimmer a better athlete … because she has already mastered the fundamentals of eating healthy and training hard.

Maybe a better guitar will make Eric Clapton a better musician … because he has already mastered the fundamentals of playing consistently.

But for most of us, the final 10% of optimization will rarely lead to the difference we’re looking to achieve.

Getting better at climbing is not unlike getting better at every other thing, and the same general processes and rules apply. With the idea of focusing on the 90% I looked back on several of our training tips and articles to build this list of ten things to do before you start worrying about that last 10%:

1. Hold to the Schedule

A quick 5 minutes on Facebook will find you a link to a cheap 4-week program for improved climbing. Remembering the triangle of constraints will help you to understand whether this is a good program for you or not. The triangle of constraints tells us that when looking at a new idea or program, you’ll be sold on the idea that they are fast, inexpensive, and effective, yet in reality you can only have two of the three. You can have a program that is fast and effective, but it won’t be cheap. You can have a program that is cheap and effective, but it won’t be fast. Such a program (4-weeks for $25) as I mentioned above is both fast and cheap…but guess what? The shit don’t work.


If you want to get better at climbing, climb first. Once you are hitting 12-15 pitches or 30-40 boulder problems a week, then you can start specific training. What you do doesn’t matter near as much as that you do it long enough for your body to adapt to the stress. Plan to climb and train 2-3 days per week for 6 months or 9 or 12 before you expect to see big improvements. If you’re feeling tired, show up and go easy. If you are injured, train around the problem. Starting and stopping and doing this or that intense program simply doesn’t work. Look at your training log if you think I’m wrong.


2. Stick to the Basics

I get a lot of questions about details of adjusting loads in hangboard sessions, about which holds are the “best” for building strength, about nutrient timing, carb cycling, supplements, hand angle for inverted rows…you name it. Your program doesn’t need to be super-complex. You simply need to make sure that you follow the basic principles of overload and progression, and stick to exercises that have a “big bang for your buck.”


This means you need to lift more weight, add more pitches, try harder boulders, crimp smaller edges, and do it progressively over the long term. You also should stick to exercises that use compound movements. Curls and back flies and planks can easily be replaced by simply doing pull-ups. Forget about calf raises, leg extensions, and the like…just squat. Bouldering regularly on a variety of holds will get you a hell of a lot further than trying to train all of the joint angle variants of all the finger positions at all the elbow flexion angles possible on the hangboard.


You might think it’s a joke, but often the best tactic with coaching new people is to simply take what they are currently doing, cross half the activities off the list, and turn them loose with their “new plan.” It works like gangbusters.


An idea:

  • Lift weights a couple of days a week at an intensity that would allow you to climb afterward.
  • Boulder on hard problems a couple of days a week.
  • Climb hard routes on the weekend.
  • Eat vegetables at every meal.
  • Wear good shoes.


3. Alternate Your Focus Between Volume and Intensity

We tend to always train in a “medium” comfort zone. We try to maintain a bit of conditioning, keep our fingers strong, and keep our power up. The problem, of course, is that if you keep up on everything you’re maximizing nothing. There’s no need to get super fancy with your programming – you just need to switch what you’re progressing every once in a while.


Instead of having a strength phase, a stretching phase, a power phase, etcetera, plan to switch between a focus on doing more for 4-6 weeks, then focus on doing things harder. Volume, then intensity. Try to both and you’ll hit the skids.


4. Look for Measurable Improvement

Is your training plan working? Just being tired at the end of the day or after a couple of sessions doesn’t mean anything. You should pick a metric to test at the beginning of a training month, test it day one, train for the  month, and test it day 30. If it didn’t improve, your plan was bad. Training is about focusing on discrete parts of performance and trying to improve them, then applying them to sport. If you want stronger fingers, test your max 10 second hang weight on a 20mm edge. A month’s training on this edge should make that number go up.


Endurance can be measured by several metrics, both in the gym and at the crag. Power will manifest in a higher vertical jump or improved dyno distance. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Oh, and when you are in a sending phase…redpoint-level performances are your measure of success.


5. Keep a Training Log

The best training plan in the world for you is probably very similar to what you did leading up to your past best performance. The problem for most climbers is that they have no idea what, exactly, they did last time. How much did you weight when you sent? What kind of volume were you doing? How was your sleep? Your relationship?


If you don’t keep a log, start with yesterday’s training. You can start as simple as jotting down what kind of training you did, how long it took, and your impressions of the effort. The more time you spend and the more information you record, the more useful it is. Personally, I like to track bodyweight, high-quality efforts, pitches or distance climbed, and sends. The more detailed I am, the more useful the data.

I like to write my training down in a notebook. Once a month, I enter the numbers into a spreadsheet for analysis and to help with planning the next phase.


6. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Related to the previous tip, I find that repeating training from a previous season can be very useful. However, doing the exact same thing can slow progress. If you bouldered for 90 minutes twice a week and worked V5 and V6 problems, you will need to up your game if you want to send harder this season. We teach our athletes that lifting more is a key to progress…but what if you stall out on weight/difficulty?


If you just can’t increase load, consider adding a bit of volume. Let’s say you build up to 5×2 squats at 225#. At 230, your form began to waver. You can still progress and its as simple as adding maybe a rep to each workout for a few weeks. Work up to 11 total reps (5×2 and one set of one), then 12, then 13, then 14. Eventually, you might be able to fire off a set of 3 in there, and then you can go back and test 230 again. Try harder in training to climb harder outside.


7. Good Training Doesn’t Always Mean Sending

There is preparation in everything. As the old saying goes, if you have 5 minutes to cut down a tree, spend the first three sharpening your axe. There are facets to your fitness that are holding you back. If you want to advance, you’ve got to improve those facets. Sending problems or routes are simply pleasant side effects in a training session – they are never the goal of training. What you should look for in training is to give redpoint-worthy efforts, efforts you are proud of.


In the weight room, we don’t really care about how many of your sets equal what we had planned on paper. More frequently, we are looking for you to do the movements right, to maintain tension, to harness your intensity. This should happen session after session – the slow build-up of quality work. When you are feeling strong, focused, and powerful, you can back off on the training and let performance on the rock become your goal…and perform you will.


8. Don’t Just Prepare

Somehow, some of us get this idea that we are going to get to some spectacular level of fitness in training that will make all climbing easy. We get sucked into the numbers, into the easy gains that come in the gym, and we forget to apply this training. You can’t ramp up for more than 6-8 weeks without hitting some kind of peak. The choice is yours: are you going to use this peak or are you going to pretend that you’re not there yet.

I have never met a climber that can’t build a peak and perform at that level for at least ¼ of the year. This means that about every third month you should kick the hell out of things – and stop just preparing for them.


9. Long-Term Training Matters

The old coaching adage goes like this: The sharper the peak, the quicker you come off it. What that means is that the more quick and intense your preparation, the more quickly that fitness will decline. CLimbing is not like single-event sport preparation – few of us care about being able to perform well one specific day as much as being able to perform well for season after season.


Addressing training in a long-term framework with a mind toward not just next month, but next year, and five years after that. Climb a lot of splitters? Work on ankle and wrist stability now so you can continue to jam and enjoy it ten years down the road. Pocket climber? Keep working those positions regularly, in low volumes, all year…forever. Ramping up pocket fitness starting each April will land you in the A2 Injury Club every single time.


Volume-driven strength planning is a necessity for all older athletes. You’re going to be one someday, so you might as well get a head start on it now.


10. Give Everything Once in a While

How often do you give everything to a training session or redpoint? How often to you go so hard you surprise yourself and feel pride even in failed attempts. Going way past the redline is not a good practice in training, but once or twice a month, it’s important to see how deep that well goes. Ideally, you’d end up with a hard redpoint. At the very least, you want to come away with a “redpoint-worthy effort” which is what will get you to higher and higher grades in the long run.


Remember, the details of your hangboard session are sort of bullshit. It’s not the micro, it’s the macro that matters. Don’t worry about the little things if you continually miss out on the big ones.

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