by Steve Bechtel
In the spring of 2020 disaster struck the climbing gym industry when COVID-19 swept across the globe. Almost all gyms closed or at the very least had to restrict access. Although some could stay open, most operated at a huge loss. Even with government grants and loan assistance, the gym scene we had in place at the beginning of 2020 might be years from coming back.
For climbers, it felt even more dire. Especially in urban settings, not only were they without a place to go climb, they were quite often stuck at home with nowhere to go. In some places, it was against the law to go for a walk. In other places, many didn’t feel that going out was safe – the COVID numbers were on the rise everywhere.
It was a worldwide emergency, and yet there was still a nagging desire to do what we all love to do: go climbing. If you’re anything like me, you felt both a tremendous need for the normalcy and control that climbing provides, and you felt it was trivial and selfish at the same time. How could something so silly be important in a time of such uncertainty?
The hardest part was that the gyms were closed and most of us had a sense that we shouldn’t be traveling. So what to do? Many trainers and gyms (including Climb Strong) released quickly-produced “how to train at home” programs or videos, hoping to help their athletes weather the shutdown. Many of these programs did the trick – they kept climbers fit and kept them from going crazy over the months of April and May 2020.
Summer came, and many of us got back to a normal climbing schedule. Some of the gyms reopened, many of us hit the road to rock climb, and a few of us even doubled down and built out our dream home gyms. Unsurprisingly, as fall closed and winter moved into the northern hemisphere, the COVID cases rose. Again, businesses reduced hours or closed, and many gyms across the US shut their doors, many for the last time.
Winter climbing is limited in the US and Europe and those of us that can’t travel and work remotely are once again stuck. The prospect of training in an apartment with nothing but a hangboard and a couple of dumbbells can seem:
- Fun the first three times.
The major issue is that most of us switch from a climbing movement-based weekly schedule to one that features a lot of super-focused finger strength and a few exercises that might or might not help our climbing. Unfortunately, one of the major outcomes of the early 2020 stay-at-home programs was injury. This goes against our major rules of training: First, avoid injury. Second, improve performance.
Instead of trying ro race ahead to some superhuman level of isometric finger strength, I think the secret to a successful home program is to address things that might not otherwise be addressed in training. Simply, “What can I do now that I would not do if I had access to my gym or crag?”
In my work as a climbing coach, I get the opportunity to talk with lots and lots of people about their climbing. Most climbers, especially those seeking advice, see a lot of gaps in their performance potential. They understand that there are holds too small for them, routes they get super pumped on, reaches they can’t make. They see that there is a menu for improvement and they can’t see where to start.
This is a real problem. Far too often, climbers try to work on “everything” all at once, and end up making no progress, or such little progress that they can’t see that it happened. If they also are doing other sports or activities, it gets even more muddled…to the point that many of us think we’ve found our limit way before we really have.
In the world of climbing, there truly are a thousand ways to progress. Filtering these is a great skill. Simply being a boulderer or an ice climber helps, of course. Stopping, thinking, and planning works wonders, too. My first advice is to remember that we have all had short periods away from climbing and come back to climb at the same level when we returned to the sport. A bad injury. A vacation. A winter in North Carolina.
So here we are now, not injured, and able to concentrate on the task at hand. We are forced by circumstance to eliminate some of the possible training we can do. Not a curse but an opportunity.
As I said before, most of us end up doing a bunch of halfhearted bodyweight circuits and then killing our fingers several days a week. But sport preparation goes beyond finger strength. The floor-based exercises you can select go way beyond a few push-ups and air squats. And if we concentrate on cycling the training load throughout the week and truly consider how our bodies function in climbing, I think a few weeks or months training under a doorway can be very, very good.
When we overload our bodies, they adapt. We grow calluses on parts of our hands and feet that see a lot of wear. If we spend time outside, our skin grows darker to better withstand the sun’s rays. If we gradually increase the forces our bodies must produce, we get stronger. There is a catch, though. We also need to give the body enough time to recover.
As a general rule, most of us need a day of rest between heavy efforts. Some might need more or a little less, but constantly cramming more training in doesn’t show faster results. This is where we put in the analogy of trying to force a tree to grow more quickly – more water and more sun for just a couple of weeks don’t really do much for the tree. In fact, they can each have their own damaging effects. What the tree needs is just enough water and just enough sun over the course of a whole year in order to thrive. Most of us blow it by not training regularly enough for long enough, not by not training hard enough.
When we start a training program, we want to set up the fewest rules possible. Most of us think in terms of specific exercises and deserted outcomes rather than total time exercising per week, frequency of workouts, and intensity of efforts. We think if we set a high bar for training, we’ll somehow elevate our ability to do so. For most people, getting the right amount of training is a skill, and most of us either overshoot it and end up injured or overtrained, or we don’t train regularly enough for it to benefit us.
As we start the planning process for a home training session, we need to ask a few key questions:
- What is the major outcome goal of this training phase (ideally 4-6 weeks)?
- What do I need to be doing slightly more of?
- What do I need to be doing slightly less of?
- How frequently do I need to train to address these goals?
- How much training do I need in these skills, habits, and exercises in order for it to benefit me?
Let’s talk a closer look at each of these questions.
1. What is the major outcome goal of this training phase?
Too often we want to cram way too much stuff into a training phase. We all know there are many things upon which we can improve. The more specific changes we chase per phase or workout, the more difficult change becomes. Yes, we might be able to get stronger in several exercises, but also building explosiveness and endurance in those movements at the same time is probably not going to work.
We need one or two major outcome goals. These need to be explicit and measurable, and they need to have a time limit. They don’t necessarily have to be quantifiable by a number such as “doing 4 pull-ups with 5 pounds on my harness,” but can also be quality goals. This might be, “Get to where there are no sticking points in my pull-up,” and would be best assessed by a video review as the phase progresses.
These goals should not have to be tested outside the training environment. You’re stuck at home, might not be able to get to a gym or a crag, and so should test at home. Think in terms of what you can effectively and sanely do in your apartment when setting goals. I am not kidding when I tell you I have had many inquiries about increasing general aerobic capacity for climbing using just a hangboard.
Well… it could be done, I suppose, but you might never recover mentally.
What we really want is to look at what makes sense. Most of us could use a greater ability to create and release tension in the body for example. We could build a higher work capacity for finger training. We could master a hard exercise or two.
The key is to keep it simple. The key is to have a clear goal that doesn’t just involve being tired at the end of the day with sore fingers. Although I really think one clear goal is best, most of us will want to add more, so I’ll let you double that. But no more.
There might be some other positive results of your training, but these are going to be fringe benefits, not targets.
2. What do I need to be doing slightly more of?
Hint: it’s not what you already do a lot of. If you are a dedicated hangboarder, that’s awesome, but doubling your volume is a really bad idea. If you can hold a 10 second front lever, probably the lever is not where you can see the greatest improvement in your training.
If you’ve been at this for any amount of time, you know well that the amount of improvement we see from training really starts to level off after a while. We’re not going to look for huge gains, just slight increases. It doesn’t have to be about getting stronger, either.
Here are some thoughts on where you might focus:
- Hangboard training: if you train on the board fewer than twice per week
- Flexibility training: if you stretch less than 10 minutes per day, one day each week per decade of your life (if you’re in your 40s, 4 days per week of 10 minutes or more is a good target).
- Core tension: If you can’t hold a plank for greater than 90 seconds without form breaking down, or if you can’t do a few good hanging straight leg raises to a solid 90 degrees.
- Pressing strength: We hear a lot about antagonist training to “balance” the muscles out. We all have to admit that a set of crappy push-ups at the end of a bouldering session is clearly not going to do this. However, getting stronger (not more endurance) in these movements can really take the brakes off your pull training. Working up to five solid push-ups is a great aim. Then decline them. Then work toward handstand or one-arm push-ups.
A final observation: If you look at any of the above ideas and snigger about how easy they are, let me be the first to congratulate you on your highly advanced athleticism. Look deeper into where you, yourself are not excelling. Pick something that challenges you. If you can’t figure it out, ask a friend or a climbing partner. Everyone has weak spots in their preparation.
3. What do I need to be doing slightly less of?
For the most part, I don’t like avoidance goals. These are the kinds of things you are trying not to do. “I am not going to eat sugar,” or “I am not going to drink alcohol,” are good examples. The difficulty with this type of goal is that you are having to constantly monitor them, and the more stuff you’re monitoring, the worse you do with it. This is part of why counting calories works for almost no one.
In our framework, let’s stay away from things that need to be obsessed over. Instead, looking for some concrete points is much simpler. Are you staying up too late? Let’s set a bedtime 15 minutes earlier. Overdoing it on the hangboard? Set a session limit of 30 minutes.
I get the opportunity to talk to a lot of injured climbers. I am not an injury expert, but I do get to bring the climbers back to normal training post-injury. One of the main behaviors that led these people to injury in the first place is “more is better” thinking. Burnout laps, extra campus sessions, etc. We see a lot of pattern fatigue, doing the same movement over and over again to the point the body can’t do the moves effectively, in climbers’ training.
A revelation for many of us is to do the training, and pack it in before we start to fade. Finishing every workout strong can make a huge difference. Slightly less volume in training is an easy target in a home workout, and we can use that to huge advantage.
4. How frequently do I need to train to address these goals?
The quick answer is three days per week, but I’ll explain.
Most of what we can do at home effectively will be strength or power-related. These sessions should be intense, and so the recovery will take longer than 24 hours. An easy rule is to train every other day, and if you are seeing great progress, stick with it. The argument in favor of more frequent training is weak, and usually related to our need to “be doing something,” rather than leading to better results.
More important is to answer the question, “how little can I do and still improve?” This is an important part of the thought process for many of us. Too often, we miss a workout and decide we’ve just blow the program. We only get one workout in per week and feel like we’re not dedicated enough. Hey – shit happens and people do have other things to do. The concept of minimum effective dose is key here.
In 2019 I did an experiment. I did a standard 3 days per week hangboard program through the month of september, and tested force production before and after. I gained the expected amount of strength, and then switched down to 2 days per week for the next 4 weeks. At the end of October, I still held those same force numbers (in fact, the right hand increased in strength a tiny bit). In November, I dropped again, and then again in December…down to one session every 14 days (with, of course, normal climbing between). I got to the point I could stay within 5% of max force, even on 2x fifteen minute sessions each month.
If I can get stronger on just two or three sessions, then more sometimes seems better. It’s not better when it comes to strength in the fingers. I can stretch every day. I can even do some level of general strength training most days. I can go out for a walk or run or bike ride, and if I keep the zones right, really develop my aerobic capacity.
Targeting the right amount rather than trying to fill my time is the key. The best advice? Start with very little and build the habit of training on a regular basis. Three days a week is the best place to start with fingers and hard bodyweight training. Do a long walk with your dog on the days in between.
5. How much training do I need in these skills, habits, and exercises in order for it to benefit me?
To me, this is the great big issue. We want too much, too soon. We are sold on the six week ab programs, one-month 5k plans, and diets that promise results this week. The sad truth is that this type of marketing hype is infiltrating climbing training, too, and we’re seeing a huge uptick in programs promising quick results.
If it’s worth having, you can’t have it now. As I wrote above, you probably don’t need to go for really long sessions, and they don’t really have to be killers. You do have to give your body time to adapt. Four weeks might see you get stronger, and six weeks might see you losing a fair amount of fat, but in order to hold on to big adaptations, you might need 12 or 16 or even more long weeks of training.
Hard exercises, but not to failure.
Conservative loads on the fingers.
For the next several months.
Tools and Training
I wrote about the planning process in the Climb Strong newsletter a couple of months ago. I include it here because it is essential in your thought process when building a home training plan.
Anyone who has ever built a training plan should recognize this: exercise selection is the last part of the job, not the first. When building a plan, we should consider several variables, and I think the following order is best:
Repetitions / Time Under Load
This variable determines set length and the duty cycle of the muscles. Low reps allow for focused efforts in each movement, and let the athlete use higher loads. In general, lower reps (1-6 reps or isometrics less than 6 seconds) are used for strength and power development, medium reps in the 7-15 range are more useful for hypertrophy training or strength endurance, and high rep sets are best for muscular endurance.
If we program very high numbers of sets, we build capacity for hard work, and can build muscle mass or endurance depending on the number of reps performed or load. A key issue that many climbers struggle with is the “weight training = bodybuilding” image. Yes, bodybuilders use weights, but their training is quite specialized. Sets, reps, and load in bodybuilding differ substantially from normal strength training programming. We can get very strong on very few sets per exercise, as few as 1-2 per week in some cases. Building mass usually entails many sets at medium loads.
High load training helps you get good at using high loads. Again, the load / weight selected is more important than the exercise when it comes to training adaptation. Heavy training taxes your nervous system, connective tissue, and willpower, and is useful “down the line,” as it positively impacts muscular endurance and power, as well. One of the bigger issues in programming is helping the athlete to understand what heavy really is. I talked in last month’s newsletter about over/under shooting difficulty. Basically, if your plan calls for 5 reps and the athlete could have done 10, the training response is limited. If you call for 5 and they have to fight like crazy to make the first set, they are aimed for injury.
Muscle Action or Tempo of Movement
We can do all sorts of things with movement to stimulate specific abilities in the body. Let’s take the pull-up for example, since we all love it so much. We can move very fast through the “up” portion to develop power, we can move very slow to develop high levels of force, we can hold the position part way through the movement to develop lock-off strength, We can slowly lower from the top with supermax loads, we can do one arm at a time, and so on. All of these variations lead to specific adaptations, and should be considered in programming. This is a totally under-explored area for most trainees, as a typical weight session features the same medium-paced up and down tempo in each exercise.
Rest Between Sets, Exercises, and Sessions
How much rest an athlete takes between sets is massively important. Dave MacLeod recommends resting one minute per move between limit problems, and the old strongman advice was to rest for as many minutes as you could count up to. Strength and power training programs will feature short work periods and relatively long rests, where endurance efforts will often feature rests between sets equal to or less than the work duration. A note: super short rest intervals (i.e. 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest) are a cheap trick to run athletes quickly into the anaerobic zone and are not particularly effective for long-term improvement.
Finally! Yes, exercises are key to good training. Rule 1: Program exercises the athletes know how to do. The basic human movement patterns described well by Mark Verstegen or Dan John are a super place to start: hinge at the hips, pull with the arms, squat down, push with the arms, and use your midsection. 5 things. Good start.
So are you training to get a bit stronger? Select reps first, then sets, etc. This is where things go off the rails in a home workout. We want to gain upper body strength, but have just a pull-up bar and a 30 pound kettlebell. Instead of thinking “what exercises can I do?”, we need to think, “What can I do that overloads my body in just a few reps or seconds of exercise?”
If I can do fifteen pull-ups, I am not aiming at strength if I do 3 sets to failure – that would be muscular endurance. If I did just three reps in each of three sets at bodyweight, I wouldn’t be loading heavily enough, and would probably just be delivering a maintenance stimulus. For strength, I need to figure out how to increase load.
In this situation, I could do weighted pulls with the kettlebell attached to my waist. I could then progress the load by adding filled water bottles to a bag clipped to my harness. Once it becomes a huge pain to fill all the water bottles and work with that much load, I could go several directions:
- Heavy isometric holds in weak ranges of motion.
- Isometric one-arm holds
- Slow eccentrics (negatives) with one-arm
- Explosive pulls followed by very slow eccentrics
- L-sit pull-ups
- Pull-up in a 45 degree lever position
I could do the same with pressing, using a variety of push-up variants and overhead press variants with the kettlebell.
I could do the same with a rowing motion.
Adjust sets up past three only if you really need more capacity (too many sets can lead to hypertrophy, so be aware of this possibility).
Use a variety of tempos and muscle actions. Doing the very same tempos leads to a quick plateau in most exercises.
Let yourself rest. The more rest you allow between sets of high load training, the better your performance in each set. This is the essence of programs like Grease the Groove – lots of sets, never to failure, throughout the day. And no, this is not a good idea for finger strength.
Of course, strength doesn’t have to be your only pursuit. There are several creative ways to build power or muscular endurance. In fact, this is where the training can be pretty fun and we sometimes get really crazy (good crazy) results from novel training modes. Here are a few of my favorite workout structures to try.
This style of training involves doing a heavy strength set followed by a tempo-paced movement at about half of your single rep max. In our home example, I might do four pull-ups at my 4RM (with my kettlebell and a backpack full of water), drop the load after the fourth rep, and then do several reps at 4-second pace.
The basic guidelines are:
One set of 3-4 reps at 85%+ strength (pull-up, squat, press, etc.) followed immediately by a tempo-paced set of the same exercise at 40-50%. An ideal tempo set is 10 reps at 4 seconds per rep, no pausing…each set is exactly 40 seconds. Rest 2-4 minutes, then repeat the pair 3 more times. 2-3 exercises per session.
You can expect to see strength stay stable or increase only slightly, but you should see big jumps in your muscular endurance. I would not be surprised to see a 15-rep max puller go into the low 20s in just a few weeks.
These are most useful for building buffering capacity in local muscle groups. At home this can require some creativity, but the results can be surprising. Start with sets of about 5 minutes duration, featuring a normal 2-rep concentric/eccentric followed by a 10 second hold in the extended (muscle fully lengthened) position. Aim for low-skill exercises: trying to do things that make you concentrate on form is not easy after five minutes.
Some exercises are really suited to Static Dynamics. One of my favorites is the Barbell Finger Roll, but not everyone has a barbell at home. Hangs are off the table. Pull-ups are way too hard for most of us. The bodyweight squat is good (fully lengthened position is at the bottom, femurs parallel to the floor). Push-ups are also good at home, the extended position of the pectoral being at the bottom of the movement, chest almost touching the floor. At home, I also like inverted rows, but you’ll need a TRX or set of rings for that.
Do Only 1-2 sets per exercise, and no more than 2 exercises per training session.
Once you can go 10 minutes, increase load.
This is a great way to add some new stimulus to your training. I was first introduced to Contrast Loading by SFG Master Prentiss Rhodes when I was working on (and failing to get) a half-bodyweight kettlebell press during my SFG certification. The idea is to lift heavy, but to do so only every other workout. On the workouts between, you train at a lighter load, but with the same low reps, essentially to keep the pattern strong and force recovery.
For hangboarding, the general set-up is like this:
You’ll hang two different hold types. Pick whichever holds you like, but the correct answer for one of them is half-crimp. For my sport climbing friends, I usually recommend a 2-finger pocket, for boulderers some kind of open-hand hold. The world of pinch grips is still imperfect in hangboarding, so if pinches are your weakness, use a pinch block with weight hanging from it.
I like the contrast sessions 3 days per week. Monday, Wednesday, Friday works well if you’re not climbing. If you are integrating it with climbing aim for Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday. I recommend doing a different finger training plan after 4 weeks, but repeating the series for another 4 weeks has been done.
We use an easy-to-load weight for the training – this needs to be simple and quick. Your heavy weight should be around 25% of bodyweight, and your light weight should be the closest easy-to-load weight at half the heavy weight. I kettlebells, but plates work fine. My training weight, for example, is a 50 pound kettlebell on heavy days and a 25 pounder on light days.
I use ladder-style training, but with compressed sets allowing just moments between hangs. It looks like this:
A 2,4,6 x 2 set consists of a 2 second hang, drop hands to straight down at sides, then a 4 second hang, then drop hands to sides, then a 6 second hang, drop hands to sides, and then start again at 2, then 4, then 6. The dropping of the hands to the sides lets the blood flow back into the arms, but then you get right back to work. This drop should be 2-3 seconds total. The set in this example would take about 40 seconds.
You’ll do one of the prescribed sets for hold position 1, then rest 2-3 minutes before repeating the same set pattern for the second hold position. You’ll then rest 2-3 minutes, and continue the pattern for the total prescribed number of sets for the session.
|DAY 1||DAY 2||DAY 3|
|Week 1||(2x 2,4,6) x 2||(2x 2,4,6) x 2||(2x 2,4,6) x 3|
|Week 2||(2x 2,4,6) x 3||(3x 4,6) x 3||(3x 4,6) x 3|
|Week 3||(3x 2,4,6) x 3||(3x 2,4,6) x 3||(3x 4,6) x 4|
|Week 4||rest||(2x 2,4,6) x 2||rest|
*Heavy days in bold.
We can do this with weights (I did presses for 2,4,6 reps with other work between), with bodyweight exercise, or with almost any other work we want to do. The key is to learn how to train one day very heavy, the other very light.
Building Out Your Home Gym
Yes, we’d all love a home wall where we can boulder or do traverses or whatever. A campus board would also be nice. But in reality, there is not space in most homes for an effectively large climbing structure. A climber’s home gym should absolutely include a hangboard, at the very minimum a mobile hang. A pull-up bar is also nice, but most hangboards suffice for this. The list goes on. Here are my top choices for gear that is useful, but also saves on space and is relatively affordable.
I have to say that I think the era of lots of specific hold shapes is over. I also have become a huge fan of wood boards, especially for after climbing on rock or for longer sessions. The ones with a variety of edge depths keep us aware of progress, and allow for doing both heavy hang sets and minimum hold size hangs. My personal favorites are the Home Boy by Awesome Woodys and the Original Tension Grindstone.
Next best thing to a fixed board is a mobile one. These are great for crag warm-ups or for traveling (remember traveling?), but can be excellent in a home where you can’t bolt stuff to the walls. Again, Tension and Awesome Woodys rule here. I like the Cliff Board Mini and the ubiquitous Flash Board (original if you can find it).
The TRX is the industry standard, and is excellent and durable. Unfortunately, their intellectual-property-included price is still very high, and the wide variety of similar trainers on Amazon are just as good for home use. A good set of rings can be used for almost all of the TRX exercises, though the foot-suspended work is less comfortable. These require a ceiling mount (the doorway mount is OK), or a good pull-up bar.
The adjustable ones are good, but the simple hex dumbbells available at Walmart are good for the price. Buy them in pairs in ten pound increments. Most climbers are stronger than average (especially average Americans), so I wouldn’t waste money below 20# each. You’ll be strength training, after all. These can be used for pressing, for rows, for adding weight to hangs, or for loading a pack for hiking. They are also durable and won’t become useless pieces of furniture the way stationary bikes and treadmills tend to.
This is an excellent tool and even the cheapest ones tend to be very good. For maybe $12, you can have one of the best tools around. It’s worth taking your time and learning to avoid back injury (hint: don’t hyperextend your back each rep), but once you know the movement, you’re golden.
Kettlebells have been hard to get during the COVID home training era, but are now easier to find. Look for good ones, with smooth metal on the handles. Avoid the rubber coated ones as this stuff eventually comes apart. Again, start heavier than you think, maybe 35-40 pounds. The men’s standard for most exercises in the RKC / SFG certifications is 24kg (53 pounds), for females it’s 16kg (35 pounds). We’ve had good luck with Perform Better and Rogue bells.
The Great Wide Open
Yes, buy some tools for your home training, but remember, your home workouts only work if you do. Before falling into the trap of “if I own it, I will use it,” work on using just a few tools at first, getting in the habit, and then adding more tools to the gym. Keep in mind that you will be looking for proper loading and duration of sessions first, and specific exercises come much later. There is much more to training than one or two specific movements.
Most of all, get rid of the “lack” mindset, and into one of infinite abundance. Remember that despite all that is going on in the world, you have the luxury of stopping, taking some time, and training.