By Steve Bechtel

Training is all about progress. Unless you just love to train (I’d rather watch Deadwood), you’d better be seeing some results for the hours you spend flogging yourself. What we see in most climbers, though, is really just slight decreases in fitness throughout the year, and then an occasional return to a hard-wired plateau. More than 90% of climbers hit a ceiling within their first five years of climbing, and they never progress beyond it. If this is you, read on to the three mistakes you might be making in the gym…

For most of us, climbing full-time is not an option. We either have yet to find someone else to pay our bills, or we feel like family, work, and life have value, too. So we climb indoors, or lift weights, or hang out on a hangboard a couple of nights a week. We do this, we feel strong, and we get to go climbing on Sunday. The big problem is that on Sunday nothing new happens. We go to the crag and climb the same stuff, or at least the same grade, as last week. The curse of the weekend warrior? Not necessarily.


In our gym, the climbers come in to “train” for climbing the 80-100 foot sport routes at nearby Sinks Canyon. They shoe-up, send 2-3 easy problems, and then progress into bouldering out our 45 degree “cave” feature on various problems. These guys boulder hard for 5-10 moves, then rest about 3 minutes. And they do it for a couple of hours.

The error comes in the form of not loading the muscles long enough, loading them much more intensely than is necessary on their project routes, and in failing to simulate the demands of the climbing day.

To fix this we have our athletes do up-down-up combos or do traverses into hard problems, which begin to tax the strength-endurance necessary for route climbing. Nine times out of ten, it’s not pure strength or power that fails on a route – it’s the ability to do medium-hard moves under fatigue. We do 2-3 of these and then rest 10+ minutes, which is, of course less rest than you’ll take in a climbing day, but we’re not interested in having them here for 6 hours at a time.


The fast lane to fitness is to eliminate weaknesses in your climbing ability. The problem with training weaknesses is that we’re weak there and it’s no fun. From birth, we’ve been pushed to do the things we’re good at, so why the hell would you want to work on flexibility when your bros are at the campus board?

The problem with being good at something is that there is little room for improvement. Add two hours of hangboard per week, and you might only get 1% stronger. Add 2 hours of technique training and flexibility, and you might see a 10% improvement. This is why doing an HONEST assessment of your abilities is critical. If you really can’t see where you’re weak, ask someone you climb with. Spend the primary part of each training session on this weakness, and you’ll see it disappear by the end of the season.


Do what you’ve always done, and you’ll get what you always got. I hammer on this one a lot. The bottom line is doing the training it took to get you to 5.10 will not suffice to get you to 5.11. You’ve got to burst the bubble of “being in shape” and aim way beyond it. Bouldering with the same dudes on Tuesday and Thursday every week will get you to the same old place. Add in some new partners, some different training, or lose 10 pounds. Viola, you’ve trained differently.

OK, that’s a little simplistic. Try one of these three strategies:

  1. Increase the volume of your training. Do more pitches or problems, or if you’re lifting weights (for some reason) increase the total load.
  2. Increase intensity. Do harder problems than last year, or spend more time under heavy load if you are training for endurance.
  3. Reduce bodyweight. This can be a huge difference in a climber. A reduction in bodyweight by only 5% can cause massive improvements in not only relative strength, but time to exhaustion. Try this with pull-ups. Hold a dumbbell equal to 5% of your bodyweight between your knees and go to failure. Then do a set (after resting a while) at just bodyweight. It’s pretty significant for most athletes. Do this with full-body movements, and the improvement is even more apparent.

Assess your progress frequently. If you don’t see some kind of improvement regularly, you are exercising, not training. I can’t emphasize enough that training really does work, you just have to find the right path.

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