By Steve Bechtel

You’re strong, no doubt. You’re way stronger in the gym than most of the guys you climb with at the crag, but they routinely burn you off out there. There’s gotta be something they have figured out that you haven’t.

What they have that you don’t is tolerance.

“Tolerance” is the ability to sustain a high-level of strength for several moves on a climb. This quality is known by many names, including power-endurance, endurance, stamina, resistance, and strength-endurance. The latter of these terms is the best and most descriptive, but can be a bit confusing. A Spanish climber first turned me on to the term tolerance, and I find it has a nice “feel” to it. In his words, “Tolerance is the ability of the whole body to withstand the demands of a strenuous route, one that lacks rests.” I’ll use tolerance and strength-endurance interchangeably. The term power-endurance can also be used synonymously, but in sports science there is a distinct difference. The problem is that climbers are using strength-endurance and power-endurance at the same time as they climb these hard routes…no wonder we are confused!

There are a number of exercises that help us train tolerance: 4x4s, 6x2s, route half-laps, rhythm intervals, and the like. The problem most climbers run into is not in figuring out the exercises, but rather how to implement the exercises effectively within the framework of a training program. When you are attempting to improve a particular quality of your fitness, you’ve got to routinely overload that quality so that your body understands there is a need to adapt to it.

It is critical that a climber train not only strength-endurance, but recovery when he is attempting to get fit for hard route climbing. We’ll cover recovery training in another article. For the purposes of this article, we’ll cover a good workout plan for building tolerance, talk about how to implement it in your training plan, and the principles behind it.

First, you want to be strong. The stronger you are, the easier endurance becomes. This is a little hard for people to grasp, but look at it this way. If you are at less than 15-20% of your maximum strength in an isometric contraction, you can hold that contraction almost indefinitely. It follows, then, that a very strong climber can endure a more strenuous load than a weak one. With this in mind, it’s important that the difficulty of the problems you choose for these workouts suits you and you alone – chances are your training partners are at slightly different levels.

The primary exercises in this plan are built around what’s available to most climbers; boulder problems of 12-20 feet in length at varying angles, as found in most climbing gyms. It’s best if these problems’ difficulty lies in movement rather than just sticking a shitty hold midway up an otherwise easy climb. Also, it stands to reason that continuous problems on better holds are better than crimp ladders.

The problems we’ll use are often referred to as “up-down-ups,” but we tend to complicate things a bit and the notation gets cumbersome. The exercises are as follows:

  • N problems – Up, down, then up again, just like writing the letter “N.” Two problems linked by a downclimb. We also call these 2x sets.
  • MI problems – 3 problems linked by downclimbs, a 3x set.
  • MN problems – Up, down, up, down, up, down, up. (4 problems linked by downclimbs.) This is a 4x set.
  • T2P – A traverse into a problem, usually an easier traverse to a near-limit problem.

The most important part of this training is to climb in a state of fatigue. Select problems that are very close to your limit, and try to make sure that you BARELY can hit the last holds of the final climb. Naturally, you’ll want to climb on a variety of angles and hold types, but should trend toward problems that simulate your goal routes; Smith Rocks climbers should stay out of the bouldering cave.

As opposed to a standard 4×4 or 5×2, you should seek pretty full recovery between sets. Also, warm the hell up – at least 15 minutes before you get rolling…we don’t want a flash pump to play a role in your fatigue.

These workouts need only be done 2 times per week leading up to a heavy redpoint period, and then can drop to once a week for about 4-5 weeks while you “peak.” The longer your build-up to redpointing, the longer it’ll last. Usually, my plans call for about 4 weeks of this training (in addition to bouldering and strength work), but you can see results with as few as 2-3 weeks’ work, or 4-6 sessions.

A typical 4 week progression looks like this:

Week One Session One (W1S1): 5 x N with 5 min between.

W1S2: 2 x N, 2 x MI with 5 min between.

W2S1: 2 x N, 3 x MI with 5 min between.

W2S2: 2 x N, 4 x MI with 5 min between.

W3S1: 4 x MI, 1 x MN with 5 min between.

W3S2: 4 x MI, 2 x MN with 5 min between.

W4S1: 3 x MI, 3 x MN with 5 min between.

W4S2: 2 x MI, 4 x MN with 5 min between.

Naturally, your problem selection and duration should reflect your goals. If you’re climbing in the Frankenjura, you’re doing shorter, more powerful routes and probably don’t need too much easier volume. If you’re training for 5.12 at the Red, you can skip the hard moves, work on doing several MNs of easier problems in a session, and spend time working on your recovery training.

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