“Power,” said Hassan Saab, “If you’re talking about it, you ain’t got it.”
In hard climbing, power is everything. When we reach our limits, whether they be 5.11 or 5.15, we start having to use speed and momentum to get between the holds. Most climbers recognize this and train for it specifically – buy using speed and momentum to get between holds. We call bouldering or campus training “power” training, but are we really maximizing our power capacity with these exercises?
The very nature of climbing depends on weak points of contact. Nearly every failed attempt at a climb results from one or more of these points of contact giving way. Clearly, training these weak points is one key to climbing well. But what about the muscles that generate power to move between the holds? Does bouldering and campusing maximize the power capacity of the muscles of the back, the hips, and the legs?
In exercise, the easiest way to define power is strength x speed. Thus a powerful movement can be very fast with a relatively light load, or slower with a heavier load. Both lifting a heavy barbell overhead and shooting a basketball can be defined as “powerful.” For our athletes, we remind them that there is a threshold where a movement can’t be done without power. A dyno is a good example: the target hold is too far away to reach statically so you must use power to make the move. Too static, and you use tons of energy or you miss the hold, or both.
Power also manifests in normal human movements. Lunges, jumps, running, and throwing all are displays of power. In climbing, we deal with moving the athlete’s body up a cliff or boulder. When climbing gets hard, power is a prerequisite…so it’s best to develop it before you need it.
The first step in climbing powerfully is to train this kind of move in the climbing gym. Learning to deadpoint, to jump, and to make foot-off moves helps all of us to accomplish more on the rock. But as I said before, there might be more to getting explosive than hanging from your fingertips allows. I am not completely in love with training power in specific climbing movements all the time. I feel like the limiter is not your ability to display power, but the ability to finish the movement – the launch is easy, the latch is not. I haven’t found an elegant solution to this problem, but training power outside the climbing gym helps.
We train powerful movements in the weight room during power/bouldering phases in an athlete’s yearly cycle. We do these as a supplement to, not a replacement for, specific movement. These powerful movements stick with the same basic human movement patterns you’ll see in our strength work: upper body press, upper body pull, hip hinge, and squat. Many of the movements, however, cross over between these patterns and will involve two or more patterns at once.
Power is built with intense actions separated by much rest. Similar to strength, we want to minimize the role that fatigue plays in the sessions. Look for work-to-rest ratios of 1:8 or better…a 5 second set of work will require at least 40 seconds, and maybe several minutes, to recover before the next work set.
The classic power movements such as the clean and jerk or the snatch are excellent…as long as you know how to do them. These are complex moves and require lots of practice. I am not in favor of training adult rock climbers in these lifts for a couple of reasons. First, the motor patterning and mobility are such that it might take years to get the movements right. Second, because of an adult’s limited ability to acquire new movement patterns, I’d rather spend my time fixing and perfecting climbing movements.
Keeping simple-to-learn and simple to implement in mind, here are our six favorite weightroom power drills.
The ball slam is best performed with a sand-filled rubber “jam ball.” These balls range in weight from 5-80 pounds, and don’t rebound when they hit the floor. The exercise is best performed by bringing the ball to full extension overhead with both hands, then throwing it with maximum force into the ground. We like to use 10-20 pound balls, as a heavier weight slows down most athletes and tire the shoulders unnecessarily. The focus should be on maximum speed of movement more than high reps.
The dumbbell snatch is a simple-to-learn unilateral strength exercise. In contrast to its cousin the barbell snatch, this exercise is relatively safe for immobile adults and is easy to perform in a crowded gym. Set up with a solid dumbbell between the feet. Reach down with one hand and deadlift the bell to about knee height. From here think of throwing the weight to straight overhead. The force will come from the hips and back, and the shoulder should simply have to stabilize the catch position.
From the catch, lower the weight to the shoulder, then carefully return it to knee height. Start with the less-strong arm first, and match reps with the stronger arm.
The dynamic push-up adds speed to one of our basic movements. In order to use this as an effective power exercise, you should be able to master the push-up or a regression for 10 slow reps before adding speed. Once you are comfortable with the basic movement and can do it with no “sway” in the low back, you can begin dynamics. Assume the normal push-up start position, then lower yourself until your chest just touches the floor. From here press back up with as much speed as possible, trying to bring the heels of the hands up off the floor. If you can do five reps at this difficulty, progress to pulling the whole hand off the floor. The progressions continue to performing a clap between each rep, to a clap at the waist, to a clap behind the hips. Don’t try any progression before you can do 5 reps at the previous one.
The box jump is a simple exercise and is a staple of conditioning programs. It is also a great tool for power development. You should keep in mind that the height of the box is less important than how high you jump. To perform a proper power box jump, the athlete starts in a half-squat position, then explodes upward onto a stable box or bench. The landing should be executed in the same position as the take-off, meaning that landing in a deep squat is a result of too little power. If you can’t land in the same position, reduce the height of the box. Fatigue is not a part of this exercise, and each rep should be about quality and power more than sweat and soreness. Step down, as opposed to jumping down, between each rep.
The vertical jump is not only a great power exercise, it’s an excellent test. Simply stand with the feet shoulder-width apart, then explode upward as high as possible. Land softly, and absorb the force by squatting with each rep as you come down.
Dynamic Pull-Up or Muscle Up
This is a more explosive version of the classic pull-up exercise. From the bottom position, the goal is to accelerate as quickly as possible to the top of the movement. From here, it is best to return to the bottom position at a normal rate or even to step off onto a bench or box to completely avoid the eccentric movement. For stronger athletes, a full muscle-up is a great display of power, yet should be done only if you can do good several good reps.
Programming Power Exercises
Adding power resistance training should be a gradual process. We like to start athletes with 2-3 sets of an upper body movement and 2-3 sets of a lower body movement 2 days per week. The motor learning associated with explosiveness can’t be hurried by adding volume, so we just let the athletes move into power slowly. By week 4 or 5 we will be up to 6 sets for each, still at 2 days per week. Often we’ll split the 6 sets among a couple of exercises for legs and a couple for upper body, such as:
3 sets Box Jumps
3 sets Ball Slams
3 sets Vertical Jump
3 sets Dynamic Push-Up
These exercises can be interspersed with core and mobility work, or even with some bouldering or campusing. The big key is to rest a lot between powerful movements. A suggested format is to do triplets, similar to our Integrated Strength format:
Power exercise (2-3 reps)
Mobility drill (30-60 seconds)
Core Strength exercise (3-5 reps)
This assures plenty of rest between explosive movements and will also assure you are doing your mobility work. Three to five sets of this triplet assure that you are getting enough training volume.
A full training session might feature a 10-15 minute warm-up, 30-45 minutes of power-specific bouldering or campus board work, and 30-45 minutes in the weight room.
You might note that we don’t do a whole lot of heavy resistance power exercises, but rather recommend things that use light implements or bodyweight. We do this on purpose, both for the technical reasons listed above, and for the fact that most of our displays of power in climbing are bodyweight-specific as well. If you are comfortable with Olympic lift or the kettlebell ballistics, there is little reason not to use these exercises in your training, but if you’re not, keep it simple.
Build power work in the weight room into your schedule to coincide with power-development phases in your training. 4-8 weeks (8 to 15 total sessions) of a power build are enough to see progress, then back off to a maintenance level of work.
Specific power training at high volumes (such as Campus Board work) are a recipe for sore elbows and finger strains. By adding some exercises that don’t strain the fingers to your power plan, you can still develop that “snap” we all look for in our climbing, but with a whole lot less risk.