Oh, the glory days when we used to actually get better at climbing! I remember well doing a 5.6 one weekend, a 5.7 the next, a 5.8 and so on up. That whole first year, things just got easier and easier and the grades rolled by. The next year, progress slowed. The next, I had to suffer days of projecting to gain another letter grade. Then it was a couple of years before I progressed again.
Part of the pain of plateauing is that the work required in that getting off the plateau seems so much harder than the last step did. Indeed, the closer we come to our potential in any facet of physical fitness, the more focused and refined our work has to become. Unfortunately, our first reaction when we get stuck is to change what we’re doing rather than to get better at it. If hard bouldering isn’t paying out any more, the attraction of moving to something – anything – where you can progress is very attractive.
The funny thing about plateaus is they are not an indicator that you’ve messed up. On the contrary, they are an indicator that you’re doing something right. If you train your body to the point that it now easily handles what was once a difficult workload, you did well. The hard next step is to understand that a little more effort, or a refined effort, is in order.
Step one is to look at your schedule. Have you really been training consistently? Are you making all the workouts you planned at the beginning of the training cycle? If you’re not making it work, your first goal should be to get training or climbing with regularity. Frequently, we’ll see a sub-60% adherence to a training plan. Doing 80% of the work planned by a reasonable coach is pretty good. If you start to fall off from here, it becomes more difficult to predict outcomes…not to mention the constant feedback in your head letting you know you fell short, again.
If you are good on schedule, look at the sessions themselves. Are you just punching the clock? Are you doing your “routine?” For more than a year, a member of our gym would come in each morning, run a few minutes on the treadmill, do a few curls, then set up for 3 sets of 8 on the bench press at 95 pounds. I was on the training floor with another athlete during his training time a couple of days each week, and we had a friendly relationship.
I was annoyed by the static nature of his session, so one day i stopped him and added two 1.25 pound plates to the bar, taking his press up almost imperceptibly to 97.5 pounds. Naturally, he did it easily. I suggested that he add just 1.25 pounds to the bar each week, no matter what, until he couldn’t do more than 5 reps in each set. By the end of that year, he was working at 50% more load than before. Easy progress.
Sometimes it’s hard to go harder. Look at bouldering. It’s not uncommon to get pretty well stuck at a given V-grade. Most of us simply accept this level, and go on with our normal Tuesday-Thursday bouldering for 90 minutes routine, with a special focus on juggy cave problems because that’s what we’re best at. Pushing grade on a climb or load in the weight room (both indicators of intensity) sometimes just doesn’t work. What does work, though, is to add volume.
Say you are stuck, just like I wrote above, at about 8 or so V4 problems each 90 minute session, two days per week. Look at your total weekly sends (16) and consider aiming solely at increasing that number. You could easily do this by switching to three shorter sessions where your aim is to complete just 6 hard problems per session. Alternatively, you could aim for longer sessions focused solely on getting to 9 sends per session.
Once your total volume has increased and you feel you are handling the new workload well, you could then switch your focus to sending at least one V5 per session, but no longer worrying about maintaining volume. Over time, you’d increase the metrics slowly, and eventually, you’ll have a new “normal.”
Above all else, consistency is the key to progress. The great thing about consistency is that it isn’t expensive, doesn’t require a giant facility, and is much easier than psyching up for a hard session, a long session, or a particular project – all you have to do is show up and punch the clock. Dr. J had it right when he said that “being a professional is doing the thing you love to do on the days you don’t feel like doing it.”
A common error is to think that motivation is the key, when it’s really discipline. Motivation is the desire to do the job/workout/thing. Discipline is the ability to get yourself to do the job/workout/thing when you aren’t motivated. Planning and sharing the plan are two great tools in discipline. For example, I like my athletes to write down a plan for the crag when they are going out, and then to share it with their partner. The night before or week before a climbing day is a great time to sketch out a plan. Too often we have a desire to climb a route, but then when we get to the base of the crag, we get nervous and decide to bail toward the climbs we are sure of performing well on.
A plan as simple as trying to push your total pitch count up 2 from your average, trying to redpoint all the pitches today, or committing to doing three burns on the project might be enough to get you unstuck. Planning lets you build a cohesive long-term strategy toward climbing harder. Sharing it helps keep you on task.
Using age or genetics or some slight injury as an excuse is really bullshit. Training is hard, and none of us thrive in a constant state of discomfort. You can progress, I am convinced, with almost any set of circumstances. If you get hung up, step back and assess what’s holding you back. It might be as simple as just showing up.