My Views on Training

Rock climbing may be one of the most complex and difficult sports to train for.  No other sport seems to encompass power, view speed, endurance, and flexibility, all while revolving around how much you weigh.  We are constantly searching for the happy medium between muscle mass and overall body weight.  Over the past year I have extensively studied different training methods and exercises to perform and I have some views on what will actually benefit us.  At this point, I have only done a little climbing specific conditioning, (hangboard, campus, etc.) instead focusing on general conditioning.  My goal was/is to get my body into very good overall shape, then I can focus on more specific climbing training.  I want to not only be able to climb strong, but to be strong overall:  hiking to the crag with a heavy pack without getting winded, climb the whole day, hike out, and still feel fresh as a daisy for the next day.  This requires a total level of fitness, not just forearms of steel.  I have noticed that my recovery time while climbing and in between burns has reduced dramatically this year due to my increase in anaerobic endurance.

Side note:  I have noticed a significant improvement in my climbing (this fall) by just going out and climbing more on real rock.  We all know that the best training for climbing is to climb… but only to a point.  If you are overweight and out of shape, no amount of climbing will get you to your true potential because your body weight and composition are not up to par.

I’m recently browsed through Horst’s “How to Climb 5.12”.  He says that training power will be much more beneficial than training endurance.   I agree completely.  Someone once said (might be Horst) that if you don’t have the strength to do the first move then you have nothing to endure.

Chris Sharma has power - © Corey Rich

So, down to the nitty gritty of training.  What have I found in my quest?  Most training for climbing books have excellent advice for sport specific training.  They give you great ideas for campus workouts or hangboarding.  But, in my opinion, this is where it ends.  Their supplemental exercise information is highly lacking.  The authors will say to perform some light weight shoulder presses, pushups, and go for a run if you need to lose some fat.  I think there are much better ways.

When it comes to supplemental exercise, I have been looking for a lot of trainers that follow principles similar to CrossFit.  Ross Enamait at rosstraining.com, Mountain Athlete (look at their YouTube channel), and Steve Bechtel and the Elemental Training Center are all very good resources.  Look for Olympic style lifting with movements that utilize multiple muscle groups at one time.  No bicep curls for me….do pull-ups instead.

Top of Pull-up

Nothing is better for pull muscles than pull-ups!

The most important thing I’ve learned is to “surf the curve”.  This means that you should be cycling between workout phases with low reps/high weight, to workouts with high reps/low weight.  One style works pure power, and the other works anaerobic endurance.  The two should not be mixed.  Endurance and an elevated heart rate have no place in a power workout!

For example, during a power phase, on a “pull day”, I will do 5 sets of 6 reps of dead lifts.  Following the dead lifts I will complete 5 sets of 6 reps of bent over upright rows.  These are not superset together.  Do all the dead lifts, then do all the rows.  Notice there is rest in a power workout, and between sets you should be resting for 60-90 seconds.  You want to give you max effort on each one.

During an endurance phase, I will do 5 rounds of dead lifts, hang cleans, assisted pull-ups, and box jumps.  All exercises are 15 reps or exhaustion, except the jumps, where I do only 6 reps.  Your heart will be pounding on this one!

I have “push day” exercises as well.  These were just some examples.  As far as cardio goes, I don’t care for running all that much.  Even if you are a runner, you will burn a lot more calories doing kettlebell swings, thrusters, man makers, and burpees than you will running.  Try to incorporate these too!  I can’t do a power phase for too many weeks in a row.  My shoulders and joints start to hurt, especially when I’m bouldering in the gym during the same phase.  Following the power phase, I’ll do some “cardio” workouts and/or transition into an endurance phase.

Top of a thruster

At the top of a thruster.

What do you guys think?  Check out some of the resources I have listed and go smash out some burpees then let me know!

  • Patty

    I think you’ve got it right…protect those joints with lots of good strong muscle. Getting thin, or losing weight, doesn’t necessarily mean that your body is more lean (more muscle, less fat). Optimizing your weight with a low fat ratio is the most effective way to make progress. I’ve got to go now, and through around that kettle ball!

    • Gif

      Excellent points, Patty! Just because you are losing weight or appear “thin”, that doesn’t mean your fat percentage is low. Enjoy your kettlebell and thanks for commenting!

  • Jeremy

    In my opinion, based on personal experience, there’s no substitute for climbing more to improve your climbing. Take a week or two long climbing road trip and you’ll see the gains instantly (if you are a weekend warrior like myself). Naturally, that’s not feasible to do on a regular basis for most of us with steady jobs. Over the past year or two, I’ve put a little more planning into my training. Finding your weaknesses and working to improve them is key. I also believe that it is very important to train in blocks. It all depends on your goals. If bouldering is your thing, maximum strength workouts and contact strength specific training will yield great benefits. If sport climbing is your goal, then it’s a little more difficult. Now you need to blend maximum strength training with power endurance since the routes are longer. This is a hard balance because as soon as you get to the top of your game in strength, typically your endurance will begin to tank. I’ve found that switching up my focus every 4-6 weeks helps a lot for sport climbing. I like to do a few week block of maximum strength bouldering and hangboard exercises and switch over to power endurance training such as 4x4s or steep lead wall sessions for a few weeks and then repeat. I find this helps to keep the balance. When doing the power endurance phase, I often see climbers just doing a large volume of routes below their limit. To make this phase most effective, I believe that you need to do routes that are just below your limit to produce sport specific gains. Other wise, it’s not power endurance, but simply endurance, which may be useful if your goal is moderate multipitch routes.

    • Gif

      Excellent! Agree on all counts here, man. Periodization is recommended by many top trainers, and seems to be the way to go. I personally enjoy training max strength more. It’s too much fun pulling down hard on tough boulder problems. However, lately I have had to take it easy, as I feel some pain in my fingers. I have transitioned into a power endurance phase and will definitely do more 4×4’s. I know they are good for me… but they are painful!
      I hear you on the sport climbing training. It seems tough to find that happy medium between power/strength and endurance. Plus, as you said, when training one focus, the other usually falters. It sure does make for good conversation though! Thanks for the comment, Jeremy!

  • That’s definitely a Wolfgang Gullich quote! “if you can’t do all the moves, then there is nothing to endure.” That was his philosophy behind creating and training on the Campus Board for Action Directe.

    • Gif

      One of my favorite quotes! I use it as an excuse to do more strength training and avoid 4×4’s… 🙂

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