Climbing training tips based on YOUR level

Climbing is an incredibly complex sport. It's not like throwing a javelin. There are so many different factors that come into play and require training.

Also, it's worth remembering that what one climber sees as improvement (or success) doesn't necessarily equal improvement for another. Someone might aspire towards pure gymnastic difficulty (grades) while someone else might value variety, or volume, or style, or the social aspect of climbing or just having fun. Usually it's a combination. In the case of our coaching here at Upskill, we measure performance by the grade and volume of routes cleanly climbed on lead.

Lean, keen learning machine
(Up to grade 18 / 6a / 5.10a)

At this stage of your climbing, you are still developing your repertoire of all the different climbing movement engrams (movement patterns in your brain). So it's vital you get out on rock as often as possible, on as many different rock types as possible so you are exposed to lots of different types of movement.

Because you are new to climbing, you don't really need to do any significant training beyond getting out on rock regularly. If you're a bit overweight or unfit, by all means engage in swimming, jogging, riding or other aerobic activity to increase your general fitness and shed any unwanted weight. Aggressive training such as campussing or hangboarding should be avoided, because it takes several years for the tendons and other connective structures to build the strength required to support your rapidly strengthening finger and forearm muscles that develop from climbing. Ensure any training you do is progressive (i.e. builds up gradually). A drunken chin-up contest might be just the thing to blow out your elbows.

Often climbers at this level go out and do two or three routes in a session. The single best thing you can do is aim to increase the number of routes you do in a session. Be the person who always says "Just one more climb!"

Steve Ioannou enjoying Mother Butterfly 5.10a, Butterfly Valley, Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.

Not a beginner, not a pro

(From grade 18 / 6a / 5.10a up to grade 22 / 6c / 5.11a)

This makes up the majority of non-Spanish climbers :) The most common grade climbed by climbers worldwide is 6a. At lot of people never break out of this bracket their entire climbing career.

This is the land of the plateau. And to break out of a plateau, the recipe is to stop doing the same thing every week! That is, increase your training load. You do this by increasing the intensity or volume of moves per session, or decreasing the rest between tries.

I also find that climbers in this bracket are often comfort zone climbers, in that they rarely venture beyond the climbing where they feel completely in control and are comfortable. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for digging yourself into a happy rut. I'm guessing you also don't take falls regularly either. Now might be time to read up on my Fear of Falling article and aim to conquer this.

If you would like to improve and push beyond this bracket, the following diagram suggests how you should be directing your climbing. Basically, it shows that you should be spending more time on harder routes! Simple eh?

Using your climbing time well
Apportioning your climbing time to maximise improvement opportunities
Alexandre Lemieux enjoying the sun on an unnamed 6c on El Delfin, Rodellar, Spain.

Now we're getting serious
(From grade 23 / 7a / 5.11d up to grade 26 / 7b+ / 5.12c)

If you're at this level, you're already training. You're excited to be breaking into what is considered truly hard climbing by most. The routes that are open to you now are some of the best and most enjoyable in the world.

It takes most climbers years to move through this bracket of grades. Take the time to build your base. Tick off two to four 7a's before moving on to attempt your first 7a+, and so on. Constantly backfill your grades. By the time you attempt your first 7b, you should have four to eight 7a's under your belt. Build a solid foundation on which to progress. This is what we call building a pyramid (read this article).

Often, the issue here that you are an advanced climber stuck with the self-confidence of a intermediate climber. It's here where climbers often stay well within their comfort zone, ticking off multiple laps on 7b's, without the gumption to back themselves and have a serious go at some 7c's. Be process focused; realise that it may take some time to work through a hard project and enjoy the process (rather than being overly focused on the outcome). You'll gain a lot from it, not just physically but also psychologically.

Suzie Christensen flashing the superb License To Climb 7b, The Face, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
Tendons of steel

(27 / 7c / 5.12d and up)

So you're already an advanced climber. If you're Australian, you're in the top 10% of Aussie climbers, but this is where progress can become difficult. The biggest mistake at this level is that we tend to fall into the habit of working our strengths, particularly in training. We "got good" training at this particular wall, so that's where we stay. We cottoned on to doing circuits and and it really helped, so we keep doing them. You can see the issue here, the body simply adapts to the training load and improvement grinds to a halt.

So mix it up. If you're an endurance specialist, do a month of bouldering. If you are projecting sport routes, go and do some moderate trad for a few weekends. You'll be surprised what this will do for your climbing, and your motivation and psyche.

The other issue at this level is that we know we have to increase training load but we're already doing what seems to be a lot of training, and so we are risking possible injury by overdoing it. This is where you want to train smarter rather than harder. Continually tweak your training variables to ensure very good quality of training rather than large amounts of dubious quality thrashing. Read up on periodization and perhaps try to design yourself a program.

Continually assess and address your weaknesses. Determine why you fall every time. Be brutal with your self assessments. Ask your belayer and training partners for feedback on your movement. Understand that your performance is always in a state of flux and that this is natural. Listen to your body. When it feels right, go for it. If you're feeling average, scale things back to allow for recovery.

Ethan Pringle firing the first ascent of China's hardest route, Spicy Noodle 5.14d
Hopefully this article has given you some renewed focus for your training. Compared to other popular sports (e.g. track and field, swimming, soccer etc.), climbing training has a long way to go and there are still lots of opportunities for experimentation to see what works for you. Have fun with it!


Jason said...

>If you're Australian, you're in the top 10% of Aussie climbers

Or as good as some random Frenchie on their first day out of the gym

Brian Moes said...

This is a great article. Thanks :)