Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rock Climbing Training Part 1

Here is a guest blog post from my buddy, Phil.  He is extremely knowledgable and I often go to him for suggestions on gear, technique, and especially training.  I'm very grateful that he was willing to help me out by writing this post.  Here it is:

Training for Climbing: Thoughts

The skies have been mostly blue and warm for the past month – Rock season is back in Ogden! This time of year I usually come up with some sort of tick list that I’d like to squeeze into my fairly busy schedule of life, work, marriage, and most recently fatherhood. This process takes a long time as I carefully and deliberately consider the technical grades, the logistics of scheduling and equipment necessary, and finding willing partners. After this calculating, precise effort I end up with a list of climbs that most of my climbing partners compliment me on with comments like: “Whoa! I don’t think that’s possible,” “So you think you are going to climb 5.13 by July?!” and “This list is longer than Alex Lowe’s climbing resume.” So if you are at all like me and currently have chalk-crusted mitts on such a list of your own making, you’d better be training.

Everyone knows that you have to train to get better at climbing, but I think few realize just how important a well thought out and structured training plan can be. Most climbers “train” by climbing every other day or whenever time permits. This really isn’t training and shouldn’t be confused as such.  Most climbing-specific training regimens have some sort of periodization routine focusing on Aerobic first, then Hypertophy, Max Recruitment, Power Endurance, and finally Rest, all with differing amounts of prescribed time.

Aerobic Period

 The aerobic block mentioned actually focuses on climbing aerobically and raising your anaerobic threshold. So for those new to climbing or for those who gained a little too much over the darker months, additional aerobic exercise will be necessary to improve climbing gains for the year. This additional exercise can be done before a climbing regimen or concurrently with one. The main goal is to lose weight. Climbing at a high level requires a high strength to weight ratio (thus the need for strength training) and the quickest way to raise that ratio is to decrease the denominator! Put another way; it is easier to lose 5lbs of fat than to gain the strength needed to pull that extra 5lbs up a climb. This isn’t an exact analogy (there are other factors involved) but doing either would roughly have the same effect on your strength to weight ratio.

 There are all sorts of ways to lose weight; the best among them for climbers is high-intensity interval training. Long, low-intensity runs are one of the least effective as far as losing weight and getting in shape quick for those long approaches. Long endurance runs can have a place in your training program, but I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that running too much for your aerobic exercise can lead to sewing-machine leg en route because of the way the muscles are trained.

 Interval training sucks for those like me that hate running, but it shortens up workout times compared to pounding out a 6-10 mile run. The best way that I’ve found to optimize this type of workout is warm-up 5-10min, do 10 sets of 30sec sprints resting 30-60sec between each set, once your heart rate calms to 120bpm rest 5min, then do low intensity running for 15-20min. This set-up will release catecholamines into your bloodstream which induce the release of free fatty acids (including release of fat from hard to train “problem areas”) then you burn those molecules during the light aerobic at the end. Far better than just burning the FFA’s that are already in your bloodstream, which is all you do with low/med intensity endurance runs. This should be done 1-2 times per week paying attention to your body for injury indicators.

The Aerobic period for climbing is basically increasing your ability to fend off pump. The premise is to do some sustained climbing just below your anaerobic threshold for a long period of time. You can have your anaerobic threshold measured for you at a sports performance lab, or you can go for an all out run for 30min and determine the average HR for the last 20min, or you can be a lazy climber and look up some online charts and guess where yours is. Find a crag or gym or boulder field where you can climb with your heart-rate monitor for 30min staying below this HR threshold. 2-3 sets of 30min with 10min rest in between (that means total rest - No climbing). Another way to bump up your anaerobic threshold is to climb a route at the end of a day of rock climbing that is about a 6 or 7 in difficulty on a scale of 10. Get on this route and climb with no rests, lower and jump right back on for 2-3 burns. Make sure to pay attention to climbing form especially when you’re totally boxed.  This period of training can be skipped by those who aren’t starting from scratch for the season and can already climb moderate routes till their belayer turns blue in the face. This period takes 4-6 weeks depending on your level of current fitness and should be incorporated into and the prime goal of your climbing schedule every week.

Hypertrophy Period

Next, the Hypertrophy period. Hypertrophy focuses on enlarging/strengthening the muscles used for climbing, more specifically your forearm and hand muscles. This period is basically fingerboard exercises to get you stronger on the types of holds you’ll be facing on those harder routes you want to climb. Pick 6-10 grip positions that you want to work, each grip position will be a set. You’ll want to warm up and stretch out first then start on the harder holds first working into the easier ones. Starting with the first set of holds, do 5 reps of 10sec resting 5sec between reps and 2min between sets. The really hard part is picking the right amount of weight to add or take away for each grip position, but actually adding or subtracting  weight so the 5th rep is hard to finish is what will produce large gains instead of cruising through or failing on certain sets. Use a harness and some free weights to add weight, an eye screw in the bottom of your hang board and some ingenuity will let you take weight off (using a pulley system works better than using bungee cords). Once you feel strong here, or are a little more advanced, you can pick 6 grip positions doing three sets on each position going up in weight between sets for shorter hangs. For example:  Single knuckle 4 finger crimp - first set 7x 7sec reps resting 3sec between reps, rest 3min, second set 6x 7sec reps again resting 3sec between, finally 5x 7sec reps with each set going up in weight. Make sure to rest 3min between grip positions as well. This period should take about 4 weeks and is your new goal in your climbing schedule (1-3 times per week allowing for rest and recovery). Be wary of injuries during this period, and stop to recover if needed.

Maximum Recruitment

Maximum Recruitment comes next. If you’ve ever played much with electric muscle stimulators you know that there are ways to increase the number of muscle fibers that participate in a given contraction. You can train your body to recruit more muscle fibers by asking your muscles to produce greater force over a short period. Campus boards are the prime medium of this period as you need a lot of dynamic power to quickly lift yourself to the next rung and also to grab the rung and control your body movement. This short period where you have to latch the next hold is what helps train your body to use more fibers in the muscle you’re calling on, equaling… MORE POWER! Of course you will want to be really warmed up for this type of exercise and if you can’t do a few ladders to the top you’ll need to work on pull-up strength and more finger boarding until you are ready to campus. It’s important that during this period you are focusing on your body’s ability to produce dynamic power so when you are doing your 6-10 trips up the campus board, rest 5-10min and REALLY rest! Google campus board workouts and you’ll have a litany of different things you can do to keep it interesting; however, when beginning you should stick to laddering up and dropping off the top.  As soon as you can no longer explode off each rung you should stop the whole workout as you aren’t going to be within the parameters where you’ll see gains and you are probably risking injury. You’ll only want 1-2 of these workouts a week. Typically 6 of these puppies over the 4 weeks of this period will be pretty good.

Power Endurance

Power Endurance can be worked a number of ways. Being a gym rat of sorts will help you do 4x4’s or similar exercises, but if you’re creative you can work this outside as well. The main goal is to identify the number of moves you usually climb or want to climb and manufacture a series of problems or routes that will give you that amount of moves at a level that is roughly 2 grades lower than your current max grade. For boulder problems you’ll want to choose 4-5 that you can climb in a row without resting between them or downclimbing to the beginning of the next problem. Do 4-5 sets of this circuit resting for as long as it takes to climb the circuit 1:1 style. This WILL leave you wasted by the end. Power endurance should take about 2-4 weeks; you’ll see gains really quick, but they are also lost quickly.


Rest! This is possibly the most important part of the program. Not only is it necessary throughout the routine, but this 2-week period of rest and recovery will allow you to have quite the peak performance period. Greg mentioned that Peter Croft came to Ogden for the climbing fest. One story he told will help illustrate my point. He was in the valley and had been training with John Bachar with the objective of climbing the first single day link up of EL Cap and Half Dome. They pushed themselves for gains in all the areas we’ve talked about (though probably not in so structured a way) over a long period of time. All the while keeping the goal in mind and staying hyped. When they were feeling strong enough Bachar told Croft that before they went for it they were going to rest. Croft said that this sounded crazy to him. At the time most climbers thought you’d get soft by resting too much. No one at the time knew how powerful proper rest can be. Bachar was a training fool (as in animal, not idiot), for those who don’t know about him, and he was one of the first to start paying attention to this principle. He mandated a two day rest and told Croft to do nothing but sleep and eat as much as possible. So they each went to their respective tents and did just that. Croft mentioned that being so broke he couldn’t afford a lot of food but decided to buy a ton of saltine crackers (cheap and filling). He lay in his tent forcing himself to sleep, and when he woke he’d take a box down from his wall of saltines he’d built along the tent wall and eat until he couldn’t anymore. After the two days they ran up the Nose on El Capitan and the Direct route on Half Dome and their biggest problems were trying to pass the other parties that were on the wall. He attributes their success to the period of rest right before.  

A few notes

You will want to get more information on developing a workout system and there is a lot of information out there. This type of phasic program works well and is highly suggested by the author; however, there are other ways to go about this and there are other workouts you can utilize in each of the periods if desired. Outdoor sessions can be focused around the period you are on and can replace boring home/gym workouts. Try to rest 3 days between hard workouts (it est: hang board, campus or power endurance) with the possibility of Aerobic workouts between, making sure it’s a low-enough intensity to count as a “rest” day. And the Power Endurance phase can, and should be part of your peak period where you are working some hard projects.

Part 2 will be a spreadsheet of a training schedule.  I'll post it as soon as I can figure out how to do it.

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