If I am certain of anything in regards to training, it is this solitary fact: no two climbers are the same. Not by a long shot.
In my experience, most training programs do a poor job of accommodating the individual needs of climbers. They tend to fall into one of two groups: the first group, those “one-size-fits-all” programs which fit the average climber about as well as a beanie from a truck stop, and the second, the overly vague training programs which stir up more questions than answers about what you should actually go do. The best programs I have found are those that manage to combine the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. They provide specific workouts and exercises to follow, while educating users to tailor the program to fit their individual needs…
…which is where this whole thing breaks down. In order to build a productive training program, you must have a strong understanding of your individual needs. That is why every training program should start with the same thing: a long look in the mirror.
If you think you might be interested in training, do yourself a favor and take a moment to ask yourself some questions. I’m talking soul-searching, people. No ego, no insecurity, just you helping yourself out a bit.
Question #1: What does your relationship with climbing look like?
Question #2: How willing are you to make sacrifices?
My hope is that these two questions will help you discover where you are at as a climber, so you can learn to embrace who you are. There is no wrong answer. I know how much it sucks to feel dissatisfied with your abilities, while feeling unmotivated to train and improve. So let me throw in my two cents. To keep things simple I have generalized climbers into five groups. Hopefully you can identify with one of them, and find some relevant advice.
- Group 1: Climbing is fun.
These are the people who just like to go out and have a good time, with no desire to ‘send’. I hear these people say things like, “If I could just climb 5.10 trad all day, I’d be totally happy.” If this sounds like you, great! Don’t train. You are already doing what you love, and adding some training because you feel obligated, or because you see other people doing it will only make things less fun. You will achieve your ‘5.10 trad all day’ goal pretty quick if you climb somewhat consistently, and avoid getting trapped in your comfort zone.
- Group 2: I’m new, and I’m stoked.
You recently found climbing, and it’s all you ever want to do. You remember how amazing it felt to fly through the grades those first few months, and now that things have started slowing down you are starting to wonder what to do next. Should you take fewer rest days? Try harder? Train?
If this sounds you, PLEASE pay close attention to what I am about to tell you.
It is very important that you do not try to do too much too soon. Climbing is a tricky sport to get into. A lot of climbers start climbing relatively late in life when their bodies have fully developed, and the tendons, joints, and connective tissue in their hands have a lot of catching up to do. So be patient. Always warm up well, focus on climbing with good technique all the time, and mix a lot of volume into your climbing routine. And have fun with it! There will be plenty of time for the boring stuff later. The best thing you can do with your first couple years is build a really good base.
- Group 3: I’d like to get better at climbing, and everything else.
These all-rounders typically spend their winters shredding pow, their springs on the bike, summers guiding whitewater, and show up to the crag each fall hoping to make up for 9 months of lost climbing fitness in time to send before the snow flies. This is tough. If this is you, you have undoubtedly realized that climbing is different from those other sports. Most of the general fitness gained from these other hobbies does not benefit your climbing, and so each season you feel like you’re starting all over again. This happens because no amount of general fitness can make up for the loss in two areas: technical skills, and finger strength. If you want to get better at climbing, but are unwilling to sacrifice your seasonal lifestyle, I have two pieces of advice. First, buy a hangboard. An hour of hangboarding a week would likely be enough to maintain your finger strength indefinitely, and two to three hours a week would likely get you a lot stronger. But strength is worthless if you forget how to rock climb. So my second piece of advice is this: try to climb once a week, all year round. Go have fun at the gym for an hour, or do a quick bouldering circuit outside after work. Focus on climbing well. You will be pleasantly surprised when the fall season arrives.
- Group 4: I train during the week, so I can send on the weekends.
These people are the modern ‘weekend warriors’. They flock to the climbing gym after work two or three days a week, to train for their outdoor projects. They climb year round, and can’t understand why another climber would skip a day outside to ‘train’ indoors. After all, climbing is the best way to train for climbing, right? It worked for Chris Sharma! If this is you (be honest) then take a minute to consider the following questions: Are you Chris Sharma? How many climbers use climbing as their primary form of ‘training’? Of those climbers, how many turned out like Chris Sharma? The answers: No, 38.71% according to a recent poll on 8a.nu, and one (Chris Sharma).
What I am getting at is this; most of us need some sort of structured supplemental training to keep improving at climbing over the long-term. If your priority is performing well on the weekend, you can still help yourself out by adding a little structure to the way to train inside, and the types of routes you work on throughout the season. The important thing is to create some variety throughout the year so your body has new stimulus to adapt to. If you fall into the trap of doing the same stuff week after week, season after season, and year after year, you will inevitably plateau long before your reach your genetic potential. More about this later.
- Group 5: I will do whatever it takes to make my dreams come true.
These are my people. If this is you, climbing isn’t just a hobby, it is an obsession. You don’t just daydream about climbing your V6 project on Saturday, you dream of climbing 5.14 ten years from now. Guess what, if you are willing to train smart, make training a priority, and make some small sacrifices along the way, you will get there. I started climbing when I was 18. I remember doing my first V0 (literally), and I remember what it felt like to struggle up 5.10 on toprope. Now, at age 25, I have climbed V10, 5.13c, and am improving faster than ever. I know I will climb 5.14 in the years to come. I believe if I had trained smarter early on, and known what I know now, I would have done so already. This is really the whole reason I want to talk about training. If you are willing to put in the time, but are having a hard time figuring out the details like what to go do, when, and how much, I have a lot of advice that may help you out.
Question 3: Where is climbing/training on your priority list?
This is another of those questions that there is no wrong answer to. However, this is a really great topic to reflect on. I meet a lot of climbers who let circumstances in their life dictate their climbing success, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I hear a lot of those same climbers complain about it. The reason I bring this up is because it doesn’t seem to occur to these people that they can change their circumstances. What’s that? You’re too hungover to try your project? Stop binge drinking before climbing days. Too tired from working all day to train? Try training in morning before work. Not enough time? Consider finding a new job. No climbing gym? Build a woody. No outdoor climbing in your area? Move to Bend…
You get the picture. If you find yourself making excuses, take a minute to consider your priorities. You have the power to change your circumstances. You just have to decide if climbing is worth it.
Question 4: What do you suck at, and why?
Training programs should attack a climber’s weaknesses. And no, this doesn’t mean you should neglect the things you are good at. I’m sure your strengths have some room for improvement too. But I know a LOT of ridiculously strong climbers who spend hours and hours trying to eek out a little more strength in areas they have already mastered. Take your stereotypical gym-rat. You see this guy every time you go to the gym, because he is ALWAYS THERE. You watch him flash three V8’s in the cave, his feet flailing around like Wacky Waving Inflatable Tube Man at the neighboring car dealership, then he runs over to the vert wall and dynos past seven moves on a V4, and finally retires to the campus board. Dude. The last thing this guy needs is more campusing.
That example is obviously exaggerated. I doubt any of you have such blatant strengths and weaknesses. But in a way, this makes the job a lot harder! Most of us have weaknesses which are not obvious at first, so give it some serious thought. Which brings me to my next question:
Question 5: What do you tend to avoid?
One of the biggest breakthroughs in my climbing was simply an attitude shift from, “I’m bad at this, so I’m going back over to this other thing”, to, “I’m bad at this, so I am going to keep working on it”. This is hard to do. If you are anything like me, you enjoy performing well, especially in front of other people.
But here’s the thing folks: nobody cares how well you climb. You don’t believe me? Well let me ask you something. Who do you admire more: the aforementioned Wacky Waving campus dude who crushes everything, or the gal over in the corner practicing heel hooks because she wants to get better at compression climbing?
The next time you swear off a route because it’s “hard”, or “awkward”, or “not my style”, try giving it a few more goes. It might just be the fastest way for you to get better at rock climbing.