27th June 2017

Training for rock climbing

Rock climbing improver course

Looking out the window at the drizzle means one thing, no two. Firstly, no excuse not to go down the wall for some training and secondly no excuse not to write a blog about something… Normally my blogs are super easy to write, this one’s a bit more complicated, requiring more thought, but here we go, just bear in mind this is a massive subject, so this is really just an overview – the internet is full of great articles, and some utter rubbish as well.

For years I was kidding myself “off down the wall to get strong” I’d say, rubbish. Is going down the wall with a mate and doing a few routes training? No. I’m not saying it’s pointless, it’s great fun and you’ll get some benefit, as you will from any climbing, but don’t kid yourself it’s training. Sorry about that.

Rock climbing improver course

Time in the wall pays dividends…

Do you need to train, and more importantly do you want to train? If you’re happily climbing a grade and going to a climbing wall is just your way of ticking over when you can’t get to a crag then great, keep doing what you’re doing! If, however, you’re trying to improve your grade, think about what’s stopping you succeeding.

  1. Being let down technically, or can’t work out the moves? Consider working on your technique first, if you haven’t done a massive amount of climbing, this will be a key limiting feature. Before training any aspect of your climbing, you must have a decent technique. It could also be your tactics, are you using the holds in the correct sequence? (Correct for you).
  2. Getting scared? Don’t we all! But we can work on managing this through various techniques this will probably include falling off practice when appropriate to try and get more comfortable with it. The psychology of it all is vast subject in it’s own right.
  3. Arms get pumped silly on climbs when you’re not actually finding the moves very hard, for example on sustained but non cruxey routes? You’re lacking endurance.
  4. Not strong enough to hold the holds? Get stronger!
  5. Unable to do the individual moves even though you can hold the holds? Not enough power.
  6. Not able to link hard moves, even though you can do all the individual moves? This indicates a lack of power endurance.

It’s important to understand a few key words when giving the above points some thought.

  1. Endurance, this is the aerobic capacity of of your muscles, specifically in climbing your forearms (local endurance). It’s the ability for you to keep climbing without getting too pumped (ie. solid forearms that can’t grip any more), which is when your forearms can’t get enough oxygen in them.
  2. Strength, by this I’m talking about contact strength – holding that hold. When we talk about strength, we are talking about a static force, i.e. hanging from a hold, nothing more, so a stronger climber can hand off a smaller hold than a weaker climber (relative to their weight).
  3. Power, doing something with that strength you’ve got! The product of strength plus movement. Think of a boulderer climbing a steep, short, sharp problem, they are using power.
  4. Power Endurance, this is linking hard moves together without your arms giving up. Thinking back to endurance being aerobic, power endurance brings in the anaerobic process as well so to train it you need a good base of all the above.
climbing holyhead mountain e4 katana

Some success, Katana (E4) at Holyhead Mountain

How do we train our weaknesses? With hard work! Remember you’ve got to want to do the training, so have a think about what motivates you. It could be a particular route or grade, it could be to burn off your mates, or to make the most of that upcoming trip to the Costa Blanca – whatever it is, use it.

Before anything, warm up! You need to prepare your body to perform, get the heart rate up with some jogging, star jumps etc, do a bit of mobility stuff to get your muscles and joints moving and do a bit of co-ordination work as well. Then move on to some EASY climbing or bouldering.

  1. Endurance, low intensity mileage. Example, doing laps at the wall, 4x4s at a level that makes you moderately pumped, but no more. If you get to the point where you’re feeling very pumped to the point you might fall off then you’ve moved in to the anaerobic phase which is not what we’re after.
  2. Strength, if you’ve not done a lot of climbing yet, embrace bouldering, this will do wonders for your strength. If however you want to train strength specifically and you’ve been climbing a while already then the finger board is hard to beat. But, there’s a bit of a warning here, finger boards are brutal on your fingers, I’ve already mentioned warming up but feel the need to re-emphasise it again! Do a good 30 minutes of bouldering or climbing before getting on the board, and if you’re under 18 seek some advice first as it has the potential to mess up your long term finger development. That said they are massively useful, repeaters on a Beastmaker or similar will improve your strength. My top tip here is to download the Beastmaker App for your phone and start easy.
  3. Power, campus boarding is one choice, and will undoubtably improve your power, like fingerboarding it’s intense so remember that warm up. You’ll see campus boards in every wall but they probably only become of use once you’re bouldering about 7a / V6 or above. Personally I prefer to boulder to my limit and have only ever used a campus board to benchmark my progress, this involves boulder problems near my limit and resting in between each go for a few minutes to recover properly, before doing another one. Using bouldering to train has the advantage of being more enjoyable and allows you to work on technique at the same time.
  4. Power endurance, so you’ve got a good base of all the above? Now you can work on power endurance! Remember back to endurance and 4x4s, for power endurance we’re going to be doing 3x3s, but instead of being at a moderate pump level, we now want to be at a higher pump level, by the end of each set of three you want to be at our absolute max, a move or two from falling off, or falling off very close to the top. We can also achieve a similar result from bouldering. Choose some problems a couple of grades below your limit and aim to repeat an individual problem 3 times, you should be failing or close to failing on your last go, rest and repeat.
sport climbing costa blanca

Wings of Freedom, 7a+ onsight, Spain. Photo Bennett Barthelemy

This is such a complicated subject. You’ll want to train all these different elements in phases, but we have to keep on top of them all. If we focus entirely on endurance, you’ll be stumped when you come to a crux section on a sport route, if you focus solely on power you’ll run out of gas hanging around placing gear on a trad route.

Don’t forget to rest. All this training requires your body to rest and rebuild to get stronger & fitter.

Remember I asked why you’re failing on routes? We also need to consider what we are looking to achieve from our training, maybe that’s linked to what’s motivating us. If you’re aim is to onsight The Strand, E2 at Gogarth then you’ll need endurance just to keep on trucking, if it’s to redpoint your a cruxey 7a somewhere then it’s probably power endurance you’ll need.

Well done for making it through that lot! Hopefully it’s useful and gives you something to think about. I get such a buzz from succeeding on routes that I’ve had to work hard to achieve that it’s easy to stay motivated to train and I enjoy the training itself, and that’s super important I think. If you don’t enjoy the training, even if it’s type two fun, it’ll be hard to keep doing it, week in week out.

Lastly, remember this blog is just a bit of an overview, this is, as I’ve already said, a massive subject… If you’re going to get training, get as much knowledge as you can, whether that’s reading stuff or seeking advice from a climbing coach.

Get training and smash those goals!

If you feel like you need help or a push in the right direction, check out our performance climbing courses…

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