Climb skills: how to start training

Posted by Alex Messenger on 21/02/2013
So you want to get stronger. But where do you start?

Want to fast track your climbing and smash the next grade? Training is the answer but – as Adrian Baxter explains – only if you do it right.

There is a lot of mystique about training for climbing: some very good climbers claim to never do it; some very strong trainers never seem to climb. And we’ve all seen the pro climber at the climbing wall, spending all night going up and down those weird campus rungs, even though tape covers each of his fingers and he seems to be in incredible pain. But if you’ve been climbing for a couple of years and are keen for some big improvements, then training could be the answer.

Do I need to train?

This is the first big question that any new climber should ask themselves. Training isn’t right for everyone or the goals they’re trying to achieve. If you’re looking to improve your technique or simply have great outdoor experiences, there is nothing better than just getting outside and doing miles on rock. However, if your aspirations are to get physically stronger or fitter in an attempt to fast-forward yourself through the grades, then starting to train is the answer. But training doesn’t need to mean committing to a scientifically-periodised, three-year macrocycle plan. When starting out with climbing training, simply committing yourself to visiting the wall reasonably regularly, setting yourself a goal and working a weakness each time you climb is enough to make a big difference.

 When’s the right time to start training?

I’d always advise learning how to climb before learning how to train. That’s for two reasons. Firstly, climbing is a very technical sport, taking years to master the basics of movement, balance and efficiency. Within the first couple of years of climbing, any significant strength gain will probably not match the potential total performance gain that can be made through just climbing and improving technique. We’ve all seen the painful experience of people who are super strong but lack technique. Secondly, climbing and bouldering put exceptional strain on very specific and delicate muscle and tendon groups – mainly in the fingers and forearms – that are highly injury-prone. Physiologically ‘easing’ these muscle groups into climbing, by strengthening them slowly and safely over a two-year period, is time well invested. Injuries are easy to pick up early in a climbing career but very hard to lose. So, in short, once you feel confident that it’s not your technical ability but your physical ability (your strength and fitness) that’s holding you back, then it’s time to train.

What should I train on?

Keep it simple. Boulder problems, routes and a pull-up bar are all you need for a really effective training session. Use boulder problems to improve maximum strength and power; use routes to improve resistance and endurance. A pull-up bar helps not just upper-body strength, through doing pull-ups, but also helps increase core strength, with exercises like leg-raises. Keep away from most things wooden and metal: campus boards, fingerboards and weights are out of the question if you’re just starting out.

The 3 S’s of training:

Keep it simple

  • Choose one motivating and realistic goal
  • Work out what the one thing that is holding you back from achieving that goal is – i.e. your weakness
  • Every climbing session, commit some time to training that one weakness

That’s it. At this stage don’t over-complicate training with anything else.

Keep it sociable

Ben and Jerry. Yuji and Francois. Pete and Tom. There’s little wonder why the greatest things in climbing have been achieved by climbing partners. Keeping training sociable is really about keeping it fun. You’ll not only be more likely to turn up to train if your friends are there but a healthy sense of competitiveness will also keep you both motivated. It’s far easier to stick to a training schedule if there are two of you pushing each other.

Keep it safe

During training, there’s a fine line between pushing yourself safely and pushing yourself too far. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to leave each training session with something left to give and to never, ever leave one exhausted. It will take you much longer to recover, you’ll end up doing less training sessions in the long term, and you’re also much more likely to over train and pick up an injury.

BMC member Adrian Baxter competed in over 25 international lead-climbing competitions for Great Britain between 2000 and 2010. He has trained British Junior Team members, including Kitty Wallace, Tyler Landman and Michaela Tracy, on-sighted 8a+ and redpointed 8c. Together with Steve McClure, he has released ClimbCoach, an app aiming to help you train more effectively.

Essential training tips

Always have a goal

Make goals specific and realistic.

Focus your training time into blocks of specific training

Such as three weeks of strength followed by six weeks of resistance. Don’t train too many things at once.

Train strength-based fitness first

This applies to any period of training, whether a month, week or day. If you don’t, the quality of your session will be compromised.

Consistency is king

The body is very good at adapting and you’ll reach goals much quicker if you train regularly. You’re far better off training consistently at a lower level than training really intensively for two weeks then stopping.

Vary the way you train to keep the body guessing and adapting

Change walls, holds and climbing styles.

Rest is as important as training

Without sufficient rest you don’t recover. If you feel tired, or have any aches or pains, then you haven’t rested enough.

Be safe

When you’re going well, it’s tempting to push harder. But the harder you push towards your limits, the more likely you are to get injured.

What can you train?

Maximum Strength: the “greatest force that is possible to exert in a single contraction”. In climbing, this is the ability to hold a small hold or to perform a body movement in a certain direction. Without good maximum strength you won’t be able to grip holds or make strength-based moves .

How to train: bouldering (keep away from campus and fingerboards until you’ve had three years regular climbing).

Train 2 to 3 (max) times per week for 3-5 weeks max. Rest at least 72 hours between sessions.

Power: the ‘rate of producing force in a certain direction’. In climbing, this the ability to make moves between holds or move your body between positions. Without good power levels you won’t be able make powerful moves.

Train 2 to 3 (max) times per week for 3-5 weeks max. Rest at least 72 hours between sessions.

Resistance: the ability to make a continual set of contractions. In climbing, this usually results in fatiguing the forearms by the creation of lactic acid (pump). This is also known as power endurance, strength endurance, medium duration muscular endurance and anaerobic capacity. Good resistance-fitness levels are the key to success on routes, since often individual moves aren’t that hard but a succession of them makes a route difficult.

How to train: Routes and circuits are best for increasing resistance levels as they allow you to link together successions of moves. Boulder problems can also be linked.

Train 2-3 times per week for 8-10 weeks (rest week after every fourth week). Rest 48-72 hours between sessions.

Endurance: Low intensity, high-volume aerobic exercise. Endurance training should make up a significant base of any route-climber’s training. It aids recovery between routes and allows you to climb for longer.

Train 3-4 times per week for 8-10 weeks max (rest week after every fourth week). Rest 24-48 hours between sessions.

Further info

Make it happen with ClimbCoach – the essential climbing training tool which removes the hassle of planning, executing and recording your climbing training. 1% of sales go to support the GB Team. climbcoach.org

Training guides and DVDs available in the BMC shop.

Read more climb skills articles.



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