How to Train for Rock Climbing
Before we get into details, you need to ask yourself: What exactly do you want to do? What is your goal? Do you want to redpoint your hardest sport climb? Send your bouldering project? Onsight a certain grade? Get better at steep climbing? Technical climbing? Become a better all-around climber?
In any type of training, you become what you do. Bearing this fact in mind, you might realize immediately that many climbers train improperly in a number of ways—perhaps even you. Imagine this example:
You are trying to redpoint your sport climbing project. This thing is long and sustained—it’s a power endurance route with a long crux section of 20 moves. You keep getting pumped and falling just before a huge rest jug.
You identify your weakness as endurance. So you spend every climbing day putting in redpoint burns on your project. When you’re too tired to climb your project anymore, you finish each day with laps on much easier climbs until your skin and muscles hurt too much to move.
You feel like you need to get in shape, so you’re only letting yourself taking a few rest days each week, and some days you’re too tired to even get to the high point of your project. So you hang-dog it like crazy, hoping to work the beta. But on the really bad days, you can’t even link more than a bolt or two at a time.
You have a nagging finger injury, as well as “clicky” feeling shoulders. You know you should stretch, but you never do regularly. You also fart around with a theraband at the gym, and do pushups once in a while, but you’ve never developed a regular habit of any of it. You also have a long history of nagging knee problems, but you ignore them because they don’t bother you all the time.
Does this ring any bells? What’s wrong with this picture? A lot.
First of all, you need to give yourself more rest days. Yes—many people feel like they need to exercise more to get in shape. But all experts in sports science agree that the body only gets stronger during rest periods after exercise. Resistance exercise (weight training, climbing, etc…) breaks down the muscles; they repair (and become stronger) during rest.
Secondly, from a climbing-only perspective, restricting yourself to just one climb is one of the worst things you can do. Especially if the climb is really at (or above) your limit, and many days you can barely link more than a bolt or two. You’ve claimed your weakness is endurance; how is bolt-to-bolting a route going to improve your endurance? You need to make it through a 20-move crux section, and you’re spending a lot of days linking 1-2 bolts (5-10 moves) at a time.
Climbing-wise, the savvier option is to diversify your climbing: use many of your climbing days to onsight (or flash) climbs a few letter grades beneath your project’s grade. Look for power-endurance routes. Choosing routes a few notches easier than your redpoint grade will present you with a serious—but doable—challenge, giving your body lots of strenuous mileage. Plus, but doing a variety of routes, you challenge your body in a variety of ways, rendering you physically and technically better and more well-rounded over time. Plus, a diversified climbing regime leads to fewer acute injuries.
Another point worth considering: whenever you fall, you are most certainly pumped. No denying that. But, if you really think about it, is it actually your forearms that are failing you? Or is it another body part? Despite feeling an overwhelming sensation of pump, many people (especially wome
n) really fail in their larger muscles like lats and biceps. Failing in these muscles renders them unable to lock off or otherwise move in a controlled fashion. Though they indeed are pumped, they would likely still be able to stick a hold if they hit it statically—rather than stabbing or thrutching at it, and falling away. So falling is often a result of large muscle endurance, rather than forearm failure.
More common in men (whose large muscles are almost always much stronger than ladies'), the problem actually is with the forearms—and the pump becoming too severe.
In either case a counterintuitive, yet effective, solution exists: identify the weakness (large muscles? Forearms?). Rather than train endurance in that weakness, train maximum strength. Though this idea might not sit well with you at first, think of it this way: if you weakness (large muscles or forearms) were vastly stronger, each move on your project would be easier, thus taxing the muscles less each move, and therefore shrinking the power-endurance problem greatly on any particular route.
Regarding your finger tweaks and clicking shoulders, you need to start a regular stretching regime immediately—unless you’re hyperflexible! Fingers included! Tight, claw-like fingers are a recipe for disaster. In fact, any kind of imbalance around any joints is a recipe for disaster—whether caused by stiffness of certain muscle groups or by imbalance of the musculature around that joint.
Muscle imbalance (and related joint injuries) in climbers is common because, when climbing, we constantly pull. But we rarely push. Ergo, all climbers should develop a series of exercises (to be performed regularly) that involve lots of “antagonist”-style movements. Pushups, for example, are a basic and completely accessible form of this. But pushups alone will not suffice forever.
Climbers also suffer injuries in joints that aren’t properly or evenly supported by their surrounding muscles. Knee problems are a classic example, and can often be avoided or minimized with dedicated, leg-focused strength training.
Finally, the easy
pitches at the end of your days are essentially a waste of time—unless, of course, you enjoy them! However, from a purely training-based perspective, they’re useless. Yes, one or two can be useful as a cool-down. But if you’re doing the easy pitches only to “build endurance,” think of it this way: If your project (arbitrarily) is a 5.13a, and you’re doing “endurance” pitches on 5.10 or 5.11, there’s really no way this is going to help you… unless you’re planning to take a trip and do a big wall with lots and lots of easy pitches. (Even then, if you’re climbing 5.12+, you realistically would not be helped by these pitches.) The difficulty of these pitches is too low to affect a change in your physiology; all you’re going to accomplish by doing these laps is make your skin sore and possibly cause overuse injuries.
So, if your “training” strategies have been off the mark so far, you really need to introspect and discover both what your weaknesses are, as well as what your exact goals are. Once you determine both of these things in as concrete of terms as possible, you need to identify strategies to work on improving your body so it can meet your goals.
Though there is a severe lack of high-quality, scientifically-based literature for climbing-specific training, there is plenty of literature on the subjects of weight training, nutrition, recovery and more. When reading this material, pay special attention—not only to the exercises you select for yourself—but also to the strategy for effective resting and mid- and long-term programming.
Also pay mind to your body’s different metabolic pathways. Learning about how the sports of bouldering and route climbing are classified, metabolically, is highly educational—making you realize that no rock climbing (except setting a speed record on El Cap) is an aerobic sport; hence, running won’t help your climbing directly—at least in terms of conditioning. (It might help with weight loss, but weight training is actually a better tool for this.) Learning about the different metabolic pathways for various intensities and durations of activity will teach you, not only how to eat properly for performance, but also how to organize your weight training sessions to make them effective conditioning tools.
Stay tuned for more articles on these topics.
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© 2013 Christine Balaz Sjöquist
The information presented in this article and on this website are in no way meant to replace the advice of medical experts. Please consult with a physician before embarking on any training program.