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Category Archives: Skill Development

How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 4)

Lesson 4: Proper Practice for Climbers Part 1

By Mark Anderson

Now that we understand that we all possess tremendous untapped climbing potential, just waiting to be exploited, how can climbers specifically go about unlocking that potential? Ericsson’s work in Peak not only provides tremendous inspiration, but also general frameworks for improvement that can be applied to nearly any endeavor. The Purposeful Practice (PP) and Deliberate Practice (DP) constructs, described in Lesson 1 of this series, are the most obvious:

Deliberate Practice (DP):

  • Is Purposeful Practice:
    • Has well-defined, specific goals
    • Is focused
    • Involves feedback
    • Occurs outside one’s comfort zone, (to the extent that it is generally not fun)
  • And…
    • Exists in a highly advanced field, following known, effective training methods
    • Produces and depends on effective Mental Representations
    • Depends on advancement of fundamental skills

Ask yourself, how many of these boxes do you check in your preparation for climbing? It’s likely we can all improve our practice rigor in just about every area described above. Let’s consider each one individually, and how we can improve:

  1. Effective Training Methods: If you’ve made it all the way to Lesson 4 of this series, I’m assuming you are at least aware of the Rock Climber’s Training Manual, and you are following some sort of structured, well-conceived, effective training method. If not, do that first! Note, Ericsson’s idea of an “effective training method” is one with proven success in developing expert level practitioners in the given field. I argued previously that there may be no expert climbers, and by Ericsson’s standard, climbing may not be “a highly advanced field,” but we can still follow the examples of prior top performers. For example, we all know that Gullich, Moffatt and Moon set new standards by diligent use of the Campus Board. So we can assume that is an “effective training method” (at least until something better is discovered to supplant it).
  2. Specific Goals: This is an area in which I believe climbers do very well, both on a macro scale (i.e. training for a specific goal route), and a micro level (going into a particular training session with a specific objective in mind, such as “to improve Power Endurance”). Again, this assumes you are following a structured training program.
  3. Is Focused: Here, climbers fail on multiple levels. Ericsson tells the tale of swimmer Natalie Coughlin who took her performance to the expert level (ultimately winning 12 Olympic Medals) by simply focusing on her stroke rather than “zoning out” during her endless lap swimming. Top musicians, chess grand masters, and other experts do much of their training in complete isolation, where they can focus completely on the task at hand. Few climbers do this ever (even when we do, we often inject external distractions like phones and music). More often than not, we train in a social environment immersed with distractions. Step one is to turn off your phone during training sessions. I think music is ok if it serves a “white noise” purpose (helping to drown out other potential distractions rather than interfering with your focus). The worst thing we do is talking while climbing. You absolutely cannot climb at your best while carrying on a conversation, yet climbers attempt this frequently. Stop! When you are working a route, or attempting an on sight, you must be completely locked into that task. That said, when hanging on the rope during a beta-sussing session, it can be beneficial to discuss your approach with your partner (or other equally engaged observers), but any conversation should be directly relevant to your efforts on the route…
  4. Involves Feedback: …Which leads us into Feedback. Climbers very rarely receive actionable feedback. If we are highly attuned to our performance, we may notice we did something wrong (but then we don’t stop to fix it anyway). Ideally, your climbing would be observed by a skilled coach who could identify errors and provide other feedback when appropriate. Few of us have that option, but nearly all of us climb with partners who can perform that role. As discussed in the RCTM, I believe as a community we need to expand climbing partnerships to encompass more than the bare minimum task of keeping your partner from decking. Your partner should serve as your on-site coach, and you should return the favor. He or she is in the best position to evaluate your focus, effort, and execution. Encourage your partner by asking for feedback. Be specific in your questions: how was my footwork on the slab? Did I look relaxed or frantic? Was I trying my best to latch the dyno? Were my hips tight to the rock or did they pop out like I was bracing to fall? Set a good example by offering feedback, in a kind and constructive manner.
  5. Outside Comfort Zone: Ericsson says “the hallmark of DP” is trying to do something that you cannot do, and practicing it over and over, focusing on how you are doing, where you are falling short, and how you can get better. Here again, many climbers excel. Likely due to the readily quantifiable nature of the sport, performance-oriented climbers are constantly trying routes they cannot do and practicing them over and over in order to send the next grade (at least during the redpoint process). That said, there are exceptions, most often on either end of the experience spectrum. The first are less experienced climbers who haven’t learned how to try hard on a rope yet. If you are one of these, observe more experienced climbers and follow their example. The other end of the spectrum are highly experienced climbers. These climbers (myself included), have the potential to fall into a rut, where they are doing the same activities (and sometimes even the same routes) over and over again, just going through the motions without truly pushing boundaries. If you find yourself doing the same warmup routes over and over again, or falling in the same place on the same project over and over again, it might be helpful to mix things up and face some new challenges. Finally, Ericsson notes truly effect practice is generally not fun, and if it is fun, you aren’t improving as much as you could be. This applies to some climbing activities and some climbers (most would argue hangboarding, Linked Bouldering Circuits, etc are not strictly “fun”). I will stop short of advocating that you suck whatever fun remains out of your climbing, but if you really want to be the best, consider that the best in other fields have done exactly that.
  6. Mental Representations: We didn’t really address Mental Representations in the first lesson, but Ericsson believes they are the key to expertise. These are “mental structure[s] that correspond to an object, idea, collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.” For example, if I list: Labrador, Poodle, Golden Retriever, your brain automatically classifies these items as dogs. You don’t need me to tell you they are dogs, nor do you need to consciously decide they are dogs—it’s subconscious. That’s a mental representation about animals. Peak actually uses a climbing-specific example, noting that experienced climbers automatically group holds by type (crimp vs pocket vs pinch, etc)—a very basic mental representation for climbing. Greater quality and quantity of mental representations enables quicker and more accurate decision making. With respect to climbing, this may be most applicable to sussing beta on our goal routes, either on sight or when preparing for a redpoint. The more we are exposed to different successful sequences, the easier it will be to identify such sequences in the future. Consider that chess experts spend most of their practice time studying the game play of previous masters, trying to predict the best move for a particular situation, and then comparing their solution to that of the master (instant feedback!) Climbers never do this, but we could. We could look at a route that is unknown to us, but has one or more known “solutions.” We could try to predict the correct sequence, and then compare our solution to the beta used by expert climbers. Doing this once or twice will not make a difference but doing it hundreds or thousands of times could vastly improve one’s route-reading ability. One thing we know doesn’t work—bumming the beta from someone else without really trying to figure it out for yourself. Yet this is the most common method of acquiring beta on a difficult project. If I had a strong passion for on sight climbing, I would do what I described above. Instead I have a strong passion for redpointing, so I have spent the past 20 years figuring out beta the hard way–by myself–on a wide variety of routes. By doing so I’ve developed highly advanced mental representations for unlocking beta, and this has allowed me to snag first ascents of many routes that much stronger climbers couldn’t “figure out.” (Such as: Siberian Express, 14c, Slice of Time, 14b, Beretta, 14b, Flight of the Phoenix, 14b, Charlie Don’t Surf, 14b, Double Stout, 14a, Captain America, 14a, Where Paradise Ain’t So Crowded, 14a, Prowler, 14a, Corner Pocket, 13d, Harlot, 13d)
  7. Fundamental Skills: Ericsson uses this element to highlight the importance of a good coach or teacher. In fields like music, students must learn certain fundamental skills correctly, so that they can build on those skills in future, more difficult lessons. A weak fundamental base will handicap the student until those fundamental skills are corrected. Climbing is no different and we’ve all seen strong climbers who never learned proper footwork and so on. Ideally we would have coaches who could identify any fundamental weaknesses in our climbing. An alternative is to honestly evaluate your own climbing to identify such weaknesses. This is actually pretty easy in climbing—all you need to do is climb on a wide variety of routes (in terms of style, steepness, length and hold type). Compare your performance across these styles. Where your performance suffers, you have found a weakness that needs work.

That concludes our analysis of the Deliberate Practice model. However, there is a lot more to gain from Peak than simply the practical application of Deliberate Practice. We will explore those nuggets in the final lesson….

How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 3)

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 3: The First Expert Climber

In Lesson 2, we discussed how Anders Ericsson’s findings in Peak apply to athletics in general.  The next question is, to what extent does Ericsson’s work apply to climbing? As discussed in Lesson 2, the vast majority of Ericsson’s research concerns activities I described as “entirely or primarily skill-based.” Chess is a good example of an entirely skill-based activity, requiring no physical ability beyond that to move the chess pieces around the board. Digit memorization doesn’t even require physical manipulation of chess pieces. Music is primarily skill-based, but there is a physical element involved in order to manipulate the instrument.

So then, is climbing a “skill-based” activity? Many smart climbers often say that it is. Climbers have debated this semantic question for decades and I do not intend to resolve the question here, but merely ask it another way: Is the skill element of climbing so overwhelming (relative to the physical component) that we could say categorically that research conducted on chess players applies (even approximately) to climbers?  Surely not.  So we can’t just assume every lesson in Peak applies exactly to climbing, but we can still apply a great deal. We just need to identify which lessons are beneficial to climbers.

Let’s consider Peak’s implication that there are (virtually) no limits to human potential. Does this apply to climbing? I assume there is some absolute physical limit beyond the scope of our imagination, but I agree with the practical point–we are likely far from reaching the limit of human climbing potential. To illustrate this, I present the following thought experiment concerning Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule:

Let’s say for the sake of argument that 5.14a is an “expert” climbing level. Here’s some rough math showing the number of hours I spent “practicing” to reach that level:

  • Required 7 years of training from the time I became serious about climbing
  • On average, each year consisted of 3 training cycles
  • Each training cycle required 91 hours, broken out thusly:
    • Base Fitness Training: 1hr x 15 sessions = 15 hours
    • Strength Training: 2 hrs x 10 sessions = 20 hours
    • Power Training: 2 hrs x 10 sessions = 20 hours
    • Performance: 3 hrs x 12 sessions = 36 hours
    • Rest: 0 hr x 10 days = 0

Therefore, I required (very) roughly 1,911 hours of “practice” to reach the 5.14a level. Note, however, Ericsson says performance doesn’t count as practice (because you aren’t correcting errors, you’re just trying to get through it the best you can).  756 hours of that 1911 was spent climbing outside on rock.  Depending how one climbs outside, a good portion, likely the vast majority, of those 756 hours would not meet Ericson’s definitions of practice*.  So the number might be closer to 1200 hours.  Granted, this is only one data point, but I don’t believe this quantity of practice is absurdly low for a 5.14a climber (we’ve all heard anecdotes of guys like Dave Graham climbing 5.14a in far less time, sometimes within a year of climbing).    [

*Note also, that I spend a fair amount of time visualizing climbing, reviewing film of myself climbing, studying guidebooks and instructional texts; Ericsson might consider some of this time practice, but it is not counted here for the practical reason that I don’t have a good record or estimate of how much time I’ve spent doing it.]

The obvious conclusion from this thought experiment is that 5.14a is NOT an expert level!  By the standards of very well-developed fields, 5.14a would be entry-level. Consider that the amount of “practice” detailed above is only around 10-20% (depending how you count outdoor climbing days) of the time invested by Ericsson’s 20-year-old music students!  [Another possible conclusion is that climbing is so far from being a skill-based activity that hours of practice are meaningless, but I doubt this is correct.]

Let’s consider what happens when we raise the standard. If we set the arbitrary level of climbing “expertise” at 9a (5.14d) instead of 5.14a, the results aren’t much more convincing. I required 16 years of dedicated training to reach the 9a level, or approximately 4,368 hours (again including 1,728 hours of “performance” that Ericsson might not count, and excluding many hours of “mental” practice that he likely would count).

So one may argue that 9a ability is at best about half-way to expertise, by the standard of truly well-developed fields, like music or chess. I’ve been at this for 20 years, yet I’ve still (at best) only put in about one-quarter as much time “practicing” as a typical international soloist musician. Clearly I’ve been slacking! The lessons here is that it’s likely I can still get a bit better at climbing.

Clearly as a species, humans can get much better. Even the leading American climbers of my generation—Sharma, Caldwell, Graham—didn’t start climbing (seriously at least, in Caldwell’s case) until their mid-teens, a decade later than experts in other fields. The Adam Ondra generation, the first generation to start climbing seriously at a young age, may be the very first to possess even the potential to put in the same amount of “practice” time as experts in other fields.

Of course, that assumes those few who started young actually spent those years effectively. Perhaps you’re thinking, “thanks to books like the Rock Climbers Training Manual, climbers train much more effectively and efficiently than musicians, so therefore we can acquire expertise with far less practice time.”

Consider that musicians in large numbers have built their lives around their craft at least since the time of Mozart (born in 1756 and pursued music full-time starting at age 4). Since then some 10+ generations of musicians have honed more efficient and effective practice methods to stand out from their peers, and then subsequently passed the most effective methods down to future generations.  Climbers have only started to do this in any meaningful way during the last generation or so. Granted, we can learn from other fields, and the internet helps spread information quickly, so it won’t take climbers 250 years to get to where musicians are today, but it won’t happen overnight either.  Perhaps Ondra, Alex Megos, and other climbers of their age have the opportunity to put in expert-level practice time, but even then, climbers will have a long way to go to catch up to the focus, practice methodologies, and proficiency of musicians.

The bottom line is, these numbers suggest the sport of climbing is incredibly immature. Climbers have a very long way to go to approach “expertise” as Ericsson describes it. There is surely still tremendous untapped potential for climbing within the human machine.

You might be thinking, “how does it help me to know that in 50 years, my 8-year old great grandson will be warming up on 5.14d before he tries to onsight a 5.16b?” It helps to know that there is some yet-to-be-discovered training method that will (someday) enable 8-year-old kids to onsight 5.16a. If you know it exists, then you might be inspired to look for it. Imagine if you had access to that training method right now.

In other words, some of that ‘untapped potential for climbing within the human machine’ will be realized by forcing our descendants to start practicing seriously at earlier and earlier ages. As an individual athlete, it’s too late for you to benefit from that change in approach. However, much of that untapped potential will be realized by improving practice methods, evolving Mental Representations, increasing dedication/motivation and enhancing focus. These are all things we can leverage right now as individual athletes. Using the key takeaways from Peak, we will discuss how to do that in Lesson 4….

How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 2)

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 2: (Almost) Anyone Can Become an Expert Climber

When we ended Lesson 1, we were pondering the main theme of Anders Ericsson’s excellent new book Peak:

There are no limits*, it’s never too late to start*; You can be anything you want to be* (with the right kind of practice)

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Ericsson makes the argument that natural talent, potential, genetic advantages, etc, are largely a figment of our imagination, and should never be seen as an excuse or discouragement in striving to reach ones goals. He reinforces this notion with multiple entertaining anecdotes of alleged savants, which he then attempts to debunk. He drives the point home with even more anecdotes of Nobel Prize Winners, master musicians, and champions of various contests who worked incredibly hard, making painstakingly slow progress, before achieving their triumphs, showing that much of the time, success that might appear to stem from “talent” is in reality the result of enormous amounts of hard work.

I agree wholeheartedly with Ericsson’s practical point—you shouldn’t let your genetics or perceived lack of talent stop you from pursuing something you love. If you love Scrabble, you should do everything in your power to become the best Scrabble player you can be. You may well have what it takes to become World Scrabble Champion. If you love rock climbing, you should pursuit it with all your heart—but I seriously doubt any more than a tiny fraction of us have what it takes to become a climbing world champion.

Herein lies the major conundrum of Peak from the perspective of the performance-oriented rock climber. Ericsson has spent his lifetime studying experts, and his book is filled with inspiring tales, but almost all of these are in fields that are primarily, if not entirely, skill-based. Peak makes a compelling case that genes and “talent” have little, if any, impact on skill-based activities. However, performance rock climbing is very much an athletic endeavor, and it is very much influenced by tangible, physical characteristics. It is more than a skill to be learned, like chess or digit memorization. [Note, that is not at all to say climbers cannot benefit from Ericsson’s impressive knowledge—we absolutely can, which we will discuss shortly.]

Do Genetics Matter?

Genetics do play a role in athletics. Ericsson points this out a couple times, stating, “the only two areas where we know for certain that genetics affects sports performance are height and body size.” (p. 218) While Ericsson seems inclined to minimize this fact, I would argue that body size is significant to virtually every sport. We know forearm length is pivotal in how fast a pitcher can hurl a baseball; we know ankle diameter, leg length, and hip width are crucial to “Running Economy” in distance runners, and we know Strength-to-Weight Ratio is a critical factor in climbing (and it is inversely proportional to body size).

Furthermore, simply because we only know a single fact for certain, does not mean that no other facts exist, waiting to be discovered. It just means we don’t know for sure (yet). There is a great deal we still do not know about how genes interact and influence physical traits. Surely there are other genetic factors that impact sports performance (including rock climbing performance), such as muscle fiber twitch, even if they are yet to be proven, for certain.

Does Age Matter?

Now that we’ve acknowledged there are indeed some genetic factors influencing athletic potential, can you still become an expert (in whatever endeavor in which you have the genetic potential to be an expert) at any age? Ericsson also concedes that certain physical abilities must be developed while young, before bones fully calcify, specifically citing throwing range-of-motion in pitchers, and hip turn-out in ballet dancers (p.196). Surely there are other abilities, not yet identified, that must be developed while young. Even if there aren’t, I know plenty of adult climbers who lament their poor hip turn out!

Does this mean you can’t reach Expert Level if you start late? Ericsson’s research suggests your brain can acquire new, complex skills at any age. Whether your body will be able to execute those skills at an “Expert Level” depends, it would seem, on the activity in question. The more physically-demanding, the harder it will be; the more well-developed the activity, the harder it will be. Certainly a late start is not ideal, but theoretically someone with next-level training methods and sufficient determination could overcome a late start, especially since we are so far from reaching human limits in most fields….

Are There Truly No Limits?

Obviously there are limits. If there were no limits, humans would have the theoretical ability to run a 100m dash faster than light speed. However, this is where Peak is the most convincing. Time and again humans have shattered boundaries that were previously viewed as absolute limits by discovering new practice methods and greater determination. While humanity will never run at light speed, our notions of what are “expert” or even “impossible” are likely wildly wrong. Remember, just a few decades ago experts assumed the human limit for random-digit memorization was around 20, yet now we know it’s over 200. So we were off by a factor of 10!

Therefore, considering what we know about genetics, aging, and human limitations, within the context of athletics, perhaps it would be better to phrase Peak’s theme thusly:

Limits are so distant and unknowable as to be virtually irrelevant; a late start can be overcome through superior training; You can be almost anything you want to be (with the right kind of practice)

Now that we have a general idea how Peak applies to athletics at large, to what extent do Ericsson’s findings apply to performance-oriented climbers? What are the Performance-Oriented Climber’s key takeaways from Peak? We will delve into that in Lesson 3….

How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 1: Anyone Can Be An Expert in Anything*

I recently finished reading Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise, by renowned researcher Anders Ericsson (and Robert Pool). Those familiar with The Rock Climber’s Training Manual (RCTM) will recognize Ericsson’s name from our chapter on Skill Development. Ericsson is well-known as a leading researcher on expertise. He has spent his career asking what sets experts apart and what does it take to become an expert in a given field? Among practitioners—those seeking expertise in their own chosen pursuits—Ericsson is known as the creator of the “Deliberate Practice” model for skill development.

[Among lay-people, Ericsson is perhaps most widely known as the source material for Malcom Gladwell’s erroneous-yet-ubiquitous “10,000 Hour Rule,” which suggests it requires approximately 10,000 hours to become an “expert” in any given pursuit. Ericsson goes to some lengths in Peak to distance himself from this “rule” (see page 109), noting firstly that 10,000 hours was merely an average, for a specific skill (violin), with a wide range, and secondly that this was only the average amount practiced by age 20—international soloists would have practiced far more, upwards of 20,000 hours, and most importantly, that the quality of one’s practice is far more important than quantity.]

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Ericsson has studied or worked with all manner of experts—old/young, those who started early/late, “talented”/un-“talented”—in an impressively wide range of fields, including music, chess, scrabble, sports, memorization and even taxi driving. Peak lays out Ericsson’s work as a researcher, highlighting many key studies that informed his understanding of expertise and what it takes to achieve it. The text is filled with fascinating anecdotes of various trials conducted and experts examined, spanning an incredibly diverse set of skill-based activities.

Among the most incredible is the story of Steve Faloon, a student hired to participate in a digit-memorization study. Initially Steve could reliably remember 7 or 8 random digits—typical for most people. By the end of the study, two years later, Steve shattered world records by recalling 82 random digits! Did Steve possess an amazing hidden talent for memorization? Unlikely. Using Steve’s experience as guidance, his friend Dario Donatelli exceeded 100 digits. Now that people realize what is possible the world record stands over 200 digits. Steve set a new standard because he possessed a willingness to persevere and a guide driven to push his limits (Ericsson), not because of some amazing, innate ability.

Another is the tale of the Polgar sisters. Their parents, psychologists who studied geniuses, were so convinced that any child could be made into a “genius” with the proper rearing, that they decided to prove this with their own children. They selected chess as a medium, because of the ease with which a chess player’s ability can be measured (relative to music, languages, or mathematics—other areas they considered). Susan, the oldest, become the top-ranked female chess player in the world at age 15, and went on to become the first female Grand Master. Amazingly, she ended up as the least accomplished chess player among her sisters!

Or consider Paul Brady, who taught himself to have “Perfect Pitch” (the ability to correctly identify single musical notes, a skill possessed by approximately 1 in 10,000 people). Scientists had previously believed this ability required special “talent,” and even then could ONLY be developed in the very young. Brady did it at age 32 by discovering a novel training method and applying it diligently over merely 57 days.

These anecdotes demonstrate several truths:

  • The human mind and body are incredibly adaptable, at all ages (though surely, Ericsson concedes, more adaptable in youth).
  • Our pre-conceived notions of what is “Humanly Possible” are often incredibly incorrect
  • “Talent”, or lack thereof, is far less important in developing expertise than most believe
  • All it takes to become an expert is drive, determination, and the right kind of practice

These are incredibly inspiring insights, and rightly so. In a nutshell the main theme of Peak (in my words), which Ericsson hammers home convincingly and returns to frequently, is this:

There are no limits*, it’s never too late to start*; You can be anything you want to be* (with the right kind of practice)

So then, what is the right kind of practice? Ericsson presents two recommended practice methodologies:

Purposeful Practice (PP):

  • Has well-defined, specific goals
  • Is focused
  • Involves feedback
  • Occurs outside one’s comfort zone

For most of us, Purposeful Practice is about as close we get to optimizing our “practice” (more on this to come).

Deliberate Practice (DP):

  • Is Purposeful Practice:
      • Has well-defined, specific goals
      • Is focused
      • Involves feedback
      • Occurs outside one’s comfort zone, (to the extent that it is generally not fun)
  • And…
      • Exists in a highly advanced field, following known, effective training methods
      • Produces and depends on effective Mental Representations
      • Depends on advancement of fundamental skills

Practically, both PP and DP will develop and depend on Mental Representations (“a mental structure that corresponds to an object, idea, collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.”)

The key difference between the PP and DP, is that Deliberate Practice ideally occurs under the tutelage of another expert in the field (who is also an effective teacher/coach), who can provide feedback, identify problem areas, and recommend the most effective training methods for improving in the given pursuit.

So if that’s all it takes to be an expert, why is the world full of Jacks-of-all-trades and Masters of none? Ericsson argues that most people who practice correctly only stop improving if they stop trying to improve. Most people just get tired of it, lose motivation or focus, and then stagnate, which further drains motivation, etc. In his view, if you never stop trying, never stop applying the method of Deliberate Practice, you will never stop improving. The logical conclusion, which Ericsson, highlights, is that there are essentially no limits to human ability, only limits to motivation/focus, etc.

That’s incredible news, if true. If it makes you a bit skeptical, you’re ready to investigate that pesky asterisk, which we will do in Lesson 2….

Podcast: Panel Discussion on Training

By Mark Anderson

On January 17th, the Boulder Rock Club hosted a panel discussion on training. The panel included myself, renowned climbing coach Justen Sjong, Chiropractor & Physio Dr. Brent Apgar, double-digit boulder and author Peter Beal and Physical Therapist Dr. Stacy Soapmann. It was a really fun and informative event. We fielded questions submitted online as well as questions from the live audience. The discussion was pretty lively and lasted a good 90 minutes.

Louder Than Eleven was on-hand to record the event for the community. You can listen to the Podcast here:

 

Our discussion covered the following topics:

  • How to identify Strengths & Weaknesses (@ ~2:49 in the podcast)
  • How to get Strong Fingers (8:12)
  • What is Core Training and is it a waste of time? (10:09)
  • Injuries, Prevention, Rehab and how these relate to Training Volume and Intensity (18:40)
  • The problem with the Gym; Indoor Training vs. Outdoor Climbing; balancing learning how to move well vs. how to perform well vs. training to get stronger; and what is Good Technique? (33:13)
  • The importance of Adventure and Route Finding, and the value of figuring out Beta (47:13)
  • Selecting the right Project, how to train for Freerider, onsight vs. redpoint grade (51:29)
  • Rehabbing Over-use Injuries in climbers, hardware vs. software and the power of the mind in healing (56:15)
  • Youth Climbing, training & injuries; American Ninja Warrior and the future of Comp Climbing; and is it healthy to be elite? (1:06:45)
  • Definition and value of Antagonist Training, training Patterns vs. Parts, proper Form (1:15:51)
  • Diet, Nutrition & Fuel with respect to performance; Alex Huber; individuality & variety of diet; sleep & rest; intermittent fasting (1:22:46)

I hope you find some of this useful, or at least entertaining. Thanks to everyone who participated in the panel, all the attendees, the BRC for hosting, Tara Gee for moderating and especially Brent Apgar, Aubrey Wingo and Mark Dixon for organizing.

Review of the Latest Climbing Research

By Mark Anderson

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Our friends at Trango generously footed the bill to send Mike and I to the International Rock Climbing Research Association’s (IRCRA) annual conference, held in Telluride, CO earlier this month. Ben and Jason at Fixed Pin Publishing also stepped up big-time to provide attendees with complimentary copies of The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. The conference was a who’s who of climbing researchers, medical experts and performance gurus, providing a great opportunity for us to spread the word about our system of training and line of Trango training products. We had the opportunity to meet and compare notes with the likes of hangboard queen Eva Lopez-Rivera, Volker Schöffl (climber-surgeon and author of the landmark book “One Move Too Many”), mental master Arno Ilgner (author of The Rock Warrior’s Way), Ben Spannuth (badass sport climber and creator of the Bam Board), Eric Horst (author of the Training For Climbing series of books), as well as prolific climbing researches Phil Watts, Nick Draper and Vanesa Espańa-Romero.

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Mark discussing the evolution of hangboard technology that preceded the Rock Prodigy Training Center.

 

Our primary purpose in attending was to present our two papers: “Evaluating the Rock Prodigy Training Method” and “Finger Strength Improvements with the Rock Prodigy Training Center Hangboard.” We gave a 30-minute presentation covering both topics. It was a bit intimidating presenting pseudo-scientific material to a conference room full of PHD physiologists and researchers, but we were very well-received and generated a great discussion about the evolution of hangboards and the importance of ergonomics in training tools. A number of attendees came up after our presentation to compliment us on the Forge and RPTC designs (and ask where they can buy one in Europe!)

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The highlight for me was a long—albeit broken—conversation with Eva Lopez. We compared notes on hangboard training methods, hangboard design (Eva designed the innovative and popular “Progression” and “Transgression” hangboards), and laughed together about the many internet debates over whose hangboard routines are superior. [We heartily agreed that the climber’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals are surely the most important factor in selecting the optimal routine.]

The world’s foremost hangboard experts (in no particular order)? From left to right: Mark Anderson, Eva Lopez, Mike Anderson

I also learned (from the truly impressive Volker Schöffl and team) that there are a lot of climbing injuries I’d never even heard of. One key takeaway is that, if I ever have a serious climbing injury, I’m going to Germany to get it diagnosed and treated. Dr. Schöffl is on a whole different level when it comes to understanding and treating climbing injuries. He’s done extensive studies comparing the various treatment options (that he likely pioneered) on injuries that your local hand surgeon has probably never even heard of (let alone treated).

IMG_2861

Mike going through the survey results

 

Our secondary objective was to learn about the latest advancements in climbing training and injury treatment knowledge. There were some 35 papers submitted from a truly international cast of experts (including contributors from Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, UK, and perhaps the most remote relative to rock climbing: Michigan). Below is a BRIEF summary of the findings I found most interesting/relevant to performance-oriented climbers. I’ve tried to provide links where possible so you can dig into the details if you’d like more info. [At some point all of these papers should be posted to the IRCRA web site, but they did not seem to be posted as of the date this post was published]

    • Dr. Vanesa Espana-Romero of Universidad de Cadiz, Spain presented a review of the literature to update our understanding of the physiological components of rock climbing.  According to her summary of the research, the top 3 key attributes are finger strength (relative to body weight), finger intermittent endurance and upper body power. There is little or no correlation between systemic aerobic fitness (measures such as heart rate, VO2 Max, etc), however, climbers tend to have better local aerobic endurance (within the forearm muscles). Also, flexibility isn’t correlated to climbing performance…I still plan to stretch though.

 

    • Shaking of the hand “near the body” while resting increases re-oxygenation [thus improving recovery?] ~32% compared to simply relaxing your grip over a hold (and NOT shaking the hand). Presumably because placing the forearm under the level of the heart increases vasodilative responses, thus increasing blood flow. [Reference]

 

    • Time to failure when performing repeated crimp grip contractions (10s on, 3s off) at 40% of 1 Rep Max (1RM) was significantly increased in “cold” conditions (50 degF, vs. control of 75 degF). The temperature difference did not significantly affect 1RM. I recommend taking a copy of this study to your local climbing gym in hopes of convincing the management to turn down the thermostat. [Ref. “The effect of cold ambient temperatures on climbing-specific finger flexor performance” by KC Phillips, B Noh, M Gage, T Yoon]

 

    • Dehydrated climbers did not perform as well on a Treadwall test. [Ref: “Effect of hypohydration on climbing to failure on a treadwall” by KD Hewitt, T France, G Gonzalez, M Probst, et al]

 

 

    • If you want to improve your 1 Rep Max for a 5 second dead hang, training for 8 weeks with 3-5 sets of 1, 10-second rep (with 3 minutes rest between sets) is superior to training for 8 weeks with 3-5 sets of 4-5, 10-second reps (with 1 minute rest between sets). [Ref. “Comparison of the effects of three hangboard training programs on maximal finger strength in rock climbers” by E Lopez-Rivera & JJ Gonzalez-Badillo]

 

IMG_2863

Eva Lopez presenting her paper comparing three 8-week hangboard protocols.

 

    • The use of chalk significantly increases hang time to failure on a hangboard (compared to NOT using chalk). [Reference]

 

    • Intermediate-level climbers make more technical mistakes when leading routes than when toproping. [Ref. “Anxiety level and ability to climb routes in recreational indoor climbing” by P Czermak]

 

    • “High” climbing level and/or intensive finger training (such as campusing) correlates with risk for early onset osteoarthritis in the hands of young climbers. [Ref. “Long term Radiographic Adaptations to the Stress of High-Level and recreational Rock Climbing in Young Athletes” by P Hoffman, S Hinterwimmer, AB Imhoff, T Kupper, and V Schöffl]

 

    • Forearm compression sleeves might beneficially affect lactate removal after climbing. [Reference]

 

    • A couple different presenters showed research that supports the theory that “near term” finger strength improvements may be mostly due to neurological adaptations, rather than hypertrophy. However, nobody directly studied this.

 

IMG_2859

Mike and I discussing training philosophy with Eric Horst at the end of our presentation.

Thanks again to Trango for sponsoring our trip, and thanks to all of you who participated in the Rock Prodigy survey! If you have any questions about any of the research presented, or would like to discuss any of the finer points, please post up in the Rock Prodigy Forum.

Anderson Brothers Interview at PaleoTreats

Anderson Brothers thinking about training.

Anderson Brothers thinking about training.

Earlier this week Mike and I were invited on Nik Hawks’ podcast over at PaleoTreats.  PaleoTreats is a web-based mail order company that makes delicious and nutritious desserts for active and health-conscious folks.  In their own words,

“…We’ve been making foodie-approved Paleo desserts since 2009. We are serious about flavor, texture, ingredients and Paleo. Yes, all of them. We’ve shipped around the world, from Australia to Afghanistan, and we’ve ironed out all the kinks of getting a great dessert to your door.”

Nik’s podcast isn’t really about that though.  He’s interviewed an impressively diverse group of folks covering the gamut from elite athletes, to coaches and nutrition experts, focused on a wide variety of sports.  He’s really interested in the pursuit of excellence, and the common factors that make athletes successful, regardless of their athletic vocation.  Our podcast covered a variety of topics, including:

  • Goal-Setting in life and sports
  • How to develop the ability to work hard in yourself and your kids
  • The time and place for skill development in climbing
  • What we’re most proud of (in a training sense), and what we would change about the RCTM
  • How self-esteem (or lack thereof) has impacted our motivation and success
  • The next big innovations in climbing training

(Pretty much the only thing we didn’t talk about is food)

Check out the podcast here!

This photo has nothing to do with the adjacent text. Sticking the crux dyno on Nailed It, 12d, at the Sterling Wall.

This photo has nothing to do with this blog post. Sticking the crux dyno on Nailed It, 12d, at the Sterling Wall.

Deliberate Practice

I’m currently reading The Sports Gene by Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein (Read a brief overview here). It’s a fascinating treatise on what sports science has uncovered so far about the components that contribute to elite athletic performance. The book elaborates on the fundamental “nature vs nurture” question as it applies to athletics; how much of an athlete’s performance is due to his inherited genes and how much to his training and skill development (or practice). It’s a Malcom Gladwell-esque compendium of anecdotes and statistics that explores the topic from numerous angles and a wide variety of sports. [The fact that rock climbing isn’t mentioned is no surprise, and further evidence that climbing, as a subject of sports science, is in its infancy.]

Bighorn at Shelf Road, CO. ©Mike Anderson

Is this guy’s climbing skill a result of nature or nurture? ©Mike Anderson

This question of how expertise is achieved is posed by researchers in the field (as well as Epstein) as one of “hardware vs software,” or the heritable physical traits of an athlete vs their learned perceptual skills. This isn’t the same as physical skills, but they may be related. Examples of perceptual skills include Payton Manning’s ability to read an NFL defense and predict who the open receiver will be after the ball is snapped, or Albert Pujols’ ability to determine if a pitch is going to be a ball or strike before it’s even left the pitcher’s hand, based on the pitcher’s arm and shoulder movement. While you may presume that athletes like Pujols have extraordinary reflexes, the fact is they don’t—they do have much better-than-average eyesight, but their expertise is largely derived from practice at observing pitchers and baseballs in flight and using that experience to predict the location of the ball when it crosses home plate, and thus, where to swing. (This point is foot-stomped in the book with a compelling anecdote about many MLB hitters, including Pujols who were unable to hit a single pitch thrown by USA softball star Jenny Finch—a much larger ball thrown at a relatively anemic 65 mph. The cues these hitters rely on were useless in this case, because a softball pitcher’s arm motion is totally different from that of a baseball pitcher’s).

It should come to no surprise to any veteran of scientific literature that the answer to this question of “hardware vs software” is…both. At the highest levels of professional sports, there are certain traits that are virtual requirements, such as the aforementioned eyesight in MLB hitters, and height in NBA ballers. It’s easy to become demoralized by talk of essential genetic traits, but I would argue we haven’t reached that point in climbing. No, the real point here is that practice is critical to elite expertise. A landmark study of musicians led by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson led to the hypothesis that nearly any skill could be mastered with a substantial amount of practice. However, this is not just turn-off-your-brain-and-be-a-robot practice, it takes deliberate practice—rehearsal that:

• Focuses on specific weaknesses
• Challenges the practitioner
• Provides expert feedback on the quality of the performance

Ericsson’s findings have been twisted into the now-popularized “10,000 hours to expertise rule” that claims that mastery of any skill can be achieved with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. In fact, the quantity of practice required to reach an elite level varies greatly across activities, and across practitioners within a given activity, but the “spirit” of the rule holds—attaining expertise requires significant deliberate practice.

So of course, I can’t help but wonder how these concepts apply to climbing. Clearly climbing performance is heavily dependent on both physical traits, physical skills and perceptual skills. Your physical traits (such as your ability to hang onto a small hold) are a combination of your inherited genetic traits and physical training. Physical skills include the ability to execute climbing specific movements, such as a complex dyno, or effective footwork. Perceptual skills are the cognitive abilities used in climbing such as reading a route and anticipating the best sequences, or the ability to ration effort on a pumpy climb. Our physical and perceptual skills are a result of practice. Different climbers may accumulate skill at different rates, (one climber may need to practice longer to acquire the same level of skill as another as a result of their genetic predisposition for skill acquisition), but the point is, we all require practice.

This may seem obvious, but I wonder how much climbers emphasis deliberate practice in their training? Climbers don’t even use the word practice, we call it “training” or “climbing.” Given this, what’s the chance we’re concentrating on the tenets of deliberate practice while we are in the process of practicing for climbing? It’s certainly possible to spend 10,000 hours or more at climbing and not even approach an elite climbing level (you might know climbers like this). For many folks, (call them “recreational” climbers), maximizing performance isn’t their goal, so their 10,000 hours don’t amount to deliberate practice. The real quandary lies with the others…those of us that want to improve, and have been trying to improve for years, yet don’t seem to make progress with our climbing skill. The disappointing results may be due to the quality of the practice.

Whether it’s a lack of know-how, or lack of desire, most climbers don’t practice well. Simply consider the typical gym or crag setting, and compare it to other sports (with a seasoned coach barking out a scripted series of targeted drills). Climbing is comparatively unfocused, unstructured, and unsupervised. To improve the quality of our practice, each session should:

Shaun gets "expert feedback" from Mike on the Jerry Lewis boulder at Little Rock City, TN. (c) Janelle Anderson

Any climbing session can incorporate deliberate practice, if you make the effort. Shaun gets “expert feedback” from Mike on the Jerry Lewis boulder at Little Rock City, TN. ©Janelle Anderson

• Focus on clear improvement goals
• Utilize challenging exercises
• Incorporate expert coaching or other effective feedback

I’ve seen highly motivated climbers reach very high levels of performance very quickly by earnestly attacking their weaknesses, pushing themselves, and seeking expert feedback. You can do it too!

The vision for the Trango athlete team is to find climbers who embody our brand’s values and support them in their climbing endeavors. We focus on the character of the climber, their passion for the sport, and their desire to contribute to the community.

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