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Category Archives: Supplemental Exercises

40 Climbing Lessons

by Mark Anderson

A few years ago Steve Bechtel gave me an article called “40 Years of Insight” by strength Coach Dan John.  The article is a list of 40 lessons Dan learned in his 40 years of coaching strength athletes. I liked it so much, I keep it on my nightstand and re-read it periodically.

I can’t imagine I’ll have anything interesting left to say once I have 40 years of coaching experience, but as of today I’ve been on this planet for 40 years, so I decided to write my own version—40 lessons I’ve learned about climbing in 40 years of life. Nobody will agree with all of them, but hopefully everyone can find some use for at least one of these. [Warning: this is a bit of a novel, so you might want to break it up over a few days (Mark D)]

1. Set Goals—We need to reach for the stars if we want to have the slightest chance of reaching our potential. How we do that matters. Many people confuse dreams with goals, but there is one major difference—dreams almost never happen. If you want to get things done, you need realistic stepping-stones and an executable plan to progress between them. Establish a plan, follow the plan. That’s how you get things don

2. It’s Never Too Late—to take up climbing, learn a new technique, develop new strength, rehab a nagging injury. Every few years I discover another aspect of my climbing I’ve neglected and start improving it. In my late 20’s it was power endurance, in my early 30’s it was contact strength, then it was upper arm and shoulder power, then core strength, and most recently I found I had improved so much everywhere else that power endurance was once again a (relative) weakness. Whatever it is that’s been holding you back, start training it today. There’s still plenty of time to reap the benefits.

3. Baby Steps—Big improvements aren’t made in big leaps, they’re made in many baby steps, over years. You can go incredibly far using baby steps, but you have to take a few steps every day, to the best of your ability, for a long time. The good news is, you have plenty of time, the rock isn’t going anywhere.

4. We Don’t Climb in a Lab—I’ll take a real-world anecdote over a laboratory study any day. The climbing studies that have been done thus far are incredibly primitive and rarely (if ever) representative of real-world rock climbing. I couldn’t care less if a training program produces great results in the lab. The point is to get better at climbing rocks, so I follow programs that produce results on the rock. If a program has demonstrated the ability to do that, it’s a good program. If someone is trying to sell you something, the only question to ask is, “how many letter grades did you improve when you used this program?” You don’t need any laboratories, scientists, or double-blind studies. If they can’t answer that question convincingly, save your money.

5. The Weekend Warrior’s Best Weapon is Good Time Management—When I first started working I got a day planner with the Ben Franklin quote: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” In our 20’s, the Anderson mantra was “Maximize Fun,” which was a euphemism for waking up before sunrise, taking no breaks, and finishing after dark so we could cram as much climbing/mountaineering/canyoning into a day as possible. If it didn’t suck by the end of the day, then we failed. I don’t have many days like that anymore, but I am constantly hustling from task to task to clear space for climbing, bolting, or training. If you want to have it all (and you should), it really helps to be as efficient as possible in your daily life: plan ahead, stay on task, do simple things quickly, and do them right the first time.

Maximizing Fun on Lotus Flower Tower. We summited in the dark and got back to camp just before sunrise the next morning.

6. Big Fish Need Big Ponds—If you’re already the best climber in your gym, move! We need rivals to push us, heroes to inspire us, and mentors to show us the way. If you’re the big fish in your pond, find yourself a bigger pond that will give you room to grow. Moving to Colorado in 2008 was the make-or-break moment of my career. While I was incredibly excited about all the new rock, I also doubted my ability to ‘survive’ in a place so stacked with talented climbers. Frankly it started pretty badly. Everything seemed sandbagged, and for the first time ever I was waiting in line to try 5.14s. I enjoyed few successes in those early years, but ultimately it invigorated my climbing, forcing me to become much better.

7. Attack Your Weaknesses Directly—The best way to solve a weakness is to pick a goal route at your limit that perfectly exploits that weakness. You will have no choice but to ensure that correcting the weakness is your #1 priority in training. When I first started working 5.12’s, my footwork was terrible. I picked several projects at Smith Rock (where footwork is paramount), and although the process was initially terribly frustrating, the payoff has been enormous. Solving a weakness is not an extra-curricular activity, it has to be your primary focus.

8. Be A Maverick,—If you want to be as good as everyone else, do what everyone else does. If you want to be better than that, you have to do something different. For literally years, I was the only climber in my gym who used a hangboard (and everyone looked at me funny).

9. Invest in a Training Space—It’s ironic that as commercial climbing gyms have become increasingly prolific, they’ve also become increasingly useless to performance-oriented climbers. Second to making the decision to start training, the next ‘best-decision-I-ever-made’ for my climbing was building my own training facility. It finally allowed me to train the way I want, with no excuses about walls that are too steep, holds that are unrealistic, or poor route-setting. It puts me in complete control of my training. I don’t have to dodge birthday parties, heinous temperatures or primetime crowds. It has everything I need, and if it doesn’t it’s my own fault.

10. Keep a Journal—Preferably multiple journals. I have reams of training log sheets, detailing every rep and set of every workout I’ve ever done. I have a “Training Calendar,” in which I forecast planned training and climbing sessions, and summarize them for each day, after the fact. I have a blog where I bore you all with grandiose accounts of significant (to me) adventures. I also have a spreadsheet capturing every 5.12-or-harder route I’ve ever climbed, another one for every first ascent, and detailed notes in all my guidebooks. These are my most treasured possessions. They are invaluable for entertainment, lessons learned and most-importantly, planning future training.

Jonathan filling out his logsheet during a winter training session in Las Vegas.

11. Get Into A Routine—The trick to sticking with a training plan, or maintaining discipline in general, is to have a routine. We’re all busy, and faced with obstacles that can interfere with training. If you have to shuffle commitments and make decisions on the fly, you’re sure to sacrifice training more often than you’d like. A predictable weekly schedule with few surprises may sound boring, but it’s the best way to ensure you accomplish your training goals for each day. That’s the key to making steady progress. Once training becomes a regular habit, something you expect to do, something you plan around, rather than something you have to plan for, discipline comes easily.

12. The First Step Is the Hardest—The hardest part of every workout is taking that first step towards the gym. Everyone has days when they just don’t want to train. A good way to overcome this inertia is to commit to at least doing a little something on every training day. In my experience, once you get warmed up, you usually find the motivation to go ahead with the scheduled workout.

13. Quality Over Quantity, or Intensity Over Duration. I’m a firm believer that in climbing, power is generally much more limiting than endurance. Even when it isn’t, nobody ever complained about having too much power. So it makes sense for most climbers to favor power in their training. Additionally, intense training takes less time. But the best reason to favor it is that it takes less out of you, so you can get a lot of training stimulus without digging a deep hole that requires extensive recovery. Fortunately this can be applied to endurance training as well—one ARC set done with intention and focus beats three sets of going through the motions any day. Whatever your training goals, train the best you can, for as long as you can, and then call it a day. Piling on a bunch of junk miles at the end will only make things worse.

Applying the proper intensity during a hangboard session.

14. Stick to What Works—The people who experience the most consistent, steady improvement do the same general things for years and years. Bouncing around between plans makes it impossible to optimize your training, because you’re never doing anything long enough to evaluate its effectiveness. Find something that works for you and stick with it. For a really long time. Make subtle tweaks as you learn and grow, but a solid system will continue to produce steady gains for decades.

15. Love the Process—The reason I’ve been able to get through ~400 HB workouts is that I love hangboarding (on some level). If you don’t love hangboarding, find something you do love and figure out how to make it work with your training program. In any field, those with the most staying-power love the preparation as much or more than they like the performance.

16. An Ounce of Prevention—…is worth a pound of cure -Ben Franklin. If you’re reading this it’s a safe bet you already know the importance of preparing your fingers for rock climbing. Additionally, pretty much every climber I’ve ever known has had elbow and/or shoulder problems at one time or another, sooner or later. The good news is that it takes very little effort to reduce the risk of injury to these crucial joints. The first step is to use good form in your training (especially hangboarding and campusing), keeping your elbows slightly bent and shoulders tight. Second, end each session with a few minutes of prehab exercises (for shoulders, try push-ups and internal and external shoulder rotations, and for elbows, check out this article). Finally, stretch your forearms after each climbing or training session.

17. Core Strength Costs Nothing—We all know that your fingers can never be too strong for rock climbing. The problem is that our fingers are incredibly fragile; they must be trained carefully, and then allowed to recover for long periods between sessions. While core strength takes a backseat, it is very beneficial. It’s also very easy to train without detracting from finger training, so there’s no good reason not to do it. You can train your core every day, or on off days (from finger training) if time is limited. In my experience a little bit of core strength goes a long way, opening up a new dimension of exotic and gymnastic rock climbs.

18. Take Care—I can’t remember how times I’ve hurt myself doing mundane things like unloading groceries, putting my kids in their car seats, or even sleeping in an awkward position. Be precise and thoughtful in everything you do. Don’t overgrip when climbing, or when opening doors. Sleep flat on your back. Practice precision movement and situational awareness all the time—don’t be clumsy, oafish or inattentive. Down climb when bouldering. It’s a good drill for regular climbing, a good skill to have for on-sighting, but most importantly, it will save your joints.

19. Injuries Aren’t the End of the World. When you have a serious injury, it always feel like the end of the world, or maybe just the end of your performance climbing career. Any athlete who wants to be the best they can be is going to push the limits of their body. If you flirt with the line between maximum improvement and injury, eventually you will cross it. Looking back, I’ve had four major pulley strains that could have been “career ending” had I chosen to accept that outcome. I’ve had countless tweaks in collateral ligaments, elbows, back, shoulders and knees. Many of them seemed devastating at the time, but none of them held me back in the long run. Train smart, take measures to avoid them, but if an injury occurs, remain optimistic and believe that you can recover 100%.

20. Logistics Matter—I’m a planner. I envy those who can roll up to the crag without a worry and crush 5.15, but that’s not me. I over-think everything, then think about it some more. Many great climbing projects have failed because some mundane detail was overlooked, and that’s what keeps me up at night. Mike and I scrapped our way up a lot of things we shouldn’t have because we’re really freaking good at planning. Whether you’re embarking on an alpine style ascent in the Karakoram, Nose-in-a-Day, or a weekend of sport climbing, create a detailed plan, walk through every possible outcome, and make sure it’s viable. Practice this when you’re young, and it will pay off when your life becomes more complicated. The skills I learned preparing for expeditions in the Alaska Range came in really handy once my climbing excursions become truly daunting (visiting sport crags with kids).

21. There Are No Secrets—If someone is trying to sell you the “secret” to better performance, run away. All the information you need to excel at climbing has been around for years, in books, journals, and/or the interwebs. The 80’s were the Age of Innovation, and while much knowledge was lost during the more recent Age of Grunting, you can still find the wisdom of yesterday in any number of great resources (such as: Wizards of Rock, Revelations, Beyond the Summit, Fingers of Steel, Performance Rock Climbing, A Life in the Vertical).

Photo: Nick Clement

22. Ration Your Skin—It’s literally your interface to the rock. Think about how much you care about your climbing shoes. Your skin is ten times more important. Skin care is 99% prevention. Once you have an issue, it’s probably too late (and you’ll spend ten times the effort on the “cure,” which will be one-tenth as effective). Get a skin care kit and use it daily. When on the rock, pace your efforts and conserve your skin. Check it whenever you’re hanging on the rope and quit while you’re ahead. Once its gone, it will be much more costly waiting for it to heal than it would have been to quit 5 minutes earlier.

23. Get up Early—You get the least crowds, the best climbing conditions, and the most beautiful light.

24. Invest in a Good Partner—The greatest asset for long-term success is a good partner. The best partners are dependable, provide moral support on and off the rock, and do the little things (like bringing your shoes over when you lower off). Those types of partnerships don’t just happen, they have to be nurtured. I’ve had a lot of great partners that deserve credit, including Mike, Fred, Janelle, Chris, Bobby, Ben, Marcus, Rob, Rick, Lee, Steve, Vern, Marc, Gabe, Grace, Lamont, Shaun, Adam, Mark, Evan, Boer and Kevin. My wife Kate is the very best possible partner. She’s the secret to my success.

25. Go Against the Grain—Climb in unpopular areas, at off-peak times. Once there, do unpopular routes. You get the place to yourself, you don’t have to wait in line, and you’ll be forced to learn a variety of techniques on many different types of rock. You also learn self-reliance and aren’t misled by everyone else’s bad habits (or bad beta).

Kate and I atop the Moai after climbing Sacred Site, 5.10-

26. Mileage Over Difficulty—We master moving over stone by doing lots of it, not by doing a few harder moves many times. When I was breaking into 5.12 I would routinely climb 15 pitches per climbing day and never less than 10, whether I was climbing trad or sport. I stretched my partners’ patience, but it made me a better climber. If technique is your weakness, forget about projecting routes at your limit for a few years and just try to climb as many pitches per day as possible when you go outside. Visit as many different crags as possible and climb the widest variety of routes. These routes should still be challenging, but nothing that takes more than 3 tries to send. You can and should still train systematically indoors, but when you’re outside, climb for volume.

27. Figure Out the Beta Yourself—I’m all for doing things the easy way, most of the time. If I‘m loading a sack of bricks into my car, I’ll certainly take the easy way.  When I’m trying to improve myself, I’ll take the hard way. The easy way to get the beta for your project is to watch Youtube videos or other climbers. That may get you to the chains faster, but figuring out the beta yourself will make you a better climber.

28. You’ll Never Send What You Don’t Try—In 2008 I was climbing at the Left Flank in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge with Mike. I was having one of those great days of onsighting—I hadn’t fallen all day and I’d sent a number of hard-for-me routes up to 12d. I was debating out loud the pros and cons of risking my precious final onsight attempt of the day on the classic 5.13a Table of Colors (a grade I’d never onsighted before). Mike said “You’ll definitely never onsight 5.13 if you never try one.” At some point, if you want to do hard routes, you have to try hard routes. I’ve surprised myself many times, including on that day in 2008. It’s understandable to have reservations or anxiety. Anytime you try something truly challenging, your risk failing in spectacular fashion, but you have to give yourself the opportunity to succeed or you never will.

29. Less is More—Generally, climbers climb too much, train too much, and rest too little. Particularly with training in vogue and so many coaches offering new exercises, we tend to add more and more training volume without taking anything away. If you’re lacking “pop,” you’re not psyched to train, or packing for the next climbing day feels like a chore, you’re likely over-doing it. I tend to follow my training plans religiously, and the thought of skipping a workout is heresy. In retrospect, I’ve found that dropping in an extra rest day here or there has only ever helped, and often it’s made my season. Whatever climbing problem is bringing you down, there’s a good chance an extra rest day will help solve it.

30. Conserve Your Energy—It takes a tremendous amount of energy to climb at your limit (especially after age 35). The biggest jump in ability I made in the past decade came when I took a temporary break from rest-day aerobic exercise in 2011. The result of that break was so profound it’s now permanent, except for one or two months a year of cycling in the summer. I miss the daily meditation of trail running and cycling, but not as much as I like climbing a letter-grade harder. If you’re doing any extra-curricular activities, they‘re likely detracting from your climbing performance. Whether those activities are worth the impact is a judgment call for you to make, just realize its having an effect.

31. Eat Lots of (Lean) Protein—I’m not a nutrition geek. I’ve read a fair amount about it and figured out how to lose weight when I need to and feel strong while performing. If I had to summarize my recommendations in one short sentence, it would be: eat lots of lean protein. This will fuel your physical gains, provide plenty of energy for day-to-day life and suppress the glycemic response that causes over-eating. Yes, you also need some carbs and fats, but unless you have an exclusive sponsorship deal with Starkist Tuna, chances are good you’ll consume sufficient quantities of both without thinking about. You can make this pretty complicated if you want (calculating grams per body mass, ingesting at regular intervals, protein shakes just before bed time on training days), but following this simple suggestion will get you most of the way to your climbing goals.

Sea bugs are a great source of lean protein.

32. Pay Attention When You’re Belaying—Obviously you have someone’s life in your hands. Take that seriously. Furthermore, from a performance perspective, engage in your partners’ climbing. Discuss their beta, study their movement, offer suggestions and invest in their success. You will liven up the monotony of belaying, your partner will appreciate it, and you’ll learn a lot in the process.

33. Learn to like Falling—There are climbers who enjoy falling. If fear of falling is an issue for you, don’t be satisfied with barely tolerating it. Take it a few steps farther, to the point that you actually like it. Then trying hard will be second nature. This is constantly a work-in-progress for me, but when I’m climbing my best, falling is fun.

Falling off at the Crimp Crux–an experience I was all-too familiar with. Photo Mike Anderson.

34. Write Down Your Beta—Once I started writing beta down, it forced me to really think about how my hips and shoulders were involved in generating movement, and that propelled my technique to a new level. Get into the habit of writing down your beta in narrative form, at least for crux sections. It will help you think through how you’re moving and why. If you have any gaps in your sequence, or limbs that aren’t contributing, that will become immediately apparent.

35. Belief is Essential—Half the benefit of all the endless training sessions I do is convincing myself I can yard on a 1/8” crimp, lock-off a 1-pad mono to my nipple, or link 30 more moves when I’m pumped out of my mind. Remember what you’ve endured in training and take it with you to the crag. The same for working a project. Build belief you can send it by sticking the crux move, doing it again, and then linking through it. It’s ok if you don’t believe at first, you can put in the necessary work to build your confidence over time. But you won’t have a prayer of sending until you really do believe you can.

Belief is essential!

36. Expect Adversity. Every climber will face adversity. How you deal with adversity will determine how close you get to your potential as a climber. That’s true for a given route or for your career as a whole. It’s easy to be psyched and work hard when things are going well. It takes a lot of guts to persevere when everything is breaking against you. The closer you get to your potential, the more adversity you will face. You’ll be closer to your physical limits, and so constantly flirting with injury, illness and burnout. You’ll also need all the external factors to go your way (they rarely will). The good news is that most of my greatest successes came shortly after crushing defeats. The failure showed me what it would take to send and motivated me to work extra hard for the re-match.

37. Don’t Solo—There’s nothing harder than trying to explain to a late-teens/early-20’s male climber that they really don’t know everything, and they really will see the world differently when they (truly) grow up. In the classic Western movie Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s character Will Munny says, “It’s a hell of a thing killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” Consider that when you solo, you aren’t just risking your present life, you’re risking your future life—a life that likely will be filled with joys and wonders you can’t yet imagine (to say nothing of the impact on those who love you). Do the future-you a favor and rope up. Even if you (absurdly) assume climbing is infinitely more valuable than every other part of life combined, think of all the climbing you’ll miss out on if you break your neck. It’s simple math, soloing’s just not worth it.

38. End On A High Note—Whatever your highpoint, be it a new hangboard PR, best onsight or sending a hard project, chances are whatever follows will be a letdown. For many years I would “celebrate” after big sends by attempting to onsight some route I had been longing to climb. I always struggled and I almost never sent. The worst part is that I was then bummed for failing the onsight instead of stoked for sending my much-more-significant project. Eventually I figured out that we don’t get very many “best moments,” so it’s wise to savor them.

39. Be Present—Yoda’s initial evaluation of Luke Skywalker was spot on: “This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing…” Focus on the task at hand, give 100% of yourself to it, whether during a hard send, while training, or life in general. If you’re watching the sunset, open your eyes and absorb every ray of light. During workouts, focus on recovering and prepping for the next set between efforts, rather than staring at text messages. When you’re struggling to figure out a crux sequence, don’t covet the next route over, wondering if it might suit you better. Absorb yourself completely in the route immediately in front of you. Make yourself available to give your best effort.

40. There’s More to Life Than Rock Climbing—I hope everybody has at least one opportunity in life to completely immerse themselves in their passion. I dirt-bagged for a little over a year in my twenties. I’m glad I did. At the time, it felt like the ultimate life, but in hindsight it doesn’t hold a candle to the life I live now. At some point it’s wise to open yourself up to other opportunities. Life will offer a multitude of diverse experiences. Shun none of them. I’ve sacrificed a lot of experiences because I couldn’t skip a workout, or I needed to rest up for a hard redpoint attempt. Looking back on roughly 25 years of this, the thing that strikes me is how few of my memories involve actual climbing. My favorite climbs aren’t the hardest climbs I’ve done, or the climbs that got the most press. The moments that stand out are the places I visited, the wildlife I saw on the approach, and the people I shared it all with.

Training For 9a — Part II

By Mark Anderson

This is the third installment in a multi-part series about my training for Shadowboxing. For the first installment click here. For the second installment click here.

Visualization is an important part of any hard ascent, but the picture in our mind is often overly idealized. We imagine everything going flawlessly—executing the sequence perfectly, in optimal weather conditions, feeling fantastic the entire time. I do this because I doubt I have enough margin to scrap my way up the climb, instead thinking that if I’m going to do it, every factor will have to converge perfectly.  Conversely, professional coaches and athletes in major sports often speak of overcoming adversity, such as unfair officiating, weather that doesn’t favor their game plan, or unlucky bounces. I thought about that a lot through the long winter, and tried to prepare myself mentally for the hurdles I knew I would face (such as poor conditions), plus others I wasn’t anticipating.  I needed to be prepared to roll with the punches, rather than fold the first time something didn’t go my way.

Mark Anderson making the third ascent of Shadowboxing, contender for Rifle's hardest route.

Mark Anderson making the third ascent of Shadowboxing, 5.14d/9a.  Photo Mike Anderson.

If you asked me at the end of May, I would probably say that I failed miserably in this endeavor. At least, I failed to anticipate the scope of my trials. It started with a bout of the flu that hit at the worst possible moment: three days before I was set to get back on the route for the first time in seven months. I was reduced to oblivion for 60-straight hours, and feeble and woozy for four days after. This resulted in a day of lost training and two sub-par days on the route, but more importantly, about a 10% reduction in strength and power that I was never able to recover.  The next blow was seeping rock that was much worse than I anticipated. When I first returned in May roughly 1/3 of the holds in the lower half of the route were wet. Not that it mattered–I was so wrecked from the flu I was lucky to link ten moves in a row that first weekend!

Training schedule for my May/June season.

Training schedule for my May/June season.

The next weekend went much better. But when I climbed up into the crux the first day of the third weekend I discovered a key undercling was totally gone. The rest of that day was devoted to re-solving that section. The final straw was tweaking my back while rolling over in bed that night (one of the many perils of aging).  It was beginning to feel like the season was cursed–I was half-way through it and I hadn’t even matched my Fall highpoint on the route. I summarized my mindset at the end of the weekend thusly:

“Way not psyched at end of day. Felt like I had so much promise heading into Friday, and then the broken hold took the wind out of my sails, and then again, after that was resolved, tweaked back was the next blow. Depressed and searching for motivation. Trying to wrap my head around the idea that I’m unlikely to send this season.”

Unfortunately that wasn’t my low point. Over the next two days I waffled constantly about whether or not to continue on the route. June was imminent, and I expected the temperatures to sky-rocket at any time. Was it helpful to keep at it when I wasn’t making progress? Even if sending this season was unlikely, would continuing on the route improve my chances of success in the upcoming Fall, or was I just training myself to fail, wrecking my confidence and killing my motivation?  This all came to a head during my weekly indoor training session at the end of May.

By this point I was using Non-Linear Periodization to maintain Strength and Power while emphasizing Power Endurance (PE) training, by following this program:

  • Warm-up:
    • 10-min ARC on 10-35 degree overhangs
    • 10 min Warm-up Boulder Ladder (including V2, V3, V4, V5, V7, V8)
  • Limit-Bouldering (25-35 minutes*, including sending up to V11 and attempting up to V12)
  • Campusing (25-35 minutes*, beginning with 1-3-5-7 and working up to Max Ladders)
  • Linked Bouldering Circuit (Attempt 4 sets of 52-move Extended Green Traverse, reducing Rest Between Sets from 4:00 to 90 seconds)
  • Supplemental Exercises, ~30 min total/2-3 sets of:
    • Advanced 1-Arm Rows/1-Arm Pull-ups/Explosive Pull-ups
    • Front Levers
    • Biceps Curls
    • Lateral-to-Front Raise
    • Shoulder Press
    • Wings
    • Ab Rolls from Rings
    • Rotator Cuff Exercises with Theraband

[* Varied such that the total time, including warm-up, LBing and Campusing are limited to ~80 minutes]

In general, my PE training was progressing nicely, picking up where I left off in March. I continued to attempt 4 sets of my new 52-move circuit, starting with 4:00 rest-between-sets, and reducing it as the season progressed. However, my power training went from phenomenal to dismal after the flu. I was never able to recover my power since my weekend forays on the route were too taxing to allow for sufficiently intense mid-week indoor sessions (in retrospect, it may have been wise to delay my outdoor climbing in order to re-hone my power after the flu, but at the time I felt pressed for time with summer heat a few weeks away).

On that last day of May, my bouldering and campusing were particularly poor, and I ended both segments much earlier than planned. At that moment I was ready to abandon the rest of the season. I went for a short walk, weighing the pros and cons. I decided there was no advantage in quitting at that moment—I could use the PE training either way, so I should at least complete that part of the workout. I went on to have my best PE session ever, sending the first three sets of my 52-move circuit with 2:30 rest between sets (roughly a 1:1 duty cycle). That was enough to re-kindle my psych. I decided I should go out for at least one more weekend.

At the "Crimp Crux", eyeing the shallow crimp/pocket that had eluded me on 8 one-hang ascents.

At the “Crimp Crux”.  Photo Mike Anderson

The first day of that trip I finally exceeded my Fall 2015 high point, and on the next climbing day I got my first one-hang, falling at the Crimp Crux. I matched this new highpoint on the next go. That day the rock was completely dry for the first time that season, which certainly helped, but the biggest factor was that my endurance was significantly better. Overall my May/June PE training went better than expected. During my last PE workout of the season I sent the first three laps of my 52-move circuit with only 2:00 rest-between-sets. I was certain my experiments and efforts over the winter had paid off, and my endurance had reached a new level—sufficient to send the route.  Unfortunately I learned that PE alone was not enough. Although I managed to one-hang the route four more times, I found myself falling more and more often on a powerful dyno in the lower third of the climb. My endurance was at an all-time best, but my Power Peak was long gone. By mid-June it seemed I was stagnating (if not regressing) on the route. The forecast predicted a steady 10-15 degree temperate hike, so I decided to end my season.

I never fell on this powerful dyno in the first half of the May/June 2016 season, but by mid-June I was falling on it regularly—a clear sign of waning power.

I never fell on this powerful dyno in the first half of the May/June 2016 season, but by mid-June I was falling on it regularly—a clear sign of waning power.  Photo Mike Anderson.

I was disappointed that I didn’t send, and I still wonder if I made the right call, throwing in the towel when I was arguably quite close. It’s hard to know and easy to second guess. To be fair, I think a younger, less-determined me would have retreated much earlier, prior to achieving the 1-hang that re-kindled my motivation. Had I quit during that workout at the end of May, I might have never come back to the route. In retrospect, I think preparing myself for some adversity prior to the start of the season allowed me to persevere long enough to squeeze out every last drop of adversity that frustrating canyon has to offer.  When I returned in September 2016 it had nothing left to give me–I had already taken all of Rifle’s best shots. Furthermore, the consistent one-hangs I earned in June were crucial to motivating my training over the summer. I had learned how to develop the necessary endurance to link the route. I had learned that I was capable of sending, even in sub-optimal conditions. I just needed to better time my power and fitness so the two converged simultaneously. Orchestrating that would be the focus of the long hot summer.

Functional Core Training

Last summer I bolted a radically steep roof in Clear Creek Canyon. This climb involves approximately 30 feet of horizontal roof climbing–something I’ve never been very good at. I knew I would need to improve my core strength to have a chance at climbing this monstrous roof, so I put together a set of exercises to achieve that objective.  This article will describe those exercises in detail.

Born on the 4th of July, fully equipped and ready for action.

Born on the 4th of July, the motivation behind these exercises.

Before discussing the exercises, it’s helpful to consider the role of the “core” in climbing. The core generally refers to any and all of the muscles surrounding the torso, including the abdominals, obliques, muscles of the back, and perhaps some of the muscles in that region that activate the extremities, such as the iliopsoas (aka “hip flexors”). Athletes in general use the core for two basic purposes. The most obvious is to generate motion, such as when a decathlete rotates his torso explosively to hurl a javelin. The other more significant function is to stabilize the torso, creating a “rigid body” that resists movement, buckling, or rotation against external forces.

While climbers certainly use their core in both ways, the latter is far more common and critical. The vast majority of climbing movements are performed with a relatively static torso, while a hand or foot moves between holds. The act of moving the body upwards, with fixed points of contact, is often relatively easy on the core by comparison, and once the correct body position is reached for the next hand or foot movement, the climber typically regains a rigid posture to execute that hand/foot movement. Of course there are exceptions, and campus regulars have probably noticed their abs are sore the day after the season’s first campus session. However, most of the time when climbers talk about core strength, they are talking about the ability to create a rigid bridge between their hands and feet.

So how do we create this rigid body? By preventing bending and rotation along the spine. A person standing straight up can move about the spine in six “degrees of freedom”:

  1. Bending at the waist so the shoulders lean forward
  2. Bending at the waist so the shoulders lean backward
  3. Bending at the waist so the shoulders lean to the right
  4. Bending at the waist so the shoulders lean to the left
  5. Rotating at the waist so the shoulders turn clockwise with respect to the hips
  6. Rotating at the waist so the shoulders turn counter-clockwise with respect to the hips

Any other spinal movement is essentially a combination of these six basic movements. As climbers, in order to create a rigid body on the rock, we need to develop the strength to resist movement in these six degrees of freedom when sport-specific forces are applied to our hands and feet. Some of these degrees of freedom are more relevant to a given climber than others, based on route selection and the way climbers typically orient their bodies with respect to gravity (i.e., facing into the rock), but in the interest of maintaining good muscular balance about the spine, I recommend training for all six, at least to some extent, even if some are rarely encountered on the rock.

The exercises I selected to improve my core strength are relatively complex movements (involving many muscle groups in a single exercise), which is a departure from my typical strength training philosophy. The first reason for this is practical. I have only so much time and energy, and it’s sometimes more efficient to hit a few birds with one stone. The other reason is that the core is never isolated in practice in the way that the fingers often are (where for a given move, finger strength is everything and any associated arm/shoulder movement is trivial by comparison). Creating a rigid body, or even torsional explosiveness, will always be a “team effort” incorporating the arms, shoulders, and legs. Primarily for this latter reason I think it makes sense to train the core in conjunction with the rest of the “bridge segments”.

Since these are all body-weight exercises, I will present a series of variations that will allow you to progress and document your improvement from easier to more difficult versions of the exercise. The only special equipment required for these exercises is a set of free-hanging rings with adjustable tethers. I use wood gymnastic rings, but TRX Grip Trainers, Rock Rings, or a few lengths of old climbing rope and two scraps of PVC pipe would also work.

The number of repetitions and sets performed should be based on the training phase in which the exercises are performed, as described in Chapter 6 of the RCTM (page 123). I perform these exercises in conjunction with the rest of my Supplemental Exercises (at the end of each workout), and the number of sets varies from one to three based on my goal-driven priorities.

WARNING: Some of these exercises can be quite hard on the lumbar region of the lower spine, so use caution when attempting them.  Focus on engaging the supporting muscles of the lower back prior to and throughout each movement, and immediately cease the exercise if the lumbar begins to hyper-extend.

The Exercises:

Advanced 1-Arm Inverted Row:

The 1-Arm Inverted Row is an old stand-by of the Rock Prodigy Training Program, used to improve pull-strength in a more sport-specific direction than that achieved by the standard pull-up. The standard version involves the core to some degree, but not much. The Advanced version engages the core much more deliberately. This is done by wearing climbing shoes and performing the exercise on the underside of a roof with the opposite foot placed on a foothold (and the other foot flagging). To avoid falling, the climber must maintain consistent pressure on the foothold as the row reps are completed, and this requires maintaining a rigid core that resists motion in the first degree of freedom.  In other words, you must keep the muscles of the lower back flexed to prevent your hips from sagging, or else your foot will pop off.  To a lesser extent, the muscles that control motion in the 5th and 6th degrees of freedom are also trained isometrically* (while flagging) and isotonically** (while rotating to reach with the inactive hand).

[*muscle length remains constant during isometric contractions; **muscles shorten and/or lengthen during isotonic contractions.]

Progression: Increase the difficulty of this exercise first by performing the rows on increasingly steeper terrain (an adjustable-angle systems wall is ideal for this). Focus on maintaining a rigid plank position and moving smoothly, with control, minimizing movement of your foot on the foothold. Once you can perform the appropriate number of reps, with good form and in control on a horizontal roof, select increasingly less-positive footholds to up the ante.  You can further increase the difficulty by selecting ever-more-distant footholds.

Ab Roll From Rings:

Ab Roller

The Ab Roller

TV-watching night owls have likely seen an info-mercial or two for the infamous “Ab Roller”. This device is essentially a wheel with two handles that is used for training abdominal strength in the second degree of freedom. The exercise begins from the knees or toes, with hands grasping the Ab Roller, which is placed adjacent to the knees/toes. You push the Ab Roller forward until your legs, torso and arms are nearly horizontal, pause for a moment, and then strenuously pull back into the starting position. This exercise is nice because it incorporates both isotonic and isometric contractions of the frontal core.

The same basic exercise can easily be done from rings, and doing so provides some advantages over using an Ab Roller. First, it eliminates the need for yet another specialized piece of equipment, but moreover it makes it much easier to incrementally adjust the difficulty of the exercise.   When performing this exercise, it’s important to keep a noticeable arch in the small of your back. The objective is not to form a perfect plank when fully extended (this places tremendous strain on the lumbar). Begin the exercise with the small of your back bowed backward, and maintain that bow as you extend forward and retract to the starting position.

Progression: The best reason to do this from rings is that they make it really easy to adjust the difficulty of the exercise without limiting the range of motion. The higher the rings, the easier the exercise. The further forward your feet or knees are located (relative to the plumb line of the rings), the easier the exercise. All of these can be done from the feet or knees (from the knees is substantially easier). For example, here are several variations from easiest to hardest (note that you could create infinitely more increments of difficulty):

Base Ring Height Base Starting Position Order of Difficulty
Knees 2’ above ground Knees plumb to rings 1 (easiest)
Knees 6” above ground* Knees plumb to rings 2
Knees 6” above ground Knees body-length behind rings 3
Feet 2’ above ground Feet plumb to rings 4
Feet 6” above ground Feet plumb to rings 5
Feet 6” above ground Feet body-length behind rings 6 (hardest)

(*the changing parameter is shown in blue text)

Both height and base starting position can be gradually adjusted as you progress. My recommendation is to begin from the knees, with knees plumb to the rings (i.e., knees directly below the point where the rings are mounted), and gradually lower the ring height until they are just above the ground, then gradually move the base starting position backwards until you can start from body-length behind the rings. Then progress to performing the exercise from your feet and repeat the same order of progression.

Front Lever:

A front lever is performed by hanging straight from a set of rings, and then pulling your planked body up into a perfectly straight, horizontal position* (rotating at the hands/wrists and shoulders). This exercise was introduced to climbers by the legendary John Gill. It’s now quite popular, however, its applicability to climbing is worth questioning. Most climbers will rarely do any movement even slightly resembling a front lever on actual rock. The exception is roof climbing, where the closer a climber gets to horizontal, the more relevant the exercise becomes. In this scenario, the ability to perform a front lever or something like it can come in handy. When you are hanging in a pike position and you need to pull your feet up onto a foothold in the roof, it is often helpful if you can execute such a move as statically as possible, thus allowing you to carefully place your foot on the foothold, as opposed to wildly swinging and stabbing your feet in hopes of hitting the target before you swing back down (and likely off).   Likewise, front lever strength can help when you are stretched out in the roof and you need to remove your feet without causing your body to swing wildly (which will often result in your hands coming off the rock too).

[*some sources suggest performing the lever by first pulling into an inverted plank—with legs pointed straight up and head down—and then lowering into the front lever. I do not recommend this method because it further reduces specificity with respect to actual rock climbing.]

Front Lever strength can help when moving into, or out of, horizontal positions like this, where your feet are extended far from your hands.

Front Lever strength can help when moving into, or out of, horizontal positions like this, where your feet are extended far from your hands.

Specificity aside, another argument in favor of front levers is that they train the strength needed to resist movement in the second degree of freedom, which is helpful when flagging on less steep terrain. I would argue the Ab Roll From Rings trains those muscles more specifically, since the front lever focuses torque more towards the shoulders, while the ab roll spreads it evenly across the body bridge. However, I felt they were specific enough to my goals to be worth my time…and I’ve always wanted to do a Front Lever like my hero Gill 🙂  If you feel like Front Levers will benefit your climbing, here’s how to build the strength to do them….

Progression: The difficulty can be easily modulated, even within a single set,  by varying leg extension. To make the exercise much easier, tuck your thighs into your torso, and bend your knees so your heels are touching your butt. Maintain this posture from the shoulders down as you rotate up into the lever, hold, and return to the starting position. You can progressively straighten your legs as your strength improves. A good milestone is to do the exercise with thighs straight (no bend at the hips), and knees bent. Another milestone is one leg straight and the other tucked.  I find it really helps to flex the gluteus maximus prior to beginning each lever, and maintaining that tension through each rep.

It’s worth considering the advantages of performing sets of a single lever consisting of a relatively long isometric hold in the horizontal position, versus sets of multiple repetitions of mostly isotonic levers. From a specificity perspective, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I would need to hold any front lever-like position on the rock for more than a few seconds at a time. Likewise, it’s easy to imagine the need to pull my feet up into a roof, and/or release them with control, multiple times within a sequence. Furthermore, I tend to favor sets of multiple reps over “max hangs” for strength training. For these reasons I prefer to perform sets of multiple reps with up to a 2-3-second static hold in the horizontal position.

Wings:

I learned of this exercise from the book Gimme Kraft! Wings are performed from a standing plank position, with a ring located at the height of your free-hanging arm. Grasp the ring with one hand and slowly lean to the side of the active hand, bending only at the shoulder (and ankles). Continue to lean until you can go no farther without losing control, pause for 1 or 2 counts, then reel yourself back into a vertical position. This exercise primarily targets the shoulder, upper back, pectoral, and latissimus dorsi muscles, but also trains the core in the 3rd and 4th degrees of freedom. It is the least core-specific of the exercises presented here, and so warrants a lower priority, but I find it’s a useful motion to train the strength needed for certain strenuous gaston moves (especially those where the palm is facing “out” from the opposite shoulder). This exercise can be quite hard on the shoulders, so use caution.

I find the Wings exercise is quite helpful for shoulder gaston moves like this.

I find the Wings exercise quite helpful in preparing for shouldery gaston moves like this. Photo Mike Anderson.

 

Progression: The difficulty of this exercise can be adjusted in two ways. First, by adjusting the position of your feet relative to the plumb line of the rings. For example, if you are performing the exercise with the right arm, the further right your feet are relative to the plumb line, the easier the exercise will be. Second, by adjusting the depth of the lean. The lower you lean, the more difficult the exercise. In the interest of maximizing the range of motion, I recommend starting with a relatively easy foot position and progressing to deeper leans before progressing to more difficult foot positions. I’ve never leaned much beyond a horizontal arm position, so if you want to go deeper, you’re on your own!

A comment on the Windshield Wiper (aka “Metronome”): This is a popular core exercise among boulderers (I hear it’s one of Daniel Woods’ favorites). Windshield Wipers are done by hanging from rings or a pull-up bar, pulling into a pike position with the back parallel to the floor and the legs pointed straight up, and then rotating the legs from side to side. This could be a good way for climbers to train the strength needed to resist motion in the 5th and 6th degree of freedom.   I’ve tried doing these a few times, and I always find they are hell on my back (which has a sordid history of tweaks and strains). I’ve never felt they were specific enough to my climbing objectives to be worth the injury risk, so they are not a part of my program. However, if you are interested in specifically targeting the 5th and 6th degrees of freedom, and your back is flexible enough to handle them, this could be a useful exercise for you. Modulate difficulty by bending at the knees and hips and/or limiting the range of motion.

There are countless more exercises targeting core strength.  If you have a favorite that has produced results for you, we’d love to hear about it.  Please share it in a comment, or on the RCTM Forum.

Many thanks to Phil DeNigris for providing the physiology concepts in this article.

Clear Creek’s Wildest Free Climb – Part 2

This is part 2 in a two-part series.  Part 1 can be viewed here.

“Foot stabs” like this require good core strength to keep the hips tight to the wall in order to maintain pressure on the extended foot.

“Foot stabs” like this require good core strength to maneuver the extended foot into place, and to keep the hips tight to the wall so that pressure can be maintained on the extended foot.

The most significant obstacle to climbing my looming Bunker project appeared to be a lack of specific core strength. My career for the most part has been spent standing on my feet, not swinging and stabbing them over my head, as is often required for roof climbing. I had pretty good core strength for the types or routes I usually climb, but Born on the 4th of July would require completely different core strength. I ordered a set of gymnastics rings and selected a set of exercises to help solve this problem. [extensive details on my core training regimen coming next week]

From a skill perspective, I knew it would help to practice moving in the horizontal plane. There’s something to be said for familiarity with a set of skills when you know you will be required to execute them in an intimidating situation. We call this “stress-proofing”—when I’m dangling 800 feet above the river, 40 mph gusts battering my backside as I pull out loops of slack to clip that swinging quickdraw, it would be nice to know I can trust my “bicycle*” maneuver to keep me in place. [*Pressing the top of one fore-foot against the back of a protruding piece of rock, and the bottom of the other fore-foot against the opposite or front side of the protrusion, effectively squeezing it between your two feet.]

A "bicycle" maneuver.

A “bicycle” maneuver.

After returning from Germany I was physically spent from such a high volume of climbing, and nursing a mild shoulder impingement, so I took the opportunity to practice my roof-climbing at the local gym. With a pound or 15 of croissant-fueled ballast, I worked my way through the many roof problems, practicing skills like toe-cams, heel hooks, and the aforementioned bicycle.

In mid-winter I took my new strength and skill to the streets, nabbing another Clear Creek prize along the way, the roof-centric open project Double Stout. This litmus test re-assured me that I was on the right track. As the winter snows began to ebb, I redoubled my focus. Spare moments were spent analyzing video from my recon bids, imagining potential sequences around the blank sections, and convincing myself that I would be good enough to execute them, but there was only one way to know for sure.

Practicing roof climbing on Double Stout.

Practicing roof climbing on Double Stout. Photo Mike Anderson.

In late April the Bunker was finally good to go, so I headed up with Kate to give it a shot. There were at least two moves in the first roof I couldn’t do last year, so I would know right away if I’d made any progress. The fingertip rail in the first roof was damp and seeping during my first foray, and I was unable to do a difficult crossing move on the rail. The move seemed plausible, but I kept slipping off the wet rock, so I moved on to the next trouble spot—a big dyno out to jugs on the lip of the low roof. I stuck the slap on my first try, and it felt easy. So far so good.

The tenuous cross move in the first roof.

The tenuous cross move in the first roof.

With one down and several more stumper moves to go, I proceeded quickly to the final visor. I was pretty much entirely unable to climb the visor last year. I mimed some moves with Mike taking 50-80% of my weight at the belay, so I had a sense that they could go, but I was miles from doing them at that time.

The visor crux begins with a long span to a jug rail a few feet out from the crook of the roof. From this rail you can reach out into a crack system that cuts diagonally through the nearest half of the roof. This crack pinches down in one place to create a pretty nice—albeit wickedly sharp—two-finger pocket, and flares open to offer a big pod in another spot. The pod curves as it deepens to offer a set of slopers on the “bottom” side (from the climber’s perspective). Beyond the pod, the crack veers off and pinches down to a seam. A couple feet further a big horn of rock protrudes downward (and slightly west), offering a nice pinch grip. As you near the lip a detached flake emerges from the roof, at first providing a 1.5-pad incut edge, and then flaring into full-finger jugs just before the lip. The lip is adorned with a gnarly blob of knob-covered stone that provides a pair of killer jugs and plentiful footholds.

An awkward stance in the crook of the visor.

An awkward stance in the crook of the visor.

Months of film study had convinced me I knew the sequence, so I set out to execute it. Full stop! My plan to grab the pod sloper, toe-cam in the jug rail and then drive-by to the horn was a disaster. I could barely match in the pod, and even then I had no hope of releasing my toe-cam with any sort of control. The next 30 minutes were spent doing what I do best—putzing around on the rope, groping for possibilities. I messed around with the two-finger pocket, various matches in the pod, and other holds further afield.

A big reach out to "the pod".

A big reach out to “the pod”.  (The knotted orange rope is there to help me pull back on to the rock in the event of a fall.  Since I’m unable to clip again until I reach the lip of the roof, a fall in the latter half of the visor would leave me dangling far below the roof, making it difficult to pull back onto the rock and try again.)

Eventually a new concept emerged: matching hands in the pod, walking my feet around in front of me, and then swinging out to reach the horn. Not easy, but I was able to do all the moves individually. The next bit was at least as hard—linking from the pod/horn to the jug flake. I continued with the same strategy, leading with my feet, and discovered with good core tension I could stab my feet out to the knob garden at the lip. From this position it was barely possible to “unwind” from the pod and slap my left hand to the initial edge in the detached flake. No longer extended, I could get my hips closer to my feet and pull through with my right hand into the good flake jugs. From there it was a formality to swing out to the lip.

Stabbing my foot out to the "Knob Garden" at the lip.

Stabbing my foot out to the “Knob Garden” at the lip.  Note the sage-colored washcloth in the lower left, used to dry a damp hold at the start.

By this point it was raining so I didn’t try the mantel onto the wet moss-covered slab. I looked over the lip, spied a few good jugs and declared it NTB—Not too Bad. I was elated with my progress but still slightly concerned about that first hard move in the opening roof.

The next time out the finger tip rail in the first roof was still damp. Realizing this was the key to the entire route, I put in some more effort on this section, and I was eventually able to do the move in parts, but each time I tried to link the entire boulder problem my fingers would fling off in one spot or another due to moisture. Eventually I was convinced the sequence would go in dry conditions, so I moved on to practice the visor sequence and suss that NTB mantel I mentioned earlier.

As my clever foreshadowing suggests, the mantel wasn’t as easy as it looked. There are two big jugs to work with, one right at the lip, and another about an arm’s-length deep on the slab. The slab itself is about 45-degrees steep, covered in “rock lettuce” (tiny bushes of lettuce-shaped lichen)and offers few appealing footholds. From the jugs, you can throw a left foot over the lip, but due to the angling nature of the visor, that foot is well above head level. Pressing out the mantel begins easily, but then you need to move your low hand up to make room for your hips and the dangling right foot. But there are no more holds, only a plethora of moss-covered bumps, and one finger-tip-wide horizontal crack.

Throwing my left toe up onto the lip in an attempt to mantel onto the slab.

Throwing my left toe up onto the lip in an attempt to mantel onto the slab.

I could make an argument for ending the route at the jugs at the lip of the roof. Sport climbing is an entirely arbitrary construct, and many routes end in the middle of a blank wall, where the holds run out, where the rope ends, or where the climbing stops being enjoyable. It’s the route developer’s decision, there’s no peer review or sanctioning body to appease. However, I really wanted to top this thing out. Since the moment I first considered it might be possible to climb, I wanted it to go to the top. The entire appeal of the line to me was the improbability of it. A magical accident of fate that provides just enough holds to transform something that logic and statistics would deem totally implausible into something that is just barely possible.   Think of the odds! That the roof could exist in the first place, defying gravity for millennia; that I would find it, untouched and waiting to be climbed; that the rock was solid enough to support my weight, let alone its own. And finally the odds that there are just the right combination of completely natural features, the right size and shape, to permit an unbroken chain of free moves! Stopping at an arbitrary point would destroy this miracle of intertwined geology and organics. It would negate the entire endeavor….

A few more burns over the next week allowed me to dial in the sequences and become comfortable with the runouts. I still hadn’t “sent” the opening roof, but I hadn’t tried it while dry either. The weather was steadily improving, and I figured with a bit of luck, I only needed to scratch and claw my way through that roof once.

Finally we arrived on the dry, cool Sunday morning of May 3rd. The very first left hand crimp was wet, not a great omen, but I had fixed a wash cloth to dry it mid-move. I reached out to the finger tip rail—it seemed dry. I went through my sequence, working out to the lip and slapping for the flat mini-ledge at the lip. My left foot popped off as I hit the jug, but I was able to control my swing and reel myself back on. The next section was totally trivial by now, and I quickly climbed to a great rest below the visor.

Clearing the first roof.

Clearing the first roof.

I hadn’t done any Power Endurance training this season—other than working this route—but I figured if I took my time at this rest, and sprinted through the cruxes, I might have enough fitness to make it through. After a long, steady recovery, I was ready. I monkeyed out the relatively brief middle roof, clipped out to the second bolt in the visor, chalked up one last time, and punched out towards daylight. Everything unfurled as I had envisioned. I committed to the slaps, hit every hold just right, and kept my core tight throughout. Before I knew it I matched on the jug flake and reached up to a big knob over the lip. Tactically I was unsure whether to sprint or rest, so I compromised. After a few quick shakes, a dab into the chalk bag, and a moment of visualization, I went for the mantel.

Shaking out at the lip, contemplating the mantel.

Shaking out at the lip, contemplating the mantel.

I threw my left foot up onto a sloping edge, craned my head over the lip, and stabbed my left hand into a fingerlock in the crack. I had considered this beta when I first attempted the mantel, but feared a foot slip would result in me hurtling toward the end of the rope, two or three fingers lighter than when I had started. I like my fingers where they are, but I ultimately exhausted any other possibilities and committed to the fingerlock sequence. With a very carefully placed left toe, and fingers wedged firmly, I was able to squirm upwards just enough to scum my kneecap over the lip. Precariously poised, I moved my right hand into a press and stepped up onto the floating slab.

Success! Stepping up onto the slab.

Pressing up onto the slab…Success!

Born on the 4th of July is not the hardest first ascent I’ve done, but it’s my proudest.  I don’t ever want to leave something unfinished, and so I’m generally fairly conservative when deciding whether or not to equip a potential line.  Considering my relative lack of skill with this type of climbing,  it took a real leap of faith to rappel over the edge and fire up my drill.  It felt like a tremendous gamble, and I’m proud of myself for having the nerve to commit to learning a new style, building new strength and putting in the days on the rock to unlock the sequence.  Making the gamble pay off was extremely rewarding, and I’m sure it will give me the confidence to take more chances on new lines in the future.

Delivered From Purgatory

I’m a big fan of puzzles. Crossword puzzles, brainteasers, jigsaw puzzles. Without a doubt, my favorite part of project climbing is solving the sequence puzzle. The more baffling the sequence, the more rewarding it is to solve. This challenge is magnified on first ascents, which typically lack obvious clues like chalk and rubber marks. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee a new line will provide a free solution.  For me, there’s nothing quite like the Eureka Moment when I finally convince myself the route will indeed go free. It could be the first time I execute a particularly cruxy move, the first time I complete a certain link through the crux, or even the first one-hang. In any case, that realization is followed by a renewed belief that the project is viable.

But there’s a downside to the Eureka Moment. It’s only a small leap from there to assuming the redpoint is all but assured—a mere formality. That assumption is often wrong, and the mindset it yields is counter-productive at best. If the send doesn’t follow promptly, each ensuing attempt is weighed down by a few more ounces of anxiety. Thoughts about the next objective creep in, I wonder how many more times I will need to line up a partner, and if the days turn into weeks, concerns about when to start my next training cycle add a bit more weight. This ballast is indiscernible at first, but over time, it adds up. This is purgatory—the prime malady of the projecting process.

To be in sport climbing purgatory is to know unlimited misery. It’s like being locked in a cage, with everything you desire just out of reach of your extended arm. Each morning you walk to the crag, passing other routes you might climb, if only you could send your project. Each afternoon, you walk back, trying to reason your way into believing you’ll send it the next day, but knowing deep down that you probably won’t.

Purgatory looks something like this. Bystanders will say it looks beautiful. From the inside looking out, all you see is pain.

Purgatory looks something like this. Bystanders will say it looks beautiful. From the inside looking out, all you see is pain.

The past 40 days have been the longest continuous purgatory of my career. After finishing Double Stout, I was eager to try another long-standing open project in Clear Creek Canyon. This one was prepped by my friend Scott Hahn around 2008, and opened to all comers in the spring of 2009. It’s located at The Armory, a small crag with an unusual concentration of great routes, including Ken T’ank, The Gauntlet, and Beretta. The Gauntlet was established in 2006 by Darren Mabe at 5.12+. It starts up a leaning dihedral, and then moves left onto a steep face of impeccable orange stone to climb a splitter finger crack capped off by a challenging roof encounter. Scott’s line was essentially a direct start to The Gauntlet, avoiding the dihedral by climbing straight up to the finger crack.

The Gauntlet follows the red line, Scott’s direct start follows the icy blue line.

The Gauntlet follows the red line, Scott’s direct start follows the icy blue line.

The direct start is all business from the moment you step off the ground until you reach a pair of bomber fingerlocks at mid-height. Scott described the difficulties reaching the crack as “roughly V10 into V12”, with the caveat that “a good wingspan is a must or you won’t be able to reach the holds”.

My first day on the route I was completely perplexed. There were many holds, but I couldn’t surmise how to use them. It’s one of those routes with such non-positive holds that just pulling onto the rock, while hanging from the rope, is quite difficult. There are many sidepulls, underclings, and slopers, and I could see the key was going to be figuring out the right combination of opposing holds and body position to stay on the rock. It would take time to learn how to move between those positions, and momentum to execute those moves.

One of many big spans, this one near the start of the upper boulder problem.

One of many big spans, this one near the start of the upper boulder problem.

For two more days I attempted to solve the puzzle, but there were still moves I couldn’t do, particularly in the reachy “V10” entry problem. There was an obvious “tall guy” sequence for this lower section, but I needed to come up with an alternative. I had done all the moves in the upper “V12” section, but it was much longer, very sustained, and I was far from linking the entire sequence. On the fourth day I finally uncovered a Napoleonic path through the first problem, and I managed to do the V12 bit in two sections with a hang. Now I knew the route would go. Great news, right?

Precarious crimping near the end of the direct start.

Precarious crimping near the end of the direct start.

The month of February is a blur of steady progress, devolving into near misses, clouded by a haze of fickle weather forecasts. The route started to come together in mid-February. I got my first one-hang, and then it seemed I was climbing up to the last one or two hard moves on redpoint more often than not.

Then the entire country was engulfed in historically heinous winter weather caused by an extremely cold air mass referred to by meteorologists as the “Siberian Express”. Record cold temps infiltrated the Eastern Seaboard—typically mild places like Tennessee and Kentucky were ice-bound, and Niagara Falls froze long enough to enable Will Gadd’s stunning ascent.   In Colorado, the phenomenon manifested itself as massive amounts of snow. During the last two weeks of February alone Denver received enough snowfall to shatter the record for the entire month.

This graphic is from February 27th. It snowed more that night, and again on the 28th.

This graphic is from February 27th. It snowed more that night, and again on the 28th.

Through the bars of purgatory, it seemed like it snowed every day. I like cold weather for hard climbing, and normally I can operate in the 20’s if it’s calm, but in late February The Armory rarely experienced temps above the teens. I managed to find one day each week in which the weather was barely tolerable for climbing. It wasn’t warm enough to send, but it allowed me to keep the moves fresh in my mind, and keep the candle of hope flickering ever so dimly.

Typically when a project gets out of hand I retreat, re-train, and return in a following season, usually completing the project with relative ease the next time around. I didn’t want to do that this time. For one reason, I felt extremely close to sending—much closer than I normally am when I bail. For another, I was concerned that the unpredictable Front Range weather would not provide another window of solid redpoint conditions until next winter. This is the sort of route you want to climb when it’s cold (well, to a point), and it would be difficult to get back to the route with good fitness before excessively warm weather arrived in Clear Creek. Finally, I had started to worry that my “retreat, re-train and return” strategy was becoming a crutch. I wanted to know if I had the mental fortitude to see this one through in a single campaign.

Fitness-wise, I was in danger of falling badly out of shape. I completed my last hangboard workout of the season on December 31st. With climbing in the V12-range, this project was right at my power limit, so I needed to maintain a power peak for as long as possible. Normally a nice long power peak lasts 3-4 weeks. To make it to the far end of the Siberian Express I would need to sustain my power for at least 8 weeks. Fortunately I could see early in the process that this project would take some time, so starting in late January I made a point to dedicate at least one session each week (and two per week during the worst weather) to sustaining my power and building power endurance through the use of Non Linear Periodization (NLP). As detailed in the RCTM, these sessions consisted of:

  • Warmup Boulder Ladder (20 minutes)
  • Limit Bouldering (25 minutes)
  • [5-10 minute break]
  • Campusing (Basic Ladders for warmup, then Max Ladders, 20-30 min total)
  • [5-10 minute break]
  • 4 sets of 34-move Linked Bouldering Circuit (Duty Cycle progressing from 1:1 to 2:1)
  • [10 minute break]
  • Supplemental Exercises (2 sets each of shoulder & core exercises)

This strategy worked astonishingly well. On February 15, I did 1-4.5-8 on the Campus Board for the first time (which seems to be slightly harder for me than 1-5-8, which I had done once before). On February 27th, the first day of my 9th week of power training, I did 1-5-8 and touched 1-5-8.5. I also completed my LBC with a duty cycle of 2.3 to 1 (1:45 set length with 45 seconds of rest between sets). I was strong and fit. I just needed some decent weather.

March arrived towing with it the first hint that snowpocalypse was waning. The first full weekend would bring highs in the 40’s and 50’s. By now I had everything dialed. The sub-optimal weather had forced me to fine tune every move, so I could stay on the sloping holds even when friction was poor. My warmup felt klunky and strenuous—usually a good sign. Once prepared for my first attempt of the day, I wandered down the hill to look at the river. The Armory is one of my favorite Clear Creek crags. It’s located across the river from a tunnel that mercifully muffles most of the road noise. There are a handful of massive pine trees that provide a beautiful backdrop, and the crag is sparse enough to escape the crowds of the nearby Primo Wall.

Midway through the second boulder problem.

Midway through the second boulder problem.

It was time to start. By now the entry problem, which took four days to unlock, was trivial. I flowed effortlessly up to the direct start’s one pseudo-jug. I quickly clipped the second bolt, chalked my right hand, and continued. From this point each of the next 12 or so hand moves is a dyno. I had fallen on redpoint on virtually all of these moves at one point or another, and not necessarily in progressive fashion. The climbing is so insecure and complex that the actions of each limb must be carefully coordinated. If your attention wanders for even a split second you can pop off at literally any point.

The last hard move, a big slap to a rounded edge.

The last hard move, a big slap to a rounded edge.

This time I made no mistakes. I performed each move in exacting fashion, and I flowed from one into the next. Breathing heavily, I lined up for the final slap, this one to a sharp horizontal water groove on the edge of a protruding horn—the last hard move. I had fallen on this move on redpoint seven times, but I had never arrived at this move feeling as strong and confident as I did then. I lined up the hold, colied and slapped. By the time I realized what I had done I was sinking my second hand into the bomber finger crack. I clipped and exhaled. The final 30 feet were a sweet victory lap, and I was released from my self-made prison.

Almost to the finger crack!

Almost to the finger crack!

The effort was a revelation for me. I’ve never maintained peak fitness for so long. All my knowledge of training, strategy and tactics contributed. I’ve never stubbornly persisted on a route for so long in a single season. I doubted the virtue of that persistence each day, and even knowing the outcome I’m not entirely convinced it was prudent, but it’s empowering to know I can fall back on that option in the future.

Finishing up The Gauntlet, just above the merge point.

Finishing up The Gauntlet, just above the merge point.

I’m calling the route Siberian Express.  Based on my maintenance training I can confidently say that I was in top shape when I did it.  The weather likely extended the outcome somewhat, but considering my fitness and the twelve days required, I suspect it’s the hardest route I’ve climbed and warrants a 5.14c rating.  More importantly, it’s a great route.  It doesn’t have the towering height of the lines on the Wall of the 90’s, but where it’s hard, it is incredibly sustained.  It certainly doesn’t climb like a short route or a roped boulder problem.  With few exceptions the rock is impeccable–truly some of the best in Clear Creek.  The setting is serene, and the movement is fantastic, once you figure it out.

Double Stout

Roof climbing is my nemesis.  As someone who “grew up” climbing at Smith Rock, I always gravitated towards clean, monolithic faces that sweep skyward in one continuous plane of consistent steepness. My best angle is probably plumb vertical, and the steeper it gets after that, the more I struggle. The climbing on the Colorado Front Range tends to be far more varied, with undulating walls, short steep overhangs and jutting roofs.  When I moved to Colorado it was clear that I would need to adapt my style if I wanted to have success on the local terrain, so over the last several years I’ve made a conscious effort to attack that weakness. I began the process by focusing more attention on Whole Body Strength Training, as described in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual.  In addition to that, I dedicated more and more performance time to attempting routes that didn’t suit me. It was an “arranged marriage” at first, but I’ve since come to really appreciate all the intricacies and limitless options that my local crags have to offer.

I decided to dedicate the long winter to further targeting this weakness by adding a handful of new exercises to my winter Strength Phase (I’ll get much more into that in a series of future posts we’re working on that discuss core training).  Two weeks ago I finally emerged from my training lair ready to scuff up my fingers.  To gauge my progress, and further practice my roof-climbing skill development, I decided to try a long-standing project in Clear Creek Canyon called “Double Stout.”  Double Stout was envisioned, cleaned, and equipped by my friend, all-around great guy, and author of Clear Creek Canyon Rock Climbs, Darren Mabe.  It’s a towering 35-meter line, rising front-and-center up the proudest section of Clear Creek’s premier sport cliff, The Wall of the 90’s.  It sits just left of my route American Mustang (which itself is a variation to another of Darren’s routes, Wiled Horses), and the Mission routes, so I’ve had plenty of time to gaze longingly at it while hanging at various cruxes.

Double Stout begins up the near-vertical wall, darts out the big roof, and then weaves through tiered overhangs to the top of the cliff.

The climb begins with 20 meters of absolutely brilliant technical face climbing up an 85-degree slab.  Others have noted that this slab of stone seems to have been transplanted from the NRG’s Endless Wall.  The rock is magnificent and breathtaking, with fabulous orange and black swirls reminiscent of Quinsana Plus. The climbing is intricate, insecure and fantastic.  The slab ends at a 2-meter, slightly-steeper-than-horizontal roof.  The crux is surmounting this daunting beast.  Above, another 10ish meters of cerebral and pumpy climbing snake through a series of small, tiered roofs, to the apex of the cliff.

The brilliant calico slab.  Photo Mike Anderson.

After equipping the line in 2009, Darren quickly sussed and sent the slab.  I think Darren wouldn’t mind me saying that he put his heart and soul into freeing the entire line to the top of the cliff, but after a valiant effort, he graciously opted to open the project to other suitors in the summer of 2010.  Darren moved to Flagstaff a couple years later, but interest in the route has remained high.  Since the route was opened, the slab has been enjoyed by many as a great 5.13b route in itself, and is now regarded as one of the best 5.13s in the canyon (if not the best).

Smearing up the first slab crux on miserable bumps.  Photo Mike Anderson.

As for the continuation through the roof, more than a few great climbers have taken a stab at it since it was opened.  The word on the street was that the roof was significantly height-dependent, and likely impossible for those below average height.  I was well aware of that rumor, and it certainly discouraged me from trying the line sooner.  That, and the fact that regardless of wingspan, it just looked plain hard! But with more likely projects sent or out of condition, it was finally time for me to investigate.

Finishing up the slab.  Photo Mike Anderson.

My first attempt was less than inspiring.  The roof crux begins with a long reach to an incut flake in the roof.  This has to be grabbed as a gaston, with the left arm in an Iron Cross position, followed by a shoulder-wrenching negative contraction to sag onto the hold.  The first time I tried that move I felt like my shoulder was going to explode.  From there, you need to work out to a slopey, 1-pad edge at the lip of the roof.  The other climbers I had seen on this were able to reach the slopey edge with their feet still on the ledge at the top of the slab. My 67” frame was unable to bridge that distance, but I found a small foothold in the roof that provided a decent setup for a precise dyno to it.  I wasn’t able to do the move on my first burn, but I felt confident that I could eventually.

The iron cross move into the roof.  Photo Mike Anderson.

I was more concerned about the next move.  The standard beta was to campus from the slopey edge to a big, slanting rail above the roof (with the left hand still on the first roof hold, the incut flake).  To make this reach I had to turn my head to one side and paste my ear into the wall!  It seemed doubtful I would be able to do that, without hanging on the rope, on redpoint, or that I would be able to “unwind” from it if I did manage to stick the slap.  After exploring the headwall a bit I lowered with mixed feelings.  I debated packing it in and looking for another project.  I often experience these crises of confidence, which is really kinda silly considering how many times I’ve lived through the exact same scenario, lowering in defeat, only to later redpoint the route in question.

After reminiscing over such recoveries, and realizing there was no upside to quitting early, I tied in for another attempt.  This time I was able to stick the dyno to the slopey edge at the lip of the roof after a few tries.  Then I discovered some sneaky over-head-heel-hook trickeration that completely disarmed the presumed crux.  After practicing a few times and refining my sequence I was ultimately able to do the move statically.  For all my endless rambling about finger strength and training, I really think my greatest asset is my knack for devising whacky beta to get around “impossible” moves.  There were still a few transition bits to work out, but now I knew the line was within my abilities.

Controlling the violent swing after cutting my feet off the ledge.  Photo Mike Anderson.

After one more day to refine my sequence, I returned last Friday for another set of attempts.  On my first burn I gingerly worked up the relentless slab, barely staying in contact in numerous spots due to completely numb fingers.  I was able to warm my hands at the no-hands stance in the crook of the roof, and then I climbed with surprising ease out to the lip.  I latched the heel hook, but as I reached for the slanting rail my flagging foot, which I had neglected to place in the correct spot, suddenly popped off, with the rest of me in tow.  After dangling for a couple minutes, I pulled back on and continued to the top.  It was my first one-hang but might have been a send.  I wasn’t expecting it to go nearly that well, so I was quite psyched despite the foot flub.

The key campus move to the slopey edge.  Photo Mike Anderson.

I took a short walk to warm up my toes, and then started back up.  With my fingers properly warmed up the slab felt much more solid.  After a nice long shake atop the slab, I quickly moved out toward the lip of the roof, and then threw my feet overhead to setup for the heel hook.  Just as I got my feet set I realized I had forgotten the campus move out to the slopey edge!  My first thought was that I was hosed and needed to take.  I quickly decided to re-set and continue climbing if I could.  I reversed the front lever, took a deep breath and slapped for the edge.  I didn’t hit it quite right, but was able to bounce my hand into the correct position.  I pulled my legs back up over my head, and walked them out to the lip to snatch the heel hook.  As I arranged my hands for the decisive move, I noticed my biceps were quickly fading from so much extra footless dangling.

Pulling the lip, feet first and almost completely inverted.  Photo Mike Anderson.

This time I put my flagging foot into the correct position.  I no longer had the lock-off strength to reach the rail statically, so I took a deep breath and coiled.  Bracing for a fall from an inverted position, the thought of slipping out of my harness briefly flashed through my brain.  Stupid brain!  I was committed and determined, so I went for it.  I stuck the rail, gingerly allowed my hips to swing into balance, and removed my low hand to clip.  After matching the rail I made one final campus move and then swung my left foot over the lip.  I lunged for a jug, threw my other foot up, and manteled onto the headwall for a much-needed no-hands rest.  My heart was beating out of my chest, but I knew it was in the bag.  After a long rest I weaved up the headwall, clipped the chains, and Double Stout was free!

Working along the lip to reach better holds.  Photo Mike Anderson.

I owe a great deal of thanks to Darren for envisioning and creating the line, and for encouraging me to try it.  Dave Montgomery also put a lot of effort into the route, and the video of his attempts helped get me started.  People like Darren and Dave keep Colorado climbing fresh and relevant with their imaginative and inspiring creations.  If you take a good look at the history of Clear Creek climbing, the top end was really starting to stagnate in the early 2000’s. Darren and his like-minded partners re-invigorated the scene with a slew of great new routes, including selflessly cleaning and equipping futuristic lines like Mourning Glory, largely for the benefit of other climbers.  As a result, Clear Creek now stands head and shoulders above the rest of the Front Range when it comes to hard sport climbing.

Beginning up the excellent tiered headwall.  Photo Mike Anderson.

As for Double Stout, it’s really an awesome route and a great addition to the varied assortment of hard Clear Creek sport climbs.  I think a typical climber (read: someone who doesn’t have a demented fascination with razor sharp edges and miniscule footholds) would find it to be the most enjoyable of the many stellar hard lines on the Wall of the 90’s.  For those who enjoy routes that offer a little bit of everything, there are few routes on the Front Range that compare.  With the right beta, it’s not as cruxy or reachy as advertised.  That said, it’s a tough line to grade because I do think it is height-dependent (but not height-excluding, at least not at my height).  I can only say that for my dimensions, with my beta, it felt about 5.14a.  I suspect climbing out to the lip of the roof would be easier for a taller climber, but how much easier, and how much taller, I have no clue.  We will have to wait for such a climber to do it and let us know.  Darren tells me he’s training for a re-match, so I’m sure we’ll have at least one more opinion to go off of in the near future.

The top of the Double Stout headwall.  Photo Mike Anderson.

Designing A Transition Phase

In this post I introduced the concept of the Transition Phase.  This is the several-week period during each training cycle in which you shift your focus from primarily indoor training to primarily outdoor climbing (and sending!).  Chapter 10: Building a Seasonal Training Plan from the forthcoming  “The Rock Climber’s Training Manual” thoroughly describes how to build a training plan, and it provides numerous sample plans to get you started.  These plans include these transitions, but we’ll talk about some of the “how and why” in more detail here, to help you build your own plan. 

For most climbers, the Power Phase is typically the Transition Phase, but it could be the Power Endurance Phase for some, or a period of weeks in between that overlaps these two phases.  As discussed, it is vitally important that this transition from indoor training to outdoor climbing goes smoothly, with momentum and focus building like a crescendo towards your initial opportunities to attempt the season’s primary goal route(s).   However, its much easier said than done.  Often, by the time we begin the Power Phase, weeks of ARCing and Hangboard training have likely sapped our appetite for training on plastic, and yet outdoor climbing is still too far away to provide immediate motivation.  The lack of structure during Limit Bouldering workouts can further compound this problem, making it easy to lose focus during training sessions.  This is the time to re-double your focus and attention on the task at hand.  Keep your eyes on the prize, both figuratively and literally. Do the little things on rest days (like eating right, getting sufficient sleep, and minding your skin) to ensure you are prepared to train effectively. 

The transition phase will usually be a 2-4 week period.  At the start of this period, climbers strictly following the Rock Prodigy method will be climbing indoors exclusively.  By the end of this period you should be climbing outside as frequently as your lifestyle allows (note: that doesn’t mean climbing every day; rather, it means whatever days you would normally climb or train, in accordance with your pre-planned Seasonal Training Plan, should be spent outside, on your project(s), to the extent possible).   The middle of this period will ideally include a gradual transition between the two extremes.

Notional Transition Phase training schedule.

Notional Transition Phase training schedule.

Let’s consider the example above.  The last week of the Strength Phase is Week 0, and a relatively short Power Phase begins with week 1 (for the sake of this example, we are assuming the climber’s goal routes are relatively more pumpy than bouldery, where the climber’s maximum power is not essential).  Initially all workouts are in the gym, either Limit Bouldering or Limit Bouldering and Campusing.  This early period is the mental crux – this is when you really need to stay psyched to get the most out of your brief Power Phase, and to begin preparing for the upcoming outdoor season.  If you’ve not done so already, select your near-term goal routes (considering factors like fitness, weather, accessibility), lay out a detailed schedule for attempting these routes, ask for time off work and arrange for partners.  Begin scouring the cloud for beta, take a hike to the cliff if possible to determine sun/shade exposure, protection quirks, or any other info you can scope from the ground.  Prepare your finger skin for the upcoming campaign and focus on your diet if weight loss is a part of your plan.

"Roped bouldering" on a potential project is  great way to begin the transition to outdoor climbing.  If possible, use this time to attempt your goal route's most difficult moves and perhaps "send" the individual crux boulder problems.  BJ Tilden rehearsing moves prior to his 2009 redpoint of Genetic Drifter, 5.14c.

“Roped bouldering” on a potential project is great way to begin the transition to outdoor climbing. If possible, use this time to attempt your goal route’s most difficult moves and perhaps “send” the individual crux boulder problems. BJ Tilden rehearsing moves prior to his 2009 redpoint of Genetic Drifter, 5.14c.

Beginning with Week 2, outdoor days are introduced gradually.  It’s important to note that these are not just any outdoor days—they are power-focused days, spent bouldering, or “roped bouldering” on your prospective goal route(s).  If your season has been planned around one or two important goal routes, roped bouldering on one or both of these routes is ideal.  This will allow you to 1) train power somewhat (though roped bouldering is not as effective for power training as indoor Limit Bouldering/campusing), while you 2) scope out your project, and hopefully suss-out the cruxes, while your power is still building (Chapter 10 of The Rock Climber’s Training Manual goes into detail on how to effectively incorporate outdoor climbing days into your schedule to maximize training benefit).  The second outdoor day in Week 3 is discretionary – depending on how things are going in your training and climbing.  If you feel you are “close” on your goal route and you have the time, climb outside.  If you feel you need more work/training, climb inside. 

In this example, Power Endurance (PE) training is also introduced in Week 3.  During the first PE workout (on Day 17), the climber begins with a slightly abbreviated Limit Bouldering workout, and then performs a short PE session with a 10-15 minute break in between.  Chapter 8 of The Rock Climber’s Training Manual describes how to blend these two types of training into a single effective workout.  By Week 4, the climber is more focused on attempting his or her goal route and less on training, but some amount of Limit Bouldering training is still important to maintain your power throughout the rest of the season.   By the end of Week 5 the climber will clearly notice improvement in Power Endurance on the rock.  Once again, by Week 6 the climber has the option to pursue more training or more attempts on the project, depending on how things are going. 

Late in the Transition Phase,  climbing outside on a pumpy goal route can provide an ideal training platform, but this only works if the route is pumpy-enough to stimulate improvement AND the climber is hanging on long enough between rests to get properly pumped.  A route like Kaleidescope is ideal because it lacks a stopper crux and seems to get gradually more difficult as you ascend, making it easy to progress gradually up the route as your PE improves.

Late in the Transition Phase, climbing outside on a pumpy goal route can provide an ideal training platform, but this only works if the route is pumpy-enough to stimulate improvement AND the climber is hanging on long enough between rests on the rope to get properly pumped. A route like Kaleidescope is ideal because it lacks a stopper crux and seems to get gradually more difficult as you ascend, making it easy to progress gradually up the route as your PE improves.

Week 7 is essentially the start of the Performance Phase.  At this point, the climber should trade in whatever favors she can to secure the maximum opportunity to send her projects.  If her lifestyle doesn’t permit climbing outside at every opportunity, these days can be substituted with short, intense indoor workouts combining bouldering and PE intervals, as explained above.

Tips for Effective Campusing Part 2: Going Big!

As implied here, I’m inspired by the climbing career of the legendary Jerry Moffatt.  During his prime, Moffatt was the best climber in the world, and he dominated on redpoints, onsights, boulders and competitions.  What inspires me most though, was his commitment to hard work and his dedication to training.  He was a phenom in his early years, but that didn’t stop him from putting in long hours in training rooms, on the Bachar Ladder, and the campus board.  He was near the top when 5.12+ was the world standard, and he managed to stay on the crest of the wave as the grades exploded all the way to 5.14c over the course of two decades.

Moffatt notes in Revelations that his best effort on the Campus board was 1-5-8.  Since I first read that, 1-5-8 has been in the back of my mind.  That is something I might be able to do someday. Furthermore, although I haven’t been able to find anything definitive, I’m pretty sure Moffatt is at least a few inches taller than me.  He looks to be within an inch or so of Ben Moon who is 5’11″ (I’m 5’7″). Considering the obvious height dependence (or perhaps more precisely, arm-length dependence) of Max Ladders, I feel like it would be quite an accomplishment for me, to match Moffatt’s best.

[Historical aside: Moffatt also says in Revelations he did 1-5-8 statically, which begs the question, if he could 1-5-8 statically, why didn’t he do anything harder than 1-5-8?  Surely he could have.  Examining pictures of the original Campus Board and the Schoolroom Board in Sheffield, it looks like they didn’t have half-steps, so 1-5-8.5 was off the table.  Still, if Moffatt could do 1-5 statically, surely he could do 5-9 as well.  Perhaps the original Campus Board didn’t reach that high. The below pics shows at least 9 rungs, and this video appears to show Gullich campusing up at least 9 rungs on the original board (watch from 0:40 to the end). 

Original Campus Board on the left, Schoolroom board on the right.

Original Campus Board on the left, Schoolroom board on the right.

However, it’s quite possible that either or both of these boards evolved over time. Just because they have 9 rungs in these pics, doesn’t mean they had 9 rungs when Moffatt was using them in his prime.  The 9th rung of the Schoolroom board clearly looks “tacked on”; it’s not evenly spaced, and the material doesn’t match the other rungs.  The classic film The Real Thing shows footage of Moffatt and Ben Moon campusing together (beginning at about 5:00 in this clip ).  Moon does 1-5-”9″ (the 9th rung is not at the proper height for a true 1-5-9; it looks to be at about 8.5).  Moffatt does many sick campus moves in this footage, but he doesn’t match Moon’s 1-5-”9″.]

Last year I did 1-8-15 on my Metolius-spaced board, which is pretty close to 1-4.25-7.5 in Moon Spacing.  So I was somewhat close, but as soon as I switched to Moon Spacing I discovered that 1-5 is extremely difficult for me.  I could do the move, but as soon as I latched rung 5, I felt a deep ache in my low shoulder.  The pain didn’t feel threatening, just quite unpleasant, like the burn you feel in your muscles when you have a deep pump.  It was impossible to sustain this position for more than an instant, let alone try to explode upwards from this position. This is where height dependence comes in to play on big campus moves.  The distance between rung 1 and rung five is about 34.6 inches.  The distance from my finger pads (when placed on an edge in a “half crimp” position) and the middle of my armpit is 27″. So even when locking my low hand all the way down to my armpit, I still have to eek another 7.5 inches of reach out of my body to span between 1 and 5, and I’ve discovered that to do so requires significant shoulder strength.

Any excuse to post a pic with my shirt off :)  Here's me spanning from Rung 1 to Rung 5.  Note the difference in height between my two shoulders (about 3 half-increments, or 33cm/13 inches). I've found this requires a lot of strength in the low shoulder.

Any excuse to post a pic with my shirt off 🙂 Here’s me spanning from Rung 1 to Rung 5. Note the difference in height between my two shoulders (about 3 half-increments, or 33cm/13 inches). I’ve found this requires a lot of strength in the low shoulder.

I’ve tackled this weakness in two ways, and I would say each has contributed equally to my improvement.  First, several years ago I added some shoulder strength exercises to my Strength Phase.  For the 4-5 weeks preceding my Power Phase I will perform 3 sets of “Lateral-to-Front Raise” and “Shoulder Press” exercises after each hangboard workout (in addition to other exercises).  This has helped prepare my shoulders for campus exercises, and for doing big/reachy moves in general.  Furthermore, Explosive Pull-ups, Biceps Curls, and Hanging Leg Raises all strengthen muscle groups that are essential to limiting campus moves.  The pull and upper arm muscles are obviously pivotal to generating upward movement, but are also key for slowing decent, making it easier to deadpoint each move.  Not surprisingly, your abdominal muscles play a significant role, and you may notice your abs feel sore for a day or two following the first campus session of each season.  It’s tremendously helpful to prepare these muscle groups prior to beginning your Power Phase, so you have good strength to build off of when you hit the campus board. 

Second, I started trying 1-5 regularly.  About a year ago I started to introduce this move (or 1-10 on my old Metolius-spaced board) in my campus sessions (aka, “Max 1st Move”).  At first I just tried to stick the move, then drop off.  Eventually I start trying to match the high rung as my strength improved, or go to rung 5.5 or 6. 

As I was improving with 1-5, it became apparent that 1-5 is very hard to move out of, because you’re so extended the low hand can’t contribute much to the second move.   Improving your shoulder strength as described above will help a lot, but there are several other complimentary ways to improve at the second move:

1) Get ridiculously strong, such that you can do a 1-arm pull-up from a small campus rung 🙂  However, as discussed last week that kinda defeats the purpose, and there are much easier ways to do it.

2) Use momentum.  On the biggest moves, momentum becomes critical.  It’s much easier to pull up if you keep your hips moving and never stop pulling upwards.  Follow the methods described in Basic Tips, realizing their importance becomes magnified on bigger moves. 

Additionally, in the Basic Tips post I discussed aim and accuracy.  I find it’s much more difficult to accurately place my fingers at the correct depth than it is to deadpoint to the proper vertical height.  Failing to place your finger pads deep-enough on the rung can (and often does) ruin a set.  If you don’t get deep enough, you will either fail to latch the rung, or need to bounce your hand into position before proceeding, thus killing any momentum.  For this reason, I find it helps on difficult moves to aim “through the board”.  Assume you are trying to latch a rung that is a quarter-pad deeper than your rung really is.  This will often result in smacking your tips into the plywood, so don’t over-do it–try to aim for a 1/4″ or so deeper than you need.  Your tips may get slightly bruised and sensitive, so go easy at first.  With practice, you should be able to hit the correct depth on most moves without this technique, but on the most challenging sets, this can really help ensure you can keep your momentum flowing upward to the top.

3) Push with your low hand.  This is critical, and probably the biggest difference between medium and large moves.  For shorter folks in particular, once you are in the 1-5 position, your low hand will not be able to maintain a normal position for pulling for long (with your palm facing the board).  Once you’ve pulled up off Rung 5 a few inches, your low forearm will be more horizontal than vertical, and your palm will be more or less facing the ground.  Get in the habit of pushing down from this position (another reason I like the Shoulder Press is that it trains the Triceps for this motion).  Push for as long as you can maintain contact with Rung 1, before stabbing upward for the high rung (Ben Moon exemplifies this at 6:55 here.  His low hand pushes until his low elbow is nearly locked and his low arm is pointing straight down).  

This shows the action of my low hand while attempting 1-5-8 (Moon Spacing).  The left frame shows the moment of latching Rung 5.  The center frame is a point midway through the second move.  The right frame shows the right hand's last moment of contact with Rung 1. Note that my right arm is almost straight, and my hand is level with my thigh in the right frame.

This shows the action of my low hand while attempting 1-5-8 (Moon Spacing). The left frame shows the moment of latching Rung 5. The center frame is a point midway through the second move. The right frame shows the right hand’s last moment of contact with Rung 1. Note that my right arm is almost straight, and my hand is level with my thigh in the right frame.

This will help with smaller moves as well, not just 1-5-9, but it takes practice.  Dedicate a few sets each session to practicing this movement.  Do the first move of your Max Ladder, but rather than focusing on latching the second move, focus on pushing with your low hand.  Don’t even try to latch the high rung, just try to improve your ability to generate upward movement by pushing with your low hand.  Once you start to get the hang of it, then try to focus on latching the high rung.  Note that this will be easier to do on steeper boards and vice versa.  If your campus board is less than 10-degrees overhanging or so it will be difficult to push properly.

This is another aspect of campusing that translates directly to rock climbing (and something that even beginners can benefit from improving immediately).  If you watch me climb, you will notice that I’m almost always pushing down with my low hand until the last possible moment, particularly on big moves.  Many climbers ignore their low hand once the shoulder passes it.  This is a mistake, and it puts unnecessary strain on the opposing arm’s fingers and pull muscles.

Using the low hand to push on real rock.

Using the low hand to push on real rock.

There are other factors that can affect your campus training besides strength and movement:

Body Weight – As in all aspects of climbing, body weight is a significant factor.  If you’re strictly training, and not trying to perform on the campus board, there is no need to be at your fighting weight.  However, in the interest of minimizing injury risk, it’s a good idea to be within 10 lbs or so of your fighting weight.  As discussed, campusing with added weight can increase the risk of injury, and it doesn’t really matter that much to your elbows if the added weight is iron or fat 🙂

If you are trying to perform on the campus board (for whatever reason, such as to set a personal best), dropping to at, or near, your fighting weight will definitely help.  As with any weight loss, don’t overdo it, lose weight intelligently, and incorporate it into your Seasonal Training Plan to ensure you can sustain it through your performance phase.  For me, I struggle to stay at my fighting weight for more than about 4 weeks, so if I get to that weight in time for my Power Phase, I’m likely to struggle mid-way through my Performance Phase.  Most climbers are concerned with their performance on the campus board, and so would be better off timing their diet to peak later in the season.

Arousal – As with any power-oriented exercise, your mental state of arousal can play a big part.  In other types of climbing, excessive arousal can be a hindrance (like a technical route where precise footwork is required).  There is certainly a technical aspect to campusing, as discussed at length.  It’s important to work on the technique, but it’s also important to just go for it at times and see what you can do.  If you are stilling learning the technique, spend the first half of the workout going slow, working on individual aspects of your Max Ladder, and using your conscious mind to control your actions.  Then get aggro for the rest of the workout.  This is the time to get fired up and go for it.  Don’t worry about doing the movements perfectly; focus on giving each attempt your most intense effort.

Different people have their own triggers, so experiment with different methods and see what works best for you.  I like to listen to  upbeat music, usually Hip Hop or something with a strong beat.  Occasionally I’ll grit my teeth and make a “GRRR!” sound just before I start a set.  I’m not much of a screamer, but I will occasionally let out a brief ‘yelp’ as I begin the second move of a Max Ladder.  Some folks have tried external stimulants like caffeine (and who knows what else in the ’80s), but I generally avoid that kind of thing.
 
Record Keeping – One could argue you aren’t training if you aren’t keeping track.  I went many years without documenting my campus work, and it was a huge mistake.  I had no idea what my plan was, or any way of telling if I was getting better.  As soon as I started documenting my workouts I started making significant progress.   Use a log sheet like the one shown here to document each set of your workouts.  Make not of your personal bests, and strive to match, and then surpass them, each season.  Also, use the log to desribe your campus board’s specifications in case you ever change venues.

At my ever-advancing age, I’m constantly tempted to think I’ve peaked as an athlete, and my best years are behind me.  Three years ago, at the spry age of 33, my personal best was 1-7-13 (in Metolius Spacing,  which equates to roughly 1-3.75-6.5 in Moon Spacing).  I couldn’t do 1-5 at all, let alone pull off of it.  Three weeks ago, I put all these tips into action, and sent 1-5-8, Moon spacing (admittedly, with some slight dabs against the wall):

Perhaps 1-5-9 isn’t out of the question for me after all?

Whole-Body Strength Training

My training philosophy emphasizes finger strength training above all else.  For a number of mostly obvious reasons, I’m convinced that finger strength is the single most important physical factor (as opposed to mental or technical factors) in rock climbing.  That said, there are other elements of physical strength that are relevant, and worth training, if you have the time and energy.  In particular, the “pull muscles”, biceps/triceps, shoulders, and core muscles all have important roles to play, and we can benefit from strengthening these muscles.

For some, “just climbing” will do a decent job of developing strength in these muscles.  However, just climbing is often not very efficient or effective at improving strength in these areas, for the same reasons it’s not very effective or efficient at improving finger strength (lack of isolation, control, quantification,…).  Furthermore, if you follow a periodic training program like the Rock Prodigy method, you are likely spending significant periods of time with minimal climbing, perhaps only hangboarding.  Hangboarding is ideal for developing finger strength, but it neglects the muscles discussed above.  The fact that the hangboard-heavy Strength phase precedes the Power Phase (where whole body strength is most beneficial) exacerbates this problem.

For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to include some “Supplemental Exercises” to your climbing-specific workouts, especially during strength or hangboard phases.  This post will present a few Supplemental Exercises that I like to do to get the rest of my muscles strong for climbing.  There are many other possibilities, but I’ve found these work well for me.  As for all your training, document what you do so you can track your progress over time.

Scheduling:
I introduce these exercises at the start of each Strength Phase.  I will select about 4 or 5 exercises from the assortment provided below, and I perform one set of each initially, building up to three sets of each exercise by mid-Strength Phase.  These exercises are always performed on the same day as my climbing workout, at the end of each workout (so, on a hangboard day, I finish my hangboard workout, rest 5-10 minutes, and then perform these exercises).  I do these in a “circuit” fashion (completing one set of each exercise before performing the second set, and so on), but they could also be done in serial fashion.

During the Power Phase, I adjust the type of exercises and number of sets depending on the day’s climbing activity.  On Campus Training days, I skip all the “Pull” exercises and biceps curls, to avoid excessive strain on my elbows, etc, but I perform three sets each of the remaining exercises.  On Limit Bouldering days, I perform the same 4 or 5 exercises used during the Strength Phase, but I only perform two sets each.  During the Power Endurance Phase, I do as I would on a Limit Bouldering day, but I often vary the exercises somewhat (for example, favoring Lock-Off Laps over other pull exercises).

Reps:
During the Strength Phase, I perform on the order of 6-8 reps of each exercise.  During the Power Phase I try to increase the load and keep the reps in the 3-6 range.  During the PE Phase I perform on the order of 8-12 reps. 

Exercises:
Here is an assortment of potential Supplemental Exercises to choose from, with a few notes where applicable.  My favorites are shown in the videos that follow.

Pull Exercises:
– Explosive Pull-ups: Use free-hanging rings rather than a fixed bar or hangboard to reduce joint stress.  Emphasize exploding upward, as for a campus move, and then lock-off the top of the contraction for a breath.

– 1-Arm Inverted Row: More sport-specific than pull-ups. Reach with the inactive arm to make these more difficult.

– 1-Arm Pull-ups: These are a bit of a parlor trick, but in the higher grades, the ability to perform a 1-arm pull-up (or 1-arm lock-off) can come in handy on occasion.  Only recommend for advanced climbers.  Use a pulley system or inactive hand to take off weight if necessary. In my experience these are more a function of body weight than strength.

– Lock-Off Laps: These are my favorite pull muscle exercise.  Very sport-specific and outstanding for improving lock-off endurance.  Reach and hover the inactive hand to increase the difficulty.

Shoulder Exercises:
– Shoulder Press: Allow your palms to rotate as you press. Can also been done as “handstand push-ups”

– Lateral-to-Front Raise: Be careful with these if you have back issues.  Use low weight and perform slowly.

– Dips: Not very specific, but can help build general shoulder strength.

Upper Arm Exercises:
– Biceps Curls: Do these slowly and in control.  Be conservative if you have elbow issues. 

– Most of the Pull Exercises will also improve upper arm strength to some degree.  Shoulder Press and Dips also train the Triceps.

Core Exercises:
There are countless core exercises, here are my two favorites:
– Hanging Leg Raises: Perform from hanging rings for added difficulty.  Beginners can do these with knees bent, but try to eventually do these with legs as straight as possible (I lack the hamstring flexibility needed to do these with straight legs).

– Leg Lifts:  Lie flat on your back.  With legs straight, raise your feet 12-16″ off the ground, hover a few counts, then lower and repeat.  These are less specific than Hanging Leg Raises.

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