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Category Archives: Training

Training Intensity

Intensity is simply a matter of how much effort you put into a given training activity.  In other words, how “hard” you are trying.  You may already be performing the prefect training activity, but if the intensity is wrong, you won’t get the proper results.  After observing many climbers in their natural habitat its clear that intensity levels vary greatly between climbers.  Unlike pure aerobic sports (where a good heart rate monitor or power meter can do the trick), intensity in climbing is difficult to quantify, which makes it very difficult to prescribe.  It also makes it very hard to get accurate feedback as to whether the proper intensity has been applied. 

However, finding the proper intensity for each training activity is vital.  It is absolutely possible to follow a precise training plan and see few results if the intensity is wrong.  There are two primary culprits, the first and most obvious being that many people just plain don’t know how much effort to apply (and many don’t realize how much effort they are truly capable of).  That is primarily what I would like to address in this post.

Applying the proper intensity during a hangboard session.

 
Its worth noting there is a potential to apply too much intensity, especially when recovering from injury, but in my experience the opposite problem is far more common, particularly among folks that came to the sport of climbing without much background in other organized sports.  If you’ve never really pushed your body to the limit you will have trouble knowing just how much effort to put into a workout.  Not all pain is bad, and its worth discovering the difference.  If you have access to an actual coach, it may be worth the money to have them assess your training intensity in real-time, but most of us will end up figuring it out on our own.

Determining the ideal intensity is somewhat personal and will take some trial and error for each athlete to get it dialed in, but here are some starting points for various activities to get you headed in the right direction:

– Local Endurance Training: AKA “ARC” or “CIR”, the earmark of this training is its LOW intensity.  Sounds simple, but this can be one of the most difficult to gauge correctly.  Even if you find the right intensity, it can be difficult to keep it up for the long set lengths involved (routinely greater than 30 minutes).  The danger of too much intensity is that the effort will become anaerobic, theoretically producing different results than those desired.  In my experience most climbers err on the side of too little intensity and I think this is a mistake.  These workouts should not be effortless; try to push yourself by climbing on steeper terrain or avoiding the best holds.  Avoid vertical (or slabby) terrain and any hands-free rest stances.  If you have a heart-rate monitor you might try using it for these workouts to establish a baseline, but don’t assume it will correlate to big-muscle aerobic exercises like running or swimming.  If you struggle with finding the right terrain, consider a “Fartlek” style workout, by alternating between periods (Say, 5 minutes or so) of more intense and less intense climbing.  Varying the intensity will allow you to give more focus during the intense period and relax a bit or hone technique during the easier interval.  During a typical ARC workout, I will keep a pretty good sweat going and will be breathing steadily as you would for a moderate-intensity run or bike ride.

– Movement Technique Training:  Most technique training should be done in the low intensity range.  When new techniques are introduced, the intensity should be very low, but eventually you will need to increase the intensity to “stress-proof” your technique.  At some point you will find yourself using these new skills on a limit-level boulder problem or redpoint crux, but you can’t consider yourself a master until you are routinely applying the technique while onsighting at your limit.  Usually in such a scenario the intensity will be very high.

– Hypertrophy and/or Muscular Strength Training:  This phase can be tricky because its not black or white.  Let’s assume that we are following a strength building regimen that involves different “exercises”, each with multiple “sets” of a varying number of “reps”.  Each individual “exercise” should be done to failure or very near failure, implying 100% intensity.  However, it is unlikely you can achieve failure at the last rep of the last set if you give 100% intensity to each prior rep.  Generally your intensity should ramp up as you work through the sets.  I generally use 3 sets for a given exercise, so the first set will be around 80% intensity.  Not “easy”, requiring attention, but completely in control.  I will be fatigued at the end, but I could do more reps if I wanted to.  By the third set, I will be breathing heavily, perhaps trembling a bit, my form will just be starting to suffer and I will be giving 100%.  For a 5 rep set, by the 3rd rep or so I will have doubts about my ability to complete the set.  By the end of the 5th rep I will just about be sliding off the hold.  If you’re a screamer, you should be screaming on the 4th & 5th reps.  The second set will be somwehere in the middle, starting out controlled and perhaps relatively casual, but will feel very difficult by the end of the set.  If this doesn’t sound familiar, increase the resistance until your experience is similar.  If you are applying the proper intensity, you won’t be able to handle much more than 20 total sets in a single workout (i.e., 7 exercises with 3 sets each).

– Max Recruitment Training:  This one is pretty simple on paper; give 100% or more to each set, once you are properly warmed up (if campusing, your warm-up should inlcude some low, then moderate intensity campusing), then rest however long you need to be able to give 100% again.  The tricky part is summoning 100% intensity for a 5-10 second effort.  In my experience that is easier to do during a progressive strength training or power endurance routine, where you can gradually dial up the intensity over several minutes.  In a true Max Recruitment scenario, you will need to summon that intensity very quickly.  A gradual warmup can help with this, as well as learning how to tap into elevated states of arousel.  The cliff notes version: screaming, boisterous encouragement, and aggressive breathing can all help with arousel.  Fortunately dynoing can be painful if you aren’t very accurate, and pain will help stimulate arousel as well.  Succeeding on every set is a good sign that the intensity is too low.  If you’re really attempting the most powerful movements, you should be failing most of the time.  Another indicator is number of movements in a single set.  True Max Recruitment should trend toward a single extreme movement, but certainly no more than five.  In my experience after three movements you can’t really give anything more of value.  If you’re doing more than that, and they’re all ‘hard’ moves, then the workout is not  really  targeting Max Recruitment.  As for warming up, while its important to be thorough, be careful not to waste all of your power during your warmup.  Power is the first thing to fade during a workout so experiment with different warmup lengths and keep track of what works best (I’ve seen  a clear decline in performance when my warmup last more than 45 minutes).  Finally, once the warmup is over, there are no easy campus sets.  If you can’t give 100% effort then the workout is over.  Move on to something else or save it for antoher day.

In this example, only the 2nd movement is truly at my limit, the others being mostly window dressing.  I’m not a grunter, but I did grunt spointaneously during the hard move.

– Power Endurance Training:  Similar to Hypertrophy, PE workouts should begin in control but get progressively more intense to the point where you can just barely finish.  Near the end of the last set, my motor skills will be totall shot, and I’ll have to swing my feet to get them from hold to hold; every hand movement will become a dyno.  At the end of my best PE workouts I literally feel like vomitting and passing out (not necessarily in that order).  My breathing is completely out of control, on the verge of hyperventillating, and I can’t stand up unsupported.  My forearms are totally pumped; not only can I not squeeze anything, I can’t relax my grip either.  When I go to record my effort, its difficult to write because my hands are shaking.  Unless its extremely cold, I’m dripping with sweat.  Some plans suggest taking a 10-15 minute break and then repeating the workout.  There is no way I could do this, and in my opinion if you can, then the intensity is too low for PE (but it would make for great stamina training). 

– Rest:  A bit tongue-in-cheek, but many climbers aren’t very good at resting.  Proper rest will probably take some effort.  Digging a trench, building a retaining wall, running a marathon; these are not rest activities.  Plan to do basically nothing for at least a week, and take it easy on your fingers for the entire rest period, or add anditional rest time once the retaining wall is finished.
Beyond an understandable lack of knowledge, the second most common cause of improper intensity is a simple lack of effort in one form or another.  This is usually not caused by laziness, but a number of other possible causes including  external distractions during the workout time, unexpected interruptions, general fatigue from overtraining or lack of sleep, and other factors that culminate in a gneral lack of focus on the task at hand.

At the end of the day, you’re unlikely to get much out of your training program if you’re just going through the motions.  I’ve found myself in this position on many occasions.  If you’re scratching your head after a season of ho-hum results, think hard about the effort you put into your training.  Were you giving it 100% (when 100% effort was called for), or were you mailing it in through your Hypertrophy phase, just counting the workouts until you could start bouldering again?  Did you save some strength for the Campus Board during you Max Recruitment phase, or did you blow all your power during your so-called warmup? 

Most of us have a large resorvoir of desire and are able to access it when needed*, but focus and attention are not so easy to maintain.  The majority of my own sub-par efforts stem from a lack of focus or attention when the opposite was required.  Fortunately this can be simple to correct once you learn how.  Look for more on this topic in the near future….

(*If you routinely find yourself struggling to muster the desire to give it your best effort, check out some of my tips on motivation here.)

What’s Right For You?

“There is no ‘right’, there’s only what’s ‘right’ for you.”    -Coach Beloit, The Jericho Mile  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079366/

John Steinbeck (author of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and many others) has long been one of my favorite authors.  His novels paint a vivid picture of the human condition, and in my experience, provide plenty of cunning insight about the way people behave.  Hands down my favorite Steinbeck quote is this line from The Winter of Our Discontent:

Climbing Training expert John Steinbeck, contemplating the proper 4×4 protocol

“No one wants advice, only corroboration”

Nowhere is this more true than in the sphere of training advice, and climbers are certainly not exempt from this pitfall.  To borrow a phrase, 9 out of 10 climbers are looking for confirmation that what they are already doing is good enough.

So even if 95% of the message is “do something different”, the reader is inclined to only hear the 5% that encourages them to continue with their current routine.  I don’t know why humans are inclined to behave this way.  Perhaps the cause is Newtonian in the sense that objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion tend to stay in motion.  Often the activities that will produce the best results are among the most unpleasant, so we find a justification to convince ourselves that the path of least resistance (or the path we are already on) is the “right” path for us.

Gratuitous climbing shot: Kate cruising Topographical Oceans over Memorial Day weekend

Needles to say, this creates an obvious problem: How does the “Self-Coached Climber” determine which program or activity is “right”, when you can’t trust yourself to make an unbiased decision?  One tried and true method is to resign from self-coaching.  A good coach will be able to identify activities that will result in improvement, and they will have no qualms about making you suffer.  The downside is that a good climbing coach is hard to find, and they usually don’t come cheap.  The next best thing is a dedicated partner who can observe you in your element and provide recommendations.  If you choose this option, ensure your partner doesn’t have their own agenda.  Chances are they have their own favorite activities on their own personal path of least resistance, and these activities may not be ideal for you either. 

Online coaching, or attending a short seminar with a pro coach can be a good compromise, but when it comes time put your head down and suffer through another set, your online coach won’t be there to crack the whip. Most climbers will have to make do with self-coaching, and although this is tricky, there are things the coach in you can do to get better results from the athlete. 

1. Flatter Your Role Model.  Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, find a role model, find out what they are doing to prepare for climbing, and get on the same program.  In this metaphor, a “role model” is not necessarily someone you “look up to”, or someone who crushes 5.17d, but someone of a similar body type, with a similar lifestyle & priorities, but who climbs harder routes than you.  The more you can find in common the more likely you will have success following the same program.  Keep in mind that the best climber you know may not have the best training program.  If your role model climbed 5.14 in their first year of climbing, will they understand what it takes to break through a 5.11 plateau?

2. Write Down Your Training Plan.  Once you’ve settled on a training program, write it down, in detail.  Do this at a time of rest, when you are far-removed from the pain of training.  Just like shopping for groceries on an empty stomach, if you try to make your plan while you are training, you will be fighting a constant battle against cutting corners.  Even if you have a tremendous work ethic, the problem persists, although the symptoms may present in the form of biting off more than you can chew, thus resulting in injury.  If you have a coach by correspondence, this is the time to get his or her insight on your plan.

A top-level training plan, showing Rest, Local Endurance, Hypertrophy & Max Recruitment phases. In addition its a good idea to have a detailed plan for each individual workout (example below)

3. Follow Your Plan.  As discussed above, you can’t be trusted to make changes on the fly.  Every plan needs to be flexible to account for unforeseen challenges, and every training resource I’ve come across encourages the athlete to “listen to their body”, but this can be taken too far.  My advice?  Try really hard to follow your plan.  If you find yourself considering a change, think it over for a while, discuss it with other informed people, and make the decision at a time of rest.  Over time you will get a better feel for when your coach is being prudent, and when he is cutting corners, but to do so you need to be very honest with yourself and really dig down to the root of what is instigating your desire to change the plan.  I recommend once your plan is set you see it through for at least one season before your try something dramatically different.  If its a good plan you should see results in one season (unless you’ve been training seriously for many years already).

4. Document What You Did; Use It For Motivation.  Often one of the best ways to get the most out of a workout is to have a training partner (or an entire “team” of partners) to work with.  This can bring your natural competitiveness to the fight and encourage you to give it your best effort.  Many of us don;t have this option for whatever reason.  Even if you have dedicated climber partners, its rare that they are following the same plan, and even if they are its unlikely that your training schedules synch up.  The solution is to create a virtual training partner–yourself from last week, last season, last year or five years ago.  Document the results of your training, use the identical (or at least progressive) training apparatus from season to season, and you can use your previous results as motivation.  For this to work you need to have your training records at the tip of your fingers during the workout.  While resting between sets (whether its a Hangboard workout, Campus Session, 4×4, etc), flip through some previous results and see how you compare.  This method never fails to motivate me to push a bit harder on the next set.  Identify thoese magical seasons where everything came up roses and use those as your target.  In a parallel sense, if you ahve a training partner, but you are either geographically separated or train at different times of day, you might consider sharing your results to create some friendly competition.  Just remember, a rising tide lifts all boats–don’t let the competition get in the way of your partnership.

A log sheet for documenting Hangboard Workouts. This particular sheet is used to track my “PR”s for each exercise– a great real-time motivator

 

5. Make It Suck.  If your workout doesn’t “suck”, it may not be right for you.  In other words, if whatever you are doing comes naturally, flows seamlessly, or feels effortless, you’re proably leaving some stones un-turned.  Usually improving on a weakness will produce the most dramatic improvement, and we tend to suck at our weaknesses.  So if your training is addressing a weakness, it will probably feel unpleasant, uncomfortable.  If you wake up dreading the workout youhave planned, you might be on to something!  It may come as a shock to read something advocating hard work, since all those ads on the internet & cable TV have sought to brainwash us into believing that we can achieve all of our dreams without any sacrifice (other than 3 easy payments of $19.95 plus shipping & handling), but in reality if it were easy, everyone would be climbing 5.15.  (Of course this can be taken to extremes as well.  Sprinting up 10 flights of stares with a sack of sharp rocks strapped to your back is sure to suck, but it won’t make you a better rock climber.)

Q&A #2: Training at the Crag

This is a quick post to answer a pair of questions I received here.

Scotty O. wrote:

“I recently moved back to Bend, OR (and Smith Rock!) where I began my climbing career. I moved from Colorado where I climbed Rifle almost exclusively. After a Fall of screaming forearms, I focused on training my severely lacking endurance over the winter. The gains I noticed this Spring were HUGE and I began to cross Rifle and Maple endurance-fests off my list quickly.

Now that I’m back at Smith Rock, I rarely feel pumped on a route, but find myself falling off more powerful/bouldery cruxes. What can I do to overcome this and balance out my power? What can I do to keep my endurance up while I’m here? I’m not opposed to sessions in the gym, but I would rather maximize my time here at Smith and maybe reserve some days at the crag strictly for training and mileage…”

Thanks for the questions Scotty,

Nothing beats bouldering if you want to build power while climbing on real rock.  Smith has some bouldering, but it tends to be pretty miserable due to the freakishly sharp stone.  As a great compromise, I would highly recommend “roped bouldering”.  In many ways this can be even more effective than real bouldering, as usually the fall consequence is less serious.  The flip side is that it works best with a dedicated partner (although it can be done solo with a rope soloing device and much gear fiddling).  The procedure is simple: find a route with a boulder-problem crux, get a rope on it (preferably toprope through the next highest bolt above the crux) and work the boulder problem repeatedly off the dog.  I find it more motivating to pick a route I’m actually interested in redpointing at some point later in the season.  If you plan to spend a long time on your bouldering sessions, be considerate and pick a route that isn’t super popular, or save it for a weekday.

Smith has a number of great ‘shorties’ that can make for a great boulder project.

If you prefer to actually have a shot at sending something, another option is to pick a really short route.  These routes need love too, and they tend to pack a wallop relative to their grade.  Smith has a number of great mini-routes that could equally be described as extended boulder problems.  Heresy, Da Kine Corner, Energy Crisis, Mothers Milk and Jam Master J are only a few examples.  Remember to get a decent power workout you need to do it while you’re fresh, so do it first thing after a complete warm up.

As for your second question, consider doing “laps” on a pumpy route you know well.  This is a popular past-time for the Smith locals–I’m sure you’ve seen them lapping Churning in the Wake as the sun sets at the end of a long day.  Ideally you would select a pumpy route without much rest (and certainly no hands-free rests; or skip any such rests), and a route you know fairly well.  At Smith another consideration is to find a route that isn’t super sharp (good luck with that!).  Some good choices off the top of my head might be Magic Light, Overboard, Heinous Cling (short or long version), the aforementioned Churning, Aggro Monkey or Scarface.  Obviously its key to find the right difficulty, probably around 1 number grade below your redpoint limit (or just about equal to your onsight limit).  Climb the route from bottom to top, then lower, rest 3-5 minutes (keep track of your rest interval and keep it consistent), then repeat.  Try to do 3-5 laps, building up progressively by reducing the rest interval and increasing the number of laps from workout to workout.   If it becomes trivial, move to a harder route.  If you fall off, try to pull back on and continue  Climb at a normal pace, but don’t milk any really good rests.

Good luck and enjoy the great routes at Smith!

Strongman Fred hucking a lap on Churning

Goal Setting for Climbing Follow-Up

I received some great questions on my “Goal Setting for Climbing” posts, so I will attempt to answer some of them here.  Look for another post in the near future that will address technique drills & other ways to train technique in the gym.

A Virgin No More, Penitente Canyon, CO

Q: I have set a “big hairy goal” this year (Virgin No More, Penitente Canyon), but wasn’t sure about how to incorporate this goal into my training beyond fingerboarding on really small holds.

A: Setting up intermediate goals is a great way to work your way towards a “big hairy goal”.   The great thing about having the big goal in mind, is that it can help determine what those intermediate goals should be.  In this case, I would recommend selecting some project routes that you can use as stepping stones.  Ideally these routes would be at the same crag as your big hairy goal, and of similar style (steepness, hold type, length, continuity).  If geography prevents you from establishing intermediate goal routes at the same crag, try to find some routes nearby that are of similar style.  Some examples of crags with similar climbing to Penitente are Cochita Mesa, NM, Smith Rock, OR, and Shelf Road, CO.  How far you are from achieving your big hairy goal will determine how many intermediate goals are required.  I would recommend trying at least one route at each letter grade between where you are now and where you are going.

When you can’t get regular access to your project, it may be possible to find a similar route to train on closer to home. Mike crushing “Handsome Parish Lady” in Eagle Canyon, NM.

From a training perspective, it can be extremely helpful to identify the characteristics of your goal route and train specifically for them.  The route may have a stopper crux or unusual grip that might be worth incorporating into your hangboard routine (such as a mono move, difficult pinch, or split-finger grip).  Perhaps the route has a shouldery crux, continuous lockoffs, or sustained underclinging, requiring some specific strength training beyond the hangboard. 

Many redpoint attempts end at dynos, so if your project has any, it can be helpful to practice the movements invovled.  Pocket routes may require abnormal precision while dynoing, and often present mental obstacles associated with dynoing (fear of injury or lack of confidence in your precision), so practicing dynoing into pockets in a controlled environment like the gym might be helpful (but be mindful not to over do it!).  Dynoing into or out of unusual position can present similar problems, such as dynoing into an undercling.  Practicing the basic movement in the gym can make things progress more quickly once you get to the real thing.

Understanding the endurance requirements of your project can make the difference between success and failure on a short trip.  Ideally you would know the number of moves, and how long it takes to climb the sustained portions of the route (once you have them sussed).  With this information, you can set up a 4×4, bouldering traverse, or other training circuit that mimics the length (both in terms of # of moves and time), steepness, difficulty and hold type of your project.

Q: What types of technique drills would you do to improve for a thin project?  …How do you approach training in the gym…most gym routes seem to have huge feet and promote more “thuggish” style climbing?

A: I will address this more broadly in a following post, but here’s a preview.  Those who know me well know that the enormous-footholds-in-the-gym-thing is a HUGE pet peeve of mine.  How hard  is it to screw a few jibs on the wall?  Even if your gym is anti-screw-in (as many are, due to the increasingly elaborate wall coatings gyms are using these days), there are many bolt-on footholds on the market that require some thought and technique to use effectively.  So to the gym-managers out there: you have no excuse–throw us a bone already! 

Anyway, if you’re lucky, you can build your own gym like me, and set things up to maximize your improvement, rather than to maximize the fun-quotient of transient birthday children.  But most folks are stuck dealing with unrealistically large footholds.  In this case you have a few options. First, don’t be afraid to approach your gym staff and ask nicely for them to add some realistic footholds.  Maybe if enough people ask, they will get the message.  After all, the small holds are actually cheaper than the big ones!  Failing that, you might ask for permision to install some of your own.  Once you’ve exhausted these options, beg your wife for permission to build your own wall.  When that fails, note that many of the gigantic footholds in your gym have smaller “sub-features” that can be used for feet.  Practice using these.  If you gym has one of those fancy plaster coatings mentioned earlier, look for irregularites, pits, cracks, divots, etc, that you can practice smearing or edging on.  Stand in bolt holes, are even on protruding bolt-heads.  Even if you don’t have route-setting privileges at your gym, be creative, look for feautures that fit your needs (perhaps the footholds for the V4 sloper/pinch boulder problem can be used as crimps) and make your own problems.

Another gym issue is that almost all plastic holds can be pinched, making it easier to pull out on holds (versus simply pulling down).  This is much less common outside, so if you find yourself pinching all the small crimps, stop.  You will find big reach moves and long lock-offs are much more difficult.

Finally, in my experience the biggest challenge with thin face routes is psychological.  We are so accustomed to big, incut holds, and overhanging walls that when we get on small, slopey, insecure holds, we tend to freak out a little bit.  This leads to shaky legs, overgripping, and poor-technique.  So get as much mileage as possible on similar terrain.  Once these situations become old-hat you will notice the movement flows naturally.

Q: If you are going to spend a limited amount of time at the crag where your project is([such that] simply flogging the route every weekend is not an option) how would you stillwork your project without constant access to it?

Scottish honemaster Malcolm Smith, crushing Dreamtime.

A: As discussed above, find some routes or boulder problems near your home that are of similar style.  This will help with the mileage aspect, getting you accustomed to the style of climbing required.  If you have a home wall, or route-setting privileges at your public gym, build boulder problems (or complete routes) that precisely mimic your project or its crux sequences.  If you’re OCD like me you can take a tape measure to the crag and map out the distance between holds, and create a full on replica to train on.  This method was the secret to Malcolm Smith’s success when he famously came out of nowhere to nab the second ascent of Hubble, one of the hardest routes in the world at the time at 8c+. 

Another afterthought that is sure to come to the forefront at the worst possible time is skin care.  Thin routes are particularly hard on the skin, concentrating lots of wear and tire on a very small area.  Again, expect a more generalized post in the future, but to summarize, as with most things in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Begin taking care of your skin well in advance of your trips.  Get in the habit of sanding your pads when you start your hangboarding cylce so your skin is nice and thick and ready go once its time to transition to real rock.

Finally, following a periodized training schedule can help you ensure that you are peaking at the right time–when you are on the rock–thereby maximizing your likelihood of success on the few days you get to try your project.

Hangboarding FAQ #2: Should I use big holds with lots of added weight, or small holds with lots of weight removed?

I’m a strong proponent of hangboarding for increasing finger strength for rock climbing.  I’ve tried many different methods, and IME, hangboarding is the most effective.  For basic instructions on how to go about hangboarding, check out “The Making of a Rockprodigy”, a training plan my brother Mike & I developed many years ago.  I get a lot of questions about the specifics of hangboarding, and it seems like many of the same questions come up over and over, so here is a series of Frequently Asked Questions about the subject, in no particular order.

First, review Hangboarding FAQ #1, as these topics are related.  Next, consider the concept of “Specificity”.  This is a fundamental concept of all forms of training, and it basically means your training should be as similar as possible to what you are training for.  In the context of this question, that means you need to determine the type & size of holds you will be climbing on when you are at your limit.  If you primarily climb at a single crag, this should be fairly simple, as hold types and sizes tend to be fairly consistent at a single crag, with difficulty varying with other factors such as length, steepness, or hold orientation & spacing.   

Pinch Fest, 5.12b, Rifle, CO: Overhanging with jugs, deep pockets, and thin pinches.

If you travel a lot, and visit many different types of crags, this can be difficult to nail down.  The typical hold on a 5.12 at Rifle is much different than a 5.12 at Smith Rock.  Everybody needs to train edges, but maybe you are particularly keen on pocket routes or big slopers.  Pinches are very common at overseas limestone crags but not so common in the US.  In this case, consider which types of routes really inspire you, or are more important to you, or represent a more limiting weakness for you.  Perhaps you have a “big hairy goal” route in mind.  What are the holds like on this route?  Even for those who travel extensively, you probably have a favorite crag or type of route, the type of route that you typically select when you’re looking for a next-level project.  Use that type of route as your guide.

Watts Totts, 5.12b, Smith Rock, OR: Vertical, with tiny edges and knobs

To maintain specificity, select hangboard grips that best replicate the size & shape of these “limit holds”.  Ideally these holds should be a bit of a stretch for you when you’re starting out.  If you typically climb 5.12, I recommend hold sizes more typical of the 5.13s at your favorite crag, since you will be progressing quickly through the grades now that you’re training.  If you’re an enduro jug-haul fiend, its likely your holds will be relatively large, so expect to add lots of weight while hangboarding, or use one-arm hangs.  In my experience it gets pretty dicey once you’re adding 75lbs. or more.  If you are set on this type of climbing, you may consider doing more than the standard number of reps and/or sets as another way to increase resistance without adding dangerous amounts of weight.

Use two pulleys, two or more eyebolts, a harness and length of cord to “remove” weight while hangboarding.

For thin face climging afficianados, the selected holds will probably make it necessary to remove weight.  This is easier than it sounds, but be sure to use a repeatable, quantifiable method for doing so.  Popular methods include hanging from elastic bands, putting your feet on a chair, or getting a power spot from a partner.  These methods all suck, so top using them!  Go to Home Depot and get two cheap pulleys, or get some fancy climbing-rated pulleys here.  Install two (or more) eye bolts below your hangboard, attach the pulleys to the bolts and run a cord through the pulleys.  Clip one end of the rope to your harness and the other end to however-much weight you want to remove, and voila! you just lost 40 lbs as far as your fingers are concerned.

Once you’ve identified the right type & size of holds, plan to stick with them for several seasons (so you can gauge your progress from season to season), but also be prepared to down-size as you improve.  If all goes well, eventually you will find yourself crushing grips that once seemed unreasonably small, so be on the lookout for the appropriate-sized holds once you attain that next level.

Hangboarding FAQ #1: How Do I Progress on the Hangboard?

I’m a strong proponent of hangboarding for increasing finger strength for rock climbing.  I’ve tried many different methods, and IME, hangboarding is the most effective.  For basic instructions on how to go about hangboarding, check out “The Making of a Rockprodigy”, a training plan my brother Mike & I developed many years ago.  I get a lot of questions about the specifics of hangboarding, and it seems like many of the same questions come up over and over, so here is the first in a series of Frequently Asked Questions about the subject, in no particular order.

Hangboarding has a number of benefits, and we can debate the terminology until we’re blue in the face, but the primary goal is to increase finger strength.  Performance athletes have known for decades that in order to force muscular adaptation to increase strength, training must be “progressive”.  This means the resistance on the forearm structures must increase over the course of the training phase in order to stimulate strength gains.  On the hangboard, there are three basic ways to increase resistance: increase the duration of the hang, reduce the size of the hold you are hanging from, or increase the weight.  Like most things in life, there is no clear answer, and its not black and white.  The solution is most likely some combination of the three, but first, let’s consider each method individually.

Results of progressive strength training.

Increasing hang duration seems to be the most obvious and the most popular.  For one thing, its probably the easiest, since it requires little equipment.  Most of the bozos greasing up the board at your local gym are using this method, informally, when they feel compelled to hang from the jugs to impress their girlfriend.  They basically hang, swing their legs around a bit, until it becomes uncomfortable, then they move along to grease up the systems board on their way to the gymnastic rings.  Believe it or not, this method was really popular in the Golden Age of sport climbing.  Jerry Moffat, Wolfgang Gullich, Ben Moon and many others made a point to dead hang one-handed from a 1-cm flat edge for as long as possible.  Moffat got his time up to over a minute. An impressive feat for sure, but what is the climbing application? When do you really need to dead hang a 1cm edge with one had for more than a minute?  If you look at video of a polished climber on a rehearsed route, you will note that generally during crux sequences, a single hand is rarely loaded for more than 3 seconds.  Often its more like 1 second.  It may seem minor, but these things make a big difference.  It takes an Olympic runner ~9.8 seconds to run 100m, and and ~45 seconds to run 400m.  No human will ever win both events, because the types of physiology required are too different.  The same must be true for climbers, even if we haven’t gotten near enough to our genetic potential to prove it yet.

My advice is to select a hang duration that is “specific” to the type of climbing you do, and stick with that duration for several seasons or years, until you have a good reason to change it.  In my opinion, it should be no more than 10 seconds for a single repetition.  As you become more in-tune with your strengths & weaknesses over the years, you may decide to change the duration.  I started out about ten years ago doing 10 second hangs followed by 5 seconds rest.  After a few seasons of this, I noticed I never failed to send a project if I could do all the moves (meaning my endurance was superior to my power), so I decided to reduce my hang duration to 7 second hangs with 3 second rest.  This seemed to even things out a bit more for me, but I still climb better on routes than boulder problems, so I plan to experiment with 5 second hangs followed by 5 second rest to see what happens.

The next option is to reduce the size of the hold.  This is not a bad idea, but creates obvious practical problems, because you would need many hangboards with many different, slight increments of hold size for each grip you train (Spaniard Eva Lopez has created a hangboard for this exact purpose) or some other apparatus designed to gradually reduce hold size.  Remember we need to have the option  to increase resistance between every workout, assuming our fingers keep up.  We also need to be able to quantify the resistance with respect to past seasons, so that we can predict a reasonable resistance for future workouts.  Not an easy thing to do while constantly changing hold sizes.  Before we start building a better mousetrap, first lets review the primary argument in favor of this type of progression. 

Big reaches force the lagging arm into less favorable angles for pulling, thus increasing the load on the fingers

Consider how routes change as the grades go up.  Basically, the holds get smaller, the holds get less positive, the walls gets steeper, the holds get further apart, oriented more poorly, or some combination of these.   For the first two, the most specific way to adress the physical affect on your fingers is by progressively changing hold size on the hangboard (making the holds smaller &/or less positive).  What is the affect of the latter three?  These all put more load (weight) on the fingers, without changing hold size at all.  As a wall gets steeper, less of your body weight rests on your feet, so your fingers have to take more of the weight.  As holds get more distant, it becomes necessary to lock off holds lower and lower to make big reaches, thus forcing you to pull more outward on the hold (rather than straight down).  As the direction of pull changes, your fingers must generate more force to maintain the same normal force on the hold.  Holds oriented in less favorable directions create the same affect, making it necessary to generate more force on the hold than simple body weight.  In three of the five examples, adding weight to force progression appears to be more specific than reducing hold size.

You could make the argument that, in terms of specificity, its about a wash between reduing hold size and adding weight, though I would lean toward the latter .  There is no doubt adding weight is much more practical, easier to quantify, easier to vary and easier to fine tune with readily accessible materials. 

In conclusion, I recommend you select a reasonable hang duration, and plan to stick with it for several years.  Pick a specific hold size and plan to stick with that for several seasons.  Figure out (through trial and error) the right amount of weight to add (or subtract), and plant to change that resistance almost every workout, but generally in a progressive manner (meaning, gradually increasing the weight on your fingers).  At the end of the last set for a given grip, if you still have some gas in the tank, do an extra rep or too until you reach failure.

The next obvious question is, if I need a fixed hold size, what size should it be?  See Hangboarding FAQ#2 for an answer.

Goal-Setting for Climbing (Part II)

Part I discussed the importance of goal-setting for climbing and provided some basic examples specific to the realm of mounaineering. Part II will discuss some more specifics on goal-setting for rock climbing.

The subject of goal-setting in general life has been covered by countless self-help books and seminars. Two fantastic resources specific to climbing are Todd Skinner’s outstanding book “Beyond the Summit”, which details his expedition to free the East Face of Trango Tower, and Arno Ilgner’s “The Rock Warrior’s Way”. Both of these are highly recommended for the goal-oriented climber.

Over the ten years or so that I’ve really focused on improving my rock climbing I’ve had several great seasons, several terrible seasons, and many mediocre seasons. The one consistent aspect of all my great seasons was that they all started with a grand goal. At this point I can usually predict if a season will be “good” or “bad” based on the quality of the goals I set for the season. Training for “general fitness” is a surefire path to disappointment in my experience.

So, how does one go about selecting a good goal? It sounds simple enough but you would be surprised how difficult it can be. And since the goal itself is possibly the single most important factor in determining success, its important to set a good goal. Lets start by discussing a poor goal: “I want to climb a 5.12″. Seems reasonable enough, and if popularity were a predictor of quality, this would be the best possible goal in the sport of rock climbing. But there are atleast three major problems with this goal. First, grades are subjective. Unless you set out to climb a sandagged 12d, you will never really know if you achieved your goal or not. If you are capable of climbing a sandbagged 12d, you should probably set your sights a little higher. Instead most people will select the local 12a trade route, and if you’re like me, every time someone utters “11d”, “soft”, or “this would be blah blah blah at Rifle” about your precious trophy route your heart will sink. Don’t live and die by other people’s opinion of your goal. Stay away from grades because they are subjective and goals need to have concrete finish lines.

Second, the goal lacks specifics. Remember, part of the point of goal setting is to steer your training plan. Do you know if “a 5.12″ will require good pinch strength, improved endurance or better gear placing skills? Its pretty hard to say since “a 5.12″ is so vague. It could entail anything from a 20-foot horizontal roof deep-water-solo to a 1000′ 60 degree slab on marginal gear.

Finally, how motivating is the goal? I’m an engineer and even I’m not inspired by numbers. I’m inspired by stunning lines in a beautiful setting, interesting history, and the heroic characters of each generation that made the sport what it is today. The goal should be there, ready to prop you up at moments of weakness. It should be posted next to your hangboard, your campus board, even next to the pantry, to remind you what you are suffering for. Now what is more inspiring, this:

or this:

Dreamin, 5.12a, Smith Rock, OR

Here’s an example of an improved goal: “I want to redpoint Latin Lover at Smith Rock.” One thing right off the bat, there is no need to debate the grade. Some people say 12a, some say 11d; who cares? The goal has nothing to do with the grade; they are totally unrelated. A goal is really just a stepping stone to the next, bigger goal anyway, so what does the number have to do with it? The goal might even be “easier” than something you’ve already climbed, but requires a new skillset or exploits a weakness that, once improved, will provide access to other, more challenging goals. So forget numbers.

Next, the style of ascent is defined (at least sport climbers know what you mean). The original goal left some ambiguity. Would a toprope ascent, with hangs, count? The new goal makes it clear the intent is to climb from the ground, on lead, with no hangs or falls, but rehearsal of the moves is acceptable (but you can continue to argue with your trad climber uncle about whether or not its necessary to hang the draws on the send).

Finally, a specific route has been identified. This provides tremendous amounts of useful information to help plan a training strategy to achieve the goal. We know the route is dead vertical, with lots of small, sharp edges, some thin pockets, and small footholds. The route requires 50 or so feet of continuous climbing without much rest. It might even be possible to determine a rough number of hand movements required between rests. This information can be used to determine some focus areas for training. For example:

-Crimp strength on half-pad and smaller edges
-Footwork on vertical terrain
-Lockoff endurance on vertical terrain
-Local Endurance on small edges
-Skin toughness on finger pads

The next step is to identify the ideal time of year to attempt this specific route, arrange for partners, request vaction time from work and construct a training schedule that will maximize fitness at the perfect time. All of these critical items would have been nearly impossible to plan properly without a specific route in mind.

Next comes the easy part, following through until the goal is realized. From the anchor, with the redpoint in the bag, you will have a new perspective from which to spy that next, harder goal.

A good gooal route will provide the inspiration to get you through the duldrums of training.

Tales of a Broken Talus – Update #4

For those of you that want the quick version, here’s the skinny – I’m finally out of the boot! Yay! For those that want the nitty gritty, here’s the play by play… Day 31-32:  Feeling strong on the hangboard, as I’m back up to 7-10 seconds again, despite the added weight.  Today I also added weight to my offset hangs on the large  edge.  My plan is to stick with this for another week, then next week toss in another weighted bean bag.  The warm spring weather has me frustrated because I’m afraid by the time I’m back up to par it’ll be…Read the rest of this entry →

Goal-Setting for Climbing (Part I)

Goal-setting has been an essential tool in all athletic pursuits for decades. You could make the argument that it is an essential tool in all human endeavors. Even chipmunks set out every Fall with the intention of gathering enough acorns to make it through the winter. Goal-setting is just as important in climbing. Goals create focus, steer the training plan, and provide motivation when the going gets tough.

On the summit of Denali

Summit of Denali, 2001

Achieving the goal turned out to be the easy part

Our climbing roots in the world of mountaineering provide a great metaphor. Ultimately the goal is to get to the summit (and back home), but on the big peaks this is usually accomplished through intermediate steps. For example, this may be a typical goal-oriented strategy for climbing Denali:

Main Goal: Summit Denali via West Buttress & return home safely

Intermediate goals:1: Climb from Kahiltna Landing strip to 10K
2: Haul load to 12K, return to 10K camp, establish camp
3: Move camp from 10k to 14k, establish base camp in Genet Basin at 14k
4: Back-haul cache from 12k to 14k
5: Acclimatize with day trip to 17k, return to Base Camp
6: Establish High camp at 17k
7: Climb from 17k to Summit & return
8: Break down high camp and return to Base Camp
9: Retreat from Base Camp to Kahiltna strip, bottoms up!

In the above example, there is a main goal, and a set of intermediate goals that lay the foundation for achieving the main goal. However in this example, the entire process is completed in a few weeks. Most goals are not so quickly realized, and in truth the above goals would not suffice. If you’re sitting at home and thinking you’d like to climb Denali, setting the above set of goals will leave you overwhelmed and a bit lost in terms of how to proceed with achieving the main goal. I climbed Denali via the Cassin Ridge in 2001. In actuality the goal was set several years before I ever set foot in Alaska, and I laid out a multi-year plan to achieve the goal.

The first step is to identify the objective. That’s the easy part, though it presents some pitfalls as well (see Part II). The next step is the most critical and perhaps the most difficult: identify the gaps between the desired end-state (the goal) and your present state. In other words, my goal was to climb the Cassin Ridge. At the time I set the goal, I had never traversed a glacier, summited a peak higher than 12,000 feet, climbed ice of any kind, spent more than one night camping in the snow, experienced temperatures below 0 degrees, planned or executed an expedition, bivied over 8,000 feet… I could go on and on about my lack of credentials for such an activity.

So I developed a list of intermediate goals, each of which would help provide skills and experience that would be necessary on Denali:

Step 1: Climb Mt Rainier. This provided some more alititude exposure, several nights spent on a “high” mountain, and glacier travel experience

Step 2: Climb Mooses Tooth. This provided experience in the Alaska Range, more days (~7 days) spent on an expedition and living on a glacier, more serious glacier travel experience and more challenging alpine climbing experience

Step 3: Climb El Pico de Orizaba. This provided significantly more high-altitude experienace, with a summit over 18,000 feet, and more experience with logistical planning

Step 4: Climb Mt Waddington. This was a much more technically demanding climb than the Cassin, but at a lower altitude with less harsh weather conditions. The climb helped to improve technical skills and provide confidence, plus required 7 days on a remote glacier.

Step 5: Climb Grade 5 Ice: Knowing the Cassin would likely have nothing harder than AI4 (in reality was more like AI2 or 3), this provided more confidence in ice climbing skills and some margin for error.

High Camp on Moose's Tooth, with Denali behind

While striving towards intermediate goals,

it helps to keep the big picture in sight

It took roughly three years just to complete the intermediate goals, but once completed, I knew I was ready to give the Cassin a decent shot. In the end, the Cassin was relatively easy by comparison, which made the route that much more enjoyable.

This approach can and should be applied to all types of climbing. If you’re stuck at 5.11 and you want to climb 5.13, establish some benchmarks and a rough timeframe of when you plan to accomplish them. The benchmarks should not be arbitrary numbers. Rather, they should help you develop a specific skill or confidence that will help you achieve the main goal. Part II will go into more detail about how to select specific goals for rock climbing.

Three Reasons to Train for Climbing

Many people are stoked to go to the crag week in, week out, and climb the same routes year after year.  For some folks climbing is just recreation, not sport.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  I don’t consider watching TV a sport.  I don’t seek methods for improving my TV watching (although I did get a Tivo a few years back, and that pretty much revolutionized my TV watching career), I watch TV for the pure fun of it.  I’m happy for those who approach climbing with that attitude, I wish them all the best, and thank them for leaving the hard routes that much less crowded.  Other people would prefer to see some form of steady improvement over the years (and perhaps a large percentage of the first group are truly part of the second, but they’ve become frustrated after spending years stuck at a plateau, and simply accepted that its not their destiny to climb beyond the level they’re currently at).  If you’re like me, and you want to improve, its just a matter of deciding how to go about doing it and following through with conviction.

Take it from someone who spent a long time climbing

5.10, routes just get better as they get harder

Now, there are many paths to climbing improvement, and they are not all the same.  If you’re a hard worker and you have your head on straight, I think its quite possible to experience slow and steady improvement by simply going to the gym or crag on a regular basis.  If you’re willing to put the time in, its probably not necessary to follow a structured training regimen.  On the other hand, I believe there are some significant advantages to following a designed program.

In my experience, there are basically three primary reasons to “train” for climbing.  First and foremost, because it works, in the sense that most of the time, if done properly, it produces steady improvement over time, which is pretty sweet.  In some cases, it will produce radical improvement in a pretty short period of time.  Check out What I Know About Training for some evidence to back up that claim.

Second, it reduces the risk of injury.  Training prepares your muscles and connective tissue for the stress they will be exposed to once you get out on the rock.  If done wisely, this preparation is controlled and quantified to maximize that amount of stress your body can withstand without doing harm.  In the process, training teaches you to get a feel for exactly how much stress those structures can handle before you need to back off.   Not only does training reduce the risk of injury, but it provides a framework and methodology for recovering from existing injuries.  Once you convert to the mindset of an athlete in training, although you’re still likely to suffer injuries from time to time, they will rarely hold you back for long, because you will become an expert in listening to your body, identifying weakness, stressing weak tissue to stimulate growth, and managing rest periods to maximize recovery.  “Training” and “Rehabilitation” are really just different words for the same thing, and you will become an expert in both.

Third, training saves time.  In fact it saves lots of time.  Nothing is more inefficient, in terms of time, then going to the crag and climbing random routes in an effort to stimulate tissue growth.  With a good training regimen, you can identify exactly the areas you want to stimulate, and apply stress exactly where you want with no wasted effort.  With the proper equipment and a well-conceived program you can work every grip position to failure in less than 90 minutes. Good luck doing that at the crag!  Plus it can be done without a partner, at the gym or in your basement, any time of the day, any day of the year, regardless of weather, work schedules, etc.

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

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