Close-up shot of Alex Johnson's hands crossed at the wrist while she stands on a bouldering crash pad.

By Trango athlete Alex Johnson


Alex Johnson smiling as she climbs

My approach to training has changed exponentially over the years. When I was young, it was just climbing a ton at the gym, maybe some 4×4’s, sometimes coupled with some lay-on-the-floor core exercises and an occasional jog.

In recent years, my training has gotten extremely precise, especially in terms of utilizing a hangboard and a campus board. Trango Training Blog From competing in World Cups to projecting The Swarm, every exercise I did had a specific purpose.

With an epic 10-year project like The Swarm (V13/14), I knew I had to do something different and really step it up if I wanted to actually put it down. It had become clear that what I had been doing in the past was not working, and my strength gains had plateaued.

Queue returning to comps to try to qualify for the Olympics! This changed everything in my training. I consulted with Dr. Tyler Nelson on a me-specific strength program, tested out on a scale what my finger and arm strengths were on different grips at different arm positions, created a scheduled cycle with specialized workouts on specific days of the week, and started training in a way that I’d never done before. With all of these exercises catered precisely to my weaknesses, I launched off my plateau and became the fittest and strongest I’ve ever been in my life.

Queue not qualifying for the Olympics. But feeling superhuman in a way I’d never experienced wasn’t going to be wasted. No matter where I was in the world or what I was doing, The Swarm always haunted my subconscious. Would I ever go back? When would I feel ready? The answer was finally, NOW. I knew it was time, and that all of the honed-in training and I’d done had led me to this point; that everything I’ve done in my life was preparing me for the moment I topped this boulder. And it totally worked. (Read AJ’s account of Sieging The Swarm at Climbing.com.)

Here are some dos and don’ts of training, from someone who’s probably done it all.

TIP 1: Warm Up

This should be an obvious one. Unfortunately, it isn’t. I know it’s boring and mundane and feels like a waste of time, not unlike having to stop to gas up your car when all you wanna do is start raging towards the gains. I still struggle with forcing myself to stick to my full warmup and not rush through it to get to the hard fun stuff. But I can’t express this enough, especially if you’re getting older or are new to training: a proper warmup is extremely important.

Historically, “warming up” for climbing meant running a lap or two on a few easy climbs and then just hitting the proj. The best way to maximize performance and reduce risk of injury is have a two-part warm-up: working a full range of motion/mobility off-wall, followed by a thorough and specific on-wall warm-up. You want to be prepared for whatever kind of funky positions you might be thrown into. While warming up for World Cups I always wanted to work the hardest, most awkward moves of the day in the isolation zone during my warm-up, so I could handle anything the boulders threw at me. That being said, take your time with it. Do not rush the warm-up.

Photo by Bree Robles

Example of my current warm-up:

  1. Off-wall: 15-20 minutes of yoga, dynamic stretching, and/or foam rolling
    Focus on the muscles you use the most while climbing, and the joints attached to them: hip, knee, shoulder, and lower back mobility.
  2. On-wall: 30+ minutes of easy to gradually more difficult climbing
    Alternate between moving fast and slow, and down climb!


TIP 2: Stop Doing Weighted Pull-Ups

That’s cool, you can rip a single rep of 100+ pounds. What for..? When are we ever moving on the wall or rock with both arms at the same height pulling equally at the same time?

Double arm training and pull-ups are great for general fitness, but if you want to get specific with your strengths and weaknesses, single arm training is where it’s at. Couple that with multiple degrees of arm bend (90 and 120 degrees are my personal favorites) or a narrow/wide shoulder position and you really start to cover all your bases.

Now I’m absolutely not saying to jump straight into training one-arm pullups. Frankly, those don’t make a climber better either. Single arm training can be dangerous—you’re immediately taking away 50% of your support from an arm. That’s why you should…

Alex Johnson hanging from a pull-up bar by one arm bent at 90 degrees while holding a small dumbbell in her other hand.
Photo by Bree Robles

TIP 3: Start with Isometrics

Good ole isometrics… What are they?! A way to maximize your workouts with a significantly decreased risk of shock loading your joints and tendons. A “safer way to train.”

Sit on a weight bench, lock a bar across your lap, grab the bar above at your preferred arm bend angle or shoulder position, and PULL — as hard as you can. The seatbelt bar should prevent you from lifting off the ground, while being able to fully engage your arm, shoulder, and core in a max effort 3-5 second pull. Engagement with no up or down movement, maximizing effort, reducing risk. Of course, these need to be partnered with plyometrics, so after your set of 5 pulls per arm per position, jump up and rip a couple bodyweight pull-ups to remind your arms what they’re actually training for.

These can also be done on a hangboard! Sit or stand with feet firmly planted, placing hand/s on desired edge or desired grip position. Set your arms at a desired degree of bend, then pull/engage as hard as you can for 3-5 seconds. After each pull, rest for one minute, repeating 5x per hand per grip. If you’re pulling down, you shouldn’t lift off the ground. If you start to rise up and you’re using both hands, drop it down to a single hand.


TIP 4: Switch it Up!

I get it- what you’re doing is working, and you’re seeing results. This will only last for so long. Bodies ADAPT; we’re designed to. Eventually your body will get bored of doing the same workouts and muscle memory will take over, leaving your body and mind to be less engaged, ultimately leading to a plateau. You gotta keep your body guessing! Switch up your routine every few weeks, and you can return to your favorite workouts later in your cycle. Like growing potatoes, you gotta change fields every so often or you won’t get a crop.


TIP 5: Maxing Out… It’s Not What You Think

It’s your sixth day on of two-a-days, you’re throwing yourself at the campus board. You’re not able to hit your PR, but are convinced that if you just keep trying, you’ll latch it. The more you train, the more you gain. Yeah, that’s a load of bullshit. Maxing out doesn’t mean pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion repeatedly. “If I climb or train until failure every time, that’ll make me stronger.” WRONG. There’s the age-old quote “train smarter, not harder” that everyone likes to toss around but nobody likes to adhere to. Of course, there’s a time and a place to push through to complete failure, but that would ideally be on a day leading up to at least two full rest days.

I used to think that blasting myself past failure in the gym day after day would be conducive to getting stronger. Now I know better and can get an extremely beneficial workout done in under 45 minutes (not including warm-up) and live to train again the next day with far less risk of injury. This means that the moment — the moment — I feel myself unable to perform at 100%, the workout is over. In terms of strength, there’s no point in continuing a workout at anything less than 100%. Why decrease weight to continue reps? At that point, if it isn’t your max, you aren’t gaining anything. There’s no point in doing anything unless it’s at 100%, so as soon as that starts dropping, it’s a full stop – move onto something else, and let the recovery begin.

Photo by Bree Robles

TIP 6: REST!

Which leads me to the next, and possibly most important, aspect of training: not training. So often people approach training with the mindset of “someone else out there is always working harder.” This is an incredibly misleading quote designed for motivation. The “working harder” part is referring to “trying their absolute hardest every time,” not running themselves into the ground.

For my strength workouts, it’s high/max weight, 3-5 reps, 3-5 sets, a full minute of rest between reps, and at least 5 minutes of rest between sets. The rest between sets can make my workouts take a little longer, but I won’t sacrifice maximizing my training for rushing the rest.

When it comes to number of strength training days per week for me, it’s one, maybe two. That’s all you need. No, really. And if I know my cycle has me training strength on Mondays and Thursdays, I rest on Sundays and Wednesdays. I always approach my strength training days fresh to make the most out of trying my hardest. Again — there’s no point in doing something unless you’re giving 100%, and if you aren’t taking adequate rest days to recover and allow your muscles to heal and therefore grow, you’re actually never training at 100%.

Our bodies need time to recover, and if you’re always demanding more of your body without allowing it rest or pushing yourself to, and even past, the point of failure without giving yourself proper recovery windows, you’re holding yourself back from making those coveted gains.