When I first started coaching climbers, I thought it would be all about the nuts and bolts of training program design. I really thought that most of what I was going to be doing was guiding climbers through the details of hangboard protocols, exercise selection, and set/rep schemes. I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I can confidently say that my initial assumptions were completely off base.
The reality is that most climbers don’t get to the point in their training where these kinds of nuts and bolts details are the difference between sending and failing. This isn’t to say that there aren’t basic principles that are important to follow in your training. My suggestion, however, is that many of us are shooting ourselves in the foot and unintentionally sabotaging our performance or our training efforts well before the point that most of the details of a training program even matter. What follows are six common ways I see climbers undermine their training efforts.
Some of these examples may not apply to you, or maybe you’re six for six. Either way, I suggest you use this article to help guide some honest self-reflection. Like I said before, I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I hope this article can help you identify and then avoid some of these pitfalls in your approach to climbing and training. That, I guarantee, will have a positive effect on your climbing.
1. Misunderstanding the Role of Training
Let’s look at this simply and start by asking what seems like a pretty basic question: “Why are you training?”
Since you’re reading this article, we can safely assume that you are training because at some point in the future you want to climb a route or boulder that’s harder than what you are currently climbing. That’s great! I’m all about goal-directed training, but the pitfall here is thinking that training is going to reach your goal for you.
Training is NOT a magic pill.
I cannot stress this point enough. There are no secret exercises that are the answer to the next grade. Training alone will not get you up your dream projects. And, maybe most importantly, training will never make rock climbing feel easy.
Yes, continuing to get stronger is certainly going to help you progress through the grades and is to a certain extent a prerequisite. That said, no matter how strong you get you are always going to have to show up, put the work in, and TRY HARD if you really want to keep progressing in your climbing.
A Better Approach: Now, having established that training isn’t a magic pill that does the work for you on your projects, I’d suggest a better way to look at training is this: it’s what you do to give yourself a chance to show up, try your goal climbs, and try hard. Training can open doors to new levels of difficulty, but it’s still on us to execute when we show up at the crag or boulder field.
Don’t miss the most important part of that last sentence: Show up and try hard.
Know that while training and physical preparation are part of the process, it’s still on us to get the job done. This means you have to give yourself a chance by showing up to perform when you are rested and conditions are good.
More on this Topic: This point is pretty simple: If you don’t show up to try your goal climbs, you aren’t going to send. Simple. That said, there’s always more to it. Check out this article by Kris Hampton for more about the importance of showing up: The #1 Reason Why Your Climbing Training Doesn’t Work
2. Failing to Address Underlying Performance-Inhibiting Issues
Our next pitfall is failing to address underlying performance-inhibiting issues or the insidious habits that prevent us from sending, even though we are physically capable of doing so.
It’s easy to fixate on the physical side of climbing training because improvement is easily quantifiable. Just look at the hangboard… “I used to only be able to hang x edge at bodyweight and now I can hang it with 25lbs added!” That’s an improvement that’s easy to understand.
Climbing, however, isn’t that simple and, with the rise in popularity of training, lots of climbers are blaming their failures on their physical preparation when in reality there are underlying issues in their climbing that are preventing them from fully expressing their physical abilities. These issues can be different for everyone, but below are some of the most common ones I see crop up in the athletes I coach. They range from mental issues with fear to tactical issues with planning climbing days. While some of these may resonate with you more than others, my hope is they help you see that fixating on the physical side of climbing and training isn’t always the path to progress.
Fear of Falling
If you can’t relax above your bolt or once your feet get more than a foot off the ground, you can’t climb efficiently or focus on executing hard moves. This obviously makes climbing something at your limit quite a bit more difficult. Before you write this one off, remember the fear of falling comes in varying degrees. Everyone deals with it at some point in their climbing career, and I’m not just talking about being unwilling to commit to a top out or panicking above a bolt. It can be much subtler than that.
Tips to Improve: Make falling in an objectively safe environment a regular part of your climbing. This doesn’t mean that you need to go straight to highball bouldering or taking massive whippers. Start small and challenge yourself by progressively pushing slightly outside your comfort zone. Most of all, remember that you aren’t alone. Almost everyone deals with the fear of falling at some point in their climbing and even those bold climbers who appear fearless have to actively engage with fear on a regular basis. If you’re looking for more information on overcoming the fear of falling, this TrainingBeta Podcast episode with Arno Ilgner and his book The Rock Warrior’s Way are great places to start.
Fear of Failure
Much like the fear of falling, the fear of failure can take on a multitude of different forms. Whether it’s only climbing at a certain grade, only picking projects in a certain style, avoiding moves you’re bad at, or not wanting to climb in front of a bunch of people, realize that thinking in this way is ensuring that you stay in your comfort zone. We learn through failure and getting outside of our comfort zones. How are you going to keep growing if your fear of failure never gives you a chance to expose yourself to the experiences you need to learn and grow?
Tips to Improve: With the fear of failure manifesting itself in such a multitude of ways, there’s no one size fits all answer. That said, fear of failure is much easier to deal with when you maintain a process-focused rather than outcome-focused outlook. This is obviously easier said than done. Personally, when I find myself doubting my abilities or fearing failure, I look back and remember past sends. I focus, however, not just on how good topping out or clipping the chains felt, but on all the work and effort I put into them. Remembering these past victories helps in two ways. First, it reminds me that I have sent before and will send again. Second, recalling all of the work I put in makes leaning into the process on my current project easier, as it reassures me that I’m not just wasting my time.
Do you brush your holds between attempts? What about taking enough rest between burns? How about taking the time to figure out the beta? Do you settle on the first option that works or do you experiment until you find the most efficient sequence? Is every go an all-out effort from the ground or are you more systematic? All of these things are projecting tactics. While everyone’s process may be slightly different, it’s important to have a process that takes care of the non-negotiable things like resting between burns and brushing holds. Check out this TrainingBeta article for more: Projecting Principles
Tips to Improve: The above article is a great place to start, but remember that there’s an art to projecting a climb. Experiment and figure out what works for you. Most of all, do your best to stay open to learning. This means learning new tactics and learning new things on your project. The most dangerous place you can be tactically is thinking you’ve got everything fully figured out.
Poor Planning and Group Dynamics
This one overlaps with tactics a bit, but the main takeaway is this: if you have a climbing goal, it’s on you to control as many of the variables as possible to give yourself the best chance of sending. Need shade? Don’t show up when it’s roasting in the sun. Know that there aren’t any good warmups nearby? Warm-up elsewhere or bring a portable hangboard.
Controlling these things gets a bit tricky when dealing with group/partner dynamics and it’s definitely common to find your “optimal” climbing day at odds with your partners. It’s normal to end up with projects in different places and different ideas for what the best plan for the day is. My biggest suggestion is to be clear with your partners about your goals, be willing to compromise but also advocate for your needs, and, most of all, plan ahead. The more limited your time, the more important this becomes.
Tips to Improve: Conversations where you have to advocate for your goals and needs can feel awkward. Remember all the work you’ve put in and realize you owe it to yourself to have them. Everyone’s time is valuable, but with some open communication and a bit of compromise, there’s usually a solution where everyone’s needs are accounted for.
All of the above issues are harder and less comfortable to address than the physical side of climbing, but think of it this way: If you can get out of your own way, you’ll be able to fully express your physical abilities. Improving in these areas may be less quantifiable than another hangboard cycle, but it will be far more effective in the long run.
A Better Approach: Whatever underlying issues you’re struggling with, there’s all kinds of information out there about how to deal with them. I suggest starting with Dave MacLeod’s book 9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes. Don’t just read it, though: try to honestly evaluate your climbing. Once you’ve identified an underlying issue to work on, dig in. Above all, remember that improving at climbing requires us to commit to continual learning and honest self-evaluation. Doing the work on ourselves isn’t always flashy or enjoyable, and it doesn’t always result in measurable gains. But if you really want to improve, you need to commit to the process, accept uncertainty, and lean into discomfort.
More on this Topic: I really can’t stress enough how much 9 Out of 1o Climbers Make the Same Mistakes should be the first resource you go to to start uncovering any underlying issues in your climbing. That said, I know that a lot of what I’ve talked about here can sound a bit abstract. Dan Mirsky’s article in the TrainingBeta How I Trained For Series will give you a good look at what this process looks like in practice: How I Trained for Fat Camp
3. Just “Working Out” Instead of Having a Plan
Random Training produces random results.
This is an age-old adage in the training world and if you think about it logically it makes perfect sense. If training is supposed to help get you where you’re going, then you’d better have a clear direction, or who knows where you’ll end up?
The biggest way I see this issue play out is with climbers who head to the gym and don’t have a clear plan for their session. They go in and climb on whatever boulders look cool, whatever section of the gym was just reset, or jump in on whatever their friends are sessioning. This haphazard climbing session is usually followed up by some random hangs on the hangboard, maybe a campus set or two, and some core work. The quality of the session is then judged on whether or not you feel tired leaving the gym. With this approach, abs hurting = good core workout and not being able to make a fist due to sore and swollen fingers = a good finger training session.
Don’t get me wrong: every time you climb doesn’t need to be some hyper-focused training session where you can’t talk to a friend, enjoy a fun-looking boulder problem, or even smile. What is important, though, is that you can answer the question, “What is my goal for this session?” It’s ok at times if the answer is to simply have fun or to have a high volume training session, but you should know how that fits into the rest of your training plan.
Additionally, remember that the hangboard, the campus board, the Moon Board, the weight room, the spray wall, and any other training apparatus you might find in the gym are all tools. Use them for their intended purposes and be systematic about it. Pick a hangboard protocol and stick with it. If you’re going to campus, do so intentionally and make it part of your power training. We could go through every piece of training equipment out there, but the important thing is that you can answer the questions of why you’re using this equipment and how you’re going to progress your training on that tool over time.
A Better Approach: Have a plan that accounts for the long-term (year), the shorter-term (this training cycle), and the immediate (this session). If you can answer the questions of why you are doing what you are doing and how you are going to progress it at each of these levels, you definitely won’t just be working out to get tired. You’ll be heading where you want to go.
More on this Topic: Designing a training program for yourself is hard. It’s one of the main reasons climbers benefit from having a coach. If you are going to write your own training plan, here’s a fantastic article by Steve Bechtel of Climb Strong that outlines the fundamental principles you should keep in mind: Fundamentals of Program Design
4. Trying to Train Too Many Things at Once
This pitfall is essentially the topic of my TrainingBeta article Fitting Everything In and I talk about it in much greater detail there. Essentially, though, the issue is that the complex demands of climbing make us feel like we need to be training everything at once. Additionally, the sheer amount of available information on training for climbing doesn’t make this any easier for us. With just a simple google search, you can quickly be convinced that to improve your climbing you definitely need to limit boulder, hangboard, campus, lift weights, work on your mobility, improve your endurance, etc. The list goes on and on.
The reality is that while all those things can be valuable tools, trying to do them all at once is impossible. Additionally, when you try to focus on too many things at once in your training, we tend to train “medium” at everything. This essentially means we’re undermining our training by spreading our efforts too thin.
A Better Approach: Pick one or two things and get good at them. Ideally, they are areas of weakness, as that’s where we have the greatest potential for improvement, and stick with them for a four-week cycle or two. For example, if you struggle with overhanging climbs design a cycle that features a lot of powerful, steep boulders and some supplemental strength exercises like dumbbell rows and hanging leg raises that will help with the required strength for steep climbing. Once you design the program, stick with it and do it consistently. This way you give yourself a chance to really put in some focused work and see progress in an area or two that will benefit your climbing. After that, switch it up and focus on another area of weakness until you turn it into a strength.
5. Always Trying to Perform
Oh man, this is a big one and it plays out on both the macro level and individual sessions.
First, let’s look at this one from a zoomed-out perspective. Can you think of another sport where athletes try to perform their best year-round? I can’t. Just try to imagine football players trying to play 52 Sundays a year. NFL players are constantly battling injury, are notorious for having short careers on average, and they only play for a third of the year. They need the offseason as it’s what allows them to rest, recover, and then prepare both physically and mentally to give 110% all over again the next year.
Now, say “offseason” around climbers and people run for the hills or look at you like you’re the devil. I get it. We all love climbing and we all want to do it as much as possible. I’m not suggesting that you need to stop climbing for large parts of the year. I think most coaches and trainers would actually agree that it’s important to climb consistently so that we are not constantly dealing with declining skill levels caused by big stretches of time away from climbing. What I am suggesting, however, is that when you plan out your year (remember the “have a plan” section from above…) there need to be times when the priority is performance/sending, times when the priority is training–not sending–and times when the goal is simply to rest and recover.
Having established that it’s important to have a yearly schedule and have different priorities based on where you’re at in it, let’s zoom in a bit and see why you need to be careful of the always-performing pitfall on the session-to-session level.
How often do you go to the gym and judge the quality of your training based on whether or not you sent?
I think for most people the answer here is “most of the time,” and I get it. Climbing is fun and when we do it we want to get to the top of whatever climbs we are trying. The good thing about this is that it can make us try hard. That said, I think we can agree that when your main goal is always sending, that can lead to running around the gym or swiping through the Moon Board app looking for boulders that are quick ticks. When it goes well a session like this can be a lot of fun. However, there’s a downside to it. If we are always looking to send quickly, then we are going to avoid working on the things we are bad at because trying boulders or climbs in a style we struggle with doesn’t lead to quick success.
Think about this critically. Chances are you’ve heard the training adage that the best way to improve is through working on our weakness. How are you going to do that if you’re always looking for the climbs with the highest grades that will be the quickest ticks?
A Better Approach
At the macro level, the way to avoid always trying to perform is to have a plan for your year. Identify what your goals are and when it makes the most sense to devote time to trying to get them done. When these performance periods come, dig in and give it your all. This is what you’ve trained for so dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Show up rested. Eat well. Stay hydrated. Mentally prepare to give it 110%. During the time leading up to these performance periods, train hard to give yourself a chance. Know that during this training time you may not send your hardest in the gym, but that it’s ok because it’s not the priority for that block, and it will pay off when you show up to your goal climb prepared and ready.
I see a lot of climbers struggle with this as they don’t have goal climbs and are more interested in simply improving generally. While it’s a good idea to make your goals as specific as possible, lots of climbers struggle to pick a specific route or boulder. That’s ok. Start with picking the times of the year where you know conditions will be good and you’ll be able to get outside consistently and make that the performance period you’re training for. If you don’t climb outside, that’s ok too. Simply pick a couple of periods of the year when you know you’ll be able to devote time to being in the climbing gym. Train hard leading up to that block and then get in there and give it your all on whatever climbs you pick.
On the session-to-session level, remember how we said you should be able to answer the question “Why?” for everything in your training program? Well, that’s key here too. The next time you find yourself getting frustrated with your inability to do x boulder and are about to move on, ask yourself what the goal was for this session. If it’s to perform/send, then move on if you like. If it’s part of your training, however, be honest with yourself about why you’re avoiding it. Is it because it’s hard for you or because it exposes something you’re bad at? If the answer is yes, then hold yourself accountable and know that while you may not get the immediate satisfaction of sending, the hard work you’re putting in now will pay off down the line.
More on This Topic: The most important thing is differentiating between when your priority is training and when your priority is putting your abilities to the test and trying to send. This excerpt from the TrainingBeta Podcast episode with Dave MacLeod highlights not only the importance of making this division, but also how dramatically different the two should look: Transcript Highlight: Dave MacLeod on Training vs Performance
6. Letting Our Egos Get in the Way
Last but not least, we have the issue of our egos. There are many ways that our egos can interfere with transferring training into high-quality climbing performances. Some of them we’ve already covered above – think needing to send during every training session. But now let’s look at the idea of feeling like we deserve to send because we put the hard work in. Even if you do everything right in your training, control all the details you can, and try your hardest, the climb doesn’t owe you anything.
This can be a hard pill to swallow. You put in the hard work, after all, so shouldn’t you get the reward of sending?
Well, unfortunately, sometimes even our best efforts aren’t enough. That’s ok as long as you can learn from the failure, go back to training, and return psyched to try again next season. The problems start when during the season we feel like the climb owes us something. Getting in this mindset makes it hard to stay process-focused and keep showing up ready to give your all. When we let our egos take us down this line of thinking, we quickly fixate on the outcome. Sure, we all want to send, but our desire to get something done can override our ability to keep an open mind. Keep learning and keep putting the work in.
A Better Approach
The obvious answer here is to focus on the process and remember that the rock doesn’t owe you anything, but that sounds cliché and is certainly easier said than done. Rather than outline all the ways that you can use mini-goals to keep a process focus on your project (as those have been covered plenty in this article already – see the links to Dan Mirsky articles 1 & 2), I’m going to leave you with a video that I think perfectly captures what it looks like to not let your ego interfere with the process of learning and trying hard on a project:
Obviously it’s impressive to watch Jimmy Webb throw down on and establish one of the world’s hardest boulders. Don’t let the big-name and big grade cloud what’s actually going on in the video, though. Jimmy got close during his sixth session but didn’t send until his eleventh day of trying the boulder. That’s five days of effort AFTER falling on the last move. Forget the six days it took him to get to that point in the first place. PLUS, he completely changed his beta during the eleventh session.
Really think about that for a second. That shows not only an incredible amount of grit to keep showing up but also a serious commitment to the process. Even though he fell with his hand on the finishing jug, Jimmy didn’t let his ego convince him that the boulder owed him a send. As he says in the video, it had been a long time since he wanted a send this badly, so I’m sure this was no easy feat. Despite that, he kept showing up, continued trying hard, and kept an open mind. Doing so let him keep learning and allowed him to do the boulder in a more efficient way. Maybe he could have done it with his original beta, but maybe not and that’s beside the point. Keeping an open mind and continuing to show up is what projecting is all about. If you can’t do that, you’re never going to be able to fully leverage the physical gains you’ve made in your training.
Hopefully, this article has helped you realize a few of the ways that you might be sabotaging your training efforts. While training and seeing my numbers improve are satisfying in their own right, that kind of satisfaction pales in comparison to what I get from clipping the chains on a route or topping out a boulder I previously felt was impossible for me. As climbing training continues to increase in popularity, it’s my sincere hope that more climbers can take a more comprehensive look at what improving as a climber takes, and turn the hard work they are already doing into meaningful sends. If you can avoid the pitfalls outlined in this article, you’ll be well on your way.
About The Author, Matt Pincus
Matt is a boulderer and a sport climber from Jackson, Wyoming. He spends most of his time on the road living out of his van. Matt is responsible for most of the blog posts and social media posts for TrainingBeta and is our head trainer. He’s a seasoned climber and coach who can provide you with a climbing training program from anywhere in the world based on your goals, your abilities, the equipment you have, and any limitations you have with time or injuries.
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