The following article was written by Shaina Savoy, a climber and nutrition student living in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Training. Have you heard of it?
The year 2019 was a fruitful climbing year for me. I sent two of my hardest routes: A reputably hard 5.13b at the Wailing Wall called “Resurrection” in the spring, and later that year, a 13c called “Magnum Opus” at the Grail. I’d love to tell you how I trained for these two routes, but the truth is that I didn’t. Both of these routes primarily catered to my strengths in climbing. Don’t get me wrong: They weren’t easy for me and I feel proud having sent them. However, was I fully climbing at my limit if these routes weren’t pushing me to challenge my weaknesses?
Before 2020, I had never really considered training consistently or subscribing to any particular program. I’ve always enjoyed climbing because of the climbing part, not because of the hangboarding or the campusing part (yawn). For the most part, my gym sessions consisted strictly of bouldering with the occasional core or weighted pull-ups. However, watching my boyfriend, Jonathan Siegrist, climb and train to send mega hard routes, how could I not be feeling like I’m missing something? Time and time again, I’d ask Jonathan what I could do to be a stronger, better climber. His advice was nearly always the same and I hated hearing it: climb more, throw my ego in the dumpster, light it on fire, work on my weaknesses, and climb routes that cater to those weaknesses.
Working on my weaknesses meant that I had to climb on slopers, pinches, wide/shouldery moves, and stop closed-hand crimping everything I touched… which sounded terrible. I didn’t want to climb on things that I sucked at. After all, I wanted to send and feel good about myself. Why couldn’t I just be told to do more weighted pull-ups and hangboard like everyone else on Instagram was doing?
Finally, one day while I was bouldering at the gym with Jonathan, I tried a hard boulder problem that looked like it was perfectly within my wheelhouse… but there was ONE move that I simply could not execute. I tried this move over and over, and every single time, I closed my hand on an edge that held me back from latching the next hold. In other words: one move was keeping me from sending a boulder problem that was otherwise my style.
Annoyed with myself, I finally realized right then that I had to commit to working on my weaknesses if I wanted to be a better climber and send harder routes. I had an upcoming trip to Italy and I wanted to send something I was proud of. I wanted to feel strong. But having never trained before and not knowing where or how to start, I sought out a trainer that I resonated with to give me a fully personalized training experience: Leif Gasch From SubStr8 Climbing Performance.
So, if you are like me, and have never worked with a personal climbing coach before and you want to know what it’s like, this article is for you. I’m going to outline my experience, share my personal thoughts and critiques, and lay it all out for you. Was it fun? Was it worth it? Did I learn anything or grow as a climber? Would I do it again?
HOW DID IT BEGIN?
To kick off the journey of my personal training experience, Leif had me start by doing a climbing assessment. This entailed a couple things: holding a 90-second plank, completing 6 minutes straight of inverted rows, finding my max pull-up, and finding my max hang on a 20mm edge for 7 seconds.
While I felt smug about my core strength and how easy the plank was, I dreaded getting on the hangboard and facing the stark contrast between my closed-hand and open-hand strength. My closed-hand crimp max hang came in at 45lbs on top of my bodyweight and my open-hand crimp position came in at a whopping 17.5lbs on top of my bodyweight before my shoulders became too fatigued and Jonathan criticized me for my improper hanging form. I felt like I could potentially hang with more weight on both positions, but my shoulders had dropped, exhausted from the exercises. I was aware that my shoulders were quite weak, but didn’t realize just how bad they were. I had to split my assessment into two separate days to avoid causing my shoulders any injury.
My next assessment session, I was able to do one pull-up with 35lbs, which was a little better than I thought it was going to be. The inverted rows exercise required that I complete 3 pull-ups in a 45 degree angle inverted position on gymnastic rings or a TRX, rest for 10 seconds in a hanging position with my shoulders still engaged, and then to repeat this sequence as long as I could up to 6 minutes. As much as I love climbing routes, I knew that my work capacity as a self-proclaimed sport climber was relatively embarrassing. I set a timer for 6 minutes and maxed out with 1 minute and 50 seconds left on the clock.
Feeling a little embarrassed, I sent my assessment results over to Leif. He was nothing but positive and encouraging, reassuring me that I was strong, and that with my current assessment results I was already ahead of the game. We then chatted about my goals: I wanted to get better at climbing on pinches and slopers, become more powerful, and improve my work capacity. A few days later, he delivered a training plan to me.
WHAT WAS THE PLAN LIKE?
The training plan was delivered to me via a phone app called TrueCoach. In the app, you’re able to make comments on every exercise and training session and have conversations with your trainer. You can see every upcoming training day within the cycle so you can make a schedule for yourself. Although the training days were tied to certain days on the app, Leif granted me a lot of wiggle room and said they could be done on whatever schedule I preferred, as long as I completed all three training days every week. He really values flexibility and is a strong advocate for climbing outside to reinforce the skills you’re developing during the training cycle. Leif also believes that careful planning and recovery play as much of a role in our performance as all the hard work and training does.
There were three different types of training days on rotation every week:
- Strength: Non-climbing specific days that focused on hangboarding and general strength exercises
- Power: Primarily bouldering, both on the Moonboard and at the gym with some various other drills thrown in.
- Capacity: Focused on helping me build my capacity for overall work, and were designed to be quite tiring.
If you know a little bit about training, you’ll recognize that Leif follows a non-linear periodization style of programming. If you’re not familiar with what this means, it means that the climber focuses on all the different facets of climbing during one training cycle, rather than focusing on training certain attributes one at a time for specific periods of time. For example, in a periodized program, you would focus on solely strength training for a cycle of 4-6 weeks.
Power days were my favorite, as the workouts felt really intentional. The days would start off with a couple drills that focused on different ways to experience movement and stability in climbing, as well as tension on the wall. I’d then move on to practice climbing on some of my weaknesses, and performing drills that were designed to help me become a more powerful climber. There were times when these days were frustrating and there were times when I surprised myself, but I think the mixture of failure and success was healthy. Sometimes my ego hurt, but it helped to remind myself that I was making strides toward being a better climber.
Capacity days consisted of drills and exercises that were pretty exhausting. I both loved and dreaded these days. Partly limited by how much my skin could take climbing in the gym, and mostly limited by my actual work capacity, I found that they were extremely challenging for me. However, knowing how hard they were motivated me to try to make myself better in this regard. It was a clear area of weakness that needed much improvement. After 3 or 4 of these particular days, I noticed a significant improvement in my capacity abilities. Not only did the capacity sessions become a little easier, I went to revisit an old outdoor project. It was a power endurance route that I never had the proper work capacity to send. On my first session back on it, I felt so much stronger than I had in the past, and I ended up making a high point. I didn’t continue to try this route because weather and other aspects of my life intervened, but it was super motivating to see the progress nonetheless.
Strength training days had their ups and downs for me. After warming up on some boulder problems, I would start my strength day with hangboarding. Leif trains almost exclusively in a half-crimp position, as it’s the best position to avoid injury and is the most applicable to finger strength in various grip positions. I never found myself looking forward to hanging on the hangboard before, but for some reason I really embraced it through training with Leif. I had days where I felt like I CRUSHED my hangboard session, and other days where I felt like it was a true struggle. Either way, I always felt encouraged no matter the outcome of my session and having never trained seriously before, I really appreciated this support from Leif. It definitely helped encourage me to stay committed to the process.
All in all, throughout the entire process, I had good and bad days. Some days I KILLED my workouts, and other days I felt like I took a couple steps back with progress somehow. Even though I knew good and bad days were a normal part of the process and weren’t entirely dependent on whether or not my training was working (hello, other life factors!), Leif was always supportive and reminded me that I wouldn’t feel awesome every day. He gave me moral support, told me to keep up the work, and was always there to help motivate me or answer any of my questions. However, throughout the entire process, I witnessed all of my numbers undoubtedly gradually going up. By the end of the training cycle, I had a test day to reassess my numbers and I had clear, tangible evidence that I had gotten stronger in all capacities.
WHAT WERE MY RESULTS?
Jonathan and I flew to Italy late February, with intentions of staying there for over a month and sending the gnar. This happened to be during the time Covid-19 cases were just beginning to spike in Northern Italy, near Lombardy. Nervous about the virus, we reluctantly settled into our quirky little apartment in the city of Cuneo, in northwestern Italy close to the French Alps. We woke up every day to stressful news and growing numbers of the virus in Italy. However, Cuneo remained relatively unchanged. Restaurants closed a little earlier, but people seemingly still went about their normal business.
We began climbing at the cliff, called Andonno, which was quite old school, so the routes felt nails hard for grades. Although I wanted to climb something a little harder, on my second day at the cliff, I settled on a 5.13a project to introduce myself to the climbing style there. Leading up to the trip, I hadn’t been climbing outside and I could tell I needed time to readjust. It took me quite a few days to recover from the horrendous jet lag and being awake for 40 hours straight while traveling. (How do people sleep on airplanes?). We chose a two-day-on, one-day-off schedule. The first two days were incredibly rough. After a rest day and returning to the cliff, my muscles were starting to remember how to pull hard outside again. I was consistently taking holds with a half-crimp position, rather than a closed-crimp, and I felt incredibly strong at pinching holds, which is something I’ve never felt before.
On our fourth day climbing, Jonathan and I both had one-hung our projects. Feeling psyched at our quick progression, we both took a rest day and explored the city of Turin. After our rest day, I was feeling fully recovered, energetic, and much like myself again. We were feeling primed and ready to send… Until we woke up and discovered that Trump had announced a border closure in the next few days. As heartbreaking as it was, instead of packing our climbing packs to hike up to the cliff, we packed all of our belongings, got in our rental car, and headed to the airport in Nice. The pandemic was more serious than our climbing goals.
Back at home in Las Vegas, we spent two weeks quarantining inside. I maintained fitness by just using the hangboard in our garage, following the same protocol that Leif had prescribed me during training. I did weighted pull-ups, core, and went on hikes. Leif was kind enough to give me a free body-weight workout, which I was grateful to have.
After a couple months and people were beginning to climb outside again, the weather was still cool enough to project a 5.13b I had my eyes on for a while. The route was hard for the grade, with a savage boulder problem, no rest, straight into incredibly pumpy, crimpy terrain. Even after not having climbed on rock for a while, I felt incredibly capable. My fingers still felt super strong and my body felt really powerful. The only thing holding me back was fitness on the route. My body just needed to adapt to the power endurance that the route demanded of me, and with this being one of my greatest weaknesses, I thought that was going to take a little longer than I wanted, but the training I had done paid off and I clipped the chains a little sooner than I thought I would.
As good as sending feels, I felt even more stoked on how strong and powerful I felt. It was a different sensation than I had felt before. I felt more capable than ever, and I was really proud of that, because I had trained really hard for it. Throughout the entire process, I remained committed to a program that was designed specifically for me, and because of that I had great success. Leif’s coaching was incredibly effective.
PROS AND CONS
Nothing is ever PERFECT. When there are pros, there is typically a con or two even if something is REALLY good. That being said, I have nothing negative to say about Leif or the program at all. The only thing I would consider a con is not having a trainer physically in the gym with me to coach me at times. Although I was supplied with great instructional videos for certain exercises, I was completely new to things like dead lifting, and even hangboarding. Luckily, my boyfriend Jonathan was there to make sure that my form was correct and I was hanging properly. However, he’s not a deadlifter himself, so I had to rely on a couple friends to check my form and make sure I wasn’t going to hurt myself. If you already generally know what you’re doing or have experience with exercises like that, this isn’t a concern. This wasn’t Leif’s fault, as I chose remote coaching with him. And let’s be real: hiring a coach to physically be at the gym with you isn’t something a lot of people do, and furthermore, that would be really expensive.
As for pros, here is my list:
- You get a personalized program made just for you that caters to all your strengths/weaknesses.
- Leif is incredibly flexible and leaves your weekly training schedule up to you.
- He encourages climbing outside in addition to training because on-the-wall skills are important, and he places an emphasis on rest & recovery too.
- If I stayed on task, I could be in and out of the gym in 2 hours.
- The movement & technique drills were fun and not something I would motivate myself to do on my own, but I felt like they were really useful and I still use them in the gym today.
- Leif was SO positive, encouraging, and supportive every time I chatted with him.
- He was super quick to answer any questions or concerns that I had, and always had great advice and solutions to my problems.
- I loved the non-linear periodization style of training, as I always felt like I was consistently getting stronger and better, and there were no dips in my performance.
- I learned a ton of new drills and exercises that I can still apply in my gym sessions moving forward.
- I felt and saw true results in my climbing performance, and the pricetag for that was incredibly reasonable.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
Overall, there is nothing bad I can say about the training program or Leif. I accomplished what I sought to improve, I had a lot of fun with the program, and I never felt discouraged from the process because Leif was always there for support. I fully recommend this experience to anyone else seeking to optimize their climbing performance, or needing help with certain aspects of their climbing. Leif is incredibly sharp when it comes to the world of training and exceptional at what he does. Because of my experience with him, training is a new world that I am really excited about and want to continue utilizing in the future.
Above everything, if you fully commit to a training program and you show up every day to do what you need to do, and on top of that, you work with someone that plans carefully and can properly tailor your training according to your weaknesses, you WILL improve. And remember– make sure you have a GOAL, or something specific you want to work on, so you can track & evaluate tangible results.
If you’re interested in working with Leif, I fully recommend his services. You can visit his website here.