This article was written by Dr. Tyler Nelson, a sports scientist and climber who owns Camp 4 Human Performance, a chiropractic sports medicine clinic and strength and conditioning business in Salt Lake City.
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HIGH-VOLUME POWER TRAINING (HVPT) FOR CLIMBERS
By Dr. Tyler Nelson
I’m expecting most of you to pause at the title of this article. If it didn’t make you think twice, it should have. The title sounds like a misnomer. Most athletes associate power training with very low volumes of work, and long periods of rest. That’s because when sources discuss improving power, they are referring to peak power. That’s the maximum rate of work (load or intensity) per unit time. As an example, peak power for the vertical pull-up exercise is optimal around 70-75% intensity. So, to improve peak power you’d do a few reps (2-4) at that percentage, followed by a long rest (3-5 minutes), and repeat that for only a few sets (3-6). That would be a strategy to improve your peak power output.
Example athlete and what 70% looks like:
If we consider a 165 lb male athlete with a strength-to-weight ratio of 2.7 (not uncommon) in the pull-up exercise we get a better idea of these forces. If we divide his peak force (445 lbs) in half (222 lbs) and calculate 70% of that load he’d be putting 157 lbs of force through each arm during that movement. That’s 95% of his body weight! If we use his deadlift strength-to-weight ratio of 3.5 at 70% he’d be putting 200 lbs of force through each leg while on the wall. And lastly, if this athlete had a ratio of 1.9 on the 20mm edge (isometric maximum) then he’d be applying 100 lbs of force through each hand when working at 70% intensity. The question you want to ask yourself is, how often do we use those intensities while climbing. The answer is not very often.
This is a graph of my force-velocity profile for the bar pull-up, bench press, and 20mm edge pull-up at variable percentages.
Matching the Demands of the Sport
So, if the goal while climbing is not to reproduce peak power (the highest load you can move quickly) while climbing, why are we spending so much time using tools, like the campus board, that train peak power? It’s likely too high an intensity and too low a velocity to match the demands of the sport. On the whole, peak power training is not that sports specific. This applies to every sport and is the principle behind high-volume power training. By using a lower percentage of an athlete’s 1-repetition max we can train power with more repetitions (volume) that match the velocities of the sport. This is what climbers commonly call power endurance, however, this not usually how they train it.
It Sounds A Whole Lot Like Hypertrophy Training
If we compare the set, rep, and rest schemes of high-volume power training with hypertrophy training, they look very similar. The primary difference is the intensity and velocity. Muscle hypertrophy happens in the 70-85% intensity range while HVPT training is performed in the 30-60% intensity range. In this article, I’m going to outline how HVPT has been used to improve repeat power ability (RPA), repeat high-intensity efforts (RHIE), anaerobic capacity, and aerobic power in other sports. We will cover the most commonly used protocols and how to apply it to your climbing training.
It is very likely you have experienced the consequences of heavy loading. As you move heavier loads (added load to your body) the velocity at which you move that load goes down. If we measure the velocity at which you move a range of loads (35-95%) we can create something called a force-velocity profile (see image below).
This profile is specific to the athlete and the movement tested (pull-up, deadlift, bench-press, etc.). By better understanding an athlete’s profile, we can see which load to work with when training repeat power ability at different percentages.
We can conclude that strong athletes need more power (velocity) and powerful athletes need more strength, etc. Most climbers know their maximum (absolute strength) finger and pull-up loads, but very few know their 30-40% loads. This is problematic. We spend way too much time working the upper limits of the strength continuum at the neglect of the higher velocity loads.
Ballistic vs. Non-ballistic Power Exercise
When we think about power training we need to differentiate between ballistic and non–ballistic exercise. In a non-ballistic exercise, there is a significant portion of time (the entire second half of the propulsive phase) spent slowing down (decelerating). In a ballistic exercise, there is no deceleration. This allows for greater peak velocity, as well as a longer propulsive phase (due to not slowing down). The athlete can accelerate through the entire movement because they, or their object, are eventually in flight.
Two examples to compare are the pull-up (non-ballistic) and the double-clutch campus move (ballistic). I would consider the 1-arm campus move quasi-ballistic. It is somewhere in the middle, like climbing.
Due to higher peak forces, greater impulse (the sum of propulsive forces), higher movement velocities, and a longer propulsive phase, ballistic-type exercises impose greater levels of acute fatigue compared to their non-ballistic counterparts. Also, ballistic exercises are technically more challenging (more degrees of freedom) to the neuromuscular system.
Put simply, if we can find ways to minimize technical strategies and perform similar work (direction of movement), we can do so with greater power output, even while undergoing fatigue. In short, you can do more high-velocity pull-ups under fatigue than you can single or double-arm campus moves.
When using the non-ballistic version of a powerful exercise (pull-up) it is important to consider the loads because of their effect on the propulsive phase. This is due to the deceleration that accompanies each repetition. The lighter the load, the higher the velocity, and the greater level of deceleration. So, by using lighter loads it allows the athlete to move with greater power output over multiple repetitions.
One problem with the campus board, this needs to be fixed in my opinion, is that athletes don’t have a way to train at quantifiable intensities. It is either bodyweight or added load. There is no sub-body weight derivative.
What Does HVPT Look Like for Climbing
As I’ve mentioned, the frequency and volume of HVPT are similar to a hypertrophy training protocol in which 2-3 sessions per week is common. The duration of rest between these sessions is dependent on the protocol used (high-fatigue, low-fatigue), as well as the training age of the athlete. The more fatiguing protocols require a 72-hr recovery period and the less fatiguing protocols require 48h of recovery. It also makes sense to use the less fatiguing versions as an athlete moves closer to a competition or primary redpoint season.
Duration and Frequency
The duration of these training blocks can be as little as 4 weeks and as long as 12 weeks in duration with an average of 8 weeks. If exercising 2-3 times per week, this puts the athlete at 16-24 total training sessions. The typical number of sets used per session for HVPT is 3-5with the repetition range is 12-20. This has been recorded as high as 60-80 repetitions per set for some lower body movements.
Certainly, the most logical progression for a climber is to try and match the number of repetitions that the athlete has on their project, or possibly the average number of moves on a competition sport climb. This will take some time to work up to.
Velocity Cut-Off Strategy
Another option is to use velocity cut-offs to directly influence the repetition number each set. In this way, we can use a 10-20% velocity cut-off to better understand how many reps the athlete should use before their rest period. This has been supported in the research as a more effective strategy than a larger cut-off percentage of 30-50%. In the latter case, athletes performed more work, get less gain, and accumulate greater levels of fatigue. Remember, the ability to express power is dependent on the fatigue of the nervous system. The more fatigued an athlete gets each set, the less power they are producing.
Set 1: demonstrating the velocity of every repetition up to 10-reps until a velocity loss.
Set 2: demonstrating a velocity loss at repetition 9 stopping the set
Set 3: demonstrating a velocity loss at rep 7 stopping the set
Individual Needs Analysis
When it comes to selecting an appropriate set, rep, and rest scheme for the individual, that is where the art of coaching becomes important. There are infinite ways to organize the work-to-rest ratio of an exercise session, and it really depends on the individual and their ability to adapt to the training stimulus (adaptive capacity). What is productive for one might be injurious to another, etc.
Remember, being flexible is not a bad thing. If you get it wrong the first few sessions, change it and don’t be too stubborn to recognize it. Athlete adaptation is a moving target and your client will appreciate the honesty. That’s what programming is all about: trying new things, using logic and experience, and seeing how the athlete responds.
Inter-set Rest Period Options: Where to Start
Even though we use higher rep ranges during HVPT compared to normal power training the literature shows that a 2-3 minute inter-set rest is adequate for recovery. The most simple approach would be to gradually reduce the inter-set rest period every few sessions, or weeks, to improve the athletes repeat power ability.
A coach could start with a 3-minute inter-set rest and reduce it by 15-seconds per week while maintaining the same repetition number and intensity. The coach could also add load at 5% per week with the same rest period, or do both simultaneously. That’s the most simple way to apply this concept.
High-Velocity Interval Style Training
HVPT could also be used is in a circuit-style routine in which the athlete is moving between stations. One of which stations could be finger pull-ups, or campus board, at a specified percentage of their max. This is familiar to most as high-intensity interval training and shown to be an effective strategy for improving aerobic power.
The downside of this method is the use of more muscle mass. With more muscle fatigue comes more velocity loss. If the goal is to target the power output of the finger flexors specifically, it makes sense to isolate the vertical pulling movement.
Clustering Work: A More Nuanced Approach
Another application for HVPT is to manipulate the inter-set rest by using cluster sets. Cluster sets are commonly used at the beginning of a training stimulus and reduced over time as the athlete becomes more tolerant of the volume. So, instead of doing 3 sets of 15-repetitions continuously, the athlete would use a 5-second rest after every 5 repetitions for the entire set. They would perform 5 powerful reps, rest 5-seconds, then do the second 5-repetitions, rest 5-seconds, and then complete the last 5 reps until the longer inter-set rest (2-3 minutes).
As the athlete becomes more tolerant of the volume they could use more reps before the rest, or reduce the rest, etc. Another spin would be using a 25-repetition set in which the athlete rests 20-seconds after every 5 reps.
As of the writing of this article there is no conclusive evidence to support one type of cluster method over the other. The best one for you is the one which matches the demands of your goal route.
Acute Effects with HVPT: What the Research Says
Even at these high repetition ranges, there are no differences in peak power between sets. At the same time, however, we do see reductions in power output of 23% within every individual set. Put simply, even though athletes are getting tired they are still able to hit peak power every set.
There is also some evidence to support this type of training induces greater acute hormonal and immune responses to traditional strength, hypertrophy, and endurance training schemes. More on this in another article. When applied correctly it has been shown that HVPT can improve maximal power and repeat power ability by 22% across a total of 16-sessions, at two sessions per week.
An example of three HVPT sets showing a maintenance of peak power but a reduction in average power
Energy System Demands
Even at these lower intensities, the continuous nature and neuromuscular demand (high-velocity) of HVPT will eventually stress the glycolytic energy system. Then during these partial rest periods, we see an increased respiratory rate to training metabolic clearance.
The goal is not to get pumped. The goal is to move until your power drops, rest partially, and repeat that as many times as the athlete can tolerate. This is how using 30-60% of your max can force an adaptation in both (anaerobic and aerobic) systems simultaneously while still being very specific.
How to Apply HVPT to Climbers: My Recommendation and Programming Ideas
Most of the exercises that have been studied with this intervention are lower extremity driven movements like the countermovement jump, speed squat, and power clean. I believe that’s part of the reason we see repetitions in the average 15-20, and up to 80 range. As far as applying it to climbing we can do so generally with the bench-press, deadlift, and pull-up or we can do it specifically using a campus board (feet on likely) or fingerboard. I have used both for my private clients, so it really depends on the athlete and their needs. To reduce the length of this article I’m going to focus on the finger training version of this method, which I call high-volume power pull-ups.
What You Need and How to Apply This Method
First, you want to use the edge size that you’re frequently using on your project route. As a general rule, the more vertical the terrain the smaller the edge (15-20mm) and the lower the percentage used (30-40%). The steeper the terrain the larger the edge (25-35mm) and the higher the percentage used (40-50%). Once an athlete gets into the 5.14 grade and above, they’ll likely be using smaller edges (15mm) and higher percentages (50-60%), etc. So it really depends on you and your ability.
The next thing you need to do is test your maximum strength on that same edge size. This can be done in many ways and is very simple to calculate. For more information on testing, you can look at my previous articles or @C4HP. Take the 2-arm maximum (bodyweight + added load) that you can hold for 5-seconds (most commonly used finger position as well) and multiply that number by the targeted percentage (.30 – .60). This might take some playing with to get the appropriate load, so feel free to calculate multiple loads to try.
Let’s use our same 165-lb athlete as an example. His s:w ratio was 1.9 on a 20mm edge which puts his peak force at 313 lbs. If we multiply 313 by .40 we get 125 lbs at 40% intensity. So, to get the appropriate load for a bodyweight-dependent exercise we need to subtract that number from his body weight (165-125) which gives us -40 lbs. Remember, we want him pulling on his fingers with 125 lbs of force, or 62.5 lbs per arm.
Ben Hannah testing his 20mm maximum with the Exsurgo Gstrength500 at C4HP
Next is choosing the appropriate set: rep scheme that fits the demands of the goal route. I’m writing this with the sport climber in mind, however, this does not mean it wouldn’t work for a bouldering athlete as well. The only difference is the percentage intensity (60-70%) and the repetition number (3-4) you would use before the inter-set rest (longer). If the goal route is an 8-move boulder problem, the progression would be to hit 4 high-velocity pull-ups, without your feet touching the ground, on a finger or campus board at 60-70% before your rest. If it’s a sport climb with 30-moves, the progression would be to hit 15-high velocity pull-ups at 30-40% before your rest.
The last thing is to predict the progression of your training. As I have already mentioned, starting with a 3-minute inter-set rest is a reasonable place to start. Then you could simply watch the repetitions automatically increase for a couple of weeks until you start reducing that time by 10-15 seconds per week. I’ve included below some sample progressions that you could try for different types of athletes.
Below is Ben Hannah showing us what good power capacity looks like in the fingerboard version of HVPT. If you’re strong enough you don’t need to remove load from your body, which makes this very simple to perform. In this example 45% load is body weight.
And here, Andrew is demonstrating the body weight version at 55% intensity…
Short Route or Long Boulder Example Progression: 48-hr Rest Between
Repetitions are performed consecutively until power drops without feet touching the ground. Repetitions will vary each set pending power output but will increase automatically with time. This is as long as the athlete is well recovered. This is a higher intensity protocol (50-60%).
Example 1: Increasing short duration power for bouldering.
- Weeks 1-2: 5 sets, 3-4 reps with 3-minutes rest between.
- Week 3-4: 5 sets, 3-4 reps with 2:45 rest between
- Week 5-6: 5 sets, 3-4 reps with 2:30 rest between
- Week 7-8: sets, 3-4 reps with 2:15 rest between
- Week 9-10: 5 sets, 3-4 reps with 2:00 rest between etc.
You could also do the same workout with increased intensity and no change in rest time.
Long Route Example Progressions
These are cluster examples – think number of hand moves before resting on your project with 48 hours of rest between sessions.
Repetitions are performed in groups (3-5) until the athlete gets a short rest. They will continue to progress in this manner for the remainder of the reps until the inter-set rest. Repetitions in each cluster are to be performed consecutively without feet touching the ground.
Example 1: increasing power output over the cycle (72-hour rest between)
5 sets of 20 reps in 5 rep clusters separated by 10-20 seconds. Moderate intensity protocol (40-50% intensity)
- Weeks 1-2: 5 reps, rest 20-seconds, 5 reps etc. for 4 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 3-4: 5 reps, rest 15-seconds, 5 reps etc. for 4 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 5-6: 5 reps, rest 10-seconds, 5 reps etc. for 4 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 7-8: 5 reps, rest 5-seconds, 5 reps etc. for 4 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 9-10: 10 reps, rest 5-seconds, 10 reps (rest 2-min). 5 total sets etc.
Example 2: increasing capacity over the cycle (72-hour rest between)
5 sets of 12-30 reps in 4-10 rep clusters separated by 20 seconds. Lower intensity protocol (30-40% intensity)
- Weeks 1-2: 4 reps, rest 20-seconds, 4 reps etc. for 3 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 3-4: 6 reps, rest 20-seconds, 6 reps etc. for 3 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 5-6: 8 reps, rest 20-seconds, 8 reps etc. for 3 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 7-8: 10 reps, rest 20-seconds, 10 reps etc. for 3 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 9-10: 10 reps, rest 20-seconds, 10 reps etc. for 5 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets etc.
Example 3: increasing capacity over the cycle (72-hour rest between)
5 sets of 15 reps in 3 rep clusters separated by 20 seconds. Lowest intensity protocol (30% intensity)
- Weeks 1-2: 3 reps = rep 1, hang 5-seconds, rep 2, hang 5-seconds, rep 3, hang 5-seconds, rest 20-seconds, etc. for 5 total rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 3-4: 4 reps = rep 1, hang 5-seconds, rep 2, hang 5-seconds, rep 3, hang 5-seconds, rep 4, hang 5-seconds, rest 20-seconds, etc. for 5 total rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 5-6: 5 reps with 5-second hang, 20-seconds between for 4 rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 7-8: 6 reps with 5-second hang, 20-seconds between for 4 total rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
- Weeks 9-10: 7 reps with 5-second hang, 20-seconds between for 3 total rounds (rest 2-min). 5 total sets
Overview: High-Volume Power Training
- 2-3 Sessions per Week
- 30-60% 1-Repetition Max for Sport Climbers
- 3-5 Working Sets
- 10-20 Repetitions per Set or Auto-Regulated by Velocity Drop
- Inter-Set Rest Period of 2-3 Minutes
- With Weight Lifting Derivatives (Think Bouldering). Use 60-65% 1-RM instead.
Has Been Shown to Improve
- Repeat Power Ability
- Repeat High-Intensity Efforts
- Anaerobic Power and Capacity
- Aerobic Performance
Principles to Consider When Choosing Variables to Manipulate
- Increasing Load = Increases Power, Reduces Reps (Alactic Power)
- Increasing Reps = Increases Capacity at Given % Power (Anaerobic Power)
- Reducing Rest = Increases Recovery at % Power (Aerobic Power)
- Increasing Sets = Increases Adaptive Capacity (Burns in a Day/Session)
- Increasing Rounds in a Day = Systemic Capacity (Pitches in a Row)
Primary citation: The effect of high volume power training on repeated high-intensity performance and the assessment of repeat power ability: A systematic review. Sports Medicine, February 2020.
About The Author
Tyler Nelson owns and operates a chiropractic sports medicine clinic and strength & conditioning business in Salt Lake City. While earning his doctoral degree, he completed a dual program Master’s degree in exercise science at the University Of Missouri. While in graduate school he worked with the University of Missouri athletics department and currently is employed through two colleges in Utah.
He teaches anatomy and physiology at a community college and works as a team physician for the Brigham Young University athletics department. He is certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and spends any extra time in his life with his wife and three kids or trad climbing in Zion National Park.
He has been climbing for 17 years and gravitates toward all-day adventure climbing. His expertise in human physiology and cutting-edge knowledge of strength and conditioning science are what drive him to always challenge the norms in training.