If you are developing a training program you probably heard of the term periodization. However, you may not know that there are different types of periodized training. This article breaks down the three main types of periodization (sequential training, concurrent training, and conjugate training) and describes each type of training’s pros and cons for climbing specifically.
The author of this article is Joshua Rucci, a Collegiate Strength and Conditioning coach in the Southeastern Conference. You can see his full bio at the end of the article.
This article is aimed at climbers who want to be good at EVERYTHING!!! Well, maybe not everything, but they want to be able to pebble wrestle one day and the next day turn-around and tie in. Oh and they want to be really good at both.
I am always amazed by climbers who are able to be very successful at both bouldering and sport/trad/dws climbing. These individuals have figured out how to stay very powerful while simultaneously having scads of endurance, a very tough thing to do. These two physiological characteristics are very different and require very different training protocols.
For example, we will probably never see one individual win an Olympic gold medal in both the 800 meter AND 100 meter sprint events. This analogy may seem a little far fetched, but the argument could be made that route climbers are more similar to 800 meter runners and boulderers are more similar to 100 meter sprinters. Go look on 8a.nu’s combined rankings, there are very few individuals who can climb both 5.14 and V14 in the same season, why, because they are different and require different types of training to be successful.
Ahhhh, but there are some individuals that are able to do just that, one of which being Adam Ondra. I recently watched this video and have listened to his podcast here on Training Beta in which he discusses his new training regimen. After listening to Adam, I quickly realized that his training is very similar to a type of training schedule that many strength and conditioning coaches utilize to train multiple physiological variables at one time. This type of training is a blend of two groups of periodization, concurrent and conjugate periodization.
We will spend some time discussing the concurrent and conjugate method and how to apply it to your training, but first we need to lay some ground work regarding periodization.
Why Climbing is So Hard to Train For:
For the sake of our discussion let’s assume there are four possible goals of our training.
- Aerobic Endurance (Long duration endurance)
- Anaerobic Endurance (Power endurance/short duration)
- Strength & Power (Bouldering)
- Stamina (Ability to climb all day)
These four goals of training are unique in that they require different types of training protocols in order to excel at your desired goal. Now don’t misunderstand me, these four training goals are not mutually exclusive. For example, you need a solid aerobic base in which to build anaerobic endurance off of, and you have to be strong in order to be powerful. But for the sake of our discussion, we will approach each of these different types of training as though they are more or less independent of each other.
Strength and conditioning coaches utilize periodization, which is the systematic scheduling and variation of the training stimuli to elicit improvement in one or several training goals. They use periodization to develop different types of physiological characteristics that they believe are important for success in a given sport.
Football players train differently than basketball players, basketball players train differently than gymnasts, gymnasts train differently than soccer players, and so on. Each sport has specific physiological demands that need to be trained in order for successful performance to take place. Regardless of what the physiological needs of the sport are, the training is always systematically developed in order to develop those qualities.
Climbing and its sub-disciplines require different types of training as well. But the catch with climbing is that in order to be successful across the board, you need to be well trained in ALL of our aforementioned training goals.
Let’s break this down a little further…
- A football linemen needs to prioritize maximal strength training. These are the big guys, pushing around other big guys. It makes sense that they need high levels of strength to be successful. They do not need to be able to run long distances or have high levels of aerobic endurance and thus do not train those variables.
- A marathon runner is on the other end of the spectrum. They need high levels of aerobic endurance, but do not require high levels of strength or power and do not spend much time in the weight room.
- Baseball players need maximal strength and high levels of power. Everything that happens in baseball, from the pitch to the swing, happens very fast. Hitters must be able to develop a great deal of force in a short amount of time, i.e. they need to be powerful.
You can see in these examples that each sport or position has specific needs. The type of training for these sports can be focused on the development of one or two training goals that lead to success.
Photo Credit: John Wesely; @lightningsnaps; Area: Little River Canyon, AL; Climb: Short Doug 12d; Climber: Rick Willison
Now climbing specifically…
Now we need to take a look at the sub-disciplines of climbing and analyze what training goals are important for each discipline. (Side note: please bear with me as these may be oversimplified. Climbing is so unique, and the nature of each climb is ultimately what dictates what a climber needs to be good at for a clean ascent.)
- Bouldering requires high levels of both strength and power. Bouldering also requires an adequate level of power endurance. And a full day of bouldering requires a great deal of stamina.
Some problems may be more static in nature and require difficult lock-offs or compression type movement and will require a great deal of strength. Other problems may be more dynamic in nature and will require more power. Some problems may be longer and require more power endurance. But regardless of the problem, if you want to hike out to the crag and send, you will need to train all three variables.
- Sport/trad/dws climbing requires all 4 variables. Depending on the grade, certain variables may be more important than others, but when it comes to hard climbing you will need all 4 at your disposal.
Some routes may be short and bouldery requiring less long duration endurance and more power endurance. Other routes may be long and sustained without a distinct crux requiring more endurance and less power endurance and strength/power. Hard, long routes require endurance due to their length but also require power endurance, strength, and power to pull the crux or cruxes and be able to keep climbing. Multi-pitch and all-day sessions will also test your stamina.
As you can see, successful climbing, no matter your chosen focus, requires the development of multiple training goals.
Different Groups of Periodization:
There are a three main periodization groups that strength coaches use, which include sequential, concurrent, and conjugate. These are the main groups, but many strength coaches use a mish-mash of the three based on their training philosophy and what works best for their team. For the sake of our discussion, we will stay with the big three.
This group utilizes specific time intervals to focus on and develop only ONE training goal. These time intervals or training cycles usually range from 3-4 weeks, but can be as short as two weeks or as long as 6 weeks. The most common type of sequential periodization is called the linear method. In linear periodization, training moves from high-volume, low-intensity to low-volume, high-intensity over the length of the training cycle.
Let’s say you are in a 4 week strength/power (bouldering) phase and are using the linear method. Week 1 training sessions would consist of completing a large amount of easier boulder problems. (High volume – low intensity). Then as you progress each week your number of problems would decrease but the difficulty of those problems would increase (low-volume – high intensity). This may sound a little bland and it is, but the main take-home idea is that during this training cycle, regardless of what type of bouldering workouts you are completing, you are still only focusing on one training variable.
Another example of linear periodization is what a lot of climbing programs out there typically say to do…
- Phase 1: Long Endurance (6 weeks)
- Phase 2: Strength (4 weeks)
- Phase 3: Power (3 weeks)
- Phase 4: Power Endurance (2-4 weeks)
- Phase 5: Rest/Recovery (2 weeks)
The main take-home idea with this schedule is still the fact that during these smaller training cycles, you are only focusing on one training goal.
This model is great for focusing on a singular goal and is really beneficial for beginners. It allows beginners to make large gains in one particular training goal. It can also be beneficial for more experienced climbers that need to really focus on a glaring weakness.
The major problem with this model is that while you are busy focusing on one training goal, you are neglecting the other training goals. In the examples above, your current training cycle’s emphasis may show large improvements, but your other training goals are suffering. This is not necessarily a problem for beginners, but for more experienced climbers, this may quickly become an issue.
The concurrent group of periodization attempts to develop all training goals in a given cycle. A training cycle is usually just one week long. The big difference in this type of periodization is that instead of just focusing on one training goal for the whole training cycle, you will switch training goals each day or workout. The most common type of concurrent periodization is the ordinary concurrent method in which all goals are given EQUAL emphasis.
In regards to climbing and using this method your training may look something like this…
This model is nice in that you are training all goals once a week and simultaneously developing each goal equally without seeing a decline in any of the goals. Also, this is a nice way to combat staleness and a lack of motivation as your training changes daily. If you are a advanced level climber that can handle a large amount of training and have a great feel for what your body can handle, this can be a really great way to plan your workouts. Proper scheduling of workouts is key to this group of periodization and a well devised weekly plan can negate some of the disadvantages.
It can be really hard to develop multiple training goals equally. If each workout, regardless of what your training goal is for the day is of equal difficulty, you could quickly become fatigued or over-trained. Also, even though you may have a different training goal each day, there will always be a bit of crossover in the workouts. For example, Monday is a bouldering day in which you try to send a few hard boulder problems and then on Tuesday you are scheduled to train power endurance via a 4×4 workout. The problem here is that you are essentially bouldering two days in a row, even though the workouts have different volumes and intensities; they still compete with each other. Another drawback is that you may be aware of your weakest training goal and want to prioritize that over the other training goals, which is difficult to do unless you relax on some of your other training goals.
This group is very similar to the concurrent group in that training cycles are typically one week in length and all training goals are being trained in a given week. The difference with this group is that not all training goals are given equal emphasis. This group tries to combat the main disadvantage of the concurrent group, which is the thought that a climber will be unable to optimally adapt or recover from equally training a large number of training goals. The conjugate group aims to emphasize one particular group while maintaining the others.
In the concurrent method you are trying to equally IMPROVE ALL TRAINING GROUPS and in the conjugate method you are trying to IMPROVE ONE TRAINING GOAL and MAINTAIN THE OTHERS. Each training cycle (week) can have the same training goal emphasized or each week can have a different goal emphasis.
Lets imagine that you are a sport climber that would like to improve your power and strength to help get through hard cruxes. You are worried that if you focus strictly on bouldering for a week or two that you are going to lose your endurance, which could very well happen. So you decide to prioritize bouldering workouts and give them more time and effort, but instead of just bouldering all week, you also squeeze in some power endurance and endurance work.
However when training power endurance and endurance, you train just enough to maintain your current level of both training groups instead of trying to improve them. It is much easier to maintain training goals than it is to improve them. But through the use of the conjugate method you can place an emphasis on your weaknesses and switch between training goals based on the type of climbing you are currently psyched on.
It allows you the ability to improve one training goal without letting the other goals slip. Your body will be able to recover more readily because you are not incurring as much fatigue as you would when trying to improve all training goals. Training emphasis changes often which should help you from getting bored or over-trained. Great for intermediate and advanced climbers.
One week of emphasis on ONE training goal may not be enough for advanced climbers to make appreciable gains in a training goal. With proper scheduling and attentiveness to your body however, you can really make this type of periodization work for you.
Photo Credit: John Wesely; @lightningsnaps; Area: Rocktown, GA; Climb: The Orb V8; Climber: Hal Garner
Putting It All Together:
As you can see, periodization can be a pretty daunting subject. And to make things even worse is that we are trying to apply it to the sport of climbing. A sport that we really do not have control over, the nature of the rock is really what dictates what a climber needs to be good at in order to send. To make things a little bit easier, here are some of my recommendations.
Use the linear group and focus on one training goal for an extended amount of time and then move onto the next goal. Use the schedule that I used as an example above.
- Phase 1: Long Endurance (6 weeks)
- Phase 2: Strength (4 weeks)
- Phase 3: Power (3 weeks)
- Phase 4: Power Endurance (2-4 weeks)
- Phase 5: Rest/Recovery (2 weeks)
The time you spend on each training goal may change a little bit, but this method is aimed at building a strong base in which to build off of. Performing long endurance workouts gives a beginner lots of easier moves which helps develop technique and a base level of endurance so that when you move onto to the next training cycle you can complete the workouts. Then comes strength, you can now stay on the wall long enough to work boulder problems and get stronger. Then comes power, you need to be strong to be powerful. Then comes power endurance, you now have some power and need to be able to extend that newfound power over multiple moves.
At this level you have gone through a couple cycles of linear training or you have been climbing long enough and have developed your skills through simply climbing a lot and feel as though you are no longer a beginner.
Start using the conjugate group. Pick the training goal you wish to emphasize, but do not neglect your other training goals. Here are some examples.
Boulder emphasis or sport climber that needs more strength and power (1-4 weeks, than switch emphasis)
Sport climbing emphasis or boulderer that needs more power endurance (1-4 weeks, than switch emphasis)
In-Season Sport Climbing
At this level you are climbing a lot at a fairly high level and understand your weaknesses as well as what your body can tolerate in regards to training. I would still recommend using the conjugate group and following the above types of schedules based on your wants and needs.
However for the most advanced climbers that are looking to improve everything all the time and a have firm understanding of how their body reacts to increased training volumes, I would suggest using the concurrent group.
Concurrent Group Weekly Example
Side Note #1:
Regardless of what type of periodization group you are using, you have to be conscious about how much and how hard you are training. Planning your weeks out in advance and monitoring your volume and intensity is important. Training hard and including harder training cycles is necessary to improve, but even more necessary is giving your body the appropriate amount of rest and recovery to reap the benefits of your training. In my previous article I talk a bit about managing rest and recovery and it is worth a read if you feel you are having a hard time managing your training.
Side Note #2:
Also be aware that in this article I have described the details of a single training cycle. The key to getting better is the way in which you link training cycles together over the course of months and years. Coming up with an annual training plan is a subject that requires a separate blog post however.
Conjugate is King:
I have armed you with a wealth of information regarding training periodization and it is up to you to evaluate where you are at in your climbing career. You have to evaluate your current training level and be honest with yourself about how much training your body can handle. The goal is to train smarter and not just harder. There will be times during the year that you can train very hard, but there will also be times that you need to be in more of maintenance mode or even in a recovery mode.
All that said, in my humble opinion, I believe that the conjugate group is the best method of training for climbing because…
- Most climbers are not at a level and may never reach a level of fitness in which they can train all training goals equally in a concurrent manner. Concurrent training may be tolerated for a short amount of time, but can easily lead to overtraining if not scheduled correctly.
- We cannot control the weather or at least I haven’t figured out how to yet. At the drop of hat the weather can change and instead of going sport climbing on Saturday, you are now going bouldering. If you have been solely training endurance in the gym your bouldering performance may suffer and you will leave the crag without sending. If you are using conjugate periodization, it really doesn’t matter because you are actively maintaining all training goals.
- Life and work frequently get in the way of training and getting outside. Sometimes you will have more time to train and sometimes you will have less. Maintaining a training goal requires much less time than trying to improve a goal. When time is short, you simply spend your time maintaining your training goals and then when your schedule allows it, you are able to jump right back into your desired training schedule without missing a beat.
- Maybe you are on the other end of the spectrum and you are able to get outside frequently. Based on the season you may be bouldering or you may be sport climbing. Whatever you are doing the most of, you are probably improving in that discipline and may be neglecting your other goals. By employing the conjugate method on days when you are not outside, you can ensure that you are at least maintaining your other goals so when the season changes you are ready to go.
- Most importantly, every route or boulder problem presents a unique challenge. Lacking in one or more training goals can be the difference between sending and punting. When you head out the crag you want to have the confidence that you can send regardless of what type of terrain you are on. The conjugate method will give you the confidence because you know you have not neglected any of the training goals. Now don’t get me wrong, we all still have weaknesses that need to be emphasized, but at least you are giving yourself a better shot at sending.
I hope this article helps you to take a step back and critically analyze what you have been doing in regards to your training. The goal is to train smarter, not necessarily harder. If you don’t have a solid training plan in place, you should plan on not reaching your goals.
About Joshua Rucci:
Joshua Rucci is a collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach in the Southeastern Conference. He has always been passionate about helping athletes get better and reach their potential.
Upon arriving to the southeast, Joshua quickly realized that his days of team sports were over and that he belonged in the woods mountain biking and climbing.
Joshua entered the climbing game later in life at the ripe old age of 24 and for the past 9 years has been training to transform his body from a 200lb college lacrosse player to a 155lb rock climber.
Joshua’s progression has been slow and steady up to 5.13 sport and double digit boulders with limited interruption from injury or major setbacks. Amidst having to work long hours as a coach, Joshua has effectively been able to manage his time to accommodate training, getting to the crag, work, and a new addition to the family!
Joshua is passionate about strength and conditioning as well as climbing and through his blog entries he is hoping to bring the two worlds together to help climbers utilize the science and practical training that he employs with his athletes.
Joshua’s certifications include NSCA CSCS, NASM PES, SFG Level 2, FMS Level 1, and he completed his undergraduate degree at BGSU in exercise science and completed his graduate work at UGA in motor behavior.