Power and Strength
These two terms are commonly, and incorrectly, used interchangeably in the climbing community. This is a very clear cut, simple explanation about what each is and how best to train them.
• Strength Defined
Strength is defined as the maximal force that you can apply in a given exercise. For instance, if you were to do a biceps curl, the maximal weight that you can curl one time would be a rough approximation of your strength in that exercise. In climbing, one aspect of strength (perhaps the most important one) would be measured in finger strength.
When we talk about finger strength we are talking about an isometric (static) display of strength, which is very dependent on the angle of the joint relative to the force. However, to abstract the idea we can say that finger strength in climbing is a measure of how much force you can apply to a given hold with your fingers.
• Power Defined
Power is defined as the speed at which you can achieve your maximal force (i.e. the speed of recruitment). But what does that mean?
To conceptualize power you can look at a dynamic jump to an edge. Let’s say that grabbing the edge requires the application of 100 lbs of force and that you only have .05 seconds to apply the required force before falling. If you are capable of exerting 200 lbs of force, but it takes you .3 seconds to recruit that strength, then despite being strong enough to grab the hold you won’t be able to exert enough force quickly enough to stick the hold during the dynamic movement.
Strength VS Power
So, we can say that there are many people out there who are very strong climbers (i.e. they can grab very small holds and exert a lot of force on the hold), but they wouldn’t necessarily be powerful climbers. For example, a very controlled static climber might be able to do very difficult static movements where speed of recruitment is not an issue, however when that climber is given the task of jumping to and grabbing a hold he/she lacks the coordination and ability to recruit the required strength before falling.
How to Train Power
In climbing, power is best trained by progressing through a power cycle immediately following a strength cycle. A power cycle consists of campusing, dynamic move training, and jump training on boulders and on the ground. You’re trying to train recruitment of your muscles and tendons, so you’d do quick and explosive movements with a lot of rest between efforts. You want to have excellent form when you’re training power, which means you need to be well-rested before an exercise.
You might pick a very difficult boulder problem (for you) with a dynamic crux on it, and climb up to the crux using easier holds, and then do that crux a few times in a row with rest in between efforts. It’s not power endurance you’re trying to improve, so just those few moves in a row is all you need.
You could also train power using the campus board, as mentioned. The campus board gives you a very consistent way to train maximal efforts while also allowing you to track your progress and make incremental improvements. Again, you want to make sure you give yourself plenty of rest between efforts so you can recruit as much power and strength as possible with the best form possible.
If you want some guidance with your power training, there’s a lot of campusing and other power training in our Power Endurance Program to help you get started.
How to Train Strength
In climbing, strength is best trained before a power cycle, and you will generally want to work on both finger strength, as well as larger muscle groups that support the core, arms, shoulders, and back. Finger strength is best trained by using a fingerboard/hangboard and a pulley system so you can subtract and add weight to your body as you’re hanging on the holds. This allows you to make definite and recordable gains over time.
In terms of lifting weights, you’d do low reps with high weights, using your one-rep max or a repetition range (i.e. 2-4 reps) to figure out how much weight you should be lifting. Low reps with high weight has been shown in many other sports to be the most effective way of training strength, as opposed to high reps and low weights.
“Low reps” is defined as between 1 and 9 for a given exercise, and high weight is defined as between 80-100% of your 1-rep max.
We have a fantastic Strength Training Guide for climbers on the site by Steve Bechtel if you want to get started on your strength training.
What’s Power Endurance then?
Power endurance is what you need in order to do a long-ish boulder problem or a long crux sequence on a hard route. Basically, it’s the combination of plenty of strength and plenty of endurance. It doesn’t actually have much to do with power (as we’ve defined it above) except that you maybe doing some powerful moves within the sequence. Typically power endurance (when measured in number of reps) is in the 9-20 rep range, beyond that and we’re talking about pure endurance.
Think of it like this: you’re on a route or boulder that’s pretty hard for you and you fall off in the middle or at the end of the hardest part because you just can’t quite make the moves. You’re just not strong enough after doing all the hard moves before it. When you rest for a minute and then get back on the wall, the moves seem totally doable – it’s just doing them all in a row that thwarts you.
In order to train power endurance, you need to train both strength (so you have finger strength and core to spare), fitness, as well as power. A good example of this is a circuit style workout, which when applied to climbing looks something like 4×4’s or pyramids on boulder problems of varying styles. We have an awesome Power Endurance program by Kris Peters that will help you do all of that.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of what power and strength are, and how to train each of them. A couple words of caution – you don’t want to be training power or strength super hard if you have an injury, or if you’re a beginner climber (up to about 5.12-/V4).
You need a solid base of climbing strength to really focus on finger strength training or campusing in order to avoid injury and poor form. Other than that, though, get after it and have fun!
The photo above of Jamie Emerson exhibiting his formidable strength is by Beau Kahler at www.beaukahler.com. Jamie’s climbing on Chewbacca (V11) in Endo Valley in Colorado. Here’s a video of the area by LT11.com.
Seth Lytton, TrainingBeta’s In-House Training Nerd and Tech Guy
This post was written by Seth Lytton (Neely’s husband,), whose climbing accomplishments include 5.14s and V11s due to taking his own advice above. He has spent the last 13 years of his life climbing and has developed a serious interest in the nuances and research behind training.
Seth is an integral part of TrainingBeta, making things work smoothly and look pretty on the site (he has a degree in design as well as computer science).