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Why Do I Suck At Climbing Some Days?!? Part 3: Efficient Training

A lot of the articles we post on the TrainingBeta blog focus on a new exercise or workout you can add into your training in the hopes they will make you stronger and help you climb harder.  However, while these exercise and workouts if used properly can help you do just that, simply trying to cram them all into your training routine without any structure is not efficient training and is a quick way to burn yourself out and/or get injured.

To help you understand how to structure your training to make it as efficient as possible, here’s the next installment in the Why Do I Suck At Climbing Some Days?!? Series by Joshua Rucci.  In this article, Joshua breaks down exactly what constitutes efficient training, examines the science behind what makes different types of training more/less efficient, and shows you how to apply these concepts to your own climbing training.

While this is definitely an in depth article that covers some advanced topics, climbers of all ability levels will benefit from giving it a read.  After all, efficiency isn’t just for the elite.

Enter Joshua…

Why Do I Suck At Climbing Some Days?!? Part 3: Efficient Training

“I want to be a better climber!”

“I want to climb harder routes and problems!”

“I want to push myself and progress faster!”

I am guessing that if you have navigated your way to this site and are presently reading this, you have undoubtedly said these things to yourself at some point. It is a great thing to be motivated and passionate about the sport, but the answer for many climber come up with is to simply do more in the hopes of improving climbing performance. Steve Bechtel just wrote an outstanding article about this on his Climb Strong site entitled “Do Less” and is suggested reading prior to moving forward.

It can’t be that simple, right?!? Well in many cases it is. Many climbers do not plan their training regimen and are always chasing the next best drill or exercise that is undoubtedly going to bust them through a plateau. Or they believe that simply doing more of what they are already doing is the answer.

The “more is better” mantra needs to die a slow and painful death!

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These aforementioned tactics of improving performance may yield some small and fleeting positive results, but are not beneficial for long-term improvement. More is just more and at some point you are going to out-train your body’s ability to recover. When this happens, you are going to hit a brick wall of a plateau and may even regress in your performance. If you want long-term success in your climbing you need to train smarter! Don’t be mistaken however, I do not mean easier training. In fact, training smarter will require you to train hard, but in a simpler and more specific manner.

Smart training includes planning of your training, monitoring of your training, and proper exercise/drill selection. In previous posts I have already gone into some detail in regards to periodization (planning) as well as readiness monitoring. I suggest giving these both a read if you have not already done so.

What I really want to hit home on with this installment is that in order to get the most bang for your buck from a training perspective, you must allocate your training time wisely. If you could get the same results from 1 hour of planned smart/specific training as opposed to 3 hours of unplanned training, why wouldn’t you opt for the hour? I can already hear the gym rats moaning, “But I like spending my whole day in the gym spraying beta at everyone!” No offense to those that have the time to spend 3-4 hours a day at the gym every single day, but for the vast majority of climbers (especially those with jobs, families, etc.), this is not feasible. Efficient training should be the goal with every training session. How can you make the most out of your time???

Training efficiently should take into account 2 major tenets…

  1. Analysis of your weaknesses.
  2. Specificity of your training and how your training is transferring to performance.

Analysis of Weaknesses

Efficient training regimens should revolve around improving your weaknesses. Many authors have wrote about this (MacLeod, Horst, Hague & Hunter, pretty much any climbing author), but it still seems to fall on deaf ears. I am guilty of it, it is more fun to do things that you are good at, that’s just basic human psychology. In terms of efficient training however, we may just be spinning our wheels doing the things we are already good at.

For example, let’s look at this from a weight lifting stand-point and then draw some parallels to climbing. Say I have a D1 baseball player in the weight room and we have just gone through a testing battery to assess the efficacy of their training program. Here are his measurables…

  • Hang Clean 1RM: 225lbs
  • Front Squat 1RM: 400lbs
  • Deadlift 1RM: 500lbs
  • Bench Press 1RM: 250lbs
  • Vertical Jump: 28in
  • Broad Jump: 7feet
  • 30yd Sprint: 3.9sec

As a strength coach, I would sit down and evaluate his individual numbers along with the averages of the team to see what improved and what got worse. These numbers may mean nothing to you, but they tell me that this individual is very strong based on his clean, squat, deadlift and bench press numbers. His power numbers based on his vertical jump, broad jump, and 30yd sprint are not very good however. Thus, the best way to improve this individual’s performance would be to incorporate and emphasize training specific to developing power.

It would take a considerable amount of effort and time to increase his strength numbers which are already pretty darn good for a D1 baseball player. So to me that would be a waste of time and effort because he already has the requisite strength: i.e. his strength is his strength. A more efficient approach would be to attack his weakness, which is his power output. I can make a much bigger impact on his power output with less time than it would take me to increase his strength. Also keep in mind that his goal is to be a better baseball player, not a powerlifter, and he has a finite amount of time to train as well as energy to train and practice. So if I am able to improve his power with less time and energy in the weight room, which improves his performance and allows him to have more energy for practicing his actual sport, I have accomplished my goal of efficient training!

Applying Analysis of Weakness to Climbing

Now apply this to climbing. Subjectively you probably have a pretty good idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are, or maybe you don’t, and you are looking through some rose colored glasses. Either way, there are a number of resources out there that can help you assess your weaknesses in climbing.

I would suggest taking a look at some of these texts…

  • Coaching Climbing by Michelle Humi
  • Training for Climbing by Eric Hörst
  • The Self-Coached Climber by Hague & Hunter
  • Conditioning for Climbers by Eric Hörst
  • How to Climb 5.12 by Eric Hörst
  • Redpoint by Hague & Hunter
  • 9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistake by Dave MacLeod

Each one has a questionnaire aimed at assessing your weaknesses and strengths as they pertain to climbing. Measurables, like the ones listed above for the baseball player are not as easy to find, but you can check out Steve Maisch’s Website and reddit for some actual metrics (keep in mind that these numbers are not based on rigorous scientific studies and are anecdotal). You could also look into hiring a climbing coach to evaluate your performance or asking your climbing partner what he thinks your strengths and weaknesses are.

Also, let me just get this out of the way, EVERYONE CAN BENEFIT FROM TRAINING TECHNIQUE, but for our discussion we will be focused solely on the physical aspects.

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Malory Toscano on The Kind in RMNP; Photo Credit: Malory Toscano

Alright, we have done some soul searching and self-reflection and are aware of our strengths and weaknesses. For example we may have discovered that…

  1. We tend to enjoy and excel at thin, face climbs and avoid overhung climbs.
  2. We love crimper problems and abuse the full-crimp grip.
  3. We shy away from slopers and open-handed routes/problems.
  4. We prefer short routes/problems and climbs that are not as sustained.
  5. Based on Maisch’s numbers, our strength numbers are low but our finger numbers are pretty high.

From this brief profile, it is probably safe to assume that we have strong fingers, a weaker body, and poor endurance. It would be more beneficial and time efficient for us to work on our weaknesses (body strength and endurance) than to spend an excess amount of time on the hangboard trying to get our already strong fingers stronger. Put another way it may take 2-3 hours a week to improve our weaknesses by 15% as opposed to 5-6 hours a week to improve our strengths by 3%. The adaptational window for our weaknesses is much larger and therefore will improve much more readily than your strengths, which may be close to their adaptational ceiling.

Less time training, more time for technique work, less work your body has to recover from, and increased performance = Efficient training.

Also keep in mind that it is much easier to maintain a physiological characteristic, such as strength, than it is to make gains. This comes back to how you are planning your training. In general your plan should be to maintain you strengths and improve your weaknesses through the use of a non-linear, conjugate-type periodization scheme.

I say it all the time, “climbing is a unique sport,” and different situations call for different methods of training periodization schemes. In the climber profile above, we are assuming that this individual wants to be an all-around better climber and is not trying to send that one project they have been working on all season. Maybe the above climber is projecting a route that lends to his/her strengths and he/she is still unable to send. If this is the case, our climber may need to improve their strengths even further and will have to spend the extra time and effort in doing so. Periodization for this example may look more like your traditional linear scheme, where you are really prioritizing one physiological variable in a given cycle.

In either situation, training to be an all-around better climber or training for a specific project, your training needs to be specific and needs to transfer to your actual on-rock performance. This leads us into our next section dealing with training specificity and transfer of training.

Training Specificity & Transfer of Training

The initial thing that drove me to write on this topic was that I really wanted to know why sometimes my training would carry over to real rock really well and other times would fall short of my perceived expectations. If you have been training long enough, you have probably encountered this. It can be really rewarding to come out of a training cycle and break through some plateaus outside. As good as that feels, going through a training cycle and getting your butt handed to you while out at the crag, can be a huge disappointment.

Delayed Transmutation

At first I thought the answer to this perplexing phenomenon was going to be easily found in the literature dealing with a principle called delayed transmutation, which Zatsiorsky touches on in his text, “Science and Practice of Strength Training.”6 Without going into great detail, delayed transmutation in the climbing realm looks something like this…

  1. You have been primarily bouldering in the gym.
  2. You hit a plateau.
  3. In response to the plateau, you begin to incorporate some climbing-specific training.
  4. You return to your bouldering regimen, and even though you made great gains in your climbing-specific training, initially you still are stuck where you left off.

The buck may stop right there, your training was unsuccessful as it did not transfer over to your climbing performance. Other times it may move forward and the following may occur.

  1. You continue to train and specifically address weaknesses in your movement or rehearse movements that are present on your project and you begin to “realize” your newfound strength.

The gap between 4 & 5, would be the period of delayed transmutation. “Realizing” your new-found training gains depends greatly on the type of exercises and training that you are doing. Applying newly acquired strength to your climbing also depends a great deal on your technical mastery of climbing. All things being equal in regards to technique, the question then becomes what exercises and types of training positively transfer to an increase in your climbing performance?

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Not the easiest read I must admit!!!

Transfer of Training

Digging a bit deeper on this topic I came across the text, “Transfer of Training,” by Anatoliy Bondarchuck.1 Bondarchuck was an Olympic Gold medalist in the 1972 Olympics for the hammer throw and was the Soviet throws coach for years with great success. Much of the information regarding his training methods are misunderstood in large part to dissemination via word of mouth as well as the eventual translation of his books. The information contained in his text is sometimes confusing due to the translation and initially seems quite complex, but the underlining theme is pretty simple to understand.

While almost all of Bondarchuck’s writings deal with training throwers, I was quickly convinced throughout reading the text that his ideas are very applicable to training for climbing. Bondarchuck was a proponent of prioritizing special strength over general strength for his athletes.

  • General Strength: “These are exercises that when executed, do not repeat the competitive actions as a whole or in their separate parts.” 1

For us climbers, this looks a lot like training in the weight room and performing movements that are aimed at bringing up total body strength (Olympic lifts, deadlifts, squatting, pushing variations, general core work, etc.)

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Dmitry Klokov may be able to Olympic Snatch a small car, but you don’t need to in order to climb harder!

  • Special Strength: Bondarchuck breaks this down into two categories, specialized preparatory exercises and specialized-developmental exercises.

Specialized Preparatory Exercises: very similar to general strength exercises “as they do not repeat the competitive actions as a whole, or their separate parts. But similar muscle groups participate in their execution. The training work is accompanied with activation of those functions and systems of the body from which an increase in sports results in an increase in performance.” 1

For us climbers, training may now start to incorporate more climbing specific pulling movements (pull-ups, rows, front levers, frenchies, etc.) as well as some more specific core work. In my opinion, special prep training would still be primarily accessory weight training that is now becoming more climbing specific.

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Weighted pull-up with “The Beast” kettlebell, a mere 106lbs! Good example of a specialized preparatory exercise.

Specialized-developmental Exercises: this is where you exercise selection and training start to become very specialized to climbing.

“Repeat separate parts of the competitive exercise. Involved in the process of their execution or a significant parts of the same muscle groups are used and similar systems and organs are activated. They not only repeat the muscle work regime and entail other body systems that only ensure further increase in sports results in the competitive exercises, but supersede them. Specialized-developmental exercises more or less recreate all the elements of the competitive activity, and in this, have the ability to more effectively and selectively, have an effect on the development of certain physical abilities. The level achieved from doing them is realized in the process of further execution of the competitive exercises. They serve for entry into the sports form state.” 1

For us climbers, exercise selection and training will begin to take on the appearance of climbing and climbing specific accessory work. This may look like a training cycle that incorporates…

  • System board work in which you are working on specific grips and movement weaknesses.
  • Hangboarding regimens that are specific to your needs, i.e. max strength, repeaters, endurance intervals.
  • Power bouldering in which you are setting 4-6 move sequences that are at your max.
  • Power endurance using 4×4’s, HIIT, boulder repeats, etc.
  • Endurance, both intensive and extensive.

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These are examples of specialized-developmental exercises based on your current training goals or weaknesses that you are trying to improve. Bechtel

One thing you should take note of is that when performing specialized-developmental training, there is very little emphasis on actually sending boulder problems or routes. Yes that is the end goal of our training, but it is not the goal of our actual training!!!

With everything else, take this last comment with a grain of salt. You should occasionally incorporate days where your focus is aimed at “realizing” the benefits from the training you have undergone. These training days/cycles in the gym may look like a performance oriented day where you are trying to red-point hard climbs, and more importantly, the days outside that you are trying to send projects!

Competitive Exercises: Bondarchuck’s final classification of exercises, Competitive Exercises, touches on those days inside and outside in which you are trying to send climbs. He defines them as exercises “executed in the process of competition as well as in training”, and in the latter case “they can be modeled to repeat the competition conditions,

[making] them easier or more difficult.” 1

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Chris Chilas pullin’ plastic at Active Climbing in Athens, GA

Application of Bondarchuck’s Theories to Climbing

Sorry that was a lot of background info, but it’s necessary to further explore how we can leverage this information in our own training.

A Swedish thrower, G. Martin Bissinger took the time to simplify Bondarchuck’s theories in his article, “Simplifying Bondarchuck,”2 and provided a couple broad ideas about applying this knowledge to other sports besides the throws.

  1. Athletes have limited time and energy: Coaches and athletes must prioritize exercises and training regimens that are the most efficient use of both time and energy, while still having a positive transfer of training. The training that you need to be doing is based on your weaknesses or the specific needs of your current project or climbing area.
  1. General strength often isn’t the answer:

“For Bondarchuck, the best investment is the most obvious one: athletes should prioritize exercises that are closest to the competitive movement. Bondarchuck looks for what he calls “transfer of training.” This is where improved results in one exercise lead to an improvement in another exercise. Throughout his studies, Bondarchuck has determined that there is a higher transfer of training between exercises that mimic each other in form. While this is intuitive, coaches often overlook this because the weight room seems to offer a get rich quick scheme” 2

  1. Special strength often is the answer: Bondarchuck believes it is more important to put the emphasis on exercises and training regimens that have a higher correlation to performance, even if that means less time spent on general strength.2 Ever heard Chris Sharma give advice about becoming a better climber? Go climb more is usually his answer. I used to hate that advice, but in thinking about his comments through Bondarchuck’s eyes, it seems to make perfect sense.

This is very intuitive. There is a high correlation from throwing different types of hammers. However, many coaches overlook this by thinking of throwing as merely a way to develop technique. Runners, on the other hand, don’t think of running as a way to just develop technique. To them it is also a way for them to build endurance, strength, and other qualities needed to succeed. And while cycling develops leg muscles and improves the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, few runners would argue that the majority of training time should be spent on the bike. Conversely, too many throwers think of throwing as merely a way to practice technique and spend the majority of their training time in the weight room. In truth, throwing is a strength exercise that transfers extremely well to competition results. It is one of the most versatile training tools available to a coach and should be used as the primary exercise in any training program. 

In addition, training special strength allows the athlete to train power and technique simultaneously, a more effective means of transferring power to the throw than training each separately.” 2

We are not throwers, nor are we runners. But when you stop and think about this in regards to climbing, it makes a lot of sense why general strength may not transfer over to climbing very well, especially if you are an advanced climber. General strength may simply not correlate well with climbing performance. I seriously doubt that many professional climbers would wow us with their numbers in the clean, bench, and squat. They are too busy climbing!!!

  1. General strength still has a role at the right intensity: General strength is still important, however, in that it gives the athlete a platform from which to develop power and create increased levels of tension. General strength training’s aim should be to develop the requisite levels of strength needed for climbing, not for being a powerlifter. Think back to our discussion of being efficient with our training, if we can already deadlift 300lbs, deadlifting 350lbs is not going to make us a better climber. But in trying to gain those 50lbs, we are wasting time and effort that could be spent climbing. 2

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Old-time strongman performing a heavy Reeve’s Deadlift. Probably doesn’t need to deadlift anymore if he is trying to be a better climber, plenty strong!

Should You Perform General or Specialized Training???

Well, the answer to this question depends on several factors including training status, physical preparation status, maturation status, and level of sport mastery. 3,4,5 Here are some basic suggestions to make use of this information.

Suggestions for New Climbers (0-3 Years, V0-V3, 5.9-5.10)

  • If you have not done any type of training in the past, general or climbing specific:
    • Focus on general strength.
    • Have fun and go climb on a variety of angles and holds.
    • Work on technique and take the focus off of climbing grades.
  • If you have a bit of a training background (previous weight training, crossfit, etc.) and feel as though your general strength is not one of your weaknesses.
    • Focus can be on special preparatory exercises that are aimed at increasing strength specific to climbing (pulling and core work).
    • Have fun and go climb on a variety of angles and holds.
    • Work on technique and take the focus off of climbing grades.

Suggestions for Intermediate Climbers (3-6 Years, V3-V6/7, 5.11-5.12)

  • Perform an analysis of your strengths and weaknesses and let that dictate what you should be prioritizing.
  • If you have been continually climbing for 3-6 years, but still have not really ever trained in the weight room and are trying to overcome a plateau.
    • Focus on general strength initially.
    • After a couple cycles of general strength, start to incorporate more special preparatory exercises and training.
    • Begin to incorporate specialized-developmental (climbing specific) training based on your weaknesses.
    • Continue to focus on technical development.
  • If you have been spending too much time in the weight room stressing either general strength or special prep exercises and are continually climbing without any real gains in your climbing performance.
    • Get out of the weight room!
    • At this point, focus on specialized-developmental training.
    • Continue to focus on technical development.

Suggestions for Advanced Climbers (6-10 Years, V7-V10/11, 5.13)

  • Perform an analysis of your strengths and weaknesses and let that dictate what you should be prioritizing.
    • Really be honest with yourself during this stage. Projects and the difficulty of problems/routes are becoming more technical and specific (angles, hold types, etc.).
  • This is the point in which periodization is going to play much greater role in your training regimen.
    • For example, you feel like your strength and power are not where they need to be, but your finger strength and technique is quite good and is what gets you by at the moment.
      • Cycle 1 (2-4 Weeks): Focus on general strength (lower volume, higher intensity). Climbing volume should be lower during this cycle.
      • Cycle 2 (3-4 Weeks): Focus on specialized preparatory training (lower volume, higher intensity). Climbing volume continues to remain low.
      • Cycle 3 (4-6 Weeks): Focus on specialized-developmental training based on your weaknesses. Weight room volume comes way down and the goal should be to maintain gains from previous cycles. This is the phase in which you are trying “realize” or transfer your training gains over to your climbing performance.
      • Continue to focus on technical development.
  • Another example may be the exact opposite. Your general strength and power are good as you spend too much time doing accessory weight training, which has not transferred well into your climbing performance.
    • Skip to Cycle 3 from above: Focus on specialized-developmental training based on your weaknesses.
    • Continue to focus on technical development.

Suggestions for Open/Elite Climbers (10+ Years, V10+, 5.14+)

  • Perform an analysis of your strengths and weaknesses and let that dictate what you should be prioritizing.
    • Really be honest with yourself during this stage. Projects and the difficulty of problems/routes are becoming more technical and specific (angles, hold types, etc.).
  • The bulk of your focus should be on specialized-developmental training that is specific to your weaknesses or is specific to the demands of your current project.
  • Periodization is going to play a large role when you are at this level as well.
    • If you really feel as though you need to be in better “all-around shape,” you may follow the plan from above moving from the general strength side of the spectrum over to the specialized-developmental side.
      • Time at each cycle may be less than that of an intermediate climber, largely because your physical preparation and training status are already at a higher level. Less time and effort is needed to get general and specific prep levels to increase or back to once achieved levels.
    • Periodization may also have a lot less to do with improving, but have a lot more to do with peaking and readying yourself for a big trip or red-point.

Closing Thoughts and Cautions

  1. Climbing-specific training should be used with caution!

There needs to be a proper ratio of general, specific-preparatory, and specific-developmental training present in your annual training plan. This ratio depends on a variety of factors which we covered in the previous section. Take time to assess your training status, physical preparation status, maturation status, level of sport mastery, and weaknesses first and let that drive your training emphasis and periodization.

  1. Too much of a good thing can be bad!

Climbing-specific training is a powerful tool when properly utilized. You can get in trouble real quick however if you overdo it and are constantly going back to that once magical training exercise or protocol. Also realize that anything new or different from what you are used to will probably help you get better up until about 6 weeks. At that point gains will plateau and you may working yourself into some overuse issues or other injuries. This time period is not a hard and fast rule and may vary among individuals. Whenever that plateau begins to set in for you, shift gears and attack a different weakness or add in some variation to your training. Even a shift from max hangs to repeaters on the hangboard, while very similar, can be enough variation to jump start further adaptation. Long story short, rotate between those climbing-specific training protocols that work the best for you.

  1. Make sure you are physically prepared and physically mature enough for increased specificity.

I think this point cannot be stressed enough for youth that are getting serious about climbing. I know there are some recommendations for what ages youth climbers should start hangboarding and campus boarding, but that is an issue for a whole other blog post. Youth climbers should be encouraged to have fun first and foremost and secondarily to that should focus on general strength, technique, and exposure to a variety of climbing styles.

For any climber, they should have a good base level of general strength from which to build off of with specialized prep training and then finally specialized-developmental training.

Additionally if a climber has not developed a certain level of technical mastery, moving straight into specialized-developmental training may actually retard their long-term progression in climbing. I can’t stress this enough, you must have good technique first before you can apply gains from specialized training. If you cannot coordinate pushing hard with your feet while simultaneously having to accurately deadpoint to a hold, then being able to 1 arm hang a 12mm edge really doesn’t matter.

Hopefully this information allows you to make better choices in regards to how you allocate your training time. Remember the goal is to train smarter and more efficiently. Efficient training equals less time training, more time for technique work, less work your body has to recover from, and increased performance!

References:

  1. Bondarchuk, A. Transfer of Training in Sports. Michigan: Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2007.
  2. Bingsisser, G.M. Simplifying Bondarchuck. Modern Athlete & Coach. 48 (2): 27-31, 2010.
  3. Gamble, P. Implications and Applications of Training Specificity for Coaches and Athletes. Strength Cond. J. 28 (3): 54-58, 2006.
  4. Siff, M., and Y. Verkhoshansky. Supertraining. (6th ed) Rome: Verkhoshansky, 2009.
  5. Young, W. Transfer of Strength and Power Training to Sports Performance. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 1: 74-83, 2006.
  6. Zatsiorsky, VM. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1995

About Joshua Rucci:

Bio Pic3-2Rucci 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

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By | 2017-09-18T06:41:09+00:00 June 7th, 2016|0 Comments

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