By Christopher Schafenacker
Authorities on training for rock climbing, including Steve Bechtel, Kris Hampton, and Tom Randall, all assert there is little to be won from grinding your body to a pulp at the gym. After all, strength gains are made not by blowing your arms off, but by exposing them to new levels stimuli that force adaptation. Continuing to train beyond the point where you are able to exert maximum—or high quality—effort does little more than damage your body and increase the rest time needed between sessions. Having said this, it’s not just your muscles that need to grow stronger to improve your climbing; neural system adaptation also needs to happen. It’s in pursuit of this latter element that you get the green light to take your rock climbing workout to the land of pain.
Hard climbing is immensely complex. Ask any group of serious crushers about the factors limiting their progress and the answers you’ll get will run the gamut of climbing skills. Adam Ondra might blame his finger strength—which he claims is pretty bad for a pro—while Daniel Woods might highlight technique as a weakness. Because climbing demands such a range of abilities, effective training needs to go beyond detonating your forearms doing endless laps in the lead cave. Variety is the spice of life and the secret sauce of crushing. And if you plan things well, it is also the portal into the good kind of pain that helps you grow as an athlete and leave your sessions feeling pleasantly obliterated.
Recently, I’ve discovered this first-hand working with German coach Marvin Winkler, himself a 9a/+ climber and PhD candidate researching training for climbing. Initially, I sought coaching because I’d hit a plateau and despite having charged my self-made plan with an internet’s worth of research and a plethora of rock climbing exercises, it wasn’t working. I can’t say that I now understand exactly why not—if I did, I’d be the one getting a PhD in climbing—but I can say there were two things I wasn’t doing: training (truly) hard and resting long. Learning to design sequential sessions changed this (and allowed me to finally clip the chains on a project I flailed on all last season). Below is a sample rock climbing workout that shows what I mean.
Morning Session: Max. Power
1. Warm up
2. Homewall or Moonboard Bouldering
In a period of 30-45 minutes, try to flash as many boulders as possible. If unable to flash a problem, give it another burn but no more than five. Rest five minutes after completing each boulder.
In a period of 30-45 minutes, project hard boulders. For each move completed, rest one minute.
Choose three exercises that emphasize explosive movement. Complete three sets of each resting three minutes between sets. Below are the protocols I follow alongside adaptations for various levels. If you’re not climbing V4, skip this portion of the workout and extend your time bouldering by 30 minutes.
a. Ladders: 1-3-5-7-9-9-7-5-3-2-1-1
Make this easier by reversing at 7 or 5; make this harder by choosing smaller rungs.
b. 1-4-(6)-7: Each set consists of one attempt with each arm. So, throw 1-4 first with your left and then with your right and attempt to latch 7 with the other hand. If you fail, latch 6 and bump to 7.
Make this easier by practicing 1-3-5 or 1-3-6; make this harder by attempting the hallowed 1-5-9.
c. Double dynos: 1-2-3-4-5
Make this easier by choosing larger rungs; make this harder by double dynoing 1 to 3 dropping down to 2 and then springing up to 4 and so on.
a. Assisted one-arm pull ups. Using a rubber band for support, execute three sets of three one-arm pull ups with each arm resting three minutes between sets. Explode through the contraction phase and lower with control.
Make this easier by doing weighted, two-arm pull ups; make this harder by removing the rubber band and, if necessary, adding weight (you beast).
b. One-arm dumbbell row. Adjust weight so that you can complete three (and only three) reps with good form. Aim to explode through the contraction phase and lower with control. Execute three sets of three reps per arm resting three minutes between sets.
c. Flies on gymnast rings or TRX. Opening your arms perpendicular to your body, complete three sets of up to five reps per set. Rest three minutes between sets.
Make this easier by dropping down onto your knees; make this harder by donning a weight vest.
d. Front levers. Choose a progression you can sustain for three seconds (one rep). Complete three sets of three reps separated by a three-minute rest.
Make this easier by substituting levers for leg raises; make this harder by holding the lever for longer.
Evening Session: Endurance (w/ Neuronal Fatigue)
1. Warm back up.
2. Choose one of the protocols described below.
Locate three or four very hard moves on different parts of a spray wall. Link these with moderately difficulty moves in order to create a twenty or so move circuit. Run two continuous laps on this circuit. Rest ten minutes. Repeat for a period of two hours.
Locate (or design) a hard-ish seven-move boulder situated beside a boulder you can easily downclimb. Climb the hard boulder and downclimb back to the start. Repeat three times without coming off the wall. Rest ten minutes. Repeat for a period of two hours.
Design a twenty-move circuit hard enough that you cannot successfully complete two or three uninterrupted laps. Run laps to failure. Rest ten minutes. Repeat for a period of two hours.
Locate (or design) three or four seven-move boulders that challenge you. Repeat each boulder six times, resting thirty seconds between attempts. Rest ten minutes before switching boulders. Repeat for a period of two hours.
Note: Don’t hesitate to switch protocols if need be to complete the full two-hour block.
Be warned: doing all of this in a single day is hard. But that’s the point. That’s what training is: hard. I suffer through this and one other similarly-structured rock climbing workout once a week. I climb once (maybe twice) outdoors on the weekend and otherwise I rest.
Training in a neuronally pre-fatigued context allows you to both train more by doubling up your sessions and rest more by absolutely demolishing your body. More than that, though, it allows you to train smarter. After all, it literally changes how your brain interacts with your muscles.
The morning session described above will drain your arms of power. When you come back in for the evening sufferfest, your central nervous system will be cooked. With time, in order to compensate, said nervous system will learn to recruit secondary muscle fibers to achieve the task which would otherwise be completed by your primary muscles. The result: increased endurance.
For many, the biggest barrier to doing this workout will be time. Or, at least it would be in normal circumstances. With so many folks still working from home, this workout can easily fit into a day’s plan as all that’s needed to do it is a simple home set up. A home woody, gymnast rings or a TRX and a decently heavy dumbbell are… almost all that it takes. You’ll also need a campus board but luckily a good custom woodworking shop can walk you confidently through the building process.
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Christopher Schafenacker started climbing in Western MA before moving to Granada, Spain, where he now writes, climbs, and runs education-centered training camps for competitive youth climbing teams.