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Making The Grade

*Editor’s Note: This is a co-conspiracy by Chris Rolling and Adam Scheer

Recently a friend asked if there were a couple things that could help him break into 5.12. At first I had to fight back cynicism. Climbing is hard. The journey is arduous. There are no golden tickets aside from imported diet pills, steroids and habanero seeds in your underwear.

But 5.12 is often the grade to which many climbers aspire and most never reach. This is despite the fact that many, if not most, climbers have the physiological potential to send 5.12. So what is the best way to bridge the gap between promise and plateau?

Tools of training

What we detail below is not a “how-to” instruction pamphlet for climbing 5.12. Such one-size-fits-all remedies are about as useful as the directions on a box of pop-tarts. (You mean to tell me that you’re NOT supposed to eat the plastic wrapper!?) Instead, this article is a guide on staking your claim to climbing at the next level.

From our observations, we all face two common obstacles on our respective journeys. First, you won’t climb at your potential if you don’t pay attention to weaknesses and systematically eliminate them. Second, limited training time can make this process arduous, especially if it reduces the fun factor in your climbing sessions.

Yet each of us is used to these types of struggles. We devote countless hours to homework to achieve a degree and a better career. We bike or run to keep in shape. We practice an instrument to become a musician. We are constantly working in the trenches of our lives so that when we step out the sky will be all the bluer. Almost everything worth achieving requires sacrifice and effort. Climbing is no different. Just like playing guitar is more fun after tedium to stop flubbing that pesky F-chord, fighting through weaknesses in climbing will make the sport more rewarding.

Therefore, in our opinion, the right question is not, “How can I climb a 5.12?” It’s “How can I realize my potential?” If you approach climbing this way, it might take longer to send a 5.12, but in the end you will send more of them and have more fun. Though 5.12 is often seen as a benchmark grade, depending on natural potential, the same process will help the 5.9 climber and the 5.13 climber.

Lizz's 2012 goal: To become a 5.12 chimney climber.

After sleeping off an egotistical, contemptuous reaction to our humble friend’s honest inquiry, we got to thinking about a climber’s journey from his first route, through the peak of his ability. This progression ultimately reflects the culmination of a varied climbing and training routine over the course of years. But within this routine there are undoubtedly elements of the regimen much more effective than others. How can we identify these elements that help us get the most out of limited training time? And how can we purge the inadequacies of a routine to maximize gains and advance to that proverbial next level?

The short answer to both questions is, “It depends.” Though progress in climbing often follows similar paths for different people, the most effective pieces of a training routine can vary greatly.

When considering a training regimen, the first and most valuable step is to perform an honest personal inventory of your goals, abilities, experience, strengths, weaknesses, and time available. This includes determining where you are in your development and at what point you transition between the traditional classifications of a beginner, intermediate, and advanced climber. Such an accurate and honest assessment can be a task in and of itself. Yet, without a serious inquiry, resulting in a productive plan, you will inevitably spin your wheels. So without going into dripping detail regarding self-assessment, here are three key considerations:

1. Define your goals. We all want to have as much fun as possible, but climbing can be much more than just a good time. Climbing has major implications for general physical health, friendships, peace of mind and confidence. Without recognizing both general and specific goals, formulating a solid training plan will not happen.

2. Assess your weaknesses and determine which ones are keeping you from your goals. You might be a terrible offwidth climber, but that type of climbing is highly specialized and if you don’t desire to bloody yourself fist-fighting nightmare, improving your offwidth technique may have no bearing on your goals. Yet elements of many different styles are encountered on any given route and thus having a well-developed all-around repertoire is essential to becoming a good climber. Conversely, devoting time to your strengths, at the expense of those pesky weaknesses, is a sure way to stay plateaued.

3. Be patient with the process. This article is not about sending your project. This is about becoming a better climber by installing the proper foundation to improve. As a result you will send your project. At times, this means taking a step back and lifting those abilities that have kept you anchored.

This may sound vague so far, but let’s take a closer look at training progression.

The First Steps

Those just starting will benefit most by simply climbing. This includes those rare, disgustingly gifted people who find climbing to be as natural as that peanut butter you grind yourself at the grocery store. Developing technique, muscle memory, and a repertoire of movement is just as important for them, if not more so, than their less-gifted counterparts as sick natural strength can often mask poor technique for a longer time. So regardless of if you start struggling on 5.4 or sending 5.10, you are still a beginner. Until a good sense of flow and movement is achieved, you will waste a ton of energy fighting your own misplaced body weight.

Overzealous beginner climbers, in an attempt to progress as quickly as possible, often mistakenly employ strenuous training exercises like hangboard sessions or scores of pull ups. Unfortunately, this is a poor use of time and often results in injury. In general, initial improvements require the kinds of specialized strength that are simply gained from logging vertical miles. Enjoy this process. Some of the most fun we’ve had on the rock was as beginners. Improvements are rapid and each new route presents a new conundrum. You’ll never have another time in which big strides are made with relatively little effort.

But there are important things to keep in mind. Concentrate on honing efficiency of movement as much as possible, adding to your bag of tricks, so to speak. Repeating routes, even those that feel easy, can be a great way to fortify muscle memory. Watch seasoned climbers, strive to maintain your center of gravity, experiment with different body positions and movement, and ALWAYS USE YOUR FEET!

The take-away message for the beginner climber is to maximize and vary your experience by climbing all types of routes on all types of rock. Remember, perceived deficiencies in strength are often really deficiencies in technique. We cannot overstate the importance of developing a strong foundation of solid technique and how cheating this stage will come back to haunt you. The approach to your peak physical abilities tends to ultimately expose shortcuts here. Do yourself a favor and revel in simply climbing routes as long as they yield gains.

Progression

At this point you’ve got a feel for climbing, know the difference between a flag, gaston and crusty bandt and are eyeing double-digit grades. You still have much to learn, so logging mileage remains important. However, the benefits from the shotgun method are starting to wane. This is the first plateau every climber encounters.

The most common trap that victimizes intermediate climbers is to focus solely on one’s strengths. Even as a beginner, the style of climbing that most often correlates to the quickest advancement through grades is crimpy face routes. This is because from day one, many people have greater finger strength relative to other types of strength. Also, pulling on edges is one of the easiest techniques to master. Since it can be more fun to indulge one’s talents rather than wallow in one’s shortcomings, many climbers never progress beyond face climbing. You may be able to crank down a 5.10 or 5.11 if it perfectly fits your style, but throw in a couple slopers, a finger lock or an overhang and a 5.9 will make you feel like a flabby marshmallow. If this sounds familiar, stop now. Slap yourself in the face with a piece of moldy bologna and get busy climbing different styles. This can be the most important part of development for intermediate climbers, especially if most climbing is done in the gym. Places like Yosemite, Eldo, Joshua Tree, The Gunks, Vedauwoo and many other classic destinations will never yield their amazing secrets unless you arm yourself properly.

Now is also the time to start looking at some specific training. Usually the intermediate level is where strength becomes a limiting factor, yet technique is still a bit raw and in need of refinement. The most useful training would be something that provides a nice balance of strength gains while still yielding improvements in technique – bouldering.

Joe coming around the corner on Nat's Traverse (V8)

Not only will bouldering keep expanding your repertoire, but it will force you to start focusing on movement that is more power-intensive and requires contact strength. Don’t forget the things you learned to this point. Maintain good technique, but really start to push yourself in terms of difficulty. You’re aiming to boulder routes that are initially just out of reach (literally and figuratively). Most intermediate climbers will see significant gains by simply incorporating bouldering into their routines.

This is also where climbing training becomes somewhat more complicated. It is important to maintain a good balance between days on the rope vs. time on the boulders. Too much bouldering will train your muscles to go 100% all the time. This is a recipe for poor endurance. Therefore, when you rope up, it is ideal to include a few laps or longer power-endurance routes to maintain stamina.

There is one more reason to start bouldering. Like skiers who have never tried snowboarding, as soon as a climber experiences bouldering, she may never go back. Bouldering is fun in a very different realm than climbing, both physically and socially. If you never give yourself a chance to develop as a boulderer you may be missing the part of the sport that you truly love.

Advanced

As you progress into and through the double-digit grades, you will start to notice yourself hitting walls. Your typical climbing sessions, though longer and more sustained than ever, don’t yield the improvement necessary to reach your goals. This is the point where a thorough assessment of your weaknesses is more important than ever. At this juncture, it is very likely that one or two key deficiencies are holding you back and require some serious focus to vanquish and become a better all-around climber. When Chris hit this point, the hangboard was the answer to help develop finger and contact strength. When Adam did, endurance sessions devoted solely to lapping routes was the stepping stone to 5.12. Other climbers may need to hit the weights to train lock-off strength. Still others may need to lose a few pounds of flab and work the core. If you feel lost in a self-assessment, ask your partners. You’d be amazed how informative your friends can be – even those who don’t climb as hard as you.

Lizz has great technique but needs to develop more upper body strength. Assisted pull ups can help her add general strength and control

Of course, identifying your weaknesses is just the first step. Now you need to figure out how to attack them. But the more research you do on specialized strength training, the more confused and overwhelmed you will be. There is a veritable smorgasbord of information; from periodized training cycles, to hangboard and campus circuits that make your fingers bleed, to convoluted cross training – everyone seems to promote some magic recipe. Here we’re not going to add to the ocean of technified jargon. Instead we want to pin down the common sense things that will benefit you most in limited training time without making you hang on slopers from your toes while doing the splits and pinkie curls.

Take that time you’d spend reading the online Journal of Scandinavian Climbing Training and devote it to actual training. Listen to your common sense. If you have limited power, boulder and hit the campus board. If your footwork sucks, climb face routes and work on your core strength. No endurance? Do laps. Lots of them. Five pounds overweight? Start working on your cardiovascular stamina and fat burning, meaning you might have to suck it up and dust off those running shoes. Carrying an extra five pounds up a route is equivalent to hauling two full Nalgenes.

Yet the wall many advanced climbers hit is moves they simply can’t do. It’s where you know what you need to do, can see it in your head and dream about it at night, but no matter how hard you try, technique will only get you so far. As climbers start to work routes in high grades, the reason for getting shut down often boils down to a simple inability to use bad holds. If specific moves consistently seem just out of reach, adding significant hangboard work often proves to be the most beneficial training option. For a good example of hangboard, campus board and target weight lifting routines, as well as how to do them most effectively and safely, see this article from Adam. In addition, Chris recommends weighted dead hangs as an excellent method to develop contact strength.

The hangboard is your friend. No crimping allowed. Don't blow a tendon.

While most climbers can benefit from roughly the same formula for the beginner and intermediate, in the advanced stages training needs to be tailored much more to individual needs. There will be routes that require a specific strength, say one arm pull ups or biting a knob, but those are rare and we’re not interested in the outliers. As an advanced climber, the physical demands of hard routes by and large are met by way of intense training beyond standard route climbing. If you make the right choices gains will be slow, but steady. If something doesn’t appear to be working, change it.

…And Beyond

A common strategy employed by expert and professional climbers is highly-specialized training for specific routes or even individual moves. This is often done at the expense of their general climbing abilities. The pair of super-humans (Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall) who recently ticked the first ascent of Century Crack (5.14 massive roof offwidth) actually built a training apparatus at home to zone in on the send. In conversations Adam has had with Jonathan Siegrist, possibly the best sport climber in the states, he discussed the need to significantly change his training routines for individual routes. Maybe he needs to be able to crimp for 140 feet of overhanging limestone without a rest. Maybe he needs to lock off on a horrible pocket while heel hooking a nubbin. Each particular situation requires dedicated training.

This is where we feel many climbers get distracted. It’s a good idea to have specific routes as projects and goals, but unless you’re looking to send at least 5.13, it’s better to keep progressing by systematically refining your arsenal of abilities. Here the old adage is true, a rising tide raises all boats. Until you’re sending 5.Teen, dedicate your training to becoming a better climber, not to the crux of a 5.12a. Do, however, use the routes on which you fail as important surveys to best focus training.

No Matter What You Do

Climbing is fun. People tend to have more fun when they are doing what they are good at. Therefore people tend to climb in the style they know best. However, no matter what grade you climb, you’ll notice there has been one universsal theme to which we keep returning. If you really want to be a better climber, time spent training should involve working on your shortcomings. Regardless of your weaknesses, be honest with yourself and identify them, then neutralize them. The fewer holes you have in your abilities, the less likely you will be to run into a situation that will shut you down and the more outdoor climbing that will be available to you. One of the best things about improving is how many more doors open. It’s also nice to go to Cactus Cliff or other popular crags on a busy weekend day and nobody’s even thinking about the route you want.

Keeping up general fitness is a must for climbing at your potential.

The other universal idea to keep in mind while training for climbing is to maintain your general fitness. So many times slacking on this has resulted in slipping climbing abilities. Then after getting back on the wagon, a spike in performance soon follows. Take advantage of non-climbing days and go for a run, hop on your bike, or complete a weightlifting circuit. Such “active rest” helps circulate the good oxygenated blood to sore muscles, healing them faster. The most sustainable methods to improve general fitness involve working routines into daily life to minimize the inconvenience, i.e. bicycle commuting, etc.

Finally, the right goals, training plan and brand new spandex will have no bearing on your success without the last essential ingredient: consistency. For a litany of good and bad reasons, many climbers ride a roller coaster. Two weeks of high motivation will be followed by a month of neglect. If you truly want to get to the next level, a steady, long-term approach is essential while extended gaps in training are fatal.

No matter your climbing ability or how much you devote yourself to the sport, the most important thing to remember is that in the long run, climbing should be fun. Training is a necessary means to achieve the satisfaction of accomplishment. But that satisfaction is derived differently for everyone, so you need to find that balance point for you where the sacrifice is worth the reward. This gets back to establishing the right goals. Also, as much as being physically prepared for climbing’s challenges matters, being able to maintain your mental edge is equally as important. As soon as you lose your psyche, your performance will suffer. Don’t take training to that point. Adam likes to divide his gym sessions into mostly enjoyable route climbing or bouldering, but before getting completely pumped and exhausted on routes, the last part of the day is devoted to specific training.

Climbing should be fun. If this isn't fun, it's time to reevaluate.

If you have the time and desire to hit the books to gain a better understanding of climbing physiology, there are volumes of quality literature on training. Anything written by Eric Horst will be worthwhile, particularly Training for Climbing. That book has been a primary source for the framework of this article. Athletik Specifik has a website with highly technical articles written by people with important letters behind their names, but worth a read, especially for those of the scientific persuasion. And it’s always informative to field the opinions of experienced folks.

With that in mind, we welcome any input you all have. Where do you feel most limited? What are your goals? What are the things that you have found to be the most effective?

Adam Mackintosh - This is by far the most down to earth and informative thing I have ever read about how to climb. It’s very refreshing, Thank you!March 1, 2012 – 1:15 pm

Sara Konecky - Coffee! Coffee helps sometimes, too. :) Seriously, though, this is a great piece! I have (reluctantly sometimes) been trying to face my weaknesses, all the while working on my strengths. I mentioned this to Adam over the weekend, but the biggest improvements for me have come from my mental outlook on climbing/training (for example, visualizing a move – If I cannot get a move, I visualize what it should look like, imagine how it should feel, and then try it. This helps tremendously.) Or I just tell myself to quit being a wimp. This piece makes me want to go work out. Thanks!March 4, 2012 – 11:57 pm

Tyler - This is a great article. Thanks, Chris and Adam.

I’ve found that when I route climb, my big weakness is endurance – but I also have found that my perceived level of endurance is also tightly tied to my focus on technique. If I can pull, say, ten 5.11 moves in a row before getting spit off a route, just from a purely enduro standpoint, then I can increase my high point on a route by getting my technique honed enough to pull some of those 5.11 moves down to 5.10.

To accomplish this, I train endurance by lapping easy routes as mentioned in the article – early on in the process, I train on really easy stuff (think 3-5 number grades easier than my target grade), up and down climbing routes for 15-20 minutes without stopping. Some people traverse boulder problems for this same amount of time, but I don’t think that is effective training because most of our climbing progress is vertical, not horizontal. We can use this endurance work to sharpen technique, and I prefer to practice vertical movement.

When I’m lapping routes, I’m focusing primarily on playing with footwork and body positioning. I’m trying to see what happens if, on my tenth pass over a particular section, I backstep onto that high foot, or crank my hips over this direction, etc. Sometimes it feels awkward. Awesome – I’ve just learned something. Sometimes it feels easier than expected. Awesome – I’ve just learned something. And that learning curve translates directly to difficult routes.

From a physiological and psychological perspective, we tend to revert to our most practiced movement patterns in times of stress. That means that when you’re on routes at your limit, you’re reinforcing movement patterns you’re already good at, which works just fine when you’re on a move to which those patterns are suited. If they don’t match up, you’re trying to push a square peg through a round hole, and making the move more difficult than necessary. The takeaway from this is that our best opportunity to learn new movement is on easy, easy routes, where the size of the holds, and the relative difficulty of the climbing gives you the opportunity to really play around with new movement. We can try new things on hard routes, but your brain literally will not wire the movement into its neural patterns as well. Hard routes are good testing grounds. Technical improvement happens on easy routes. This bears out in bouldering as well.

The other benefit of climbing long, easy (think never getting pumped in fifteen minutes kind of easy) is physical. This is where your body is best able to adapt to the training by increase mitochondrial production in the muscle cells and increased capillarity in the muscle fibers. This means your muscles effectively have bigger engines and a larger fuel line. That initial improvement is the base from which increased endurance on harder moves is built.

The biggest gains I’ve made as a climber since that initial learning curve flattened out have been in combined technique and endurance work as I’ve described above. It’s obviously not a cut-and-paste for everyone. As the article says, my weakness may not be your weakness. If, however you’re falling off of routes because the moves feel too hard, then you pull through each fall after resting for twenty seconds, you might be in the same boat as me.

Thanks again for the article. Great stuff.March 5, 2012 – 1:12 am

Emily Kilmer - Hold on, I need to go slap myself with moldy bologna. Okay, it will be 3 years of climbing for me in May. I remember the rapid success from 5.8s to 5.9s and then the plateau at 5.10s. When I got there I just decided to climb routes for endurance just to see what would happen. I was able to hold on longer and my mind was more at ease. Now, all the sudden, I feel like I have the potential to be leading 5.11s, but I think a lot of my improvement is mental and not so much physical. Something in my brain clicked and said, “Emily lead climbing isn’t that scary if you just pay attention, find rests, and break the route into sections”. I love this post because I thought all I needed to do was find routes that suited my strengths, but in the end that doesn’t help me. I need to work on my pinches, my abs, and my upper body strength. It is just hard to find a realistic work out to go along with nursing school and climbing. If you have any input for me I would appreciate it. I am definitely not to .12s, but my goal is to be there someday!March 5, 2012 – 11:55 am

Adam Scheer - Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

First I must say that Chris was the driving force behind this piece and thanks to him for letting me stick my nose in it! In the end, I very much enjoyed the process of writing a collaborative piece and I feel like the article is better because of the exchange of ideas.

Adam, thanks for the compliment. I’m glad we could strike a chord.

Sara, it was great seeing you this weekend! I’m really impressed with your climbing. You’ve always been good with crimpy, slabby lines, but to see you cranking away on JBMFP was inspiring! Whatever you’re doing in training has obviously paid off. Keep at it! Thanks for the note on visualization/motivation.

Tyler, thanks for breaking down your recommendations on endurance training. You’re a sprinter and will no doubt benifit from getting past that endurance barrier. As mentioned, I was the same way. Keep working at it! I’m really excited to see your continuing progression paying off – and to climb with you – this coming year!

Emily, bologna is a very special mix of like 17 different animals and lots of salt. As such it takes a long time to mold. I would suggest buying some soon so it has time to rot before the season really kicks in. Like many climbers, it sounds like you’re busy and just trying to squeeze in some climbing whenever possible. Sometimes life dictates that we neglect our passions for long term good. I would say that even if you can get to the gym once a week, you can maintain most of what you’ve built to this point. Sometimes it’s best to wait until life’s commitments aren’t quite so consuming to start zoning in on specific improvements.March 5, 2012 – 6:29 pm

Emily Kilmer - Thank you! I needed to read that it’s okay to make it in once a week for awhile and still stay about where I am at. You guys rock!March 5, 2012 – 6:42 pm

Andrew - Thanks for the article. I know Adam and I have talked about this in the past and what was suggested and reinforced here really helped. Focusing on the weaknesses really helps and maintaining the psych is crucial.

The one thing that was not touched on was rest. Everyone is human (well most of us) and you need rest. All the training the world won’t do you any good unless you give you body and mind time to recover. I have been climbing a lot lately and was starting to feel “done”. I would show up to the gym and just would not have the energy to do anything. I took 4 days off and came back feeling like I won the lottery and could do anything and those 12’s in the gym just didn’t feel that hard.March 7, 2012 – 12:24 pm

Janique - Thank you guys for taking the time to write this article, it is incredible and really puts some perspective into how to take on your climbing goals.
I re-learned a lot of things I think I and most people neglect along the way to their goal sends, and it’s good to have it reiterated.
Climbing 5’10s right now feels like right where I need to be, and when the time permits and my weaknesses and the kinks in my training are less I’ll be ready to crank out 5’11s and 12s for sure, because I can understand the fundamentals of getting there, especially after reading this great article!

Keep up the great work! And Climb on 😉January 9, 2013 – 10:53 am

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