Training is so often associated with blood, sweat and tears, that it's no wonder so many people shake their heads in disbelief when I say that I used to train for up to 20 hours a week. I am a bit to old for that kind of training now and tend to concentrate on having fun and keeping the injuries away! training will make you fiercely strong, give you confidence in yourself, build engrams, and most of all, give you satisfaction and fun.
Dale Goddard et. al. make a fantastic statement in their book Performance Rock Climbing. "Climbing is a movement sport", and Wofgang Gullich said, "strength only supplements good technique!" So why in the early 90s were we hanging off finger boards, pumping iron and generally trying to outdo one another in one arm pull-up games? Because we had got it all wrong! Look at those kids who start climbing young. At first they must rely on good technique to pull them through those tricky sequences. Then they develop strength, and the combination of technique and strength is phenomenal!
So, how do we train? We train climbing movement and strength together on various climbing walls, making sure that all times we have fun, because if we don't have fun, how will we ever do well?
➤Hunger to Win!
In order to prevent injury, and peak our strength and endurance at a competition or to prepare for a hard route we'll be using a training cycle. My training cycle is usually 3 months and I would suggest that you keep it between 2 and 4 months. The idea is to build up a high level of strength and endurance for a short period that should preferably be at the competition or when you want to go on a road trip and try some hard routes. To prevent injury you must then rest 10% of your cycle - in my case 1 week is sufficient. (see graph below)
The four types of strength training can be seen in the graph below:
➤Aerobic energy restoration and capillarity (ARC)
➤Power Endurance (PE)
First, let's look at 2 terms ...
A muscle consists of thousands of muscle fibres that are either on or off. When pulling at 20% of your maximum strength, 20% of these fibres will be "on". Doing super-hard boulder problems or campus boarding "recruits" 100% of these fibres at max strength.
These are the way in which movements are stored in the brain. When you climb your body learns to recognise certain patterns and stores then in the brain as engrams. The more you climb, the more engrams you acquire, and the more you repeat a move, the more engrained an existing engram becomes.
Did you ever notice that even after a long break from climbing you are able to do a route that you know really well with relative ease, but something that is the same grade, but unfamiliar to you feels completely desperate!
That's engrams in action. They allow you to recognize problems quickly and your body "reacts" to these problems so that you flow through the different sequences easily.
- Aerobic Energy Restoration and Capillarity (weeks 1 to 2)
- Hypertrophy (weeks 3 to 7)
- Recruitment (week 8)
- Power Endurance (weeks 9 to 11)
- Rest (week 12)
Imagine taking a break from climbing and then jumping onto a campus board. Your muscles will have weakened and almost any betting man will place money on the odds of you hurting yourself! So, for weeks 1 and 2 of your training cycle I would suggest that you do ARC training which consists of climbing continuously for 30 to 45 minutes at about 20%.
The aim is to teach the muscles to adapt to high demands for aerobic energy restoration by loading them at a low density and long duration that is continuous (that is, no breaks for 30 to 45 minutes). To get this right I train on a vertical to gently overhanging wall for 30 to 45 minutes at a time, trying to keep a mild pump in my arms. I then rest for the same length of time, before doing another set. If you do get a burning pump get off the wall for a minute or two before continuing at a milder pace.
Because you are doing so much climbing (+/- 360 moves) your body is building up those engrams which are so useful in competitions and other on sight situations. Your body is also adjusting tot he training and will react by slowly getting stronger.
Physiologically speaking, when you get pumped the capillaries in your forearms get squeezed shut, restricting the flow of blood that you so desperately need to remove all of that gooey lactic acid stuff. When you do ARC training more capillaries will gradually develop, and voila! your blood has more highways to travel along to clean out the lactic acid! down side of this training is that it is difficult to motivate yourself to climb at 20% for 30 minutes plus. But, this could be the key to your future competition success, so psyche up, grab a friend to train with, get some music going, and get mildly pumped! You can do up to 3 days of ARC training in a row as your muscles won't get too fatigued, but remember to listen to your body, and don't ignore it when it complains.
During weeks 1 to 2 I will also do tons of easy climbing. Even though you aren't climbing continuously, all that easy climbing is great for light endurance and engrams. For the rest of your cycle try to do some ARC training once a week to keep your aerobic energy restoration and capillarity up.
Now that you have adjusted your muscles after 2 weeks of ARC you'll want to build some power. For weeks 3 to 7 I try to build the muscles in the upper body, particularly in the forearms. For this kind of exercise I train at about 60-80% of my maximum for around 6-12 moves on my climbing wall. Longish boulder problems are ideal for this kind of training. I end up doing about 30 boulder problems over 3 to 4 hours. During the first two hypertrophy sessions you will feel weak but soon after that your body will adjust and you will start cranking hard boulder problems.
If you take your climbing seriously, get yourself your own gym. It allows you to train at any time and - more importantly - no one will change your set problems. Set problems are particularly important in the hypertrophy and power endurance phases as they allow you to do large volumes of climbing which is essential for competitions and on sighting.
Doing many set problems won't tire you out, and you won't need to spend time on one particular problem trying to figure it out. Instead, you'll do the problems first go. I letter every panel, and number the holds on each panel. Then I use a spreadsheet to mark the problems. The boulder problem database for my wall is just short of 50.
What you are aiming for in this phase is not to get pumped, but to fall off the wall because you can't pull a move due to lack of power. After 2 to 3 hours of good hypertrophy training your muscles should ache, and the next morning you should feel like a slap stokvis. I rarely train two days of hypertrophy, but tend to do day on day off cycles. I might do some ARC/easy climbing the next day, but always remember to rest the day before so that you are fresh to pull hard.
Variety is the spice of life, so try not to repeat problems in one training session. Variety will ensure that you enjoy your training, and a motivated training partner will also help you to get the most out of each session. A training partner will also uncover your weaknesses as you struggle to climb his or her type of problems.
On the weekend, I would suggest that you do some hard bouldering, short powerful routes or easy ARC routes. This ensures that you wont't fade away in your gym. Remember to do some climbing outdoors as it will keep your mind in touch with leading routes.
Huge amounts of power are not necessary for competitions and long routes, but an increase in strength will equate to an increase in endurance as you won't be pulling so hard (smaller percentage of your maximum strength) when you use that sloper or edge. To crank really hard we need to teach our muscle to use 100% of our muscle fibres.
We teach our muscle fibres to all pull at once (i.e. 100% recruitment) by pulling real hard and real simple! During weeks 6 to 7 I start doing some really short hard problems in the middle of my hypertrophy sessions. During week 8 I warm up, and then do progressively harder problems for about 45 minutes. Then, I'll follow this with about 45 minutes of intense campus boarding. The campus boarding sets should last no longer than 5 seconds, and must concentrate on your forearms. Really focus yourself mentally here as it is no easy task doing recruitment training. After this session I'll cool down by doing tons of hypertrophy problems until my forearms ache.
Once again, listen to your body, but I recommend that a really hard recruitment session may need to be followed by 2 days rest. A boulderer or a climber that concentrates on short hard red points should spend more time with recruitment to improve their max strength. A climber who concentrates on competitions or on sighting will want to develop engrams more than strength so will want to do more moves and will there fore do less recruitment.
This is the training that masochistic climbers love so much as the saying "No pain, no gain" applies here. The idea in this phase is to get so pumped that you won't be able to bush your teeth before you collapse in bed.
PE is one facet of training that I haven't perfected yet, but I've come up with some good ideas after talking to David Olds and doing some experiments. I've tried climbing on my wall following no particular route for 5-6 minutes, and also doing a really intense 3 minute known problem. I found that I got really pumped but could only do 3 to 4 of these sets in one night, which meant that I didn't get enough movement. What I now do is climb a set problem of 25-30 moves (made by linking 3-4 of my hypertrophy problems). Then I rest for around 3 minutes before doing another different set of 25-30 moves. The idea is not to get too blown in the first 2 sets but to pace myself. I rest 3 minutes again, and finally absolutely blow myself on a different problem. This is the same intensity as the first two, but I usually end up climbing about 40-50 sickly pumping moves. Then rest for about 30 minutes and repeat the triple set until you start to palpitate. I start to go cross-eyed after 4 triple sets. By the end of the evening you should be so stuffed that you can't even do your warm up problems.
What is important to remember is that we've entered into the potential over training zone. The combination of high power and lactic acid are not good, so I limit the length of this cycle to 3 weeks. Once again, listen carefully for those aches.
PE training shows benefits very quickly, and after 2 to 3 sessions you will feel your endurance start to sky rocket. After the first week get out to the crags and start pushing you on sight level or try that steep and pumpy red point, as these are also good forms of PE training. Organise your training so that you will have done about 2 weeks of PE and pumpy rock climbing before a competition.
There is one unfortunate trade off with this phase of training, and that is that it can lower your power. To combat this I sometimes spend half an evening doing some power and then finish off with 2 or 3 triple power endurance sets. This will ensure that your power levels remain high.
To words to say it all - injury prevention! Rest for two weeks and rest well. Score some points with your spouse/lover and go for a dirty weekend somewhere. Whatever you do, don't climb! This will ensure that you will be psyched and well rested when you start your cycle again!