rock climbing courses

Principles of training for climbing

Train smarter, not harder. There are millions of training methods, products, nutritional aids and people telling you how effective their training method is. It’s hard to know what works and what is a waste of time and money. A general rule is that if you have been promised quick results, it’s a con. A smart training program will cover all the principles below; don’t waste your time chasing training methods that don’t follow the key principles.

  • Commitment - The more work, effort and time you put into climbing the more you will get out of it. There is not shortcut, just a long a gradual road that we must all go down. Some people would be better than others due to things out of our control like genetics, but that does not mean you can’t improve. We can all reach the grade of French 7a or above as long as we are willing to put in the required effort.

  • Specificity – training must be matched to the needs of the sporting activity to improve fitness in the body parts the sport uses. For example there is no point building leg strength if you want to improve your pull up ability. This is common sense, but this principle goes even deeper than the obvious. If you spend all your time climbing long routes you will not be improving your strength. Climbing long routes will make you better at climbing long routes.

  • The more specific the training is, the closer it is matched to your goal the more effective the training will be. Going the gym and using weights to help build your forearm strength might help but this is not as specific to climbing as using a finger board, which in turn is not as specific to climbing as Bouldering. Fingerboard training is matched very closely to climbing, but it is still not perfect. During a climbing move your hand will grip the hold and your body will move around the grip. This means that you will be holding on using a variety of wrist positions. Fingerboard training does not force you to move your muscles in this way and therefore lacks specificity. I am not saying that fingerboards won’t help, they can be very effective, they’re just not perfect.

  • Overload - fitness can only be improved by training more than you normally do. The muscles must be trained at a level they are not used to, which forces them to develop.
    Overloading the muscles requires you to repeatedly subject the muscles to a high demand. If you force your muscles to work at this level they will slowly adapt in order to cope. The ability of the body to cope and adapt is know as Super-compensation. After exercise you will have caused a small amount of damage to your body, one of the reasons you are not as strong at the end of your climbing session as you were at the beginning. Your body will repair the damaged muscles but also super compensate by building more muscle so you will be better fitted to cope with the demands.
    This principle is one of the reasons fingerboards can be effective. When you are climbing you will hold lots of different shaped holds, this will result in using different parts of the muscle in different ways. This makes it very hard to repeatedly subject the muscle to the high demands required by the overload principle. When you are climbing you often fall off the route, not due to the fact that your muscles have become too tired through repeated overload, but you fall off due to technical misjudgements. Maybe you mistime a dyno or lose your balance! If you fall due to technical demands you will not have caused enough of an overload to gain maximum super-compensation. A fingerboard does not have this issue, as you are training the same grip type with no technical element or change in grip. The only problem is that fingerboards are not completely specific to climbing (see above). So what’s the answer? Most climbers will choose a mix of both depending on their ability. System boards were also invented to help solve this problem. A system board is a set of identical holds set on a wall. When climbing on a system board you will use the same grip type on each move and so retain the movement patterns specific to climbing.

  • Progression – As soon as you have adapted to the stresses placed on your muscles you must then increase the demand again, so the muscles are forced to adapt again.
    Every couple of weeks you should change the type of climbing you are doing. If you have been using the finger board for a while you should try something else such as Bouldering or campus boards. This will keep your body constantly adapting to the different overloads.

  • Reversibility – any adaptation that takes place as a result of training will be reversed when you stop training.

  • Warm up and warm down – Most climbers will warm up (a little) but few warm down. I am sure we all know that we should do these things, but I would like to stress why it’s so important. Warming up will make you climb better and help reduce the risks of injury. If don’t warm up you be become tired and the length of your session will be reduced, this will dramatically effect the productivity of your session. Not only will the length of your climbing session be reduced but a poor warm up will reduce the effectiveness as well. Proper training requires you to overload your muscles (see above). If you have not warmed up the muscles will not be able to work as hard and therefore will not be overloaded to the required level to produce a training effect. Warming up should consist of 10 minutes of aerobic activity. After this some light stretching of all the muscles will help your flexibility and reduce the chances of injuries. From here you should start with some easy climbing and slowly work your way up. During the easy climbing section you should not fall off or even be close to falling. This type of climbing should last around 30 minutes.
    Warming down will help you recover from the session. A proper warm down will reduce the rest time needed between sessions. This will mean you can climb more often, or during the next session you will find your muscles are less tired and able to work harder.
    A warm down is best done by some gentle climbing for around 20 minutes followed by a 10 minutes stretching session. This is also a good time to eat a small amount of carbohydrates to increase the rate the muscles will repair themselves.

  • Flexibility training – Flexibility is very important in climbing, a flexible climber will be able to use high footholds, rock over and use their legs more than an inflexible climber. Imagine two climbers using a high foothold, one climber is extremely flexible and the other is not. The flexible climber will be able to place their leg on the foothold and because the leg is not at its limit, the climber will still be able to push with that leg. The inflexible climber might be able to use the foothold, but because the leg is being forced to work out of its normal range of motion, a lot of force will be needed to stand up on the leg. This extra force will have to be generated by the arms until the climber’s leg has become straighter. Good flexibility can reduce the need to pull with the arms.

  • Periodisation – This is a technique where the year is broken down into smaller periods. During each period the athlete will work on a particular aspect of their fitness. This is done as the gains from the previous session can be built on during the next session. Imagine a climber who climbs three times a week. In each session the climber will do a different type of climbing. The first session is a Bouldering/strength session, the second an anaerobic session and the third is an aerobic session. Although this climber will be putting in the required number of hours, they are only training each element of climbing fitness once a week. Training strength, anaerobic and aerobic fitness once a week is not enough to produce maximum gains, it may not even produce any fitness gain. This is why climbers should break their climbing into periods. Periodisation will also reduce the chance of injuries as the climber will be changing the emphasis of the sessions before any overuse injury can occur.
    A good general climbing cycle would be four weeks of endurance climbing, followed by three weeks of strength, 2 weeks of anaerobic training and one week rest.

  • Rest – Your body gets stronger during your rest days. The training will produce a stimulus for your body to build more muscle, nerves, and energy stores. It will also increase bone density and develop tendons. This is done during your rest days.
    A good training session will leave your body tired and unable to perform at its normal level. If you decide to climb before you have recovered you will be even more tired at the end of the second session. Constantly climbing before you have recovered leads to lower levels of fitness as your body is never allowed enough time to produce any fitness gains. This is called over training.
    There is no hard and fast rule about how often you should climb. A good general rule would be to only climb when you feel well-rested with no muscle soreness.

  • Practice – 10 000 hours rule. Climbers never practice climbing, we all go to the wall and try to climb hard routes. All other athletes spend time practicing the skills required to excel. Football players spend most of their time practicing drills and only play one game a week. Tennis players will practice serve after serve after serve. How often do you go to the wall and practice rock-overs or back-steps?
    This type of practice can produce good results and quickly. You will be best practicing with people that can provide you with feedback. This type of climbing fits very well into the warm-up part of your session.
    The 10 000 hour rule states that you must practice a skill for 10 000 hours before this skill becomes natural and efficient. The more time you can practice good technique the better.
  • Pick your parents. Genetics can play a huge role in your ability. The top climbers will have a genetic predisposition to climb well. One thing that is often seen in the top class climbers is their high levels of motivation. This seems to the most important common factor for elite climbers. Maybe this motivation is genetic or maybe not, but we can all work hard and we can all improve.

  • Start early. Another factor that is now out of our control is that we should have started climbing when we were kids. During our development there are optimum stages for growth and leaning. One of the main movement learning stages happens when we around 12 years old. During this stage our body and brain are perfectly adapted to learning new skills. We learn quickly and efficiently. If we had started climbing at this stage we would have learnt many more movement patterns and by now be much more effective at performing them.

  • Strength trains endurance, endurance does not train strength. This is a general training principle. Endurance climbing is effected by two things; first is your ability to deal with the waste products of anaerobic metabolism. During prolonged high intensity exercise the body will be produce waste products, you will be aware of Lactic acid (although this is not as bad as everyone thinks) but it is hydrogen ions that cause the muscle pain and makes our muscles weak. If your muscles can cope with the high acidic level you will have better endurance. The other thing to improve your endurance is your Anaerobic Threshold. This is the intensity level at which your muscle are no longer able to produce the energy requirement by using aerobic systems (using oxygen). At this point the body will start using the anaerobic systems (lactic acid system). This Anaerobic Threshold is the reason why strength will help your endurance.
    Imagine two climbers, one strong, one weak, but both have the same anaerobic thresholds. Both climbers will have to start using the lactic acid system to create energy when they are working at 70% of their maximum. 70% for the stronger climber is a much higher level and therefore will have greater endurance.

  • Work on your weakness. One of the easiest ways to get better at climbing is to practise the type of climbs you are not very good at. The biggest improvements come when we are learning new skills, so if you are not very good at cracks, spend some time on cracks and you will improve dramatically.


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