Planning your training for climbing

img_9949-2I know the last blog I wrote on training may not have been very helpful if you want to know what to do, specifically, to get better at climbing. The first thing to understand is that there are varying philosophies and many books on the topic, including podcasts and opinions…mine included. My first recommendation is to pick one philosophy or training method/recommendation and stick to it, at least to understand the benefit before switching to something else. Beware the sparkle that comes from seeing something new and inspiring. Changing methodologies (esp. mid training) impacts the quality of the training and can actually impede the progress you are trying to make.

I won’t compare or contrast what is out there because it would take too much of this blog. I want to get to some content and share what I know has worked for me and why. The intent is to leave the reader with some clues for how to pick a strategy that could work for them and share why I ascribe to the method(s) I do.

You can get a glimpse of some training videos I put together last summer, here.

In a previous post, I shared how I came to the program I developed for myself, leveraging past coaching and successes. You must start with the same reflections.

  1. Have you done any training for climbing in the past? or any training at all of any kind?
  2. What are you hoping to get out of training for climbing? Is it overall fitness, climb a grade or so harder than you do today? Meet a life goal to climb something you think is out of reach today? Prepare for a seasonal objective?
  3. How long do you have to achieve your goal?
  4. Are there any impediments to focusing 100% to training? Life or injury, for example.
  5. How often do  you climb today? How many times per week, how long are the sessions, how much actual climbing is achieved during this time and at what average difficulty?

Once you have identified this, you can start to carve out how much time you can realistically dedicate to training. As well as what that training will look like.

For instance, my original schedule showed an outline that was something like this

M – rest, T – climb, train, W – active rest, Th – climb, F-climb, train, Sa – rest, Su – climb

based on a profile like this:

  1. I have experience with training for climbing based on my time competing in bouldering competitions. I very recently nearly completed a sustained 13b (fell just before chains on my 6th and final go) outside and had been onsighting mid 12’s in Frankenjura, climbing up to 13b this past spring (so short and powerful routes). I just coached a group over the summer after injuring my knee, which enabled me to get in some fitness and conditioning
  2. I need time to sort out some major life things like where I will live and what I will do to earn money so I need something to make climbing in the gym motivating and fun. Competitions had been great for that some years ago, maybe it can serve me in this way again….
  3. US Nationals is March 10 & 11, so I have (had) just under 3 months to prepare
  4. Work and life stress is high, climbing partners inconsistent, no significant injuries
  5. I climbed 3 times a week reliably but with no real plan for about 2 to 2.5 hours in a session, climbing about 8 to 10 routes with half >5.12, or bouldering with ~half >v5

I remember being able to stick to this kind of schedule at one time, but after a couple weeks trying to do this, I realized it had to change. Being able to adapt to the training is another example of training as an art. Being bullish to push through a schedule simply because you have a schedule is the sure way to burn out/over train or become injured.

Why is a schedule important if you will have to adapt and potentially change it?

A schedule is good for several reasons. First, it keeps you honest. You know when you have missed a training and it weighs on you that a training session is coming. Next, it guides the training over the period you have available for it. Finally, it keeps you on track, even if you have to adapt throughout.

If you are keeping up with all of this, then  you know before you start working out you need to

  1. figure out where you are (fitness)
  2. determine where  you want to go (goal) or what you want to train
  3. create a high level schedule

The next step is to figure out what goes into the schedule.

There’s an entire back story here, but to keep this post reasonable, what you want to train and how long you have to train it, will determine what goes into the schedule and which training philosophy will serve you best.

A few examples:

  1. Winter is coming and you want to be ready for an objective in the spring. You target April as the key date and work backwards to figure out when you should start training. It’s December, a big Holiday month, which realistically leaves you 4 months to prepare.
  2. Some friends are toying with the idea of hitting up Heuco Tanks over Thanksgiving.  It’s October.
  3. Life has been busy and you’ve been relegated to gym climbing but you know the outdoor season will come soon. How do you stay motivated and what can you do so you can improve your fitness and be ready to tackle key climbs as soon as or when that window of opportunity presents itself.
  4. You are psyched by your abilities and want to compete, this season is nearly over but what can you do to be ready for next season?

There’s no crash course training that will help you in any of these objectives. Jumping on a hang board for a few weeks prior to a trip will help wake up those muscles and only serve to begin the process of breaking down the tissues. Getting stronger takes time and consistency. It’s likely you will see a small gain, but a larger gain would be to give yourself more time and do a proper hang board training plan.

The best schedules have time on their side, whether it’s 1 month, 2 months, 3 months or 6 months. In my experience, 3 months of foundation work is when you are ready to begin some serious training. But, who has 3 months to invest in simply preparing themselves to be able to train? We can dissect this in another post. 🙂

Depending on your goals, you may need to break your objective out into smaller objectives to give yourself a better chance of making gains in reasonable amounts of time. If you are like most people, you probably have to cram training in between school/work, family, friends, and climbing.

With the shortest amount of time between the start of your training and the execution of the benefits of that training, is when it is best to isolate what it is you want to train. For example, that bouldering trip is 6 weeks away. You have time to do a hang board workout, campus or power work, followed by some circuits. If you started with hang board and circuits for the first 3 weeks, then incorporated more explosive work at the tail end and into the 4-6 weeks, then you would have a really good 6 week plan for 1) building a little more finger strength and hang stamina, 2) building some overall stamina so you last bouldering all day (compared to the few hours you are in the gym) and 3) wake up some power to help with pulling bursty moves. There really isn’t room in this training window for much else.

I prefer to break down the training into Foundation, Ramp Up, Peak, and Execution phases. The foundation part at its simplest is the ability to execute at some level right now, today. If you think of this triad: time, volume, and intensity, then you will have the basic tools for adjusting a workout to fit the phases.

Recall that your foundation is where you are today. Therefore, if you can do 10 pull ups with your body weight, then that is your base. If you only do 10 pull ups 1 time per week or every so often, then foundation building is doing 10 pull ups 2 times per week, every week.

To improve upon that and enter the Ramp Up phase would entail tweaking one item from the triad: e.g. decrease the time it takes to complete the set, increase the total number in the set, or add weight. Pick only one of these from the triad. If  your goal is to get stronger, add weight and decrease the number of reps. Gradually increase the reps until the next phase. If your goal is to increase stamina (the ability to simply do more pull ups), then increase the number of total reps. There’s another element in here that is interwoven with the time element. If you are trying to do successive reps in the set, then decrease the rest between pull ups to increase the intensity, until you have 0 rest and can do the entire set successively. Or, increase the intensity by doing them as fast as you can.

The last suggestion leads right into the Peak phase. After you’ve spent some time in Foundation and progressed into Ramp Up, it’s time to maximize the intensity. Once again we can look at the triad of time, volume and intensity. Because we are in the Peak phase, we want to focus on ways the triad can generate the highest intensity training. Therefore, in our pull up example, we can think of how we ramped up to know how to peak. If the goal is to get more power out of the pull ups, then low reps, with fast execution and a powerful movement pattern will be the most beneficial. One example of this would be to transform the pull up to a pull up clap.

Finally, after having gone through the major phases, you are ready for execution! Your program essentially looked like this

  • Foundation phase: 10 pull ups with 0 rest in between
  • Ramp up phase: 6 pull ups with x# weight added (take rest in between to get completion, try to minimize or eliminate rest over the course of this phase
  • Peak phase: Drop the weight, 4 pull up clap pull ups
  • Execution: Go climbing

The more time you have to commit to training, the more time you can give to each phase. The less time you have for training the less you can apply this structure.

I mentioned a schedule above. How many times a week should you be doing this? Let’s revisit that “training as art” question. The answer is, it depends.

How much time can you commit reliably and consistently to training? And, how much time are you climbing when you are not training?

If your climbing time is down to 2 times a week but you can train 3 times a week, then do this. If your climbing time is 3 to 4 times a week and you think you can train 3 times a week, I’d recommend training 2 times a week. But, this depends on the intensity of the training you intend to adopt and the quality of your climbing sessions and your ability as a climber. Many of my recommendations are on the conservative side of the spectrum and if you need a place to start, I’d start with that.

If you aren’t climbing much at all, then the main factor to consider is how intense are the exercises. For instance, a person who climbs a lot more but wants to train, will need to tailor the plan so that they don’t train to failure. Training to failure means more recovery time, which generally also equates to less climbing time, especially if a hang board or campus board or anything loading the fingers is involved. In the other case, training to failure is ok, but the downside is that you will need more rest in between sessions. This person would do well with the standard workout schedule most body builders adopt: fingers day 1, legs/core day 2, shoulders and arms day 3, fingers day 4, etc. or some combination thereof, e.g. fingers and legs/core day 1, shoulders and arms day 2, rest, repeat.

The next but not last or least of this plan is the number of sets to do. In that triad, you can apply the time, volume, and intensity to the overall set in addition to the actual subset. In our previous example of the 10 pull ups, that was one subset. The number of super sets of a subset you should do depends on what you are trying to achieve and all of the factors we talked about.

For a 3 month routine where the emphasis was on overall conditioning and strength building our program would look like this:

  • Foundation phase: 10 pull ups with 0 rest in between, 3 times with 5 to 10 minute rest in between each set
  • Ramp up phase: 6 pull ups with x# weight added (take rest in between to get completion, try to minimize or eliminate rest over the course of this phase, 3 times with 10 to 15 minute rest in between each set
  • Peak phase: Drop the weight, 4 pull up clap pull ups, 3 times in 1 minute for a total of 12
  • Execution: Go climbing

When you start a training plan, it’s natural to feel strong and competent the first few workouts, but after awhile, the workouts should feel challenging and start to wear you down some. The degree to which you feel worn down will directly correlate with the intensity you have designed for your workout. If you have been doing pull ups to failure and then try to climb the next day, not only will it feel difficult or next to impossible, but you risk injury as well.

Be prepared for this part of the training and know when to back off and when to push through. Generally, if something smarts (hurts in a bad way), back off. If it’s just fatigue, back off. If you planned a rest day and then a climbing day after a training day but the climbing day still feels like pooh. It’s an indicator that you need more rest after training. I’ll dig into this more in another blog post.

Remember, your body has to break down the tissues to build them up and that includes your mental space. Commit to the training, log everything to measure your results, and don’t be afraid to change something if you think it’s not working (either not giving you the return you want or it’s starting to hurt you). The building up of new, stronger tissues, takes time. Be patient. As long as you are consistent you will continue to trend upward with your progress.

Disclaimer 1: Climbing is dangerous. Training can lead to injury. The responsibility for what you do with the content you find in this blog or other blog entries in this site, is entirely your own and I am not liable for any injury or catastrophe suffered.

Disclaimer: WordPress may include ads, which I do not endorse, to various blogs following posts.

About Audrey Sniezek

Audrey Sniezek is a rock climbing athlete and computer software/technology enthusiast.
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