Rock climbing

Should you really train for rock climbing or just go rock climbing?

For decades, climbers have debated how much they should train and even, basically, whether to train at all. When I started climbing in the 1980s, training was kept in the closet: a guilty secret, like cheating. Climbers even had a romantic notion that our unique and diversely demanding activity might not be “trainable”. Indeed, Ron Fawcett, Britain’s top climber and a world leader in the late 1970s, said: “The best training for climbing is climbing.

The big question is whether the image has changed or not.

You can argue that no one really “practices” or that everyone does. Let’s define training as analyzing your climb and practicing exercises that you hope will make you climb harder. Émile Mennin at the Riveter in Fletcher, North Carolina. (Photo: Andy Wickstrom)

Today we see a generation of workout-obsessed climbers. A quick look at Instagram might lead us to believe that unless you run regular benchmark tests – single-arm front levers or pull-ups on 6-millimeter crimps, anyone? – and plan our training on spreadsheets, we’re behind. Coaches endlessly debate hangboarding protocols, how to target different energy systems, and ratios of a wide range of performance variables in a periodized program. Yet when you go to the cliff, you see a lot of good climbers (including really good) who don’t do many of these things. They are too busy on the rock, trying difficult routes!

One could of course debate the precise definition of “training”. You could argue on the one hand that no one really “trains”, and on the other that everyone does. As a coach for almost three decades, I find that the word “training” reflects an attitude rather than a specific practice. It’s the process of analyzing your climbing performance and engaging in drills or drills because you hope they will make you climb harder (I’m pretty sure most people do this at a given time).

So, if we accept that you train, at least to some extent, the next question is How much do you train?

Most things in life work best in moderation, and nowhere is that more true than in training. Training gives, but it also takes away. I could list countless benefits of training (since I’m a trainer, you hope!). First, through training, we can diagnose and correct weaknesses. An example might be a climber who always uses an open grip because she cannot grip holds in the semi-crimped position. If he regularly practices demi-crimp on a board for several months, he will begin to use it more when climbing and may feel much more confident and versatile overall. Another example might be a climber who struggles with endurance but only has access to a bouldering wall. If he regularly performs endurance-based bouldering exercises (easy and intermediate bouldering problems), then he can, in fact, build endurance on a medium that is generally more strength-oriented. We can stretch to promote flexibility; we can perform muscle strengthening exercises to reduce the risk of injury. A well-structured plan can also help prevent burnout by cycling the workload.

First of all, we have to love rather than fear pressure. The goal is not to practice to make your project feel easy – to master it; it’s to flourish when it hurts!

I could go on, but you get the picture – training helps a lot of climbers perform well. I attribute some or all of my climbing success to hard and strategic training, as the physical aspects of climbing don’t come naturally to me, but the technical, tactical and psychological aspects do. And so we come to the nub of the debate: understanding a tipping point at which training stops working like medicine and can become poison.

Some climbers love to train, so much so that they forget to climb. They like to train because they are good at it, and may not like climbing because they struggle on rock. Inside, and especially on the campus blackboard, they are warmly praised: “You are so strong and you would definitely climb ____ when you come out.”

Then, surprisingly, it doesn’t happen. After a beating, these climbers return, scratching their heads, to their spreadsheets and periodic plans to see where they went wrong.

The biggest pitfall of training is that if we go too far, we lose the raw skills and instincts that good climbing performance is built on. To climb well, you have to be creative and adaptable. Watch footage of Adam Ondra redlining on a 9a sight, rushing for micro shots as if guided by radar. Or Ashima Shiraishi, flying in a fully split rod on a power block during a competition. We also need to have a head to run over the rope or push over the pads. When Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell are way above their gear on a face of pristine granite, their minds – not their arms – drive them forward. We also need an eye to read complex sequences. We have to be able to change a game plan quickly.

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First of all, we have to love rather than fear pressure. The goal is not to practice to make your project feel easy – to master it; it’s to flourish when it hurts! To get the job done, we need to hone a killer instinct and the ability to pull off a result when the odds are against us. Training will teach us none of this. In fact, it can have the opposite effect.

Last year, I attended two team meetings in Europe with some of the best climbers in the world. I found that many had little appetite for complex scientific training. Some of the 9a+/b climbers I spoke to were unaware of the latest scientific theories, and many thought it was possible to go too far. Sure, you could argue that some of these girls and guys have superior genetics, but those alone aren’t enough to make it to the top of rock climbing. The feeling among this crew was that training was only half the battle, and you’ll still need to spend time on the cliffs to fulfill your potential. You can overanalyze something to the point of going off on a tangent and losing sight of your priorities or your central purpose, or the joy of climbing.

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It’s all about balance. I’ve met a lot of climbers who got lost without a training plan. If you are one, I suggest this is an uncertain headspace when it comes to your climbing. As a coach, it is my policy to refuse to issue a repeat training plan to a climber immediately after the person has completed the first one (even though many clients have begged!). Periods of training should always be followed by periods of performance – or if that last term adds pressure, periods where you’re climbing just for the sheer pleasure of it. Additionally, if you just train and train and train, you run a real risk of decreased performance and injury from overtraining (see Master Class, No. 381).

In short, to be a really good climber (and, dare I say, also to fully enjoy climbing), periodically turn off your training brain and go for it.

Take away food

  1. 1. When planning your yearconsciously allocate periods when you will not follow a structured training program and climb at your leisure.
  2. 2. If you have more trouble with technique or your heading game, spend more time working on these aspects of performance than training. If necessary, work on specific technical exercises and do training falls. Maximize your time on the rock.
  3. 3. Don’t sweat minor losses or physical performance gains. Benchmarking scores on a hangboard are useful for reference, but are often of little importance on the crag. If your scores drop, you may end up climbing better, relying more on technique.