Learn to Train: Increase Your Power

Make big moves
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Make big moves

This is part three of our five-part series, Learn to Train: A Complete Guide to Climbing Training.

Nina Williams works the campus ladder at the Front Training Room, Salt Lake City. Photo: George Bruce Wilson

Nina Williams works the campus ladder at the Front Training Room, Salt Lake City. Photo: George Bruce Wilson

The Problem

You can’t do single dynamic moves and deadpoints, or have trouble latching holds after big moves.

The Solution

Train power by using a campus board and bouldering at your limit.

How it Works

Power equates to force over time—in movement terms, that means generating motion very quickly. When holds are far apart, getting from one to the next can require momentum, as well as the contact strength to successfully latch a hold once you’ve reached it. On vertical and slightly overhanging terrain, your legs, hips, and core can generate most of the necessary power, but for steep boulders and routes, you’ll need to rely on power from the upper body.

Increasing power requires several different muscular changes in your forearms, but they’ll all be trained at the same time through the following approach. Broadly, the adaptations fit under the category of contact strength, which is how much force you can apply the moment you touch a hold. If you lack good contact strength, you might find it easy to slowly grasp a hold from the ground, but can’t grip the same hold during a dynamic movement, in which you must latch it instantly. Training power forces your body to use more muscle fibers at once, as well as alters the types of fibers from slow twitch to fast twitch.

Keep in mind that training power can easily lead to injury, so workouts should be done when you’re well rested and last no more than an hour, one to two times per week, with at least 48 to 72 hours of rest between workouts. Each exercise should only take 10 to 15 seconds, with rests between each activity. Longer rests will only increase your training’s effectiveness and safety, so rest as much as you need to feel fresh. If any joint feels tweaky during a campus workout, or you feel you’ve lost your full power, end the workout.

The Campus Board

Sport climbing pioneer Wolfgang Güllich famously said, “There’s no such thing as too much power.” He established the world’s first 5.13d, 5.14a, 5.14b, and 5.14d, so we’ll take his word for it. Güllich developed the gold standard for power training: the campus board. To move between the spaced wooden rungs, you must make explosive dynamic movements that are initiated by your upper body without the help of your feet, and then quickly latch the next rung.

Starting out on the campus board, use the largest rails. You may need to use foot rungs to take some weight off your hands. The lower the foot rung, the easier the move will be. Eventually, the goal is to not use your feet. If you are using feet, focus on only resting your feet on the hold, not pushing with them. Pull with your arms, and keep in mind that you can change foot position throughout a session, moving to easier rungs as you get more tired.

For a basic campus move, start with hands matched on the lowest rail, exploding up to the next rail with one hand and grabbing it at the highest point of your movement. Jumping between rungs will feel uncontrolled at first, but keep your core and legs tight, and maintain body tension throughout the move. Expect to latch the next rung, and you probably will.

For your first workout, do four rounds of match ladders, followed by four sets of basic ladders (both described at right). After each round, rest two minutes then switch the starting hand for the next round. Rest as much as you need to feel fresh for your next set.

After a few weeks, match and basic ladders may feel easy, so it’s time to up the difficulty. Harder variations will train power in the arms and shoulders, while bumps will focus on contact strength. To start, do two sets of both matches and basic ladders, then two sets of harder ladders and bumps.

Match ladders

Start with both hands on the first rung. Move the right hand up one rung, then bring the left hand up to match it. Move the right hand up again, then match. (Switch the starting hand for each set.) Go as high as you can, then drop off.

Basic ladders

Start matched on rung 1, move one hand to rung 2, then bring the trailing hand up to 3. Continue as high as you can, then drop off.

Harder ladders

Start matched on rung 1 and move up to rung 3 with one hand, then rung 5 with the other hand. Repeat the move up to rungs 7 and 9 before dropping off.

Bumps

Start matched on a rung around chest height. Bump one hand up one rung, and continue bumping it until you fail to latch the next rung. Do the same with the other hand. Pay special attention to your core and body position: Facing slightly left while bumping your right hand will feel more natural, and vice versa.

Mix It Up

Campus boards are a very focused way to train power, but they won’t help you develop technique. Many climbers prefer limit bouldering, meaning doing a few moves in a row at your limit, which can be more enjoyable. The biggest benefit is that it can train hard, technical movement while also training power. Though the concept is simple, it’s important to stick to the exercise and not get distracted trying to send gym projects.

Find several boulder sequences that are near your personal limit for quick, dynamic movement. They should be only three to seven hard moves—none of the moves should be easy. The goal is to do repeated powerful movements that force deadpointing and sticking difficult holds.

Make up a sequence (you don’t have to stick to the established problems), and give it a go. If you complete it first try, it’s too easy. If you fall off the first move, consider that one attempt. Rest two to three minutes before trying again, focusing on form, power, and precision. After you’ve given this sequence three to five solid attempts, move on to another and repeat the process.

Try four to five different sequences, aiming for 30 minutes to an hour. Rest more if you don't feel fresh between attempts, and stop as soon as you feel fatigued. You may feel like you’re not climbing enough, but power is being trained even though you won’t feel thrashed.

To improve your climbing by learning the proper ways to train your weaknesses, check out the rest of our series Learn to Train: A Complete Guide to Climbing Training.