Never Get Pumped Again, Part 3: Steve Bechtel’s 6 Fail-Proof Bouldering-Wall Workouts
While it might go against common sense, it’s actually easy—and way more time-effective—to build power-endurance and endurance on a bouldering or spray wall. Top climbing coach Steve Bechtel gets into the nitty gritty of why this works—and how.
In this session, we are looking to increase power-endurance for a specific route or boulder style. Some routes or problems, especially near your limit, will require more than just “endurance.” Say you want to do the Right Martini (V12) at Hueco Tanks. By checking out some videos online, you can easily figure out the duration it might take you, the movement, and more. For such a problem, you won’t need to be able to climb five minutes nonstop on jugs, so your training time would be better spent working on big moves between crimps, and doing work intervals closer to two minutes.
With this in mind, you can be very specific with hold types, angle, and the difficulty of the problems. In general, you’ll start with a good bouldering warm-up that ends with some longer problems to get a bit of a pump in the arms. Rest 4 to 6 minutes, then set up for the session.
The standard session comprises 4 to 8 sets of two linked problems, both around your flash grade or just slightly easier. You will climb problem 1 to its end, then downclimb on open holds, but avoid shakeouts and taking too much time on the way down. Once back close to the bottom, traverse to the beginning of problem 2 then climb that problem to the top. You can also choose to do the same problem twice. Don’t fall into the trap of always making the second problem easier—it will come back to bite you. When in doubt, do the easier problem first. If we continually add easy climbing on after harder climbing, we allow our bodies to adapt to using lower-threshold (weaker) muscle fibers as we fatigue. The goal of power-endurance training should always be to maintain the highest power possible in each effort.
Most athletes will complete one set in 60 to 90 seconds. Aim to start with at least a 1:5 work:rest ratio, so if your set takes 90 seconds, you’ll rest about 8 minutes before the next set. If you see solid performance across all sets, you can increase the difficulty of the problems in the next session. If your performance tapers off, add a couple of minutes of rest between each set. Don’t decrease rest time between sets! Although this will make the session more difficult, it is a less useful adaptation than resting plenty and doing harder moves in the work sets.
This session takes 35 to 75 minutes after warm-up.
I recommend doing just 4 sets in session 1, five in session 2, and working up to 7 or 8 sets for the remainder of the training cycle.
Extended circuits are similar to what Frank Dusl did back on his home wall. There are two ways to approach building your circuits.
Do a problem 1 to 2 grades easier than your flash grade, then add in a technical (i.e., not just downclimbing on jugs and huge feet) traverse/downclimb back to the base of the wall, from where you launch into the next problem. Over the course of several sessions, you’ll dial in the beta, then add more climbing back up, in circles, etc. You can incorporate existing problems, but try to avoid super-easy sections. Consistent climbing difficulty allows you to better recognize the signs of fatigue and of improvement. Once you get to your ideal circuit length (over 50 moves is rarely useful), you can start trying to send it, hopefully a few times per session. This method works best for walls with fixed hold patterns, such as the Grasshopper, Tension, Kilter, or MoonBoard.
If you have a wall where the hold patterns aren’t fixed—on which you can move holds around—this second method can be very educational and entertaining. Here, you’ll figure out a very easy (technical moves, yet on big holds) circuit from 20 to 50 moves long—your adaptations will be specific to the circuit length, so feel free to customize based on your training goals. Once you have a long circuit sorted out, your goal is to send it maybe 4 out of 5 tries per session.
A typical session will involve doing the circuit, then resting at least five times as long as you climbed—and maybe more. You don’t want to start set two noticeably fatigued from set one. Ideally, the first session or two will leave you thinking that you haven’t trained hard enough. If you send 4 out of 5 circuits in a session, take a look at the circuit and try to eliminate the easiest move or change one of the biggest holds out for a more challenging one. Small changes can make big differences.
Remember that it’s not just smaller holds that make a problem difficult; look for difficult hold matches, hard cross-though moves, dynamic reaches, and bad footholds. Circuit setting is an art in and of itself, and is worth paying attention to as you train. Often it is the awkward nature of climbing positions and not the holds themselves that makes outdoor climbing so tough. The better we can simulate that experience, the better our training will transfer to the rock.
I have two favorite workouts that use the clock. The first is boulders on the minute (OTM), and the second is density sessions.
In OTM sessions, we usually limit the sets to 10 minutes, meaning that you’d do one problem each minute for a total of 10 problems before taking a 10-minute break. The problems on home walls tend to be short and powerful, but for this session you want to be sure that you’re climbing for less than 35 seconds at a time. If your problems are taking any longer, you’re going to end up getting terribly pumped really quickly, which is not the goal of the training.
For most climbers, I find that two sets of OTM problems per session is a good place to start: You work for 10 minutes, rest 10 minutes, then do 10 more problems/minutes. Factoring in your warm-up, this session takes just 40 to 50 minutes. If you’re unused to this kind of training, start with the easiest problems you can find. For example, session one might see you do 10 V1 problems, rest 10 minutes, then do 10 more V1s. Next session, add in two to three slightly harder problems, and progress the problems after that as tolerated. Eventually, you’ll average out to V2s, then V3s, and so on.
More advanced climbers can aim for three or even four sets per session, but the true value here is to add difficulty to the repeated problems rather than to add massive duration to a workout. The training outcomes of multiple sets result in high capacities for repeated efforts, whereas harder problems will lead you to harder individual sends.
A second timed series that works well on a home wall is a density session. Density sessions are all about fitting more work at a given workload into a fixed time period. For this workout, we’ll again use the 10-minute timer, but this time, we will go just a bit harder on the initial problems. Instead of aiming for easy as possible, as we do in the OTM session, these problems should be one to two grades below your flash level. Once you’ve determined the difficulty of the problems, make sure you know several problems in this zone well. Playing around with your app or trying to onsight will slow you down substantially.
Once you’re warmed up, set a timer for 10 minutes and start climbing. Note each problem as you complete it, and rest as needed between problems. At the end of 10 minutes, take a break of 10 more minutes, then repeat another 10 minutes of density climbing. In this workout, you might get only 6 to 7 problems in 10 minutes at first. This is fine. In the density sessions, we’ll advance the climbing differently than we do in OTM. Rather than trying to increase the difficulty of the sets, we will instead pursue more total climbing per 10-minute block. This might look like just one more problem per workout, but over the course of a full cycle of endurance, the changes will be great.
As I noted previously, the value of any of these sessions is in the sum of several of them, not in the fatigue of the first. Careful and slow progress through 8 to 12 workouts will yield excellent and noticeable results.
Customize Your Workout
If you’re getting pumped silly on routes, starting with a series of linked problems might be your best bet. If you just can’t recover at rests, OTM or density workouts can show good results. If power output starts to fade on long boulders or short routes, extended circuits can be of great use.
Although each of these sessions produces slightly different results, you can incorporate all of these session styles into your long-term training plan. Focusing on just one style of session tends to show better results, and taking the time to step back and take a look at what’s truly holding us back is a big key.
Steve Bechtel is a lifelong climber, and has been coaching climbers for most of his adult life. He is the cofounder of the coaching companyand the education director for the Performance Climbing Coach seminars. He lives with his wife, Ellen, and their children, Anabel and Sam, in Lander, Wyoming.