Semi-Rad: Let's Talk About Non-Training Potential


If you look in the masthead of this magazine on page 6, you’ll notice that there’s a question asked of all the staff and contributors each issue, and that those answers are printed next to each contributor’s name. One such question e-mailed to everyone by editor Shannon Davis was, “What climbing training or cross-training tactic has been most beneficial to your climbing, and why?”

I thought long and hard about my answer, and finally sent Shannon a response: “Training is something I have looked into.”

My answer was not one of the ones chosen to be printed in that issue, sadly. I did read several responses to Shannon’s question, which included Crossfit, Bikram yoga, the campus board, and—my favorite—12-ounce curls. It made me wonder if I should start doing this “training” thing that all the kids are apparently doing nowadays.

Technical climbing has been around for a long time, but training for it is a relatively new concept—19th century Chamonix guides weren’t doing hangboard workouts, were they? But John Gill, a former gymnast, trained for climbing and put up V9s before they were even called V9s, and John Bachar trained his ass off in the 1960s and ’70s and developed into one of the strongest, boldest climbers of all time. That was before climbing gyms existed, and long before climbing gyms started offering classes and installing specialized training devices.

Not so long ago, bouldering was the only real training for climbing longer routes, which in essence was training for climbing in the mountains. Now, there are all sorts of ways to train for bouldering, which is no longer just training for climbing routes, but a hobby pursued by determined people who become strong enough to move chest freezers by themselves and open non-twist-off beer bottles with their bare hands. I am not one of those people. Anything above about V5 is incomprehensible to my brain, and when I watch someone climb something harder than that, I don’t think, “Hey, they’re a climber, just like me.” I think, “That person should be in Cirque du Soleil.” Which perhaps puts me more at home with people who climbed recreationally in the 1960s and ‘70s than contemporary climbers.

Do you train? How serious are you? Do you bust out core workouts and do hangboard exercises in addition to climbing several times a week? Do you do cardio to stay lean enough to send hard routes? Do you ever think about how hard you would climb if you stopped training?

I’ve realized that in my admittedly not-too-lengthy, not-very-serious climbing career, the years I’ve climbed hardest are the years I’ve simply climbed the most. (And also during breakups, but that has little to do with training or not training.) I wondered this summer, what’s the hardest I could climb if all I did was climb—no pull-ups, no hangboards, nothing that isn’t climbing. Actually, nothing that isn’t fun—“fun” being defined as things I enjoy: climbing (including indoor climbing), trail running, backpacking, and mountain biking.

If you put up a profile on, you can type in how hard you climb on trad and sport routes, bouldering, and ice, presumably to match you with people looking for climbing partners. I’m sure some people inflate the grades, and some others sandbag a little, but most people probably consider their hardest onsight and enter that in the boxes.

I would love to add a fifth category: How hard you can send without training? Not like, “Oh, I haven’t been doing regular workouts because I’ve been climbing outside so much this summer,” but “I quit doing workouts and went back to 1950s-style training, which is not training.” But what to call it? It’s not quite the same as “off the couch,” as they say—you’re still climbing, not eating Cheetos for months and going climbing only when a friend needs a partner. It’s an all-fun, no-work classification. You are not pushing yourself to do exercises, just pushing yourself when you climb, indoors and out. I told my friend Dan about this idea, and he suggested something along the lines of “from nothing.” It’s kinda catchy if you say it in Latin: ex nihilo.

My current onsight limit, by the newly established ex nihilo standard, is about 5.9 trad and 5.10a/b sport—unless there are long sections of overhanging terrain, for which I don’t have the forearm strength. Which would be pretty decent for a rock climber in the pre-training era, right? Granted, I do benefit from sticky rubber and lighter, stronger gear.

Are you like me? Can you count the number of pull-ups you’ve done this month on one hand, or none? Are you mystified by some of the workout equipment in your climbing gym?

It’s OK, dude. We’re not lazy, just diehard practitioners of a new discipline of climbing: ex nihilo. We’re not unambitious, just distracted by other things besides training. And we should probably climb together. That’d be fun.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. He lives in his van and writes at