Grasping at Draws: Serious Climbers Only!

How the new school trains to train

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Cool route, but it’s no one-arm front lever on a 20mm edge.Andrew Burr

When I wanted to improve during my early climbing years, a decade or so ago, I was free from the compunction to do anything more than climb. Facebook was barely a thing, my friends and I would pop climbing DVDs into our computer to get hyped, and the only training info we had was Eric Hörst’s How to Climb 5.12. If you wanted to progress beyond that, well, friend, you were on your own.

The landscape today has changed. I can’t drop into a single social-media feed without coming across a shirtless boy wonder, abs a-glistening, cranking one-arm front-lever pull-ups with 200 pounds dangling off his harness. We are approaching training saturation, and today actually going climbing has come to feel secondary as the rising tide of training porn floods the media space. In fact, in two short years, a few climbers will call themselves Olympians. Keeping up on the global competition (ahem, training) circuit requires more specialized fitness and focus than ever, and ‘Gram followers demand insider knowledge of these radical techniques. After over a decade of seeing this training evolution in gyms across the United States, I’ve discovered the seven key tenets of this subculture.

1. Stretch, elaborately

It’s not about flexibility, friend; this is about mobility. Flexibility is Thomas Kinkade; mobility is Water Lilies. It’s high art. It’s emotionality. Start with a routine, with static stretches, kinetic stretches, leg swings, arm circles, a couple yoga tricks, and then move like Jagger with a little waddle-walk. On prime-numbered days and days that are multiples of eight, throw in a 45-minute Om session in the lead cave. Find some space (it’s OK if it’s other people’s space—stretching is that important) and spread out. When other climbers start to look nonplussed, meet their gaze while moving rapidly in and out of Bridge Pose. Silently thrust your pelvis toward the mobility gods and revel in your abilities.

2. Accessorize your hangtime

A year ago, a visiting pro-climber friend inquired about the San Francisco gyms. He needed info about their hangboard setups. “Pulleys. What gym has the best hangboard setup with pulleys and stuff,” he texted me in more of a statement than question. I could feel the anxiety in his tapping, and expected a scowling Bitmoji to follow. I lied, trying to impress him, lauding my local gym as if it were a veritable OK Go–level Rube Goldberg setup, since complexity seemed to be what he was looking for.

What my friend did teach me was that every serious climber needs to accessorize her hang time. If your gym has pulleys, attach them all in a 3:1 to 2:1 to 1:3 ratio so that it’s impossible to tell whether the weights are adding to, or countering, your own. Those two-finger one-arm dead hangs will never be so easy or look so difficult. Trust the process.

While you think about that, consider this: timing, specifically hangtiming. In the hangboard/campus board sector, there is usually a cacophony of beeping stopwatches, alarm clocks, and smartphone timers. According to these, your hangs should last between 0.5 and 5 seconds. Your standard trainhanger will also require a separate timer to calculate rest time, which can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, during which the trainhanger will walk around the gym, ingesting quinoa salad out of a filthy plastic container and making prolonged eye contact with anyone careless enough to look his way.

3. Keep a log of numbers

Spend five minutes in your gym’s training area and you’ll invariably find some sad sap slumped below the Eva Lopez Transgression Board, scrawling in a dusty journal. The greatest scientific minds like Katherine Johnson, Stephen Hawking (RIP), and Robert Langdon (OK, not a real person) would have neither the time nor patience to understand these logs—not that any of the spiral notebooks stay open long enough for anyone to glimpse the wonders therein. These notebooks are akin to the hidebound journals in which college-age sad bois scrawl at coffee shops: designed to give the appearance of fastidiousness and profundity, yet in reality nonfuctional. The effect is likewise similar—there’s something inherently sad about leaving a trail of ink in a private journal in a public place. Sad bois gonna sad—climbers included.

4. Fashion

Similar to the running and cycling phenomenon in which training only counts when you receive kudos on Strava, climbing training only counts if gym staff, climber friends, or a romantic interest see you. The easiest way to achieve quick wins is with garish, attention-grabbing climbing fashion. Grab a pair of neon-orange Euro pants and throw on a tank top. To layer, wear a moth-eaten, non-athletic chunky sweater—think rainbow on the inside and Derelicte on the outside. Cap the look with your favorite beanie (and of course no shirt if it’s hot—as always, skin is in).

5. Diet

Despite the advances in sports nutrition, most climbers remain resilient to sound dietary advice. The fittest, over-muscled hunchback with 0.9 percent body fat and champagne-bottle forearms still eats like a 13-year-old boy who lives down the road from a Walmart Supercenter. Once on a trip to Hueco, I travelled with a climber who walked up multiple V10s on a diet that was 95 percent Lärabars and tortillas. Thankfully, modern packaging and marketing have us all feeling like we’re making healthy choices despite actually just eating candy bars and chips.

The serious training climber will therefore often devour anything the gym sells: four KIND bars, Perky Jerky, Pirate’s Booty, a kombucha, and one of those San Pellegrino fruit beverages that is just a soda with a foil top. However, much like posting your workout to the ‘Gram or Strava, calories only count if you’re seen consuming them—so scarf all that “gym-healthy junk food” down in the dark depths of the bouldering cave or outside in your Sprinter van.

6. Take the long view

Presumably, you’re training because you need to get stronger for a very specific purpose. It can’t be as simple as crimp strength or steep climbing. It needs to be a singular move on some obscure problem or route that uses such precise personal beta that you’ve managed to build an entire lifestyle around it. So no, you’re not strengthening your grip because you suck at pinches. Instead, you’re focusing on anterior forearm training to enhance your flexor digitorum superficialis for the half-crimp single-didge stabbing on Punt e Mes (5.14c) at the Wall of Improbability. Such specificity requires a level of devotion unobtainable by most climbers. You will be foregoing days of casual climbing to train for that one goal, and it is imperative that you maintain a deep connection to it (see below).

7. Become lonely

Become the lost coffee-shop sad boi. Journal while staring longingly at the problems your training plan restricts you from trying. Tell other climbers, “Oh, no. I can’t hit up that four-star new secret area with you today. It’s a training day.” Then heave a great sigh before retiring to the MoonBoard to 4×4 benchmark 7b+. When your between-rep gym wandering no longer satiates all that unrequited climbing desire, you’ve reached enlightenment. Training was never about the physical; it was always about cerebral warfare. Once you’ve broken that sacred barrier between muscle and mental, you’re free. Go forth and send. The training ring of fire and Icy Hot will always be there, ready to welcome you with sore shoulders and bulging forearms back into its hellish embrace. 

Andrew Tower traded in a core-climber life for a cushy desk job in San Francisco where he fills his time climbing in the gym and complaining about it.