Are You Wasting Your Time When Training Power?

Legendary coach Steve Bechtel shares what to do (and what not to do) in order to maximize power training.


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You can train long or you can train hard, but not bothwhich is probably why so many of us train power so incorrectly.

Properly training power allows you to get stronger, to muscle through otherwise impossible cruxes. (By “power,” we mean the combined product of strength and speed, i.e., the explosive force recruited any time you use momentum, or “go for it.”) Thus, step one with power training is to realize you’re training, not just exercising. If you’re still firing out a steep wall on small holds three hours into a session, the problem is nowhere near your maximum ability and you’re not really training power.

Because our local crags around Lander, Wyoming, feature short climbs with few holds, our training centers on power, but in a true-to-life way: using angles, holds, and movements found on rock. From what I’ve seen training climbers the past 20 years, the guy who uses his whole body to create power is better off than any “campus master.”

Read on for big-picture ideas about training power the natural way.

Keep It Short.

True power training is very intense—only 45 to 60 minutes. Add in 15 to 30 minutes of warm-up and cool-down, and you’re still done with your session in less than two hours. By keeping these sessions short (fatigue creates endurance, not power), you can do more per week; indeed, if you’re in shape, you can do up to two or three hard power sessions a week, totaling close to three hours of quality work.

Train in Phases.

A typical power phase lasts four to six weeks and will often consist of mostly gym sessions. After this phase, you can cycle back into “normal” mode and put your power to the test. In a given year, you could fruitfully advance through three or four power phases. It’s important to intersperse these, however, with a minimum of four to six weeks of less-intense training or climbing.

Recovery Time Is Key.

We don’t leave the gym with more power; it’s recovery that promotes improvement. In general, it should take 36 to 72 hours to bounce back from a proper power session. After this time, it’s critical that you again hit the system with another stimulus, or the first session’s value declines. (If you climb only once weekly, you’ll see no improvement.) On the flip side, rest too little or train too long (e.g., those fun four hours of nonstop gym routes with your buddies), and you fail to improve.

Specify.

The more your training resembles your goal routes or problems, the better. That is, developing climbing power is about training the muscles of the back and the hip girdle. Sure, our arms get tired first, but it’s these “big” muscles that generate the most force and help us integrate our feet/legs. Climbers usually train power in several ways: power-focused bouldering (discussed below), random bouldering, system training, campus training, body-weight resistance training, and weight training. These latter five modes are fine, but should supplement, not replace, power problems. (To get a better idea of what exactly you should be training for your specific goals, check out “Flowchart: What to Train to Redpoint your Project“).

Don’t Get Worked.

At first, you might feel you aren’t properly “worked.” Perfect. This lets you come back and try hard in a couple days. Improvement is why you’re training. Be patient, be disciplined, and you’ll see gains in as quickly as three weeks.

Speed It Up.

Another good way to increase power is to increase speed. But because climbing is so technical, speed often decreases fine motor skill, hence hold-grabbing/stabbing accuracy. I’d recommend only going a wee bit faster—say five percent—to prevent your form from going to hell.

As an exercise, time yourself on some 10-to-12-move problems; then try to speed them up by a second or two. Work on efficiency; if you get sloppy, slow down and re-evaluate. A few tricks: memorize the sequence from the ground, and climb from memory, not reaction; move consistently upward, resist the urge to use start-stop movements; and focus on your feet: your legs drive most movement, so make sure they’re not just dragging while you speed-lunge up the wall.

Perfect Power: a Workout Routine

This four-step workout looks simple on paper, but it works. Give yourself three or four weeks, and then test gains on personal benchmark problems.

  • Step 1: 15 to 30 minutes of warm-up, with resistance exercises (pull-ups and bodyweight squats) and some easier, yet increasingly intense, climbing. Cardiovascular exercise—say, a few minutes on the treadmill or stationary bike—is fine early in the warm-up, too.
  • Step 2: four to five tries on a hard problem (four to 10 moves), just above your onsight level, that requires explosive movement. Use holds big enough to train power, rather than failing because of finger strength. Think slopers, flat jugs, and big edges. If you don’t quite top out, that’s fine. Better to fail than to under-stimulate your system.
  • Step 3: six to eight tries on one or two max-effort problems requiring explosiveness, with two to three minutes of rest between each burn. Again, if you complete more than half the problem, it’s an attempt; but if you fall low, jump right back on. Remember, you are not going for a pump. If you feel fatigue, increase rest time. End this step when power declines even slightly.
  • Step 4: cool down on easy ground, with stretching or exercises that recruit the antagonist muscles. Push-ups, bench dips, and some planks/bridges seem to work—two to three sets of each, not quite to failure.

Working on finger power? Check out “Hangboard Ladders for Finger Strength.”

Steve Bechtel, a climber of 30 years, has pioneered hundreds of routes on six continents. He is the founder of Climb Strong, a performance coaching service for climbers, and owns Elemental Performance + Fitness (climbstrong.com) in Lander, Wyoming. Steve holds a degree in exercise physiology.