There you go, I’ve said it. I think that most climbers are taking the wrong (or should I say “too narrow”) approach with their strategies to improve strength. This is important because the ability to exert incredible levels of force from our body onto the rock makes a big impact on grade. Athletes looking to push their performance to the next level shouldn’t be satisfied with taking an ineffective or incomplete approach to improving strength.
If you’re ready to improve this element of your climbing then there are a number of areas you should focus on:
- Applied strength technique
- Muscle size
- Inter-muscular coordination
- Muscular recruitment
- Fascicle length and rate of force development
Many climbers get a few of these right (in different combinations) but very rarely, unless they are being coached and managed, will they hit all or most of them. If—and it’s a big “if”—you do tackle all or most areas then you can say hello to strength improvements and maintenance for the rest of your life.
Applied Strength Technique
Everyone says that they feel weak at some point in their life. What if I was to tell you that you might actually be super strong—from a physical standpoint—but you’ve not yet refined the skill of how to apply that strength. Yup, you got it: If you improve your strength technique you will appear stronger with absolutely no changes in the muscle or soft tissues. If you have no technique you are—for the want of a better word—weak.
What makes a difference:
- Time-on-task aka practice with strength training. If you do not apply high intensity and high quality strength training into your years of climbing you will never be any good at it. It’s simple.
- Intention. The ability to visualise and apply very high quality into an exercise set or movement hugely compounds over time. You refine your mindset, your self belief, and your focus. The best athletes are very good at this, beyond what you’d expect or notice on Instagram.
- Get a coach or an expert. There is so much to be learned from someone who’s been down this path and can help with not just the “form” element, but also correct loading, how to bail from failed reps and how to complete exercises around internal and external focus.
Muscle Size: Hypertrophy
One of the most well-known results of resistance training is an increase in muscle size, called hypertrophy. We typically associate an increase in muscle bulk with gym bros and weight lifters, but there’s a big advantage with this particular adaptation. As a muscle increases in its cross-sectional area, it also increases its potential for force production—that’s strength to you and me!
Climbers also spend a lot of time stressing about the weight gain from hypertrophy but this almost entirely misplaced because climbers, in my experience, end up much better and more injury robust athletes in the long run, and the muscle bulk should only occur in the prime movers associated with performance when training appropriately.
- Super heavy loads are not necessary for hypertrophy. Multiple studies have shown that loads from 30-70% of 1RM are effective in achieving hypertrophic changes as long as the participant trains to fatigue
- There is mixed research to indicate that sets or reps have a big impact on hypertrophy, unless in some cases they allowed participants to not train to the point of voluntary fatigue.
- We also know that research is inconclusive—or mixed at best—over whether changing duration of reps or using items like blood flow restriction cuffs have a significant effect on hypertrophy in the long run.
During climbing, muscles are rarely required to generate force in isolation—i.e. it’s not just your bicep working your pull up. Almost all movements involve the cooperation of several muscles (agonists and antagonists) acting together: intermuscular coordination. Interestingly, this is another area, like strength technique, that does not require physiological change to the force or tension properties of the soft tissues but will result in an improvement in measured strength. Again, I want to remind you that so many climbers are ignoring basics like this and inordinately invest in singular, popular areas like hypertrophy or recruitment.
- Coordination between agonists and antagonist muscle groups. If we’re able to increase the efficiency of coordination (and correct activation) of these muscles specific to our tested metric, our strength will increase.
- Speed work (you’ll need lighter loads in relation to 1RM) has also been shown to improve intermuscular coordination.
- Improvements are thought to be more effective when training close to 1RM and not as effective at sub-maximal loads.
This is another popular area of strength that most climbers are fairly clued up on! Theory-wise it’s a fairly understandable concept: You’re training to make changes in the central nervous system so that more motor units in the muscle recruit when you attempt to apply force. In two climbers we could potentially see exactly the same size of muscle (linked to hypertrophy) but vastly different levels of recruitment.
In coaching and training planning, it’s often finding the sweet spot of enough muscle size and recruitment (amongst all those other elements of strength discussed in this article), which is optimised for the individual and their discipline. I find a useful analogy to explain this concept to climbers, is that hypertrophy (or muscle size) is like looking at the size of the engine in your car and recruitment is the fine tuning of it to get the best horse power. It’s impossible to get to the highest levels of strength without a reasonable level of muscle size, even if you have the world’s most perfect recruitment training.
- Recruitment will respond well to the heaviest exercise loads. Training at 85% of 1RM or more is ideal and research suggests keeping sets at less than 15 per muscle per week for optimisation.
- Eccentric (supramaximal) training is also another valuable tool for increasing the number of motor units recruiting, but note that long duration eccentric loads will not recruit the highest number of motor units so may be inappropriate for this form of training.
- Recruitment itself does not change the size (or weight) of the muscle but note that it is almost impossible in a practical sense to isolate this training from some form of hypertrophy adaptation. Training these two is not binary!
Fascicle Length, Rate of Force Development and Final Thoughts
In addition to those four key areas above, we also know that fascicle (fibre) length and rate of force development are also hugely important when it comes to the high intensity part of climbing—they are a little beyond the scope of this article, so if you’re wanting to geek out, you can read the full write up here.
I hope in reading this article you’ve identified at least one of these four areas in which you could improve. Not because I want you to have had suboptimal training, but because I know that you’ll see a huge impact in your overall strength and performance when they are addressed. It’s easy to let one or more of these areas slip under the radar, a dedicated training plan arranged by an expert (like those at Lattice Training) can help you identify your weaknesses and meet your goals in every training session.