Create-A-Crux: Strengthen Mind and Body at the Gym

During winter, rock climbers experience a patience-testing stretch of inclement weather, making it difficult to climb outside consistently. Consequently, more climbers flock to the gym and recommit to a training regime to prepare for spring sending.

Forget the treadwall, auto-belays, tedious lines for the lead wall, and campus and hangboards. Where you’re going to thrive is through bouldering. But we know how boring it gets after weeks of hiking up and down the same taped problems. Enter Max Zolotukhin, who climbs, trains, and serves as a route-setter for a trio of Planet Granite gyms in California. You can usually find him in the middle of a group of climbers taking turns making up problems beyond the tape they affixed weeks before. “The folks I typically train with are a couple of the other setters in our crew,” Zolotukhin says. “Our gyms don’t usually have more than a few double-digit problems at a time, so climbing on the same established lines gets stale pretty quickly.”

Though most of us struggle through the more average-human grades, it’s the same conundrum. The solution? Start making up your own problems. Besides being a great change of pace from the normal circuits, there are very practical reasons for creating your own sequences. “The problems we do set [for the gym] aren’t always the best for training purposes,” Zolotukhin says. “A problem with a kneebar crux might be fun for the customers to project but may not be ideal for a proper training circuit.”

When you create your own problems, you have limitless opportunities in execution, and you’re free to practice whatever weaknesses you have. You’ll also push yourself mentally to be more creative in the problem-solving process, which can help you find better, more efficient ways to move through cruxes on tough projects outside.

We’ve laid out a typical training “plan” you can apply to your own sessions when the going gets tough and you’ve run out of routes, or you’re just looking to spice up your training routine.


First Ascent Frenzy

1. Find a group. Zolotukhin admits to making up problems that suit his own strengths. “Having others with fresh perspectives around will help challenge parts of your climbing you may not have realized were lacking,” he says. Don’t complain if one of your partners chooses a powerful line up a steep wall that doesn’t suit your techy, vertical skills; you might not ace the problem, but you’ll gain valuable lessons while improving your weak points.

2. Take time to warm up. Zolotukhin spends the first half hour or more on easier problems. Start at V0, and slowly work your way up through the grades. Don’t rush the process, and don’t be afraid to repeat some harder taped problems you’ve already done before you start the game.

3. Keep limits in mind. Take turns creating problems. Look at a wall that inspires you, and make moves that do the same. In the beginning, it will be harder to create problems that aren’t too easy or overly hard. With time, though, you should be able to strike a balance with problems that are one to four grades below your maximum redpoint ability. The idea isn’t to project them for your entire climbing session, but instead try a variety of problems on different walls

4. Project efficiently. The best method Zolotukhin has found when trying harder problems is to give a good flash attempt, but if you fall, start again from the hold that kicked you off—not from the bottom. Trying the moves in isolation will help you piece it together instead of wearing yourself out and cutting your session short.

5. Let there be a winner. Whoever climbs the problem first from bottom to top without falling gets to make up the next one. Keep moving around the gym, trying different combos on different walls. The variety will challenge all your muscle groups and technical skills and give you a bigger bag of tricks to pull from when you go outside.

6. Take it seriously. Zolotukhin’s crew will approach made-up lines just like any taped route in the gym, and even come back later in the session to repeat particularly hard or interesting problems. If you struggle on a certain project and can’t top out before your crew moves on, make a point to go back and work on that weakness.

7. Know when to quit. If you regularly climb V7 and suddenly have trouble on V3s and V4s, your session might be over. However, because there’s no specific grade attached to the problems you’re creating, and therefore no real benchmark in difficulty, it can be hard to tell how rapidly your session is ending. Zolotukhin recommends a simple, direct method. “If you start to regress on moves that didn’t feel too bad earlier in the session, it might be time to call it a night.”

Max’s Tips to Create Better Problems:

  • Leave out the circus tricks. “Create a problem that is relatively straightforward, with minimal feet and comfortable holds that have little chance of causing injury.”

  • Switch it up constantly. “If you want to work certain weaknesses (e.g., crimps or dynos), that’s your prerogative, but we usually try to mix it up and not get too attached to one idea or another.”

  • Don’t make it easy. “I try to make up individual moves that I think I won’t flash, but that I can do in a couple of tries. If you have a problem with four to six such moves, then it’s probably in that ‘one to four grades below your max’ zone.”

  • Don’t be scared to fail. “Finding a move that may or may not be possible for you is one of the most interesting ideas in climbing. We used to joke that if you can touch a hold, you can grab it, and if you can grab it, then you can stick it.”