Q: “I have climbed a few offwidths, but I want to do a long, wide crack in the desert. I get worked after 50 feet; how do I train for sustained routes with a heavy rack of gear?"
A: Long, vertical offwidths are physically grueling—even with impeccable technique. We’ve all heard the stories about making it mid-pitch only to hyperventilate and vomit on the belayer from being pushed to your physical limit. All climbing styles require a high level of fitness, but the full-body workout of climbing wide cracks is closer to alpinism than sport climbing. It’s not unusual to take more than an hour to climb a single pitch of 5.11 offwidth in Indian Creek, and with 10 to 20 pounds of gear, it feels even more strenuous. A solid foundation will yield more success and fewer injuries. But remember that no matter how physically strong you are, resting is crucial to offwidth success. When you get a good rest stance, take it. Even if that means wedging yourself into a squeeze chimney for 20 minutes while your belayer complains. Believe me, they will be happier than if you puke on them.
Pamela says: This is a less intensive version of my own offwidth training program, and what works for me may not be ideal for you. The balance of strength vs. cardio vs. core is important. In the fi rst four to six weeks, it is critical to gain solid base strength and core, and address any muscle imbalances—you can sacrifice cardio time for that. My trainer, Leah P. Versteegen, MS, DPT, advises, “Begin with a physical therapy assessment from an outpatient physical therapist (PT) who specializes in sports or Pilates—even if you are not injured. The PT will test all of your individual muscles for strength and flexibility. You can get a list of what muscles are weak and which are dominant.” Perform more reps on the weak muscles and fewer reps on the strong ones. When you do cardio, increasing your anaerobic threshold is most crucial. If you’re short on time, focus on the anaerobic training (intervals) over the aerobic (cardio and endurance) training.
Nutrition notes: Proper eating will make an enormous difference in your training. Don't just cut calories; focus on a diet rich in lean proteins (fish, chicken, eggs), healthy carbs (fruit, vegetables, brown rice), and healthy fats (almond butter, avocados, mixed nuts). Follow these guidelines: Phase 1—moderate calories; Phases 2 and 3—higher calories; Phase 4—low calories.
This training program is divided into four cycles:
Phase 1 (Weeks 1 to 4): Rest and Preparation and Phase 2 (Weeks 5 to 8): Strength-Building and Muscle Balance
Phase 3 (Weeks 9 to 11): Power-Building and Phase 4 (Weeks 12 to 13): De-Training
Rest days are key during training. Take at least one complete rest day a week, more if you feel fatigued or your performance is declining.
Warm up and cool down with 10 to 15 minutes of easy cardio and dynamic stretching.
Weight train 2x/week but not on consecutive days. In the early weeks, do not weight train and do plyos on the same day; however, as your fitness increases, it’s good to stress your body with multiple components on the same day. As a general rule, plan a rest day immediately after a big training session for recovery.
Offwidth climbing is exceptionally hard on your shoulders; chicken-wings are an easy way to dislocate a shoulder. Focus on shoulder stability by including rotator cuff exercises 1 to 2x/ week.
Determine your maximum heart rate (HRmax) with this formula: 220 – age. You will use this for cardio training.
Determine your one repetition max (RM) in each lift, but make sure you have good form. If your form ever gets sloppy, rework your RM values.
WEIGHTS: Use a combination of free weights and machines to maximize strength, power, and local muscular endurance, and to promote optimal muscle balance, which is essential to successful and injury-free plyometric and sport training. Total body training (upper and lower body) all in one session more closely resembles offwidth climbing, so do both on the same day. Lower body: leg press, quad extension, leg curl, glute press, hip adduction, hip abduction, calf extension, cable glute extension. Upper body: high row, incline press, rear fly, front fly, lat pull-down, tricep pushdown, bicep curl, mid-fly, rotator cuff with cables.
CARDIO: Run, cycle/spin, row, elliptical, aerobic fitness classes, hill hikes, mountain bike—anything you enjoy because you’re going to be doing a lot of it. Intervals (high-intensity periods followed by low-intensity) will increase your anaerobic threshold and your ability to haul yourself, your rack, and even your partner up long pitches. True anaerobic threshold training is done around 95% of your HRmax and can only be sustained for 10 to 15 seconds. When beginning intervals, start with 80 to 90% HRmax for 20 to 30 seconds, then continue with “active rest” for 1 to 2 minutes at 60 to 70% HRmax—such as running up a hill, then walking back down, or increasing resistance on a stationary bike, and then decreasing it. As you become fi tter, you will perform more intervals per session, and your high-intensity bursts will be shorter (10 to 15 seconds) at 95% HRmax and higher. I design my intervals to match my time and heart rate on an actual o width: 1 to 2 hours total with short bursts of power (10 to 30 seconds). When this feels relatively easy later in the program, add a weight vest. This is anaerobic threshold training.
STABILIZATION (AKA CORE): Offwidths require strong abdominals, back, and hips. Do Pilates, CoreAlign, or similar core training 4x/ week through the entire 13-week period. If possible, take a class once a week with an instructor to monitor your form, and then do another one to three days on your own. Click here for detailed workouts.
PLYOMETRIC TRAINING: Plyos—dynamic exercises designed to increase power and explosiveness—are also an excellent way to strengthen your core, but only add them once you have a decent foundation and no muscle imbalances. During Phase 1, there will be no plyos. During Phases 2 and 3, you will gradually transition from 3x/week core + 1x/week plyos to 2x/week core + 2x/week plyos. This should add up to 4 core sessions per week. Click here for specific workouts.
STRETCH: Offwidths require more flexibility than one might suspect, so an overall 30- to 60-minute stretching program (on top of the stretching for warm-up and cool-down) will be extremely beneficial. Focus on the spine, hips, and shoulders, which are hugely stressed in offwidth climbing. Do not overstretch—the more flexible a joint is, the harder it is to stabilize it; thus, more strength is needed. Again, it’s about balance. If you’re stiff at one joint, the body will make up for it by moving more at another joint. Click here for recommended stretches.
Phase 1 (weeks 1 to 4): Rest and Preparation
Weights: For weeks 1 and 2, do 40% RM for the first session in the week, and then 50% for the second session. For weeks 3 and 4, do 50% RM for the first session, and then 60% for the second. For any sessions at 40 to 60% RM, do 2 sets of 15 reps for each exercise. To keep your heart rate up, move quickly from one machine to the next with 10 to 20 seconds rest. Try to work antagonist muscles back-to-back; e.g., biceps then triceps, chest press then rows, hamstrings then quads, adductors then abductors.
Climb: This phase is about recovering and building a foundation with easy weights, cardio, and stabilization for “preparation.” Your body needs to recover before an intense training regimen; this means four weeks o from climbing. You can climb routes a few grades below your limit in the gym, but nothing strenuous.
Cardio: For intervals, warm up for 15 minutes at 60 to 70% HRmax. Perform 30 minutes of intervals, alternating between 20 to 30 seconds on at 80 to 90% HRmax and 1 to 2 minutes of active recovery at 60 to 70% HRmax. Cool down 10 to 15 minutes at 60 to 70% HRmax. This can be longer if you want to burn fat.
Phase 2 (weeks 5 to 8): Stength-Building and Muscle Balance
Weights: For weeks 5 and 6, do 70% RM for the fi rst session, then 60% for the second. For week 7, do 70% RM for both sessions. For week 8, do 80% RM for the first session, and then 70%. For 70% RM, do 2 sets of 10 reps for each exercise; for 80% RM, do 4 to 6 sets of 5 to 8 reps for each exercise with 20- to 30-second rests in between. Rest time increases as the weights get heavier. You can circuit train with short rest periods (10 to 20 seconds) up to 80% RM; at higher lifting intensities, begin increasing rest periods to 20 to 30 seconds to focus on pure strength and power.
Climb: Do not do plyos on the same days that you are climbing; it will lead to overtraining. On strenuous climbing days, only add stretching and light recovery cardio (20 to 30 minutes: short hike, cycle, jog).
Stabilization and plyos: Replace stabilization days with plyos 1 to 2x/week if you’re conf dent in core, shoulder, and hip stability; if not, maintain non-plyo stabilization work.
Cardio: Same warm-up and cool-down as Phase 1. For intervals, start at 15 to 20 seconds on at 90% HRmax, 4 minutes off, then progress to 15 to 20 seconds on, 1 to 2 minutes off.
Phases 1 and 2 worked on building a solid base, and now it’s time to take it to the next level. We’ll increase plyos and intervals, and implement a weight vest to prepare for the ego-crushing battle of offwidth climbing. Remember to build core strength and address any muscle imbalances first to excel in this program. That means if you don’t complete each phase in the prescribed order, you significantly increase your risk for injury and overtraining.
Pamela says: One of your greatest challenges may be working around injuries. If you are injured, addressing that should be a priority. Trying to get stronger around an injury means other areas are overcompensating, and you’ll never truly heal yourself and be full-body strong. In my experience, Pilates has been the single most effective form of injury prevention and rehabilitation. Shoulder, back, hip, and other pain/damage require more stabilization work to get your entire body back to full strength, and Pilates can create deep core stability while maintaining flexibility and mobility.
Continue taking at least one complete rest day a week. As the training becomes more demanding, it’s important to listen to your body and give it the rest it needs. If you start experiencing significant fatigue or a decrease in performance, take a few consecutive days off to rest, recover, and focus on good nutrition.
Warm up and cool down with 10 to 15 minutes of easy cardio and dynamic stretching.
Weight train 2x/week with at least one rest day between strength days. It’s beneficial to stress your body with weights and plyos in the same day, but plan a rest day immediately after for recovery. See previous issue for types of lifts to focus on.
Continue focusing on shoulder stability with rotator cuff exercises 1 to 2x/week.
Follow the HRmax guidelines as outlined—you will up the ante by training at higher intensities and doing more intervals. To calculate HRmax: 220 – age.
Because you spent eight weeks building base strength, your oner-ep max (RM) has probably gone up. Determine your new RM in each lift and follow the guidelines for each week. If form ever suffers, rework RM values.
A weight vest adds resistance to your training, but start slowly and focus on form. Start with 2% of your body weight and gradually increase to 10 to 15%. Begin by wearing the vest approximately 20 to 30 minutes, and slowly increase to 60 minutes. My favorite vest is the Hyper Vest PRO ($170, hyperwear.com).
POWER-BUILDING: You need strength and power for offwidths, but these are often misunderstood. Strength is the force created by a muscle contraction, and power is the ability to generate that force quickly. It’s the dynamic, quick movements that boulderers and sprinters utilize, and the type of training we focus on with plyos. Once a climber has reached high strength levels, maximizing power training is often more conducive to peak athletic performance than further increases in strength. You will rely on the strength developed in Phases 1 and 2 to build explosive power in these later phases.
DE-TRAINING: After a few months of strenuous training, your body needs to heal from the long-term stress of exercise. Reducing the volume of training will allow your body to fully recover and become even stronger. Signifi cant increases in fi tness and strength occur during these “rest and regeneration” periods, when the body is given the opportunity to repair the micro-trauma caused by training. Without proper recovery time and good nutrition, you will become weaker despite your efforts.
A secondary part of de-training is the need to drop some weight and excess muscle mass put on during the last few months of training. That excess is just extra pounds to haul up a wide crack along with a heavy rack of gear! All climbers benefit from a small percentage of body fat and a high strength-to-weight ratio, and losing a few pounds will keep your body fat low and your strength high. This time will also give your muscles a chance to refuel by replenishing a full store of glycogen (energy for muscles).
Phase 3 (weeks 9 to 11): Power-Building
Weights: Week 9 is 80% RM for first session, and then 90% for the second. Week 10 is 90%, and then 80%. Week 11 is 90% for both sessions. For 80% RM, do 4 to 6 sets of 5 to 8 reps for each exercise, with 20- to 30-second rests in between with good form. For 90% RM, do 4 sets of 3 to 4 reps for each exercise. Same 20- to 30-second rests. Schedule weight sessions at least one day apart.
Climb: Don’t do more than six hard climbing days in this whole cycle, which equals two hard days per week. If you’re feeling good, you can add one to two moderate climbing days per week, but don’t push it if you’re really tired.
Stabilization and plyos: Do plyos 2x/week. Rule #1 for plyos: quality over quantity. Maximum benefits come with lower training volume (i.e., two sessions per week instead of four); if you’re feeling fatigued, drop back to 1x/week or take an entire week o from plyos. Go to climbing.com/skill/plyo and climbing.com/skill/stability for workouts.
Cardio: You can now add the weight vest to increase the difficulty of your cardio sessions as your fitness improves. Always warm up for 10 minutes at 60 to 70% HRmax, regardless. For interval days, do high intensity for 10 to 15 seconds at 90 to 95% HRmax. Begin with longer rests between these hard intervals: 4 minutes at 80% HRmax, and then decrease rest time to 1 to 2 minutes over the course of the three weeks. Cool down with 60 to 70% HRmax cardio for 10 to 15 minutes.
Phase 4 (weeks 12-13): De-Training
Climb: Do up to four days of easy to moderate climbing if you feel strong and physically able.
Weights: No weights in this section in order to drop some muscle mass.
Stabilization and plyos: Same as Phase 3.
Cardio: All these sessions should be long and at moderate intensity—no intervals. Wear the weight vest during at least two cardio sessions. The focus is on reducing excess body fat/muscle mass while increasing endurance aerobic capacity instead of anaerobic capacity.
Right Before the Big Climb
Take at least 48 hours completely off before your climb. Light stretching is OK on these days, but nothing else. Focus on proper nutrition, hydration, and resting. This way the muscles can store as much glycogen (used for anaerobic power) as possible. If you followed this entire training program, your body is fully prepared from a fitness standpoint; the last several days are meant to finish the prep by fueling your body with proper nutrition.
Mental preparation: Every athlete has his or her own routine. Just make sure it involves giving your body the rest it needs. I put on headphones and sit by myself for an hour before an intimidating climb.
Nutrition: Avoid alcohol and ca eine 48 hours before. One method used by many endurance athletes, including climbers, is carbohydrate loading. It boosts the glycogen stores to double or triple the normal levels. This technique will allow you to climb longer before “hitting the wall.” Read more about the plan at mayoclinic.com/health/carbohydrate-loading/MY00223. The morning before, eat a carb-rich breakfast of 700 to 1,000 calories and hydrate sufficiently. During the climb, eat carbs and protein, and hydrate. After the climb, consume carbs to refill glycogen levels and protein to repair muscle tissue.
Pamela Pack is one of the world’s foremost offwidth climbers. In fall 2012, she claimed the first ascent of The Forever War (5.13+ R), Vedauwoo, Wyoming, that included head-scumming and full-inversion climbing. She also has more than 40 first female ascents of offwidths throughout the West. Read about her masochistic exploits at pamelashantipack.com.