Part 1. The strongman who wasn’t
Back in the Middle Stone Age, when I was an undergrad at the University of Vermont, I met the strongest person I’ve ever met.
Let’s call him Mike.
Mike was the founding captain of the UVM climbing team—a group that I, given my dirtbag ambitions, was only passingly acquainted with. But Mike got my attention one day at the gym when he asked me—out of the blue—how many one-arms I could do.
“Um. One. I guess?” Then quickly backpedaling: “If I start with a bent arm.”
He replied that he could do 14 with his left arm and 11 with his right.
But it was true. He demonstrated for me.
I soon learned he could also hold a front lever for about half an hour with 10-pound ankle weights on each ankle. He could do one-armed muscle ups and one-armed front levers. Finger strength?
Sure thing. He’d reinforced his apartment’s 10- and 15-millimeter doorjambs and trained one-handed hangs and pull-ups, sometimes full crimping, sometimes half crimping, sometimes adding weight. (To step back and give that some 2022 context: according to Strengthclimbing.com’s current strength analyzer, people who can hang a 15-millimeter edge with one hand for 10 seconds, with no weight added or removed, can be expected to climb roughly V14. Mike could basically do one-armed Frenchies on holds that size.)
Once, at a dusty college comp in central Vermont, another friend of mine, Andrew, who has since climbed 5.15a, saw Mike casually warming up with one-arms on a miniscule edge. His jaw dropped.
“Who the fuck is that?” he said, crestfallen, having until that moment expected to win that dinky comp, “The next Daniel Woods?”
But Andrew’s fear turned to confusion when I told him that Mike wasn’t the grade-shattering phenom that he at first seemed. Indeed, for reasons unknown, he consistently projected V7s and flashed V4s.
Mike’s inability to climb hard was hard to make sense of. He could crank out one-handed front levers yet couldn’t keep his feet on through tensiony moves. He could hang a 10mm crimp with one hand but couldn’t maneuver his body around a crimp of that size when climbing on a slab. In a fascinating inversion of typical climbing logic, Mike saw me finagling my way up climbs that he couldn’t campus and assumed that in some secret, clever way I was stronger than him. He was constantly asking how I trained, yearning for a secret that I, who had never trained in any intelligent way, didn’t know how to answer.
But eventually, after we’d known each other for about a year, I did try to give him some advice.
“Mike, dude,” I said, “you need to climb more and campus less. Start sport climbing.”
“Steve, dude,” he replied. “What?”
But I insisted. In order to progress quickly through the grades, in order to achieve success on a route before the season changed or it was reset, he’d have to rehearse climbs and work on beta and train his body to be more intuitively attuned to moving over rock.
Did my advice work?
Not at all.
Mike dutifully tied in once or twice, fumbling clips and pumping out on slabby 5.11s, but he never really tried to be systematic about it, never did lap after lap on the same route until he had the body memory to climb it blindfolded. After a month or two, he stopped rope climbing altogether. And by his senior year, he was drifting away from the sport, having come to see the act of climbing as a distraction from the real work of getting strong. (Last I heard, he’d become one of those fitness influencers—the kind who lives in Miami or LA and makes Instagram videos of himself holding a front lever while one of his bros does pullups from his ankles. He seemed to be having a good time.)
But in the many years since the Stone Ages, I’ve seen Mike’s malaise replicated (albeit to lesser degrees) in gyms around the country: training-motivated climbers limited not by their fingers or biceps but by their ability to translate those strengths onto the wall. And because I stand by some of the advice I offered to Mike, I want to offer a more in-depth version here.
But first (to keep things fair) I should note that humans are generally pretty terrible at fixing their own problems—and this is a fact that applies to me as well. Twig-armed weakling that I was and am, I should have followed Mike around like a hawk, joining his climbing team and learning the way of the muscle-up and the weight vest…. But I didn’t. And as a result, I’ve been climbing the same grade for 12 years.
Turns out, technique is a marginal substitute for strength, just as strength is a marginal substitute for technique.
Part II. What to Do and Why to do it
There are almost as many ways to improve climbing technique as there are types of techniques to improve. You can benefit from doing technical boulders and comp boulders. You can benefit from working coordination-intensive sports like Yoga (or even Acro-Yoga) into your training. You can even just continue bouldering at your limit all the time, trusting the fact that if you do it enough and don’t get hurt, you’ll get better.
But to my mind the fastest way to get good at climbing is to do (a) a lot of moves when tired, (b) practice the same sequences over and over so that your body learns to do them well, and (c) learn to climb in ways that will keep you from getting tired in the first place. So that’s what the following exercises will consist of.
I should also note that are a number of ancillary (i.e. non-technical) benefits to incorporating high-volume climbing into your training. It’s good for baseline fitness, which will allow you to train harder and more frequently down the line. It’s a great way to safely train a variety of grip types (as far as your fingers are concerned, using a mono on a vertical 5.10 is not the same as using a mono on a 30-degree overhung V7). And thanks to your movement skills, your understanding of how to climb when tired, and your increased fitness, you’ll have a lower risk of injury.
But in the end, your primary goal here should be to improve movement skills. There are very few V12 boulderers out there with poor technique.
Exercise 1. Toprope laps
This is exactly what it sounds like, except your primary goal isn’t to build baseline fitness (though you will). On your first try on a route, when you’re fresh, you’ll be tempted to overpower moves. On your sixth lap, after 12 straight minutes of climbing, your power will be gone, so you’ll have to find the most efficient way to do each move or you’ll be off.
How to do it: Pick a technical climb, ideally 0-10 degrees overhanging, right below your indoor onsight limit. (In other words: this route is not easy for you.) Then try it again and again and again, looking for places where you might improve your efficiency. Set a timer and see how many times you can do it in 15 minutes.
My experience: In Summer 2005, after I’d been climbing avidly for about six months, I visited my first commercial climbing gym. I was amazed by the size of the walls and the slipperiness of the holds and wanted to immediately find a V6 in my style and begin working it. Maybe I’d be able to send it in a day! But after we warmed up, my friend and mentor—who’d been on a climbing team before high school—instead had me tie into a technical, slightly-overhanging, red-taped 5.10d and told me to toprope it as many times as I could in 15 minutes, with no more than one minute of off-the-wall rest in between laps.
Disappointed, glancing longingly at the small crowd lounging in the bouldering cave, I jittered and shook my way to within about ten feet of the anchor before pumping off. As I lowered, I felt confident I could send next go—but I couldn’t imagine pulling right back on and climbing it again. On my second try, I fell low on the route, unable to do a hard pull-through I’d easily done when unpumped. But on my third try, inventing a drop knee, I got through that move again and made it to within just a few holds of my highpoint. Then, on my fourth go, I actually sent.
What was happening? My muscle memory had kicked in; I was getting better at doing the moves faster than my fitness was degenerating. By the end of that fifteen minutes, I had the route totally frickin’ dialed. After resting for 15 minutes, I did a second set and sent five more times. For my third and final set, I had to find a harder route.
Focus notes: Pay attention to how you grab holds: Do you need to crimp that edge or can you do the move in three-finger drag? Are there any moves that might get easier with a heel hook, a drop knee? Any dynos you can avoid by using a higher foot or an intermediate? Trying these new methods on the fly, without taking on the rope to practice them, will make you better at improvising—a crucial skill in all realms of climbing, but one that I’ve found especially useful on scary highball top outs.
Interact with enough sport climbing pundits and you’ll probably notice a subtle favoritism toward onsighting over projecting. Anyone (the pundits mumble) can spend six months dickering down a route and finally do it—but to onsight hard, that’s the hallmark of a good climber.
I’m not here to contradict their wisdom. Climbing a hard route first try does imply a certain level of mastery. But that does not mean that it’s the best way to attain that mastery—especially if you’re a boulderer who just wants to stop punting off the easy parts of their projects. As Jonathan Siegrist, in his 2018 article “How to Get Stronger? Turn Climbing into Training,” put it: “As a rule of thumb, if you fire everything in two or fewer attempts, you are not trying hard enough to stimulate progress.”
How to do it: First, select a route that’s relatively sustained and hard for you—something that will require four or five days of effort to send. Ideally, it’d be hard enough that you spend a day or two of attempts hanging on the rope and test-driving different sequences, even for the easy parts; hard enough that when you think you’ve got your beta pretty much dialed, you still have to spend a few days rehearsing those sequences, encoding the movement into your muscle memory, further tweaking your beta as you make longer and longer links. (Note: this is way more fun outside—so if that’s an option, take advantage.)
Focus notes: As you’re working the route, try to make each move and section as easy as possible. Going draw to draw, you might (as a boulderer) have no problem brute-forcing the route’s relatively easy moves. But they should be hard enough that, when enchained, your straightford brute-force method feels untenable. Also focus on execution: what does it feel like to execute this move well? What do I have to do to execute that sequence when tired?
One of the reasons why I suggest routes that require four to five days of work, rather than 10 to 20, is exactly this: You want to get good at executing, at finding a method, building the body memory, and then sending as soon as you’re ready. These are routes that you’re strong enough to do—but that you need to learn to climb in order to successfully make use of your strength. It’s also an excellent way of getting better and finding tricky beta.
Alternate workout: Make up a 40-60 move circuit on the spray wall. Spend five days trying to do it.
3. Build movement into your warm-up.
Don’t want to waste a power session effectively training endurance?
One great way to train movement skills without getting so pumped that you foreclose the option of trying hard boulders afterward is to incorporate a lot of very easy movement into your warmup.
How to do it: Rather than actually roping up, just climbing around on the base of the vertical lead wall. (You can also use a vertical spray or bouldering wall if your lead wall is crowded or lacks adequate route density.) Basically, your goal is to move on the wall for 5-10 minutes, making up fun-feeling sequences, doing toe hooks, heel hooks, drop knees, and so on, making sure you practice each of the finger grips. Your goal is to be so efficient in these movements that, even though you might do 150 moves, you get only barely pumped.
My experience: This is something that I’ve done on and off since 2006—and I feel like there are tons of benefits. The slow warm up minimizes injury. The emphasis on easy but occasionally weird movement seems to keep my body neurologically used to being efficient (when I don’t warm up like this frequently enough, I turn into an uncoordinated blob, regardless of how fit I feel). So, now, I basically do some version of this at the start of nearly every gym session, then head to the bouldering walls and do a more typical ramp, starting with V2s or V3s and ending near my max flash limit.
Focus notes: Have fun with this: you’re trying to do a wide range of moves without getting tired. Use every sort of grip type and angle. Footholds as handholds. Underclings. Gastons. Piano matches. Heel hooks. Toe hooks. Everything. Do the same moves or sequences multiple times, changing small aspects with each attempt. Notice how your body position changes as you adjust the direction of your foot, the height of your heel. Notice how your wrist and shoulders and hips respond when you change a crimp to a three-finger drag. Substitute lockoffs for drop knees, static moves for momentum-based ones. Ultimately, try to cultivate a kind of flow or dance-like cadence. And remember: Your goal is not endurance here; you should get slightly warmed up, but not pumped in any true sense. The point is to lightly stimulate the neural networks responsible for good technique and to practice not getting tired. In the beginning, you might find yourself unable to stay on the wall for more than a minute or two without getting too pumped for your warmup. Success, then, can be measured by increasing the amount of time you spend on the wall and the complexity of movements you accomplish there.