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Will Gadd: Training for Climbing Isn’t as Hard as You Think

“I think we’ve forgotten that in order to be good at climbing, you have to climb.”—Jonathan Siegrist, who is a nicer guy than you or me and climbs harder, too.

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Training is easy. Climbing is hard. Training takes place in a relatively simple, temperature-controlled box, where effort in equals measurable gains out. Real climbing is messy: Partners, temperatures, technique, and a thousand other variables conspire to make the outcomes far less predictable. Like masturbation, “training” offers controlled results without the stress of real world variables. Training is easy-gratification porn: predictable, sanitized, but does not equal actual performance. Really climbing harder is, well, way harder. This is probably why so many people fall into the training trap: Hanging a 6mm edge for the goal of two seconds longer is a hell of a lot more rewarding than failing to onsight at your limit, failing to summit a dream alpine route, or failing to send the project you really, really care about. Watch Ondra succeed (or fall off and melt down) and you can tell it he’s sunk everything into performing better. That’s climbing: Emotional, intense, and raw as your bleeding tips.

I have trained my ass off for several different sports, from alpine climbing to Nordic ski racing to competitive rock and ice climbing. I own an absolute shit ton of plates, and know how to use them. I fucking love training, but I really love and value having real-world results—not meaningless weight-room numbers. Performance is messy, but it’s the metric that matters most to me, and should to every climber claiming to be “training.” 

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve read that the path to climbing performance was through “core” exercises and “balance” I’d have a stack of dollars. But that stack would be far, far smaller than the stack of hard routes sent by climbers who actually climb. While the climbers-turned-crossfitters are wasting time and energy in the weight room, the top climbers are sending hard on a steady diet of, surprise, climbing hard. That’s because climbing trains not only your skill and strength, but also your mind. I have beaten thousands of climbers in comps who were way stronger than me, but who fell apart under the mental pressure they didn’t get when hangboarding. I see this trend at the crag, too: ridiculously strong climbers who falter above their bolt and utter the plaintive cry of the mentally soft: “Take.” Ondra does not say “take” on the onsight, and neither should you when you get a little pumped. 

Also Read: Getting Strong is Half the Battle. But Don’t Forget the Other Half.

The goal of climbing training should be to climb as well as we can with the time and resources we have. Full stop. The rest is noise. Oddly, most sports other than climbing have figured this out: Runners run. Skiers ski. Basketball players play basketball. My gymnast daughter does gymnastics. Powerlifters do not climb; they practice sport-specific movement. 

Climbing magazine newsletter.

I recently saw a “professional” training plan for climbing that had about 25 percent climbing in the total time allotment. The person who bought it will feel great when their one-handed testicle toss reps improve, but the person who spent 75 percent of their time climbing will improve far, far faster at climbing. Which, remember, is the fucking goal. But somehow the jargon of the educated “trainer” has taken over climbing: Periodization, lactate threshold, recovery, etc. These are useful concepts at some point, but most climbers are so far from even climbing regularly (and with intention) that such advanced tactics are totally irrelevant. It feels great to lift a heavier weight for longer; it’s a lot harder to quantify a new highpoint on your project or feeling more confident on bad feet, so we convince ourselves that irrelevant improvement is somehow meaningful. If all you have are hammers then the world is full of nails, but hammering nails won’t make you climb harder (unless you’re hanging off your fingers while pounding as my old friend Mark Twight used to do). Any form of “training” is better than nothing, but don’t waste your time improving at irrelevant movements.

Most of us have near-infinite demands on our finite time, so spending that time well is critical if we want to perform. I’m a dad, a multi-sport athlete, a guide, and a hundred other things. I get that finding the time to climb is hard. However, I promise you that an hour of focused bouldering will be far more beneficial for most climbers than 45 minutes of “core and Turkish tossers” followed by 15 minutes of hangboarding. We need to spend our time becoming smoother and more tactical climbers. And, if you’re really serious about improving, make a conscious effort to surround yourself with strong, dedicated climbers. Partnering up—both romantically and socially—with bone crushers can make a big difference in your long-term climbing ability. Alright, I’ll admit: most of us don’t have that luxury, and so our time is under constant threat. Here are a few more principles to use your training time effectively: 

  1. Climb. Travel to climb. Drive all night. Quit your job. Break up if your partner doesn’t climb. Climb outside as often as you can, or quit and take up lawn bowling. You are what you do.
  2. Climbing anything is better than not climbing. Rock, buildings, plastic, ice, cracks, jungle gyms, whatever. Climbing is movement, move!
  3. If you really can’t climb then do exercises that closely imitate the sport or address your weaknesses. Be sure to make the exercises mimic climbing movements—swinging around a pullup bar like you’re being electrocuted will not make you a better climber. If all you have is the hotel gym, then one-arm lat pulldowns, rows, front levers, and squats are better than doing nothing at all. 
  4. Watch videos of excellent climbers. Study their movement and how they rest on routes. Practice their various styles. Try to suck less, and when you do suck figure out why and fix it.
  5. Do this regularly, and never, ever give up when training. If you’re about to snap a tendon, fine, save your fingers. But if you give up while training—because you’re “just not feeling it” and would rather skimp out on that last set—you are training yourself to give up while climbing. Do not weaken! Most climbers are far weaker mentally than they are strong physically; train mental toughness and your physical prowess will increase too.
  6. Spend time breaking down what your sport requires, and do it. Want to succeed as an alpine climber? Sleep on your concrete balcony without a tent or walk up and down stairs at night wearing a pack—and it’s even better if it’s too hot, too cold, icy, raining, you’re tired and sick of it, etc. Want to climb long, sustained sport pitches? Traverse your local spray wall for 40 or 50 or 60 moves at a time. Rest for 10 minutes and do it again.
    1. Turkish Twisters and Belly Band Vibrators fit in here somewhere. Better than nothing, but so is masturbation. 

Recently Jonathan Siegrist, who has climbed more hard routes than you or me, said, “A catchphrase I’ve used a lot with my friends over the last couple of years is that there’s ‘too much training and not enough practice.’ I see it so often. There’s an allure to doing all these rad circus tricks; it’s cool, and it’s fun, and it does make you feel heroic when you can do a one-arm or hang a small edge or do the crazy jump on the MoonBoard. But the reality, at least for me, is that my ultimate goal is not to do those tricks; my goal is to send… And I think it should be the same for climbers. I think we’ve forgotten that in order to be good at climbing, you have to climb.” 

Now there is some sage training advice. That’s it! Stop screwing around with Turkish Snuggles or WTF and climb some hard shit already! And with that I’ll ease off the rant mode, it’s been fun, happy climbing! 

Will Gadd is a four-time Canadian National sport climbing champion, won the North American championships, the ice world cup, the US and Canadian Paragliding Nationals, set the world distance record for paragliding twice, kayaks class V and still onsights half decently on rock for an ancient ice climber.