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Starting a Training Program? Beware of Lousy Climbing Coaches

Coaches are easy to find these days. Good coaches are harder to find.

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In the world of performance rock climbing, one of the fastest ways to get better is to start a training program, and in today’s gyms, it’s not hard to find someone to help you. Beware, though: Climbing trainers, like trainers at any gym, make big mistakes that can cost their clients time and money.

In the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to learn from and train with some of the best coaches in the sport. I have also witnessed a few coaches who need to put in a bit more work. Below are the biggest mistakes I’ve seen trainers make, and some ideas on how to correct them.

Too Much Training, Too Little Climbing

The last few years have seen a huge increase in both the number of training tools available and the number of gyms where you can find them. You can pick up barbells, work through weighted pull-ups, do a campus session, or test your endurance using a handy app—all good ways of getting stronger and all easily quantifiable. With each, you can at least leave the gym having checked the training box.

Many coaches track and talk gym numbers all the time with their clients. They chart out improvements here, changes in this measurement there, and more, all to underscore the sense that their program is working.

A clear ability to assess progress helps keep training motivating, but there can be a dark side to the numbers. The issue is that climbing is what makes you better at climbing, and training is only a starting block. It doesn’t matter a bit if LeBron James increases his squat max or his vertical jump if it doesn’t mean better play on the court. Training is both satisfying and deceptive, as there is always a number you can improve. Improvement on the rock is different. It can come slowly and you may feel stuck … especially when you fail on your project again and again and make no progress for several sessions.

Translating your efforts to the rock, ice or snow is everything. My friend Jonathan Siegrist openly admits he is probably the weakest 5.15 climber that he knows of, but he translates the strength he has very effectively, and he climbs outside all the time. 

Training to Test Well

With training come tests. We coaches test finger strength, body-fat percentage, upper body endurance, and so on.  

Here is an example of a good idea gone wrong in the strength and conditioning world.

Collegiate and professional sports commonly use the Functional Movement Screen test to sort out movement issues in athletes. By looking at seven different movements performed by their athletes, coaches can sort out where participants are potentially unstable, prone to injury, or moving inefficiently. All the athletes are tested against a standard and given a final score indicating their overall movement quality. If athletes score poorly on particular movements, they are to improve in those qualities before loading up the training.

One coach, Mike Boyle, who owns a strength and conditioning company, grew tired of having to put his athletes into mobility drills instead of the strength training, so he devised a seven-step warm-up that mimicked the FMS exercises. Each time his athletes came to the gym, they basically did the FMS as part of their warm-up. Their test scores improved; their movement quality did not. By training specifically to the test, Boyle effectively ruined its usefulness.

Quality training is determined by preparing for the performance environment. If a coach has the specific tests built into training programs, the athlete can see artificially high numbers in those tests. The question of whether the plan is working is if your sport performance improves.

Procrustean Training Plans

 A few years back I had the opportunity to do some personal training with a mother and daughter who were in my town for an extended trip. Their regular personal trainer back home had recommended they continue working out during the time away. We did an initial session, and they commented on how much fun it was to do some new exercises. When we started our second session, they were surprised that I had changed the workout from the first one.

Their training program back home featured the exact same exercises, sets and reps every single time. What’s more, the trainer had called this the “optimal workout” for general fitness, and had all of his other clients do the same.

No plan works forever, and no plan works for everyone. Any coach who is not taking the time to adapt training plans to each individual is ignoring his or her main job, i.e., helping athletes get better.

Simulation Instead of Specificity

You see some crazy stuff out there in the world of “specificity” training. People jump on boxes in climbing shoes, crimp the edges of weight plates. But specific training is not an exact simulation. Rather, it should mean using sport-specific durations and intensities of activity, and/or movements similar to those of the sport. Simply adding weight while bouldering or trying to mimic the crux of a client’s latest project won’t cut it.

Climbers can train more specifically by hitting intensities of effort in the gym similar to what they would put out on the rock, by climbing for certain durations, or by using holds that are generally like those on their projects—no exact replica needed. Specific training, such as a weight circuit that mimics the duration and difficulty of a project route, can even be superior to trying to replicate the climb, since the athlete spares the fingers and joints, and avoids [overusing the motor patterns of climbing]. 

Missing Appropriate Intensity 

Often a trainer will prescribe exercises in terms of sets and reps or a number of boulders to complete in a session. While workout duration is important, and the exercises are key, intensity—how hard the athlete is intended to try—should be the top consideration in determining what happens in the session.

You could prescribe the same session to two different climbers of the same ability, and each might have massively different experiences. For example, you could suggest a session of weight training and bouldering, as follows:

3 sets of 5 pull-ups

3 sets of 5 squats

3 sets of 5 push-ups

3 sets of 5 deadlifts

45 minutes hard bouldering, 1 problem every 5 minutes. 

Athlete one might do all the pull-ups, squats, and push-ups at bodyweight, and pick up a 135-pound bar for the deadlifts. For most healthy and strong climbers, these loads might be no more than a quick warm-up. Athlete two might go for bodyweight + 75 pounds for the pull-up, squats at 225 poundws, five one-arm push-ups on each side, and deadlifting 405. This is an entirely different load and might take a week to recover from.

In the bouldering gym, athlete one might do nine V3 problems in 45 minutes, where athlete two might do nine V9s. Again, big difference.

Many coaches are just trying to get their plans out there and move on to the next athlete’s program, and neglect prescribing how hard the sessions should feel. Did the coach plan on bodyweight loads and onsight level problems, or did he/ she want the athletes to train close to their maximum strength and do limit-level boulders? If the training is too easy, the climber doesn’t adapt to the training as expected. If the program is too hard, the climber may overtrain, losing ground and facing increased potential for injury.

Coaches are easy to find these days. Good coaches are harder to find. Beware a coach who seems to create cookie-cutter plans and hesitates to adjust a program. As facilities improve and education opportunities grow, I hope to see fewer of these errors in the gyms. Your training should be hard, but it should also work.

Steve Bechtel is a climbing coach and gym owner in Lander, Wyoming. He is the founder of Climb Strong, a training and coaching company, and is the director of education for Performance Climbing Coach certification and seminars. He has been climbing for 35 years.

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