How To Honestly Assess Your Strengths And Weaknesses To Arrive At Your Maximum Grade
Your habits, or lack of, can influence your climbing grade potential. An honest evaluation can point to areas of improvement.
The Slow-and-Steady Road to Your Optimal Grade
Athletes are built one step at a time. Here’s how to make your first move:
- Take a Mental-Health Inventory. Hörst recommends first identifying your psychological barriers. Do you suffer from self-limiting beliefs, fear of falling, fear of failure, or performance anxiety? Write down a few things you want to work on. Then, make a plan for developing those mental skills, whether that involves meeting with a sports psychologist, meditating, starting a visualization routine, or finding ways to get back in touch with what you love about climbing.
- Analyze Your Physical Weaknesses. These can be equally hard to zero in—after all, Hörst says, there are all sorts of reasons you might be pumping out.“People often conclude that it’s a physical limitation and they need to be lighter, stronger, or whatever,” Eric Hörst says. “But you have to look at the root cause of that physical limitation. Maybe you were climbing with poor technique, or you weren’t very efficient. So maybe it’s not that you’re too weak—it’s that you’re too slow.” Because of this complexity, both Hörst and Randall recommend looping in outside perspectives, like a coach or friends, to help you identify your true weaknesses, and not just their symptoms.
- Check Your Habits. Getting poor sleep? Drinking every night? Not prioritizing hydration or protein intake? These things can seriously affect your ability to perform and recover, Randall says. See which bad habits you can shake.
- Narrow Your Focus. Climbers are notoriously overenthusiastic about their goals, but, says Randall, “Typically, in any one year or season, an average climber shouldn’t really focus on more than two things to make improvements in. You can still climb, work on your movement, and have fun, but you’ll want to prioritize your focus areas early on in training sessions. That way, you’re putting the best quality and highest-intensity work into those focus areas, which is what you need to get the [desired] adaptations.”
- Devise a Training Plan. With all that in mind, your final step is to draft a plan. Hörst recommends enlisting a coach if you’re newer to climbing. With all the podcasts, books, and online resources available, it’s also possible to make your own program if you’ve got five to 10 years of consistent climbing experience and some regimented training under your belt. “Anyone who is really into climbing can get educated over time and gradually become an effective self-coach,” he says.
Katie Lambert: Getting Out of Her Own Way
Katie Lambert is exactly five feet tall. For years, one thought dogged her after most of her failures: I’m too short for this climb. It’s not an uncommon thought among smaller climbers, but it’s what Madeleine Crane calls a self-limiting belief.
“Limiting beliefs are basically dogmatic ways of thinking, or black-and white thinking,” Crane explains. “That could be anything from, ‘I’m not good enough to do this climb,’ to ‘I always embarrass myself,’ to ‘I’m just an anxious person.’” Over time, these beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies.
“I’ve let go of climbs that were reachy even though they were possible,” Lambert says. “I knew they were going to be really hard for me but quite easy for other climbers who were taller. In comparing myself to them, I created this serious psychological barrier.” She cites the route Holey Wars (5.13c) in the Owens River Gorge, California. “A friend did it first, and then [Alex] Honnold came and did it, and then my husband, and it was all these guys 5’8” and up and really strong,” she says. The ease of their success was eating at her, Lambert realized, and interfering with her ability to focus on her own efforts. So she stepped away.
That’s the first step, Crane says: To defeat limiting beliefs, you first have to recognize them. “We have to know where they occur and how they occur, and then we have to rewire these negative thoughts and realize they’re actually not true,” Crane says. “We have to learn to say, ‘I’m not actually always anxious; there are situations where I’m brave,” Or ‘Just because I’m small doesn’t mean I can’t be strong.’”
That’s exactly what Lambert did.
“I had to reevaluate and ask myself, ‘Why do I want to do this? What can I do that’s within my physical ability to set myself up for this route, and what do I need to do to get better?” Lambert spent four months working on her finger strength and trying other projects. In April 2012, she sent Holey Wars—this time focusing on the strength she’d developed, not on the limits she once believed she had.
Body Composition: The Elephant in the Room
“In reality, body composition does have a significant effect on climbing performance,” Tom Randall says. “That said, it’s just one factor in the equation; it’s not the whole equation.”
According to a 2017 analysis of thousands of 8a.nu profiles conducted by Lattice Training, there is no significant correlation between body-mass index (BMI) and climbing performance. (However, it should be noted that the majority of the study subjects happened to have somewhat similar BMIs, between 18.5 and 24.9, which is considered a healthy range.) A 2019 survey of over 600 active climbers revealed similar findings: no correlation between high BMI and either chronic injury or climbing performance.
For most people, ideal performance is not about reducing BMI but about reaching a well-balanced body composition.
“Climbing is a strength-to-weight-ratio sport, so you need to talk about both, but you can’t starve yourself to the higher grades,” Hörst says. Sufficient fueling, especially protein intake, is especially critical for recovery and injury prevention, he adds. “A lot of people succumb to connective-tissue injuries as a combination of overtraining and undernourishment. For long-term improvement, you have to find a healthy weight.”
An Honest Assessment
Improvement starts with taking inventory of your weaknesses. Here are some concrete, tried-and-tested tools:
- Get a performance profile. These days, climbing trainers offer benchmark assessments or performance profiles, essentially report cards that rank your performance based on a variety of tests. Foster got two of these—one from Beal based on finger strength, and one from Garcia based on movement efficiency and technique. Both were critical for helping him zero in on his weaknesses. Some assessors, like Lattice Training, use data analytics to produce a corresponding training plan. Lattice assessments also compare various fitness markers to a database of results from other climbers. If you have the endurance of a 5.13 climber but the finger strength of a 5.11 climber, Lattice will let you know.
- Work with a coach. Technique, fitness, nutrition, and recovery all dovetail, and seeing the big picture can be tough. Says Hörst, “Anyone can give you a jumpstart in your physical training with a cookie-cutter training plan, but it really takes a veteran coach who’s been doing it for decades to decipher a lot of the deeper issues that are holding you back.”
- Poll your partners. As a more budget-friendly alternative to hiring a coach, you might grab four to six climbing partners and ask them to rank you on your three greatest strengths and three greatest weaknesses. Once you have this information, Beal says, your next step is to determine the parameters of your goal. If you want to climb your first 5.12a, find one that appeals to you. Figure out what the angle is, how many moves there are, and which holds are giving you trouble. “Then go into building-block mode,” Beal says. If your biggest weakness is finger strength, start there. Find out where you are and where you want to be, and design a training protocol based on that.
Common Physical Weaknesses—And How to Fix Them
According to Tom Randall, these are the top-three most common physiological deficiencies holding climbers back:
- Finger strength. About a dozen research papers support Randall’s findings: Finger strength is the biggest predictor of climbing performance. If you can pull on jugs all day but find yourself melting off crimpy cruxes, hit the hangboard.
- Fitness. Both endurance and power-endurance fall into the fitness category. This is the second biggest weakness Randall sees among his clients. Your training plan may need to include more regimented climbing workouts like timed endurance blocks or 4x4s.
- Lower-body flexibility. If you can’t keep your hips close to the wall, you’re putting that much more strain on your fingers and arms. Incorporate regular flexibility and strength exercises that increase your functional range of motion (like Frog Pose and Horse Pose, respectively).
Try these exercises to work through fear on the wall:
- Falling Practice. With a belayer you trust, lead a route that’s easy for you. Four bolts or more up, take. Breathe, relax, and scope out your landing. Now climb until your waist is a foot above the bolt. Jump. Repeat, climbing a foot higher each time, and pausing to breathe and relax before each jump.
- Deep breathing. When fear spikes, try breathing in for a count of three, then breathing out for a count of four. Do this five times. The long outbreaths can activate your calming, parasympathetic nervous system.
- Working through insecurity. The reasons we tell ourselves we can’t fail on a climb are often overblown. Try this exercise: Write down all the horrible things that will happen if you fail. On the opposite side of the paper, write all the reasons those outcomes may not be realistic. Now close your eyes and imagine failing. Let the negative thoughts bubble up. One by one, calmly dispel them, referring back to your list if you need to, as if you were giving advice to a good friend.