Probably 99 percent of climbers, whether they boulder or climb routes in a gym, are looking for progression through the climbing grades. In my experience, it’s often not about the grades, but that a grade represents improvement—the indicator that things have moved forward.
Here, I’m going to look at the key factors in your climbing (and, more important, training) that affect progress through the grades from 5.9 to 5.10.
Three common areas of training are key to moving up the grade ladder. I’ll offer what gives the biggest bang for the buck at each level. If you’re able to stick to two out of the three exercises for at least three to six months of the year with regularity, you’re certainly going to improve your chances of climbing a number harder.
Many climbers will be making this transition during their first five years of climbing. Therefore, as a coach I would introduce some training exercises that give you a foundation of fitness and general conditioning in climbing-specific muscle groups.
BASIC AEROBIC-CAPACITY WORK
This exercise should be the staple of any climber’s diet. You can dip into it year after year and always adjust it for intensity once the gains come. It will improve your ability to hold off a pump, give you more endurance for routes, and subtly improve your technique along the way. I call this exercise “10 on 10 off.”
Climb continuously for 10 minutes on large holds that do not get you pumped or fatigued. This is the equivalent of going to the park for a very light jog, where you can chat to a friend while working out, and the effort is very low intensity. Typically, you will do this on the easiest terrain in the gym and on the very biggest holds.
This exercise seems simple, but its success depends on engaging your body tension from fingers to toes. The aim of the drill is to move on steep terrain (choose climbing that has relatively good holds and is not at your maximum) by using “cross body tension” through twist locks. If you are pulling and locking with your left arm, then you want to be driving most of your weight through your right foot. Your body should make a twisting motion—look at your hips to confirm—during the moves.
The important thing for helping you progress to the next grade is the ability to focus on body tension through the move. Really think about tensing your core, engaging your legs and driving up into the movement. Hold that tension all the way until you hit the next hold! Only then should you think about releasing a small amount of tension to adjust your feet, ready for the next move.
SIDE AND FRONT PLANK
If you’re looking to gain some initial core tension and strength, these two exercises are a good starting place. While a quality core conditioning program should work the entire torso (front, sides and back), we find that most 5.9 climbers will be able to do this exercise regularly, and it will open the door to more complex and specific exercises. This exercise has contact points at the shoulder and foot level—exactly what we do on the climbing wall!
If you’re at all unsure about form, a coach at your local gym will be able to give you tips with just a minute of advice. Make sure that your lower back doesn’t arch during exercise reps and that you keep your neck in a neutral position.