This article originally appeared in Climbing in 2018.
At age 32, after 13 years of climbing, I’ve seen things change. When I started, there were only a few bouldering gyms in the country, chalk was just chalk, and 5.13 was considered hard. One change I’ve noticed recently is a widespread enthusiasm for training. Climbers often ask me, “What’s the fastest way to reach double-digit boulders or 5.14? What’s the secret!?” They expect that some savage hangboarding, heavy lifting, or campus routine is the singular key. But my suggestions tend to be simple: Go climbing often, try hard, and take the long view.
While nobody wants to hear that it can take years to reach the top grades, a slow, measured approach is the most reliable way to improve. Climbing hard requires strength, but of equal importance is skill. Careful footwork, efficient movement, and proper cadence take years of practice to develop—there are no shortcuts. Plus, pumping iron will never help you develop the mental and logistical aspects. I frequently see people who have the strength to succeed but lack patience or the mental ability to metabolize disappointment. Give yourself the opportunity over a handful of seasons to improve steadily, and accept failure as part of the process.
Climb several times a week, even if it’s just short gym sessions. Very few activities target the forearms as intensively as climbing, so when you take long breaks or climb irregularly, any progress will fade disappointingly fast. Taking a week or two off occasionally is fine, but be as consistent as possible, especially for the first several years as you build your base.
This is the No. 1 rule. If you want to improve, try hard. This means climbing routes or boulders that challenge you, requiring 100 percent effort in the moment. The body will adapt to the stimulus you give it, and thus, if you persistently try the same difficulty of climbs, you will never improve. As a rule of thumb, if you fire everything in two or fewer attempts, you are not trying hard enough to stimulate progress. Try-hard flash or onsight attempts also help, but as I outline below, repeatedly trying a project works best because of the increased level of engagement.
When you reach a mini-plateau, swap climbing disciplines (trad, sport, bouldering) to renew the stoke. This also creates an opportunity for strength acquisition and to learn new techniques. Likewise, if you’re mostly climbing indoors, get outside for several weekends and vice versa. Done all the routes at your redpoint limit in the gym? Hit up another gym for new angles and setting styles, or ditch the harness for a month and boulder. Hitting a trad slump? Clip bolts. Adding the head game needed for trad climbing, the endurance for sport climbing, and the raw power for bouldering to your climbing résumé will help across all the disciplines.
Swap Rock Types
One of my primary suggestions to aspiring climbers is to explore new areas and rock types. Different rock provides unique challenges for footwork, sequencing, and body positions. One of my original goals was to climb 5.14 on granite, limestone, sandstone, and volcanic rock, which I achieved some years into my career. This kind of variety benefits both strength and technique, allowing you to try new movements and grab a wide variety of holds.
Find a Project
One of the best ways to see progress is to try a challenging project—ideally something that inspires you. Projecting illuminates one’s strengths and weaknesses. Particularly good at roof climbing, but horrible on slabs? Seek out a handful of slab projects to round out your skills, and save the roof routes for when you need cheering up from the slab beatdown. It’s motivating to see hard climbs come together. Patience is the key here: Don’t expect to do all the moves on your first go, and remind yourself that if you’re trying hard, anchors or not, you are improving!
Maybe it’s time to train.
While climbing to improve is fun and effective, it also has its limits. If you’ve been climbing for at least five years and are seeing your progress stagnate for a year or more, I’d suggest systematic training. I steadily improved by following the five tips above until I didn’t see improvement for about four years, at which point I knew I needed something more—and so I headed to the gym and got scientific, which has also paid off.
With numerous 5.15s to his name, Jonathan Siegrist is one of America’s premier sport climbers, and he believes that his foundation of climbing on rock led to his later successes through systematic training.