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The Science of Maximum Strength Training for Climbers

Maximum strength training teaches your body to do more with what it already has.


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So, you want to get better at climbing? Whether you’re a recent convert or a seasoned veteran, welcome to the club. 

Climbing, always a fringe sport in comparison to, say, running, cycling, or swimming, has not historically had scientific backing for even the most basic training protocols. Hangboard routines? Endurance laps? These exercises make intuitive sense but have long lacked research-driven nuance. Luckily, be it due to the growing indoor industry, climbing’s Olympic inclusion, or the collective prayers of our cultish community, this is quickly changing. Over the past decade, the pace of publication of climbing-related research has quickened from a trickle to a torrent, and it’s about time that all of us tuned in.

This article series aims to review present knowledge and current training protocols with an aim to help young guns and old chuffers alike get the most out of their climbing. Psyched? Us too! 

Read Part I, Part II, and Part III here. 

Pitch Four: Maximum Strength Training

If you’ve been following this series, you know that strength is among the most important predictors of climbing performance and that we still have a lot to learn about how best to build it. 

We’ve talked about how power and even endurance are determined (largely) by strength and we’ve dispelled the myth that hypertrophy (i.e. getting swole) is bad for climbing. We dove deep into advanced hypertrophy, revealing the importance of employing a diversity of training methods and we’ve framed all this within the broader need for a cyclical program that includes different protocols. 

Hypertrophy training builds strength by increasing your muscles’ potential force production; maximum strength training does so by triggering neuromuscular adaptations. Fully-developed strength demands both. After a cycle of hypertrophy training, a cycle of maximum strength training wires your system to make the best use of the new potential means of force production you’ve gained. 

Max. Strength Means Getting Neurotic 

Your muscles are made up of motor units composed of motor neurons and innervated muscle fibers. The amount of strength your muscles can generate depends on your distribution of type I and type II muscles fibers and your muscular contractile ability. 

Muscle fiber type distribution is determined half by genetics and half by training. Max. strength training may promote changes in fiber type—the science is still unclear—and even if it doesn’t, it certainly increases muscle fiber cross-sectional area. This is a part of building strength, sure, but the real benefit of training comes from neural adaptations that increase contractile ability. 

When you train, you teach your body to do more with what it already has.

Training-Induced Neuromuscular Adaptations

Max. strength training bids your system to get better at three things. 

Motor Unit Recruitment

As you train, the threshold at which you’re able to recruit large, alpha motor neurons drops. In effect, you overwrite an evolutionary adaptation that seeks to conserve strength by first recruiting less powerful motor units before bringing in their bigger siblings.  

Motor Unit Firing Frequency

Training likewise increases the rate at which motor units fire. Faster firing motor units means an enhanced ability to quickly generate strength. This is why power, which is simply strength over time, increases with max. strength training.

Motor Unit Synchronization

Finally, training primes your motor units to fire in synchronicity. While science has yet to prove that this adaptation increases strength, it makes sense that it would.

Cycling max. strength training into your program means calibrating your six basic training variables—load, set end point, volume, frequency, rest, and exercise selection—to favor these neural adaptations. 

Maximizing Max. Strength Training

The best training program takes the best of present knowledge and applies it to achieving well-crafted goals. This requires one part thoughtful self-analysis and one part dedicated study (yes, that is what we now call binging on the internet’s endless raft of information). 

Don’t feel like studying? Here’s the cheat sheet to all you need to know to effectively train max. strength. Note: a cheat sheet for this cheat sheet appears at the end.

Load 

Load refers to the magnitude of resistance employed during training. It can be expressed as a percentage of your maximum strength or as a targeted repetition goal. 

Higher loads yield greater strength gains. Studies show that exercises performed at more than 60% of the maximum load you can bear for a single repetition (your one-rep max or 1RM) or performed at fewer than 15 reps. per set are better at building strength than those that employ lower loads. 

As you gain experience, you’ll require more load to progress. Well-trained climbers need to train at or beyond 80% of their 1RM to see continued neural adaptations.

Additionally, greatest gains come from varying your training load. When we looked at hypertrophy training, we presented drop sets, super sets, cluster sets, and accentuated eccentric loading as methods that increase training variety and efficiency. These methods can be used for the same in max. strength training.

Lastly, you need to periodically increase your training load. Each time you complete two consecutive workouts at a targeted intensity, research recommends you apply a 2 to10% load increase.

Set End Point

When to end a set is really a question of how close to get to failure. Training to failure (TF), or to the point your muscles momentarily stop working, is in vogue despite contradicting scientific evidence. That, or the algorithm is convinced we’re TF-obsessed and is shovelling us heaps of material on the subject—it’s hard to tell. Either way, TF is a no. 

Yes, we said TF was an important tool for experienced athletes to use sparingly in hypertrophy training but the same isn’t true here. 

Muscular strength gains depend on repeatedly exerting high mechanical tension. When you take a set to failure, the number of reps you’re able to do in subsequent sets drops. The consequent decrease in training volume implies a decrease in the time your muscles spend under tension and this is counterproductive. 

TF doesn’t help with neural adaptations, either. Research shows that non-failure protocols provide equal motor unit recruitment, firing frequency, and synchronization benefits.

Volume

Volume is the amount of working out you do in a work out.

Low volumes and high loads are the trademark characteristics of max. strength training and the science (mostly) backs this up. 

Researchers all agree—yep, pretty rare—that doing multiple sets is better than doing just one. This applies no matter your training level and yet newcomers to training need not perform as many sets as seasoned gym rats. The former will benefit from doing 2 to 3 sets per exercise while the latter may require 4 to 6 sets to see continued gains.

Frequency

Training frequency describes the number of sessions you perform in a week. Best practice is a moving target that depends on training volume, intensity, exercise selection, personal fitness, and recovery ability. Time and resources also intervene.

When writing about hypertrophy, we cited a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis which found that weekly training frequency did not matter as long as volume targets were hit. Here, we cite a different systematic review and meta-analysis (this one from 2018) that concludes the opposite to be true of max. strength training. 

Training frequency does matter. The sweet spot, according to research, is 3 to 5 sessions a week. Mostly, this has to do with achieving higher training volume. However, increased frequency also enables greater exercise selection and volume per muscle group which, in turn, means greater specialization. This matters a lot in a sport of fine margins like climbing.  

Frequent, short sessions followed by food, rest, and recovery are key to maximizing max. strength training because they support high-intensity training and reduced fatigue during exercise. 

One out of many studies even found that splitting training volume between two daily sessions rather than one increased strength gains. Tricky if you work full time, sure, but maybe one more reason to finally quit and move into that van by the river.

Rest

One rest day? Two? It’s hard to say without accounting for the specifics of your training plan. Nevertheless, a couple things are generally true of max. strength training and rest. 

First, you make the most gains when using all your try-hard. This means resting enough to go a muerte in every session.

Second, more is more where inter-set rest is concerned. Studies indicate that 3  to 5 minutes is the ideal interval of rest to take between max. strength sets. Bring a book.

Exercise Selection

Naturally, the exercises you do and the order in which you do them also matters.

The golden rule here is multiple-joint exercises before single-joint exercises, higher-intensity exercises before lower-intensity exercises. Adhering to this maximizes the total resistance of each session which, in turn, maximizes your body’s metabolic response  

TLDR: Max. Strength Training Takeaways

Max. strength training is a method designed to increase strength by improving the neuronal components of strength and power production. 

According to current science, this looks like: 

  • Training at a variety of loads beyond 60% of your 1RM (80% to 100% for experienced athletes).
  • Increasing load by 2 to10% each time you successfully complete two workouts at a given intensity.
  • Prioritizing high loads, low reps, and multiple sets. Beginners can start at 2 to 3 sets per session; highly trained climbers should execute 4 to 6.
  • Putting in 2 to 3 weekly sessions for targeted muscle groups and 1 to 2 sessions for muscle groups you seek to maintain.
  • Resting completely between workouts and 3 to 5 minutes between sets. 
  • Performing multiple-joint before single-joint exercises and higher-intensity before lower-intensity exercises.

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