You can train long or you can train hard, but not both—which is probably why so many of us train power so wrongly. (By “power,” we mean the product of strength and speed, i.e., the explosive force recruited any time you use momentum, or “go for it.”) Properly training power allows you to get stronger—to muckle through otherwise impossible cruxes. Thus, step one with power training is to realize you’re training, not just exercising. I.e., if you’re still firing out a steep wall on small holds three hours into a session, the problem’s nowhere near your maximum ability and you’re not really training power.
Because our local crags around Lander, Wyoming, feature short climbs with few holds, our training centers on power, but in a true-to-life way: using angles, holds, and movements found on rock. From what I’ve seen while training climbers the past 20 years, the guy who uses his whole body to create power is better off than any “campus master.” So read on for big-picture ideas about training power the natural way.
Keep It Short
True power training is very intense—only 45 to 60 minutes. Add in 15 to 30 minutes of warm-up and cool-down, and you’re still done in sub-two hours. By keeping these sessions short (fatigue creates endurance, not power), you can do more per week—if you’re in shape, up to two or three hard power sessions, totaling close to three hours of quality work.
A typical power phase lasts four to six weeks and will often consist of mostly gym sessions. If you climb outside, only boulder or try short, difficult climbs—you’ll have little time (or energy) for other climbing. After this phase, you can cycle back into “normal” mode and put your power to the test. In a given year, you could fruitfully advance through three or four power phases. (Intersperse these, however, with four to six weeks of less-intense training or climbing.)
Recovery Time Is Key
We don’t leave the gym with more power—it’s recovery that promotes improvement. In general, it should take 36 to 72 hours to bounce back from a proper power session. After this time, it’s critical that you again hit the system with another stimulus, or the first session’s value declines. (If you climb only once weekly, you’ll see no improvement.) On the flip side, rest too little or train too long (e.g., those fun four hours of nonstop gym routes with your buddies), and you fail to improve.
The more your training resembles your goal routes or problems, the better. That is, developing climbing power is about training the muscles of the back and the hip girdle. Sure, our arms get tired first, but it’s these “big” muscles that generate the most force and help us integrate our feet/legs. Climbers usually train power in several ways: power-focussed bouldering (discussed in this tip), random bouldering, system training, campus training, body-weight resistance training, and weight training. These latter five modes are fine, but should supplement, not replace, power problems (see below).
Don’t Get Worked
At first, you might feel you aren’t properly “worked.” Perfect—this lets you come back hard in a couple days. Improvement is why you’re training. Be patient, be disciplined, and you’ll see gains as quickly as three weeks.
Speed It Up
Another good way to increase power is to increase speed. But because climbing is so technical, speed often decreases fine motor skill, hence hold-grabbing/stabbing accuracy. I’d recommend only going a wee bit faster—say five percent—to prevent your form from going to hell.
As an exercise, time yourself on some 10- to 12-move problems; then speed them up by no more than a second or two. Work on efficiency—if you get sloppy, slow down and re-evaluate. A few tricks: memorize the sequence from the ground, and climb from memory, not reaction; move consistently upward—don’t fall into start-stop movement; and focus on your feet—your legs drive most movement, so make sure they’re not just dragging while you speed-lunge.
Perfect Power: a Workout Routine
This four-step workout looks simple on paper, but it works. Give yourself three or four weeks, and then test gains on personal benchmark problems.
- Step 1: 15 to 30 minutes of warm-up, with resistance exercises (pull-ups and bodyweight squats) and some easier, yet increasingly intense, climbing. Cardiovascular exercise—say, a few minutes on the treadmill or stationary bike—is fine early in the warm-up, too.
- Step 2: four to five tries on a hard problem (four to 10 moves), just above your onsight level, that requires explosive movement. Use holds big enough to train power, rather than failing because of finger strength. Think slopers, flat jugs, and big edges. If you don’t quite top out, that’s fine. Better to fail than to under-stimulate your system.
- Step 3: six to eight tries on one or two max-effort problems requiring explosiveness, with two to three minutes of rest between each burn. Again, if you complete more than half the problem, it’s an attempt; though if you fall low, jump right back on. Remember, you are not going for a pump. If you feel fatigue, increase rest time. End this step when power declines even slightly.
- Step 4: cool down on easy ground, with stretching or exercises that recruit the antagonist muscles. Push-ups, bench dips, and some planks/bridges seem to work—two to three sets of each, not quite to failure.
Steve Bechtel, a climber of over 20 years, has pioneered 250-plus routes on six continents. He works as a performance coach for climbers and other athletes, owns Elemental Training Center (climbstrong.net) in Lander, Wyoming, and holds a degree in exercise physiology.