Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
“Just try it,” Keenan Griscom said. Liam Foster looked at his friend, then up at Machine Gun Funk, a 5.13a in Colorado’s Clear Creek Canyon.
Foster laughed. The year was 2019, and Foster, who’d been climbing since he was a kid—even spending a few years on a youth competition team while growing up in Durango, Colorado—had never climbed harder than 5.11+. Though recently, he’d been hangboarding.
To humor Griscom, Foster gave the route a try. With its double-body-length crux roof, Machine Gun Funk was fun, but he wrote it off as a project for another season. Then, while belaying Griscom’s last attempt on the route a few days later, Foster noticed his friend meticulously brushing the holds. When Griscom touched dirt, he looked at Foster and grinned.“I brushed it for you, so you have to try one more time,” he said. Goddamnit, Foster remembers thinking. But he rolled his eyes, tied in—and sent.
Foster, now 21, is a friend of mine (he moved to my hometown, Boulder, in 2019 to attend the University of Colorado), but I didn’t hear this story until two years later when I was interviewing him about his first ascent of a Durango 5.14. When I put the pieces together, my eyes bugged out: 5.11+ to 5.14 in three years? I’d been stuck at 5.12a for four years. Should I be trying harder routes? I wondered.
Foster, mind you, has always been strong—thank years of weightlifting and competitive ice climbing. But even his first coach, Marcus Garcia, will tell you he wasn’t exactly a prodigy when he started climbing at age 12; the kid wasn’t hiking 5.11s out of the cradle like some pro climbers I’ve interviewed. And he wasn’t particularly interested in outdoor rock climbing, either. When, one day in the gym, I asked him how he got so good, Foster shrugged.
“It’s all just training,” he said.
The more I talked to Foster, his coaches, and other training experts, the more I realized he was right: Most climbers can make huge leaps in a relatively short period. But “just training” is about way more than just hitting the gym; you also need to understand where your maximum potential is and have a strategy for getting there.
Technique and Consistency: Why You’re Not Reaching Your Maximum Potential
“The reality is that most climbers don’t reach their true maximum,” says Tom Randall. Randall, the UK crack master, is perhaps best known for his appearances in the Wideboyz films, but he’s spent the last 20 years as a top-tier climbing coach, and in 2016 co-founded the climbing-assessment and training business Lattice Training, which has since gathered data on thousands of climbers.
One big reason so many climbers plateau or otherwise fail to reach their maximum potential is that climbing is an incredibly complex sport, Randall says. To consistently succeed, a climber needs to develop a vast range of both physical and psychological skills, in addition to good strength, power, endurance, and mobility. Plus, a lot of these factors are interdependent, adds Madeleine Crane, a sports psychologist and founder of the international mental-coaching clinic and online resource Climbing Psychology. “If I have a bad mindset, I won’t be able to use my physical strength to its fullest extent,” she says. Likewise, neither mental nor physical strength will be useful if you lack the technical skills to unlock critical beta.
Because of these complexities, many climbers have no idea which aspect of their climbing to focus on. Says Randall, “They just end up copying whatever their friends are doing, doing what’s the most convenient, or doing what they’ve seen on the internet”—where you’ve probably noticed that nearly all the brags, tips, and recommendations have to do with strength gains and party tricks, not technique or consistency.
Plus, Randall adds, the key to significant, lasting change is consistency across months and years—something most climbers struggle with. While many get to the gym on a significant basis, few are dedicated to working their weaknesses, and fewer still do this long enough to actually see results. The issue? Most climbers think of six- to eight-week training plans as the gold standard, Randall says, but the reality is that you need much longer.
“What we’re looking for in terms of lasting gains is structural changes in the soft tissues of the body,” Randall says. “So while you might see relatively fast neurological or metabolic improvements in strength in four to 16 weeks, you’re going to lose those gains pretty quickly if you take time off training.”
Gaining lean muscle mass, which will stick around much longer, takes four to six months, he says. (Periodization, it should be noted, is still important to avoid overtraining. Randall recommends picking a weakness to work for three to four months at a time, scheduling off weeks and appropriate high-intensity and low-intensity cycles within that.) Likewise, climbers who want to see long-term improvement in finger strength should plan on maintaining a consistent hangboarding regimen for at least one to two years, again with weeks of rest or reduced load built in to reduce injury and improve your rate of adaptation.
Back to Foster. Before he sent his first 5.13a, Foster had a few things going for him—for one, power-endurance. That’s because before he started rock climbing in earnest, he was a competition ice climber. A pretty good one: He completed the hardest dry-tooling route in the world, Line Above the Sky (D15) in Italy, at age 19.
“So I was pretty strong, but that route is almost all figure-fours on tools,” Foster explains. Translation: No footwork or finger strength required. Which was probably why he was falling off 5.12s.
Then, in 2018, his longtime mentor Marcus Garcia floated the idea of a Yosemite trip. To prepare, Foster did a quick self-assessment and decided to work on his most obvious weakness: finger strength.
“I did a couple months of hangboarding,” Foster says. Note that this was incredibly focused, impeccably consistent hangboarding tracked with detailed notes (Foster is a physicist). His scientific approach paid off: At the end of the summer, his fingers were strong enough for a second-day send of Machine Gun Funk.
As for the jump from 5.13a to 5.14? That didn’t come nearly as easily. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
How Genetics Influence Your Potential
It would be cool to have a calculator, some kind of magical formula that would take your height, weight, age, and ape index and spit out the maximum grade you’re capable. But the things that often matter most—dedication, try-hard, and resilience to failure—are hard to quantify. “There’s no trainer in the world who knows what someone’s exact maximum potential is,” says Randall. “It’s just not really possible to determine the genetic potential of an individual climber.”
Besides, it’s not until you reach the 5.13+ to 5.14- range that genetic factors start to play a significant role, says Eric Hörst, a climbing coach, researcher, and the author of Training for Climbing and How to Climb 5.12. “The average weekend warrior with a decent program and good commitment can get to 5.12 in a few years if they focus on sport climbing, and V6 or V7 if they focus on bouldering,” says Hörst. “And I think 5.13 is attainable by most people given long-term effort and some coaching.”
And if you just skipped through that paragraph because you’re already there and stalling out at 5.13? Yes, it’s possible your body shape or size could be standing in your way. But it’s not likely.
Research does show that certain body types are more likely to appear in the upper echelons of our sport. According to one analysis of thousands of 8a.nu profiles, your chances of reaching 5.13 or 5.14 could be better if you have above-average height. And another study from the Journal of Sports Sciences notes that most elite competition climbers have a light frame—though direct correlation between low BMI and elite climbing performance hasn’t necessarily been proven (see more details here). Other studies show that a positive ape index and good natural grip strength also help (about 65 percent of grip strength is genetically determined).
That said, there’s no indication that you have to have all of these traits—or even most of them—to reach a fairly high level. Alex Megos, the first climber to onsight 5.14d, is just 5’8” and has a zero ape index. Pro climber Chelsea Rude, who’s onsighted up to 5.13c and repointed much harder, seems to do just fine with her -2” ape index. And world-champion competition climber Sean McColl is just 5’ 6½” tall. (Foster is also 5’6,” though his physiology may be optimized in other ways—he has a 5’10” wingspan, broad shoulders, and thighs that reveal a lifetime of skipping leg day.)
But even without these walking case studies, Hörst says the genetics card is overplayed. That’s because the vast majority of climbing success is due to factors we can control. “People should focus on what they actually have influence over. You can’t change your ape index. But you can improve your technique, your footwork, your flexibility, and your movement economy,” he says. There’s also your disposition, or outlook on life, which is partially shaped by your genes but subject to change over time. Psychological disposition is often a bigger indicator of success than any physiological factor, says Peter Beal, a Boulder-based climbing coach and author of Bouldering: Movement, Tactics, and Problem Solving. Again, take Foster.
“He has a good attitude, which is important—he’s reasonably fearless but not in a stupid way,” says Beal of Foster. “He’s positive. Has some kind of dynamic edge to his personality; he’s optimistic enough about how things will go that he’s willing to put himself out there.” All those things can certainly help a person reach their potential faster—and can be obtained by paying attention to your thought patterns over time.
Continue Reading With Part 2: How To Honestly Assess Your Strengths And Weaknesses To Arrive At Your Maximum Grade