Get Swole Faster with these Science-Backed Training Protocols
An effective program demands time off the wall. If you can make this time short but effective, you gain hours to get outdoors or rest.
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!
Pitch Three: Advanced Hypertrophy Training
In our last installment, we established that hypertrophy training (i.e. getting swole) is an important part of building strength. Strength, in turn, was explained in our first installment to be “among the most important predictors of climbing performance.” Taken together, this means the chorus of voices claiming big muscles only weigh you down is just noise.
Peak climbing performance depends on maximizing strength and for this you need hypertrophy. However, you need to do it right. When we last wrote we explained how to calibrate (1) load, (2) set endpoint, (3) volume, (4) frequency, (5) rest, and (6) exercise selection. This time, we go deeper.
Advanced Hypertrophy: Methods
Training is like peeling an onion: full of layers and probably gonna make you cry. Hopefully, the tears will be those of joy at sending your project but you’ll likely shed a few in exhausted desperation, too.
The more layers you peel back, the more intense training becomes. Only increasingly specific methods can meet the need for increasingly specific gains. Advanced hypertrophy involves specialized resistance training (RT) techniques designed to enhance hypertrophic adaptations by exaggerating the mechanisms by which muscle growth occurs. These techniques belong to one of two camps: enhanced volume or enhanced intensity training. Climbers need to know about both.
Enhanced Volume Training
High training volume is a main driver of muscular hypertrophy and is achieved by either reducing intensity or targeting specific muscle groups with a series of exercises performed consecutively to fatigue. Methods, which are detailed below, that enhance training volume include drop sets, pre-exhaustion, supersets, and blood flow restriction (BFR).
Enhanced Intensity Training
High intensity in the form of enhanced mechanical stress is another principal driver of hypertrophic adaptation. This is achieved by either diminishing fatigue, reducing work output by manipulating the distance a load is moved, or by employing alternate types of muscle contraction. Cluster sets, tempo eccentric training, and accentuated eccentric loading are all examples (see below for details).
Evidence varies regarding the efficacy of these two methods but both have their place. Science shows that the best hypertrophy plans incorporate a variety of exercise types and styles. Moreover, shaking up your program keeps you engaged, which is key to long-term improvement.
Advanced Hypertrophy: Protocols
Enhanced Volume Training
Drop sets involve reaching (or at least approaching) momentary muscular failure and then reducing load to extend set duration. Doing so maximizes motor unit recruitment, thus triggering adaptation through a wider spectrum of muscle fibers. Drop sets produce higher levels of fatigue which is, itself, a driver of hypertrophy.
The advantage of drop sets isn’t that they work better than traditional hypertrophy training, it’s that they work more efficiently. Do them and you’ll achieve the same training volume in less time. Experienced athletes can furthermore use drop sets to overcome training volume thresholds encountered in traditional training.
One drop set = weighted pull-ups to failure followed immediately by as many additional, unweighted pull-ups as possible.
Pre-exhaustion training refers to fatiguing a muscle with a single-joint exercise before performing multi-joint exercises using the same muscle. Like drop sets, this method maximizes motor unit recruitment and enhances metabolic stress.
Research shows that pre-exhaustion does not produce superior muscle hypertrophy or maximum strength gains when training volume is controlled. Rather, like drop sets, it increases training efficiency.
Pre-exhaustion training may also provide health benefits over the course of an athletic career. A 2021 review states that “fatiguing a target muscle with a single joint movement might serve to decrease the necessary load for the ensuing multi-joint movement and, in doing so, reduce the subsequent forces around anatomical joints.” For climbers, this means being able to do the thing you love most for longer.
Pre-exhaustion for climbers may look like doing a set of bicep curls before a circuit of undercling boulders on a spray wall.
A superset is a set that combines two (or more) exercises performed one after the other followed by rest.
Different configurations yield different results. A combination of two exercises targeting the same muscle group may convey pre-exhaustion benefits. Meanwhile, a combination of agonist and antagonist exercises may be an efficient way to balance strength.
Supersets don’t produce a greater hypertrophic response than traditional training but, like the other methods discussed, are an efficient way to train.
Strengthen the shoulder girdle by combining chest flies and reverse chest flies into a single superset.
BFR training involves using a restrictive device (usually a pneumatic cuff like the ones used to take blood pressure) to reduce arterial blood flow and occlude the venous return. Blood flow in and out of the muscles is restricted resulting in an accumulation of metabolic byproducts and enhanced metabolic stress. The body thinks it is working harder than it is which leads to an increased hypertrophic response—or at least that’s the idea.
Science shows that the results of BFR training don’t differ much from those of traditional hypertrophy training. Combining the two may present benefits for healthy athletes, however. High-load RT followed by low-load sets under BFR shows better results than either of the two alone.
BFR training only works for the limbs. While you could be forgiven for thinking that those painted-on Under Armour shirts are restrictive enough to provoke body-wide BFR, they really are just so dudes can show off their muscles.
Perform 30 repetitions of, say, bicep curls followed immediately by three 15-rep. sets under BFR separated by 30s of rest. Load should be 20% to 40% of your one-rep. maximum (1RM) and arterial occlusion pressure should be between 40% and 80%.
Enhanced Intensity Training
A cluster set is a set broken down into mini-sets separated by short rests of between 20 and 60 seconds.
Inter-set rest intervals allow for greater RT intensity and thus stimulate more muscle hypertrophy. Where previously you may have done eight pull-ups with 20 pounds of added weight, here you might do two quick sets of four with 30 pounds. By the end of your workout, you will have done the same number of reps as in a traditional session but with significantly more weight.
Cluster sets produce higher mechanical but lower metabolic stress than traditional hypertrophy training. Evidence is still scarce concerning their efficacy and yet a 2019 study notes, “cluster sets with short inter-set rest intervals could be a useful strategy to carry out high-volume sessions of high-loads, while keeping a high time-efficiency of training.”
Doing them improves your training volume to time ratio and prevents monotony in your routine.
Perform three cluster sets of 2×4 weighted pull-ups separated by 30 seconds of rest at 85% of your 1RM weight.
Tempo Eccentric Training
This method refers to prolonging the eccentric phase of a movement in a given exercise. The idea is that slower movement tempo increases time under tension which, in turn, contributes to greater muscle hypertrophy.
Tempo can range widely and research hasn’t settled on how slow is too slow. Some evidence suggests a relatively fast (~2s) but controlled eccentric phase is the goldilocks solution to achieving time-efficient hypertrophic gains.
Perform a set of 8 weighted pull-ups at 70% of your 1RM. Take care to count to two each time you lower back to a straight-arm position.
Accentuated Eccentric Loading (AEL)
AEL is the practice of increasing load during the eccentric phase of an exercise.
You’ll need to court a patient training partner to make this happen safely and yet the benefits are worthwhile. At equal training volumes, AEL and traditional RT stimulate similar hypertrophic responses. However, eccentric loading stimulates different muscle architecture adaptations than standard, concentric loading. This helps not only with overcoming training plateaus but with building more integral strength.
Perform a set of 8 weighted pull-ups at 70% of your 1RM. Finagle a system (using, say, a pulley or some other safe device) that allows your training partner to increase weight to 100% of your 1RM during the eccentric phase.
Advanced hypertrophy training methods don’t replace so much as complement traditional RT. Classic hypertrophy training works but greatest benefit is gained from employing a diversity of training methods. Variety doesn’t just make you stronger, it also holds boredom at bay.
Climbers should be especially interested in advanced hypertrophy methods because, generally, they are more efficient than their traditional counterparts.
Hard climbing requires lots of actual climbing. Of course, you can train hypertrophy while doing climbing moves but an effective program demands time off the wall. If you can make this time short but effective, you gain hours to get outdoors or rest—both of which are paramount for peak performance.
Marvin Winkler earned his BA and MA degrees in sports science at Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany. He then supervised two climbing-related research projects as a research assistant at the Institute of Sports Science at Augsburg University, where he is currently completing his PhD in performance diagnostics in competitive climbing. When not digging into climbing science, Winkler can be found climbing outdoors, where he has sent routes graded up to 9a/+ (5.14d/5.15a).
Christopher Schafenacker is a writer and translator who left a career in academia to explore the much more rewarding world of dirtbagging. Previously a visiting assistant professor at the University of Granada, where he worked on editorial issues or poetry and translation, he now travels full-time in search of crags and climbers’ stories.
Together, Winkler and Schafenacker run spring and summer break camps throughout Europe for competitive youth who seek to both improve as climbers and broaden their knowledge of language and culture.