I’ve always been motivated by goals. Evaluating my past experiences and then setting ambitions for the future is one of my favorite aspects of climbing; it’s helped me push through the grades, from sending my first 5.12, Ejector Seat in 2005, to sending Jumbo Love, my first 5.15b, in 2018. Almost every climber has ambitions, but often we simply don’t know how to move forward or at what pace—and so, perhaps, we plateau. Fortunately, there are five simple ways to track your goals and encourage steady progress.
1. The almighty pyramid
A well-sorted pyramid is a list of accomplishments that slowly and steadily lay a foundation for the next level. For example, if you’re aiming for 5.12a, then your pyramid should comprise something like ten-plus 5.11a’s, seven 5.11b’s, five 5.11c’s, three 5.11d’s, and, at the top, your 5.12a goal route. You don’t necessarily need to do each grade in perfect ascending order, but the general idea is to complete several routes of a certain grade before you move on to the next. This allows you to gain the experience and emotional confidence to climb harder; it also allows your body to adjust to the demands of a certain grade before you jump into the deep end, helping you avoid injury.
More importantly, the more routes of a certain grade you set out to climb, the more you’re forced to try a variety of styles, techniques, and even new areas, since it’s rare to find your perfect climb—in your strongest style—at a certain grade again and again. Thus you might tackle climbs that range from slabs to cracks to caves, and from short, bouldery routes to forearm-destroying endurancefests. Also, within your pyramid, when it’s time to level up again, try harder climbs (near the top) that are outside your wheelhouse to help you diversify. As for your target route, it’s perfectly OK to pick one that suits you.
Finally, due to the specificity of moves and sequences with bouldering, it often takes an even broader pyramid to progress. Climb five or more problems at your top grade before aiming for the next one. In other words, you might want to have 20 V3s, 12 V4s, and 6 V5s in the bag before tackling a V6 project.
Route climbing and bouldering each require a different approach to “leveling up.” Here, I’ve outlined a sample pyramid, with a range at each level, for both.
Aiming for your first 5.12a?
Use this guide to create a solid, diverse foundation on rock and prep for the next level.
- 5.12a: Project/goal
- 5.11d: 2–4 sends
- 5.11c: 5–6 sends
- 5.11b: 7–9 sends
- 5.11a: Many sends (10-plus)
Aiming for your first V6?
Build a wider pyramid to encourage a solid foundation in strength and power before you move on.
- V6: Project/goal
- V5: 4–6 sends
- V4: 6–10 sends
- V3: Many sends (12-plus)
2. Two goals at once
If you spend countless seasons trying to tick that lifetime goal without seeing success, you could very well lose your psyche for climbing. Combat this with secondary goals. For instance, if you want to climb a 5.12c, as you try this main project, every third climbing day tick off another 5.11d or 5.12a. You can also have onsight goals to keep you motivated, seeking out new, challenging routes to try onsight after a burn or two on the project. Clipping chains—any chains—will keep you from getting stuck in the tiring mode of
mega-projecting, which can all-too-quickly lead to burnout. Plus, it helps build confidence and fitness.
3. Get specific
Make your goal as concrete as possible. Having the goal to simply improve is rarely as effective as pursuing a specific route or boulder problem within a determined time period. Being focused this way will help you tailor how you prepare, help you stay accountable, and help lay your foundation. Also consider the season, conditions, and availability of stoked partners: It’s easiest to climb your hardest at the local crag, with trusted friends. Climbing our best is hard enough—no need to add crappy weather or partner-finding stress to the mix.
4. Aim high
With these previous suggestions in mind, remember to always aim high! As Edwin A. Locke and Gary Latham wrote in Current Directions in Psychological Science (Issue 15: 2006), “So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.” So, for example, if we are using the pyramid rubric, your pinnacle climb should be one that truly pushes you. To get there, start with an objective you feel somewhat confident you can realize, and then set your sights just one step higher. Let’s say your first 5.11b took just two sessions; 5.11c will obviously be obtainable quickly, which means that 5.11d (or even 5.12a) would be a great long-term goal, one for which you’ll need to put in the proper work.
5. Reset after a Failure
Finally, realize that despite your best efforts, you won’t always achieve your goals. Even a perfectly planned project with the right weather, partners, and prep sometimes eludes you—for a season or even longer. In times like this, it’s best to remain objective and unemotional. Avoid the temptation to assume you were too weak or to blame other external factors. Instead, do some detective work. Ask friends for a non-biased opinion: What could I have done to prepare better? After walking away without a send, I always make extensive notes—including detailed voice memos of the beta and notations about weather conditions—regarding my preparation. Often, after the bummer wears off, I get psyched because next round I will be that much more ready, having deconstructed and then prepared to address what went wrong.
When to train
I’d say 90 percent of us can realize our dream climbs with proper goal-setting and preparation on rock. However, for those on a plateau—i.e., stuck building a pyramid for several seasons without seeing the desired sends—or who want to see more rapid progress, systematic training in the gym can play an integral role. Another reason to start training might be that you cannot easily find diversity in rock styles or types near your home, and the homogenity of the local climbing has made you a specialist.
Want more training wisdom like this from Jonathan Siegrist? Then check out his new AIM Adventure U course 6 Weeks to Stronger Fingers for a detailed, week-by-week hangboarding, campusing, and projecting protocol to help you send your absolute hardest.
Jonathan Siegrist is a passionate rock climber, dedicated goal-setter, and mediocre woodworker. When he is not traveling the world to climb, he is catching a bronze at his house in Las Vegas.