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Four Training Tactics That Are More Effective Than “Just Climbing”

Not all climbing sessions are equal. Pick the wrong one and you'll waste time and not improve.

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You may often hear the advice, “just go climbing,”  rather than be specific about how you train. Yet “just climbing” probably won’t be productive. Your body adapts to the challenges you give it and different climbing workouts elicit different adaptations. To get better, you have to  tailor your training to align with your climbing goals. Do you want to be a stronger boulderer? Do you want to gain endurance for your sport climbing project? Or maybe you just want to improve your skills? Each of these goals requires unique training session structures to make your time  productive.

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Reaching these various goals depends on bioenergetics. Bioenergetics is a fancy word for how your body converts energy stores into usable forms of energy, and there are three main energy systems our bodies use. These are the phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative energy systems. Each of these are employed at different intensities and durations of exercise. What you do in the gym trains and optimizes different energy systems. This is why performing laps on easy routes won’t help you on your bouldering project. Or why you may feel strong after limit bouldering, but pump out on your project route. You must be specific with your climbing training to perform the way you want. The table illustrates the different activities and their associated energy systems.

(Photo: Table adapted from Statler, Traci A, and Andrea M DuBois. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, by Greg Haff and N. Travis Triplett, Human Kinetics, 2016, pp. 54)

So how exactly do you target each of these energy systems? Here are four different gym workouts to accomplish four different climbing goals.

Session #1: Limit Bouldering

Purpose: increase strength and power

Performance goals: improve maximum bouldering ability, increase strength for difficult crux moves on routes

Intensity: high, 80-100% effort

Duration of work: 0-30 seconds

Duration of rest: 2-5+ minutes

Session Structure

Shauna Coxsey bouldering at The Climbing Hangar Matchworks in Liverpool, United Kingdom on January 4, 2021.
Shauna Coxsey bouldering at The Climbing Hangar Matchworks in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo: Matthew Bird / Red Bull Content Pool)

Find two to three boulders that are at your redpoint level (the hardest level you have sent) or just above your redpoint level. I recommend choosing climbs that will take you three to four sessions to complete. The climbs should feel possible but still challenge you.

The total time of this session (after warming up) should be around one to one and a half hours, spending 20-30 minutes on each of your project boulders. Because the intensity of this session is high, the total volume should be low. Make sure to take long rests to ensure proper recovery and good quality attempts.

Perform this session one to two times per week, making sure to come into the session well-rested, for at least four weeks.

Session #2: Power Endurance

Purpose: increase ability to perform moderately intense moves over a moderate amount of time

Performance goals: improve ability to perform on longer boulders and/or shorter routes

Intensity: moderate, 60-80% effort

Duration of work: 30 seconds to 3 minutes

Duration of rest: 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes

Session Structure

Find three boulders about two grades below redpoint level. These boulders should feel repeatable and take around 30-45 seconds to complete. Choose your first boulder and set a timer for five minutes. Climb the boulder three to four times within the five minutes.

Because the climb should only take 30-45 seconds, you can rest between repeats. Plan accordingly: you’ll likely be resting between 30-60 seconds. After the five minute timer goes off, rest for five minutes before moving on to your next climb. Repeat the process for your final two boulders.

Perform this session one to two times per week for three to four weeks.

*Note: there are many ways to create a good power endurance workout, this is just one example! You can play around with your own ideas (including performing routes), just follow the correct intensity, duration of work, and duration of rest.

Session #3: Endurance

Purpose: increase ability to sustain climbing for an extended period of time

Performance goals: improve ability on longer sport climbs and/or multipitch climbs

Intensity: low, 40-60% effort

Duration of work: 3 minutes or longer

Duration of rest: 30 seconds or less between reps, or a 1:1 work:rest ratio between sets

Session Structure

Choose four routes around three to four grades below onsight/flash level (the hardest level you are able to complete on the first try). Set a timer for five minutes and begin your first route. Climb for the full five minutes on the route. If you reach the top of the route in less than five minutes, downclimb the route. Similarly if you downclimb the route and still have time left, climb up it again.

After the timer goes off, rest for five minutes before moving on to your next route. Repeat for a total of four routes.

Perform this session one to two times per week for four to eight weeks.

*Note: there are many ways to create a good endurance workout, this is just one example.

Session #4: Movement Practice

Purpose: practice skills and hone in technique

Performance goals: improve movement efficiency

Intensity: low, 40-60% effort

Duration of work: 30 seconds to 3 minutes

Duration of rest: 2 to 5 minutes

Session Structure

Choose 10-20 boulders or three to eight routes, three to four grades below onsight/flash level. Additionally choose one to two technique intentions to focus on. For example, focusing on footwork while climbing, trying to incorporate heel hooks into movement, practicing lock offs, etc.

Perform your climbs while focusing on your technique. Take good rests in between: the goal here is not to build fatigue and you should feel recovered between climbs.

This session works well as a light climbing day or as a warm-up for other exercises, such as hangboarding. Perform one to two times per week for at least three weeks for each technique intention to master the skill.

As you implement these workouts over your days, weeks, and months, think about your specific goals, your strengths and weaknesses, and how your sessions can support your climbing.

Juliet Hammer (julietamanda.com) is a remote climbing coach based out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. She helps climbers of all levels reach their goals through technique and strength training.