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Training: Rotating-Wall Workouts

Train for better endurance and power-endurance on the “gerbil wheel”

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Nik Berry trains on a rotating wall at The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City. Photo: James Lucas

Providing solitude in crowded gyms and the ability to customize your workouts, the rotating climbing wall helps shatter climbing plateaus. 

The body uses two energy systems to power its muscles: aerobic and anaerobic. Conditioning the aerobic energy system, through Aerobic Restoration and Capillarity (ARC) training, a term coined by Mike and Mark Anderson in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, translates to increased efficiency, faster recovery, and a foundation of fitness. The ARC method targets the forearms; maintaining a steady stress load on this muscle group will result in more local capillaries, meaning better blood flow and less pump. Meanwhile, anaerobic training involves high-intensity climbing for durations of two minutes or less. Increasing anaerobic capacity helps with harder bursts of crux climbing on sport routes or with long boulder problems.

Mega-Enduro ARC Workout 

Bill Ramsey, first ascensionist of Omaha Beach and Transworld Depravity (two 5.14a’s at the Red River Gorge), has used rotating-wall ARC training for two decades. Because you can gradually increase resistance, by steepening the angle, adding a weight vest, or increasing the speed, Ramsey says, “It’s the best way to break through a typical plateau that is due to insufficient endurance or an inability to recover properly at a rest.”

An effective ARC workout involves pinpointing the level at which you can sustain climbing despite feeling a low-level pump—roughly three to four letter grades below your redpoint. Flamed forearms are not the goal. (The Andersons recommend completing ARC training workouts two to three days a week over four to six weeks. See their book for more.)

Start your timer (or a podcast, playlist, or album that lasts the set duration) and begin climbing. Aim for three sets of 20–30 minutes each, though you can also do two 45-minute sessions.

Sweating and heavier breathing after about 10 minutes indicate the right intensity, but you should never feel at risk of falling.

Practice inhaling through the nose then exhaling strongly through the mouth as you climb. Focus on efficient movement, and find counterintuitive rest positions, stems, highsteps, and holds where you need to alternate hands. Set a jug on the side of the wall within reach of the on/off switch to stop the wall and shake out for a few seconds periodically.

After each ARC session, rest as long as the time spent on the wall, or until the pump has subsided. 

Raether-Inspired Interval Workout

Andy Raether, who made the first ascent of The Eggporkalypse (5.14d, Nevada), uses the wall for ultra-high-intensity training. This means, says Raether, that you can “barely finish” each set—going full anaerobic. Once you see improvements, you can increase the wall’s angle or add a weight vest. For best results, complete this workout twice a week, with one or two days of rest between sessions.

Map out a 30-move route. Pre-run the route to ensure that the moves are at a high intensity relative to your ability—think hard flash or onsight.

Complete five sets, resting 2 minutes between each.

Raether monitors his heart rate during the intervals, aiming to keep it at or below 90 percent of his max heart rate. (The average max heart rate for 20-year-olds is 200 beats per minute, for 30-year-olds 190 bpm, and for 40-year-olds 180 bpm.)

Climb at a steady pace and in a precise manner. Focus on proper breathing, grabbing holds well, and precision hand and foot placement. This will translate to better performance on difficult projects later. 

Get Dialed

A few tips, before you give the old gerbil wheel a spin:

Pad well

With 4–5 inches of dense foam.

Motor on

Look for motorized walls that can change angles. Manual versions, or those powered by the climber’s momentum, can feel slow. Brewer Fitness and ClimbStation offer both motorized and angle-adjustable models.

Get swole

To up the ante, wear a weight vest during higher-intensity training. Start with between 5 and 10 percent of your body weight. Add weight up to 15 percent of body weight. When that becomes too easy, change the hold sequence or steepness to add difficulty.

Get set

For longer routes, number the holds in addition to having them color-coded or taped—doing so lets you “skip” holds on the fly, keeping you from gravitating toward the same sequences and helping to prevent repetitive-use injuries.

Clock in

Keep a stopwatch or smartphone with timing app handy. To stay cool as the pump mounts, use a fan.

Hailey Moore began climbing in the North Carolina mountains and crisscrossed the U.S. before landing in Boulder, Colorado, for a Climbing internship. An avid boulderer, and vegetarian of 12 years, Moore plans to continue exploring climbing throughout the States, though, “Boone might still be my favorite place to climb.” 

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