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My Unpopular Opinions About Training for Climbing

Everyone is different, but these training precepts seem to stick no matter who you are or what your goals are.

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Last week, my old friend, Joe, called me up on the phone seeking training advice. He was once a 5.12 climber, he said, and he wanted to be one again. 

Easy, I said. Let’s meet to discuss.

I used to coach kids. And, I’ve been coached by many other coaches. I figured I knew a thing or two that could prove useful to Joe. But as I started to think about what exactly I could tell him, I encountered a few snags. I realized that a) My personal learnings were just that… personal to my climbing needs, and b) I wasn’t going to be able to tell him things he didn’t already know. From 4-by-4’s to campus exercises to footwork drills to doubles on the leadwall to blah blah blah. Joe had been in the game long enough to have already come across all that. Indeed, he was already doing most of those drills. All the sudden it didn’t feel so easy. What the hell was I supposed to say?

The neat thing about climbing is that, when it comes to training, there really is no right answer. We are all different climbers with different needs. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized some basic ideas do hold steady. Unfortunately, Joe wasn’t too thrilled about them. 

My Five Unpopular Training Ideas

1. Not Everything is Worth Your Time

Sessioning on commercial boulders will help you train for your outdoor pursuits to a point…. But yep, you guessed it: that double dyno coordination move basically doesn’t exist outdoors. And doing balancy slabs wasn’t going to help Joe on much he was likely to find in Rifle, his home crag. That is to say, commercial sets are fun, but minimally helpful if you’re training for outdoor goals. I’m not the first person to come up with this idea; indeed, many people may already subscribe to it . But Joe wasn’t too psyched, since part of his usual training involved climbing on commercial sets with his friends. He wasn’t going to give that social time up, and to that I say fair enough. But if Joe, or you, dear reader, wants a really productive session, I say stick to the stuff that best mimics your goals and forget the rest. If you want to send Bumboy (V3) in Horse Pens 40, then try compression boulders on volumes. If your goal is Jade (V14) in Rocky Mountain National Park, I suggest you forego the commercial set entirely and hop on the MoonBoard or a steep, crimpy spray wall. Be discerning. Not everything is worth your time and energy.

2. Nix the Running and Other Activities 

Building on that, yoga, pilates, swimming, running, hiking, and that core class are not going to make you a better rock climber, and I’m not just saying this because I hate yoga. You’ve all heard it before, and for good reason: The best way to get better at climbing is by climbing. All the other stuff takes energy away from climbing. Don’t take this one from me, take it from Daniel Woods, who, speaking for himself and Shawn Raboutou, Jimmy Webb, and Felipe Camargo, made this joke during a Q&A at Movement Climbing and Fitness in Rino a few weeks ago. 

Q: Do you follow a specific training plan? And if so, is there any cross training with other sports or activities?

A: We’re all very intense swimmers. We swim a lot. Run a lot. Pilates. Yoga. [Laughs] I mean I guess we train. I’d say a lot of us train a lot just through climbing itself. Like, we’ll hit up spray walls. And we’ll design a bunch of really hard boulders on the spray walls to level up our finger strength and our body tension. We can also recreate moves that resemble those on our projects outside. So that’s probably the biggest tool that all of us use. And then obviously, I don’t know, we train core, fingers, do some bench and some curls. But for the most part, all of us just climb. We don’t have a written out program or anything that we follow.

3. Take a Rest Day or Two

If you don’t believe in rest days, you’re not climbing as hard as you could be. To reach your next level requires higher levels of exertion and … rest! You don’t get stronger by pummeling yourself into oblivion, barely eating or sleeping, and then doing it all over again the next day. Even if you’re the mutant-type who can sustain that, you’re not doing yourself any favors if your goal is to climb more difficult grades. You don’t get stronger solely from training, but when you recover from it. Call it skin farming if it makes you feel better, or blame the weather. Whatever you need to do to get through your rest day(s). 

In September 2021, Ashima Shiraishi had her best ever bouldering day after sending the aforementioned Jade, a multi-year project of hers, plus Riddles in the Park (V12), Golden Rows of Flows (V11), and Blood Money Stand (V10). In an interview afterward, she said: “Climbing in the park is physically grueling. You do a lot of hiking, a lot of walking on talus, and the climbing tends to be very physical. For most of the trip, I was on a schedule where I climbed one day and rested two days.” … Did you get that? Many climbers these days should take note, because it’s far more common to climb two days for every one rest day.

Bonus tip: If you’re tempted to get through your rest day via running, yoga, pilates, swimming, or some other activity, I urge you to refer to tip #2. Make your rest days restful! 

4. The Best Training Program is the One You Actually Do

You don’t need to pay for a coach or trainer, because the best training plan for you is the one that you stick to. If you’re willing to think critically about your needs and then do a little research, you can design an excellent training plan yourself and see results. The hard part, of course, is consistency. As Jonathan Siegrist wrote in Climbing in 2019, “If you are the type who tends to stop when the going gets tough or maybe skip that last burn of the day because it feels inconvenient, you have a lot to gain here.” In other words, you have to prioritize your training and all that entails: skipping a session here or a set there may very well be why you don’t send your project.

5. You Can’t Neglect Your Fingers

Finger training is largely undervalued. Take Joe for example: He was plenty familiar with standard hangboarding protocols, and yet he’d never done them. Why not? I asked. Joe had always just climbed. Or done other, more flashy stuff like pull-ups and bench press. But finger training, I’d argue, is the single most important thing you can do, especially if you’re pressed for time. It really doesn’t matter how big your biceps are if you can’t hold the holds. Pro climber Ned Feehally agrees; he titled his book Beastmaking: A fingers-first approach to becoming a better climber. “Finger strength is basically what sets people apart from others,” Feehally told me. “I think all the best climbers in the world have really strong fingers.” I advised Joe to start hangboarding once a week at minimum, and to do it before anything else (but after a good warm-up).

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