Training for Climbing: Where to Start

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At some point in your climbing journey, you’re probably going to want to start throwing in some strength training to kick things up a notch. Once you’ve dipped a toe into the endless waters of fitness recommendations, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that training doesn’t matter anyway you just have to climb many things. Luckily, you can maintain sanity and set sail for stronger waters with this guide to setting up a killer training programme, courtesy of Chevaan Patience – CityROCK Cape Town Operations Director and sender of 8Bs…

A basic training program should train four attributes, namely:

1.     Strength
2.     Power
3.     Work capacity
4.     Skill development

Here’s a brief dive into each, and a few ideas for incorporating these pillars into your training programme:

1.     Strength

This is the peak force that a muscle can produce. In climbing, it is particularly important that we train our fingers as we often rely on their strength to hold all or most of our body weight. By training finger strength, you will improve your ability to hold onto difficult grips, and an overall increase in body strength will enable you to do moves you previously couldn’t.

Finger strength can be safely trained and improved through hangboarding (of which there are innumerable programs online, like this one from the Abrahamssons). Another finger-training method is to project boulders at or near your limit; here is just one example of a training regimen you could use. 

Note: Finger strength should be trained at the beginning of a session, before you are fatigued, to avoid injury. 

Growing body strength involves both training the muscles directly involved in climbing (such as the back and biceps), as well as doing antagonistic training, which strengthens the opposing muscles (such as the chest and triceps). This helps to holistically strengthen the body and prevent injury.

2.     Power

This is the ability to generate force quickly; it can be considered a function of strength. It’s the difference between being able to hold a crimp in a dynamic movement and only being able to hold it statically (the factor at play here is called ‘contact strength’ or ‘finger power’). It’s also a determining factor in one’s ability to do dynamic body movements and generate distance in a dyno.

Training finger power safely begins with doing dynamic moves in bouldering sessions and trying to hold onto grips that you can presently only hold statically. Proceed with caution, listen to your body and don;t push yourself further than necessary. It’s a game of easing into doing bigger moves to smaller holds as you feel ready and confident. At a later stage, a campus board can be introduced, but training on a campus board is very advanced and potentially dangerous; it should only be performed once considerable finger strength and shoulder stability has been trained. Chat to the coaches at your local gym if you need some help figuring out how far to push yourself!

Note: Once again, finger strength should be trained at the beginning of a session before you are fatigued.

Body power can be built through simple explosive drills such as power pull-ups, muscle ups and dyno drills.

3.     Work capacity

This is simply how much quality climbing (i.e. close to your maximum threshold) you can do in session. By increasing your work capacity, you will increase the number of proper burns you can give your project in a session.

The simplest and most effective way of increasing work capacity (and, funnily enough, also the most brutal) is by performing “pyramids”. A pyramid consists of four levels of grades, starting with a wide, easy base and tapering towards the top to end up at your max grade; from there, you go back down to the easy grades. 

For example: If you climb 6C as your max grade, your pyramid will consist of climbing 8 x 6A, 6 x 6B, 4 x 6B+, 2 x 6C, 4 x 6B+, 6 x 6B, and finally 8 x 6A.

The aim of this session is to be absolutely destroyed by the end or before you can even finish (without getting injured). You will get to a point where your hands will just refuse to grip on repeated boulders, and then you know it’s time to quit. Once again, if you’re not sure how to throw yourself into training while staying  away from injuries, chat to the coaches at your local gym.

4.     Skill development

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Climbing is a movement-based sport before it is a physical sport, and you will reach a plateau if you train only your physical attributes, but neglect to improve your skills as a climber.

Skill drills consist of repeatedly performing certain movements that you will need to apply on the wall, with the aim of fine-tuning your technique. Examples could include improving footwork by focusing on placing your toes correctly, or practicing using an open crimp on small holds. You can get some inspiration here and here. As you advance in your climbing, update your skill drills and make sure to actively put your new-found expertise into practice!

Happy climbing!

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