When most people start up climbing indoors they want to get better, not for any formal competitive reason, although competing amongst peers is one of the drives to self improvement that from time to time we all ‘suffer’ from. Seeing more experienced climbers scaling harder routes allow us to see what is possible and can lead us to wish to emulate their successes.
Whatever the reason the chance to personally challenge yourself at any level means that in order to improve you will need to do some form of training. Whether this is laying out a personal training schedule, just trying to improve week by week or working on technique, it doesn’t matter. What you will benefit from is learning a little about the ways in which we can improve, the basic principles of training and movement techniques.
This article looks at the basic’s, as well as how to structure your indoor session to get the most out your climbing. After all in is not cheap to go climbing indoors, with some walls charging nearly £10 per session.
When we climb we call upon three basic energy systems, there are other types and sub-types of energy system, but for now just consider the three.
Phosphagen System – The initial energy system, that can work at high or low levels, it only last around 10 seconds.
Anaerobic – This system kicks in at a high level of intensity when you start to get pumped, it can start working at around 8 seconds, complimenting the phosphagen system, but can only last around 2 minutes. The muscles are working so hard they start to shut down the blood vessels that supply the muscles with oxygen, the bi-product of the lack of oxygen is Lactic acid. It is the build up of lactic acid that brings failure.
Aerobic – This is at a low intensity, when you don’t feel yourself getting pumped. It takes a minute to get started but can keep going at a low intensity for hours. You can perform up to about 60% of your maximum effort aerobically, before you reach your OBLA (onset of blood lactate accumulation) level, which means you are starting to use some anaerobic respiration, and will start to feel pumped.
Whilst it is possible to train the body to adapt to either, essentially getting physically stronger will help raise the level and intensity that you can climb at across the board.
Overload is a technical term that you will need to apply to any training to make improvements. Simply going to the wall once a week and doing the same routes won’t necessarily make for the best improvement. You have to apply and overloading factor to you routine which can be either.
Frequency – Number of times a week you train.
Intensity – The amount of climbing you do in a given time.
Difficulty – The grade at which you train at.
Duration – The length of time you train for.
Quantity – The overall number of routes you do in a session.
How you choose to add overload really depends on the type of fitness you are looking for. Aerobic training would benefit from frequency, duration, intensity and Quantity, but not difficultly. The reason being that if you increase difficulty you will start to work in your anaerobic levels, but training for improvement in aerobic levels you need to work within a threshold where you don’t start to feel pumped. This in effect promotes blood flow through the muscles and help dilate and strengthen capillaries.
Whereas strength would benefit from overloads in frequency, intensity and difficulty. As we are trying to make our muscles work as hard as possible and in effect tear the muscle fibres, so they can repair themselves stronger and large than before. This process only takes place during a period of recovery, and when training strength the recovery period might well be over 48 hours.
Many people climb numerous times a week, however your muscle don’t develop until after you have finished training. Essentially training breaks down and often tears muscle fibres, it is only during the periods of rest that the body rebuilds them stronger. So at first allow at least 2 days between training sessions. If you don’t allow a long enough rest then your body can’t repair the damage, so you won’t benefit from training. Instead there is a potential to actually grow weaker.
The same is also true if you over rest, in a way your best bet is to start to listen to your body. After a heavy bouldering session your body might be sore for a couple of days. Whereas after a low intensity aerobic session you might feel better after just a day.
Something of a swear word among many climbers, as many experienced climbers still choose not to warm up, instead jump straight onto a hard route, thinking that they will be too tired after a warm up. This misconception is so wrong that it needs a little explaining.
A warm up serves to ready the body and the mind for exercise, and something as intense as climbing requires a thorough warm as possible. A warm up is the lowest intensity of exercises, that helps raise you heart and breathing rate, dilating the blood vessel in the muscles and lubricating the joints and tendons. It is the most import part of any session, a warm that includes some form of technique drill will not only warm up the body but the mind as well.
Where as jumping straight on a hard route will result in a climber become pumped extremely quickly because the blood vessels haven’t had the chance to dilated, reducing the oxygen supply to the muscles meaning you will become pumped quicker. It is often hard to recover once you have suffered from this flash pump, meaning the whole session will be ruined.
As such when starting out indoors, you need to go on the the easiest of routes, and concentrate on climbing them as technically as possible, use the exercises from the last article like climbing sideways, climbing silently, one handed climbing, handless climbing and climbing slowly. This should typically last for at least 15 minutes, and you should not feel pumped at all, just a little warm and glowing and you should feel the body loosening up. You can extend the warm up for longer, working on very easy routes, after all the more easy climbing you do the longer the session will last, and the better value for money you will get.
Preferably start the warm up on slabs and don’t be tempted to move quickly to steeper terrain, often it is better to just repeat slabbier routes rather than move onto steep juggy terrain. During my warm up sessions I tend to do a reasonable amount of time on slabs that are so easy I can do some one handed and handless traversing. This helps me concentrate on find positions of balance, being precise with my feet and start to turn my brain to climbing mode.
If you warm up on routes consider going up and down an easy route 2 or three times before you switch over with your belayer.
During the latter parts of the warm up you want to start thinking about doing some stretching. Whilst this goes some way to help prevent injury, the main reason is to help us maintain and develop flexibility.
The maxim I always use is warm up to then stretch, don’t stretch to warm up. Meaning that we don’t stretch when our bodies are cold, we do it after we have warmed up. If you want to work on flexibility at home you can warm up passively by having a hot bath and turning the heating up during the stretch exercises.
When at the wall you can add some stretches towards the end of your warm up, by performing some arm, finger, thumb, lower limb and shoulder stretches, in between routes.
The important thing to remember with stretches is that you need to hold them for at least 10 seconds statically, so don’t bounce up and down into them. Try not to force the stretch.
In order to reap the best rewards you need to sequence the types of training you do, and spend at least a month doing each. Sport scientists recommend Strength – Anaerobic Endurance – Aerobic Endurance as the best way to sequence your training for overall improvement. However the majority of climbers just aren’t interested in that level of training commitment.
Whether you choose to use a weight training regime where you can train general strength as well as work on the muscles specific to climbing; circuit training which will work on your more general strength; or climbing to develop the very specific strength there are a few key points that you need to take on board.
In a gym you will hear people talk about there 1RM or the maximum weight they can achieve one repetition of in a giving exercise. From this people work out there theoretical 3RM or maximum weight they can achieve three repetitions at.
If 1RM is 100% then 3RM is about 95% and 6RM 85%. Using low reps (3 to 6RM)and working to absolute failure will give maximum strength gains. When working this intensively the body rapidly depletes its energy supply and you will only be able to continue working out for up to 30 minutes. Some research has shown that if you work each muscle group once to the point that after the number of reps set out to achieve you physically can’t move the weight then this leads to the most effective strength gains, meaning that there is no need to rest and repeat the exercise. You ideally need to allow 3 to 5 minutes rest between exercises.
If you move that theory across to bouldering, perhaps the best way to make gains in specific climbing strength as well as hone your technique, then we are talking about doing 30 minutes of climbing at the absolute top end of your ability. Don’t forget to rest for 3 to 5 minutes between each problem. Whilst this may seem like a waste of money, to only go to a climbing wall for 30 minutes, you are of course forgetting that a very low intensity warm up on routes is a must for such activities. Followed by 30 minutes of intensive bouldering then another 30 minutes low intensity warm down and stretch.
Having worked in a climbing wall for several years I found it very difficult to spend to much of my spare time returning to train, but only going for a 15 minute warm up followed by a 20 minute boulder was more than enough for me to become reasonable strong. By the end of the sessions I would feel still feel OK, but that I was on the downward slope of my strength. I would never train to when I became too tired, as this is often when injuries happen.
Isolate different climbing strengths, by working the fingers on less steep terrain, on small hand holds, if a problem is too hard try using bigger footholds, but remember as you get stronger to make the foot holds smaller.
Work you arms and shoulder by moving onto steeper walls with bigger holds, concentrate on making every move as statically as possible, working the muscles slowly and not using any power to overcome any reach.
Bouldering for technique
Unlike strength where you are trying for an short intensive burn, bouldering can also be enjoyed at a much less intense level. Instead of trying to use the upper body as much as possible, you try and use it as little as possible, instead using footwork, body position and balance to reduce the need to pull hard.
In virtually ever bouldering wall in every country there is going to be someone more than willing to give some free advice on matters of the best way to climb a problem. The trick is to avoid taking this advice for granted instead trying a problem in a variety of different ways, and asking yourself which way felt the easiest for YOU and perhaps why?
It is this feedback that will help you to become a better climber through listening to your body. Whilst it is tempting to boulder on steep walls, when working technique consider that we learn skills like movement through repetition of that movement, in fact it takes around 100 repetitions to lay down muscle memory of any one movement. So slabs and vertical walls, will at first be not only more appropriate for the general angle of routes you aspire to but be at a level that allows repetition.
There is one over riding rule to technique training and that is practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice will make perfect.
Often we never actually see ourselves climb, so we have no benchmark of how we actually climb. Try taking you digital camera to the wall and videoing you and your friends on boulder problems. Review your performance after you have climbed the problem, and see how you compare to others who climb that problem. Look for keys to better performance like which way your upper body is facing during the crux and what foot and handholds you are using. Don’t try and over analyse the video, instead pick one move and try to make that once section better, video yourself again, and then repeat the process. If you try to work on more than one point you may overload you brain and end up climbing worse.
Anaerobic ability is the ability of the muscle to continue exercise after they have effectively shut of the supply of oxygen to them because they are working so hard they squeeze shut the cappillaries that bring the oxygen. This is something which we call upon whenever we are trying to push ourselves on the hardest of routes we can manage. We rapidly become ‘pumped’, which is when the lactic acid in our muscles builds up to such level that in brings about total failure.
The lactic acid is a bi-product of our muscles working without a sufficient oxygen supply. As soon as this starts to happen unless we get a good rest, the clock is ticking. Failure will come about in a matter of minutes, due to the gradual accumulation of the lactic acid in the muscles.
You can train you muscle to operate better in this lactate overload, by training at a level that promotes it. Usually this is done on routes, that are near you maximum level and after a short rest or interval repeating the route a few times.
So if you have lead a F6b at the wall as you best effort, then train on climb a F6a, with sustain climbing rather than one with a distinct crux, and however long it takes to climb give yourself twice that time as a rest period. Then climb the route again and rest again, you are trying to make it to 6 internals, if you can’t then lower the grade.
To apply overload start to reduce the interval or increase the grade of route.
In real terms this type of training will only give you a few extra moves before you fail. Mainly because although you can increase your ability to keep climbing through the ‘pump’, you can’t cheat nature and lactic acid will always win.
You are far better improving strength and aerobic ability, in effect raising the level where the pump sets in.
To train aerobically, you must be working within a level that you can sustain aerobically, so in climbing this is a level where you won’t feel ‘pumped’. If you start feeling pumped stop and drop the grade and angle of the climb.
Essentially, specific training for aerobic climbing is only a little more intense than what you warm up at. So by extending the warm up to include more easy routes, up to where you feel the pump and then drop the grade and or angle to the minimum and start up through the grades again. This low intensity climbing is another good place to practice technique, trying to get you legs to do all the work. Typically you need to keep this level of exercise going for about 1 hour, including the warm, after this level of exercise it is a great time to do some stretching to help your flexibility.
Climbing easy routes for an hour can be tedious, so instead of just climbing routes try and use the time for technique again and have a list of exercises, and climb up and down a route in the style suggested.
Face the upper body right.
Face the upper body left.
Face the upper body left and right, pivoting around as you change the direction you are facing.
Climb Silently – really concentrating on no foot noise.
Climb as fast as possible.
Climb as fluidly as possible.
Climb with your hands staying below your shoulders.
Climb and find as many hands off rest as possible.
Effectively, this aerobic training is helping to encourage capillary growth in the muscles, by widening, reinforce and promoting new pathways. It also helps to improve the efficiency of the heart and lungs to transport oxygenated blood around the body.
You can help your heart and lungs out by doing other aerobic activities like swimming, cycling, running or aerobics. Whilst this won’t help the specific muscles of climbing it will help strengthen the heart, and increase the amount of oxygen that you blood can supply to the muscles along with how efficiently the lungs can remove the carbon dioxide and replace it with oxygen. Again general aerobic workouts need to last for at least 1 hour.
There are very few courses that offer training, to qualify as a Mountaineering Instructor you only have to climb VS, although many climb a lot harder. A qualified instructor who climbs in the higher echelons of the graded will have a wealth of personal experience and the ability to communicate it, as well as the ability to train key safety points.
Finding a coach or trainer can be very hit and miss, as anyone can set up in business as a climbing coach or trainer, as such it is often personal recommendation that work best. Although people like Neil Gresham, Adrian Berry, Steve McClure, Katherine Schumacher, Dave MacCloud or other top climbers who have not only reached their highest potential through training, but also offered ‘coaching and training’ for several years. These coaches often have the edge over ‘instructors’ when it comes to the sports science rather than the training of technique and safety. You should expect to pay up to £40 per hour.