Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Climbing Training Talk

I have over the last couple of years been randomly bookmarking training pages that pertain to climbing and bouldering. Some of the advice that is contained within these sites is pretty good, my main beef with a lot of these training articles is the lack of information on periodization and cycling of training protocols. Ya, a sweet hang board workout will probably increase your contact strength, but just completing hangboard workouts 4x a week will get you injured. Another thing I feel is lacking in the climbing literature is weight room based training and how to properly prescribe strength training for climbers.

Here are some of my thoughts on supplemental strength/metabolic training for climbing. My intent is not to write a full annual plan for certain climbing disciplines, as I find it very hard to tailor to individual climbers' needs, but rather to give some insight into basic training plans.

Each climber is different and within each climber are times that they like to boulder, sport climb, boulder, sport climb, you get the point. Rarely have I come across climbers that absolutely stick to one discipline all year long, unless they are fortunate enough to chase the good temps. Extreme specialization may at times be a detriment to an individual's health.  Research has shown that early specialization in children can lead to increased overuse injury rates for a variety of sports. While no research like this has been conducted on climbing, it does not seem to far fetched to hypothesize that if an individual specialized in one form of climbing year round for multiple years, that they might be setting themselves up for an overuse injury. My contention is that it is a good thing that a climber's mood changes a bit during the year.  Maybe it is your body sending subconscious messages to your brain that there is too much of one type of physical stress present and something needs to change.  Of course if you override/ignore these inclinations, you are setting yourself up for injury.

Lets extend this thought process into training for climbing.  The unique thing about climbing is that there are so many different disciplines and different ways that you can train from day to day, week to week, and so on.  Lets take for example a climber that primarily boulders.  I would say that the great majority of boulderers go to the gym and boulder, some days easier and some days harder.  But that is exactly the problem, there is a lack of structure in this process along with a lack of structure with supplemental strength training.  If you do not have a structure for your climbing in a given week or month, it is hard to effectively add additional strength training.

Here is an example that I bet a lot of boulderers fall into.  "I am want to try and get to climbing gym four or five times this week and boulder hard."

Problem #1:  Unless you already boulder 4 to 5 times a week for 3 or more hours, you probably cannot maintain a high level of intensity (hard grades) during each one of these sessions.  Instead, it would be advisable to sit down and decide which days you want to do primary hard bouldering and which days you want to pack in a a lot of easier boulder problems to help build power endurance and gradually increase the volume of climbing your body can tolerate in a given time.

Problem #2:  A lot of time I feel as though boulderers sometimes do things on a whim.  "This week I am going to lift really hard as well as boulder really hard."  Well I got news for you, that ain't happening and if you do manage to get through it, you will put yourself in a hole for the next week.  There are not many people that can train like Patxi Usobiaga, if you have seen Progression, you know what I am talking about.  Not advised for most/all of us.

I guess these problems boil down to the fact that boulderers for the most part do not plan/periodize their training effectively.  You are setting yourself up for an injury if your supplemental training is exactly the same as your climbing training.  If you go to the climbing gym and boulder hard and then go hit the weights and do heavy pull-ups, front levers, and other pulling exercises, you are essentially taxing the same muscle groups.  There needs to be better structure than that, here is a basic structure that may help you train smarter.  I am in the Southeast, so keep that in mind while I move through an annual training cycle.

In-Season Bouldering -- Performance Orientated for Outdoor Bouldering (October through March/April)
During this phase of the year you should be focused on maintaining strength and spending more of your time climbing rather than training in the weight room.  I know that I may be abnormal, or normal depending on your perspective, but I only get outside on the weekend, so here is what my weeks look like.

Climbing Portion: Longer sessions earlier in the week on Monday and Tuesday that will have some hard climbing (single moves and some hard setting) for ~60min and then full problems below redpoint level for 60 to 90min or some 4x4's for power endurance (About a 2.5 hour sesh).  Later in the week, maybe Thursday, shorter session of hard single moves and weaknesses, maybe 80min at the most.  Take Friday off and send Saturday/Sunday.

Weight Room Portion:  Shorter session, 30 to 45min, that is aimed at maintaining strength you developed through off-season and pre-season training as well as injury prevention exercises.

Maintaining strength should include a low volume, but with relatively high intensity.  So lets say that your max weight for 1 pull-up is 100lbs, instead of trying to constantly increase during the season which may difficult considering the amount of climbing you would like to be doing, you should aim at maintaining this.  Maintaining this is easier than you think, doing 4 to 6 sets of 1-2 reps at 80% of your 1 rep max (80lbs) will adequately maintain your strength.  Gaining strength and power during the off-season is the hard part, maintaining should be easy.  Also you should aim for muscle balances as well during this season, when you climb you are constantly pulling, so when you are in the gym it does not make sense to do a lot of pulling exercises.  Instead you should be focusing on keeping your body in balance by performing pushing exercises, such as a push-up or triceps extensions.  As mentioned earlier, we are already at risk of overuse injuries because of the nature of the sport, why add to this in the weight room, it does not make sense and it will get you hurt.  Also please do not forget that you have legs and they to need to be strong and maintained, especially your hamstrings for overhung boulder problems.  Additional core training during this time shoudl follow the same princi

You have no idea of how much injury prevention that I perform with my athletes, it is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself.  The industry has coined a lot of these exercises "pre-hab exercises" which are aimed at addressing particular joints and problem areas associated with the given sport.  Pre-hab for climbing should include a lot of shoulder, wrist, and thoracic spine work.  Also soft-tissue work is extremely important, think of this as a self-massage technique, all you need is a foam roller and a lacrosse ball/massage stick.  Also a lot of active flexibility/toga stretching should be included at the end of your workout or on it's own regularly during the week.

Post-Season Bouldering (March/April)
Alright so you have made it through a season of bouldering, hopefully injury free and still feeling strong.  Now bear with me, you may want to take a week or two off to let your body recuperate and heal up.  You may not be injured, but I bet you have some nagging finger/shoulder/biceps pain that good benefit from some recovery time.  Rest and recovery is as important as the actual training itself and should not be overlooked.

Climbing Portion: I would recommend completely abstaining from climbing for a week or two, but if you are feening to climb, which I am sure you will be, go to some low intensity traversing or long easy routes.  For those of us that will be in heat for the summer months, it is usually time to rope up.  So doing some of this low intensity endurance work will not only help us recover, but will give us a bit of an endurance base.

Weight Room Portion: While resting from climbing, I would rest from weight training as well.  In strength and conditioning programming, coaches usually include an unloading week every four or five weeks to let the body recover from the stressors of the previous training cycle.  I do not even mention this in the in-season section because I know that no-one would actually follow this advice.  But in the immediate post-season, it is a great idea and you should come back from a week or two of rest feeling re-energized and and maybe even stronger.  There is a term in the strength and conditioning literature called supercompensation.  Basically this concept postulates that through a hard training cycle you are continually breaking down your body, and once you unload, your body should rebound from the training stimulus and you should be at higher physical state than when you started the previous cycle.

If you are nut, like myself, and simply cannot go two weeks without being active and training in the weight room.  I would suggest low intensity workouts that integrate more flexibility and injury prevention measures as previously mentioned.  This is usually a good time to remember other things that you like to do beside climbing.  Dust off the mountain bike, hike, play frisbee golf, yoga, etc.  Just do something active that is not climbing and your body will regenerate and you will come back feeling strong and have a renewed psyche.

Bouldering Off-Season
Ya, so this one is a bit tricky for me anyways.  I do not particularly get excited for sport climbing.  I do not know why, but unless I get the itch, I typically do not do a lot of sport climbing during the summer months and prefer to train harder in the weight room.  Keep in mind that I am a strength coach and work in a weight room, so it is kind of hard for me not to hit the weights.  With that said I will go through a brief synopsis of what it would like to solely train in the summer for bouldering and omit the sport climbing info (article for a different day and mood).

Bouldering, Climbing Portion:  This can get a bit tricky because we are now moving into a year round bouldering plan, which as mentioned earlier can lead to injuries eventually, but with a proper training protocol, injuries can be avoided.

During the early portion of the off-season, maybe 3 to 4 weeks (June), I would focus on the volume you are capable of climbing in a given gym session.  In strength conditioning, this period is referred to as the general prep or work capacity phase.  This phase lays the ground work and necessary fitness base in which to build strength and power off of.  A typical gym session could be a 4x4 workout, a set number of easier problems you want climb that day (10,15,20), short power endurance intervals, or a combination of these. 

During the next 3 to 4 weeks (July) the focus can shift from general prep to strength development.  Workouts at the gym may include easier boulder problems with lock-off pauses with each move gradually increasing the angle and difficulty of the problems as you get stronger.  Hard boulder problems that require core, hard lock-offs, and pure strength movements as opposed to power/dyno moves will be what you want to pick during this time. Hangboard workouts could be included during this time to help increase contact strength (1x a Week).

During the next 3 to 4 weeks (August) the focus can continue to be on increased strength development, but the emphasis should begin to change toward power production.  Workouts in this phase can begin to include hard boulder problems that require powerful, dynamic movements as well as some campus board work (1x a Week).  I firmly believe that the best way to get better at climbing and reading problems is to actually climb.  Being able to set and just make up problems on the fly is a valuable asset as well.  Not every gym will have the problems set that you necessarily need at the moment, just make them up and remember them or ask to tape them up.  Being able to set will help you to read problems as well as to make up problems that stress your weaknesses.

Please check out this post I put up last month with training ideas.

Bouldering, Weight Room Portion:  Alright, the off-season is where you make your money in the weight room.  You can train your ass off, be tired and not really have to worry about performing, unless you are trying to show off at your local climbing gym, and if that is the case, please stop climbing ASAP.

So here is the way I look at it;  if you are training strength in the climbing gym, I think that you should train power in the weight room and vice versa.  This may be a bit counter intuitive in regards to typical strength and conditioning programs, but climbing is unique and a bouldering session is very strenuous and mimics a weight room training session.  Too much of one type of training will not only set you up for injury, but will degrade the amount of effort you can put in at the climbing gym.  Think about it, say you get into the weight room and train strength (heavy pull-ups, front levers, dragon flags, etc.) and then go to the climbing gym later that afternoon.  You may not be able to perform problems that you normally are able to because of the fatigue you induced earlier in the day.  According to the theory of specificity, training is most beneficial when it closely mimics the demands of the actual sporting movement.  What is great about climbing is that there are so many angles and variation of movement.  This variation makes it hard to replicate these positions in the weight room, so my contention is that you are better off putting greater emphasis on training strength through climbing harder strength-oriented boulder problems rather than in the weight room.

Now, once your focus in the climbing gym changes from strength to power, then your emphasis in the weight room can now shift to increasing strength.  The basic premise is that training two of the same physical attributes (power, strength) concurrently in the climbing gym and the weight room will not lead to greater benefits and may in fact lead to overuse injuries and/or overtraining symptoms.

The one phase I believe you can train concurrently in the climbing gym and the weight room is the general prep phase, that is briefly talked about above in the June portion of training.  Doing come circuit training in the weight room along with some endurance, low intensity climbing will help build a nice base in which to work off of in the strength and power phases of your training.   

  1. Plan your training and log everything.  I will post an article soon about how I record all of my physical activity.  The better you log your activity the more you will stick with it.  Also, you will be able to see trends of when you were sending hard and when you hit plateaus and what kind of training was taking place during these phases.
  2. Don't over do it.  Do not boulder super hard and hit the weights super hard.  You may be able to handle the stress for a couple of weeks, but sooner or later you need to change it up or unload (which most climbers do not do).  More is not always better!
  3. Realize the stress that you are putting on your body.  High stress in consecutive weeks without the proper recovery, will lead you down the road of injury.
  4. If you are young, you will be able to handle the stressors more readily, but keep in mind that as you age, there is a cumulative effect of repeated micro-traumas and injuries that you may be able to fight through now, but maybe not five years from now.  Fred Nicole has been climbing for 25 years and I want you to be able to do the same.

Keep in mind that I am not an elite climber and I started climbing in my mid 20's, so I started climbing late in the game and was way to muscle bound and heavy to begin with.  Needless to say, I thought that my strength in the weight room would immediately carry over to climbing, it did not however and I have had to learn how to balance my weight room training and goals with my climbing goals.  But over the last 4 to 5 years I have tried to apply my training knowledge to the sport of climbing and basically have experimented with a lot of different training protocols.  I am also not an elite climber, I train 3 to 4 times a week in the gym and try to get outside as often as I can, which really is not that often, but have managed to steadily progress each year I have been climbing with no real substantial plateau's.  

More to come, please leave comments with additional thoughts or ideas you may have that you would like me to research.