Physical Training for Climbing

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Many of you are familiar with our philosophy of climbing performance improvement, namely that movement skill is at least as important, and probably more so for most of us, as increasing strength and endurance. Strength and endurance are important, but without the proper use of improved physical conditioning through efficient movement the effect on your climbing performance can be minimal. It is the application of strength and endurance to refined movement which produces optimal performance. The point here is that you ignore movement skill at your peril; I’ll lay out the basics for physical conditioning in this entry but ask that you not turn your back on refining movement as you pursue improvements to your conditioning.

There are three distinct areas of physical conditioning: maximum strength, endurance, and stamina. To improve each requires specific exercises that tax and improve particular aspects of our muscle structure. I’ll examine each and give you the basic exercise for improvement. Details, of course, are available in The Self Coached Climber.

Maximum Strength

Maximum strength is measured simply by the amount of force you can deliver to a hand hold. The more force you can apply, the greater your holding power. Improving strength would therefore seem to be a desirable goal. Increases in strength come in two ways: you can increase the size of the muscle or you can use more of the muscle fiber you already have, the latter known as recruitment.

Unless you’re new to climbing, in which case I’d advise simply working on your movement and ignore physical conditioning for the time being, and haven’t developed much in the way of muscle, you’re best bet is to improve recruitment. Increasing muscle size to improve strength increases muscle volume and weight as well. In fact, doubling the strength of a muscle involves increasing the muscle volume by four times. The impact on your strength to weight ratio, a very important factor in climbing, is obvious; you’d only want to increase muscle size if you have little to begin with.

High intensity bouldering is the best way to build strength and movement skill simultaneously.

The best recruitment exercise for most, except possibly elite, climbers is high-intensity bouldering. This involves attempting boulder problems or even individual moves that are a grade or two beyond your grasp. It means working with smaller, worse holds on possibly steeper terrain than you can currently utilize.

Working on difficult boulder problems does two things. First, using small holds forces you to exert as much effort as possible to stay on the wall and make a particular move. This high intensity effort forces your muscles to adapt to a new work environment in which more strength is required by recruiting more of the available muscle fiber to the task. Second, movement skills must be refined. You’ll need to be extra precise in order to stick difficult moves; miss a foot hold or misjudge a deadpoint and next thing you know you’re laying on the pad. You get the dual effect of improving your strength AND your movement skills at the same time.

Endurance

There are two types of endurance: local aerobic and anaerobic. Your local aerobic endurance (as opposed to systemic which involves the heart and lungs) is defined as the intensity of effort you can sustain without passing through your anaerobic threshold. Yeesh, what does that mean? The aerobic energy production system is highly efficient allowing you to operate indefinitely (think marathon) up to a certain intensity level beyond which the inefficient anaerobic system must supplement the fuel for your muscles (think sprinting vs. jogging). That point at which you begin to tax the anaerobic system is called the anaerobic threshold, and once you pass over and begin using anaerobically generated fuel, the clock begins ticking. If you remain in the anaerobic range, you have a limited amount of time before muscle failure.

Improving local aerobic endurance

Obviously the higher your anaerobic threshold the higher the intensity level at which you can climb without developing a pump. The best method of increasing your threshold is continuous climbing. Find the roped climbing grade that you can climb continuously for 20 minutes with only a very minor pump. Try to increase the time to 30 minutes and then begin ratcheting up the grade.

Aerobic conditioning works by placing a low to moderate load on your (forearm) muscles for an extended time. Your muscles adapt by developing a denser network of capillaries among other things to help move fuel in and waste out. The denser capillary beds also helps you recover from a pump more quickly as well since waste products accumulated through the anaerobic system can be cleared more rapidly.

Improving anaerobic endurance

You can condition your forearms to work longer after crossing the anaerobic threshold. Without going into all the physiological detail, you are in essence creating a larger storage reservoir for all the waste that system produces. The best method was developed decades ago to help middle distance runners: interval training. In interval training you cross the anaerobic threshold for a bit,

Interval training is the best method for improving anaerobic endurance.

take a timed rest (but not fully recover), and repeat a number of times. This cycle of intense effort followed by a short, timed rest forces the forearms to adapt to anaerobic conditions. The best known interval workout for climbers is the 4 X 4 explained more fully in a previous blog entry and The Self Coached Climber.

There is, in addition, a relationship between maximum strength and endurance. The greater force you can exert on a hold, the higher your anaerobic threshold since that threshold is some percentage of maximum effort. So develop strength and your endurance improves.

Stamina

The last element of physical conditioning is stamina which is defined as the volume of work you can sustain in a given day. In order to give four to six solid attempts on a project in a day you need some level of stamina. Continuous intensity drills are often the best way to accomplish this. Try to do 15 boulder problems at your on-sight grade. Use as much rest as you want between problems. At first, this exercise can seem relatively easy, but towards the end it can be brutal.

Conclusion

Remember to work on your movement skills – strength without precise and efficient application is wasted. After that we’ve had good success with improving strength which will help you complete more difficult moves and improve your endurance. But don’t spend all your time bouldering if you’re a roped climber; make sure you have a well developed aerobic base.

2 Responses to “Physical Training for Climbing”

  1. Brett DowdenNo Gravatar says:

    I noticed a typo that adds confusion. You have: “The anaerobic energy production system is highly efficient allowing you to operate indefinitely (think marathon) …” at the beginning of the Endurance section. I believe you mean “aerobic”, not “anaerobic”.

  2. Dan HagueNo Gravatar says:

    You are correct, typo fixed. Thanks for your attention!

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