Bouldering Comp Season: Training Tips

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Fall is right around the corner and along with crisp, dry air comes the bouldering competition season. Whether you’re competing in the Triple Crown or ABS or another series your preparation should center on several areas common to all the formats. Those common elements are maximum strength, power, and stamina; if you’re deficient in any one element compared to the others, your performance will suffer. Here’s a quick guide to get you started toward doing your best this fall.

Improving maximum strength

Bouldering is a high intensity, short time frame activity as compared to route climbing, similar to sprinting

versus running longer distances such as 5K. Because of this, maximum strength, or the ability to generate great force on a particular hold, is of paramount importance, and the development of that strength one of the primary determinants of your overall bouldering performance.

In the short run your best bet for improving strength is recruitment training in which you train your muscles to utilize a greater percentage of the available muscle fibers, and the best method for improving recruitment is threshold bouldering. As we wrote in the Self Coached Climber threshold bouldering is climbing at or very near your limit. The goal is to maximize exertion over a very short time span to promote a recruitment adaptation.

Exercise: Threshold Bouldering

Choose several boulder problems a couple of grades harder than your maximum, for example if your maximum bouldering grade is V4, choose a couple of V6s. Work the individual moves with the goal of doing two or three moves at your absolute limit. The moves should feel very difficult, and your progress will be measured in millimeters over many tries as you get closer to the next hold.

The three problems should be somewhat different in angle, hold type, and nature. Don’t get obsessed with any one problem, rather spread your efforts over several. A single effort might only last a few seconds, will feel very difficult, and will not result in a pump. Rest at least a minute between efforts. Continue for 40 to 50 minutes.

We emphasize threshold bouldering over simple strength training activities such as a campus board because threshold bouldering includes movement improvement at a more difficult grade. Simple strength training might improve your ability to apply force to a hold, but without additional movement skill that improved strength can be wasted.

Because of the short work durations and long rests you’re likely to not feel tired at the end of the workout, but don’t be tempted to continue after 50 minutes. Threshold bouldering requires you to be somewhat fresh so perform the training early in your workout directly after warming up. When your time is up move on to another activity.

There are a couple of methods to help you with particularly difficult moves. In the first your partner supports a portion of your weight by pushing on your upper back. As the move becomes easier, the amount of support is decreased until you can do the move on your own. In the second you simply use additional or larger footholds than the problem would normally allow and then, as the move becomes easier, the use of those footholds is gradually decreased.

Improving power

Power is the combination of speed and force. For climbing this translates to the ability to grasp a hold and apply force very quickly as in a dynamic move. Your best bet for improving power is some form of plyometrics training in which you perform a fast eccentric, or negative, contraction just prior to a concentric, or positive, contraction. These exercises can be performed with body weight (plyometric training) or with added weight such as a weight vest (ballistic training).

Exercise: Plyometric training

Best performed on a campus board, a plyometric rep would start with your hanging from a campus rung about half way up the board. You’d then drop with both hands to the next lower rung, and then, before recovering, bounce right back up to the starting rung. Repeat reps to failure at somewhere between five and seven reps. As soon as you can do seven reps try either dropping two rungs or move to smaller rungs.

Ballistic training involves the same movement albeit while wearing additional weight. As soon as you can do seven reps add weight.

Improving stamina

In the Self Coached Climber we define stamina as “the ability to sustain high, on-off workloads over the course of a day.” It is more simply the ability to climb at a high level all day long recovering almost fully between attempts. Stamina will give you an edge in hours long events such as ABS locals and the Triple Crown where your score depends on sending a number of personally difficult problems in a single day.

Exercise: Continuous intensity repetitions (CIR)

In a CIR workout you’ll do 10 to 15 problems at a relatively high grade somewhere in the range of one to two grades below your maximum consistent redpoint grade. For example if you can consistently send V6 in a half dozen or fewer attempts, your CIR grade is V4 and/or V5.

There is no timed rest period for a CIR workout, allow enough time between attempts to recover. CIR is not an on-sight exercise so it’s preferable to be familiar with the problems you’ll use. If there aren’t 15 V4’s in your gym or boulder field simply repeat a few – CIR is a volume and not a diversity exercise.

Bouldering is typically a game of strength, power, and precise movement, but the competition circuit throws in the additional element of stamina. Train for all three and you’re likely to have a much more productive competitive season.

3 Responses to “Bouldering Comp Season: Training Tips”

  1. [...] Bouldering Comp Season: Training Tips [...]

  2. Eliza GregoireNo Gravatar says:

    I have a question. Do you do all 3 exercises in one day? And how many times a week should we do them? Also, for the campus board exercise, how much time should you work on it? Thanks a lot!

  3. DouglasNo Gravatar says:

    You would not want to do all three in one day, It would be way too much. A CIR for example, in itself would be a full day of training and should be followed by a rest day. Doing two CIR workouts in a week or two threshold bouldering sessions in a week is going to be a lot for many people. The number of times you do them in a week is a matter of how much training time you have, how much rest time you have, your current performance level, your climbing experience level and how well you recover. I am currently training a climber who could handle threshold bouldering three times per week, but if I tried that myself I would be injured by the second week. I would suggest trying each workout, getting to know them, how to do them well and their impact on your body, them you should be able to work on a schedule. For starters don’t do any of them more than two times a week and don’t do all three activities two times each in the same week. You might try 2 CIRs with one threshold workout and one campus workout. Also see my second post on coaching ABS youth for a good high intensity interval structure similar to threshold bouldering.

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