Program Design for Climbing Part 2

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Sport-Specific Training

By Douglas Hunter

In my first post the first item on my list of program design elements was understanding the proper use of, and differences between training activities; as well as understanding the differences between primary and supplemental training.

This was intentional, as it’s an issue that is widely misunderstood in the climbing community; many books and articles have not done a good job making the distinction between primary and supplemental training. Further, the principle of specificity is largely missing from the climbing literature. When it is included, the definition and implications of specificity are often not spelled out. One example is found in the introduction to Eric Horst’s Training for Climbing, which states “Now one of the legends of climbing, John Gill was the first person to experiment with sport-specific training for climbing.”(p.1)  Horst continues “From the 1950s through the mid 1970s, Gill trained on a gym rope, on the rings, and with weighted, fingertip pull-ups (often one-arm!)”( p. 2). Also on page two there is a photo of Gill doing a one arm front lever. Lets take a look at the principal of specificity as a way of unpacking Horst’s statements.

The principle of specificity states that to be effective, training activities need to very closely match the skills and fitness demands of the performance being trained for. The closer training activities reproduce the movement, fitness, cognitive, and other aspects of the performance, the more effective training will be. The more poorly an activity matches the specific demands of the activity the less effective it will be. Three of the basic criteria for specificity are:

1)    That the training activity must duplicate the exact movements found in the skill that is being trained for.

2)    The training activity must involve the same type of muscular contraction found in the skills being trained for.

3)     That the training activity needs to have the same range of motion as the skill being trained for.

There are other things that we could add to the list such as the need to reproduce the emotional conditions of a performance, which is of particular importance in climbing. We could also add individual strengths and weaknesses, and the type of climbing the athlete specializes in. We could also mention things like balance and timing, but they are implied by the three points above as its impossible to duplicate the exact movements and range of motion found in climbing without also reproducing the balance and timing of those movements.

What these three criteria suggest is the obvious point that climbing itself is the only sport-specific training for climbing as no other activity can meet these criteria. Not exactly a stunning revelation, I know. Granted there may be ways to break down climbing into smaller units that meet some of the criteria of sport-specific training but we will get to that later.

Getting back to Horst,what he doesn’t tell us is how or why rope climbing, rings, one arm front levers, and so on meet the criteria of specificity. In order to say an activity is sport-specific we need to know how well it meets the criteria. Taking the rings for example, what was Gill actually doing on the rings that reproduced the skills, muscular contractions and range of motion found in climbing? This is important because what Horst is implying, intentionally or not, is that the rings are inherently sport-specific to climbing. I suggest that  such implications are not helpful and in part #4 of this series there will be a video analysis activity for readers to participate in, where you can make your own assessment of how sport-specific different exercises are.

The basic criteria of specificity help us understand why sport-specific training is important, and give us a way of distinguishing between sport-specific training and non-sport-specific training, which goes along with the difference between primary and supplemental training. Sport-specific training is important because it develops and refines the skills used in the activity being trained for. Further, it uses those skills as a means of physical conditioning. Sport-specific training is uniquely efficient in this regard. In the next post I’ll use the criteria of sport-specificity to evaluate a common training method.


4 Responses to “Program Design for Climbing Part 2”

  1. Frank FlorenceNo Gravatar says:

    About a year ago I watched a slide show about John Gill presented by Pat Ament . Included in it were old film clips of Gill bouldering on what looked like some pretty tough problems. The impressive detail was how he seemed to be campusing on some of the moves.

    When you get to the video analysis you describe above, why not try to incorporate some of this footage of Gill himself to see whether his training led to sport-specific movement when he climbed? What I saw in those films was that as Gill moved up through the boulder problems, he did so with technique that emphasized a combination of balance and power. I’d appreciate hearing a more refined analysis from someone who could break down the component characteristics of his technique. Wouldn’t that be a fair test of Horst’s claim?

  2. Frank FlorenceNo Gravatar says:

    The film clips were actually included in Pat Ament’s film “Disciples of Gill” rather than as part of a slide show.

  3. DouglasNo Gravatar says:


    That’s a good question / suggestion. The problem is that while we can analyze Gill’s movement via video if the available footage was shot in an appropriate way; this wouldn’t actually be a test of Horst’s claim because we will never be able to quantify the relationship between Gill’s off-rock training and his climbing movement. We have to remember that Gill did a lot of climbing and he had sophisticated ideas about movement, aesthetics and the role of practice decades before the rest of the climbing community. So we could never isolate one variable from the others.

    Beyond that, the bulk of the scientific literature on the subject suggest that the kind of causal relationship that Horst seems to be implying, is in fact, impossible. Nothing I have ever read on motor learning comes close to claiming that widely divergent movement activities can have such a direct and positive impact on each other. Its just not how the brain works. In fact, it suprising how even activities that seem very closely related can have negative effects.

    I will look for Disciples of GIll and if it lends itself to analysis I’ll write about it. What would be really great would be to compare the old footage of Gill with footage of contemporary climbers on the same problems. Comparisons are often far more instructive than using a single example.

  4. [...] or supplemental training? If its sport specific, it will meet the requirements of specificity (see here) and is capable of having a direct impact on climbing performance. If the workout is supplemental, [...]

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