Some Details on Sean McColl’s Training Video

No Gravatar

Over at ClimbingNarc there was a discussion last week concerning Sean McColl’s short video of training activities. I got in a bit of hot water in that discussion. To be fair, I brought some the criticism on myself because I started off in a fairly tactless manner, and for that I apologize, but I also got in hot water because I directly confronted popular sports myth and didn’t provide the details behind my statement that the activities presented in the video were not likely to be responsible for McColl’s high level of climbing performance. I don’t think ClimbingNarc is the proper place for such a detailed discussion, but this blog is.  Also, let me be clear that I am critically engaged with the content of McColl’s video but this is not a critique of McColl as a climber or a person. I want to be clear about this point because there are some that don’t understand the difference between being critically engaged, and a personal attack. As a coach and writer about training, it’s my job to provide support for athletes, not to tear them down. Constructive criticism is important as is adding pragmatic and scientific insights to training activities. There are three aspects of the video that I want to discuss, the circuit training, the ab training and the lock-off training. In this post I will address issues raised by the circuit training activity.


Broadly speaking, there is a responsibility for any training media to meet a certain base level of information: The purpose of an activity must be described, the methodology must be described in terms of intensity, and duration of work and rest periods, and the method of quantifying results must also be described. This last issue is of particular interest to me, in that, throughout the history of training in climbing two mistakes have practically defined the field. These being that secondary, non-sport-specific training has been done in place of sport-specific training; and the correlation between training activities and climbing performance is almost never stated in a way that can actually be measured. Yet this is the heart and soul of any training activity or program. It must rely on high quality sport-specific training, and the impact of that training must be able to be quantified in terms relevant to performance.  Without consistent and reliable measurement, its impossible to know what impact, if any, a training activity is having.


The first activity found in the video is a circuit done on a wall that changes angle. What we know about this activity is that the circuit is thirty moves long, and gets more difficult as the steepness of the wall is increased over each of four sets, specifically on the sloping holds. Clearly, this activity can have a positive impact on climbing performance if performed under the right conditions. The challenge for us is that the video does not actually tell us the conditions under which the activity is performed. The essential but missing information is: The difficulty of the circuit, the duration of the work period, and most importantly, if he is doing this as interval training, the duration of the rest interval. Remember that interval training gets its name from the fact it controls the rest interval between work periods with the goal of providing only enough rest for the athlete to complete the next circuit. If the rest is too shot the athlete will not complete the next circuit. If the rest is too long the athlete will not be challenged enough in the upcoming circuit.


The video does tell us that the circuit is thirty moves long. It is very common to describe circuits or traverses in terms of the number of moves, but the number of moves is actually not important because our bodies do not respond to how many moves we have done, our bodies respond to the intensity and duration of the work period. Because climbers change their speed so dramatically based on fatigue and other variable, a thirty move sequence could take 1:45 on one attempt and only :50 on another. The potential for radical unplanned differences in work durations makes this kind of training activity far less effective. It is essential to have consistency in the work duration.  Or, if the work duration is variable the intensity of the workload should be too, and these changes need to be pre-planned. The more control of these key variables is left to chance or go unmonitored the more likely the activity is to be less effective.  This is important because there is a significant difference between a workout that will actually help raise your performance level, and a workout that feels good but that has minimal impact on performance level.


To summarize, in order for this kind of training to be effective the climber must do the following:


Know the intensity of the circuit being used, and how that relates to his or her current performance level.  For instance, if a sport climber has a current redpoint level of 5.13a and a consistent on-sight level of 5.12b then a good starting place for interval training would be on a circuit that takes 2 – 3 minutes to climb and has a grade of about 5.11c/d.  A good rest duration would be about the same length as the work duration, but it can be lengthened or shortened in subsequent workouts as the climber becomes accustomed to interval training.  Further each workout needs to be documented and the workout must be done frequently enough for there to be a cumulative effect. Doing interval training 2 – 3 times per week can be very effective. Doing it 2 – 3 times per month is not.

6 Responses to “Some Details on Sean McColl’s Training Video”

  1. Douglas HunterNo Gravatar says:

    Here is the link to the Climbingnarc discussion and video.

  2. [...] forcing Douglas Hunter, the author of the “Self Coached Climber” book, to clarify his position on that matter. It’s true that training can hinder your progress more than improve it, if [...]

  3. IanNo Gravatar says:

    Perfectly sensible post. Not sure what all the controversy was about.

    I usually design intervals around a fixed set of problems or moves. The advantage is that this buys me very fine control over intensity and also allows me to see measurable results. The disadvantage, as you point out, is that climbing durations on the same fixed problems can vary. How do you recommend controlling for this? It’s no good to just randomly climb for x minutes because the intensity will be too variable. I guess keeping the problems fixed but paying attention to pacing? It’s a bit of a challenge, though, to be looking at a stopwatch while miserably pumped on a difficult interval!

  4. Douglas HunterNo Gravatar says:


    You are doing the right thing to control your intensity, as you say, others methods don’t allow for such high quality control. To control the duration there are two main methods. The first is to do interval training with a partner who serves as your time keeper and spotter. They can watch the clock and tell you what to do in terms of pace.

    When doing laps on routes either stay on lead or if on TR, clip a lot of directionals to keep the times consistent.
    When doing laps on a circuit or boulder problems its a rule of thumb that the climber is going to speed up on each subsequent repetition. So its up to the climber to climb at a pace that feels too slow to them after the first set. Usually this will keep a climber moving at their normal pace even though the moment it feels too slow. Not exactly scientific but it tends to work pretty well.

    In addition I hope that everyone doing interval training is recording the workout as they go. Its important to write down the problems in the set or the difficulty of the circuit being used, the climbing time per set, and the rest time between sets. This information is needed for monthly review and to know how well the training is lining up with the demands of the performance being trained for.

  5. gNo Gravatar says:

    This video and this post made me think of a couple of ideas i’ve heard about circuit and interval training, and more specifically, circuits and intervals as training for lead competitions.

    I’d like to hear some comments on the two following statements (which are not mine):

    a. Traditional circuits have far too much horizontal movement, and are therefore less specific and effective to lead comps than sequences of straight-up boulder problems (jumping off after each one and going strainght into the next)

    b. It is hard to get the intensity right with what we usually call interval training (repeated circuits with incomplete rests)…Our goal is a “maximal” onsight attempt on a rather short and very intense route. If we want to keep this level of intensity and do intervals, we end up bouldering, and loose a lot of tactical aspects (pacing, route reading, etc). If we want to keep the tactical aspects in an interval context, we will get too sub-maximal. These approaches are OK early in the training regimen, but as we move close to the season the best we can do is all-out OS attemps with complete rests (20 mins at least)…or something that gets as close as possible.

  6. DouglasNo Gravatar says:

    G, interesting issues you raise.

    For point “a” I don’t think that doing some interval training on traverses is a bad thing. I think it only becomes problematic if the athlete is not also doing a lot of roped climbing, including intervals on routes, or redpoints and on-sights and high volume lead days. If traversing intervals makes up a substantial percentage of the athletes training, then I would agree that it might have a negative impact because the athlete will have had a significant adaptation to the traversing and not have enough exposure to elements specific to lead climbing. I should also add that in bouldering circuits I am becoming a fan of down climbing the problems rather than jumping off because its better for the back and it significantly increases the work duration. (Of course when doing really hard interval training, down climbing the problems may not be practical. )

    The main difference between traversing and doing intervals on boulder problems is that traverses (and laps on routes for that matter) have longer work period before the rest interval. Bouldering circuits include a brief rest between each problem. This is not bad, but it is a different training stimulus. So I like to see climbers combining bouldering circuits with laps on routes, or traverses.

    Point “B”: The question of the extent to which interval training needs to include tactical components of a competition on-sight is an interesting one. The first thing to note is that anaerobic endurance training and the skill learning required for development of good tactics are two very different goals. There is a limit to how well these two different goals can be combined in a single activity. It is better to train for the tactical aspects at a sum-maximal intensity because the climber will have more available attention that he or she can focus on tactics. At a certain level of intensity (different for each climber) just doing the moves requires so much of the climber’s attention that he is not able to concentrate on things like clipping and reading sequences. This being the case I do try to train these elements separately, and bring them together in on-sight practice.

    In an ideal training situation, the climber’s interval training would get them to a point that the intensity of the intervals is greater than what is expected of them in the competition. So if the climber needs to on-sight a short, powerful 5.13a in a competition, I would want their intervals ( 4×4 ) to include problems between V4 & V6. and I would want the climber’s bouldering on-sight level to be V7 or better. For the tactical training I want to do a huge amount of on-sight practice throughout the training season. Starting at just below the climber’s early season on-sight level and getting higher as the training season progresses, to the point where the climber is doing on-sights at or above the competition level a month prior to the competition. (also want to use lots of video in the on-sight training!)

    Also, it is good to have climbers do laps on routes in a similar style to what they will face in the comps, but a few letter grades easier. So again if the competition performance level is 5.13a I would hope that the climber gets to a point where he can do laps on routes in the 5.12b/c range on lead or on TR -but unclipping a lot of directionals. One easy thing that you can do when including tactics as part of interval training is increase the length of the rest between intervals. This allows the intensity to be higher. Its OK for the rest duration to be longer than the work duration. If a lap on a short, powerful route takes 1 minute. The rest can be 2 minutes or longer if that is what the athlete needs to be able to complete the next lap.

    I am saying this with a certain expectation that the coaches have influence over the course setting at the training site. People training for on-sight competitions need a lot of support from course setters in oder to get a high volume of on-sight practice over the training season. They also need to travel more, to varieties of different out door crags and other gyms. So in the end I do think that keeping tactical training and anaerobic endurance training separate is really the most effective way to go. Dividing time between sub-max and max intensity for different training emphasis is fine, if there is enough on-sight practice built into the season and laps on routes is a common part of the training.

Leave a Reply