How Do We Know if a Training Activity is Effective or Not Without Trying it?

No Gravatar

There is a great deal of information spread through the climbing community by books, videos, blogs, word of mouth, coaches, and other means. In an environment with so many sources of information, it can be difficult to get a sense of what is good information and what isn’t. The good news is that there are several guidelines that we can use to determine how good the information we are getting is.

When we see or hear a description of a climbing workout we can ask a number of questions to determine the likely effectiveness of what is being described.

1)   What is the nature of the workout? Is it sport-specific 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, then the question needs to be asked concerning exactly what the supplemental training is designed to do. Is it for reducing the likelihood of injury? Is it designed to enhance joint mobility or balance? Does it hope to strengthen muscles that are not commonly used in climbing? It’s very common in the climbing community to see supplemental training being described as having a direct impact on climbing performance level.  These claims are best met with skepticism, as it would be nearly impossibly for such activities to have an impact on performance level.

2)   What claims are being made about the workout, and can those claims be measured? In climbing one of the most common features of writing or discussions about training is that a specific activity is claimed, “to improve your climbing” or is “a great workout”. But such claims are so vague that they don’t have any meaning. What we need to know concerning any workout is how it will impact our climbing and how we can measure this impact. We need to know specifics: is an activity for developing local endurance? Is it for developing better on-sight tactics? Is it for developing a specific movement skill? If such details aren’t given, or implied, or we can’t come up with our own understanding of the impact / measurement method for the activity, then we can be sure that the activity is not going to have a direct impact on our climbing.

3)   Is the activity consistent with scientific principles? Many workouts can be dismissed because they train the muscles in the wrong way. For example, many variations of wrist curls or forearm trainers are advocated in the climbing community. The problem with these methods is that they don’t train the muscles in the same way we use them in climbing. Wrist curls or finger curls utilize isotonic muscle contractions; in which the muscles shorten as a body segment (in this case the wrist or fingers) moves. In climbing when we grasp a hold we use isometric muscle contractions to grab holds, the finger flexors do not shorten or move a joint, rather the flexors stay the same length as they contract. This seemingly small difference is very meaningful as Phil B. Watts found out when he compared climbers to the rest of the population in a test of isotonic forearm strength and found no difference between the two groups. It was only when he tested for isometric strength that he saw a substantial difference between climbers and the general population.


Another example of an activity that does not work is slack lining. It is often said that slack lining will improve our balance for climbing. Yet scientific research into balance suggests that there is no global ability to balance. Balance is specific to each activity and can only be learned by performing the activity we wish to have better balance in. Even very closely related activities or balance positions show no benefit to each other as described by Drowatzky and Zuccato in their 1967 study “Interrelationships Between Selected Measures of Static and Dynamic Balance”


So what seem like common sense ideas may be completely wrong, this is why its important to think in scientific terms and be critically engaged with any training information you come across. (Including the information that Dan and I provide!)


4)   What is the structure of the workout? In order to be effective activities and workouts need to have a structure.  For workouts designed to improve climbing specific fitness we want to know what kind of fitness it is hoping to improve, what the work and rest durations are, and / or the number of repetitions as well as the correct intensity level for us. Without this information we don’t know the structure the activity is supposed to have and therefore we really have no idea how to correctly perform the activity or even if it can be correctly performed. There are some cases when if we understand structure well, we can create a structure where none is given.

5)   Beware of cross training. Cross training was very popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s but has since become far less popular because research has shown that it has very little benefit. For example, cycling and running used to be common cross training activities but when studied it was shown that the benefit to aerobic fitness was specific to each activity, meaning the aerobic fitness gained in cycling is of little consequence in running and vice-versa. In the climbing community we see frequent claims that activities such as running and swimming (yes, swimming!) have significantly improved a climber’s performance. While individuals may believe this to be the case, the extreme difference between these activities, the differences in technical skills, movement, and fitness requirements, tell us that the possibility of any connection is extremely remote.


These days Yoga and Palates are popular forms of cross training for climbing. These activities can provide supplemental benefits such as increasing active range of motion, and improved alignment. And while these things are very important, we don’t expect that they will have a measurable impact on climbing performance. Which is OK, it’s important to understand the value of something like improving alignment and its potential for reducing the likelihood of some types of injury without feeling the need to justify it in terms of performance gains.


In summary the big risk in not following these principles is that we can do a lot of training, feel like we are getting a great workout when in reality our training is making us tried, but is doing nothing to make us better climbers. Effective training activities will have clearly articulated goals and purpose, be well structured, will comply with scientific principles, and present means by which we can measure their effectiveness. Anything else isn’t worth our time.


4 Responses to “How Do We Know if a Training Activity is Effective or Not Without Trying it?”

  1. John KettleNo Gravatar says:

    Great post. I’ll be referring many of my students to this in my campaign to replace cultural myths in climbing with science. Also good too see you’ve bounced back undeterred from that verbal beating dealt out on ClimbingNarc! Your work is much appreciated here in the UK.

  2. DouglasNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks John and good luck with the mission to debunk cultural myths. That is a big job! Actually it would be interesting to get your perspectives on the cultural myths you frequently encounter and how you deal with them. Wonder if they have anything in common with what we see over here? Do you think the situation is aided by the fact that there is so much depth in the UK and European climbing communities? One thing that is interesting here in the US is that there is not a lot of depth. We seem to be in an era with a few super starts but not many people nipping at their heels. I suspect that this hurts us.

    As for Narc, I’ll think twice before throwing raw meat to the trolls again! :-)

  3. John KettleNo Gravatar says:

    Since you ask; common myths in the UK tend to revolve around the need to train fitness/strength as a priority at all grades (similar to the US I think!). Also a general lack of body awareness and an assumption that movement technique looks after itself with sufficient volume of climbing. Plus of course the talent without practice myth. We’re fortunate that several of our leading climbers are not muscle-bound wall junkies (Dave Macleod, Steve McClure, James Macaffie) and the UKs (worlds??) toughest boulder problems are body-tension test-pieces – not easily overcome by brawn – courtesy of Jon Gaskins. I fight the myths from several angles; firstly by placing huge emphasis on movement quality/tactics in my coaching, secondly by putting my money where my mouth is and climbing hard on a low volume of weekly training with no supplemental workouts (email me for details).
    Next year I begin a postgrad research degree on skill acquisition in climbing movement, so there’ll be more science on it’s way..

  4. DouglasNo Gravatar says:


    Thanks for the additional details, also very exciting that you will be doing research on skill acquisition you will have to keep us up to date on that, as you know we really need some science on that topic. I’ll have to email you!

Leave a Reply