Thursday, June 9, 2011

Training Correctly for Rock Climbing

In a discussion with a client recently, I was reminded of a common misperception that one of the best ways to get better at rock climbing is through focused strength training, emphasizing the fingers and arms. Whether it's performance plateaus or higher rates of injuries, these things seem to happen to climbers that think they will have the biggest gains in performance by training on fingerboards, campus boards, or doing pull-ups. Thinking these activities will have the biggest impact on performance couldn't be further from the truth.

The most important factor generally affecting climbing performance, all others being equal,  is climbing technique. The next most important factor is choosing appropriate tactics (pacing, choice of techniques, choice of protection stances, etc.) While strength is obviously a limiting factor for ultimate performance, most climbers are hitting their limit because of the much more trainable factors of technique and tactics. As an example, granddad Stevie Haston recently fired off a 5.14d at 52 years old. We know that our bodies are not nearly as strong at 52 as they are in our early 20's. Yet Haston can climb at the sport's threshold at age 52.
Stevie Haston, age 52, on Descente Lolitta (5.14d)
Taken a little further, strength is only a limiting factor if we can assume that a climber is performing a sequence of moves perfectly, after considering the
elements of body type, accuracy, pacing, etc. Rarely (if ever) will a given move be limited by strength alone. There are simply too many minute variations in motor skill to really conclude that a climber is executing a move as well as she could.

A better way to approach strength training is to consider how much training load your fingers and arms receive, and only supplement specific strength training when the load experienced from climbing is lower than desired (e.g. during periods of climbing moderate trad or alpine routes). Otherwise, strength training should be used to maintain a healthy balance of strength across the joints and protect the body from injury.

Todd "The Executair" Mei displays strength and technique
on a tough boulder problem at the Holy Boulders, Illinois
Most climbers could benefit from a very honest appraisal of the different factors that affect their climbing. Movement skill is critical, and increasing focused climbing time may benefit most climbers more than any other factor. This means practicing climbing, or putting focus into particular aspects of climbing, something that is very difficult to do if the day's focus is on performance. This is a problem, since most climbers are focused on performing every time they climb, and are unable to separate the concept of a "training" day from a "performance" day. A fair assessment of most climbers generally has them expecting performance from most days that they climb, trying to "train" when performance wanes during a given session, and dedicating strength training to overworking many of the same muscle groups. I usually see most climbers doing preventative exercises that strengthen antagonist groups in a response to pain or injury. Many of these climbers will share that they have had years of elbow pain or some other issue that has come up with their climbing. Rather than thinking of what may be causing an injury, these athletes continue their patterns of climbing and training and create further damage.

Strength training is a critical component of training, however its focus is very different from what most climbers may have in mind. Strength training for climbing should never be a substitute for movement training, rather it serves to balance and prepare the body to better respond to the demands of the sport. If done correctly, it will help us move better. With the wrong approach, it will degrade movement quality and exacerbate problems and injuries.

Here is a quick look at the important elements of movement practice and strength training for an intermediate climber:
  • Movement practice: it is critical to practice precise movement; it's important to develop an awareness for where the body is in space (how the center of mass related to points of contact on the rock); it's necessary to understand the different ways to move the body in different scenarios (runout trad vs. sport; delicate slab vs. powerful bouldering; types of holds; types of rock; nature of the route); and it is crucial to develop awareness of emotional and psychological factors (psychological arousal state, association/dissociation methods of dealing with physical exertion and fear). Because it takes so long for motor development to reach an autonomous stage, and because rock climbing has so many extra variables that influence practice time, it is important to accrue as much time moving [correctly] as possible. Practice makes permanent. You'd better practice correctly.
  • Strength training: it is essential to develop a thorough understanding of how our body should be able to move (functional training) in everyday activities, then understanding how it should move in sport; a fundamental step is to identify areas that are out of balance, since these imbalances will be exacerbated by the acute stresses placed on the body from climbing; finally, it is imperative to develop strength in closed chain exercises and use functional compound exercises that challenge our proprioception and balance
The more intelligently that you train, the more that the lines can blur between movement practice and strength training. There will always be some separation though, due to the specific demands of climbing (always bodyweight situations, nature of rock and artificial walls) and the ability to train easily with adjustable sets/repetitions/duration/intensity in a fitness setting.

Most climbers will benefit the most from using strength training as a supplement to meet a training load for agonists with appropriate balance in the antagonist. Without a base level of strength, there will be overcompensation which leads to poor movement quality, and we don't want to accrue training time with bad movement.

Going back and forth, there is a relationship between training our movement skills, and strength training to meet training loads and create a buffer zone to learn more advanced movement patterns. To tie it back to the best way to improve performance - first, learn how to Move Correctly, then learn how to Move More (more intensity, increased duration, etc.). Most people need to stop and learn how to move correctly.

Having seen the inside of numerous climbing gyms across the country, I've noticed a trend towards more climbing than specific strength work. A majority of the training regimes of the World Cup competitors that come through my regular gym are based on climbing structures vs training structures (campus board). There is obviously a place for dedicated strength training, and it is used in a prudent and specific manner. There is a higher level of balance (antagonistic vs agonist) with these climbers and they are able to do a higher volume of climbing compared to strength work. One notable exception: For high-end climbing, with climbers who have well-adapted tissues, a fingerboard is very helpful to optimize strength and supplement during periods of fewer climbing opportunities. For the majority of climbers, moving correctly can be developed through both climbing practice and strength training. Climbing is definitely in a category of sport where stress is very high on a limited number of tissues, and strength needs to be developed in ways beyond the climbing wall to avoid problems and performance plateaus down the road.

Only with disciplined reflection can we honestly appraise our strengths and weaknesses. By identifying areas on which to focus, we can have the biggest gains in performance (and health and longevity). Once a climber, or any athlete for that matter, has appropriately identified how much energy should be spent on a particular aspect of training, and makes the adjustments in a training schedule, he is far more likely to see performance increases.

Nearly always, our limitations are likely in our basic movement skills, something that can be rectified with a disciplined approach with [re]establishing good movement patterns, and then adding volume and intensity as long as we can maintain these high quality patterns. That's how you always improve performance. That's how you train correctly. Add savvy tactics on top of the movement practice and strength training, and you have exceptional performance.


Amirtha rao said...
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Jane Smith said...

Rock climbing is my favorite sport and remains fun and challenging. I guess the one thing that I've learned is to have the proper techniques and to practice, practice and practice until I get it right. I also have to prepare myself mentally and physically by going on regular workouts to tone and strengthen my body. It also helps to have friends who are also enthusiasts so you can learn together, along with a professional guide. Also, invest in excellent gear and make sure you have the correct equipment with you always. Great tips are always welcome such as

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