Beginners Guide to Training for Climbing: Build a Base – Become a Mutant!
WELCOME TO CLIMBING!
Your mind rivals with instinct as you top out on that first boulder problem. It is an experience that brings back to memory the times when you were busted climbing onto the counters to dip you hand cookie jar before mom and pops woke up. There is much more than a sense of personal achievement when you complete your first climb, it is an encounter with your natural intuition to climb!
From that day your eyes were first opened, your mind becomes fixed on climbing everything from the hardest boulder problem at your gym, to the 31st pitch of El Capitan, the bridge that you cross on the way to work, or the bricks that line the edges of your office. Climbing is truly an instinctual practice that when applied to the rock, gives you possibilities that are as endless as your passion.
So, you may start to notice while you watch that guy crushing a climb that looks far to impossible to do, your desire to do the same increases. I promise, you could get to that point too, but it takes time.
Climbing is a unique sport in that your skill level is immediately measurable against how well you have improved, or how you compare to other climbers – plus, it is not as boring as running! So a natural response is an enthusiasm to progress quickly.
THE FORMULA FOR PROGRESSING FROM V2 TO V6 OVERNIGHT
Looking back at the first few months of my climbing career, I kind of have to laugh. I ‘knew’ in my mind that there had to be some magical formula to progressing through grades quickly. All I wanted to do was tick off that next grade; and the solution to my problem had to exist somewhere on the interwebs.
troll blanket the climbing forums with questions like “I just started climbing a few weeks ago and have been climbing 3-5 days a week and cannot seem to surpass the V2 barrier. What can I do?” I would get typical answers like, “3-5 days is a bit much for just starting”, “be careful of injuries”, “you should make sure you are resting and don’t overwork yourself”, “focus on your technique”, or my favorite:”NOOB!”.
But these were not the answers I wanted to hear. I wanted to know how I could climb V6’s tomorrow! I wanted something like 30 pull ups and push ups a day, some campus finger board workouts for 3 weeks and you will be able to climb V6. But that never happened. What I did not realize at the time, was that building my strength was not the only nor the best way to progress as a climber.
Even when I was doing all the strength training I thought it would take to get to that level, and climbing 3-5 days per week, I spent months struggling with what seemed like the same grades and I was barely progressing at all. When I saw those guys climbing V6’s like they were nothing and I was still struggling on V3’s after months of training, I wanted was the quick answer to get to that level.
Well, the truth is, there is no magical formula to becoming a V6 climber overnight. However, I do know the following information is required if you want to get there in the quickest, smartest and safest way.
BUILDING A BASE TO BECOME A MUTANT CLIMBER
During your first few months of climbing, it is important to build a base for yourself to improve upon in the months and years that follow. Spend at least 3 months climbing. A LOT!!!
A couple of introductory notes: During this time, prioritize volume over difficulty. By climbing volume, you will gain a necessary understanding of how to climb most effectively and efficiently. A proper warm-up, training of your antagonist muscles and ample rest are keys to staying injury free. The added strain, as you will read below, that climbing puts on your joints and tendons takes time to build up a tolerance for and becoming injured is the last thing you want to happen now.
If you stick to variations of the outline below, you will build a solid base that you can improve upon to send those V6’s before you know it.
HAVE A SOLID WARM-UP AND WARM-DOWN ROUTINE
A good warm-up and warm-down routine is required if you want to minimize the likelihood of injury and maximize the amount of time you can spend climbing.
- Warm-up: Do some light cardio to start. Indoor climbing was created in the image of outdoor, where long approaches that get your heart pumping are common. Try running or biking to the gym. A few jumping jacks can go a very long way. After some light cardio, transition into more sport specific warm-ups. Generally I will start with a traverse focusing on body position and my footwork and then move on to some easy routes. Use your warm-up as a time to practice your technique and footwork. Plan for at least 5-10 minutes.
- Practice moving with ‘quiet feet’ – Gently/slowly move your feet from hold to hold while traversing through the gym.
- Try climbing with ‘high feet’ when warming up on top ropes – Get you feet up as high as you can, once they are up stand as tall and high as you can reaching for the next hand holds. Do this all the way up the wall. Add variation by changing your handhold grip positions.
- Other warm-up options include climbing easy routes on big, positive holds (i.e. jugs), and finger sprinklers (flicking your fingers like they have water on them).
- Warm-down: Climb 2-3 easy routes at the end of your session to begin your warm-down; then segue into some Core Exercises and Stretching - focusing on the arms, shoulders and legs (see Moose Circuit and Stretches sections below). Add 2-3 sets of 15± push-ups to one/two sessions per week.
CLIMB FOR VOLUME TWO (2) TO FOUR (4) DAYS PER WEEK
For the first 3-5 months, maximize the volume of routes you send during each session (2-4 sessions per week/1-2 hours per session). This will allow you to maximize your time spent on the wall which means that you will improve your technique, become stronger, and increase your stamina.
There is no problem with trying hard routes – climbers call it “Projecting” – trying climbs at or above your limit with ample time to rest and warm-up. However, the hardest part for the new climber is the mental shift from climbing being all about projecting and grades, to climbing can be about manipulating your workout to yield better results in the long run. 4×4’s are just as fun as projecting when done properly! As a general practice, feel free to “project” for 20-30 minutes and then transition into one of the following gym training sessions.
WATCH: CIRCUIT TRAINING EXPLAINED
A good gym session could include one (1) of the following:
|#||ON ROUTE – ENDURANCE||Time|
|1||Bouldering – Volume [Pyramids] – (V0x4, V1x3, V2x3, V3x1, V2x3, V1x3)*||Rest 1-5 minutes between climbs|
|2||Top Rope – Volume (5.8×3, 5.9×2, 5.10×1, 5.8×2)*||Rest equal to climbing time|
|3||Top Rope – Intensity Endurance [Route ‘Up and Downs’] – 2 grades below on-sight level on climb; 3 below on down climb||1 route x 5 sets (” ”)|
|4||Bouldering – Intensity Endurance [Route 4×4’s] – (V2x4 reps) x 4 sets*||Rest between sets; no rest between routes|
* Increase or decrease the difficulty depending on your skill level. Let the hardest grade be at your on-sight level.
I will be posting more rigorous Session Details and Weekly Micro-cycles in the coming weeks! So please subscribe to my blog to have these sent directly to your inbox.
IMPROVE YOUR TECHNIQUE
If there is one thing I would credit for going from a V3 to V6 climber, it was improving my technique. When I was strength training, I noticed very little progression in my climbing. As soon as I started to train my technique, my progression skyrocketed. I recently shared a video that I think is the best covered climbing technique. In the video they cover three essential climbing movements that when executed properly, will improve your climbing by leaps and bounds.
- Outside Edge (aka. Twist Lock)
- Drop Knee
WATCH: CLIMBING TECHNIQUES VIDEO
In addition to the techniques covered in the video, Sequencing is extremely important as well. The majority of climbers fall not because of lack of strength or even technique, but because they sequenced improperly.
- Sequencing is a proactive way of visualizing a climb before attempting it. Anyone can make a V2 into a V12 if they are only grabbing the footholds. By looking at all the holds and the direction of a climb, you can prepare yourself for the movements that are required to execute it. By doing so, you will determine when the techniques noted above will be put into practice. Sending the problem before you even reach for the first hold.
STAY INJURY FREE
Climbing is inherently dangerous, and that is part of the reason we do it. Whether you are taking a 10 foot whipper on a lead climb or cranking on a small crimp at the crux of your project, safety and staying injury free are crucial elements to spending as much time as possible on the wall. Common injuries for climbers include but are not limited to: tendon/finger strain; muscle tenderness/pulled muscles; flappers/raw fingers; and knee/foot sprains. The following section outlines these injuries in more detail and is very important to know as you continue to push your limits.
- Tendon/finger strain
- DESCRIPTION: Tendons and connective tissue have the ability to strengthen and grow over time, but at a rate much slower than your muscles. Therefore, you run the risk of injury because your muscles are capable of putting more stress on your tendons than they can handle.
- INJURY FREEDOM: Begin every session with a warm-up and end with some stretching and opposition training. If you feel tenderness in your elbows or fingers a day after a session, take a few days off until the tenderness decreases and focus on stretching your arms and shoulders using the stretches listed below. When you return to climbing, try to avoid crimps as they put a lot of stress on your fingers and use prophylactic taping to support your tendons as you climb. Taping is recommended for up to a few months after an injury. However, keep in mind that your tendons will not reach their maximum strength if they are always supported by tape. See the following link for more info on Finger Injuries in Climbing.
NOTE: If your tendons become overworked, you risk the likelihood of getting tendonitis or tearing a pulley tendon in your finger. These injuries can take weeks or months with zero to very little climbing to recover from and require additional care.
- Flappers/Raw fingers
- DESCRIPTION: Unfortunately, your finger are going to get raw, and as a beginner, it will be a limiting factor to climbing for extended periods of time. Overtime, you will build calluses, but it will take between a couple of weeks to a few months before they become effective. If you tear a big hole in your palm/finger, Congratulations! you’ve got your first flapper.
- INJURY FREEDOM: Treat raw fingers with a good hand salve, I use Bert’s Bees but there or others sold at most outdoor stores and a few days off. Hand salve can also be used to keep your calluses from growing too large as well, which is one of the leading causes of flappers. If you get a flapper, throw some athletic tape over it and continue climbing. Then clean it with some
hydrogen peroxide(<- my nursemedically inclined friend said this is bad to use) soap and water and watch the magic happen as your body creates little white blood soldiers to kill those nasty cut’seses.
- Muscle tenderness or pulled muscles
- DESCRIPTION: Muscle soreness a day or two after climbing is a fact! You are using a specific group of muscles that are rarely used in any other activity.
- INJURY FREEDOM: To keep from pulling a muscle, focus on a good warm-up and warm-down. Add a light massage to sore areas or use a foam roller to help with knots as needed. Try to limit your intake of NSAIDs and applying ice as these can actually inhibit your actual recovery and strength gains. Recommendations are no more than 2 days after a session and never more than once per week.
- Knee/Foot sprains
- DESCRIPTION:Anytime you are falling from something and plan to land on your feet, the risk of injury to your knees or ankles is high. This is especially true with bouldering because you are usually falling from 10’+ up and not always in control.
- INJURY FREEDOM: To avoid injuries to your knees and ankles, clear the landing area as best as possible, and make sure you have a crash/gym pad below. Also, learn to fall. If you do not feel comfortable falling from the top of the bouldering wall, climb to a height where you do. Another option when you reach the top of a boulder problem is to down climb a few holds to minimize the impact on your knees and ankles when you land. Better yet, down climb the entire wall on easy holds.
* I am not a medical professional: If any pain persists, I strongly recommend seeking a medical professionals evaluation. Climbing is a dangerous sport and injuries will happen, so learn to listen to your body and seek care accordingly.
As you start climbing on a more consistent basis, it is critical to train your opposition/antagonist muscles. Antagonistic muscles are found in pairs called antagonistic pairs. As one muscles contracts, the other relaxes. Climbing uses a specific set of muscles (forearm flexors, biceps, lats) that develop much more quickly than their opposition muscles (forearm extensors, triceps and delts).
By introducing opposition training, you will greatly increase your strength, and ensure that your muscles develop equally, minimizing the likelihood of injury. Since the majority of the strain put on your muscles during climbing is in your forearms and shoulders, the simple exercises listed below offer a good way to train these antagonist muscles. These can be done at the end of each session; otherwise, at least 1 day per week.
|#||ANTAGONIST MUSCLES – SESSION DETAIL||Time|
|1||Reverse Wrist Curls*||20 reps x 3 sets|
|2||Finger Extensions (with rubber band)**||20 reps x 3 sets|
|3||Push-ups||15 reps x 2 sets|
|4||Seated Bench Dips - Optional||15 reps x 2 sets|
*use a weight you can handle comfortably (around 5 lbs is good)
**broccoli and asparagus rubber bands work great for this
One of the first questions you may have asked yourself when you started climbing is “what else can I do to get stronger when I am not climbing?”
Well, first, GET A JOB! Unless you are a dirt-bag and your master bedroom is a portaledge somewhere between pitch 17 and 30 on the Nose, there is only one way to pay for a membership at a rock gym!
Second, there are only a few ways to improve climbing ability. The first is through sport specific training and exposure to climbing technique. The second is through better general fitness and weight loss. A solid conditioning exercise, whether it is something like Cross-Fit or the session listed below, will help you build a foundation of endurance as you start to progress in your climbing.
|#||OFF ROUTE – CONDITIONING AND CORE||Time/Reps||Increase/ Session|
|1||Run||5 min warm-up||-|
|2||Run intervals or sprints at 85-95%||1 min run then 1 min walk or jog x 5 reps||10 sec|
|3||Burpees||4 sets x 8 reps||1 rep|
|4||Flexibility (Stretches)||10 seconds on/10 sec off/20 sec on||-|
|5||Core Exercise (Moose Circuit)||2 sets x 5 reps (2 min rest)||5 reps|
|6||Leg Paddles||1 set x 50 reps & 1 set to failure (2 min rest)||5 reps|
|7||Run||5 min warm-down||-|
Stretching is the primary way you will avoid injury aside from your warm-ups and antagonist training. It is not advised to do any static stretches prior to climbing as this weakens muscles. Some mild 5 second dynamic stretching to begin a session is acceptable; otherwise, reserve the bulk of your stretching for the end. For stretching the following muscles groups, hold each for 10 seconds, release for 10 seconds then hold again for 20 seconds.
Hamstrings | Thigh/Quads| Calves | Groin | Lats | Shoulders | Chest | Forearms (Flexors & Extensors)
WATCH: STRETCHES FOR CLIMBING
Lately, I have noticed that my back muscles are continuously tight. To address this, I have been using a foam roller and am satisfied with the results.
Note: it is best to reserve static stretching for the end of a workout when your muscles are warm.
CORE EXERCISES (MOOSE CIRCUIT)
The Moose Circuit is a simple and quick core workout that requires some practice but will blowup your core strength! Begin with 5 reps in each position immediately linking into the next position until the entire circuit is complete. Do 2 sets of the circuit and increase your reps until you can do 7 reps. Then increase the sets to 3. Cap off the moose circuit with some Superman Core Exercises to balance the opposition muscles in your back.
|1||Legs Flat Situp||x5 (no rest)|
|4||Seated Leg Lift|
|5||“V”-up||x5 (rest for 2 minutes)|
|^ Main Set||x2|
|6||Superman Core Exercise||15 reps x 2 sets|
*The key to the Moose Circuit is to have your thumbs against the side of your head and your fingers straight with palms facing forward, like antlers. Hence the Moose Circuit.
GET SOME REST
This is the last key anchor to becoming a better climber. If you are climbing 2-4 days per week, you will be putting a lot of strain on your body that it is not used to. Overuse injuries are the most common injuries for climbers and without proper rest and recovery, you will likely pay the price with an extended period of time off, and I do not mean the trip to the Caribbean type. So listen to your body. During rest times, conditioning and core exercises can continue.
General Rest Periods
- Take one day off between sessions, and try not to climb more than two days in a row without a rest day*
- About every two weeks on, take at least four (4) days off to let your body recover, more days if required**
- Good sleep is also a crucial element for your bodies recovery. So make sure that you are sleeping and not just dreaming about the projects you are going to send the next day!
* Rest times can vary with age, and time spent climbing each session (30 min to 1 hour vs 2-3 hours). There is no reason why you should not be able to climb 4 days in a row if your sessions are only 30 min with a proper warm-up.
**When you allow yourself to rest 48 to 72 hours, your body should recover and you will maintain the strength gains made during your last sessions when you return. In fact, you will likely feel stronger after you return from a few days off. If you take longer than 72 hours off, know that when you return, your strength may have actually decreased a bit.
IT IS POSSIBLE TO CLIMB V6’S
When I saw those guys climbing V6’s, making them look so easy and I was still struggling on V3’s, all I thought about was what I could do to get to that next level, but was overwhelmed with how. The temptation was to start climbing as much as possible, 3-5 days per week and do pull ups, push ups, finger board training, etc. with the hope that I could progress faster. But instead, my strength gains were having little impact on my progression and I was fighting injuries.
As a new climber, your enthusiasm for the sport is infectious, and I hope that sticks with you for a long time. Climbing is an amazing activity that you can enjoy for the rest of your life and take you to some of the most amazing destinations around the world and introduce you to some of the strangest people ↓↓↓ you will ever meet.
So have fun with it!
About the author: Enare picked up a passion for climbing while attending college at UC Santa Barbara. He is an avid climber, skier, surfer, and overall adventurist. Enare works as an Instructor at the Santa Barbara Rock Gym when he is not seeing to his duties as a loving father and husband and working full-time for Horny Toad Activewear.