When I started training maximal strength, I could only do 8 pull-ups (I can do 35 or so now, but I don’t really use regular pull-ups in my training anymore, except as a warm-up for climbing or the occasional “how many can I do today?” test). My maximal strength training started off as just that, then – doing pull-ups. Frankly, it sucked. I hated pull-ups because I sucked at them. I worked up to doing 500 pull-ups a day, routinely performing sets over 20. I actually don’t recommend this approach to starting maximal strength training; building up to insane amounts of daily pull-ups often result in tendinitis (thankfully not for me); plus, it isn’t fun and isn’t realistic for most people’s lives/work schedules. (I didn’t know much about how to train max strength efficiently when I first started training, obviously!). Pull-ups aren’t all bad, mind you, and they do/can have a place in many people’s climbing training programs. They just aren’t necessarily the best or most efficient way for everyone to achieve climbing-relevant maximal strength gains, and they certainly don’t work all areas of maximal strength relevant for rock climbers.
For a person who can’t perform 8 to 12 unassisted pull-ups, starting off by performing several sets of 8 to 12 reps of lat pull-downs or assisted pull-ups would serve as a better base-building exercise for improving a basic pulling motion in climbing, including the ability to lock off. If a person can perform a few sets of 8 to 12 pull-ups unassisted, this is a good starting place for building a training base for this particular climbing motion. Once a person can dash off multiple sets of 12+ pull-ups, they’re probably better off using a lat pull-down machine or adding some weight to their body weight for maximal strength-training purposes.
As I’ve already noted, jumping straight into maximal strength training without establishing a solid base is just asking for injury – so it’s imperative, especially for novice weight trainers, to train the muscles at a lower intensity (i.e. sets of 8 to 12 reps) for several months before pushing into a higher intensity/lower rep type of workout designed to build maximal strength (I usually do several sets of 1 to 6 reps at a much higher load than the 8 to 12 rep load).
Interestingly, I found that simply by doing pull-ups and lat pull-downs (without trying to lock-off), I gradually built up the strength over several years to be able to lock off with one arm on the pull-up bar, and then to lower out of this position with one arm in control. I’m a big fan of training the full-range-of-motion of exercises because of this personal experience as well as from what I’ve read in training materials; muscles gain more functional strength from range-of-motion exercises vs. isometric (static) exercises. (Don’t believe me? Check out MayoClinic.com’s “What are isometric exercises, and are they a good way to build strength?”).
Of course, training for maximal strength in climbing isn’t just limited to the pull-up/pull-down motion, since climbing engages so many muscle groups in so many different directions. I’ve found that a periodized, comprehensive weight-training program that involves upper-body (including fingers/forearms), core and lower-body range-of-motion exercises that closely mimic the movements used in climbing appears to provide the greatest gains in maximal strength for myself and my coaching clients alike. I’ll spend my one-to-three months on this part of the program this year during the summer here in Ten Sleep, just as I did last summer, preceding it with a segment of easier lifting, and following it with other phases of periodization designed to peak me for performance at the end of the summer and into the fall, just like I did this last year.
And, to tie this back into my “lack of training” this winter, one other aspect of making your training gains work for you in climbing is that you have to put the time in on the rocks molding any raw strength (or power or power endurance or stamina) gains into something usable when you’re climbing. As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, I still have a lot to learn about steep climbing, and a lot of mental adjustments to make in understanding my new physical capabilities. I have much to learn how to effectively utilize my stronger body as a rock climber, and this learning isn’t going to happen in the weight room. Learning how to use a stronger body outside on the rock takes time and repetition, replacing old techniques and skills with new, more effective ones. It’s a trade-off and a constant cycle…perfect for periodization purposes.
I’ve come to view each segment of my training and climbing as links of chain connecting to the previous segments – I get stronger, I take it outside, I learn what I can and get stronger and better at climbing outside, then I go back to the weight gym and get stronger again, and do it all again. This also highlights a key component of effective climbing/athletic training: You shouldn’t allow your routine to get too stagnant, because bodies are damnably efficient. It’s important to keep varying and changing what you do in training and climbing, while keeping an eye on the big picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. So it’s good on a daily basis to change up the order of exercises, the drills you do, the amount of rest between sets, etc., to keep your body from adapting too much, and it’s good on a monthly-to-yearly basis to change up your focus in training and climbing, too. At the same time, it’s really important to maintain consistency on a larger scale, a sort-of big-picture idea of the key areas you’re pushing your body to improve at. So random, but not too random, or routine, but not too routine – these are key things to keep in mind when planning your training out every day, week, month and year.