Climbers and boulderers often interchangeably use the terms power and strength, but in actuality they refer to different, albeit strongly linked, athletic capabilities.
As explained by personal trainer Kevin Richardson in his fascinating must-read entry called “Aerobic Exercise & Strength Training – Does It Help Or Hurt?” appearing on his well-researched Naturally Intense High-Intensity Personal Training ™ Blog:
“Power and strength are closely related but not exactly the same thing. Strength is defined as the capacity for gross muscular effort. Power on the other hand refers to the speed at which effort can be performed. Its development is paramount for athletic performance since most movements in any sporting discipline are executed as forcefully and as quickly as possible.”
A simple way to differentiate between the two in your own mind is to picture how differently it feels to execute a move by pulling slowly through your range of motion on a hold and locking off statically to grab the next hold on a route or boulder problem vs. dynamically throwing for that same hold. The first would be an example of almost using exclusively muscular strength to accomplish a task, the second, of almost exclusively using explosive power to achieve the same goal.
A quick aside here: for the purposes of climbing, I’d change that final sentence in the above quote to read “as efficiently and quickly as possible,” just for accuracy’s sake. Climbing requires the precision delivery of power, meaning that we’re not always putting as much force as possible into every movement we make, but rather, we’re striving to use as little power for each move as we possibly can while delivering it as precisely and quickly as we can, often repeatedly, on the same route or boulder problem. (And again, I run into the complexity of climbing and trying to separate out relevant elements for discussion, because this obviously involves technique, power endurance and endurance as well — all which I’ll discuss in upcoming entries).
So for now, back to power.
Keep in mind that most climbing movements meet somewhere in the middle between these two extreme examples – and that where they meet on that continuum will depend on both the climbing style (angles, holds, length of climb, etc.) in play on a route and the individual strengths and weaknesses of the person attempting to climb the route.
For some people, power (for climbing, this means delivering the required force – often explosive, at least to a certain extent – for a movement with speed and precision) comes more naturally than others. These folks probably have more and/or better-trained fast-twitch muscle fibers than slow-twitch. I don’t want to get into a huge discussion about muscle-fiber composition here; if you’re reading this and you climb regularly, you probably already know if you’re comfortable climbing dynamically and quickly or not, and if it comes pretty naturally to you or not.
If it does come naturally, you’ll likely find power easier to train and utilize, and you quite possible already have, at least to a certain extent. If you don’t like to move dynamically at all and you prefer to climb very slowly and deliberately, you’ll most likely find it more difficult and less comfortable to train power than fast-twitchers do, to let go of your control and to learn how to coordinate your body, to use momentum to your advantage, and to move explosively – and to be honest, you’ll probably never move – or at least, feel comfortable moving – as explosively as your more naturally gifted speedier counterparts. But despite this, you stand to gain so much from making the effort to train yourself to move more powerfully — because, as always, the less you’ve trained something, the more potential you have to improve.
(to be continued)
This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up. Remember that my designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20 years of climbing along with my observations from climbing coaching throughout the past four years. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change than I do/did. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing, bouldering and training!