Improve Your Sport Climbing/Bouldering (9): Building Power, Part 4 (MEDIUM-HARD)

Gaining strength & training power helped me transition from a climber who loathed steep terrain to a climber who loves it more than any other style.

Consistency in repetition – repeating specific powerful moves/sequences required for specific routes/problems over the course of many days/training sessions – can be a very effective and efficient way to train power, especially if you already possess the raw strength necessary to succeed on the individual moves (or close to it) when you start to attempt them.

As explained in the article “Improving Athletic Power,” “Power is best improved by strengthening all of the body’s musculature and by spending countless hours practicing the specific sports skill they are trying to improve – not by trying to mimic them in the weight room.” In other words, the author of this article suggests that you strengthen your muscles with high-intensity weight training, and then work just as hard to mold those raw strength gains into climbing-relevant power by practicing specific, powerful climbing movements that challenge you.

While I feel strongly that it’s important to develop a balanced body that’s strong everywhere for climbing, I do think (slight disagreement with the above-mentioned article, perhaps) that using some climbing-specific weight-training exercises can be helpful and effective – but then again, this may be just a question of interpretation. I’m definitely not lifting weights to mimic exact climbing moves, but more to target specific areas of weakness that saturate my personal climbing world as well as to promote an overall strong and balanced body for climbing and life in general.

Regardless, I have come to realize that even when I make significant gains in strength over the course of months of strength training, it also takes lots of time outside of the weight room every year to convert those muscle strength gains into their full potential for yielding climbing improvements. Usually, this involves months of shaping and molding via repetitive efforts to refine those newly gained areas of strength, to train them into being able to generate more precise and coordinated power delivery and often, more explosive power delivery, too.

Note also that it takes much, much longer to develop consistency in powerful repetitions on a route when you can’t even come close to performing the moves to start with – meaning you might be better off (i.e. it would be more efficient in the long run) identifying why you can’t do those moves, and then spending your time getting stronger in the weight room or with other resistance training methods before you seriously attempt those moves, let alone try to link them into the route they’re a part of.

This is not to say that it’s always impossible to train up to a route even if you can’t do all the moves to start with. It most certainly isn’t. This is more about the most efficient way to do that — to tackle a route that challenges you beyond your current power level on multiple moves. A side bonus of more nonspecific strength training is that the gains tend to be more global than training up for a specific route, meaning that you’re likely to walk out of a solid cycle of strength training with more potential ability to take on a whole slew of higher-level routes instead of being trained only specifically for the precise movements on one single route of one single style of climbing.

I’ll wrap this discussion up with a very simple example of how you might use both repetition and strength training to develop more power: let’s say you find yourself confronted with a huge (for you) dynamic movement on a route or problem. If you’ve never even done a small dynamic move before, you might start training for this move by trying a much smaller, but similarly laid out, dynamic move in the gym that still pushes your comfort zone and teaches you how to better coordinate your body to move dynamically.

Once you’ve mastered a smaller dynamic movement, you can gradually increase the distance you’re trying to span as you develop better dynamic coordination – but at some point (the plateau/sticking point), you might realize that you will need more strength than you have to progress to the next level – to have a chance at nailing the huge dynamic move – indicating that it’s a good time to head to the weight room and get stronger. Or perhaps you won’t need to take that step for this particular dynamic move, but for the next similar move that you encounter. When you comprehend how to execute a move correctly and yet you’ve tried it innumerable times and cannot make it happen, this often indicates a true power shortage (unless your technical understanding is incorrect, of course), one that can potentially be corrected through a smart and directed strength training program, followed by power training yet again.

Simply put, “If a muscle is too weak to provide a necessary response, activity will be uncoordinated,” as stated in the ACTION Personal Trainer Certification Textbook. (Warning: I’ll likely repeat this quote in my future entry or entries on technique.) In other words, if you’re not strong enough to perform a technique correctly, you won’t be able to execute, no matter how well you understand what you’re supposed to do. (BTW, this is just one reason why great coaches can sometimes be overweight and out of shape but still invaluable to their athletes — if they comprehend the how of a movement and can communicate this effectively to a well-trained athlete, they can help that athlete skip all the bumbling trial-and-error steps he or she might take in experimenting with performing a move correctly. Likewise, the coach can help identify subtle errors in the athlete’s execution of movement and help them improve their efficient delivery of power. And so forth.)

For more on this method of approaching power training, check out the article I referenced above, “Improving Athletic Power.” It includes more details about why, in addition to the repetitive specificity of movement training described above, both strength training using weights and flexibility training can and should play important roles in improving your power as well.

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!

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