“Naturally, there will be times of upward progress and growth, and plateau times when we feel like nothing is moving. During these times of apparent stagnation, patience and perseverance are crucial.” (From The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga; by Nicolai Bachman)
If you are really and truly stuck on a project – you’ve tried everything you possibly can to bust through your plateau, or perhaps your trip/season came to an end without a send but you know you’ll be back next season – one of the most efficient and effective ways to work through that plateau involves identifying what exactly was shutting you down on the project, and then training to improve that during the off season.
While this may seem time-consuming and not really efficient or effective, consider this: whatever emerged to hold you back from sending any one particular project is likely to be holding you back throughout your climbing efforts. In other words, by training it, you are actually more likely to have a globally positive impact on ALL of your future climbing efforts, much more so than you can expect from hammering away at one particular project, generally speaking. This is why it’s so often the case that a person can work their butt off at sending a hard grade, only to jump on the next route with a similar grade – or a bunch of other routes with similar grades – only to discover that they have to work just as hard, if not harder, to try to redpoint the next climb, if it’s possible for them to do it at all.
But if you can distill what holds you back or what you struggle with out of your “failed” redpointing experience, what you have now is the key to improving your climbing overall. Train this effectively during the off season, and you might come out and find that last season’s sticking point no longer exists. The crucial point here, of course, is that you train this area (or these areas, as the case may be) effectively and efficiently. This may involve sacrifices on your part in terms of not having as many fun random gym-climbing or bouldering sessions. Neither of these is likely to have the same impact as a concerted and well-thought out training plan and program that targets your specific areas that need work. Targeting these more specifically in training is likely to yield the greatest improvement.
Since climbing hard relies heavily on your sport-specific climbing strength (and the skills that emerge from strength, such as power, power endurance and endurance, as well as effective technical/tactical execution of sport-specific skills), training the areas of your body that are relatively weak compared to other areas offers most seasoned/experienced climber folks the quickest route to seeing gains in overall climbing ability.
Here, I’ll pause and give a nod to the fact that if you have glaring or significant technical/tactical areas that need work (like treating your feet like paddles flapping at the ends of your legs while you do one-arm pull-ups up the rock – yeah, you know who you are!), working to refine and smooth out those areas can be a faster route to breaking a plateau than strength training. In other words, if you’re a sloppy climber, work to become less sloppy and to utilize the strength you already have more effectively and efficiently. Still, it is good to realize that sometimes, poor technical/tactical execution has to do with not possessing the strength to utilize the same techniques/tactics that stronger climbers do. In other words, if you’re stuck and you’ve done everything you can to work on your technique and tactics, getting stronger might improve your technical and tactical execution. It definitely helped mine.
If you don’t think strength is important, ask yourself why you usually fall off of a climbing route, or why particular moves feel hard for you that are easy (or easier) for other people. Are the other people stronger in key areas? Or do they get less pumped? Maybe both? Realize that even if your answer is that you just get pumped or powered down (i.e. you think you are plenty strong), one of the biggest factors that plays into getting pumped is that you are using too high of a percentage of your body’s maximal strength ability on each move that comes before the critical pump/powered down point where you can move anymore. If you get stronger in the areas that are involved in the pump/powered down feeling, you will have the potential to train to a higher level of power endurance and endurance, since both of these (with the oh-so-blurry line separating them) are directly related to your maximal strength level. Yes, some people are naturally/genetically better at maintaining a higher percentage of that maximal strength output than others, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually and ultimately be limited by their strength, too.
So how do we train strength most effectively? Definitely not by bouldering through the off season. While bouldering can be a sound way to develop more comfort with explosive movements or specific hold types and so forth, it is too random to be the most effective means to develop strength. Remember, strength is not power. Power is strength with speed added. The ability to push your power levels also correlates directly with your maximum strength levels. So while bouldering can be a major part of an off-season training program aimed at strength development, it plays a secondary/supportive role during the primary strength-training cycle – it aims to help the climber integrate and learn how to effectively utilize the developing strength while executing climbing movements. Bouldering can assist a getting-stronger climber by teaching them how to become more and more powerful in their movement execution.
Building significant strength takes time and dedication – it’s not something that most people can expect to see performance-enhancing improvements in after a few weeks. I suggest a three- to four-month cycle (at least) focused on developing specific climbing strength as the primary focus in training/climbing. Training strength effectively and efficiently involves a smart weight-training program that aims to push sport-specific strength levels higher without putting on an inordinate amount of muscle mass. Using a well-designed weight-training program, putting on too much muscle so that it impedes your climbing because of weight gain is an unlikely outcome for most people. Building muscle is hard work for the body. Plus, a small amount of sport-specific muscle gain can actually yield a favorable outcome in body composition and strength-to-weight ratio, even if you have a slight weight gain. If this is accompanied by fat loss, all the better: Now you have more functional tissue available in your body to help you in your climbing efforts and less dead weight dragging you down. You will still continue to maintain/train other significant and relevant areas (power, power endurance, endurance, technical skills, tactical skills, flexibility, etc.), but these aren’t the primary focus of the program during this time period.
Be aware that after months with the primary focus on strength that even while keeping the other areas of concern in play, you are not likely to come out of this training completely fit and ready to smash your project (though this does sometimes happen – the moves are all so much easier than before that you can’t believe this route was ever hard for you!). A more likely outcome is that you’ll come out and discover that the moves feel easier, but now your fitness lags behind. And this is no big deal; you simply have to change your area of training focus from strength to fitness, and work patiently to allow your strength gains to shine through as you build your fitness back up. The same general rule applies when you shift your focus from strength as the primary training area back to fitness building for sending routes as the primary area – you don’t just stop training strength completely for four, six or eight months.
When you climb routes, you will rarely, if ever, push to maximal strength output, and you definitely won’t do this for every relevant muscle group while you’re climbing any particular route. Use it or lose it applies here – our damnably efficient bodies will start to ditch strength gains if they realize that they’re no longer relevant or needed. Muscles are not efficient for the body to keep around if they’re not being used; they take effort to maintain. So your body will gradually start to dump what isn’t being used. Detraining is real, and even if you’re climbing hard every day for eight months, if you don’t add in some strength maintenance work every now and again, you’ll probably find when you return to the gym that you’ve lost some of the strength you once had.
Note that it’s very, very important that your strength-training program really addresses what holds you back as an individual climber, as well as taking into account all sorts of other relevant parameters, such as age, gender, years climbing, experience training, climbing level, lifestyle, work, diet, family, and so forth. If you strength train without addressing the areas that hold you back the most, you won’t make nearly the gains you could potentially make, obviously. If you use someone else’s program with a different background than you, you also run the risk of overuse injuries/too-much-too soon overtraining or conversely, undertraining. This is why using what I do as your training program wouldn’t be the smartest approach to improving your climbing (and it’s why I don’t share the details of my training program, actually). What is the smartest approach is formulating a training plan based on your past experiences and your present circumstances and your future goals.
Engaging in strength-training this way can be a real leap of faith, especially for the “can’t stand the thought of gaining a single pound” climber. I should know, having been such a climber! I resisted this for quite some time; how I wish that I hadn’t at this point. But the past is the past; all I can do now is try to continue on with my personal work in this area, and to help and reassure others that this approach works, and that it’s actually nothing novel or new to the greater athletic training world. Strength is essential for every athlete. If you put a serious effort into getting stronger in areas that are sport-specific and that hold you back, you will probably find yourself able to do moves – and routes – you once thought you would never even try.