Don’t Just Boulder: How to Get Stronger for Climbing, Faster

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“I’m going to spend a few weeks or months bouldering this winter to get stronger.”

This commonly held perception is one that I had for many years: bouldering is THE way to gain climbing-related strength (or power, which climbers often use interchangeably with strength, though they’re not the same thing – more on that at the end of this article). And yet, no matter how much I tried to implement this, I never seemed to make the strength and power gains from months and months of bouldering over winter seasons that I wished to make, no matter how hard I tried to make it work. It wasn’t until I started actually truly strength training that I started to see a marked and much more rapid increase in my ability to do hard moves in both bouldering and rock climbing settings.

Bouldering is not ideal strength training. It’s not the most effective and efficient way to target sport-specific physical deficiencies that hold you back from improving at climbing. This is not to say that bouldering can’t play a key role in a training program, nor is it to say that bouldering can’t help a person improve their strength. But it is a reality that it is not and will never be the most effective means for gaining sport-specific strength. And this is simply because it’s too random to specifically target and push areas that need work in the most effective and efficient way. As Tudor O. Bompa and G. Gregory Haff say in Periodization Training for Sports-3rd Edition, “The use of exercises that are external to the athlete’s sport is important, because sport performance alone [e.g. bouldering!] will not give the athlete a great enough training stimulus to maximize performance gains.”

Whatever fatigues first in bouldering (and climbing) will limit your workout, so even if other areas haven’t been maximally pushed, you will have to stop for the day. Example – your fingers get tired and you can’t use the holds as effectively now. But you often struggle with body tension or shouldery movements in climbing. But now your fingers are too tired to boulder without risking injury, so you are done for the day without pushing the other areas that need work. In addition, perhaps your fingers are tired from your workout, but not really in a strength-specific way, but rather in a more endurance-drained way – meaning that they haven’t actually been pushed to their strength limit, either. If this doesn’t make sense, try to think about it in terms of running (which for whatever reason is often easier for us to logic through). If you ran a bunch of 800-meter repeat intervals, you might not be pushing your legs to gain too much in terms of maximal strength, but they’d still be tired and you wouldn’t be able to express your true maximal leg strength anymore in that training session, even though what you’ve trained isn’t really maximal strength.

Weight training provides a much more targeted and precise way to work on specific areas of weakness that hold you back in climbing. It’s efficient and effective, a very systematic approach to making relevant strength gains. Choosing appropriate exercises that replicate the movements required for rock climbing is crucial, as is choosing a sets and reps scheme, plus a days-per-training-cycle scheme, that makes sense for a person interested in making climbing-specific strength gains. You take the randomness out of the training and replace it with sport-specific movements aimed primarily at increasing strength, not muscle mass, along with counter-movements, or opposition muscle training, to keep the body in balance. It’s very critical to keep this training in a strength realm, too – knowing that volume training is not strength training. Generally speaking, a program using lower reps (4 to 6) with heavier weights yields strength gains. Which exercises are used and which sets-reps-days scheme is chosen depends on your individual background and experience with strength training, plus the time of the year (periodization).

Jim Stoppani’s Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength-2nd Edition
provides numerous strength-gaining programs clearly outlined in detail for their efficacy, time required, and difficulty. It also offers programs aimed at hypertrophy (gains in muscle mass), as well as illustrated instructions for numerous weight-training exercises.

Finally, a note on power: Power is speed plus strength. Explosive movements involve power. The amount of power you’re able to generate is related directly to your maximal strength. Yes, some people are able to recruit more of their maximal strength than others for powerful movements, and yes, you can train your body to improve its recruitment of power – but only up to a percentage of your maximal strength. Everybody’s power will ultimately be limited by their strength level. Improve that strength level, and you are on the way to improving your power. Bouldering can provide a great venue for working on improving your ability to recruit power as your strength increases. Deliberately structuring bouldering sessions so that you work on explosive movements on all types of angles, holds and distances that are relevant to your climbing game is a great way to work on molding your newly gained strength into power that is accessible and available and feels natural for you to use when you’re climbing.

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