Category Archives: Training Talk

Move of the Month 9: Breathing (Improve Your Climbing)

Image courtesy of dream designs at

Image courtesy of dream designs at

A number of years ago, as I watched a very strong climber working on a 5.14+, I was amazed to hear this person let out a long, obviously held breath after plummeting off the climb. It appeared that the breath-holding had begun at the start of the difficult section, and that this breath had been held throughout about 12 challenging, explosive moves of climbing.

Does this happen to you in your climbing, too?

If it does, consider putting some time and energy into training an improved awareness of your breath. Harnessing and utilizing the breath to your advantage can make a tremendous difference in your climbing performance – and potentially in other areas of your life as well. For an excellent and detailed explanation on exactly how breathing contributes to athletic and general life performance, read Want to Improve Your Performance? Breathe! and also, check out Waiting to Exhale…and then return here for ideas about learning to use breathing to your advantage specifically in your climbing.

I start my rhythmic breathing before I even step off the ground onto a climb. I liken this to yogic Ujjayi breathing (What is Ujjayi?). When I reach a rest, if my breathing pace has sped up, I work to smooth and lengthen my breath back to my original pace, focusing all of my attention on my breathing. I use breath counts at each rest, meaning that on a familiar redpoint project, I will gradually come to decide on the ideal amount of breaths I need to take at each resting spot to prepare for the next section of the climb, and I will count off these inhales and exhales in my mind as I rest and shake out. If I need more breaths to recover on any given day on a familiar climb, this usually indicates that I’m not fully recovered for the climbing day itself.

If you struggle with breath-holding and regulating your breathing in climbing or just in general, consider taking yoga classes that encourage you to become more aware and connected to your breath and movement working together. Learning to coordinate inhales and exhales with specific and often increasingly complex asanas throughout a yoga class may help you become better at doing this in climbing situations. One nice aspect of asana practice is that it’s not generally performance or outcome-based (unlike sport climbing), so you can really take the time to focus on the breathing aspect of the practice if you so choose, and then work to bring this improved connection into your climbing bit by bit as it becomes more normal and natural for your inhales and exhales to flow smoothly while you move through a practice.

As with all relatively new climbing techniques and tactics, it’s easiest to begin working on them and employing them in non-peak situations, meaning that bringing your awareness to your breathing while you warm up or while you’re climbing more familiar, sub-threshold climbing efforts will be easier than immediately trying to breath in an ideal fashion on the most challenging climbs you’re trying at the moment. This is not to say that it’s not worth attempting to employ smarter breathing practices immediately – it is. But it’s always harder to break old habits when you’re trying as hard as you can. As with all training efforts, rewiring your breathing patterns will take time, effort and patience. Stick with it, and you will most likely be pleased with the results – such improved stamina, focus, and ability to recover on the rock, to name a few.

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


“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.

Move of the Month 8: The High Step (Improve Your Climbing)

Having the active flexibility to high step at will can help make certain climbing moves easier.

Having the active flexibility to high step at will can help make certain climbing moves easier.

First things first: If you are so strong already that you don’t need to have superior technical and tactical climbing skills, then this article isn’t for you. That being said, there’s really no reason for any climber who wants to improve or maximize their climbing game to not pay attention to easily worked areas like sport-relevant flexibility, among other non-strength dependent skills. By easily worked I don’t necessarily mean that gains are easy, but I do mean that working to improve sport-specific flexibility is one of the least taxing training protocols, so in my world it’s an absolute no-brainer to include flexibility exercises in a training plan. As always, all things are relative, meaning that the more this type of movement shuts you down, the more you’ll potentially gain by working on it.

Sure, being stronger is always desirable, especially if you’re already so strong that it doesn’t matter whether you can step your feet up to your waist or your hand. If you can already do one-arm pull-ups all day long and your finger tendons are made of steel and your forearms never get pumped, having sport-specific flexibility for high-stepping matters less. And yet still…I always find myself wondering when people argue this how much better they could climb with a more efficient usage of all that awesome strength. What if they were able to conserve more of that strength by moving more efficiently? One way of doing that involves improving high-step flexibility (and all areas of sport-specific flexibility, for that matter).

This is actually the area over the years where I’ve observed the most obvious and visible flexibility issue that stymies less-flexible climbers – as they go to try to high step, without good flexibility in this area, either their butt starts to fall away from the wall and ultimately pulls them off (not a very scientific explanation, but a good visual of the chain reaction that happens!), or they absolutely cannot even get their foot up to the desired foothold, and so are left with no choice but to do a pull-up if this is possible for them, or as is more often the case, to just be unable to do the move, or to have to come up with a much more convoluted and difficult sequence to get through a move. (Just FYI, other common climbing-related flexibility issues include hunchback posture leading to decreased reach, and not being able to stem to either execute moves or utilize rests, among others).

Developing improved flexibility requires consistent effort. As with all stretching, it’s recommended that you avoid doing static stretches (i.e. held, passive stretches) on cold muscles. Warm up well with dynamic movements (jumping jacks, mountain climbers, burpees, or light climbing), or save stretching for after a climbing workout or climbing day or another warming physical activity of your choice. To improve active flexibility for high steps, work on stepping your foot up high on a climbing wall, keeping the other foot on the ground, and having increasingly higher target footholds that you step up to as your flexibility improves. You can also do this on a countertop or other suitably high target surface at home (if your feet are dirty, remember to wipe down the countertop after – yuck!). Yoga classes can also help develop this type of active flexibility, particularly if they include a number of sun salutations, in which you step one foot forward between your hands repeatedly throughout a solid portion of the class.

Yoga can help you develop more ease in high stepping.

Yoga can help you develop more ease in high stepping. (Photo by Louis Arevalo)

One last consideration: Hand-in-hand with developing good high-step flexibility is also having enough leg strength (and overall strength) to engage and press up and out of a severe high step. So even if you are supremely flexible and able to high step, it’s also important to possess enough strength to effectively use this high-stepping ability. If you find yourself struggling to press yourself up and out of these types of positions, adding some one-legged squats, squats, and/or deadlifts to your training plan can help you mitigate this issue.