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.

Rethinking the Concepts of Right and Wrong for Climbing, Training, Yoga and Life

Photo courtesy of Jay Em Photography

Photo courtesy of Jay Em Photography

“Am I doing this pose wrong?”

“I did that move wrong.”

“That’s the wrong way to train.”

It happens in climbing and yoga, both, as well as in so many other human interactions – an overly harsh judgement of self and/or others as categorically wrong, often followed by a defensive, angry reaction and a shut-down to any advice, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned the advice-giver might be. This closing off can lead to a person giving up on the activity at hand entirely and deeming themselves hopelessly “bad” at it, or conversely, on the person moving even more staunchly toward his or her initially held but perhaps less efficient/less effective means toward making significant progress in whatever area is in question. Both of these responses can lead to a less-than-desirable outcome, an outcome where a person sabotages their own deepest desire to improve at a particular activity.

I have long preferred to use the terms “more efficient” and “more effective” rather than “wrong” to describe how to perform particular climbing moves. After all, if you’ve completed the move, you’ve done it, so it can’t be completely “wrong.” It’s not so black and white. What is true is that there might be a more efficient way to do that particular move, and that increased efficiency will likely be a more effective way to climb through this move, decreasing your energy output and giving you more energy to climb the rest of the route. But what’s efficient and effective for one climber may not be the same as the next, since every body is different in terms of height, reach, composition, age, experience, strengths, and comparably not-as-strong areas, and so forth. It’s up to each person to be willing and open to explore new approaches to climbing beta, knowing all of the above plays into each outcome.

In a comparable fashion, more efficient/effective training for climbing has become my aim. What I seek in guiding my own and others’ training to improve at rock climbing is the quickest sustainable path to seeing a tangible increase in climbing ability level. Does this mean that other, possibly contradictory or conflicting training methods are absolutely wrong? In most cases, not categorically (though there are some exceptions to this, just like with yoga there are some ways to do certain asanas, or poses, in a potentially injurious fashion). But for the most part, any type of fitness training is better than no training; any type of sport-specific training is better than no sport-specific training; and any sport-specific training designed to address your own particular areas that hold you back is better than non-individualized sport-specific training. Training isn’t summarily “wrong” unless it makes you injured or worse at what you’re trying to improve at.

Similarly, I tend to believe that yoga poses and practices aren’t unconditionally “wrong” unless they cause injury – but refining poses and practices so that they  better address the areas they can help open, balance, and strengthen more is a worthy endeavor. As Donna Farhi says in “Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living,” “The only ideal practice is the one that works for you.” Pushing and forcing the body-mind to align in a way that it isn’t open, flexible or strong enough to align in yet is therefore not recommended. Staying with the body-mind where it is presently, and gently working to move step by step toward the next level of deepening the asana or practice in question makes much more sense – without ever labeling oneself harshly as “wrong” for not looking or feeling like an accomplished and experienced yogi in every pose or practice right out of the gate, or for not being able (yet) to follow along when a yoga teacher makes a suggestion for how to deepen or refine a pose or practice.

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

So why do so many of us have a knee-jerk reaction when a teacher gently suggests a new approach to a familiar pose? For the same or a similar reason why, I think, people get offended and argumentative sometimes about the validity of certain proven and widely accepted (in general sports training arenas) athletic training techniques and methods that might not be what they expected to do, wanted to do, or have long-held the belief that they should or should not do to improve at climbing. And for the same reason people sometimes resist trying new beta for a climbing move, even when they are struggling with their own beta repeatedly. When someone calls into question something that we hold to be true, such as “I’m this advanced in this yoga pose,” or “This is what I’ve always done to train for climbing, plus this other really talented climber agrees with me,” or “My beta is right for me,” we feel threatened.

On some level we might not even be aware of, we don’t want to be “wrong,” so we fight like hell to prove that we are right, often resisting the suggestions of the other person or people, however much more well-informed they may be or however helpful their intentions might be, because we don’t want to get out of our self-made comfort zones of rightness. But what if we could just dump the damning labels of wrongness and rightness entirely, clear our heads, and start with beginner’s minds, without the verbal chit-chat that arises when someone calls into question our well-worn pathways or methods of executing a pose/practice or training plan or climbing beta (or any other area)? How much more would we stand to improve if we stopped and truly listened to others, particularly to those who have spent years studying, researching, experimenting with, and testing the area(s) in question, and particularly if we ourselves have spent relatively little to no time researching or working with the area(s) in question?

In my yoga teacher training to earn my RYT-200, my teacher did not mince words about our asana practice as a whole group. It was a great cleansing of ego and opening of beginner’s mind to reexamine and refine the poses and sequences I think we all thought we “knew” upon arrival. Repeatedly we experienced a deep refinement, step by step, of familiar poses and sequences. I learned all sorts of details that I’d never even thought of or understood before about asana practice. Did I leave my 200-hour training feeling like an accomplished yoga expert, though? Nope – I felt like I’d only just scratched the surface. Honestly, I still do.

Since then, I’ve had people sadly inform me when I make a refinement suggestion that I’ve “taken all their progress away” in a yoga pose – which is the exact opposite of what a refinement suggestion is supposed to make a person feel. A suggestion by a teacher to change one’s approach to a pose is an offering to help the student find a deeper connection and benefit from the asana, not a harsh judgement of wrongness. In terms of climbing movement, the same as above is true – a suggestion to modify or change the way a person does a climbing move is an effort to help that person climb more efficiently and effectively, not a harsh judgement of wrongness. And in terms of climbing training, the same as above is true – a suggestion to improve the efficacy and efficiency of a person’s training program is not a personal attack on that person or the climber/trainer they’ve been working with previously; it is a genuine effort to help that person improve at climbing more efficiently and effectively.

Notice that none of the above are personal; they are not about attacking a person’s inner self or finding fault or wrongness with that person’s intentions or efforts. Rather, they are (or at least, should be!) offered by teachers and guides in an effort to assist another person to get more out of their chosen activities. And, as always, a person on the receiving end of this advice has a choice to make, and that choice is his or hers to make alone. I have definitely had refinements suggested for yoga asanas or practices that I’ve decided I don’t agree with for myself as a individual, along with the many refinements that I have incorporated into my own personal practice and teachings. Ditto for climbing moves and for climbing training methods. For me, it comes down to what makes the most logical sense in any given situation, taking into account the background of the information giver, the way it feels in my body/being, the results I see in my practice or training or performance, how it works (or doesn’t work) for others, and the support I can find from other reliable sources about the suggested piece of information.

This doesn’t mean we become automatons or minions of those who have studied more than ourselves or who possess deeper experience with whatever area we’re talking about – not at all. Asking questions about why such a modification or change might be desirable is always a good plan, and most responsible teachers, guides, friends and coaches will be happy to try to provide sound answers and supportive explanations and sources for the reasons behind why they choose to approach yoga, climbing, training, or whatever else you might be exploring the way that they do. It’s up to each of us as individuals to keep our minds open to new ideas and concepts while keeping our discernment and healthy discretion alive and aware as well. In this way, we can continue to learn, grow and change in positive directions and expand our potentials as human beings in whatever areas we wish to grow without losing our core sense of inner trust in our own abilities to weed out what doesn’t work for us and to celebrate and share what does.

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.

Climber. Writer. Aspiring Yogi. Climbing Coach/Trainer. Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200). ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT). Avid Lifelong Learner.

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