Tag Archives: climbing

Plateauing on Your Climbing Project? Try This! Suggestions to Help You Send (5)

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

“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.

Plateauing on Your Climbing Project? Try This! Suggestions to Help You Send (4)

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Discussing mental training tactics is a murky pond at best; nothing illustrated this to me more clearly than reading “Evidence-Based Applied Sport Psychology,” and my ensuing interview with premier sport psychologist Dr. Roland Carlstedt. What works for one person perfectly might actually screw up another’s performance. Add to this confusion that athletes are often quick to blame mental issues as a reason for compromised performance, when in fact physical or technical deficiencies lie at the root of those supposedly mental issues. Add to this confusion yet again the reality that you can’t simply separate the head from the body and treat it as a separately operating entity, despite our cultural tendency to do just that, albeit often unwittingly. What a recipe for mucking everything up by suggesting any sort of specific mental training tactics, especially in any sort of blanket way, right?

Despite this, I’ll do my best here to hone in on 10 areas that involve using your mind more effectively that may help you send more quickly or break through a plateau (keyword: may!). These include the following:

  1. Don’t set a deadline or an expectation of outcome for any given day. It’s great to have a goal, but don’t expect or anticipate linear progress (i.e. improvement every single day) on your project. By the same token, don’t put an expected sending deadline on your project – even if you’re traveling and are time-limited. Work to enjoy the process of climbing every day without a sense of pressure, unless of course, you work well under pressure and enjoy it (I don’t). This comes down to knowing how you work best and what’s enjoyable to you. Either way, being okay with sending/not sending makes it more likely that you’ll have fun no matter what the outcome. Remind yourself that a year or five years from now, you probably won’t care nearly as much about whether you sent or didn’t send this particular route.
  2. If you struggle with distracting mental chatter while you climb, try giving your mind something to fixate on other than the outcome of your project efforts. One of the simplest tactics involves focusing on the breath, starting to breathe consciously and fully when you step off the ground, and keeping that breath going steadily throughout your climb as a kind of metronome for your movements. If this does not suffice, try repeating words to yourself that can drown the distracting chatter, such as “strong and relaxed,” “calm and strong,” or whatever works for you to cultivate the proper pacing and movement on the route.
  3. Set small daily goals, and have a number of them in mind each day you head out to attempt your project. Maybe you want to eliminate a hang, or refine some beta, or get a high point, or link a section that you haven’t climbed through before – or all of the above. If you achieve anything that represents progress, consider your day a success.
  4. Conversely, if progress on a given day isn’t possible, make a smart decision about what forcing the issue by continuing to climb when you’re too tired to progress will result in, and consider it a successful day if you pull the plug on climbing and opt for recovery and rest instead. Keep a big-picture perspective and understand that if you start to consistently low-point your project, you probably need more rest. Be disciplined and strong mentally about this. Rest.
  5. Be okay with whatever happens, and be logical rather than emotional in assessing a less-than-desirable outcome. Example: you fall off a move you have dialed. Instead of freaking out and saying, “I can ALWAYS do that move, what the heck is wrong with me?” and then proceeding to beat in the already-dialed move repeatedly and angrily, consider why you might have fallen. Were you tired? Not concentrating? Did you make a movement error? Were the conditions poor? Respond logically to the situation, not emotionally.
  6. Visualize the project while you’re away from it or right before you attempt it, or both. Visualization works better for some people than others, so you can feel free to experiment with whether running through the climb in your mind while you’re away from it or just before you attempt it, or both, works for you.
  7. Memorize the beta – all of it! More importantly than off-route visualization (in my opinion, anyhow), is to know that you have all of the beta dialed in and memorized, including the “easy parts” of the project. You want to know what to do on every part of the climb, to have it all worked out efficiently, so that you don’t waste your energy fumbling around figuring out what to do the first time you get through the crux.
  8. Cultivate a flexible mind. Even if you have the beta memorized, being able to quickly realize when what you’ve worked out isn’t going to work on the redpoint go and being willing to compensate and just try anything rather than taking is ideal. Just climb until you fall (so long as the fall is safe, as always), regardless of whether you’re out of sequence or doing something different than planned – you might surprise yourself and send. It happens!
  9. If you stop having fun, it’s okay to walk away from it– for a week, for a month, for a season, or forever. Remind yourself of this truth. You chose this project for yourself, probably because you thought it would be fun. If it starts to feel like a job or a chore, take a step back and ask yourself if it’s worth continuing, or if a break might be warranted. Calm your mind about “losing everything;” unless you stop climbing or stop trying hard routes completely for the rest of your life, you will probably gain much more out of trying something different for a while. A shift in perspective can be a valuable asset.
  10. Having more than one project at a time can be helpful in keeping the mind (and the body) from feeling stuck in a rut. Even if you have one main, harder project, having another or several other climbs that you can play on or attempt if you’re not feeling the love or the energy on any given climbing day can help keep a fresher perspective while simultaneously keeping the body from being trained to only one set of moves (and consequently more exhausted and at-risk for overuse injuries from repeating that particular set of moves).

Next Up: Plateauing on Your Climbing Project? Try This! Suggestions to Help You Send (5): Off-Season Training

Plateauing on Your Climbing Project? Try This! Suggestions to Help You Send (3)

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo

It’s easy to get stuck in a performance rut on a project that is at the edge of your ability level, repeating the same performance every single day you climb. The most standard scenario seems to go as follows: climb up to sticking point, fall, pull back up to hard move, rest until pump dissipates and power returns, pull back on the rock and continue climbing to anchors. The problem with repeating this same pattern over and over again is that it actually trains your body to be less likely to quickly adapt to sending the route. This is a great real-life illustration of the athletic training principle of specific adaptations to imposed demands (SAID): when you do this, you are training the hang (rest period) into your body, not encouraging it to push through that place of difficulty.

You can take several approaches to stop training and ingraining this hang (or multiple hangs, as the case may be), and you can combine these approaches or employ a different one each day. The approaches I use most commonly are the following:

  1. Pull back on and continue climbing immediately with no rest, so your body is almost as fatigued as it was when you fell off (if you’re impossibly pumped, a variation if this is to rest for 10 seconds or 5 seconds and then try to continue – and then start to decrease that rest time and work toward pulling right back on);
  2. Lower down to several moves before your normal falling point – maybe all the way back to the last rest or shake-out spot on the route. Attempt to climb from there through the sticking point move and continue on. You can do this once, or do it several times in a row – being aware that climbing the hard section repeatedly is likely to be quite fatiguing, so multiple repetitions are usually best saved for the final effort of the day;
  3. Deliberate low pointing, in which you’ll take at a place well before your sticking point, most ideally a place on the route where you can normally rest and shake out on the rock (so you’re just giving yourself a better rest where you can normally rest anyway). After resting here, get back on the route and attempt to continue and climb through the sticking point area without falling. Gradually decrease the resting hang until you are resting on the rock again, hopefully now with the ability and confidence to climb through the former sticking point.

In addition to trying to break a “hanging habit,” several other on-route tactical changes can provide effective ways to help you send more quickly. These include the following:

  1. Beta reexamination. I most often employ this in two circumstances. One is if I do encounter a specific sticking point, even if I have the beta dialed, I will revisit the technical solution I’ve come up with – in other words, how I’ve worked the beta and wired it in – to see if I’ve missed anything, if there’s a more high-percentage solution instead of stubbornly sticking with what I have worked out. The other circumstance is if I watch another or several other climbers on the project, and they come up with a different way to do something that I have worked out – even if it’s not the sticking point for me. If what they’re doing appears to be way easier for that section of climbing for them than what I’m doing there, it’s worth checking to see if that works better for me. A key to this second circumstance is to know that if you do have beta dialed in, the first time you try someone else’s way it might feel awkward or not right because you don’t have it as wired – so it’s important to not immediately dismiss it in this case. I will usually play around with the new beta and try it out anywhere from five to 15 times before I decide whether it’s worth integrating into my beta for the climb.
  2. On-route resting can make or break your send, so really honing in on the amount of time you should spend at each rest and shaking out the ideal amount for your body to recover but not start to dip into diminishing returns from resting can help you send. I use breath counts at rests, assigning a certain number of breaths to each rest. This is not rigid, though – if I feel like I need more rest I’m okay with staying a little longer, or if I need less, I’ll leave earlier. But generally speaking, figuring out how to utilize rests intelligently and effectively can make a huge difference in your sending potential.
  3. Tied in with resting, your pacing on the route can also impact your success rate. Every climber has a pace that tends to work best for him or her, but it’s often the case that people who tend to climb slowly climb more slowly than is ideal, and that people who climb really quickly climb more quickly than is ideal. Finding that natural pace that works best for your body takes time and effort; it’s worth it to try to push the pace if you are slow or to slow down and breathe if you tend to climb quickly, and to observe if this makes a difference in your overall performance. In general, shaking out on every hold isn’t ideal, nor is never shaking out at all.

Summing it up: Stop training the hang, revisit your beta, use rests intelligently, and explore pacing adjustments.

Next Up: Plateauing on Your Climbing Project? Try This! Suggestions to Help You Send (4): Mental Work