Tag Archives: weight training

Maintaining Strength During the Climbing Season

Climbing outside is so much fun that it's easy to ditch training for months on end -- but you might regret it if you do.

Climbing outside is so much fun that it’s easy to ditch training for months on end — but you might regret it if you do.

Do you ditch training entirely during the climbing season, and just climb for months on end as your training?

Let me start by saying that if you just want to climb and you don’t mind a) losing strength gains gradually over the course of the season; and b) potentially incurring some repetitive use injuries or muscle imbalances, you should go right ahead with this plan.

However, if you would like to avoid a) and b) both, you’ll likely want to keep some of the strength training elements from your off-season training plans in play during your on-season. You will just want to severely taper down the volume of each workout as well as the frequency of workouts. You do this to avoid cutting into your actual climbing performance as much as possible.

The question changes from “How much of this type training can I get away with and still make gains?” to “How little of this type of training can I get away with without losing my gains?”

You shift the focus of your lens to performance climbing, but strength work has to stay in the periphery, as does opposition muscle work, for best results in terms of strength maintenance and overall body balance.

The steps I take in my program involve the following:

  1. Examine my list of strength-training exercises I do in the off season, and try to whittle out any that I don’t deem completely necessary. This is hard for me as there’s a reason for each exercise I do!
  2. With that list in hand, I prioritize the exercises, and split them into two or three shorter lists of 3 to 6 exercises that can be done together. Each list represents one short workout. I am free to combine them if I want to stack workouts, though – it’s up to me!
  3. In each workout, I do way fewer sets of each exercise. I still try to lift heavy, though – this is strength maintenance, after all.
  4. I try to not go to failure. I definitely try to leave one rep in the tank, lifting to fatigue rather than failure. I lift the same weight I have been lifting throughout my strength-training cycle. Sometimes I even add weight, as I have consistently gotten stronger during my climbing seasons the past few years, too.
  5. I lift far less frequently. I aim to get a lifting session in at least once a month (working to hit all lifts on my list at least 1x a month), but no more than 2x a month.
  6. I try to lift when it interferes with my outdoor climbing performance the least – when I know I’ll have a bunch of rest after lifting. But at the same time, if that month deadline looms, I bite the bullet and lift anyhow (usually!).
  7. I understand that lifting during my performance season may negatively impact my performance in the short-term, immediate future. Over the long-term, the benefits of keeping my muscles strong and balanced outweighs this short-term drain on performance.

By keeping lifting in play through the climbing season, you may actually end your season stronger in terms of pure strength than you started it. You also will be working more on climbing fitness, movement, tactics, and technique throughout your season(s) outside. This means that by the end of your season, you may be experiencing new peaks in performance that weren’t possible the previous season. And then, you’ll repeat for better results in the future.

Strength Training to Improve Your Climbing: Lifts I Love (5) – Cable One-Arm Triceps Extension

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo Photography.

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo Photography.

Are you shorter than the average climber?

Struggle with mantling?

Have difficulty taking holds down past your shoulders?

If you answered yes to one or all of the above, consider adding this exercise or something similar to your (complete!) sport-specific strength-training program.

I love this lift because it has helped me tremendously in situations where I can’t quite make the reach in my pull-up range of motion, meaning I can bring the hold in question down to shoulder level, but I am still short of reaching the next hold. Having an increased ability to turn the pull into a press can be all the difference in the world in making or not making a move.

And while it’s indisputably true that it’s nice to have more reach much of the time in climbing, being stronger in this “turnover area” from pulling to pressing can help mitigate shorter climbers’ reach issues in many circumstances. In other words, the shorter you are (and the harder you climb), the more likely it is that you will see results from this lift in your climbing.

Case in point – a few years ago, I was walking some other climbers through a bunch of strength exercises, this one included. My 6’4” friend was horrified to discover how relatively “weak” he was in this motion, but it made complete sense to me – he hadn’t really needed to develop this ability for where he was in his climbing at the time. In other words, being able to press holds out wasn’t really holding him back yet.

As anyone improves their climbing ability up to a higher level, this strength development will become more and more helpful, no matter how tall the climber. There will be times when pressing a hold down farther will be key, even if you’re tall. Since one of the big ways in which climbs get harder is that the holds get farther apart, it’s a useful sport-specific strength to develop, even if you are 6’4”.

But if you’re 5’0” (or even 5’6”, like me), you’ll probably find it much more useful much earlier in your climbing development, enabling you to surmount more and more “reachy” moves with greater ease than those climbers of a similar stature who chose not to work on putting some strength work into their triceps.

Learn how to do it here: Cable One Arm Tricep Extension. For climbers, I recommend doing this with your palm facing down (pronated). This replicates the movement used in climbing more accurately.

Seasonal Transitioning for Sport Climbers – Building Fitness, Planning Peaks and Preventing Plateaus

Did you boulder all winter to train your power? Don't expect to come out with awesome route-climbing fitness!

Did you boulder all winter to train your power? Don’t expect to come out with awesome route-climbing fitness!

You trained your weaknesses with dedication during your off-season, focusing on strength development in the areas you struggle with the most. And yet, during your first forays onto the rock this season, you feel worse than you did before.

What did you do wrong?

The answer, in all likelihood, is nothing.

Nothing, except for setting an unrealistic expectation that you would reap immediate and profoundly overwhelming results from your training in your rock climbing performance.

Those types of results are the exception rather than the rule.

For most of us most of the time, the results from training come much more gradually than we’d like them to, and it takes time to mold and adapt raw, gym-begotten strength and power gains into noticeable, usable gains in route-climbing performance. This tends to be true, too, for bouldering power gains, if you spent your winter season bouldering as your main training modality for working toward route-climbing power gains.

It will take time to build fitness into your strength gains, and it will also take time for your mind to fully understand how to utilize those gains to your advantage while you climb – in other words, old habits die hard, and you will probably have to work to make your body understand that it is stronger and indeed capable of doing moves that it may not have been able to do previously.

This need to build fitness into strength gains is also why I don’t recommend dropping all route-climbing training out of a program entirely during the off season, if climbing hard sport climbs is your top interest. Use it or lose it is always in play in athletics, so multiple months of not doing any type of power endurance or endurance training for climbing will leave you with a much bigger hole to climb out of than keeping those skills in play to a certain extent, even while you are primarily focused on strength training.

Having done this in the past – only trained strength – I can certainly affirm from my personal experience that it took more months to work my way back into route-climbing fitness after doing this. Keeping a little bit of fitness work in there while I focus on strength training helps make the transition easier and smoother.

For the same reason, once you start route climbing again as your main focus, you should try to avoid giving up on all strength training throughout your main climbing season. A shorter, more targeted maintenance program done less frequently can help you maintain the gains you have made in your off-season, rather than gradually detraining from your peak strength levels over the course of months and months of route climbing.

The maintenance strength-training program may also help prevent injuries, because of course, you will include opposition muscle work in the program to keep your body balanced. Keeping strength-training in play every two to three weeks can actually boost your performance over the season, as you may find yourself STILL gaining strength, even while it’s not the primary focus of your training.

This approach can also help you prevent plateaus by providing variety to your training – especially if you’re working on the same project or projects for much of the season. Remember, in training we want consistency, but not too much consistency. The body adapts to the demands placed on it, and if everything becomes too routine, that can be a perfect recipe for plateaus.

Also, keep in mind that the body can only hold a true performance peak for about a week, tops – something I will mention again and have mentioned before. It would be a wonderful thing if we could peak all of the time, or at least force the body into peaking exactly when we wanted it to whenever we wanted it to, but the reality is that it’s not an exact science. You’ll have to experiment to find the right balance between training, resting and peaking for yourself.

In general, if you are training hard and climbing hard but you start to feel your performance slip a little bit OR you are getting close to sending your project but just can’t seem to get there, you might be on the brink of having a performance breakthrough – if you can handle resting to stimulate a peak at this point.

This is counterintuitive for many of us, who want to push even harder to eke out the send. While this can happen, you might find that a few days off will lead you to emerge at a higher level of performance, allowing you to peak (send), and then moving into a new training cycle after that effort is complete.

Remember that it’s our minds that want and cling to weekly routines – but our bodies actually will respond better in most cases to a little less routine and a little more randomness. Undulating periodization, in which you stagger what you work on, how hard you work, how many days you climb and train, etc., can be perhaps even more effective in stimulating climbing-performance gains than a predictable exercise routine from week to week.

Summing it up:

  • It takes time for the body to adapt raw strength/power gains into route-climbing/fitness gains. Be patient. Enjoy the process of learning how to utilize new strength and power effectively.
  • Don’t drop your strength-training program during your route-climbing season. Lift at least every 2-3 weeks to maintain your strength gains and to stay balanced in your body.
  • Avoid plateaus by avoiding a completely regimented and predictable climbing/training schedule and routine.
  • Rest enough to stimulate peaks at appropriate times.
  • Understand that climbing at 100 percent of your potential 100 percent of the time is not possible.