Training to Become a Better Climber - Part 5 (Applies to V5+/f7a and up/E4+)

by Robbie Phillips Apr/2012
This article has been read 33,748 times

This is the fifth article in a series of training articles from Robbie Phillips. It is aimed at advanced climbers. (Approximate grade range of around UK E4+, Sport grade F7a+ or bouldering grade V5+).

The series of articles advances through the grades. For articles aimed at lower grades, check out the earlier pieces linked below.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Robbie Phillips:


Welcome back keen rock stars! Now is the time to look forward to what you want to achieve over this next big year:

  1. What are your ambitions in climbing for 2012?
  2. How are you going to achieve them?
  3. And where will this put you for 2013?

As much as the best improvements in climbing (or any sport for that matter) are seen with dedication to training both physically and technically, to truly make the big leaps in performance you're going to have to have the mindset as well. If you look at any of the best climbers, they all have one thing in common... pure unhindered focus. I am a faithful believer that anything is possible; you could call me a dreamer for want of a better term. The climbers that inspire me, and those that I aspire to be like aren't necessarily the best or the strongest, just those who dare to dream.

Close this photo
+Siuranella Central bathed in December sunshine., 176 kb
Siuranella Central bathed in December sunshine.
Rich Kirby, Dec 2010
© Will Kelsall

In this article, I would like to begin divulging my personal thoughts as to what makes great climbers great. First off, lets keep to tradition and welcome a new friend : )

+Tommy Toprope, 232 kb
Tommy Toprope
UKC Articles, May 2011
© Will Carroll
Name: Keen-Bean Dean
Occupation: Imaginary Character
Been climbing for: 2-4 years; 3-4 days a week
Personal Bio: Climbing is my thing! I train at the wall 4 days a week so long as it's physically possible i.e. no earthquakes/tsunamis/world-ending disasters. I get out whenever I can and go on at least one or two climbing trips a year. Life before climbing is just a disturbingly boring blur now... I think I collected stamps? (shudder). I just want to keep improving but I've definitely slowed down a lot over the last 2 years, is there anything left to learn?

+A 'wee kid' in action, here strong Leo puts in the effort on the boulders. , 68 kb
A 'wee kid' in action, here strong Leo puts in the effort on the boulders.
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll
What is stopping you now?

If you are anything like Mr Dean above, then you'll be climbing a lot, you probably think your training sessions are good, quality and effective and you are no doubt climbing at a good standard for no better reason than you climb a lot. What is it that you need to give you the edge? What factors of your performance need honing? What's the difference between you and the local climbing heroes?

The truth is, it's probably a bit of everything. He/She is more than certainly stronger, fitter and more skillful than you, but why? Does the excuse, "He's/She's been climbing longer than me" scream out? Does it actually matter? He/She may have been climbing longer, possibly since they were a child, but his/her attitude towards climbing, training for climbing and visualisation as to what is achievable is in my experience the principal factor to what makes these climbers better. Everything from how they process information when they "fail" to setting targets is a key element in their make up that aids them in their progress, something which too many climbers nowadays miss out on.

Speaking for myself, the successes in my climbing career haven't come about through superior training programs or pain tolerance to grueling sessions in the gym, more so from my obsessive desire for perfection and improvement.

+Robbie Phillips slumped on the rope after failing on a route in Kalymnos, 124 kb
Robbie Phillips slumped on the rope after failing on a route in Kalymnos
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll

What happens when you fall off a route? Do you:

  • Get upset/angry with yourself?
  • Get upset/angry with the route?
  • Get upset/angry with your belayer (that's a funny one, especially if he/she's your girl/boy-friend)?

These are common responses. As well as these it's also common to see people doing the opposite, apparently not caring whatsoever about the fall (or take on the rope) and simply shrugging it off as another fail.

If you're passionate about climbing and want to improve, then there is really only one response to falling I would expect and it's certainly not blaming the route. There's only one person to blame and that's you! Being angry with yourself isn't a bad thing as long as it isn't self deprecating to the point of making you feel worse, you need to realise what you did wrong and work towards building yourself up for a better performance next time round.

Failure "It's the end of a dream!"

What we now need to distinguish is the definition of failure in what we are aiming to achieve i.e. better performance in climbing. Is failure falling off the route? Certainly not! This is one of many challenges you will face in climbing, I know it's about getting to the top, but the bigger picture isn't getting to the top of one climb, its bettering yourself for all future climbs so that your end result after years of focus is going to reap you the greatest rewards.

A failure on one route isn't a failure until you've given up and admitted defeat. Instead of blaming something else, look to yourself and learn from the experience.

If you fell because of a:

Technical/sequence error? Sort it out and go for the send next time round!
Mental block/fear? Realise this as a weakness and aim to get over it by any means possible!
Tactical decision? Think what actions before you got on the route could have affected performance (muddy boots, wrong belayer, no lucky chalkbag, forgot to do your pre-climb route read, didn't rest long enough between last attempt/climbing day) and next time round don't make the same mistakes!
Physical element? Maybe you do need to get stronger/fitter? It's not a last resort, it's an ongoing process that changes/develops only by learning from experiences such as falling off a certain route...

+Opps, wrong handed., 71 kb
Opps, wrong handed.
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll
+With the hands the right way round, the move is easier., 63 kb
With the hands the right way round, the move is easier.
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll

+Sam about to clip the chains and realise his short term project!, 65 kb
Sam about to clip the chains and realise his short term project!
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll

Treat every climb with respect, as you would a teacher/mentor that can lead you down the path best taken to reach your goals...

Goals

From learning the correct mindset to dealing with "failure", the next vital stage in your path to climbing perfection is personal goal setting. Without goals what would we be? We'd be mindlessly roaming from one action to the next without any reason or rhyme. If you think about it, most of what you do in life is a response to some sort of goal, so why not do the same with your climbing?

The first thing we need to do is identify different types of goals. I generally work around a set of five:

Short Term Weekly Local Project, Personal best on training circuit, by the end of block 2 I want to be able to..., overcoming something that shouldn't take longer than a week/month
Medium Term By the end of your training cycle (4-6 months).
Long Term By the end of a year or multiple training cycles.
The Future Where you want to be in 5 years?
The Dream The ultimate goals in your life, could be any length of time!

"What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving them."

Looking at these goals now and deciding in your mind that you want to achieve them is not enough really. Ideally you want them written down and visible. With these goals written down, they instantly become something more than just ideas in your mind, they are now something you have taken an action towards accomplishing.

When you're making your goals, you need to make sure they aren't just wild fleets of fantasy far stretched from the corners of your imagination. What I mean by this is if you want to climb 8a and you are currently climbing 6a, then perhaps 8a won't be in your short term goals.

Here's an example of Dean's list of goals:

Short Term
Climb "Chopping Block" (7b) at Dunkeld in a few sessions this month
Beat personal best on Yellow Circuit at TCA by end of month.
Climb 4x6c, 3x6c+, 2x7a and 1x7a+ at EICA this month.
Complete all my Core sessions for this month.
Do the Green V6 at EICA and finally stick "Monty Pythons SS" (6C+) at Kyloe In (Sean Bell on monty)

+The awesome Turkish tufas of Geyikibari, 129 kb
The awesome Turkish tufas of Geyikibari
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll
Medium Term
Build up Endurance and Power Endurance for Ceuse trip in July.
Climb 10x7a, 5x7a+ and 2x7b by end of Cycle in July.
Boulder V7 by July
Stick to my program!

Ceuse Trip Goals (2 Weeks)
Climb 3x7a's (in different styles)
2x7a+'s
1x7b - "Super Mickey"!!!

Long Term
Climb 7b+ by end of the year
Build Strength and Power in Cycle two over winter (1 Week in Font).
Maintain power endurance over winter with a session a week and progress with one cycle focussed to building fitness for Geyikybari in Spring.

GeyikibariTrip Goals (2 Weeks)
Climb 5x7a+'s (in different styles)
2x7b's
1x7b+
Try a 7c to see what it feels like and if good, go for it!

The Future (5 Year Plan)
Climb 8a+
Boulder V9
Keep training structured
Stay Healthy with good balanced nutrition

The Dream (Lifetime)
Climb 8c ("Dures Limites" (Ceuse))
Boulder V11 (Anything one armed on a beastmaker : P )

+A bum rest in the amazing tufas of the Grande Grotte, Kalymnos, 238 kb
A bum rest in the amazing tufas of the Grande Grotte, Kalymnos
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll

Areas of Expertise

Learning to Rest

Whilst climbing with Mr Gresham one summer, on the long walk up to the Ceuse crags, we filled our time chatting about what holds back the majority of climbers in the early stages of their development. We picked up on the usual suspects i.e. footwork, body position, general technique, confidence, etc... One thing Neil reckoned was a hidden culprit often overlooked by many was how to rest and recover on climbs. Since I've started coaching full-time, I've seen it almost to the point of disbelief how many climbers just don't know when, where or how to rest on routes. For me it was a shock, how can something relatively obvious be completely missed by so many?

Climbers learn their techniques through what they experience, resting included in this. It all started becoming apparent when I started working with climbers who rarely climb outside of their woody or the shorter climbing walls i.e. most compared to Ratho. Why would you have to rest on a 10m wall? Would it not be easier just to keep going and not stop? In a lot of circumstances this can be true, but the climbers who do this don't learn the valuable lessons on resting and so they develop bad tactics of not resting (or knowing how to rest) on longer routes.

The most important thing to remember with resting is it's not a cure, it's a preventative measure taken from as soon as you start climbing to the moment you clip those chains. When I climb a long route, I'll be looking for every potential resting position as well as shaking each hand out on most moves. Even a light flick of the wrist whilst moving from one hold to the next can be enough if done regularly.

+A quick flick of the wrist can offer a micro-shake between moves, here Robbie demonstrates., 147 kb
A quick flick of the wrist can offer a micro-shake between moves, here Robbie demonstrates.
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll

When I've been planning to climb a route I always look out for where I'm going to be resting. I think of the resting points as checkpoints to reach, and then I force myself to shake out there. Every rest will be different, some better than others, but all can provide a relative source of recovery. Whether it's enough to do 10 moves or 1, if you can get something back, it was worth it.

Learning to understand that resting sometimes isn't comfortable is important too. Climbers come to me saying that they can't recover on the route, well, why not? There is always room to recover in some form or another, even on the boulderiest routes imaginable. I even heard someone once say that the rest on "Hubble" (8c+/9a or V14?) was a single pad mono! Sometimes recovery positions aren't comfortable or consistently three points of contact, I've even been in one situation when the rest was the crux of the route. The actual move following required a fresh left hand but without that draining right hand crimp rest before, my left hand would be too pumped to do the next move.

Learning to rest can be a difficult lesson for many. The best way to do it is to put yourself into situations where it's forced i.e. on long routes or if your wall is too short, then maybe build some longer circuits on a bouldering wall with distinct recovery positions every 15-20 moves. Even lapping routes can often force resting in places were you wouldn't usually rest. If you lap a 10m wall four times, suddenly you've just climbed a 40m route. If you down climb each time it could be 80m!

Breathing

Supposedly something we all do without thinking... so why is it such hard work during climbing? Of course a continued inflow of oxygen into our bloodstream is going to aid us in our climbing activities, but there is definitely a time when breathing could hinder our performance. Thinking back, the moments when we hold our breath are usually when under intense stress or tension. In climbing this could be whilst holding a strenuous body position or committing to a scary run-out. Both situations are drastically different and require completely different approaches.

In a tenuous body tension move I will hold my breath for a short time to maintain that tension, that for me is something we as climbers need to deal with strategically as some moves require so much tension that a single breath could break it in a second.

Whilst committing to a scary run-out it is essential that a steady flow of oxygen makes it in, deep breaths whilst you climb will slow your heart rate, calming you and honing your thoughts on the climbing and less on the run-out.

Whilst climbing relatively sustained routes, It's important to breathe deep regular breaths to get as much oxygen in. This will set you up better for any harder sequences that you may have to fight on.

Climbing Movement on the Wall

+Agressive movements!, 93 kb
Agressive movements!
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll
+Same route, same climber, but different style, the easier technical section requires a different approach., 65 kb
Same route, same climber, but different style, the easier technical section requires a different approach.
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll

Bouldering Style VS Route Style (Aggressive climbing versus controlled)

Inspired by a friend of mine's UKC Forum Thread. I was very keen to write on the thread, but as usual wimped out in fear of being torn to shreds by some of you scary posters out there : P

Is there a difference and does it affect your performance on the wall? Well, I guess this depends on the style of route or boulder, but in general there is a preferred style and approach to each scenario.

For bouldering you definitely want to adopt a more aggressive style whilst for routes this is less so (but not entirely lost).

Pro's and Con's of Aggressive Style

Pro's

Attack climbs in a stronger more powerful style which makes you more likely to hit the low percentage style moves more commonly found in boulders.
You are generally faster on the climb, which means you may save energy by not wasting much time hanging on the holds.
A wider range of dynamic style techniques are better performed with this mindset (Dyno's, Deadpoints, Fridge Hugging)
Core body tension tends to be better when aggressive, because you are tensing more
Far more likely to hold powerful cut loose swings.
Looks cool too!

Cons

Can waste energy from over gripping which is far more likely if you're climbing aggressively.
You tend to make technique errors, perhaps from being in a hyper state of mind hence more likely to rush sequences.
Can scare people, especially if you're a power screamer!

So being aggressive can be good and bad. Certainly on boulders it's probably favoured more due to the higher number of dynamic scenarios and low percentage moves. On routes, many would say keeping a cool head and climbing with as little aggression as possible is best, however I would disagree. I think an aggressive style is just as important in routes as it is in boulders, the difference being that on routes it has to be brought in at the right time to avoid unnecessary over exhaustion on moves that may not need an aggressive style.

We now return to the idea of pacing. Pacing yourself on a wall is important, that is varying the speed of your climbing depending on the style of climbing at a particular section. Pacing your emotions is just as important and variable depending on route style. Bouldery sections should be more aggressive whilst sustained sections less so.

Training Your Body: Strength!

A common misconception in sport is that Strength and Power mean the same thing. In the second article of the series I discussed this, but in case you have forgotten:

Power = Strength x Speed

This is the equation for Power. Note that it basically implies that power is variable depending on your current strength levels. This means you can only be as powerful as your strength allows, in climbing this could be being strong on a particular hold. If you can only just hold the grip for a few seconds, it's unlikely you will get much movement/power from it. However if you can hold it very comfortably, then getting more power from it will be easier.

Guys are often far more powerful than they are strong. This means they sometimes struggle to hold the holds but at the same time have a power advantage meaning with better holds they can do more powerful moves than women.

Women are often stronger on worse holds compared to men but lack the power to move between them. Because they lack power, even on bigger holds they struggle to make dynamic moves between them.

But what is better - having power or strength? Basically you need both. In this month's training program you will be focusing on building strength so that in the next program, you can convert what you've gained to power!

Bouldering

The best way to build strength is on a bouldering wall. The only issue here is identifying specific types of problems that isolate strength as opposed to power. For this you need to look out for problems that require more static movements than dynamic. These problems will 9/10 times be on smaller or harder to hold holds that require static precision to make each individual movement. I find that to focus on strength, it's better if I make up my own problems, or pick a set of project problems that I struggle to link 2 or 3 moves together before failing.

Note: to build strength aim to choose problems that are of a static (controlled) nature rather than dynamic (powerful) ones.

Another good way to improve strength on a bouldering wall is by doing 3-5 second locks on the problems your trying. This will probably mean dropping your grade a bit for the exercise. Your aim during this exercise is to get into a good body position to lock off one arm, hovering the other hand above the next hand hold before grabbing it. This basically forces that static lock; you could even try doing easier problems in this style that may usually require more power?

Fingerboard

Fingerboards have been the subject of a lot of debate recently as to whether they are good for climbers of varying abilities and ages to use. Many say that using a fingerboard will cause you to injure yourself if you are not at the required level.

To a certain extent this is true. It's not the fingerboard that injures climbers, it's the climbers who misuse it. If you have not been climbing for very long, then it's probably best not to go near a fingerboard, at least not for the first year or two. There is generally little benefit a fingerboard can provide beginner climbers. Maybe a little pull up training on the jugs would be as far as I'd go. If you can already achieve 10 pull ups in a row (with good form), then I would safely say that there are other areas of your climbing that need development.

For others that have been climbing for longer, perhaps climbing in the low to mid f7's or bouldering in the V5 and up range, there is a lot more a fingerboard can offer. To train strength effectively, a fingerboard can be a very good supplementary training tool. Note the word "supplementary"! Fingerboarding should never replace climbing, but it can offer an extra workout once or twice a week when you can't make it to the wall or as part of a balanced personal training program.

When using a fingerboard for strength training, our primary goal is stimulating the muscles in a way that forces the correct response. In short, hanging off the smallest edges as long as possible is not the best way to make gains in strength.

+Finger board training, 84 kb
Finger board training
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll
+One armed pull ups with a pulley and weight to assist., 96 kb
One armed pull ups with a pulley and weight to assist.
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll
+One armed pull ups with a pulley and weight to assist., 102 kb
One armed pull ups with a pulley and weight to assist.
UKC Articles, Apr 2012
© Will Carroll

Pull Ups

Pull Ups are an excellent way to train your upper body to pull hard when the time comes. When working with this exercise, I would aim to complete only a maximum number of 5 pull ups in one set. Anyone doing these should be able to comfortably do 10 pull ups unassisted anyway, so how do we make it harder?

Adding weight to your body is the first thing to do. You will be surprised at just how much a little added weight makes a big difference.

I would split the exercise into 1 rep, 3rep and 5 rep max sets for the best all-round workout. Obviously a 1 rep set will require more added weight than a 5 rep set, but this is up to you to find what weight works with each set.

Without adding weight, you could lose an arm (not literally) and go for one arm strength. This is personally my favourite because I prefer not to add weight to my body. When doing one arm pull ups, use a pulley to act as an assistance device. When training, I will change the weights regularly depending on a number of factors:

Number of reps in set (1, 3, 5)
Hold I am using (Jug, Crimp, Sloper)
Fatigue

The last one is important. You can train whilst tired, but it's up to you to assess how your body feels and how to appropriately act in the situation e.g. after a hard days work you feel tired, lethargic and fatigued. What do you do? Make things easier for yourself and add a little extra weight to the pulley to assist your session. You would do the same when climbing by dropping the grade.

The pulley device can equally be used just as well if attached to your harness for two handed assistance on a fingerboard or pull up bar.

Deadhangs

My favourite exercise for training maximum finger strength. A deadhang is quite easily described as a straight arm (or bent arm) hang off a hold without moving or engaging in any pull up activity. Good posture includes tensed shoulders (not relaxed laying back).

I like to hang with a series of straight and bent arm hangs at varying angles (120, 90, full lock) of varying sizes of holds aiming for a maximum time of around 8-10 seconds. Ideally you want to be working between the 5-8 second threshold to maximise the strength training response from your body. If you're hanging for longer then you are working a completely different thing. Too short a time and your body doesn't have enough time to realise there is a stimulus upon which to act upon.

Deadhangs are useful for working different grip types. In a session I would aim to do a few different sets using Full Crimp, Open Hand, Slopers and Pockets. Pinches are harder to work on most fingerboards (most don't have them), but finding a good set of pinches to hang off on a bouldering wall is not that hard to do.

Like the pull ups, the use of a pulley device is a very welcome assistance. I like to do one arm deadhangs on a fingerboard as the holds are generally too positive to allow that 5-8 second hang time.

Note: An important thing to remember with any fingerboard training is not to jump into it straight away. Allow for a breaking in period (4-8 weeks) to allow yourself to get used to the exercises and find a good structure for each session. The best strength gains are made when fresh, so don't bother training when you are broken after 3 hours bouldering.

Finally, If you are unsure at all if you are ready, consult a coach at your local climbing wall or give me a shout at robz@robbiephillips.co.uk and I would be happy to help you make the right choices.

Happy Training Folks! Get Psyched for Summer!

Monthly Training Plan:

Weekly Sessions Session 1
(Power/Endurance - 3x2's)
Session 2
(Strength/Power - Boulders)
Session 3
(Power/Endurance - Circuits's)
Special Notes
Week 1
Focus - Power/Endurance
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Hard Routes (Redpoint or Onsight
3x2's @ level 4/5
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Project Problems (20mins on each)
Fingerboard
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Hard Routes (Redpoint or Onsight
3x2's @ level 4/5
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Feet on features to make any routes or boulders harder
Week 2
Focus - Power/Endurance
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Hard Routes (Redpoint or Onsight
3x2's @ level 4/5
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Project Problems (20mins on each)
Fingerboard
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Hard Routes (Redpoint or Onsight
3x2's @ level 4/5
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Feet on features to make any routes or boulders harder
Week 3
Focus - Power/Endurance
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Hard Routes (Redpoint or Onsight
3x2's @ level 4/5
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Project Problems (20mins on each)
Fingerboard
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Hard Routes (Redpoint or Onsight
3x2's @ level 4/5
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Feet on features to make any routes or boulders harder
Week 4
Focus - Power/Endurance
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Hard Routes (Redpoint or Onsight
3x2's @ level 4/5
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Project Problems (20mins on each)
Fingerboard
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Warm Up (Heart Rate / Dynamic Stretches / Regeneration)
3 x Hard Routes (Redpoint or Onsight
3x2's @ level 4/5
Cool Down (Regeneration / Static Stretches)
Feet on features to make any routes or boulders harder


+Robbie Phillips, 162 kb
Robbie Phillips
UKC Articles, May 2011
© Will Carroll

Robbie Phillips is a Climbing Coach based in Edinburgh. Robbie has produced a detailed series of coaching and training articles for us at UKClimbing.com - due to be published over the next few weeks.

Robbie - who has climbed F8b+ and onsighted multiple F8as - coaches several members of the British Junior Team and also gives private coaching at EICA Ratho.

"I don't claim to know everything there is to know about training and becoming a better rock climber - no-one really does for that matter - yet I am always learning and my enthusiasm for the sport has brought me very far indeed. I have traveled the world climbing outdoors and taking part in competitions and I have helped coach some of Britain's top youth competition climbers such as Natalie Berry, William Bosi and Angus Davidson."

  • See his website for more details.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Robbie Phillips:


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