Lecturer, writer and recent member of the 7a club, Paul Sagar, shares some tips on breaking into the 7s...
Around the time I started taking outdoor climbing seriously, a friend said to me: "Let's face it, if you can't climb 6a the first time you top-rope, you're never going to lead 7a." Back then, I thought this sounded pretty plausible. Indeed, if you currently climb in the low 6s, 7a may seem impossibly hard. I definitely used to think it was. I'd go to a crag, see people sending hard routes, and assume they'd either been climbing for decades, or were genetically gifted in a way I could never match.
But that, it turns out, is nonsense. How do I know? Because I'm living proof that with enough training and dedication, anyone can climb 7a.
Let me be clear: I have zero innate aptitude when it comes to climbing. Zilch. Nadda. When I first tried bouldering in the gym, I was hopeless. When I first top-roped, I wasn't even close to climbing 6a. I am not a strong person, and never have been. Annoyingly, I'm actually quite muscle-mass heavy, despite being weak. (If a physiologist could explain to me the science behind that combination, please do!) My forearm endurance is poor. My natural balance is a joke. My coordination is not much better.
Accordingly, my UKC logbook tells me that in August 2016, I was falling off 6a+ leads at Portland, and I couldn't top-rope a 6b clean. And yet, on a recent trip to Margalef, I sent Indian Dreams. With 27 metres of slightly over-hung, glorious pocket-pulling, capped by a stiff boulder problem, it goes at a solid 7a. (Check the UKC logbook votes if you don't believe me!)
This didn't take decades of training. In fact, it took less than two years. Again, I am not special. If I can climb this grade, so can any normal person.
One thing I've noticed, however, is how little good advice there is out there about breaking the 7a barrier. To try and make up for that, I've put together some tips I wish I'd had when I set out to up my grade.
I can't promise that if you do all of this, then you'll definitely climb 7a in under two years. It may take a longer. And indeed, for some it will come much quicker. But barring injury, and assuming a constant level of commitment, there is no reason that you can't attain what for many is a huge milestone in a climbing career.
Follow a programme
The first and most important thing is pick a proven training programme, and stick to it. Typically, programmes revolve around four core features: base fitness, strength, power, and power-endurance. A good training programme will have you working on each in different combinations and/or cycles so as to maximise performance over time.
There is some controversy as to whether periodized training is the single most effective way to train for climbing, and indeed it may not suit everybody. What we can say for sure is that even if periodization isn't the most effective method, it is definitely ONE effective method. (I completed three cycles of the Andersons' programme, and this was the most important single factor in getting to 7a.)
Of course, a training programme only works if you stick to it. This means a high level of commitment and willpower. Ultimately, though, it's just basic sport science: if you do the prescribed exercises, at the right level of intensity, on a consistent basis, you will improve.
Do Core Exercises
Climbing is an odd sport, in that massively rewards good core strength, whilst not in and of itself developing that strength very effectively. Having a stronger core, however, is essential to improving. This is because a good core helps keep tension whilst you are on the wall, helps you to use your feet better (more on this below), and thus takes the pressure off your upper body, especially your forearms.
All the best climbers have insanely strong core strength: for a classic example, watch Johnny Dawes climbing The Quarryman. Likewise, check out the recent video series from EpicTV in which Richie Patterson attempts to go from 7b+ to 8b+ in a year, with the help of Lattice Training. When Richie has a finger injury, and so can't train on his hands, what is he doing? An absolute ton of core, that's what.
So how do you get a strong core? You do core exercises. Sounds obvious, but it's easy to skip this, because working your core is boring and painful. But suck it up. 5 good core exercises, taking around 30-40 minutes, done 2 or 3 times a week, will pay enormous dividends.
There are a huge number of climbing-focused core exercises you can pick from, many of which are listed here. Also, remember that you can do core on a day when you're not climbing, as well as at the end of a session. You can even do core at home, in front of Netflix. Really, there's never an excuse not to do core. Do more core!
Improve your Footwork
Articles about how to get better at climbing always emphasise the importance of footwork. And they are right. Good footwork can be the difference between failing 6b+ and sending 7a. But training articles rarely tell you how to improve your footwork, other than vague injunctions like "be precise", or "don't more your foot once it's on the hold".
I've found two things that are especially helpful for developing good footwork. First, climb the slab. A lot. Push your grade on it. Take the falls, whether bouldering or route-climbing. This is because the slab forces you to use your feet well, punishing sloppy footwork. I recommend warming down every session with 20-30 minutes of slab – not least as training good footwork when you're tired will come in handy on project burns.
Second – and this might not be to everyone's taste, but it worked for me – spend time climbing in bad shoes. Sure, when you are at your limit, or working a project, a pair of well-designed, high-end climbing shoes are going to help a lot. But when you are doing regular training, wearing bad shoes forces you to use your feet carefully, and concentrate extra hard on technique. The flip side is that when you put on your good shoes, you will really feel the benefit.
By "bad shoes", I mean either a worn out floppy old pair, or bottom-of-the-range beginner shoes. But even then, don't get too precious. Good footwork is good footwork, whatever you're wearing. Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold climbed 5.11 pitches (that's 6b+ to 7a!) of the Fitz Traverse in approach shoes. Don't be like those kids at school who thought that if their mum bought them £120 football boots, they would turn into David Beckham. You can't buy your way to being good – only training will give you that.
Do Finger Extensor Exercises
This might seem a surprising one, but I found the benefits of antagonistic finger strength training enormous. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons for this.
The first is that the human body hates strength imbalances. Climbing puts enormous loads on the forearm finger flexor tendons (we do huge amounts of closed grip work, especially crimping) but entirely neglects the forearm extensors (because climbing does not train strength for opening the grip). After a certain point, however, the body just won't allow your flexor strength to improve unless it is compensated for by extensor strength. To tackle this, you need to do extensor exercises.
For some people, the upper-limit of their current flexor strength may be above what it takes for them to climb 7a (although it wasn't for me!), so to them the first reason won't be so important. There is, nonetheless, a second reason to do extensor training: injury prevention and recovery.
Around September 2017, I got a tear in my A2 pulley, and lots of other pulleys were niggling me and warning me to back off. After a month of rest, and a month of low-intensity endurance training, I still had a lot of tenderness in my fingers. Then I started extensor training. Within a month, all that tenderness had completely gone, and it never came back. It's possible that this was just coincidence: one person's anecdote is not conclusive scientific data. But there seems to be a decent amount of evidence that extensor training reduces the likelihood of finger injuries.
It is, therefore, worth doing – not least as you can get extensor training bands on Amazon for under £10, and can do these pretty much anywhere. Again, Netflix and training can go hand in hand! Some exercises you can do at home without the need for a band can be found here.
*Note to self, and others: Don't try to re-enact Street Fighter with your friend Hollie on her 30th Birthday in Birmingham city centre when you are drunk as a fart, because she will kick you in the hand, dislocating the PIP joint in the very finger that you just recovered from a pulley injury in, and that will put your training back by at least two months...
Seriously, you are not Ryu. Don't do it.
Use a System Board
Many training programmes prescribe using the campus board to train power (i.e. the explosive capacity to make a big, hard move to a hold and latch it successfully). The problem with the campus board is that it is very difficult to do right, and also dangerous, especially for beginners. Campusing puts a huge amount of strain on your joints, and there is the potential to do serious damage to your tendons. Adam Ondra says that you shouldn't be campusing unless you are already climbing 7b. If he says so, it's probably true.
However, you absolutely do need to train power to improve as a climber. A good alternative, therefore, is to use a system board, where you can keep your feet on, and thus avoid too many tweaky moves, but still force yourself to work hard. A system board is a panel, normally at around 40-45 degrees - with regularly spaced pairs of holds that are vertically symmetrical, the purpose being that you can quickly spot weaknesses in your movement patterns on both sides of your body. Alternatively, you can simply use the board for setting steep hard problems, which train up your power.
Clearly, system boards are ideal for system training, but not every facility will have one. If you pick your holds carefully (start on the jugs!), then any board can be made to work, provided it has big enough holds for you to use safely.
Cut out the Junk
This won't apply to everyone, but it certainly applied to me. I was 86 kilos in the summer of 2016, standing at 1.79m. That was not a climbing-optimal weight. I now hover between 74-76 kilos. Imagine somebody strapped 12 kilos to your back, and told you to climb at your limit – how much harder do you think that would make it? Exactly.
HOWEVER, it is essential to remember that weight loss can go too far. Children and adolescents should not be focusing on their weight, but rather on eating a healthy, balanced diet for growth and repair. As an adult, is possible to lose too much weight, and put yourself at risk of injury accordingly. Several of my female friends, in particular, have reported that after losing weight for climbing, they saw their injury rate rocket. As a result, they don't bother watching the scales. That's the smart thing to do. Not least because of serious issues around mental health and potential eating disorders that can develop if you become fixated on weight. It's crucial to remember that an optimal climbing weight is not to have 1% body fat (especially for women, who biologically need a higher body fat percentage than men just in order to be healthy). A healthy climbing weight is, basically, a healthy weight for any normal person. Hence, you should only look to loose weight if (like me two years ago) you're carrying what a doctor (but not necessarily a project-obsessed climber!) would consider extra pounds.
If you're are trying to lose weight at a healthy level, and are doing a training programme, you'll already be doing enough exercise to burn a lot of calories. The trick, therefore, is to eat smart at meal times, whilst resisting the temptation to snack on junk foods. You don't need to starve yourself, just eat a sensible, balanced, diet of healthy foods.
Have a reason to train
Ultimately, "7a" is just a number in a subjective grading scale, and in itself is inherently meaningless. What meaning it does have is given to it by climbers – and that ultimately means by you, as somebody who wants to climb the grade.
What this means, though, is that the abstract goal "I would like to climb 7a" is unlikely to prove a long-lasting motivation. When up against fatigue, boredom, and the desire to just have fun rather than train, you're going to need more. After all, 7a is hard, and it is going to take most people serious dedication to get there. So, you need a better reason.
For many, that reason will be an inspiring line that goes at the grade. That way, you have something concrete to visualise: yourself, clipping the chains in triumph, at the top of an awesome route, that affirms your love of moving well over quality rock.
For me, it was a little different. For the past few years, I've used training and climbing trips as a way to help manage depression. In my case, "I want to climb 7a" wasn't really about climbing 7a, but about having a goal that gave me something to focus on and train for. This helped shut out depressive thoughts about being a failure, and life being pointless. Sure, climbing is in some ways the quintessentially pointless activity. This is especially so with the goal of climbing 7a, just for the sake of it. But for me, embracing the beauty of climbing's pointlessness in this one particular regard helped distract from depressive thought patterns that might otherwise have taken control.
More recently, I've become a convert to the dark arts of trad. This, weirdly enough, helped make the 7a dream a reality. After all, if I can climb 7a, how hard will Left Wall at Dinas Cromlech really turn out to be, once I've got my gear placements fully dialled?
There's always another challenge, after all.
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