Neil Gresham reflects on training throughout lockdown and what the climbing community learnt from embracing new training ideas.
As the news unfolded, climbing was the last of our concerns but as lockdown kicked in, it soon dawned on us that we were to be deprived of our regular fixes of the activity we rely on heavily for physical and mental health. The mood was one of great uncertainty. What would be the consequences of not climbing for so long? Would we slowly get weaker, lose motivation and generally lose the plot?
No doubt everyone's experience of lockdown was different but few would have predicted the extraordinary outcome that we are witnessing now. Spectacular success stories are flooding in from climbers of all levels, who have exploded out of lockdown onto the crags and achieved PBs. Whilst we might expect this from the pros, many of whom had access to woody boards or climbing walls during lockdown, the exciting part is that this is coming predominantly from intermediates, who only had access to a hangboard and rudimentary gym equipment during lockdown. In this article I will be examining what went on in all those spare bedrooms, garages and porches during lockdown in an attempt to explain the current trend. We will also be hearing first-hand from leading coaches and physiotherapists to see if there are lessons that we can apply to our climbing in the future.
Lockdown kicks in
First, let's wind back to the start of lockdown. As bleak as the picture seemed, it soon became apparent that there was hidden potential in the situation. Buster Martin and Jim Pope, two of Britain's top sport climbers, have recently formed a coaching business called Kaizen climbing. They were quick to spot the chance to help their clients to get focused, as Buster explains:
'I think for many people lockdown actually made climbing more important in their lives; an escape from work and the reality of the situation. As much as the world was experiencing an awful situation, there was a silver lining. Climbers are often too worried about maintaining a high level of performance all year round, rarely taking stock and having a proper training period working on weaknesses and making long term gains. With outdoor climbing and gyms being off the cards, the perfect opportunity arose to train without the distraction of performance.' Buster Martin (Kaizen climbing)
Another coach who saw opportunities at the start of lockdown was Sheffield-based, elite boulderer, David Mason:
'Some of my clients had frustrations because they had been training hard for projects, trips or competitions and all of sudden these weren't happening. However, we just adapted their programmes to use the equipment that they had at home and went from there. Clients who had been building to a peak actually had periods of rest, as lockdown was perfect for this.' David Mason
No doubt the potential was on the table for climbers to get stuck in with home training, yet many were nervous about taking the plunge. I know from coaching in the field that many climbers are fundamentally uncertain about basic hangboarding protocol, which grips to use, how much rest to take and how to structure a plan. It can be daunting to navigate the ocean of disjointed training info online and a lot of climbers felt bamboozled at the prospect. In response to this, many coaches started posting informative content, that was user-friendly and relevant to the current situation. Most of these coaches also offered generic or customised plans. Buster Martin was one of them:
'During deep lockdown, people wanted short, sweet and simple sessions that they could fit in on a small break from working at home, rather than taking on long, complicated sessions where the pull of the sofa and a beer might be too tempting.' Buster Martin (Kaizen climbing)
Yet in spite of all this new information and the availability of plans, there were still no guarantees that climbers would be able to overcome the obvious psychological hurdle of training alone at home. Mr Motivator himself, Louis Parkinson runs Catalyst Coaching in London and was one of the coaches who really understood the motivational challenges of lockdown.
'The issue of finding motivation was putting a stop to training for a lot of climbers... so we started running daily, free, live workout sessions, and WOW are they a lot of fun! Every day, myself or one of the other Catalyst Coaches run a live workout via Zoom, with tonnes of regulars joining in and smashing out exercises with us. We've built a really strong community in these sessions. I struggled with motivation for my own training during lockdown, but knowing that I had a load of friendly, psyched climbers waiting on Zoom made all the difference!' Louis Parkinson
Having delivered a few Livestream sessions myself on Osprey Europe's Instagram, I can only agree that they really brought something new and special to the climbing community. I don't think anyone would have predicted that climbers would end up feeling more united as a result of lockdown but in many ways this was the case, albeit via digital platforms.
If quality training information was available during lockdown and motivation was less of an issue than we feared, the big question is, how could home training have made such a huge difference to climbers like Sydney Braten, who followed one of my plans.
'I made more progress in 6 weeks of not climbing and only following the home program than I did over 3-4months of climbing 4 days a week.' Sydney Braten
Of course, it's always easy to explain things in hindsight, but looking back over the years, I can see that there are two main factors that have caused most of the significant breakthroughs in my own climbing and the clients I've worked with. The first is when there has been a major change in the approach to training and the second is when an enforced period of time out has caused motivation to sky-rocket. Put these two together (which is precisely what happened in lockdown) and you have a major formula for success on the table.
The role of hangboarding in lockdown
The vast majority of climbers only had access to a hangboard during lockdown. At a glance, you would think that three months of dead hanging and pull-ups would only serve to make people struggle even more with their technique and head game. But how many times have we heard that we need to change our game in order to keep improving? The backdrop is that the indoor climbing experience is becoming increasingly comfortable and familiar as our bodies adapt to the same old rhythm of simply 'trying the latest blue circuit'. When climbing is served up on a silver plate, it is all too easy to forget to ask ourselves those tough diagnostic questions, which facilitate continuous improvement.
Historically, climbers have been too quick to dismiss hangboards, perhaps because they so rarely give them a fair chance to work. You know how it goes, you tell yourself - 'I must do more hangboarding' – so you do it frantically for a week then sack it off and go back to climbing. Hangboards have also been demonised unfairly for causing injuries, which is no surprise when so many home-users avoid warming-up or worse still, they train on a so-called 'rest day'. But as soon as you make a pact to take it seriously and follow a proper plan, hangboarding can cause amazing things to happen, provided the climber concerned knows fundamentally how to climb. Buster Martin of Kaizen Climbing soon saw this trend developing:
'Basic strength training becomes more efficient and effective with high quality, high-intensity sessions. During lockdown, climbers were able to really focus on getting strong fingers and recover well between sessions without tiring themselves out with junk miles on the walls. And factors like more time for sleep, less stress (for some) and choosing when they train can make a big difference over a few months of training.' Buster Martin (Kaizen climbing)
One of the main advantages of hangboarding is that it provides the best way to address the gripping imbalances, which develop naturally in virtually all climbers. We all tend to grip the holds the way that feels easiest (for example, either open or fully-crimped) and we often avoid our 'bogey-holds' altogether (such as slopers or small crimps). This results in weaknesses such as an inability to keep the index finger straight when half-crimping, or a disparity in strength between the 'front 3' fingers (index, middle, ring) and 'back 3' (middle, ring, pinky), or a weakness on slopers, and so on.
These weaknesses are by no means trivial and can have a catastrophic effect on our performance. As Dan Varian of Beastmaker once said to me, 'For many climbers, finger strength is like a skyscraper built on a marsh!' Where hangboards fit in is that they enable us to go back to basics and rebuild stable, versatile finger strength. Once we remove the objective of 'getting to the top', which is inherent in climbing, we can focus on training with good form, to achieve things that really will make a tangible difference.
The other huge value of hangboarding is that it enables us to track our progress. Our usual measures are the climbing grades, which are subjective at best, and when we break a new one, we often question whether this was due to improvements in strength or skill and fundamentally, whether it was soft-touch! Yet if you can deadhang on a smaller edge for longer then you've got stronger – it's that simple. It is this aspect of the training that becomes so addictive and which switched on the light for so many climbers during lockdown, as London-based coach Robin O'Leary explains:
'The key is making sure there is an upward trend in the training. If one of my clients hit a plateau during lockdown we would work out whether changes or rest were needed for the adaptations to continue. Some like super simple plans and some like variation, but all have to see progression'. Robin O'Leary
A further exciting development in lockdown was that so many climbers started benchmarking themselves for the first time. Most who signed up for programs or wrote their own, realised that they needed a starting point from which to identify weaknesses and set goals. There has been so much hype and hearsay surrounding benchmarking in recent years, yet climbers soon realised that this is something you can do easily yourself, at home on a hangboard. Benchmarking doesn't have to be about comparing yourself to others, the main use is for self-to-self comparison in order to see if you've improved. And there are simply countless examples of climbers blowing their benchmarking scores out of the window during lockdown. For example, one of Buster Martin and Jim Pope's clients, Alessio, was able to reduce 12kg of assistance to 6kg and had this to say:
'It felt great to work on my finger strength with some solid structure and make good gains in a fairly short time. The lockdown allowed me to focus on this aspect of my climbing, which I may not have done otherwise.' Alessio (client of Kaizen Climbing)
One of my clients, Frazer Jarvis told a very similar story towards the end of lockdown:
'I have to say the gains are pretty incredible - I've gone from not being able to hang the smallest edges on the Beastmaker 1000 to now comfortably doing 6 full reps, all with strict form and no finger slippage! The plan is really keeping me going during these crazy times.' Frazer Jarvis
Benchmarking is undoubtedly a valuable tool if used in context, however comparisons with others are of limited value in a sport as complex and multifaceted as climbing and if taken too far, the whole thing can be a strain on mental health. Add to the mix that so many climbers were spending a lot of time on social media and there was scope for some to lose their way. With so little else to do, a few were simply over-analysing things and at times you could see the frustrations building on forums. Some seemed to be getting 'down' on their scores whilst at the same time, searching for the illusory 'perfect routine'. Yet even if there was such a thing, it would soon expire and need to be changed.
The crucial point is that climbing performance is not won or lost over minutiae of hangboarding protocol. The main chunk of the value comes simply from sticking to the basics, drip-feeding the training in regular increments and seeing your plan through safely. The subtle differences between routines and benchmark scores end up feeling somewhat irrelevant when you step out onto a big crag. On reflection, lockdown was hugely beneficial for teaching climbers how the various forms of training fit into the overall scheme of things.
Home facility fever!
There's no doubt that climbers became incredibly resourceful in adapting and modernising their home facilities during lockdown. In the past, for most, a hangboard was something that you shoved in a dusty corner and ignored, yet lockdown taught people to take pride in their facilities! Many simply fell in love with home training for the first time and I lost count of the number of climbers who fed back to me that they were surprised just how much they were enjoying themselves! Buster Martin of Kaizen climbing found the same:
'What was most motivating was climbers' ability to make the best out of a bad situation. Climbers were working away with improvised equipment and facilities, making ridiculous strength gains. It felt like basic old school training done on cellars years ago, and it was motivating to think back to those guys in the 80s and 90s training with basic equipment and making huge gains.' Buster Martin (Kaizen climbing)
Overall it seemed that climbers were getting stronger on mass during lockdown but the big question was whether this would translate into improvements on the crag or indoor walls. London-based coach Robin Oleary had this to report:
'I have seen breakthroughs in all of my clients since lockdown. Over 35 climbers ranging from 8 years old to 60 from all over the world. Most people climbing a first of a given grade be it in bouldering, sport or trad, and I've had a fair few go up multiple grades. I put a lot of this down to finger strength. Other than technique, it is the foundation of everything else. You cannot build endurance without being able to hold a hold in the first place.' Robin O'Leary
I also saw this trend on mass amongst the climbers I worked with during lockdown. For example, Karl Krick had a reasonably well developed skill-set pre-lockdown and thus was able to cash in on his training gains immediately:
'I am finding it much easier to send my projects now, more often than not on the following day of trying. The holds are feeling more positive and I have the time to analyze the grip I have on the holds, allowing me to concentrate what happens on the crux moves and flow through the easier sections.' Karl Krick
Louis Parkinson of Catalyst Climbing reports the same thing:
'I've seen more success for students getting back onto the rock than I would have expected! For example, the captain of the Catalyst Junior Team managed her first 7A+ boulder on Gritstone almost as soon as lockdown was lifted. It can't be possible that our technique and movement skills have improved over lockdown, so my only explanation is that everyone has become orders of magnitude stronger than they were before to compensate for climbing as though they're made of wood!' Louis Parkinson
Strength-conditioning in lockdown
A further aspect of lockdown training that contributed to the success story was that so many climbers started doing more supportive conditioning than normal. Suddenly, antagonist and flexibility sessions were the main event rather than something you dabble with half-heartedly when you happen to remember. Over the years I've lost count of the number of times I have seen climbers come back stronger after breaking a bone and throwing themselves into a conditioning routine for several months. Buster and David would seem to agree:
'We also encouraged people to undertake some proper strength and conditioning, working with weights, either with proper setups or ghetto gyms. The point of that was to help build body strength, shoulder stability and a generally healthy body to reduce risk of injury so they could hit the climbing hard but safely when the opportunity came around.' Buster Martin
'Quite a few came out of lockdown feeling much more robust in their bodies and fingers due to the extra time spent conditioning, stretching and generally looking after their body.' David Mason
Movement and mindset during lockdown
It's clear that climbers were able to improve the physical aspects of performance during lockdown, but what about the skill side? Many were anxious about losing ground with technique and mental performance and unsure whether there was any point in improvising with abstract exercises. Louis Parkinson specialises in movement coaching and had this to say:
'At first, I found it very difficult to help people to work on their movement during lockdown - as I was struggling too! In my tiny flat, I barely had space to do a star jump but I came up with loads of on-the-spot balance, coordination and momentum challenges, and distilled these into a 60-minute workout. This made a real difference and on my first session back, I hadn't lost any sharpness on coordination-style problems and many of my clients had the same experience.' Louis Parkinson
Buster and Jim of Kaizen also had this area on their radar:
'Kaizen takes a holistic approach, so we still got people working on mindset and movement during lockdown, as well as the physical aspects of performance. We maintained regular dialogue with clients to help them find good perspectives, as well as giving them themes to work on when they started climbing outside post-lockdown to improve their focus and confidence.' Buster Martin
Lockdown and injuries
We all have a natural tendency to jump in at the deep-end with training. At the start of lockdown, I made a post on Instagram urging climbers not to explode off the blocks and to pace themselves. Sadly one or two responded by saying I was too late. The crucial advice was to start with a phase of 'base strength' before moving on to more intense maximum-strength' work, as David explains:
'At the start of lockdown, I had concerns about injuries due to the change in training style and people doing too much due to boredom. Starting with less load and adding more if necessary is much better than overloading someone at the very beginning.' David Mason
Another exciting development in lockdown was the increased uptake of online physio consultation sessions on Skype and FaceTime. These are a fantastic resource and it is not always necessary to see a physio face-to-face in order to receive a diagnosis and rehab plan. Here's a report from British-Columbia-based physio, Nina Tappin (formerly Nina Leonfellner):
'I was so impressed to see the influx of climbers' interest from all over the world in online physiotherapy consultations (AKA "tele-rehab") during this pandemic. Climbers were keen on bettering themselves by investing in training and rehabilitation plans and educating themselves on how to be healthier, better climbers. Many wanted to work on niggling issues that they had been too busy to address before the pandemic. This was great.
'When I returned to the clinic, I did see some cases of "Covid home training", namely - finger, elbow and shoulder injuries from climbers who did not follow prescribed programmes and were experimenting with training principles, or just plain overdoing it! Some were jumping into repeater-style fingerboarding without building a strength base first and I also saw more climber running injuries than normal!' Nina Tappin
Another physiotherapist who was on-hand to guide climbers through the murky waters of lockdown training was London-based Cristiano Costa.
'From what I experienced the overall rate of injuries was much lower during lockdown, considering most climbers did not have access to a climbing wall, which would certainly account for traumatic injuries related to poor landings. Some clients developed issues related to overloading, mainly in fingers, shoulders and elbows, in that order of incidence, where frequency of loading was the main factor.
'Some climbers correctly saw lockdown as a perfect opportunity to work hard on their training, nevertheless, our connective tissue needs time to adapt to the load and rest must be considered. Through video calls, it was relatively straight forward to identify most if not all the contributing factors and address them. I helped clients to ascertain their optimum load in rehab and provided as much support as I was able to. Overall it has been a steep learning curve and a very successful one given the feedback and the results achieved.' Cristiano Costa
It may sound contrary but the process which Nina and Cristiano describe was yet another good thing that came out of lockdown. So many climbers simply learnt how to manage injuries more effectively, and no doubt this will enable a more refined and productive approach to training in the future.
The motivation explosion
During lockdown, there was a growing sentiment that we needed to make it count when we next got out onto the crags. A few days after lockdown was lifted, I found myself sat below a new E8 trad route at Iron Crag in the Lake District. It was laughable how poorly prepared I felt, having not worn a pair of climbing shoes for 3 months, but it just felt amazing to be out there. I consciously remembered Dave MacLeod's legendary advice, which is that we hardly ever feel well prepared, so instead, we should simply focus on climbing the route. This was what I did, and it worked. After lockdown, many climbers felt relaxed, well-rested and had low expectations and no doubt this produced some good results!
What have we learnt from lockdown?
Lockdown simply gave climbers the mother of all motivational boosts and taught them how to train properly. Training isn't just about going to the climbing gym and kidding yourself that you're trying hard. It's about developing a deep understanding of this unique activity and the way your body responds to it. It's about differentiating between what you want to do and what you need to do in order to improve. It's about taking control periodically and having the discipline and fortitude to really break barriers. Above all else, the things that were achieved in lockdown spanned way beyond mere climbing performances, the process was undoubtedly a triumph of human spirit and endeavour – a collection of thousands of individual efforts which were made greater still by the sum of the parts.
'For many people, simply maintaining their previous level of strength, or staying mentally positive through such a difficult period was a HUGE success, and something I was very proud to be able to play a small role in.' Louis Parkinson
'It seemed like it took a few weeks for people to remember how to move on rock and get over the weirdness of actually being back at the crag. Most have just been enjoying being out again, seeing people and trying hard on rock. I guess this shows their commitment to their training during the lockdown period.' David Mason
On behalf of all the contributors to this article, I wish everyone a swift and safe return to climbing at local gyms and out on the crags.
Cristiano Costa @cristianocosta11
David Mason @davidmason85
Neil Gresham is widely regarded as one of the world's leading voices in performance coaching for climbing. He has been coaching and writing regular training articles for national magazines since 1993 and has pioneered many of the methods that are used widely by coaches today. Neil is the current training columnist for UKClimbing.com and Rock & Ice in the USA.
He has climbed E10 trad, WI 7 on ice and in 2016 he climbed his first 8c+ at the age of 45 when he made the first ascent of Sabotage 8c+ at Malham Cove. Neil puts all his successes down to hard work, motivation and refinement of his game. He believes that work and family commitments don't need to limit our climbing goals provided we are focused and make the best possible use of our training time.
Key components of Neil's training programmes
- All programmes are based on response to a detailed questionnaire and are aimed at the ability level, weaknesses, strengths, goals and lifestyle constraints of each individual.
- Programmes can also be based on the results of optional benchmarking tests. See 'benchmarking' on this site.
- Programmes can be for all-round performance or geared towards different climbing styles: bouldering, sport, trad or competitions. They can also be targeted towards goals, weaknesses, trips or projects.
- You can choose between a full training programme (which includes all aspects of training) or a 'fingerboard-only' training programmes. Fingerboard programmes include advice on how to fit the sessions in with other climbing and training.
- SKILLS: Neil Gresham Technique And Training: Improve Your Movement 10 Jan
- SKILLS: Posture in Climbing 27 Sep, 2019
- SKILLS: Using Undercuts and Sidepulls 8 Aug, 2019
- SKILLS: Handholds and Grip Technique - Part 3 5 Jun, 2019
- SKILLS: Handholds and Grip Technique - Part 2 3 May, 2019
- SKILLS: Handholds and Grip Technique - Part 1 27 Mar, 2019
- SKILLS: Toe-Hooking and Clamping 7 Jan, 2019
- SKILLS: Technique - Heel Hooking 12 Oct, 2018
- DESTINATION GUIDE: Hodge Close Quarry - An Unlikely DWS Paradise 30 Aug, 2018
- SKILLS: Technique - Use of the Toe 28 Jun, 2018