In his first article of the Board Climbing series, Neil covered warming up and now he looks at different training methods that can be used:
For those climbing in the V3-5 range, board training represents the gateway to tackling steeper and more powerful climbs. In the first article in this series, we looked at how to get started and warm-up and now it's time to focus on the training. There are, of course, many approaches to training for climbing. This is my take on the subject and it's always worth reading around to see how other climbers and coaches do things.
For strength training purposes, many climbers will look at 3 different 'levels' or types of board session. The criteria are loose-fitting here:
1. Base-strength or high volume - In these sessions the goal is to complete, say, 30 - 40 problems (including warm-ups), most of which are flashed, and the hardest ones may be done in a handful of tries. It's common to use a pyramid structure where you build up through the grades and then back down. Digi-boards are particularly helpful for these sessions, to minimize the hassle in memorizing problems.
2. 'Mid volume', sessions - Here, after doing your warm-up problems, you may choose to try, say, 5 - 12 hard problems at the peak of session. The easiest ones you'll do in a couple of tries and the hardest may take up to half a dozen tries, but they will all be too hard to flash.
3. Max strength or 'project' bouldering – In these sessions, after warming up you will pick, say, 1 – 4 projects that are so hard that you can barely do individual moves on first acquaintance and work them over time in hope of doing them after say 2 – 6 sessions of effort.
Note here that no one type of sessions is 'best' for producing gains and they all have a place as part of a structured plan, as we'll see later in the next article.
Many board newcomers are not sure how to go about setting their own problems or even if there is any point in doing so; yet this is an essential skill which makes you more creative and free-thinking as a climber. First up, don't just get on the board and try to climb onsight and instead, have a good look beforehand and plan something out. Feel the holds as you go and let your imagination take you on a journey, but don't get carried away and go too wild and whacky as the problem is unlikely to work. Then try the moves. For mid-volume strength sessions, you should be able to do the individuals moves in say, a couple of tries or even link 2 or 3 moves together on your first go but not flash the problem. For max intensity project sessions, you should be able to touch the target hold or at least get close to it during your first session. It's unlikely to come together if the move feels miles away.
When setting, if a move is too easy, tweak it by reaching further, going to a smaller or more sloping adjacent handhold or using a smaller foothold. Conversely, if it's too hard then adjust it by not reaching quite as far and/or using a larger or more in-cut handhold or foothold. Be aware that setting a new problem is always tiring and you may need to return to it next session to get a true idea of how hard it is. If you don't have a Digi-board then record the problems in a training log-book using the numbering system.
Many who are new to setting will find it tricky to set to a certain grade and it helps to have a more descriptive, adjectival scale to set to. Here's an example for a particular climber whose maximum 'project' grade is V6:
(V0-1) Easy - "first level warm-ups", on jugs
(V2-3) Medium - "second and third level warm-ups", eg: on medium/large in-cut positive finger holds.
(V3-4) Hard - "your flash limit", on smaller or more sloping holds. Suitable for volume-based strength sessions.
(V4-5) Very hard – "easy project level", eg: doable in one session / 2 - 3 moves do-able consecutively on first try.
(V6+): Project level - not doable in a session, maybe possible in 2 – 6 sessions / individual moves 'just-about' do-able; eg: in 2 - 6 tries.
Aesthetics are a valuable part of board training. It's not just about doing hard moves but creating elegant problems that flow, so get creative and take pride in your work! To set a problem that feels interesting and varied, try selecting different holds; for example, use pinches, slopers and in-cut edges in the same problem. Avoid defaulting to ladder-style pulling on horizontal holds and instead go for side-pulls, gastons and undercuts, which will create interesting movement by forcing your body in different directions. Try introducing a cross-over or a move where you have to match a hold – although make sure the hold is wide enough otherwise it will be pretty unpleasant. There are no rules but the more you set the more you'll develop a sense for moves that 'feel' really good to climb.
Symmetrical boards bring a fantastic advantage to board training by allowing a mirror image of every problem to be created. The aim is to set a problem, work it, climb it, then flip it and try to climb the mirrored version. This is incredible for detecting weaknesses between right and left side; for example, if you manage a hard undercut move with your right arm, mirror the problem and see if you can do the same move with your left arm. If you find that you can't then your left bicep may need some attention!
The mirror feature also creates scope for testing skill and technique in volume-based sessions. For example, you can rack up the mirrored versions of several problems that you've done before (and which are close to your limit) and try to 'flash' the mirror or do it as quickly as you can. In theory, you should know the moves but in practice, you'll find that it's not quite so simple and your coordination and muscle-memory will be tested to the limit.
System-symmetrical boards offer further scope for structured training by grouping holds together in themed ladder-tracks. This means that you can do problems that emphasise the same types of hold repeatedly, whether edges, slopers, pinches or pockets. Alternatively, you can focus on the same type of move in succession, such as undercuts, side-pulls, or gastons (note that this is determined by the orientation of the hold). You can increase the focus on weaker styles simply by doing more work on them and also by training them first in sessions. Note also that you may find that you need longer rests between attempts at your weaker styles than stronger styles.
To structure sessions, divide them into blocks of time which are devoted to each specific type of hold or move. There won't be time and energy for everything so you'll need to rotate the various options. A typical session might be split into 4 - 6 blocks of 20-30 minutes each, where you would work on the following:
A goal of a system training session might be to work on wide and narrow pinches, each grouped together in different problems.
A further way of structuring sessions and splitting problems into themes, which can be done on any board, is to set problems that only involve short, snatchy moves on very poor fingerholds, (which are typically set using the larger footholds) or long powerful jumps between larger holds (which are usually set using smaller footholds). It's logical to work the more fingery problems in the first part of the session and then to move onto the more arm-based power problems once your fingers are slightly past their best.
A further option is to try the footless problems to work purely on arm and upper-body power.
To really hone in on weaknesses or goals you can perform system-style exercises by holding static positions on the board, as if deadhanging, but using your feet. For example, if you want to be strong on undercuts with your arm locked at 90 degrees, then hold that position. Use similar protocol as for deadhanging (i.e., do '1-rep maxes' of 6 to 12 seconds for recruitment or do 3 – 5 static holds of 6 – 8 seconds in a row with 3 or 4 secs in between, equivalent to 'max hangs').
To improve lock-off strength, try hovering over the target handhold and holding the lock for a few seconds, but go carefully with this type of training as there are pitfalls. Avoid holding full lock-offs (with the arms fully bent) as it places excessive strain on the elbows and instead, keep the arm somewhere between 90 and 45 degrees. Some climbers will set an arbitrary rule that they must keep their hips parallel to the board when doing these exercises but clearly here, there is the risk of engraining bad technique habits. The important thing is simply to be aware of this and to do plenty of dynamic work and side-on climbing (with drop-knees etc) to balance the books.
A further variation is to pick a position that you struggle to hold and try to lower yourself downwards through the move as slowly as possible.
All board climbing places massive emphasis on core strength and the ability to keep your feet on small footholds; however, to further increase the focus on this area, you can perform specific drills. For example, try deliberately cutting your feet loose in a controlled way, between each move, and then replacing them but remember not to climb like this when you're not 'training'!
Another brutally effective exercise is to plant your feet on two footholds at approximately equal height and then to 'walk' your hands up the board, stretching up as high as you can and then holding the position until, eventually, your feet pop.
Specific core-drills can be mixed into board sessions.
One of the most powerful and effective ways board training can be used is to unlock projects on rock. By setting a replica of the crux of a route or boulder problem, not only will you be training the specific strength required for each move, but there is also a huge psychological advantage for building confidence and the required mindset for success.
Simply by spending so much time working the moves, you'll feel more familiar with things when you get back on your project and will experience the sensation that your body is 'programmed' for the task. I've used this tactic countless times myself over the years and would say that it has played a key role in virtually every hard route I've ever climbed.
When climbing outdoors we often encounter tweaky or painful holds or moves which can place awkward and potentially damaging stresses on our body. The important thing is not to shy away from these types of move in training and in fact, we can use boards for preparation, providing we are cautious and strategic.
Categorisation of higher-risk moves:
Examples of potentially high-risk moves are as follows, although every problem is case-by-case and it also depends on the susceptibility of the individual climber (ie: whether you have a weakness in a particular area):
Guidelines for working higher-risk moves: