Why Just Climbing a Lot isn’t the Solution for Everyone

photo by Greg Shyloski

photo by Greg Shyloski

You’ve probably heard, like I have, a lot of professionals claim their only training is to climb high volumes. If you climb 5 times a week, you’ll be a better climber. Climbing is the only way to get stronger at climbing. I don’t need training, I just climb. Now that may work for some people, but even those it does work for, most likely aren’t telling you the whole story. Here are some things to factor in when thinking about if merely climbing will work for you.

1. Developing bad habits. Some people start out climbing with some bad habits. The main reason for this is that they do not know any better. The bad habits almost always serve or at least appear to serve some function. You might do things that keep you from falling or at least feeling less likely to fall for instance. Think about those climbers who scream “take” and wait for you to tighten the rope before each fall. Now, there are some obvious reasons people may need to do this. Maybe there is a problem they noticed, maybe they are projecting and need to look at the next portion, maybe they are gradually working towards a fear of heights or falling, etc. As a bad habit it is different. People say “take” when feeling a little tired, unsure, or weak instead of actually trying the move which is needed for improvement. People say “take” instead of really falling so they never have to actually get over a fear of falling.

Another bad habit commonly seen is people who are strong enough not to worry about good footwork. I have seen plenty of climbers campus or muscle their way through sections because they can’t keep their feet from cutting and when you’re that strong, why bother? While it is impressive to watch, there certainly is a value in footwork. Especially if you are striving to be a quality all around climber.

josh bishop

As a final example, let’s use people who have no idea how to warm up or cool down. They head to the gym and jump right on their projects or do maybe one or two easy climbs before. Then they climb hard until completely spent and call it a night.

Now formalized training might not be the key to all these problems, but just climbing isn’t either. These problems will not simply get climbed out of you. For some people they might, but for others these problems will hold them back from fully unlocking their potential. Whether you start training or not, you at least have to think about your climbing. Professionals may do this, but their simplistic phrases of just climb aren’t covering it to it a beginner who won’t know better.

You have to keep an eye out for bad habits and try to catch them early on, because increasing your climbing volume without noticing, may make them a lot harder to get rid of. The more we engage with a habit and the longer we do, the harder it is to drop. Once you notice your habit, there is almost always a training method to help you out.

For instance, those people who scream “take” need to figure out what is keeping them from wanting to progress. If it is a fear of falling, that can be worked out by practice falls and knowing how to fall well. I’ll be honest that I’m scared of falling, because an important consideration is that you might and probably won’t get over it fast. I still take practice falls when projecting new boulders. I fall from each move and position, until I build up confidence. Some days I’ll go back to that same climb and need to do this over. It depends on how weird the positions are, how high, or how uncertain the fall feels. However, I’m grateful to practice falls and knowing how to fall, because while it might take me a long time, I do that climb. I don’t look at it and turn the other way without ever trying. I am becoming a much stronger climber because I will get on new and more challenging things instead of giving up. I was stuck climbing 5.10 and V2 for a long time, just because of this. I never realized it. I climbed until it felt hard. Now that I’m pushing past it, I realized my body can go well beyond “it feels hard.” Yes climbing volumes is helping me progress, but I needed to pay attention and do some training first.

me climbing 2

If you are screaming “take” because you are tired, then you probably need to learn how to shake out instead. You can practice it and “train” for it. Climbing a lot, will likely increase your endurance. However, it will be slow, gradual, and to a point. If you watch professionals climb, they are shaking out constantly. This is a skill you need to know, but might not have thought of before. When I first tried shaking out, I thought it was stupid because it made me feel so much more tired. I was doing it wrong. Shaking out is helpful, but you need to know things like the right positions to be in, holds you really can do it from, and how long your body needs you to do it. Practice shaking out on easy climbs. Position your body in multiple ways to try the same shake out and feel how different it is. What happens when you throw a heel up, what happens when you flag, what happens when you hang low with the hand still holding, what happens when your other hand is locked off? How different does it feel on a crimp, jug, sloper, or pinch? What about flat wall vs overhang? You need to try it out in a lot of ways. Practice different lengths of time. I try to go on easy climbs and force myself to shake out every so often, even when it is not needed.

2. Sometimes we really just need to be stronger. Let’s think of core, finger, and shoulder strength. All of these will naturally increase somewhat with a lot of climbing. However, training will offer quicker and more successful gains. At one point, I was lacking in core strength to the point where I couldn’t even do a cave V0. I tried continuously jumping on that climb, but it didn’t make me any better. There is something to say for getting actual strength. Now that I’ve tried some core strengthening and training myself to learn different positions that harness that strength the best, I can do much more.

Every strength I’ve trained, I’ve noticed fast and very real results. I can’t imagine having ever gotten to this point with just climbing. I needed to get that strength and trying moves that required it at an easy level just wasn’t enough. Training helps us build up strength in areas we are struggling with.

3. Technique. Just climbing a lot will probably increase your technique due to the fact that you will hit areas you realize you need to do something unique with and you’ll probably play around until you figure something out. If you want better technique, climbing a lot is part of the answer. The “part” is big though. It is completely possible you will try and try, get burnt out of trying, and never learn what to do. Learning different techniques can be helpful. It is always great to try your own crazy stuff because we often like seeing how differently different people climb. However, there is value in learning some basics too. For instance, knowing how to do a drop knee, heel hook, back flag, etc are techniques a beginner might see and not necessarily grasp right away how to mimic them. They also may struggle to learn them on the spot when they are at their limit and really struggling. Knowing to learn them on easier climbs and being able to recognize when they would help, makes a difference. I climbed for a long time without anyone telling me a technique and without the thought to research them. You don’t know you can research things you don’t know are there. I would see people do these moves but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to say this move is needed here.

josh at Red Rocks

It takes some thought, practice, teaching, and learning. We can take technique classes, we can look online, we can watch other climbers, we can practice and do drills. All these things are helpful and are a bit more than merely climbing a lot.

I thought this article was important to write because I think beginners and even more advanced climbers keep hearing to just climb more. Climbing a lot has it’s value and I have no intentions of taking away from that. I just think that you cannot get to your best with only climbing. You need to think about things, be able to see things, learn more, practice things, learn drills, training, and different resources. I think constantly hearing to just climb more, brings people to frustrating plateaus in their climbing, because they are climbing a lot. It’s just that something is missing. I think we need to balance a lot of climbing, with other things. You certainly do need to climb to be able to climb after all. You just need all these other aspects with it.

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