Should You be Training or Climbing More?

The idea of training to get better at climbing is really taking off. The science hasn’t necessarily caught up to what exactly works or doesn’t work, but you could easily find a hundred articles, climber’s blogs, videos, etc. that offer an idea of what works for one climber or another. There has been a trend in professional or advanced level climbers signing up with personal trainers to become overall better athletes too. This is exciting and interesting to see. In fact, just going into a local gym I can see posts of personal trainers offering to help climbers advance. Sometimes I question how qualified said trainers are, and sometimes I can handle it. The point being, training is a hot new topic. It’s an easy bandwagon to jump on too, because people crave that progression. When you first start climbing, progression is quick for most, and then reaches a point where it isn’t so quick. The problem is that some newer climbers might be perceiving their plateaus as such a bit too prematurely.

In numerous articles, the advice a professional climber gives newer hopefuls is “just keep climbing more.” This is most likely met with eye rolls, sighs, and the idea that these climbers must just be holding out on their great secret. I’ve been there before too.They aren’t necessarily wrong though. I’ve been climbing for 5 or 6 years, and while I’m not going to proclaim myself an expert, I still find new moves I’ve never done before all the time. There are a bunch of climbers who say the same. Just the act of climbing exposes you to different techniques, different moves, and different ways to look at a problem all the time. I’ve seen a lot of people, sort of give up early on this natural learning, and seek out training. It’s sad because we climb for the fact that climbing is fun, so we should let ourselves have fun with it. If you really want to train, that’s fine. Training can be fun and rewarding, but there are some things you might want to consider first.

  1. Are you really climbing a lot? I’ve seen posts or heard comments from people about how they climb all the time and they aren’t better, so climbing must not be enough. Sure, that conclusion could be true, but what is climbing a lot to you? Sometimes when I hear this, the person is referring to the fact that they’ve been climbing once a week for a year. Sure, a year of climbing does sound like a long time, but once a week might be what’s not cutting it. I know for me personally, switching from just climbing once a week as a friend hang out activity, to seriously climbing 2-3 times a week was enough to see sudden progress. Most work outs or athletic activities encourage you to do them a few times a week, with respect to the body needing to rest sometimes. Most sports team practices are a few times a week, and most workout plans will tell you a few times a week. You also want to consider what your climbing time is like. Are you talking with friends and hanging out, while giving a few tries on whatever climb you decide to work on together? Or are you really doing a variety of climbs? I’m not saying these things are wrong. Some people don’t have a lot of time to climb due to work and whatever, and sometimes hanging out with friends is awesome. I love to sometimes project with others and just goof around. It’s just that if you are climbing once a week and hanging out with pals most of that time, you can’t blame just climbing not being enough, because you’re not really getting the most out of just climbing. Dedicating an extra day or setting aside a time when you can really focus that is separate from the fun, casual friend day, might be more helpful than getting a personal trainer or setting up a training regiment.
  2. Have you tried projecting or working on weaknesses? When I was still starting out with climbing, I was progressing fast on crimps. I have small fingers and a healthy weight, so they felt effortless to me. I got through so many grades by just finding higher graded crimp climbs. Then I went through a period of time where I had difficulty with my fingers hurting. I maybe was pushing them a bit too far, and I had reached a crimp plateau. So I backed off and dedicated myself to slopey climbs or pinches. They were holds that didn’t really put a lot on my fingers, so I could still climb without worsening the issue. Also slab climbs because they are more about feet. My climbing felt like it had plummeted because I absolutely could not climb as advanced of grades in other holds. At first, it was discouraging, but then it was empowering. I felt so much more pride when I was able to do something out of my comfort zone. I was making progress again because this was a new area to see gains. After spending more time on these areas of weakness, my overall climbing was significantly better. Partly because I could do different kinds of climbs, but also because I was strengthening different muscles. I had stronger shoulder muscles which just helps with everything. A lot of climbers climb to their strength. This is fine if you are goal oriented and want to work in that strength. If you are someone wanting to progress and be an overall good athlete, advancing your weaknesses through exposure can go a long way. It can make you better at your strengths too. I also added projecting to this, because I have seen a lot of people who want to get better, but don’t really try a particular climb much. They will give all of whatever grade a try and then either be happy they got the climb in a few tries or claim they are weak and need to get stronger. To some degree you can progress this way, because you are still climbing. However, if you really put in the time to figure something out, you can be surprised how much that helps. In making the jump from V4 to V5, I found a climb that I really loved in the V5 range. It was hard, but the first move was possible. It was fun and exciting. I worked on it steadily for a month or so. 3 or 4 times a week, going to work on this problem. I hadn’t done a V5, but I just made up my mind that this one could be the one. I think I did maybe a move or increment of movement further up each time. It was a SLOW process, but I did it. I learned new movement, I figured out things I just wasn’t doing right, and I made it more efficient. After all that, I sent it and it felt pretty easy. When you finally send something you’ve projected it, it can feel almost anti-climatic because it will just get easier. You are figuring out better beta, gaining muscle memory, and mastering techniques. Essentially, by climbing this one climb more, I got better at climbing. Getting the next v5s didn’t take as much work. You get the confidence of knowing you can do something in that grade, and you learn things that are helpful for that level.
  3. Are you using good technique and footwork? Are you making excuses? I am an average height at 5’7, maybe a little on the shorter side. I also have a negative ape index of like 3. So I climb with the span of a 5’4 climber. There are plenty of times where I could easily say a move is a tall person move. There are times I have to move very dynamically to something others just reach. There are times I might stack pads for a starting hold, because if someone else can just stand there and reach it to start, is it cheating? But at the end of the day this would be an excuse, and this excuse would just limit me. So I can say I’m too short, or I can figure out another way. There is always another way. Maybe it is doing a dyno, maybe it’s getting better feet, maybe it’s doing some weird crazy move I can’t even explain, but there is a way. I recently did a climb that for many is a little rock over reach up, by needing to do a full to crimp dyno and campus to the next move. I did it though, and it felt amazing. Sometimes I think my weird beta is more fun than what others can just do. If you are trying to figure out these ways instead of making excuses, you are advancing your climbing. Learning proper techniques and better footwork, is something all climbers need more of. It’s something that can really advance your climbing. It’s also something that training won’t necessarily get you, unless we are talking foot drills and such. Spending some time on a problem instead of giving up and throwing out the I’m too weak, I’m not good enough cards, can help a great deal. To some degree you need to learn techniques. Reading about them, watching climbing videos, practicing different movement, etc. can all help. Practicing them will get you better.

I’m in no way down playing the significance of training. There are a lot of different ways to train, and I’m someone who loves training. I do hang boarding, campusing, weight lifting exercises, etc. If you want to train, by all means. It’s just important you aren’t ruling out the benefit of getting in mileage. Especially if you are a newer climber. Seeing progression from grade to grade start to slow down, doesn’t mean you are hitting your limit or you aren’t good enough. As grades get harder, progression slows for all climbers. In the beginning, you start out really easy because you don’t know your full capabilities yet. As you get into harder grades, more is required and that more is going to take time to learn. Before beating yourself up and jumping to training, try out all the different things with just climbing that you can. Climbing is what you want to do anyway, right? It’s where the fun is. Take time to enjoy the whole process, and try not to be so intensely outcome focused. There is a lot to enjoy in the learning and growing.

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2 thoughts on “Should You be Training or Climbing More?

  1. This was interesting to read. Where I currently live I don’t have access to a climbing wall, in order to maintain my strength and technique I have had to improvise a little bit at home, making the most of what I have access to. I have a finger board to maintain/improve finger strength and i have to use the skirting board of my room to improve footwork. I wouldn’t call it training as such but it’s enough to keep me at a reasonable level. Just a few seconds a day hanging on the finger board has helped me maintain my strength and sometimes I surprise myself in how much I have actually improved when do get the chance to climb outdoors.

    • That sounds like a good plan. Everyone has things that are going to work for them individually, and doing what you can with what you have certainly makes sense. Improvising to make up for not being able to access climbing is valid, and I think you are doing the right thing. My article was inspired by hearing a lot of newer climbers posting for training information because they’ve gone to the gym a handful of times and want to speed up progression and be the best right away. Which is a different situation. It’s good to point out that everyone has different things to work with in their climbing though. Thank you for the comment!

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