Change Up – Plug the Gaps In Your Strength Training This Winter

Plug the gaps in your strength training this winter.

By Rock and Ice | November 24th, 2015

World champions like Kilian Fischhuber train their weaknesses until they no longer have a weakness. What do you do?  PHOTO: BERNHARD FIEDLERWe’ve all heard that changing your game is one of the best ways to get more from your training. But what does this really mean? Everyone tends to drift into routine. What ingredients can be added in order to freshen up your training and help you bust through plateaus?

This issue we’re going to take a different perspective on strength training. It’s time to be honest with yourself and focus on what you don’t do rather than what you do. Look at the list below and ask yourself how many of these basic principals genuinely feature in your training. If it’s over half, then you’re probably doing as well as most pros. If it’s less than a quarter, you’re missing some valuable tricks and it’s time to start plugging those gaps.

1) Make a plan

During the training season most climbers switch from bouldering to routes guided by whim and short-term requirements, but you will achieve far better results by planning. A great method is to follow phases of between three and eight weeks, prioritized either toward strength or endurance, an approach known as periodization. Start with endurance to build a fitness base, and then focus on strength. During the strength phase, train strength and/or power two or three times a week and endurance once (elites may train strength/power four times and endurance twice). This enables significant gains in strength while ensuring that you don’t simultaneously lose endurance. If you plan a longer phase (5 – 8 weeks, known as “linear periodization”) this is the best approach for achieving a peak at the very end of the program. The alternative is to do shorter phases (2 – 4 weeks, “non-linear periodization”), which is a better method if you need to maintain form during the period of training. In other words, linear if you have a big goal you’re working toward; nonlinear if you want to climb at a consistent, slowly improving level. These methods are renowned for being highly effective and yet climbers rarely employ them effectively.

2) Start your program with general strengthening

All serious power athletes in mainstream sports begin their training program with a phase of general strengthening before moving on to sport-specific training. In other words, go to the gym and do a general weight-training program for the upper body. Climbers are advised to keep this phase brief to avoid gaining unwanted bulk. For example, train for 2 – 4 weeks and keep repetitions low (3 sets of 4 – 6 reps). This phase plays a crucial role in maximizing performance and preventing injury. It also provides a great time to work on supportive aerobic fitness and flexibility.

3) Vary the intensity

Many boulderers simply adopt one gear, which usually means warming up, doing a few mid-grade problems and then sieging hard projects. The sessions that are easiest to ignore are mileage-based sessions where the aim is to climb a high volume of easier problems. These sessions are best positioned at the start of strength phases to help build a base of bouldering endurance. They also enable a critical focus on technique and provide an opportunity to work on onsight skills.

4) Work your weaknesses

You’ve heard it a million times and yet you still shy away from the holds you find toughest, whether slopers, small crimps or gastons. Instead, always start your session on problems with these holds or moves. Make this an unbending rule until your weakness is no longer a weakness. If you ignore this fundamental training principle, then the gap in your performance will widen to an insurmountable level.

5) Leave time at the end of bouldering sessions for apparatus exercises

Everyone knows that campus boards, fingerboards and pull-up bars provide the best means of developing pure strength and power, but there’s no point attempting this type of training if you’re burned out. If your fingers are tired, try working your arms and core on the apparatus. You are wasting your time and exposing yourself to injury if you attempt dead hangs when your fingers are reeling from the latest project. An alternative approach is to do apparatus training on a separate day where you can apply the required level of energy and focus.

6) Set training goals

Most climbers are very good at setting goals for the crag, but rarely take the time to work out the training goals that will enable us to achieve them. How will you know if you’ve gotten stronger if you don’t record the results of your campus or hangboard exercises? Moreover, if you have a target for every session, you will force yourself to achieve it rather than simply coasting and repeating the same performances.

7) Train antagonists

Do 3 sets of 20 push-ups and 3 sets of reverse wrist curls twice a week. We all know that antagonist sessions are boring, and yet not only will they provide your best chance of staying injury-free, but they play a crucial supportive role in strengthening your climbing muscles. The body will not allow major imbalances in strength to develop. If you never train your antagonists, your climbing strength will be seriously compromised.

8) Train your core

Just like antagonist training, core exercises are easy to forget because they’re boring and require willpower. Most climbers will rise to the challenge of a few sets of hanging leg raises or front-lever attempts at the end of a boulder session, but a real program of floor exercises will play a massive supportive role in developing core stability. If there’s no time at the climbing gym, do these at home on rest days, in combination with antagonist exercises.

9) Eat properly

Again, you’ve heard it before, but do you really eat protein-based foods or take amino acid supplementation immediately before and after strength training? The up-to-date research concludes that this significantly increases strength gains. Do you also make the effort to eat a decent meal or take a recovery supplement (including carbohydrates) within the crucial “one-hour window” after the session? If you don’t then, once again, strength gains will be compromised. Forget delaying eating in the interest of weight control. Don’t over-eat, but do make sure that you eat at the correct time in relation to training.


This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 200 (March 2012).

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