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Conditioning for Beginner Climbers

Posted on September 01 2014

Conditioning is an essential part of any sport.  It is true the best training will always be to climb itself. However, not focusing your climbing in a particular direction will cause your climbing to improve at a snails pace or not improve at all.

You really need to be able to analyse your own climbing to be able to train effectively. That is why a trainer can be a great idea because they are much more likely to see your weaknesses. Some are better at doing this than others but a brutally honest climbing partner is always useful to have too.

The other important thing is to give your training time.  You are likely to be doing this because your climbing has plateaued. Training your weaknesses and improving strength will have great overall gains but the process is often boring and repetitive. It will take patience, as there will be a lot of frustration.

Fingerboard gains are very slow indeed and often if you train too hard it is easy to injure yourself which will put you out of climbing for a while and push back improvement even further. Avoiding injury is a very important part of conditioning.

 

Physical

What you train is very tailored to what stage of your climbing you are in, your body type and your particular strengths. To improve it is naturally important to push yourself beyond what you are normally used to.

Arms

It is unlikely for most climbers that their arm strength holds you back. Most climbers can pull up their own bodyweight.  It is good to train to the point where you can do about 10 pull ups in a row but before that point other areas will likely hold you back more. In the early stages brute strength often leads to poor technique which can be damaging when you get to climbs which need more than power. Arm strength will naturally come with climbing so you can leave this. Make sure that you balance any bicep gains with tricep dips so your elbows don’t suffer with tendonitis. Don’t forget your shoulders as this will lead to injury.

Fingers

Finger strength is a more important strength gain. A large part of this will come from climbing but if other areas are holding you back more like fear or technique this will plateau too.  Many also tend to climb routes they enjoy or they can do which tend to be of a style they are suited to. This leads to ignoring particular areas like slopers or crimps on overhangs etc. Focusing on these will lead to strength gains and better all around climbing.

If there is a particular area of weakness fingerboards can be used to address this. Be careful though. Start slowly and stop as soon as you feel pain. They are not recommended if you are in your first year of climbing. If your gains are too quick you will suffer from joint problems where the tendons in your elbows can’t keep up.  Balancing this out with something like the Metolius Grip Saver is highly recommended.  This will balance the muscles on your forearms and prevent you working out just one side of it.

You can use your feet against a flat wall and make up a 10+ move sequence. You can pull up on slopers or crimps. If you can hang for more than 10 seconds you are training endurance. Ideally to train power you want a grip you are falling off for the last few seconds and can only hang for 7 seconds. Have a break for a few seconds between each repetition and repeat the same number as the amount of seconds you can hang for (5 repetitions if you can hang for 5 seconds).

Practice hanging with fully locked arms (5°), arms bent at 45° or arms almost straight (175°). Never hang with straight arms or you are not engaging most of your muscles.

Uneven grip pull ups/hangs or hyper-gravity training are more advanced but very effective techniques. Uneven grips and differing moves stimulate the unpredictable nature of your holds while climbing. Hyper-gravity training (climbing with weights) is useful but make sure you start with climbs lower than you maximum grade as you will not be used to this.

Campus training is also very effective for finger strength.  The most simple form is to hang of your arms only and move up one rung to another arm over arm. Make sure you vary the arm you move up with and make sure you come down too. A more advanced form of this is to double dyno. Jump up both hands from one rung to another. You can also lock of with each arm in turn and try to reach as high up as you can. Many walls now have the same style training for slopers too.

Core

Your core is very important in climbing. Those with a weak core will often have poor technique because they will not be able to carry out comfortably static moves. They also struggle more to twist and statically hold their position closer to the wall enabling you to reach higher. When they do this they fail quicker which will not allow them to latch on properly to an awkward hold. The core connects your hands to your feet and is greatly underestimated. Especially on overhanging walls.

Good core exercises include sit ups, leg raises, head or handstands, planks and overhanging climbing.

Rest

A good rule for any physical training is to have a rest day after every training day.  This will allow your body to recover and rebuild. If you train too often you will do more damage than good as your muscles will constantly tear without repairing themselves leading to fatigue, weakness and injury. If you are training endurance, rest days are still necessary but you may need to break this rule occasionally to get results. Just make sure it is not too often.

Flexibility and Injury

Climbing naturally keeps your lower half flexible. Extra flexibility can help but this rarely is the limiting factor of a climb. The upper body is similar but often in an indoor environment the moves sometimes do not stretch you enough. Awkward moves can often lead to injury unless extra flexibility is gained. Yoga is the best tool for this as it teaches full body stretching. More recent research suggests stretching is best done after exercise and if any stretching is done before it should be dynamic stretches.

To warm up before a climb you should climb some easy routes giving you varying movement and hold types.  Some aerobic exercise like skipping is also useful to get your blood flowing and joints lubricated.

Body Type

Smaller climbers will naturally prefer overhanging or smaller crimpy routes and larger climbers will naturally prefer powerful dynamic routes with reachy holds. The best thing you can do is regularly climb outside of your comfort zone to make you a better climber and build more technique and strength. A small climber on a long dynamic move will have to use more technique and power than a larger climber which will give great climbing improvement. 

Power or Endurance

In the same way that bodybuilders have a leg day and an arm day climbers need to change what they focus on from session to session.

Switching from steep climbing one day, to slopers the next, to dynamic moves, to technical crimps etc. will lead to bigger gains than just climbing varied routes each session. The reason being is focusing on a particular muscle type will work/build it more and then changing it the next time gives it more time to repair making it stronger.

If you like to boulder you need to boulder a lot to gain the power you need. If you are a trad or sport climber you need to train endurance. This is where circuits can come in handy or longer routes. This is down to you.

Climbing is a lot about anerobic power but learning how to breathe and rest can be just as important as fitness (if not more) on the longer routes. Having more weight on your legs and more controlled movement will use much less energy too.  A lack of endurance is often poor technique and thinking. To boost anerobic power you need to constantly climb to your max (until you feel a pump in your forearms or fall of due to exhaustion), have a short rest andclimb again. This exposure to repeated bursts will increase your capillary diameter, improve blood flow and increase the removal rate of lactic acid from your body.

If you are climbing more than 15 moves you are generally training endurance. If you are falling off in less than 10 moves you are training power.  If you can only do 2 or 3 moves due to fitness you may be doing more harm than good. If you can only repeat an exercise or move once you need to be very careful as it will be very easy to injure yourself.

The specific areas you train depend on your goals.

 

Mental

Often a climber can’t improve because of a mental block. For a boulderer this could be the belief that they cannot hang of something so tiny or that they just can’t climb on such a steep wall. A lack of confidence can cause the climber to fail even if it is within their capabilities. The climber may approach with trepidation and not give their all to the climb. They can be afraid to make the move for a fear of falling (see previous article on the forgotten art to falling). For a trad climber it is likely to be the same.

You can beat fear with training but you have to face your fear. Start slowly with something easier. All aspects of training require you to spend lots of time on your weaknesses. This is no different.

The other area is a lack of planning or thinking for the route. Reading the route and adjusting your sequence can make the difference if you send the route or not. Just because a route is not achievable one way does not mean it is impossible. There is almost allways a way and often it just needs a fresh pair of eyes.

This is why we find a route easier when we see someone else send it. Even the most confident of people have a lack of self belief and often the bestclimbers are the ones who just try it without caring to much about the end goal or not. The climb is more important than getting to the top.

The climbers who improve the fastest are often those who fall off a lot and are trying thing way to hard for them. I have always improved fastest when I have been banging almost every body part against the rock / wall and falling of all the time. A session where you send everything is not always time well spent. The fun is in the challenge.

Taking the time to study other people will give you gains to if you can notice their weaknesses and strengths. Particularly what they do that is better than what you do. Even if you climb a route, can you climb it better, with less effort?

Vertical mind has some fantastic tips on training the mind. 

Technical

This area is often the most important. The best climbers spend a lot of time on this. It just comes with practice and training and being very self-critical.

If you can’t reach something instead of it being because you are too small perhaps you can do an Egyptian drop knee to reach it. Maybe you can pull your core in closer to the wall. You can get your feet higher. You can lock off higher (needs more power for this).  You can even lunge for it.

If you are struggling on overhanging walls you can try to keep you feet lower. This actually keeps the weight more on your feet and less on your arms.

If your hands are slipping off it is often down to footwork. Climbers who look like they can hold crazy tiny crimps often just have more weight on their feet. Nervous climbers have more weight on their hands. Practice good footwork by placing your feet only once on the wall each step. That way accuracy becomes more important.

 

Conclusion

Strength gains are best applied alongside physical and mental improvements. Without this your growth will still be stunted and improvements only gained in climbs of a particular style rather than across the board.

 

Disclaimer: Training is very specific to each individual and one needs to train with care to avoid injury. Any of the techniques listed can be dangerous if not carried out with care. It is best to be shown these techniques by someone more experienced. 

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