In the words of the beloved and controversial rap artist, Tyler the Creator, “I’m a f***** walkin’ paradox,” because I am. I spend most of my time attempting to be coiffed and professional in a corporate environment and when I’m off work on Friday I’m ready turn my hat backwards, head outside, and be the dirtbag I wish I was during the week.
I think a lot of outdoor enthusiasts are like this. We crave adventure and exhilaration and are maybe a even a little rebellious. Unfortunately, the jobs that sustain us (and our expensive extracurriculars) do not always provide the outlet we so desperately need.
So, enter climbing. It is a sport that satisfies my love of the outdoors, provides positive social interaction, and it is an outlet for measurably pushing myself to my absolute limit.
Admittedly, I take myself too seriously sometimes, but at the same time I make notes in my training journal like the one you see below:
So I might be serious, but never too serious.
A Classic Weekend Warrior
I have been climbing for about four years. I started in college to stave off the summertime sadness of being an avid skier. Now, I can’t really decide which sport I like better. I really love climbing.
For me, climbing is an outlet for goofiness, getting outside with your friends, and having an excuse to train like a goddamn sled dog if I really want to.
And to be clear, I really want to.`
I work at a major company based in New York City. My commute to work is 40-75 minutes each way depending on traffic. I train in the evenings when they gyms are crowded and I go climbing outside on the weekends. The nearest quality sport crag is about 5 hours away. I certainly have time to train and go outside, but my time supply is limited.
Training on a Time Budget
Fortunately for all of us, climbing is a sport where focused training a few sessions a week will yield great results. I have seen substantial evidence that you can continuously improve your climbing (for a long time) even if you have a time-consuming job and you don’t start climbing until your twenties.
I started climbing about 4 years ago and began training systematically about two years in. Since then, I have increased my hardest redpoint from 5.10a to 5.11d, and increased my hardest onsight from 5.9 to 5.11a.
Each year of training I have added an average of 3.5 letter grades to my hardest redpoint. I plan to keep training, keep getting stronger, and I’ll be keeping my job and having a social life while I do it.
What this Blog Will Teach You
This blog will provide information on a variety of climbing-related topics. And it will demonstrate that getting better at climbing is possible, even with a busy schedule.
I will give you the knowledge you need to set high-quality goals, construct your own training programs, select training programs based on your needs, and explore many topics in between.
Additionally, I plan to post about trips I take to different climbing areas, in case you are looking for inspiration for your next outdoor climbing adventure.
This blog will provide you with the resources you need to go from a training neophyte to someone that has an effective plan for their time in the gym and outside. I want you to become someone with goals for your climbing and I want you to have a lot of fun executing them.
We’ve all seen it. A beefy dude walks into a climbing gym for the first time. He’s got biceps twice the size of Alex Honold’s head and and he’s ready to slay some plastic rocks. You watch him boulder in his rental shoes and notice that the although the guy can yank his way up a juggy V2, all bets are off when he tries to do this on anything harder. You really want to tell him that campusing up routes is not a long-term strategy for becoming a well-rounded climber. But you don’t because you’re not a jerk… on the outside at least.
So why does someone like this who is clearly exceptionally strong suck so bad at climbing? Because he has no skills.
To climb at your highest possible limit you need to be strong, but more importantly you need to be a well-practiced climber with GREAT SKILLS.
How should your training reflect this distinction? Easy. Just use the 75/25 rule.
What is the rule of 75/25?
I learned this rule from Steve Bechtel’s Logical Progression and it is pretty simple. 75% of your training should be completed with your climbing shoes on, the other 25% should be completed with your shoes off.
I love this rule because it helps with the confusion that comes with trying to determine the priority of different activities in your climbing training.
Should you strength train? Yes. Should you hangboard or use a campus board? Maybe depending on who you are and what you need. Should any of these take complete priority over time spent climbing? No.
When you are practicing you’re trying to get better, when you’re training you’re trying to build the fitness qualities that support better practice.
Steve Bechtel Logical Progression pg. 7
The basis of the 75/25 rule is that climbing is a skill sport. You want to spend most of your time climbing so you can become better at the practice of climbing. Then you want to spend 25% of your time making yourself an iron-fingered, bullet-proof instrument of athleticism. The 25% piece of your time can be spent stretching, resistance training, and using various finger strength tools such as the hangboard or campus board.
What this looks likefor me
My own training looks like this, on an ideal week:
Monday – Rest Tuesday – 1 hour of integrated strength: Hangboarding, lifting, stretching. 30 minutes of ARCing on autobelays Wednesday – 40 minutes of ARCing on autobelays Thursday – 75 Minutes of bouldering and limit bouldering Friday – Rest Saturday – Power Endurance Bouldering or Routes – 90 minutes Sunday – Rest
Time spent without climbing shoes: 60 minutes (25.5%) Time spent with climbing shoes on: 235 minutes (74.5%)
The above example is what I am doing now, which is non-linear periodization. However, there are many programs that are linearly periodized. The Rock Prodigy Programhas a full strength phase – lasting about 4 weeks and then a couple of weeks of campusing. While there is still climbing during these phases of intense hangboarding and campusing, these phase only make up about 25% of the program.
Phases of training
At the beginning of the training season (i.e. winter) I placed more of a focus on getting stronger and I violated this rule. My weekly training time probably looked more like 33:66 instead of 25:75.
However, as sport climbing season is opening up, I have added in low-end endurance, skill-focused sessions which gets me back to more of a 25:75 sort of ratio.
Thanks again to Steve Bechtel for simplifying this question into a palatable rule of thumb!
How do you allocate your training time? Would you say you follow this rule? Do you need to add in some off the wall training? Leave a comment or shoot me an email!
Sometimes moving forward can make you pretty sad about what you’ve left behind. Since moving to the Northeast I have found myself becoming a bit nostalgic about my old home crag.
Previously my two-hour away weekend crag was the beautiful Red River Gorge. Replete with sturdy sandstone, excellent and plentiful camping, and more memories than I could possibly replay when I go to sleep at night. The Red River Gorge is my favorite place on earth.
I moved away from Cincinnati in 2018 and today I live in Hoboken, NJ. It’s a short bus ride away from Manhattan. My sport climbing options have changed drastically since moving. Instead of the Red, I can now go about two hours to Birdsboro, PA, 6 hours to Rumney, NH, 8 Hours to the New River Gorge, and as of 2018 – 3 hours to Thacher State Park in upstate New York.
Days outside are limited in the Northeast in the Spring – between rain and work and increasing temperatures, if a day out is possible, you need to go.
With a high of 70 and no rain in sight, my boyfriend, Michael, and I headed to Thacher State Park in upstate New York for the weekend. Between the glowing reviews in the Climbing Magazine article, local recommendations that “It’s better than Birdsboro”, and clear communication from social media that glorious views were guaranteed, we booked an Air Bnb and set out on our quest to wrassle some Limestone.
It took us about three hours to get there from Hoboken – the drive was scenic and there was hardly any traffic.
As we drove into the park the location of the Visitor’s Center was apparent and well marked with signs along the road. The buildings were new and the bathrooms were clean and very nice.
Note that May 1 – November 1 you must pay $6 for parking per day.
We had to sign a permit to climb there which didn’t take much time and then we were off.
Where to Stay
The most convenient option is to stay at Thompson’s lake Campground. I personally did not get to stay there since it does not open until May 1 and Closes October 13. It is about two miles from Thacher State Park and it looks like a nice place to camp.
There were plenty of affordable Air Bnbs to stay in around Albany – about 25 minutes away. Stay in one of these if you aren’t interested in camping or if you are climbing before Thompson opens. The one bedroom my boyfriend and I booked looked nice enough and only cost $50. Pretty affordable weekend trip, overall.
Enter Through the Squeeze
One of the many quirks of Thacher State Park is that to get into the climbing area you have to enter through The Squeeze. There is no other way to get to the crag.
Similar to Fat Man’s Misery in Hocking Hills State Park (for all you Ohio Folks out there), it’s a tight fit. In order to enter the crag you have to take your backpack off and slither sideways through 30 foot long seam in the rock. Here’s a video of someone else’s descent since I don’t have a video of mine.
PRO TIP! As you go down, once you’re a few steps in, take your pack off and slide it along the top of the shelf, then bring it down. Don’t worry about your pack fitting. Between the rope, my helmet and my many snacks, my pack fit just fine.
Navigating the Crags
There is an app you can purchase for $10 that is comprehensive and it is a bit more helpful than navigating the crag using Mountain Project. However, Mountain Project has plenty of helpful details as well. An added benefit of the app is that your purchase supports funding for the Thacher Climbing Coalition.
Coming out of the squeeze, to your left you will see a waterfall and the crag called The Cave. Turn Right and you continue down what is essentially a single path below the cliffs that takes from Mahican all the way to the East End. Traversing the entirety of climbable cliff face takes approximately 15 minutes.
My visit was on the opening day in the spring of 2019. The weather was nice. It had rained a little bit overnight, but nothing exceptional. Conditions were ripe for a very crowded climbing area.
Overall there were people on many of the routes and in most of the dry areas, it was not overly crowded. However, due to the nature of the crags, there isn’t much space to move around or sit near the bases of routes. If this place became overly crowded, I could see it being a frustrating and potentially dangerous situation.
I’m just going to put it out there: I ripped a football off of the wall and it beat me in the chest. Unpleasant. This was on top of knocking off smaller bits of limestone and yelling “ROCK!” all day.
I would like to note that it was the first day of the season. I imagine that in the winter, as ice forms in and on the rock, freezes, and subsequently thaws more unstable rock forms. What was once a clean route in the fall probably gets a little hairier once the spring rolls around. I am sure it will get better and better as the seasons go on.
While I truly appreciate the work that has been done to establish the area and I completely understand that cleaning up a climbing area takes time and traffic, visitors should expect to climb on choss and should be prepared for holds to break off at fairly regular intervals.
In comparison to Birdsboro, PA – a rock quarry turned climbing area, I would say that that Thacher is much more chossy. However, my sample size of time spent at each area is somewhat limited – so take my opinion with a grain of salt.
In short, helmets are highly recommended.
Everything is covered in a thin layer of dry mud. This makes foot placement a bit more precocious. I am not sure if this will clean up with more rain, more traffic, etc. A comment on mountain project clarifies that this usually happens after a spring rain which in consistent with my experience that day.
I only have a couple of comparison data points to work with: myself and my boyfriend Michael. However, at the time this is being written I would say that typically Michael can easily onsight 11c/11d. And personally, I regularly onsight 10d.
Michael tried putting up an 11c in Mahican and after about 30 minutes of hangdogging, we packed it in and headed to a new area. Perhaps many key holds have broken off since it was graded. However, it has been a very long time since I have seen Mike abandon something. I am not fully convinced that the route was 11c.
We headed over to the East End where we put up a slabby 5.10a. I did not enjoy it much since I am not a huge fan of slab; however I would say the grading on this one felt accurate.
Overall, the grading is a bit inconsistent and I plan to send some formal feedback to the Thacher Climbing Coalition – for whatever my opinion is worth.
“Save our Gear”
I then hopped onto the 11c next door: Pearlvana. The guidebook touted an 80 foot route, but in reality the route was really 35 feet up from a large ledge that has a bolt in which a belayer can secure herself.
I was extremely intimidated by a fairly blank section of rock on slab above the third bolt. However another group who had somehow been told that this route was a 5.10d had started the route, clipped three out of four bolts, and was looking for a gear rescue if possible.
I slapped around on the face of this wall for a pretty long time, putting in probably 15 burns in total. I wanted to save their gear, but I was unsuccessful. Considering that my hardest redpoint was 11d at the time and I had sent a couple of other 11cs, this route may not be sangbagged, it might just be tough. However, comparing to the other 11cs through 12as that I have worked – this crux seems like the hardest thing I’ve ever tried.
“This is 5.10d?!”
Determined to get some fluid, continuous climbing in, Mike and I headed over to a 5.10d we had seen earlier in the day. My objective was to finish out the day by doing some outdoor endurance training by getting some laps in on this 5.10.
This notion is hilarious because after working the crux of this 10d for a pretty frustrating amount of time, I went ahead and had my boyfriend bale me out. Lame. I know, but it was getting dark and we were both ready for a beer.
Mike too, was stopped by this crux and did not bag the onsight. I looked at him and said “I think that’s the first time you haven’t onsighted 5.10 in three years.”
Comparing this to Tweaked Unit – a somewhat similar route at the Red River Gorge I would say this one is a bit harder. Truthfully I would give this “5.10d” more like 5.11b or maybe 5.11c. However, I am 5’4″ and there were some very height-dependent moves on the route.
Overall, the grading is somewhat misleading and inconsistent.
The Bolting and Anchors
The bolting is generous and thoughtful and for all the choss, the bolts are very solid. From what I could see, most of the bolts were glue-ins.
Additionally, cleaning is made extremely easy due to the many pig tails at the anchors. Bolts and anchors are shiny, new, and intelligently placed from what I experienced.
The Climbing here isn’t world class, so don’t come in expecting to be in Oliana. However, the views and aesthetics of the environment were lovely. It really is an awesome area to hang out outside.
We ended our day in Thacher by headingover to a little restaurant in Albany. Shout out to the Methodist Church in town – we definitely changed clothes in the car in their parking lot. It was date night, after all. We needed to dress up! But onto the food.
The fried chicken was amazing, so was my Reuben, and the ramp pesto we had as an appetizer was delicious.
On top of that, the beer selection was local and had plenty of variety. For my second drink, I had an “Albany Sour” which is basically a whisky sour topped with a wine – a red blend if I recall. With that amount of alcohol, I was doing a fabulous job at forgetting that I had yanked five pounds of limestone pebbles into my shirt that day.
Personally, I will not be back. I would prefer to drive two hours to Birdsboro or drive 6 hours to Rumney, or go to two hours the Gunks (no sport there, but the bouldering is fun and hopefully I’ll learn to place gear soon).
However, there are a few situations where my risk reward analysis would lead me to recommend this place.
If you don’t have much outdoor experience and you just need to go learn to to sport climb and belay.
You live close by, it is a convenient day trip and you can get some time climbing outdoors here very easily.
You’re in the area for some other reason and you have some time to kill. E.g. my parents live in Albany and I was going to be up there anyway.
I am pretty hardcore about getting outside however and wherever you can. However for me, the effort, money, and time it takes to get to Thacher could be spent in other ways.
With Respect and Gratitude
Although Thacher is not my cup of tea, I saw countless groups enjoying the outdoors and I witnessed a couple of young ladies put up their first routes on the sharp end. They were so stoked and I was so stoked for them and that was really cool to watch.
Sure, I don’t love the climbing there, but it will clean up eventually. Either way, all the hard work that volunteers have put into the place is certainly appreciated. Those two girls will remember the feeling of clipping their first anchors forever and that is priceless.
I want to thank all the volunteers that have put time and effort into developing the area and fighting for the right to do so. Many people will get to test their limits and enjoy the great outdoors because of their efforts.
What do you think? Have you been to Thacher? What was your experience? Was there a route you enjoyed that I may have missed? Leave a comment or shoot me a note – and please feel free to share this post with anyone who is planning a trip there!
This one is coming at ya from another genre of content that I really enjoy – the personal finance space. If that sounds a little off topic, it is. But if you are interested in hearing a cool story about a Park Ranger turned Sustainable Housing Expert – check out this podcast episode. You will ways to save money and make your home more sustainable in many more ways than I ever would have thought. Here’s a Youtube Link, but you can also find these guys for free wherever your get your podcasts. If you want learn to more about Angela and her sustainability tips – check out her space on the web at https://treadlightlyretireearly.com/tag/environment/
3. Netflix’s Our Planet
David Attenborough of Planet Earth is at it again. Between the stunning footage and the raw, uncaring depiction of how nature really works, you’ll get pretty stirred up with how amazing and messed up this crazy planet really is. Be warned, I won’t spoil it, but the first episode made me cry.
I’ve always been extremely into food, but hearing of a Chef dead set on combining Michelin Stars with sustainable farming sounded pretty far fetched. However, after seeing this episode of Chef’s table I became very interested in our relationship with the environment through food. So whether or not you’re into day dreaming about 5-star dining experiences, it’s always a good idea to get psyched on sustainable foods and farming.
5. The Hummingbird Story
In full transparency this is a mandatory video you have to watch when starting to work at my company. I wanted to roll my eyes when someone said we were going to be watching what looked like a reading of a children’s story, but truth be told it was pretty good and it makes me feel hopeful that even the small stuff we do to make the world a little cleaner is powerful in its own right.
I hope you enjoyed my little list. It isn’t super climbing related, but these are a few pieces of content that make me feel like we can do something instead of moping around apathetically about the state of the environment.
What gets you psyched to save the earth? Anything I should watch? Any little life hacks to be a more sustainable person? Leave a comment or email me a link – I can’t wait to hear about it.
The subject is taboo, but the truth is that your weight as a climber actually matters.
Have you ever climbed with a weight vest? I have. Strapping dead weight to your body makes climbing much more difficult. To illustrate this point: typically in an endurance session I can climb 45+ minutes on sustained 5.10. When I try to perform endurance workouts with a twelve pound weight vest on, at about 10 minutes I have to start backing off and climbing 5.9. After about 25 minutes of climbing routes I am completely pumped out of my mind. For reference twelves pounds is me climbing at roughly 109% of my body weight. It seems to cut my performance almost in half, especially in terms of endurance. Weight matters.
Whether you like it or not, your body composition has an effect on your climbing performance. There is a reason that The Rock Climber’s Training Manual has an entire chapter titled “Weight Management”.
What is the strength to weight ratio?
In terms of athletics, the strength to weight ratio is the amount of power (total force exerted in a unit of time) vs. an individual’s body weight.
Let’s look at an example of two individuals performing a deadlift.
Obviously, Person B can lift much more than Person A. However, Person A has a strength (or power) to weight ratio that is 16% higher than that of Person B. Proportionally, Person B can do more with less.
How does the strength to weight ratio relate to rock climbing?
Looking at elite gymnasts, fighters, runners, and rock climbers, there are not many that are storing excess amounts of useless tissue.
Sensibly, the following can be derived:
Whatever is making up a climber’s body composition, it had better be useful.
What factors should be considered when trying to determine optimal performance weight for climbing?
A Climber’s Body Composition: Three Factors to Optimize
Sport-Specific Muscle Mass
General Health and Well-being
It is easy to conceptualize the optimal weight for climbing performance. You need to have just enough of the right kind of muscle to be very strong. You need to have low enough body fat that you are not hauling unnecessary weight up the wall, but you need enough body fat that you are happy and healthy and you have the energy to train and climb and enjoy your life.
Easy to describe, difficult to execute.
Sport Specific Muscle Mass
Your muscles are the strength portion of the strength to weight ratio equation.
“If you put on sport-specific muscle, your percentage gain in strength and endurance way outweighs the weight gain.” – 5.14 climber, coach and yoga teacher, Alli Rainey speaking from experience on Episode 5 of the Power Company Podcast.
There was a time that I weighed 119 lbs and could not do a single pull-up. I was light and thin, but not very strong.
Today I am the heaviest I have ever been in my life. I am also climbing stronger than ever and lifting heavier as well. In the past year ,the number on the scale has been slowly crawling up. Weighing roughly 8-10 pounds more than what used to be my “normal” weight was a little jarring at first. However, I now consider it a bit of a triumph. Additionally, all of my clothes still fit just fine, so I know I am not headed in the wrong direction of weight gain.
“I don’t really care what I weigh because I can do these moves that I couldn’t do last year. That’s all that I care about!”
So go ahead, pack on some useful muscle. Everyone’s body works differently so your rate of hypertrophy won’t be the same as your friends, or your girlfriend or your boyfriend. Gaining Sport Specific Muscle Mass is key.
What about legs?
Note that in general climbers do not require the same legs that a competitive Alpine Ski Racer might require. If you have really beefy thighs, you might want to see if your climbing improves if you can decrease the muscle mass in your legs.
Body fat is another factor that you can optimize for climbing performance. As stated before, the perfect amount of body fat is the lowest amount at which you are still energetic, comfortable, and you are not overly sluggish.
If you are lean to the point of chronic exhaustion, you will not be climbing at your best. Our bodies need fat to survive, so advisably we do not want to decrease body fat to the point of risking health–mentally, emotionally, and physically.
This is a sport. Don’t lose your mind over getting to a specific send weight.
What the Data Says
Thankfully for us, the Tom Randall and Ollie Torr over at lattice training have collected some and analyzed some interesting data from 183 female climbers and 124 male climbers. All of the climbers whose data were collected ranked in the top 100 of routes/boulders in the world. The results? The average body mass index (BMI) for female elite climbers was 19.3 and that of men was 21.1. The healthy BMI range for both men and women is 18.5-24.9. Between 25-30 on the BMI index you are considered overweight. Over 30 you are considered obese.
As you can see the world’s most elite climbers lie at the low end of the healthy BMI range. This information is interesting but should be taken with a grain of salt. BMI is a useful indicator, but it is not a complete view of one’s body composition and should be treated as such.
Although this is a relatively small data set and I am only drawing correlations, it does say something to me that the best of the best are very lean. With this, I deduct that being very lean is helpful when climbing at a high level.
3 ways to gauge your body composition
While on the road to optimizing weight for climbing performance, it is important to determine where you stand. Here are three common ways to measure your body composition. I will go in ascending order of crudeness: the least helpful way being a scale and the most helpful being a formal body composition measurement.
Hop on the scale
The most simple metric one can use to measure their body is to hop on the scale. If you have measured your weight in the past, you can check your weight now and mentally compare where you are now vs. the past.
Your weight is easy to track and it can give you an idea about whether or not any changes to diet and exercise are working, but there are a few reasons the scale can be misleading.
Weight can fluctuate exceptionally throughout the day. I am a 5’4″ female typically weighing in between 120lbs and 130lbs and I have seen my weight fluctuate up to 8 lbs in a day depending on activity, water consumption, etc.
Muscle is more dense than fat. Therefore, if you are attempting to change your body composition and you are participating in any sort of resistance training program, you may be simultaneously losing inches off of thighs, arms, etc. while maintaining or even gaining weight.
The scale just doesn’t tell the whole story, so it is not a preferable measurement device for determing exactly where you are on the path to your optimal climbing performance weight.
Body Mass Index (BMI)
Apart from weight, the next best indicator of body composition is Body Mass Index (or BMI). BMI is a ratio of height to weight and is does not account for muscle mass vs. body fat. However, BMI does offer a rough architecture for determining an amount of weight you can safely lose, if you need to lose any at all.
Example: Alex Puccio’s Optimal Performance BMI
If you are not familiar with professional climber and decorated competitor Alex Puccio, give her a google. She is 5’2″ and beyond jacked. In her interview on The TrainingBeta Podcast, she describes her ideal competitive weight as being 114. At this weight, Alex has a BMI of 20.8. This is within the range that is considered healthy. However, this weight is hard for her to achieve and requires mindful changes to diet. Based on the this, it appears Puccio has determined her ideal performance weight.
Body Fat Percentage
The best way to determine where you are in terms of your body composition for climbing performance is pay for a service to determine this data. The main options for services are the Dexa Scan, the BodPod scan and the Underwater method. Calipers are also an option although they are not as accurate.
For more information best-selling author, Tim Ferriss, has a wonderful list of resources on his website outlining the different methods of acquiring body fat composition measurements.
Analyzing Body Composition Readings
Getting an actual reading of your body fat percentage is very helpful. Let’s take a look a scan I had taken in June of 2017 right before heading on a climbing trip to Spain.
I would say this is decent send shape, but not perfect. I could have lost five more pounds of fat, been in better shape, and stayed within the healthy BMI range at a 19.8.
Having this type of data is very useful. It prevents you from making incorrect assumptions such as, “The weight I gained over this training season is all muscle.” If you have two readings from the beginning and end of a three month period, you will be able to tell if this is true or not.
Additionally, specifically tracking muscle mass–even on an annual basis, is very interesting. Have you gained muscle in the past year? Have you gained strength without gaining muscle? These are all interesting and useful metrics to know.
Weight Optimization throughout the Training Season
I love sweets. I have a terrible sweet tooth. I literally could not upkeep the dietary habits that I would need to in order to stay at my optimal send weight year round. It would suck way too much and be a total waste of my mental energy. Additionally, Toblerone is delicious and so is beer.
In the winter time during ski season when I can’t really climb outside and I am trying to gain strength, I am a little more relaxed on the diet front. Then as Spring approaches I start becoming more mindful of my diet. Additionally, no matter what the summer months throw at me (AKA casual poolside drinking if I’m being totally honest), I do my best to have slimmed down by the fall for the second season of decent climbing.
Relaxing your diet is to your advantage for many reasons, apart from the fact that most of us enjoy eating some junk from time to time. Gaining muscle mass is difficult when you are in a caloric deficit. In a season of relaxing your diet you train at a heavier weight which will inherently make your fingers stronger as well. When you cut weight for a performance period your power to weight ratio increases and your odds of pushing your limits certainly increase as well.
It takes experimentation, but it is useful to determine your general training weight and optimal performance weight. With this knowledge, you can swiftly cycle through these biological markers as needed for your climbing objectives: training or performance.
You Can’t Ignore Your Weight
Like it or not, weight is a factor or climbing performance. If you are trying to send your hardest route to date this season and you somehow packed on 15lbs of fat in the last year, this will impact your performance.
Controlling your bodyweight is a tool that you can use to improve your climbing. Accept it, experiment with it, and be mindful of its power.
What about you?
Have you ever experienced gains in your climbing from losing weight? Do you know what your ideal “fighting weight is”? Have you noticed your weight increasing from gaining muscle? I’d love you to hear your experience. Drop a comment below or shoot me an email. I am interested to hear your experience with observing body composition and climbing performance!
In 2017, I graduated from Ohio State University. I left Columbus Ohio with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, many great friends that would soon scatter throughout the U.S., and the mission to never become a boring grown-up.
Most of what I learned in college, I don’t really use anymore. There is one skill that I learned in college that I use just about every other day. I learned this skill outside of the classroom. That skill is rock climbing.
It all started with Skiing
My life as a climber ironically started when I joined the Ohio State Ski and Snowboard Team. Ohio is an abysmal place to be a skier. Many members of the team found another outdoor sport to stave off the blues in the off-season. Between longboarding around campus, partying, and rock climbing, we kept ourselves plenty amused.
Fortunately for me, I had plenty of senior ski team members who were much better climbers than I was. They were well-equipped to teach me how to climb. They quite literally showed me the ropes.
The First Two Years
My first two years of climbing consisted of me having
practically no upper body strength, hurting both of my shoulders, and climbing
inconsistently because of the demands of an engineering degree.
About a year into my foray into vertical adventures, my friends started taking me on trips outside to the Red River Gorge and the New River Gorge. Those weekends spent camping and climbing sparked a deep and passionate love of the sport.
At the beginning of my senior year, unencumbered by the rigor of a junior year class scheduled, I was at the gym a lot more often. In the winter I began pondering what I would do with myself in the two months between graduation and starting my job in Cincinnati. The decision was easy: I was going climbing.
Preparing for Spain
By the time graduation came around in the Spring of 2017, my friend Eileen and I had firmly etched the details of our 2 week post-grad climbing trip into a google sheet.
In accordance with our plan, we purchased round trip tickets to Spain. I decided that if I was going all the way to Europe, I had better be in good shape.
This is when I followed my first ever training program. I chose a program that I had heard of from friends and other climbers: The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. It was a rigorous program and the book was as thick as a textbook. It did not intimidate me, however. I was ready to do whatever it took to become a better climber.
Starting in the winter of my senior year, I set to work. I plodded through the training program. I made a crazy hangboard setup in my college apartment—much to the confusion of non-climbing roommates and I would regularly be late to various – ahem – social outings to make sure that I got my scheduled training in.
It took commitment—and it was sometimes hard to balance job
interviews, studying, climbing and competing with the ski team, but I did it.
I went through about two cycles of the Rock Prodigy Program between December and my in June. The trip was wildly successful. I accomplished my trip goal by sending not one but two 5.11a, exceeding my expectations. Before that trip I hadn’t even managed to send 5.10c.
While I attribute much of this success to The Rock Prodigy program, I also made great strides in my fear of falling. Climbing regularly and falling regularly for two weeks outside helped my mental game significantly. Much to the credit of our Rockbusters climbing guide, Jan. With the support of Eileen and Jan and the other group members, I went from literally crying on top rope to becoming a confident sport climber. Before the trip I was perilously afraid to lead. When I left it was my favorite way to climb.
Rock Climber’s Training Manual and Beyond
Since then, I have gone on to more successful ascents, climbing further up the grades. In 2018, I changed my training strategy from the Rock Prodigy Program to Steve Bechtel’s Logical Progression . (you can find a comparison of these here)
In 2018 I increased my hardest redpoint from 5.11a to 5.11d. I bagged quite a few ascents I was very proud of including Hercules, a 5.11b deep water solo in Mallorca, Banshee 5.11c which I accomplished in just two tries at the Red River Gorge, as well as Rich Bitch 5.11d in Mallorca.
The satisfaction of sending when you try hard on a rock face is why I started this blog. When I topped out on Hercules in Mallorca, I was alone at the top of a cliff face looking out a Mediterranean sunset crying tears of joy. It was pure ecstasy. All that time spent in the gym training was all for moments like that. My hope is that with the information I share in this blog, I can help someone else have the same experiences that I have had. Behind the minutiae of hangboard protocols and linked boulder circuits is a bigger goal that has nothing to do with looking cool on Instagram. These training details are important because if you train properly you can climb more and climb harder. I want to help people climb more, climb harder, and climb longer.
Why start a blog?
My hope for this blog is to grow a community of motivated climbers working to support each other in improving their climbing. Additionally, I would eventually like to provide online training programs for those looking for more specific support (and possibly in-person consultations for those in the area).
I plan to continuously provide well-researched information on a variety of topics in climbing to help you and inspire you to become the best climber you can be. I want this blog to help you improve your climbing and enable you to have as much fun on rock as you possible can.
I would love to get in touch with you. Feel free to leave a bit of your story in the comments or reach out to me via email at Senderellastory.com. You can also find me one facebook and instagram.
There is no “best way” to hangboard, but boy are there a lot of ways to do it. Many people, myself included, get a little overwhelmed about choosing the most effective method of hangboarding. The risk for “paralysis by analysis” is very high when examining the many different hangboard programs.
Do not fear the many nuances and options for hangboard protocols, embrace them. You can achieve results with many different protocols long as you follow a few simple rules. In the words of Eva Lopez, a literal PhD in finger strength in climbers, when working to improve your finger strength, “Novelty is enough.”
Additionally, the only unproductive ways to train with a hangboard involve doing any of the following.
Performing your hangboard session in such a way that you injure yourself.
Not giving yourself sufficient rest/quality recovery time after performing a hangboard workout.
Not recording your hangboard workouts in detail and thereby not progressively overloading your fingers to stimulate strength increases
With the “don’t”s out of the way, let’s take a look at the four protocols.
The Repeater protocol, popularized by the Anderson Brothers, involves hangboarding in high volumes with minimal rests between hangs.
The Anderson Brothers repeater protocol specifically calls for 8-10 hold types/positions. Below is a little taste of what a repeater workout might look like. For each hold type you will perform 6 repetitions. One repetition is equal to 10 seconds on followed by a 5 second rest. After completing 6 reps, you move onto the next hold type.
Sloper, 6 sets. 10s hang followed by a 5s rest. Repeat 6x. Rest 3 mins.
20mm Edge, Half Crimp Position, 6 sets. 10s hang followed by a 5s rest. Repeat 6x. Rest 3 mins.
20mm Edge, Full Crimp Position, 6 sets. 10s hang followed by 5s rest. Repeat 6x.
The timing convention varies for the work to rest ratio. Some people like 7s on 3s off. Some people only do 4 sets instead of 6. Personally, I do not believe it matters what you do as long as you pick a method, stick with it for 6-8 sessions (or until you start plateauing), and record results meticulously.
Pros: You can do a full workout at home if you have a hangboard setup. Additionally, repeaters are a long term investment in finger strength.
According to research done by Eva Lopez Ph.D, repeaters are effective in producing structural changes to your fingers and forearms thus increasing your finger strength.
Additionally, due to the high volume/low resistance nature, you are not as likely to overload your fingers with weight. However, the high volume training has its own risks.
Cons: The repeater protocol is obviously high volume which is both exhausting and time consuming. A full Rock Prodigy Hangboard session of 8-10 hold types is a lengthy workout. Note that this is not the only repeater workout, but it is the classic example that most cite when discussing a repeater hangboard program.
Additionally, per the previously mentioned research performed by Eva Lopez Ph.D, the repeater protocol takes a long time to show significant strength gains. If your bouldering trip is in a month, a repeater protocol is not going to quickly yield significant strength gains.
Targeted Result: Structural changes. Power Endurance.
NERD ALERT Examining Structural vs. Neurological Adaptations
Generally speaking, there are two different pathways for strength increase. The first is through neurological adaptation, the second is through structural changes. In Eva’s experiment she compared three different groups over 8 weeks–one performing a Max Hang protocol, another performing a repeater protocol, and the other group performing 4 weeks of max hangs followed by 4 weeks of repeaters.
It was found that in the repeater group in the first 4 weeks there was a +4.6% strength increase followed by a +13.9% overall strength increase in the subsequent weeks. Compared to the overall 28% gains in 8 weeks from the max hang protocol, the repeater protocol seems staggeringly low.
According to Dr. Lopez and supporting literature (you can find citations/references in her blog post) the way in which strength increases occurred for the repeater protocol is indicative of hypertrophy and structural changes. Whereas for the max hang protocol, the changes seemed to be primarily neurological.
Her study is nicely summed up in this awesome infographic. I would highly recommend checking out her post for more details on the subject. The research is very interesting and highly applicable.
Summarily, the reason that different hangboard protocols produce differing results is due to the fact that the body reacts to differently to different forms of training stimuli.
Method: In broad terms, perform a 7-10s hang at a high intensity (in terms of weight, edge size), followed by a long rest of 5+ minutes between sets.
An example workout that I perform during a max hang protocol is as follows:
First I warm up on jugs and large edges. I do 3-4 hangs total. Then I proceed with the following:
Pros: The strength results of this protocol are mostly neurological adaptations. This means that you are training your brain to use the muscles, tendons, etc. in your fingers and forearms more efficiently for greater strength outputs. This is a pro because neurological adaptation happens more quickly than structural adaptation.
Therefore, if you’re picking a protocol and you need to ramp up your finger strength for your trip to Wyoming in 6 weeks, this protocol will help you do so.
Cons: Putting heavy loads on your fingers is very taxing. However, if done properly, you will never be loading your fingers with more than they can handle.
Targeted Result: Neurological adaptations leading to increased finger strength.
Jimmy starts hangboarding, and he does the max hang protocol for 6 weeks. During that time, Jimmy’s strength goes up significantly and Jimmy is pretty psyched. Based on the literature, Jimmy’s strength is improving from neurological adaptations. Jimmy’s fingers are physically not changing much; however, Jimmy has trained his brain to “fire all four cylinders instead of just two”.
In order to keep progressing and avoid plateau, Jimmy decides to change up his hangboard program. Jimmy switches from the max hang protocol to the repeater protocol. Jimmy is frustrated because he is not getting as strong as quickly as he did when he was max hanging. But Jimmy is smart, so he keeps on with the program for 8 weeks, making minimal strength gains. What Jimmy cannot see, is that with the repeater protocol, his fingers are adapting physically to the stimulus of high volume hangboarding. Keeping with the engine metaphor, Jimmy has added a couple of cylinders to his engine; however, Jimmy’s brain has not yet adapted to having six cylinders instead of four.
Jimmy then returns to a max hang protocol and again has success in increasing finger strength. Jimmy now has more cylinders to fire. During his max hanging, Jimmy becomes neurologically adapted to “firing on all six cylinders” instead of just four. Jimmy’s fingers get super strong and Jimmy sends his project. Jimmy is smart. Jimmy trains intelligently and takes good notes while he hangboards so he can get stronger. Be like Jimmy.
3-6-9 Ladders, to me, are a brilliant combination of the repeater and max hang protocols. What sets ladders apart from max hangs lies mostly in the total resistance load on the fingers. Steve Bechtel describes in his book Logical Progression, that he does not prescribe the max hang protocol and instead opts for ladders due to the lighter load placed on the fingers during training.
“The benefits are many, including better execution, less fatigue, reduced injury, and less stress. If you give me a program that doesn’t smoke the athlete, but shows increases in strength, I’ll try it. If it works every time, I’ll buy it. Over the past few years, we’ve come to regard the simple Ladder program as the safest, most effective strength protocol we’ve ever tried.” – Steve Bechtel, Logical Progression
The ladder protocol is fairly simple. In my training using this protocol (per the advice contained in Steve Bechtel’s Logical Progression) I perform the ladders on an edge (typically a 15mm or 20mm based on my current training data and hangboard available), in the open hand, half crimp, and full crimp positions.
How to execute a 3-6-9 Ladder Workout
A hangboard ladder workout looks like this.
To complete one 3-6-9 ladder, you rest between the mini-sets for as long as you need. E.g. after the 3 second hang, you rest until you feel ready for a 6 second hang–same for the rest between the 6s hang and the 9s hang.
Personally I rest 5-20 seconds between executing each hang. e.g. Hang 3s, rest 5-10s, hang 6s, rest 10-15s, then once really rested after 15-20s, I execute the 9s hold. One set of 3-6-9 is one set. You rest 5 minutes between each set. You repeat three “3-6-9” ladder sets per hold for a total of 54s of hanging time per hold.
Pros: Because of the volume, you are not likely to overload the fingers with added resitance. Additionally the protocol offers a decent amount of hangboard volume without the exhaustion of a full-length repeater workout.
Cons: It can be difficult and to understand what rest periods you need within a 3-6-9 ladder set (5s, 10s?). Additionally, it is similarly time consuming to the Anderson Brothers workout.
If you are looking to balance out your strength on each side as well as work on your lock off positioning, this is the protocol for you. This is a more advanced protocol and is a progression to the very advanced practice of one-armed hangs.
The protocol calls for assisted one arm hanging by placing one hand on the hangboard while the other holds onto a rope. Additionally, while finger position is held constant at a half crimp, arm position is varied. The climber will perform the assisted one arm half crimp position with 1. arms fully extended 2. partially bent (~45 degree angle) and completely locked off.
Check out the video below for an explanation of the Webb Parsons Protocol
Pros: Does not require added weight and helps with an muscular imbalances. Additionally trains lock off strength which is not present immediately present in the aforementioned protocols.
Cons: Depending on your gym/setup it might be difficult to find a way to hang a rope. Additionally, it is difficult to measure resistance–though this is not entirely necessary. Takes extra time since you do both sides separately.
Targeted result: balanced strength on both sides of the body, lockoff strength
These are the four main protocols that I have experienced/experimented with in my time on the hangboard. All of them improved my finger strength without injuring me and all of my data during these sessions was recorded.
All one can do is being consistent with hangboard training and change stimuli when needed. However, it is important to remember that hangboarding is a long-term investment. One of my favorite quotes from Steve Bechtel goes something like this: “The work you do in the gym on Tuesday isn’t going to help you send on Saturday.”
Winter is training season for climbers in the northeast. For me, training season involves time spent climbing inside, trying hard on plastic and doing a lot of climbing practice. Pushing myself to the absolute limit mentally and physically usually does not happen until the first outdoor trip of the spring.
As any climber knows, training indoors for months on end can leave one with the desire for a change of pace. Craving a challenge and a bit of pressure, I signed up for the competition at my local gym. I enlisted my boyfriend Michael as belayer and coach and set out to do what I had not done before.
The competition format was not announced until minutes before the competition actually started. The overall vibe was very casual. This was ideal considering I had never competed before.
Competitors had three hours to climb and the objective was to send as many routes/boulders as you could in order to maximize your score. You could elect to compete in either the bouldering or ropes category. If you were so daring you could also compete in both categories, although there was no competitive distinction for competing in both disciplines.
For bouldering, the objective was to complete five boulders worth as many points as possible. The more difficult the routes, the more points you earned.
For the ropes portion, the objective was the same; however, only your top three routes counted for scoring.
Additionally, the format of the rope competition was a strange combination of sport and top rope. For each category (novice, intermediate, advanced) the highest scoring and most difficult route was a lead only route. Therefore, unless it was the category “lead route” there was really no point in sport climbing.
The number of attempts per route or boulder were tracked for use in the case of a tie. If two people had the same score, but one acquired the points in less attempts, they would be deemed the winner.
Driven to really test my capacity to climb as hard as possible for three hours, I decided that I wanted to try to place top three in both bouldering and ropes. With this election, I risked spreading myself too thin to place in either category. Despite this, non-strategic overachieving is the way I chose to go.
How I Spent my Time
Before the comp I did a pretty easy warmup that did not involve any climbing–I figured I had three hours of climbing ahead of me and that the climbing specific warmup would happen during the comp.
I did 5 minutes of rowing, 10 minutes of a dynamic warmup, and I warmed up some small, potentially tweaky holds on the hangboard just before the start time.
During the competition I spent the first 45 minutes racking up flashable V4s and V5s on the vertical wall. After this, I headed to another section overhanging boulders and spent a few attempts on some higher-scoring V5s–with little success. The most frustrating point of the competition was almost sending this boulder, and falling while I reach my second hand to the finish hold. This was on attempt number 8.
I wore myself out and racked up somewhat dismal resume of “top 5” boulders for the intermediate category. I decided it was time to pack it in and head to the ropes.
After bouldering at my limit for an hour, the routes felt nice and sustained; however fatigue set in more quickly than I had hoped.
The nerves were evident on the ropes. After 2-3 almost ascents on each of the highest scoring intermediate routes, I actually failed to qualify as a competitor in the ropes competition.
Essentially, I flashed two routes in the category and proceeded to fall off of the last moves of three different high-scoring routes for the last hour of the comp.
The risk of spreading myself too thin had materialized in full.
At 4:00 p.m., I still felt the effects of my morning cup of coffee. I then mixed myself some Gnarly Nutrition BCAAs to drink during the comp–not considering that these also contain caffeine.
By the time I started the ropes section, I was completely overstoked on caffeine and adrenaline. My hands shook, I climbed spastically, and I became more and more frustrated as I popped off the top moves of every route I tried for an hour.
My boyfriend, belayer, and coach du Jour, Michael, begged me to slow down and take deep breaths before each attempt. It was pretty hilarious actually. He literally tried to hold me still, but I could hardly close my eyes for more than 15 seconds before I got bored an started looking at the routes again. Between the nerves and the caffeine I was suffering from caffeine-induced ADHD.
Frankly, after getting so close to topping a high-scoring V5 and falling, my attitude shifted from confidence to concern and then down-right panic. My ability to keep it cool and climb smoothly for the last hour completely crumbled.
The negative self-talk was rampant. My internal emotional state was way to over-stressed for someone competing in a casual local gym comp.
I placed a lot of pressure on myself to do well and I was not living up to my personal expectations.
The big question in the back of my head was “if you train this much, then why are you sucking so bad?” –Not the most encouraging thing to say to yourself.
I did not focus well and I felt pretty shut down after failing repeatedly on the ropes and the boulders.
Overall, my mental state in high-stress situations could use some work.
But was it fun?
Of course! I love a day of thrashing myself and the setting was a total blast on the boulders. Having a performance-based day of climbing was also really nice since the past few months have been “training, training, training.”
Additionally, it was pretty fun to climb with people I have never met before and to cheer everyone on. I also did the comp with a few friends and despite my distressed internals, they kept me laughing and joking for the whole competition–even though I was a little stressed out.
Before results were announced, my friend Mel and I decided that we were really tired, sick of falling, and we needed to drink some beer after all of this.
We planned to leave before the awards ceremony, but we were advised to stick around. I am definitely glad we did.
Despite spending literally half of the competition on ropes (and subsequently not qualifying) I still somehow got 2nd place overall for women’s bouldering. It felt pretty good to claim a title.
Mel ended up getting first place in intermediate ropes. In short, our pity party of two actually came away with some prizes.
Of course, we headed over to the bar next door to do what climbers do after a long day of climbing: have a beer and rehash the day’s glories and failures.
The competition was a test, an architecture to bring out some “try hard”, and a good way to facilitate a high-pressure climbing situation–or at least higher pressure than the usual gym session.
Did I do as well as I wanted to? No! But I am more than ready to try again–with more strategy and less caffeine next time.
Thanks to the staff and community at the Gravity Vault in Hoboken for putting on a fun event. I am very glad I participated!
“You’re an adrenaline junkie.” I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. Your aunt says it to you when you bring up your latest adventure. It is often said and, I believe, seldom true.
I am not an Adrenaline Junkie
For me this label of “adrenaline junkie” is not quite right. Personally, I do not seek out an adrenaline rush, but it happens to be the byproduct of the activities I find most enjoyable. The truth is, for me at least, the fear and anxiety are not desirable at all. These are emotions that I deal with fairly regularly—on an almost daily basis, actually–and in situations that do not traditionally merit panic at all.
Like many individuals, I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. Things that are categorized as mundane for others have sent me into panic attacks and have left me near-catatonic states. A particularly interesting incident of this occurred the night before a job interview a few years back.
Don’t Panic, it’s just a Parking Garage
The company had paid for a rental car and a nice hotel for me to stay in for my travels to the on site interview. I was so overcome with anxiety that I could not park the car. Sitting in the middle of the garage at midnight, I was bawling my eyes out and hyperventilating. I was too afraid to park the Jeep Grand Cherokee in one of the tiny parking spots available to me. Eventually, I was able to squeeze the car in somewhere, but between the interview anxiety and coming down from the panic attack, I barely slept at all that night.
For some people parking a rental car in a parking garage is hardly memorable. For me, it can mean an evening destroyed and a good night’s sleep ruined. It can be a terrible, shameful memory for years to come. This might sound pretty crazy, especially to someone without anxiety. I feel pretty nuts even describing this situation, but it is what it is.
Crazy Enough to Keep Climbing
So imagine this same individual who can barely handle parking a nice car in a parking garage and put them 10 feet above the bolt on the sharp end. Let’s put them one hundred feet up a rock face and see how they manage.
If a parking garage can cause me to have a panic attack, then it seems like I’ve picked a pretty ridiculous pastime, don’t you think?
I agree. It’s crazy, but climbing is a sport I’ve fallen in love with and I do not plan to let a bit of generalized anxiety disorder keep me from a good time. I want everyone to know that any fears of heights, falling, whatever it is, can be resolved. If you are afraid now, you can fix it. I have come a long way since I started climbing and you certainly can too.
The “Personal Cry Line”
Alpine environments have what is referred to as a tree line. This is a height at which trees are no longer able to grow. I used to have what I referred to as a “personal cry line” a height at which the tears would start flowing. No matter the style–top rope or sport or whatever, at about 80 feet off the deck you could almost guarantee that I was on the wall crying. It did not matter how hard the route, what the weather was like, or how safe I truly was. Once I was too high up, I was in a silent, tearful, private hell.
Why would you keep doing that to yourself? Do you enjoy emotional turmoil? Isn’t this supposed to be for fun?
Well yeah. But like I said before, I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I just like a challenge. I think I kept climbing and pushing myself because this fear was something to concur. Also, I could see tons of people around me having a normal, fun time on the wall—taking whips and everything!
It gets better
I wish I could say that now because of some intense meditation program I’m 100% better and I’m basically a monk now and climbing never gets scary anymore (see my face above), but that isn’t true. Climbing is fun, but it is still a scary sport.
I think I had a major breakthrough when I spent two weeks straight sport climbing in Rodellar, Spain. What really did it was just continually getting back on the horse. I had a few freak outs on that trip, but taking falls every day and continually being exposed to the kind of heights that I found so scary was critical to diminishing my fears.
It is definitely not easy, but I think any time you want to shy away from a route, or “just top rope it”, you actually need to go ahead and lead it. You have to face your fears and maybe some day the fears will go away, or at least become way more manageable.
Practical Tips to Help your Head Game
Here are a few specific things that I have done to help me get over my mental hump in climbing.
Take warmup falls on lead in the gym. I take super small falls to get used to the sensation. Somtimes I make myself whip. I also made it a point to climb until failure in the gym sometimes—this isn’t really training advice as constantly redlining isn’t helpful, but the idea still stands. You need to get good at “going for it” in the gym and falling so that you can take this comfort outside with you.
Practicing clipping on the ground. I noticed that whenever I didn’t quickly get the clip in, it would escalate my nervousness when climbing. If this is something you suffer with as well, practice clipping smoothly while hanging out at the crag (on the ground, of course). Being more efficient at clipping will help your climbing and your mental game too.
Pre-climb mantras. Sometimes I pick a phase to repeat in my head to clear my thoughts before I start climbing. I’ll repeat phrases like “I trained for this and I can do it.” Or “You know what to do.” Or even simple things like “being above bolt is fun”. I’ve learned to consciously choose to relax and focus to avoid letting my head get carried away.
If you can top rope it, you can lead it. So hop on the sharp end and start clipping.
You Can Win the Head Games Too
Over my time as a climber I have progressed from top rope panic attacks to taking surprise whips and laughing it off. Climbing with anxiety may take a little extra effort. Some people with anxiety may have an added challenge when taking the sharp end of the rope. But the confidence that comes with conquering fears on a cliff face are impactful. Now, when I’m faced with a parking garage I can remind myself “hey, you can do this. If you can whip 20 feet on lead and laugh about it, you can park this car too.”
I see a lot of climbers in the gym doing long, horrible looking ab workouts. I saw a guy the other day do flutter kicks for what seemed like five minutes straight. As for me, I train strength specifically once a week and I do one ab-specific exercise during that session. Three sets, that’s it. The result: since August of last year I have gone from being able to barely get my feet to 45 degrees to being able to do a legitimate hanging leg raise. Also, I’ve noticed that my feet are cutting way less while I’m climbing. Skill practice helps, but I bet having strong abs isn’t hurting. The best part though? No flutter kicks or crunches required.
High Reps Are Not Helping You
After hearing the name tossed around in different arenas-from weightlifting to climbing, I decided it was high time I launch my own research of Pavel Tsatsouline.
Pavel Tsatsouline is famous for being the “Father of the Kettlebell”. However, he has done much more than just introduce the kettle bell to the West. He is a former Soviet Special Forces, and has implemented strength programs for high end Military teams ranging from the U.S. Marine Corps., Navy Seals and even the Secret Service. He holds a Sports Science degree and has authored many books including Hardstyle Abs on which this post is mainly based.
The mission statement of Hardstyle Abs is quite simple: “an extraordinarily strong and developed ‘six pack'”. It is no coincidence that the first substantive chapter of the book is titled “Why High Reps Have Failed You”. High rep, high variety exercises do not produce the kind of strong abs you are after.
“The burn you feel from high reps is from lactate build up and does absolutely nothing for toning up your muscles.” – Pavel Tsatsouline, Hardstyle Abs
3-5 Sets of 3-5 Reps
“As for training your abdomen, there are many different ways…. you have to keep the repetitions to 5 reps and under. Any more than 5 reps is bodybuilding. You need to make a focus on tension/contraction instead of on repetitions.” – Pavel Tsatsouline, Tim Ferris Episode 55
Research and practical experience shows that training in low repetitions generally increases muscle strength without causing hypertrophy (muscle growth). This is why Pavel says “anything more than 5 reps is bodybuilding.”
Without getting too far into the weeds of physiology/sports science , you can make strength gains neurologically without actually increasing muscle mass. As many trainers explain this phenomenon–it is like having a four cylinder engine and learning to fire all four instead of just two (this analogy was used by Pavel earlier on in his interview with Tim Ferriss).
For climbing, UFC fighting, power lifting, etc. the athlete’s power to weight ratio is of interest–so if you can gain strength without gaining mass, this is hugely advantageous. Here are the top two reasons to train your abs this way.
Having strong abs without actually gaining muscle is a useful climbing adaptation.
Saving time on your ab workout means less time doing crunches and more time climbing.
Three Exercises to Train Your Abs
According to Pavel, the method of obtaining as Pavel puts it “an extraordinarily strong and developed six pack” is essentially broken up into three parts. They are breathing, sit ups, and the hanging leg raise. Pavel has also mentioned doing very short, intense planks so I will discuss those as well.
The first step, perhaps to the chagrin of the eager exerciser is a breathing technique derived from Martial Arts. I am not going to begin to try to explain it so watch this video. The breathing technique is integrated into both sit ups, hanging leg raises, and might help you keep your midsection tight on the crux of your project.
So after you’ve mastered breathing, pelvic alignment, etc. (seriously watch the video) you can move on to what Pavel calls Hardstyle Sit-ups. Ideally, you either have a partner or you have a specialized piece of equipment for just this application. Personally, I do not want to count on having a partner available and I my climbing gym does not have a “Pavelizer”. So I am going to demonstrate option #3 which is to tie a resistance band to a raised surface or a door knob like so.
Hard Style Sit-Ups: Procedure
I have tried these. In my first attempts, I found doing two reps correctly to be pretty difficult.
Set up your form of resistance (person with towel, or resistance band) at a 90 degree angle from your calves
Start at the top of a sit up. Two small hisses and a final, larger one to fully engage your abs.
Lean back slowly, sipping in air as you go. Keep your back straight and pelvis tilted forward and engaged.
Come back up to start, maintaining a straight back.
Repeat 3-5 times (or two times). Rest 3-5 minutes between sets.
This “hard style sit up” is the basis for the mother of all ab exercises, the Hanging Leg Raise.
2. A Proper Hanging Leg Raise
Doing a hanging leg raise is a BIG topic and a big goal. Mine is definitely getting there but it sure isn’t perfect.
I would definitely check out the above video, but in short, here are the guidelines to a perfect hanging leg raise:
Arms are straight
Legs are straight
Starts from a dead hang, does not involve momentum
Shins/feet touch the bar.
Use narrow grip on the bar–thumbs almost touching
Triceps should be engaged.
Do not let your lower back arch
Here are examples of all of my faults/ common mistakes. It’s a work in progress!
Here is a picture of the top of one rep. Legs could be a little straighter, but good form is mostly evident here.
If you are already a practicer of the hanging leg raise. Pavel recommends doing–you guessed it, 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 3-5 minutes of rest in between. For maximum speed of results he recommends doing this 3 times per week. He also notes that you should not go to failure on these. Do as many as you can intensely and well and then stop.
3. Intense Planking
No. Not this kind.
Another recommendation Pavel gives in his interview with Tim Ferriss is instead of performing a plank for an extended period of time (e.g. the typical 60s-120s) you should squeeze everything so intensely that you cannot go on after about 10 seconds. of plank is commonly referred to as the RKC plank.
Pavel presents some impressive data showing that doing planks in this manor is significantly more effective in activating your core than planks done in the traditional manor. Data was collected at a kettle bell instructor course by physiologist Bret Contreras with electromyography (EMG) measurements. He compared the peak activation of the lower rectus abdominus (RA), internal oblique, and external oblique in the traditional plank and the “Pavulized” RKC version. Results summarized below.
Lower RA contracted more than three times more intensely in the RKC plank than the traditional plank.
Internal obliques contracted more than two times more intensely than the traditional version.
External obliques contracted almost four times as intensely in the RKC plank than the traditional plank.
The RKC plank is an elegant time-saving solution. You get at least twice the intensity in your abs for less than half the time. And the exercise is gloriously portable as well–all you need is yourself!
Program Design Tips
Depending on how much ab training you do already, this may seem like you’re either about to save time or you’re about to spend a lot more time on your abs. I know it can be super tough to fit it all in.
Recommendations from Pavel in Hardstyle Abs:
Train your abs 3x per week
Do not train your abs before heavy lifting or when tired
“Treat your training session as ‘practice’ not a ‘workout’. ” Pavel means to say that you should not be totally exhausting yourself, you should be practicing to improve at the movements.
“Alternate two weeks of Hardstyle sit-ups and two weeks of leg raises (block training).”
Do not train to failure.
For whatever exercises you do, make sure to do a “total of 10-25 reps per session”.
CLIMBER RECOMMENDATION: Personally, I hangboard and stretch during the 3-5 minute rest periods. Pavel recommends that during rest periods, you can stretch or do “unrelated exercises like calf raises.”
Yearly planning: Pavel recommends following this regimen twice a year for 8-12 weeks and “in the interim: heavy lifting”.
It seems like the ideal time to train your abs might be as part of a twice-yearly strength phase. This seems like it might be aggressive and hard to maintain during projecting season. but to each their own!
After diving deep into Pavul’s precription for strong abs, I am considering adding a session of ab work/stretching after endurance days as well. There is potential to do some abs in the morning before heading off to work. It may be possible to do core in separate session (AM vs. evening) from climbing, this is also recommended.
In the big picture I am more focused on being a good climber than having insanely strong abs (although these are not mutually exclusive).
My one ab exercise per week in conjunction with deadlifting has yielded great results. I may add more ab workouts as my training goes away from more limit boulder/strength and gears toward endurance. I will certainly keep you posted. Pavel does have me stoked on getting me some world-class “abbies”.
In any case, I hope that if you are a crunch-doing, bicycling, 5-minute plank kind of person that you now know that there’s a better way to go. It is my greatest wish that you stop doing high reps and start getting your “extraordinarily strong and developed six pack”.
So, may you get yourself some strong abs so that you can truly climb whatever inspires you.
When I picked up a copy of How to Climb 5.12, I found an extraordinarily fun worksheet in the back of the book. Its a pyramid shaped chart you fill out with all the routes you have done at certain grades. It is also a good place to give yourself a gold star for your latest redpoint. See below for a representation of a route pyramid as someone works up to their first 5.11a (applies to all other grades as well).
The concept of the route pyramid is simple. Build up a good base of routes at one grade before moving onto the next. Explicitly, a base of eight routes at the a/b level (or 5.8 in the case of your first 10a), 4 routes at the c level, and two routes at the d level before reaching whatever X.a you are looking to send.
This is great advice and in 2018 I didn’t follow it at all. The route pyramid is not law, but based on my experience this season, my lacking adherence to it has been strongly associated to the predicted outcome from Eric Horst.
Eric, if you’re for some reason reading this, you can say “I told you so.”
Let’s break down a couple of situations in which I learned about the value of the route pyramid. I’m going to elaborate on my mistakes, because dear god, don’t repeat them if you can avoid it.
Example 1: Time well spent or time well wasted?
Eager and confident that I could bag my first 12a in the fall, I went full force into projecting Orangahang in Rumney, New Hampshire. During that time, I clung to this line written in How to Climb 5.12.
Avoid getting involved in projects more than one number grade above your onsight level – Eric Horst
For reference, this is what my route pyramid looked like prior to working on Orangahang:
I had a lot of two-try 11a sends, and an 11a flash under my belt. Not quite an 11a onsight. So per the advice of Eric Horst I was an extremely borderline case of having any business trying to redpoint Orangahang–a full number grade harder than my almost 11a onsight.
Results: Over three weekends and more than 15 total attempts, I did not send this route. I whittled it down to a couple moderately satisfying one hangs, sorted out the beta, but still no send. The pyramid prevailed.
I did learn quite a bit about the process of projecting, but I can’t help but think I would have gained more from climbing some high 5.11s and saving myself the frustration and discouragement that came from failing on this route so many times. Fall in Rumney doesn’t last long, and I spent essentially all of it working one route.
Verdict: My route pyramid showed I was not really ready to start working a 5.12a. My results were as such.
Example 2: Close enough?
Having headed home without a send from the last reasonable weekend in Rumney, I was off to Mallorca where I bagged another 11b and my first 11d. So then my route pyramid looked like this. Still no 11c on the roster though.
I had three days for a Red River Gorge trip and a tick list that involved some high 11s and a couple “this route will really suit me” 12as, I barged into my former home crag ready for more action.
It comes to no surprise that with a solid 5.11a/b foundation, Banshee 5.11c went down easily in two attempts.
On the second day of our trip, I spent an entire day on Beattyville Pipeline, 12a. This route was selected because it suits me and it is a style I prefer.
Results: I racked up seven attempts in one day. The first few burns were mostly for working beta, then I moved into redpoint attempts. My final attempt that day left me at an ascent involving one fall, reaching the finish hold and falling before clipping the anchors. Close, but no cigar. Maybe if I had another day I could have done it. Maybe not.
Verdict: Closer, better prepared, but still no 12a. Projects started with an incomplete base of routes were still out of my reach.
The state of the route pyramid directly correlated to my rate of success on whatever route I was working on. Solid base of 11a/b lead to an easy send of 11c and 11d. Minimal base of 11c/11d–still no 12a.
So what can we learn from my personal experimentation this year? Here are a few key takeaways.
You don’t have to follow the pyramid exactly. You can skip from 11a to 11c because you feel moved to try it. Climbing is fun, it is not calculus.
Trying to skip grades or move too fast through the grades is potentially very unproductive.
Your ego has the potential to get in the way of you getting better at climbing. Doing three 10cs really well in 1-2 tries is better (and feels better) than slapping around for eternity on an 11b that you are not yet ready for.
So now what? This is what my route pyramid looks like at the end of 2018.
Using myself as a case study, it is prudent for me to add more 11c and 11d routes to my resume. My strategy at the beginning of next season is to fill out the rest of this chart. Then, I plan to continue on to tackling my first 5.12a.
In summary, I believe following the route pyramid as a guideline is a wise, and time efficient decision to make as a climber.
I think it’s wise to ask yourself every now and again: “What does my route pyramid look like and where do I think I can take it from here?”