We’ve all felt it. Your forearms feel like a time bomb. You’ve done all the moves on your project but for some reason you can’t link it all together. You’re left one-hanging over and over and you can’t figure out why.
The solution could implicate many factors. It might be mental, it may be some sub-par beta that you need to let go of, or it might be that you don’t have enough power endurance. It’s probably a combination of these. But today, we will address one of them. So let’s get into it by answering a big question: what is power endurance?
Defining Power Endurance
In NERD TERMS (or scientific terms) this is the anaerobic lactic energy system. If you want to get deep into the biochemistry and learn literally all about it check out Eric Horst’s Energy System Podcast on this Energy System. If you don’t want to learn about ATP and Lactate and glycolysis, etc. That’s OK too. Just read on.
Let’s take a crash course in the three energy systems VERY QUICKLY before we get into the weeds on power endurance. Please note that I am intentionally oversimplifying this because I think you can get by and apply these concepts to your training without being overwhelmed by exercise science and physiology.
With, that let’s start with the alactic energy system.
Alactic Energy System (Power)
Think explosive, short term power. This energy pathway does not require oxygen. Examples include a 5 move boulder problem or a 1 rep max deadlift, a 10 second sprint interval. Short, maximal power = anaerobic energy system. This energy system will output for about 8-12 seconds before your body has to bring in another energy pathway as backup.
Aerobic Energy System (Endurance)
Think sustained, long-term efforts. Like marathons, long multi-pitch routes, or swimming long distances. Endurance sports mainly use the aerobic energy system. This energy system can be the primary source of energy production for extended periods of time
Anaerobic Lactic System (Power Endurance)
In practical terms, the Power Endurance energy system is the primary energy system that is being used when you are in a sequence of near-maximal effort for a period of time that ranges from 30s – 3 minutes. Think of it in terms of the crux of a route or how you feel on a long boulder problem – or maybe in terms of a 400 meter sprint. I like to think if it as going at 80%-90% maximum capacity for as long as I possibly can. Here is how the Anderson brothers explain it:
“When the limits of aerobic respiration are reached, the muscle increasingly (but not exclusively) relies on glycolysis, which doesn’t require oxygen. On difficult near limit rock climbs, this threshold is reached very quickly and the pump clock begins to tick.”
– The Rock Climber’s Training Manual pg. 153
Summarily, if you train to increase the capacity of your power endurance, you can add time to your own proverbial pump clock. This will help you stay on the wall through crux sequences and long boulder problems.
If you really want to learn more about the energy systems and you have 7 minutes to geek out. Please do! Go ahead and watch this video.
How to Train Power Endurance
Training power endurance is done by simulating the intensity and length of crux sequences by using repeated intervals of intense work with little rest in between. Think of taking 80% of the hardest moves you can do and being able to stretch your ability to work at this level of intensity as far as it will go. Here are a couple of experts explaining this style of training:
“Unlike endurance, where you have a manageable pump, in training power endurance you will become very pumped to the point of possibly coming off the wall…”
“Continuous difficult bouldering or climbing — with only brief shakeouts–that produces muscular failure in approximately two to five minutes is the preferred training method.” – Eric Horst, How to Climb 5.12 pg. 62
There are tons of different ways to train power endurance. Here are a few of my favorites. Note that these are difficult sessions, so be sure to be well warmed up before performing any of these. Additionally, be prepared to take a good rest day afterwards.
#1: Boulders on the Minute from Steve Bechtel’s Logical Progression
This is my go-to Power/Strength Endurance session. I do this year round, except when it’s getting really close to send time in the fall – then I resort to other even more intense methods. For me, this is less intense than other forms of power endurance training. It is more about training the work capacity to do high-intensity movements for a long duration of time. E.g. working the limit moves on your project all day.
The workout goes like this: you set a timer and complete boulders 1-2 grades below your max on the minute every 3 minutes (if this does not feel intense enough, drop it down to 2 minutes).
At time 0:00 you will start climbing, then you will rest until your stopwatch says 3:00. You will then continue on at 6:00, 9:00, etc. until you complete 6 problems. After you complete your six boulder problems, rest for 10-15 minutes. Repeat the circuit (resting in between) three times.
Progressing this: You can progress this session by reducing time between boulders (going from 3 minutes to 2 minutes, etc.) or increasing the difficulty of the problems in the circuit. The idea is to make this session intense, so adding more boulders is not really the idea if you are trying to make this more difficult.
RESOURCE: Logical Progression by Steve Bechtel
#2: Route Intervals from the Rock Climber’s Training Manual
Pick a route that is 1-2 letter grades above your max onsight. For me, I would find a 5.11+ in the gym since my highest onsight is a 5.11a. Then, I would record how long it takes me to do one lap. I would start with a 1:2 work to rest ratio. I would complete 2-4 laps total. The workout would look like this.
Lap #1: 2 minutes.
REST 4 minutes
Lap #2: 2 minutes
REST 4 Minutes
Lap #3: 2 minutes
Rest 4 Minutes
You get the picture.
How to progress this: The main way to progress this is to decrease the work to rest ratio. The goal would be to get this ratio from 1:2 to 1:1. You could also find a slightly harder route, but I find that it takes plenty of sessions to get from 1:2 to 1:1 – this should keep you pretty busy.
RESOURCE: The Rock Climber’s Training Manual
#3: Linked Boulder Circuits from the Rock Climber’s Training Manual
My FAVORITE way to train power endurance (and possibly the most dreadful) is the linked boulder circuit. This type of PE training is very intense and I do not participate in this year-round. This is how you do it.
Pick 2-3 boulder problems on the wall (you’re going to go down at least one of them). These should total 20-40 hand moves. The difficulty of the circuit should be such that you can complete the full circuit many times over. For example my limit as a boulderer is V6, my linked boulder circuits usually don’t include anything more difficult than V4. Here’s me performing a linked boulder circuit in the gym.
After you’ve figured out your circuit (make sure you’ve done the problems and rehearsed all the moves before you get started), get your timer ready. Complete the circuit and time how long it takes to do it. Start with a work to rest ratio of 1:2.
For a circuit of 20-40 hand move, perform it 6-8 times. For 40-60 hand moves, Perform the circuit 4-6 times.
Ground Rules: If you fall but you don’t feel too pumped, continue the circuit. If you completely pump out, end the circuit, check the time and record the number of hand moves (or just write down where you fell). Once you can’t complete 75% of the circuit, end the session.
Progressing the Circuit: Similar to the other sessions described here, you can progress by decreasing the work to rest ratio. The objective is going from 1:2 to 1:1. Additionally you can make the circuit harder by changing the order of problems in the circuit. If your circuit is Up V4-down V2- Up V3, you can increase the difficulty by doing the V3 first and putting the V4 at the end. Alternatively, you can make the circuit more difficult by increasing the difficulty of the problems in the circuit. E.g. swap out the V3 for a V4, etc
RESOURCE: The Rock Climber’s Training Manual .
#4: The Classic 4×4
Although this is similar to the Bechtelian Power Endurance workout explained in #1, the 4×4 is a classic and must be included in this list.
The 4×4 is traditionally done with boulders. You proceed to do four slightly sub-maximal boulder problems right in a row. After completing them you rest for a time (I would say something similar to the 1:2 or 1:1 work to rest ratios we’ve discussed prior would be fine). And then you repeat the 4 boulders again. Do this until you have done 16 total routes.
It’s easy to remember and does a pretty good job for what it is.
How to progress the 4×4: Similar to the other sessions we’ve discussed, you can either make the problems more difficult OR you can shorten the rest interval. Either one should do the trick.
A Warning about 4x4s
Although they are traditionally thought of as a classic power endurance workout, the rest after you come off the wall between boulders is not ideal.
“The 5 or more seconds that pass as the climber drops from as the climber drops from the end of one problem to start the next is a virtual eternity to battered forearms gasping for respite. These unrealistic rests reduce training stress and interfere with desired adaptation.” The Rock Climber’s Training Manual pg. 156
That being said, they are a simple session to implement and if simple gets you to commit to doing them consistently, then that’s great and there isn’t much else to argue about.
Power Endurance Training: Seasonal Timing
Personally, 4-8 weeks prior to fall outdoor climbing season is when I start focusing on Power Endurance Training. That is because my favorite fall climbing areas are the Red River Gorge – and more recently, Mallorca. These areas are generally steep and require one to make big, powerful moves when fatigued and “pumped out” if you will.
When to do it?
In periodized training programs (see Block vs. Non-Linear Periodization), Power Endurance is the “finishing touch” before you head into the outdoor performance season. Any classic periodized program from the Rock Climber’s Training Manual, to How to Climb 5.12, to Climb 5.13 from the Power Company always finishes out the program with Power Endurance. But why is that?
Essentially, for a relatively short period of time, your body makes adaptations so that you can “extend the pump clock” (in very simple non-biological terms). However, this type of training can be very stressful on the muscles and nervous system and these adaptations DO NOT last forever.
“Anaerobic endurance training places high levels of stress on the nervous system and muscles. Beyond a certain point, the body cannot recover from these workouts.”
– Eric Horst, How to Climb 5.12 pg. 63
For most of these periodized programs, it is not recommended that you solely train this energy system (PE workouts 3-4 times per week) for more than 2-4 weeks.
Which brings me to non-linear periodization.
Programming Power Endurance for Non-Linear Periodization
I have been following a non-linear program for about a year now and it has been working well for me. My trips this fall are spread out and I basically need to have 3 spikes of solid power endurance for a trip to the Red River Gorge for Labor Day, a trip to Mallorca in October and another trip to the Red in November.
I am navigating this by emphasizing power endurance in my time leading up to these trips, but I continuing to train strength and endurance throughout the rest of the fall.
My tactic is pretty simple: overall, I am making sure to have one linked boulder circuit session per week and one route interval (lower intensity PE) per week. Then my other 1-2 sessions are used to maintain strength and low-end endurance.
Between the trips I am going to take complete rest weeks. My goal is to train up power endurance more as I get close to my ventures outdoors, but not to the point of overload.
A Word from the Experts
I took a lot of these queues from Steve Bechtel’s interview in Episode 110 of the TrainingBeta Podcast:
“If I was looking at my year, I’m going to spend probably two months trying to develop strength and power. I’m going to be working primarily on bouldering, on explosiveness, on the hangboard, all those sorts of things. We need to always be developing strength and power because there’s really good correlations between someone being stronger and their ability to endure submaximal loads. I can spend a lot of time working strength and power.
I’m going to take about a month after that. I’ve spent about eight weeks working strength and power and I’m going to take about four weeks and I can combine in some of this low intensity interval stuff at the end of sessions and stuff like that. Then, we go into a glycolytic peak. That’s when Mike and Mark [the brothers behind the Rock Climber’s training manual] would reduce rest periods and that’s when we can put in all of these basic things like boulder problem 4×4’s, linked problems, all those sorts of things but understanding that that’s this last little thing. It’s the frosting on the cake. If you’re a Mad Max fan, that’s the nitrous. The last little boost you give your engine but you can’t run the nitrous all the time or you’re going to burn the engine out.” –
TrainingBeta Episode 110 with Steve Bechtel
The Big Take-Aways
Firstly, I hope you have learned about the different energy systems that contribute to your climbing. Having a basic understanding of the systems that get you up the wall is critical to becoming a better climber.
Secondly, I hope you’ve learned a few interesting sessions to incorporate into your time at the gym to help you improve on your projects this season.
And thirdly, I hope you’ve learned that you should strategically train power endurance so that you sustainably improve without wearing yourself out.
How do you like to train power endurance? Is this your first time hearing about energy systems in climbing? What has your experience been with power endurance training? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you!
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