Sunday, March 17, 2013

Get Better at Rock Climbing... Today!

Climbing at the Sun Tower in Unaweep Canyon
Traditional climbing in Unaweep Canyon
Getting better at rock climbing, every climber wants to do it, not everyone knows how. There are some crazy theories out there, some good and some not as good. But if you really want to improve your climbing in the shortest time possible, there are a few tricks that will help you turn that project from a dream into a send. This article is a brief look at some time-tested methods that are guaranteed to make you a better climber.

I will break this article into several sections and end it with a sample one-month workout routine that will help you see results fast.

An important aspect of training for climbing is conditioning your body to be in the ultimate shape for rock climbing. But what does this ultimate shape look like? Bulky and ripped with muscles?  Lean and slender? The truth is there is a good medium. Too much muscle is as bad as too little, as muscle is heavy and will weigh you down. Consider Ashima Shiraishi,  the young climbing prodigy who recently gained notoriety for being the youngest person to climb V13 and 5.14c. Ashima is very small and light, and her strength-to-weight ration allows her to make gymnastic moves on the tiniest holds.

One thing that is for certain, however, is that excess body fat should be your first priority. Unlike muscle it obviously doesn't add to your strength and acts like an anchor while on the wall. When I first started climbing, I was about fifteen pounds over my ideal climbing weight. Losing that extra flab alone allowed me to go from a shaky 5.8 climber to a shaky 5.10 climber. Chances are, you know if you are a little overweight. As a climber you have to be very lean to climb at your peak.
   A. Cardio/overall fitness
     Cardio fitness is important. It helps you shed excess weight and will help you build stamina. If you are overweight and need to lose some pounds, I recommend a vigorous cardio workout three or four times a week. This could mean a 40 minute run, an hour of hard swimming, or a difficult hike. Anything that gets you breathing hard and sweating and gets your heart rate up into the training range (about 80% of your max) for at least 30 minutes consistently. If you are already at or near an ideal weight, you can reduce this to two times a week and lessen the intensity.
   B. Muscle training
     Lifting weights has some benefit for climbing, but while building head-turning biceps might be good to impress the ladies (or guys) it does little to help you send that 5.12 project you've been dreaming about. Most of your muscle training should be focused on working muscles that oppose the most frequently used climbing muscle groups. For example, climbing is a forearm-intensive activity, so working out the extensor muscle group (the muscles opposite the forearm) with exercises such as reverse wrist curls will help keep you from becoming too lopsided and risking injury. Basic muscle exercises, however, like push-ups, sit-ups, wrist curls, lat pulls, etc, can have some benefit if you feel you are lacking in overall strength. Climbing, however, is the best training for climbing, as will be discussed in the next section.

A 5.12a sport climb at the Puoux in Glenwood Canyon
The author on Urban Cowboy (5.12a)
     The best way to become the climber you always wanted to be is to climb, and climb a lot. But haphazardly attacking the wall at your local gym, consistently flailing on climbs that are too hard for you, or climbing the same routes over and over, are all ways to slow your progress, and soon you will find yourself plateauing and wondering why you don't seem to get better despite how often you are tying in. Here are a few ideas regarding making the most your actual climbing time.
   A. On-sight climbing- One of the quickest ways to find yourself stuck on that proverbial plateau  is to climb the same routes over and over. The cure to this is simple: focus your time climbing on-sight! Always find new routes and new areas. The more rock you are exposed to, the easier you will be able to adapt to anything new you might encounter. Running laps on climbs you know by heart may be good for endurance, but your muscle memory is locked and you gain very little skill. Try to spend 2/3rds of your climbing time on rock that is brand new to you. At the gym, try climbing "random" routes where you pick your way as you go. Difficulty is less important than you might think, but exposing your body to new holds, new positions, and new sequences will make your skill level skyrocket.
   B. Projecting- Although it is good to spend most of your time climbing onsight, projecting has benefits too. For one, having a "dream project" helps keep you motivated and working hard to improve. It also challenges you to force your body to improve. You may discover new types of sequences that you never thought of. The key to projecting is not to become too fixated. Try your project for awhile and move on, but don't focus only on one climb.  Beware, however; projecting a climb that is overly difficult for you, one where you make very little progress on any given day, is not productive and a quick way to find yourself feeling stuck.
   C. Downclimbing- A highly neglected aspect of climbing. It is easy to reach the top of a route, feeling tired, as simply yell "ready to lower". If you do this, however, you are missing out on a chance to work on a necessary and valuable skill: downclimbing. Downclimbing teaches you balance and makes you think about the rock in ways you may never have thought of. I suggest doing it as often as possible. Just remember while downclimbing to be safe and don't try it on a route that might put you in danger.
   D. The Gym- Gym climbing is a good way to build your strength and work on technique in a user-friendly and relatively safe setting. However, the gym is not real rock, and spending too much time at the gym can actually hurt your outdoor skills in some ways. Gym climbing is good for bad weather days and the off-season. You can work out hard, get many reps in, and improve your skills. On the other hand, those neon holds are often not very much like what you will really encounter and make route reading far too easy. The best way to get better at real climbing is to climb outside as much as possible, and supplement this with indoor climbing when the outdoors aren't available.
   E. Rest days- Another huge mistake many climbers make is to climb too much. You must give yourself plenty of good days of rest. One key to remember is that you don't gain strength during workout days, only while you sleep and rest. If you are climbing hard 5 days a week you are breaking your muscles down and not allowing them time to rebuild. Your strength gains will not be as much as if you climb 3-4 days a week and allow your body time to recover.

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  1. Brilliant article, that's why I believe yoga is the ideal way to also train for rock climbing because you're building strength around the core and you're not adding muscle weight. That muscle weight make it harder to climb harder, but flexibility and core strength work.

    1. I agree with you and I've heard many climbers voice the benefits of yoga to their climbing, so I am sure there is something to it. Thank you for reading and for your insight.