This post is about my first personal experience with somewhat structured and systematic training for climbing. When I started training in September, I could barely climb 6a. 6 months later, I climbed my first 7a in Spain, Siurana. I’ll describe what I did to get there in the past 6 months and I’ll reflect on the good and the bad parts of my program. I kept detailed records during the last training cycle, so I can provide you with a lot of numbers on my training. I am by no means a solid 7a climber of course. It is only one 7a that I managed to tick and I have yet to climb a 6c. My following training cycle will thus be focused on consolidating my base. However, I learned valuable lessons during my last cycle. Focus and perseverance can bring you very far and if you pair it with intelligent training you’ll surely be able to achieve your goals.
I planned to structure my training as follows:
4 weeks of base endurance (September)
8 weeks of strength (October + November)
4 weeks of power (December)
4 weeks of strength endurance (January)
2 weeks tapering (first half of February)
However, I ended up modifying the rough plan as I was training. I did the base endurance phase as planned but had some difficulties during the strength phase. I injured my shoulder during my first hangboard cycle and couldn’t do a second hangboard cycle. So I decided to experiment with a new approach. Upon reviewing my records, I realize that my bouldering lacked structure during the strength phase and that I could have done a lot more targeted training. My performance dropped of and I consider the 8 weeks of strength training as a phase of very inefficient use of my time. I’ll have to change that during the next cycle.
After 2 weeks of power training, I decided to move on to the strength endurance phase. I felt like I was lacking much more in that department. I also changed the periodization model that I followed. I didn’t do a strict block of strength endurance. Instead, I did mostly strength endurance but mixed in some power and strength sessions. This period provided me with my fastest and most consistent gains both in my bouldering and in my lead climbing. I’ll definitely take another look at undulating periodization for my next training cycle.
Here’s some raw numbers on my training. To sum it all up: I did roughly 300 pull-ups… kidding 😀
I have recorded the number of hours that I spent bouldering indoors, the number of problems above 6A that I climbed (or repeated) and some more data on roped climbing indoors and outdoors, as well as some details on my additional exercises.
Prior to my trip to Siurana, I completed 55 indoor bouldering sessions, 18 indoor climbing sessions and 10 days of outdoor climbing. This amounts to roughly a 100 hours spent at the bouldering wall (I didn’t record time for roped climbing). Additionally, I performed general strength training for 14 hours (20 sessions). I climbed 51 routes outdoors and redpointed merely one 6a, one 6a+ and three 6b’s (fucking weak, i know… it was all in the early stages of my training). One thing that contributed to my low score outside was the fact, that I rarely attempted a route twice. A total of 158 routes were climbed indoors, out of which 18 were 6a redpoints, 7 6a+ redpoints, three 6b sends and one tick for a 6b+. While looking at those numbers, I am rather surprised that I managed to tick a 7a in Siurana (in 4 goes). It was however a legitimate 7a, that gets the grade across all guides. It certainly felt a bit soft, but it’s still 7a.
As mentioned above, the bulk of my training was spent bouldering indoors. During 55 sessions I ticked 33 6As, 12 6A+s, 12 6Bs, two 6B+s and one 6C (repeats not counted, 6C = V5). My bouldering accomplishments match the strentgh requirements for 7a I guess, so it’s not too surprising after all that I was able to send (the 7a featured a bouldery crux and not much difficulty before and afterwards). Eight bouldering sessions were specifically targeted at base endurance (ARC), 11 sessions targeted my anaerobic capacity, 15 sessions were spent training strength endurance and five sessions were dedicated to power. I also did 11 fingerboard workouts, 8 of them in October and 3 in January.
On top of all that I performed a lot of prehab and rehab exercises. I suffered from a mild shoulder injury, so I made sure to include rotator cuff work and such in my program and I performed regular exercises to stay on top of any elbow pain.
The phases in detail
The base endurance phase consisted mostly of ARC-sessions. I did a total of 7 ARC workouts in September. During those workouts I climbed for 30 to 60 minutes (time on the wall). I also went on a 3 day climbing trip during the base phase, where I didn’t achieve much. I performed roughly two sessions of additional exercise per week, where I mostly did pull-ups and other bodyweight exercises on the gymnastic rings.
During the first 4 weeks, I completed 8 hangboard workouts. I went from bodyweight to 10 kg added on my two major grips. I bouldered a lot but didn’t do very specific training during the bouldering sessions. Weeks 5 to 8 where filled with a no-hang experiment. I was able to improve my max again. On the additional exercise side, I basically continued my program from base phase but had to drop a few exercises due to a shoulder injury (turns out that ring dips are not very good on my shoulders).
Power phase meant training on the campus board. I made initial progress but felt like injury was closer than improvement around the 4th session. I therefore moved on to strength endurance.
I did circuits, foot-on campusing, route laps and some other exercises for more strength endurance. I also trained strength and power on the steep 45° board. My endurance improved quickly but I failed to reach my intermediate goals. The hardest route that I sent indoors up until the end of January was a 6b+. This phase still brought clear gains across all disciplines. I felt like all the training that led up to this month was just to prepare me for some real training.
The volume during strength endurance phase was really high, I did up to 5 hard climbing sessions a week. I reduced this to 2 sessions per week during tapering phase. 3 of these sessions were spend redpointing hard routes indoors and one was a max-recruitment session on the steep board.
Trip to Siurana
When we left Vienna for Siurana, I knew that I’d need a lot of luck and good tactics to reach my goal. My plan was to climb on a variety of routes during the first half of the trip to get used to the rock and to project a climb during the second half of the week. In the end, my tactics played out, but I don’t think that having 4 goes on a climb counts as real projecting. The most important thing was to find a climb that emphasized my strenghts and that fit my bodytype.
The good, the bad and the boring
Upon reflection, I think that my program had good elements and bad elements. Let us start with the boring. ARCing is mind numbing as hell. I barely made it through the initial 4 weeks of base endurance training and I avoided ARC workouts like the plague after I was done with base phase. This needs to change. It’s quite obvious that any aerobic gains I made in September are pretty much gone in February. It would be good to do some form of ARC training consistently throughout the program. This brings me right to one of the major changes I will make in my next season. Linear periodization is not the model that I want to follow. Don’t get me wrong, linear periodization is a valid form of organizing ones training and I know that lots of people see good gains from it, but it’s just not for me. Let’s look at the example of base phase. The way I did it, I didn’t do much more than ARC workouts and supplemental strength training. While boredom was one of the disadvantages, I think there’s another problem which has to do with efficiency. ARC sessions are not very tiring, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t mix some fingerboarding into base phase to stimulate my fingers a little more. Come to think of it, I tend to agree with the people who say that fingerboarding should be a year long pursuit. I’ll try to fingerboard most of the time during the next training cycle. Another thing that I didn’t like was the 8 week strength phase. This was way too long. Shorter phases are the way to go. I’ll write more on the coming training cycle in another post.
After the ramblings about the bad parts of my program, I also have to mention a few good points. First of all, laying out a rough training plan and planning ahead for my sessions gave me more focus and I was able to have more quality sessions. My strength endurance training was also pretty successful. I found some good exercises (like foot-on campusing) that were specific to my goals and that brought steady improvement. Power phase was ok and I discovered that the 45° board is a really good tool for training power. In fact, I knew from the beginning that training on the steep angle would be really great, but I was essentially too weak to effectively train on that angle. January was my best training month and I attribute this to the fact that I had significantly changed my training schedule. While I certainly focused on one quality (strength endurance), I still did much more to improve the other qualities as well (power, strength, aerobic capacity). This was very much different from the training blocks that I did in the months before, and it’s a training structure that I will keep for future phases. I didn’t have a major injury and I was smart enough to take some rest when I had minor tweaks, so that they wouldn’t aggravate too much. On top of all that, I achieved my goal, which kinda proofs that my training program was somewhat effective. I know that I could not have done this without training.
In the end, it all comes down to consistency and to actually following your program. I believe that doing the sessions you planned and doing so throughout the whole training cycle is far more important than what training program you follow. It took me a lot of mental strength and perseverance to finish every single session, but this is what got me to 7a. Of course, some things can be optimized and you might see faster short-term success, but in the long-term consistency and staying injury free beats any super intense program that only looks at a short term goal. I’d highly recommend a somewhat structured approach towards training in order to reach your goals. It is more efficient and I believe it’s also more fun to actually improve and not to bumble around the same grades for years.