Plan Focus: Rock Climbing Pre-Season Training Plan

Training Climbing-Specific Finger Strength with simple, but hard, campus board dead hangs.

By Rob Shaul

I’m not a rock climber, and when I began working with athletes here in Jackson 10 years to prepare them for their annual Spring rock climbing trips to the Desert in Utah or Nevada, I made a major programming mistake.

Specifically, I put them through a regimen of intense general fitness strength and conditioning (free-weight based strength, gym-based work capacity, core training), plus a bunch of pull ups, and figured it would transfer to the rock.

The transfer was negligible, and when the athletes returned from the Desert in mid-April, I had some explaining to do.

So I went to work, first by buying and devouring every book I could find on training for rock climbing, and second by joining the local rock gym and being my own “lab rat.”

Jackson athletes also like to take Desert trips in the fall, so in the late summer I got another crack at designing a focused rock climbing cycle.

Half to 3/4 of our training sessions were held at the local rock gym, and the focus was on climbing-specific finger and forearm strength.

I deployed the best of the methodology I’d read in the rock climbing books I read, and my second crack at it turned out better … my athletes reported much better transfer from their work with me to the desert rock.

But I had issues with the programming methodology, terminology and progressions I’d borrowed from the available rock climbing training books. Specifically, the books described different rock climbing fitness attributes with overly similar terms like “strength,” “strength endurance”, “power”, “power-endurance,” and “endurance.”

Many of the cycles deployed linear periodization and suggested training just endurance for 4 weeks, then just strength for 4-6 weeks, then just power for 4-6 weeks, etc. The problem with linear periodization is while you’re focusing on just one fitness attribute, “endurance” for example, all the other fitness attributes needed for climbing – strength, etc. – are atrophying.

As well, the method of assessing what the difference between a strength effort and a work capacity or endurance effort was based on “hand movements.” For example, a “strength” effort was any which the climber could only make six or fewer hand movements.

Another problem with these books was they deployed progressions was based on climbing route or bouldering problem ratings. In a bouldering gym or a rock climbing gym, these ratings are “squishy.”   Not all 5.11’s are harder than 5.10’s, and many routes/problems earn their rating for just one move or one hold …. so a 5.11 or V4 could be relatively easy, until the one “crux” move. This is appropriate for training technique, but hard to quantify for training straight fitness.

Further, there were differences between different route setters, so even in the same facility, a 5.9 set by one route setter could be a heck of a lot harder than a 5.9 set by another route setter.

I’m just a dumb strength coach, and all this was too complicated and confusing for me to keep track of. I knew I needed to systematically train finger and forearm grip strength and decided to create my own system based on time under tension:

Fitness Attribute         Time on the Holds
Strength                             Less Than 1 Minute
Work Capacity                 1-4 Minutes
Stamina                              4+ Minutes

Next, borrowing from my other programming experience, I designed 6-week training cycle which instead of training just one of these fitness attributes at a time, trained them concurrently in the same cycle.

In my own facility, I contracted rock climbing system boards and campus boards so I could even further systemize our programming, and wouldn’t be at the whim of rock gym route setters. After working with our own special climbing apparatus and refining the programming, we went back to the rock/bouldering gym, and found drills and exercises which we could use to deploy my time-under-tension and concurrent training methodology in any commercial rock or bouldering gym.

All of that work eventually resulted in this Rock Climbing Pre-Season Training Plan for our remote users – which we first published in 2014.

In March 2017 I updated the MTI’s Rock Climbing Pre-Season Training Plan. Much of the sport-specific work remains the same, but there are other significant changes:

– I increased the plan from 5 days to 6 days/week, and significantly increased the non-climbing endurance work in the plan. Why? One easy way to increase on-rock performance is to cut bodyweight, and this update includes hard gym-based endurance work, intense 1-mile running repeats (based on a 3-mile run assessment), and long weekend runs with the goal of cutting fat from the athletes.

– I reduced and simplified the gym-based strength work in the plan to deploy just dumbbells and a pull up bar. Not all general fitness training areas in rock gyms have barbells and racks, but nearly all have a full set of dumbbells.

– I included a sandbag in the required equipment list so I could get a 3 for 1 effect from gym-based endurance efforts … endurance, work capacity and chassis integrity all get trained.

– We reduced and simplified the campus board work in the plan to put more emphasis on focused hang board work to train finger strength. The campus boards in rock gyms aren’t consistent, and in my experience, all but the strongest female climbers struggle with the campus board dynos I had prescribed for the first version of the plan.

Here is the weekly training schedule for the updated plan:

  • Mon: Climbing Strength/Technique (V-Sum)
  • Tue: Climbing Strength (Hang Board Complex), Gym-based endurance, Chassis Integrity
  • Wed: Climb Work Capacity (Bouldering 4×4’s)
  • Thu: Endurance (3-mile assessment or 1-mile repeats), Gym-Based Strength
  • Fri: Climbing Stamina (2×15 Route Intervals)
  • Sat: Endurance – Long, easy run (6-8 miles)

When I first started working with rock climbers I thought not being a climber myself would be a clear disadvantage, as I may not understand the intricacies of the sport and it’s fitness demands. But ultimately, I feel this has been an advantage, as it allowed me to look at strength and conditioning for rock climbers with a fresh set of ideas and develop new, more effective, progression methodologies as a result.

It’s worked. Over the years I’ve worked with many high-level climbers who’ve reported back significantly increased climbing-specific fitness, both physical and mental, as a result of our programming.


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