Overview of Maximum Strength Training

Hypergravity training with 75 pounds.

Hypergravity training with 75 pounds.

 In climbing, your level of maximum strength in the forearm flexor and pulling muscles (of the arms and torso) is a common physical limitation. Gripping small holds, making a powerful arm pull, and locking off with one arm all command your muscles to contract briefly with near maximal force. Interestingly, your ability to rest effectively on a barely adequate medium-sized hold and express strength endurance on a pumpy sequence is also a function of your maximum strength. Therefore, training for greater absolute grip and pulling strength is the single most important aspect of an effective training-for-climbing program.

So what is the best way to train this all-important attribute? For beginning climbers, simply climbing three days per week will yield some gains in climbing-specific strength. Therefore, no highly targeted training is necessary, nor appropriate—it could very well lead to injury. Of course, training technique and movement skills is paramount at this stage, and any time spent strength training should be focused on the antagonist, stabilizer, and the larger pulling muscles (not the fingers).

Intermittent and advance climbers, with at least a couple of years of climbing experience, will indeed benefit from targeted strength training, and they have likely developed enough tendon strength to begin a gradually progressive twice-per-week, climbing-specific strength training. Elite climbers are in a class on their own: With years of climbing experience and (presumably healthy) Kevlar-like tendons, these elites can embark on an ultra-intense, two- or three-day-per-week strength and power training regimen. Breaking through the next performance plateau depends on it.

Attaining a higher level of maximum strength is a matter of increasing neural recruitment, muscle hypertrophy, and building greater cellular stores of ATP-CP. The training goal is to maximize fiber recruitment and liberate ATP-CP at the highest possible rate for five to twelve seconds. Consequently, a properly executed maximum strength exercise will utilize a sufficiently high resistance to produce near-failure in around ten seconds. It’s important to recognize that any strenuous exercise performed for more than ten to fifteen seconds will train local endurance, rather than strength, as these longer efforts are fueled more by the anaerobic glycolysis system. The protocol for effective strength training is to do brief exercises (3 to 5 reps or 90% of 1RM). Near-complete recovery (>=3 minutes) is essential between sets to allow for all-out efforts each time. As for the number of sets to do, I suggest intermediate, advanced, and elite climbers do three, four, and five sets, respectively.  Here are a few examples of climbing-specific strength exercises:

  • Hypergravity pull-ups with enough added weight to make five repetitions difficult.

  • Bodyweight fingerboard hangs on holds small enough to be difficult if held for ten seconds.

  • Hypergravity fingerboard on medium-sized holds with enough weight to make a ten-second hang very difficult.

  • One-arm lock-offs held for five seconds.

  • One-arm (or one-arm-assisted) pull-ups for one to five repetitions.

A final note: Near-limit bouldering can aid in the development of maximum strength, especially in sub-elite climbers. Except for beginning climbers, however, more highly targeted supplemental exercises are essential to provide optimal stimuli for maximum strength gains. Consider that failure on boulders often occurs because of movement flaws, inadequate flexibility, or lack of power, and therefore bouldering does not necessary elicit grip or pull-muscle failure in less than twelve seconds. Shrewd, precise training—in accordance to the principles of exercise science—is paramount for eking out additional  strength gains over the long term. Train smarter to climb harder!

Copyright © 2015 Eric J. Hörst | All Rights Reserved.

4 Tips for Becoming “Head Stronger”

One of the head-strongest climbers in the world, Alex Megos, crushing in the Frankenjura. Hörst photo.

One of the head-strongest climbers in the world, Alex Megos, crushing in the Frankenjura. Hörst photo.

Hanging on the rope with pumped forearms may be an all-too-familiar situation, especially if you are passionate about pushing your limits on the rock. And, given that your failure on the rock always seems to involve a lack of physical strength, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that “getting stronger” is the answer to all of your climbing woes.

While more physical strength can never hurt, realizing your potential in climbing demands that you strengthen your technical and mental game as well. Amazingly, a few simple tweaks in your technique, tactics, and mental game can yield a greater gain in apparent strength than a whole year of training in the gym!

Becoming “head stronger” begins with changing your modus operandi when a climb gets tough. For example, rather than quickly “taking” in the midst of a difficult sequence, push ahead and really try your hardest–assuming it’s a safe climb, be willing to fall trying. Employing this simple tactic will immediately increase your rate of success in climbing. Detailed below are four more powerful mental strategies to put to work beginning today!

1. Strive for Flexibility of Perspective The first key strategy is flexibility of perspective. To breakthrough a sticking point on a climb, you must get outside your current mindset. Detach yourself from the situation and visualize it from a perspective outside yourself. View yourself attempting the climb from a dissociated “on-TV” perspective, and see yourself climbing bottom to top as well as downclimbing from the top to the ground. It’s also a good idea to visualize how some great climber you know would attack the route—what tricks and tactics would he or she employ to send the route? Maybe dynoing past a long reach, searching a hidden hold, or finding a clever rest position. Make a game out of trying to transcend the block. Be creative and have fun, and all of a sudden, the moves will begin to reveal themselves to you. You might not send the route that day, but you’ll be making progress towards your goal.

2. Become a “Reverse Paranoid” The second shift in thinking is to become what I call “reverse paranoid.” No matter what problems you encounter, believe that the route wants you to succeed (even if you are currently flailing miserably). In this way, view each failed attempt as a signpost directing you toward a better course of action instead of becoming obsessed with a single way the route must be done. Many climbers fail on routes they are physically capable of doing because they ignore the feedback the route is giving them. Don’t fall into this trap—embrace the feedback of your setbacks as clues toward your inevitable success.

3. Leverage a “Mental Scrapbook” of Past Successes This third strategy is extremely powerful and it’s fundamental to achieving high levels of success in any field. Create a mental scrapbook of past successes that you can review on demand to fortify your confidence and persevere in the face of apparent failure. Relive in your mind’s eye the process of some of your greatest accomplishments, both climbing and non-climbing. Make these mental movies vivid and get inside them as if they were happening again at the present moment. Feel the exhilaration and joy of the accomplishment, then take that emotion and apply it to the difficult situation with which you presently faced. Forge ahead wearing the “mental armor” of your past successes and a whole new level of performance will begin to be revealed.

4. Strive to Develop “Hanging-On Power” The final strategy is what I call “hanging-on power.” Hanging on power is an attribute that all great climbers and high achievers (in any field) possess, which enables them to persist beyond ordinary limits. Sometimes winning or succeeding isn’t a matter of having more absolute strength or skill than others possess, it might just come down to being able to hang on and persevere longer. Hanging-on power is fundamental to all climbing breakthroughs, and it’s exemplified in ascents such as Adam Ondra’s mind-boggling Change (5.15c) and Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s incredible nineteen-day first ascent of Dawn Wall (5.14d).

Hanging on power is an ability you develop by progressively subjecting yourself to greater and greater challenges that require higher levels of stick-to-itiveness. Just as in strengthening the muscles of your body, you strengthen mental muscle by challenging yourself and stretching the boundaries of what you think is possible. The bottomline: while some climbers give up at the first sign of adversity on a route (or after just a single day of failed attempts), the best climbers keep coming back and hanging on–mentally and physically–until they succeed. Foster this mental skill and you’ll outperform the masses in anything you do!

Copyright 2015 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.