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Effective Gym Training Strategies

When I began climbing over 25 years ago, the climbing season ended with the hounds of winter, and the only “training for climbing” consisted of pull-ups, running, and some free-weight exercises. Fortunately, indoor walls have made climbing a year-round activity, allowing enthusiasts to improve–not regress–in strength and ability during the winter season. (The old method of just doing pull-ups, running, and free weights is an ineffective training strategy for climbers, so don’t travel down that road.)

No doubt, joining a commercial climbing gym or building a home bouldering wall is the single best investment you can make toward improving your climbing. However, effective indoor training requires you do more than just climb with some friends. There are highly effective practice strategies you can leverage while climbing indoors that will translate to greater economy of movement and climbing ability when you return outdoors in the spring. Furthermore, use of these practice techniques will enhance your learning of skills, improve your climber’s mindset, and increase your sport-specific strength.

Downclimbing routes
When leading or toproping indoors, it’s rare that I climb a route to the top and lower off without trying to downclimb as much of the route as possible. There are benefits to this practice beyond the obvious one of doubling the pump. First, in knowing that you plan to downclimb a route, you become a more observant and focused climber on the way up. What’s more, since poor footwork is a leading handicap for many climbers, there’s a lot to be gained from this practice that demands intense concentration on footwork.

Initially, you’ll find downclimbing to be difficult, awkward, and very pumpy. But that’s the modus operandi when first attempting anything new that’s worthwhile (read “challenging”). As your hold recognition improves and as you learn to relax and fluidly reverse the route, you’ll find downclimbing a route often feels easier than ascending it in the first place. This is because your eccentric (lowering) strength is greater than your concentric (pulling) strength, and due to the fact that by leading with the feet (while downclimbing), you learn to maximally weight them and conserve energy. All these factors make downclimbing a killer drill–one not to be overlooked by any serious climber!

Speed Training
When the rock gets steep and the moves hard, there’s no more important strategy than to increase the pace of your ascent. Climbing quickly is primarily a function of skill, not strength or power (we’re not talking about lunging wildly up a route). In fact, the less strength and endurance you possess, the more important this skill becomes.

To begin with, it’s important to note there’s no benefit to climbing faster if your technique degrades and you botch sequences. Therefore, practice speed climbing on routes you’ve already wired or climbs well below your maximum ability. Climb several laps on the route (rest between attempts), each incrementally faster than the previous. Attempt to climb about 10 percent faster on each successive lap, but back off the accelerator at the first sign your technique is suffering.

Perform this drill a few times a week for several months, and you’ll find yourself naturally moving faster when climbing onsight or redpoint at the crags. This new skill alone could push your redpoint ability a full number grade higher over the course of a single season–a much greater gain than you’d ever achieve from strength training alone!

Other smart training drills
Here are a couple other drills to incorporate into your training for climbing program:

  • First Touch – This drill sharpens pre-climb visualization skills and on-route decision-making abilities to will help reduce the number of wrong moves (and wasted energy) when climbing onsight. The drill requires you to use each handhold in the exact way that you first touch it. No readjusting or regripping…unless you fall!
  • Tracking – Tracking is a type of elimination drill where the feet are restricted to using only the exact holds used by the hands. This difficult exercise develops a variety of important skills, including high-stepping, hand-foot matches, and balanced stand-ups. Use this tracking drill on routes that are two to three number grades below your maximum ability.