In its essence, climbing is a dance up a rock wall using your four points of contact as the dance steps. Improving at climbing, then, demands that you refine your vertical dance to be smooth, technically sound, and highly efficient.
Winter is a great time to engage in some focused technique training, and indoor climbing walls provide the ideal stage for some dance practice. Here are four highly effective practice drills that you can employ to improve the way you move on the rock. Use these drills for a portion of every indoor climbing session this winter and I guarantee you will be climbing harder in the Spring!
1. Downclimbing routes
Upon reaching the top of an indoor climb, try to downclimb as much of the route as possible rather than simply lowering off as usual. 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. 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 for every serious climber!
2. Random Skill Training
Here’s a great drill to broaden your command of a wide range of skills and to improve your on-sight climbing ability. Set out to climb a series of widely varying route types in rapid succession. A commercial gym with many different angles, a few cracks, and a roof or two is ideal. Team with a partner and toprope ten to fifteen routes of different character over the course of an hour. The first route might be a vertical face, the next a slab, the third a fingercrack, the fourth an overhanging pumpfest, the fifth a handcrack, the sixth a roof route, etc. This rapid recall of a wide range of techniques is skill training at its best.
3. 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. Perform this drill a few times a week for several months, and you’ll find yourself naturally moving faster when climbing on-sight or redpoint at the crags.
To begin with, it’s important to note there’s no benefit to climbing faster if your technique degrades and you botch sequences. Therefore, it’s best to engage in speed training on a moderate route or some climb that you’ve got wired. The goal is to send the route several times with each ascent being at a slightly faster pace than the previous. As an estimate, strive to climb about 10 percent faster on each successive ascent, but back off the accelerator at the first sign your technique is suffering. Rest for a few minutes between each lap so that you can make a solid, focused effort on each ascent.
4. Fatigued Skill Training
Research has shown that beyond the initial successful trials of a skill, practice should be performed with variable conditions and levels of fatigue. Applied to climbing, this mean that you can improve your climbing skill by sending known routes and climbing techniques while you are in a moderate state of fatigue.
Here’s the best approach. Use the first thirty minutes of your session (while fresh) to train new skills, and then move on to chalking up some mileage on a variety of routes. After an hour or so (or when moderately fatigued), perform several reps of recently acquired techniques (such as backstepping, deadpointing, or crack climbing) or attempt to send a couple of routes that you have recently worked to the point of being wired. As fatigue increases, finish up with a few more laps on sequences or boulder problems that you have more completely mastered.
In the context of a two-hour gym session, this rule emphasizes the benefit of squeezing in a greater volume of climbing with only brief rests, over doing just a few “performance” sends with extensive rest. The long rests and performance climbing may make you look better, but the greater volume of practice will make you climb better!