With the growing popularity of youth climbing competitions and the recent press of pre-teen climbers sending V12 and 5.14 routes, many parents—and some coaches as well—are suspicious that these elite youth climbers must be involved in some secret, arduous strength training program. The truth is, however, that elite youth climbers develop as the result of an early introduction to climbing (often between ages 4 and 7), high-quality coaching, dedicated practice, and a slight (often prepubescent) physique.
So what is the best way for a youth climber to train, and what can a coach or parent do to foster a youngster’s interest in climbing, while at the same time keeping it safe and fun?
Obviously, youths cannot simply be treated as “little adults,” who are given a proportionally less serving of an adult training program. Youth climbers have unique strengths and limitations, and they are vastly different from adults, both physiologically and psychologically. A growing body of research and real-life coaching experience provides us with some clues. In this article, written mainly for coaches and parents, I will provide some basic guidelines for training skill, cognitive development, and physical fitness. Detailing specific exercises is beyond the scope of this article—please consult my book Training for Climbing.
Climbing is first and foremost a skill sport, and therefore skill development is paramount for young climbers, while extensive strength training is unnecessary and inappropriate early on. Interestingly, the brain of a pre-teen is predisposed to prolific learning of motor skills, and so they have a time-limited gift to develop and refine climbing skills at a much higher rate and with greater ease than adults.
While climbing in general is extremely intuitive—and many youngsters might seem to be able to successfully teach themselves—there are in fact many complex techniques and skills that a novice is unlikely to discover on their own. This is where a knowledgeable climbing coach is indispensable, since they can present new skills to be learned with proper form and in a logical progression, all the while keeping the climbing activities safe and fun.
Feedback is essential to the learning process—the coach must help direct effective practice that will encode fundamentally correct movement skills into the brain and foster a high level of climbing efficiency, rather than allowing the youth climber to muscle through a move with poor technique and call it “okay.” Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect—It’s perfect practice that makes perfect!
Climbing is a wonderful activity for building a wide range of valuable mental skills—including self-confidence and self-regulation—as long as an overbearing parent or coach doesn’t ruin the fun of it. Initially, the goal is to develop confidence and poise in climbing hand-over-hand up juggy vertical routes, and then eventually to become comfortable exploring more challenging terrain that requires visualization of sequence and the vertical chess match of reading several moves ahead while on a climb. For some kids the process is a natural and apparently a simple one to learn, as they quickly solve complex sequences on the fly. Other kids will require more coaching input to help them solve the puzzle and “see” the moves to be performed (a laser pointer is a must-have coaching tool).
Climbers between the age of 9 and 13 can be presented with more advanced instruction on critical cognitive skills such as mental rehearsal, arousal and fear control, risk management, and such. With good coaching, it’s during this age range that many youth climbers, usually those with several years of experience, come to put together the complex technical-mental puzzle that is “hard climbing” and suddenly break into the lofty grades of bouldering V8 and/or lead climbing 5.12 (or harder).
Age-Appropriate Fitness Training
The desire to improve strength, power, and muscular endurance is almost universal among climbers, yet for youths (and in fact for most non-elite adults) physical fitness training must be subordinate to training technical and mental skills. Given that framework, here’s an overview of age-appropriate fitness training.
Under Age 10
Prior to the adolescent growth spurt most apparent gains in strength come from motor learning (improved coordination and synchronization of muscular motor units), not hypertrophy (muscle growth), and so any manner of extensive strength training is unnecessary and largely a waste of time. Developing climbing-specific strength, then, is simply a matter of following through with a consistent schedule of climbing. Therefore, movement-oriented training should be the backbone of every workout—this activity alone will yield measurable gains in strength despite little or no change in muscle size.
Use of a few supplemental climbing-like exercises is fine, as long as it doesn’t take away from movement training and climbing-for-fun time. Body weight exercises such as pull-ups, push-ups, core builders, and other similar gymnastic movements, are the only strength training exercises needed at this age.
Ages 10 – 15
Given year or more of climbing experience and assuming a solid command of technical skills, it is not inappropriate to introduce a moderate amount of strength training for climbers aged ten to fifteen. These are the years of the adolescent growth spurt with peak height velocity occurring at age 11.5 for girls and age 13.5 for boys. Changing hormone levels will lead to a noticeable growth of the muscles as weight velocity peaks between ages 12 and 15.
It’s during this period that some fast-growing youths perceive a distributing decrease in strength-to-weight ratio as weight gain outpaces their strength gains. Once again, quality coaching is critical so that the concerned youth climber understands why they may seem to be getting weaker despite a consistent climbing schedule. Some misguided youths will react by beginning a strict diet or extensive strength/power training program (or both), in an attempt to regain their physical capabilities. This response is unfortunate and in fact unhealthy, and it often ends in injury, anorexia, or burnout.
A good coach will direct a gradual introduction of general and sport-specific strength training exercises that will train the newly gained muscle to be more efficient and effective for performing in the vertical plain. Climbing-specific exercises such as pull-ups, lock-offs, fingerboard pull-ups and hangs (in small doses), controlled campus laddering, and various core-strengthening routines should be executed on climbing days, not rest days. Most important, the youth should not engage in the most advanced and stressful activities, such “double dyno” campus training and excessive lunging, since doing so can lead to growth plate fractures in the fingers and a necessary withdrawal from climbing for an extended period.
Perhaps the most important addition to a youth’s training program is a small number of exercises to target the muscles that oppose the prime movers in climbing. A regular schedule of climbing will lead to significant gains in strength of the pull-muscles that are the primer moves for the vertical athlete. Consequently, maintaining stable joints and proper posture, lowering injury risk, and pursuing peak performance in climbing demands a small commitment to training the antagonist push muscle of the upper body. Specifically, the training should target the extension-producing muscles of the chest, shoulders, and arms, and the small muscles of the rotator cuff.
A final facet of effective training for youth climbers is flexibility training. While most climbing moves do not require extraordinary flexibility, quickly growing bones and muscles can lead to an increasing sense of tightness that may somewhat limit movement on the rock. Therefore, a moderate amount of daily stretching can go a long way toward maintaining smooth, flexible movement. Gentle stretching of the arms, hips, and legs should be performed as part of a comprehensive warm up before engaging in maximal climbing. Furthermore, engaging in ten to fifteen minutes of stretching each evening (while watching TV or studying) is highly effective in helping relax and lengthen the tired, growing muscles of a hard-training youth.
Ages 16 – 18
As youth climbers approach their adult height, they can begin gradual transition into a more intensive climbing-specific training program. Many of these late-teen climbers will already be highly accomplished and a few will be proven to possess world-class capabilities. Elite-level training techniques, such as one-arm pull-ups, campus laddering, weighted bouldering (say, with a 10-pound belt) can be added incrementally during this multi-year ramp up period. However, fully dynamic double-dyno campus training and advanced hypergravity training protocols are best held off until after the eighteenth birthday (when growth plates fully fuse). Strengthening the antagonist muscles remains essential for maintaining muscle balance, proper posture, and lowering risk of elbow and shoulder injuries—all potential issues for hard-training late-teen and twenty-something climbers.
All the while, it’s imperative that the training program remain focused on improving the complete climber—including mental and technical skills—rather than a narrow, impulsive quest for greater strength and power as the sole pathway to improvement. The maturing youth climber should be reminded frequently that further advances in ability often result from mental breakthroughs, and that becoming a true master of rock comes only by way of gaining vast experience on a wide range of climbing situations and settings. Toward this end, a good coach will constantly dovetail physical training with ongoing instruction on advanced climbing techniques, tactics, and the many facets of the mental game.
A final and most important coaching matter involves climbing frequency and the degree of dedication a youngster should make to climbing. Understandably, many youths fall in love with climbing to the point that they would like to make it their one and only recreational/sporting activity. It’s my opinion, however, that single-sport specialization should be discouraged before the age of thirteen (and, ideally, age 17). It’s a fact that today’s talented youths can come to climb at a national-class level (or even better), while at the same participating—and perhaps excelling—in one or two other sports and school, as well! Need proof? Consider 19-year-old superstar, Sasha DiGuilian. In high school Sasha ran cross country and track, climbed a few evenings per week at the gym, and aced her classes at school—and, oh yeah, she also climbed 5.13a at age eleven and 5.14a at age sixteen!
For a more detailed look into youth training for climbing, check out my newly released second edition of Learning to Climb Indoors–this text includes a full chapter on the subject.