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Training Muscular Endurance – Part 1

When climbers talk about endurance, they are usually referring to anaerobic endurance local to the forearm and pull muscles, not aerobic endurance as needed for a long-distance run or full day of climbing. Think of anaerobic endurance as the endurance of near-maximum strength needed to climb a continuously strenuous sequence without rests. (Many climbers use the slang term “power endurance” instead of anaerobic endurance.)

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For many climbers, failure on a route often seems to come down to a lack of local forearm endurance; although it should always be questioned whether lackluster technique and poor-quality thinking actually caused accelerated energy drain and premature muscular failure.

The hallmark of exercising in the anaerobic-endurance zone is the muscular pump and lactic acid burn that develops. Your level of anaerobic fitness is a function of your limit strength, the muscles ability to remove blood lactate, and the body’s tolerance to the fatiguing effects of lactic acid.

Effective training to improve anaerobic endurance must then concentrate on repeatedly exposing the muscles to sustained high-intensity exercise and the elevated levels of lactic acid that result. Such interval training is the gold standard with its alternating training “burns” separated by only a brief rest of a few minutes or less.

Yes, this training is painful and mentally grueling; however, it is a necessity to trigger muscular adaptations that will increase local circulation and removal of lactic acid and other waste products. One of the key muscular adaptations is an increase in capillary density and capillary luminal diameter, and for this reason some climbers refer to this type of conditioning as “capillary training.”

Following are two methods of training anaerobic endurance. Next month I’ll bring you two more exercises to add to your training mix.

Climbing Intervals
This first exercise is the most specific for training forearm and pull-muscle endurance since it involves climbing intervals on a moderately difficult boulder problem or climb. The ideal route would be steep and strenuous, yet not so technically difficult that you would be unable to climb a few complete laps. The training protocol is to alternate climbing burns with rest intervals, much like the interval training performed by runners. The rest phase should be proportional to the length of the climbing phase. Therefore, if your climbing phase involves sending a ten-move boulder problem (which might take about thirty to sixty seconds), you’d want to take a rest of only thirty to sixty seconds between burns. A longer climbing phase, such as lapping a steep sport climb or moving around your home wall for a few minutes should be followed by a rest of similar length.

1. Select a boulder problem or route that will be strenuous, yet at a level of difficulty that you will be able to climb it several times.

2. Climb the route, and then begin a rest period that’s about equal to the length of time you where climbing. At most, do not rest for more than double the length of the climbing phase. Use a stop watch so you stay within these guidelines.

3. After the rest period, begin your next interval. Climb the problem and then take the prescribed rest break.

4. Continue the climb-rest intervals until you can no longer complete the climb or boulder problem. If you can successfully perform more than five intervals, then select a slightly more strenuous climb for your next workout.

5. Training tip: Recruit a training partner to climb during your rest breaks. The camaraderie and encouragement will help you hang on through the increasing pump and pain of this interval training.

6. Safety note: Select routes that are void of tweaky holds or severe moves that might be injurious when climbed repeatedly and in an increasing state of fatigue.

Pull-up Intervals
This exercise is highly effective for building local endurance in the large pull muscles of your upper arm and back. Your goal is to complete twenty, one-minute pull-up intervals which are comprised of a set number of pull-ups and a rest period taking exactly one minute. Use a stop watch or clock with a second hand so that you can stay on an exact training schedule.

1. Start the stop watch, mount the pull-up bar or fingerboard (use the bucket holds), and immediately crank out five pull-ups.

2. After doing the five pull-ups, dismount and rest for the remainder of the one-minute interval.

3. At the one-minute mark, begin your next set of five pull-ups. Upon completion of the fifth pull-up, dismount and rest for the remainder of the second, one-minute pull-up interval.

4. Continue performing these five-repetition, one-minute intervals for a total of ten to twenty minutes. If you make it to ten minutes, you will have completed fifty pull-ups in aggregate-a pretty good, intermediate-level pull-up workout. If you make it the full twenty minute, you can congratulate yourself for doing one hundred pull-ups!

5. Training tip: If you can not make it to at least the ten-minute mark, then reduce the number of pull-ups per set to just three or four. Conversely, increase the number of pull-ups per set to six or seven when you find the full twenty-minute, one hundred pull-up routine begins to feel rather casual.


Copyright 2006 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.