Articles - Neil Gresham's Masterclass: 15 training tips for beginners
Neil Gresham doing strength training in the gym. Photo: Mike Robertson
Neil Gresham - Posted on 24 Feb 2011
1. SpecificityIt was the '80s climbing legend Ron Fawcett who first said "the best training for climbing is climbing". The way to develop climbing endurance is by doing lots of routes, not running marathons, and the way to develop climbing strength is by bouldering, not pushing weights. In fact if you train with weights you will build muscle bulk and weigh yourself down.
2. ProgressionIt is tempting to jump in at the deep-end but you have to build up gradually. Even if you are generally quite strong and fit from other sports, climbing involves the use of some very specific muscles and tendons, some of which are pretty fragile. If you do too much too soon then injury is inevitable. Pace yourself using the guidelines in this article.
(Try to practice slopers or they will soon become a weakness. Photo: Adrian Croome)
3. Understand the big pictureClimbing is a complex sport involving a multitude of inter-relating components. The mistake is just to focus on one or two areas. The best climbers are the ones who don’t have weaknesses and who make every attempt to keep all the plates spinning. A useful model is to look at three main categories:
Skills: Mental performance, technique, tactics
Physical components: Specific strength, specific endurance, flexibility, general fitness.
Support systems: Nutrition, lifestyle factors.
While all these individual components are important, it is worth noting that some take priority over others. For example, you can have all the strength in the world, but if your technique is poor you will quickly squander it. Furthermore, even if you have good strength and good technique, if your mind is weak then the car has no engine. Similarly, even those climbers with great mental control, technique and strength can still throw it all away with poor tactics - if you pick the wrong route or you don’t rest long enough then it’s ‘game over’. A final point is that if you are too stressed or you don’t get enough time to train or sufficient sleep and quality nutrition then clearly your performance will suffer.
4. Climb three times a weekWhether it’s indoors or outdoors, if you only climb once or twice a week then this simply isn’t enough to improve strength and endurance, although you may still make moderate improvements in technique. Don’t expect to be a good climber if you are not prepared to put the time in. Three sessions per week is the benchmark as this will maximise your improvement rate without exposing you to a significant threat of injury.
(Pull-ups are a useful exercise for basic strength building. Use a foot on the side of the door frame if you find them too tough. Photo: Rob Russell)
5. Consistent practiceA week off is fine but you will penalised if you suddenly realise that it’s been a month since you last visited the wall. Climbing lends itself to steady, regular practice rather than a stop-start approach.
6. Skills and technique firstClimbers often say that you need to learn technique before you get strong, but what does this actually mean in practice? Well first up, it means having a technique lesson! We all know what happens if you try to teach yourself to ski. Well believe it or not, climbing is no different. Bad habits will creep in from the start and these will become ever more difficult to correct in the future if left un-checked. It sounds like a shameless plug but if you can’t find a good coach in your area then pick up my Masterclass DVD (Part 1) available in the online shop at climber.co.uk. Remember that some aspects of climbing technique are intuitive (we all climbed trees when we were young!) but some are completely counter-intuitive (especially the moves for overhangs) and these techniques will elude you unless you are shown. There is no space to cover them in this article but don’t ignore this advice if you want be able to climb properly. The other point is to avoid doing loads of pull-ups and fingerboard during the first year of your climbing.
7. Develop a good leading headIf you are new to leading then try to get a large volume of easy routes in before you start pushing it. Some additional (and highly controversial) advice is to try to take some practice falls fairly early on in your leading career before a phobia of falling sets in. This is contrary to the advice that most instructors give out, but I must stress that I’m referring to indoor sport climbing only. You and your partner will need to use a ‘dynamic belay system’ to ensure safety and if you don’t know what this means then you’re not ready for the exercise. Build up gradually by falling with the bolt clipped above you at first. If you’re not sure of the method then seek appropriate advice and watch the ‘drop clip’ video on UKClimbing.com. If you put off taking falls, the fear only gets worse and will restrict you as your climbing develops.
8. Work on the conversionThe more time you spend indoors, relative to time on rock, the harder it will be to convert your indoor grade to the crag. Make every effort to get out and experience different rock types, presuming you don’t just want to be an indoor climber. The ropework and safety issues are a separate topic and if in any doubt, seek advice. If you are new to rock then there is no place for pride or ego – the advice is to climb well within your perceived grade.
(Press-ups are a good exercise for supportive condititoning. Photo: Rob Russell)
9. Develop the ‘warm-up instinct’A good climbing warm-up is essential to help you perform, as well as to avoid injury. Start with some jogging around to raise your body temperature and then do some dynamic exercises such as arm swings, finger clenches, hip circles and leg swings. Then do a series of three or four traverses, starting as easy as possible, and then gradually allowing them to become more difficult. Take plenty of rest (at least three or four minutes) between each one and don’t allow yourself to get even the slightest bit ‘pumped’ until the third or fourth traverse. You can then switch either to bouldering or routes, but never go from the easy traverses straight onto hard stuff. Continue building up through the grades (if it’s routes then do one of each grade eg: 4 > 4+ > 5 > 5+ > 6a) or if it’s bouldering then do two or three of each grade (eg: 3 x V0 - , 3 x V0, 3 x V1, 2 x V2). It may take up to 45mins before you are ready to try something hard. Remember that warming up for climbing requires a great deal of discipline and ‘body awareness’. If you rush the process then you will either climb badly, or get hurt. Develop a routine and stick to it, and don’t be distracted by others.
10. Endurance before strengthThere are countless examples of beginners leaping straight on some of these ‘new generation’ overhanging bouldering walls and getting injured within weeks. Bouldering is the most intensive form of climbing. A basic training principle for any sport is to build an ‘endurance base’ before you try to get strong. In climbing terms, this means doing routes, or if you only have access to a bouldering wall then longer traverses or ‘circuits’ with relatively easy moves. Having warmed up you should aim to do six or seven climbs that are approximately a grade below your limit. It is much better for fitness to do this than to try harder stuff and burn-out on the first or second climb. If you fall off it should be on your fifth or sixth climb and it should be due to ‘pump’ and cumulative fatigue, rather than because the route was too hard. Rest approximately five minutes between climbs and stick to vertical walls for the first few months. Only venture on to slightly overhanging walls when you can climb at least six or seven vertical F6a routes in one session. Another worthwhile type of training is to do double or triple laps on routes to develop stamina for longer routes outside. For example, instead of doing single F6as, do double F5+s or triple F5’s. Simply climb the route, lower off fairly quickly and climb it again, either leading or on top-rope. Aim for a total of four or five sets of this with 10 minutes rest between each set.
11. Separate bouldering from routesA common mistake is to mix up bouldering and routes on a random basis. You will get better results if you do them in separate sessions. A great approach is to do two routes sessions and one bouldering session per week.
12. BoulderingIn the early stages of your climbing career, bouldering sessions should all be about technique and mileage. You need to develop a broad repertoire and it’s vital to experience the full range of different moves, holds and wall angles. The climbers who overlook this point are the ones that soon develop weaknesses. Pay particular attention to slabs and vertical walls but go easy with overhangs. Slopers and rounded holds often feel tougher than in-cut holds but you should make an effort to practice them. If you do try overhangs then stick to the juggy problems and always try to keep your feet on and climb in control. If you do too much overhanging climbing too soon you will risk injury or, at the very least, your technique will suffer. Don’t get drawn into long sieges, regardless of the style of problem. If you can’t crack a problem in four or five tries then leave it, and come back to it next session. If you do end up ‘working’ a problem, take at least two or three minutes rest between each try - this takes a lot of discipline as it’s all too easy to get frustrated and start thrashing away. Try out different options and don’t get tunnel vision for one method. Use your rest time on the floor to review the sequence in your head and consider other options. Try to watch others and copy them but beware mimicking people who have a different style and physique to you, and be even more wary of copying people who have generally poor technique!
(Don't get too carried away with the gym work and remember that the best training for climbing is to use the climbing wall. Photo: Mike Robertson)
13. Supportive strength trainingWhen you feel ready to start turning up the volume and getting into steeper climbing it is worth doing some supportive strength training on a pull-up bar or fingerboard.
Three exercises are recommended. First, a simple two-armed pull-up on a bar (or jugs on a fingerboard) Do three sets total and for repetitions, as a rule of thumb, men should work up to being able to between eight and 15 pull-ups and women should be able to do between three and seven. Use controlled form and don’t drop onto straight arms. The next exercise is a two-armed dead-hang on a finger edge. Use a ‘half-crimp’ grip (fingers at 90 degrees) and hang using the ‘repeater’ structure, i.e: for five – seven seconds, release and rest for four seconds, then hang again for five – seven seconds, and rest again for four seconds, repeat a third and final time and then rest for two – three minutes. Do three sets total. The third exercise is for your core and abdominals: hang from the bar with straight arms and bring your knees up to your chest for three sets of 10 – 15 reps. Make sure you warm-up thoroughly before this session by jogging around, then doing arm swings and then three or four sets of easy hangs and pull-ups with your foot on a chair for assistance.
14. Stay clear of high intensity training facilitiesIt should go without saying that campus boards and system boards should be avoided. It is not just your tendons that you are likely to damage but your technique too.
15. Don’t forget general fitnessIf you come to climbing from a sporting background, or if you are well accustomed to keeping fit then you may need to worry less about this. But climbing often attracts people who don’t get on with team sports or ‘keep fit’. If this applies to you then some general conditioning work to support your climbing is a good idea. A run followed by press-ups, sit-ups and stretching, two or three times a week is all it takes. Don’t get carried away with this type of conditioning, as it is climbing that you are training for.
Thanks to Jack Griffiths at www.theukrocks.com for his contribution to this article, which first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Climber magazine.
Check out Neil Gresham and Libby Peter’s great new DVD Get Out On Rock, the definitive instructional rock climbing DVD. Get your copy at our online store for a 10 per cent discount, plus save 15 per cent when buying Neil Gresham’s Masterclass parts 1 and 2 DVDs.