About 12 years ago, I recall a day in Utah with my friend Dave Graham, a phenom climber who was making quick work of all the hardest routes in Hell Cave, including Ice Cream, 5.14c. When we climbed at the gym in the evenings, a group of us would begin doing fun campus problems, big moves between medium sized holds. Although I could not touch the crux of Ice Cream, I could for whatever reason do these problems, so could all our friends. Everyone except Dave. I’m not trying to single him out, he’s one of the best rock climbers to touch stone, I was merely shocked that he could not lock off with one arm long enough to reach the next hold, yet, he can climb V12 like it’s no big deal. So what’s his secret? Is he weak? Are we strong? No AND Not necessarily. What I realized is that Dave is not only light, which helps a little, but he’s also very, very strong in the right places to climb hard rocks. Core, fingers and mind.
I love climbing hard as much as anybody, but it’s hard work to climb hard. I mostly go rock climbing outside these days because it’s my real passion, and I try hard when I get the chance, but if we are going to invest any precious time or energy into specific training to climb harder, what’s the best use of that time? Well, here’s a little secret, don’t train one arm chin ups.
The worlds most accomplished sport climber and boulderer Adam Ondra has recently completed his first one arm chin up according to Planet Mountain.com. This fact only reinforces what I (and dozens of other climbers and coaches) have said for years, the key to climbing hard is not in the arms at all. It’s mostly in the fingers and core. Adam Ondra has onsighted more 5.14c’s than any human being EVER, climbed a handful of 5.15b’s, and he’s just recently climbed a 5.14d on his very first try (though not technically a flash, he’s on his way to being the first person to do so). In the bouldering field he’s equally as strong, having flashed V14, and climbed V16. It seems if it can be done by anyone, it can be repeated by Ondra, and there’s no telling what he’s still capable of. Especially considering he’s only 18.
I think, if you’re going to train specifically for climbing, keep it simple. Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up over the years.
1. Focus on your strength to weight ratio, which means, stronger, leaner muscles. Overall fitness is great, just as long as you’re not bulking up unnecessarily, unless you’re into that sort of thing. More lean vitamin rich foods, and less Krispy Kreme donuts, more veggies, more protein, and more cardio exercise won’t hurt either. Just add water, electrolites and antioxidants. It’s all very simple and basic, no need to do any sort of rigid regime here, just use common sense and a touch of will power. No sweat.
2. Focus on your core . If your core is weak it will tire quickly on steeper routes, and your body will sag, if you sag, you’re further away from the wall then you want to be, thus further from the holds you want to be grabbing. If you’re strong, you’ll be tighter to the wall making moves feel easier and closer.
3. Stress your fingers. If you don’t stress your fingers regularly, then they’ll forget how to dig into small holds, it’s a neurological connection. Stress your fingers, crimp with thumb, half crimp, and open hand. If you start doing funky things like one finger hangs I think it’s not very sustainable and you may end up getting injured, if you must train one fingers for those 5.14d’s in the Frank, then do them for a period of time then lay off again for a little while to let them recover. I personally prefer to keep it all very simple, most if not all the holds I grab (even on really hard routes) are not often tweaky or one digit, they usually involve three or four fingers, but they are just hard to grab, so strengthen my fingers is still pretty crucial. If you’re getting too strong for your finger board, don’t walk away, add a little bit of weight, but that doesn’t mean over do it. Be sensible. Again, this is very basic stuff, but it works if you actually do it, and don’t get carried away.
4. Climb as much as you can, as often as you can. Sport climbing is not as hard on the body as bouldering, so get out, move the body around, get the blood flowing, get pumped, have fun, be nice to your fellow climbers and be thankful that you have the ability to do this. If you have a local crag, be thankful for that too, some people live in Kansas you know.
5. Stay psyched. Remember why you fell in love with climbing in the first place, Climbing is like the coolest thing ever, it’s physical, beautiful and a wonderful mental exercise. Achieving a new level is like discovering a different part of yourself. Climb with people who force you to get outside, to expand your world, to keep you curious, and people that make you feel good about yourself and who laugh and don’t bitch about why the world is out to get them. Mean people suck and climbing rocks doesn’t.
Okay, I hope it’s a great spring so far for everyone. I got to hit up a new crag here in Squamish this weekend and do some new routes. So many cool new 5.11’s and 5.12’s, it’s good to see the quality development here is still growing. It’s a good time to be a Squamish climber. Cheers.