What’s his secret?

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.

  • Greg

    Good one man. Keep the inspiration coming!

  • gotta disagree with you here ! i know youve climbed many a peaks with heart and soul and snowboarded others in style and you seeem to enjoy taking the hardest and boldest ways in mountains, proud lines like some ghost leaving little a trace, think that makes you an extreme alpinist eh Ace!! and in my opinion one of the finest out there with the likes of the highlanders Macleod, Mcsorley, Mali, Prezegli, Stanhope, Kruk,Han Solo Fred,Yvon, Farrow, Bushilla, Rocky, Hill, Comstock, Garvey and Skine, Frost and so on! and if i had your skills id been going to eternal flame or new rock/ice line k2 northridge or new stuff in canada as you already are in the pine , maybe bring along the snowboard , alpinism isnt just all about about a human ascent of a mountaintop as Urbuko describes in alpinist 37, obviously a hardcore alpinist as his list describes but so much more to mountains than their tops or the rush of rivers, the essence of alpinisim is to me a shared expierence with friends and nature, the brother and sisterhood of the rope as it were, helping others suceed and rise up high and proud with the mountains themselves, the rewards are all out there,boulders and icy snow are all a part of them, im happy to call you a stone master but rather call you a stone surfer seems to suit a squampton mountain man like yourself!! cool hand

  • Nick

    Great advice and motivation!

    On a slightly related note, I have no idea what happened in luke evans’ comment.

  • Rob R

    I’m curious – do you do any specific training for your core, or is it all a by-product of just climbing a lot? Core stamina seems like a pretty weak point for me, but I’m not sure how to improve it in a way that’s relevant for climbing.

  • Sonnie

    @ Greg, thanks, I’ll try:)
    @ Luke, I’m sure you have the skills as much as anybody to hit up the eternal flame and the K2 northridge, god speed.
    @ Nick, cheers, and that makes two of us!
    @ Rob, I do leg lifts and knee lifts, you know those things in the gym with back support where your elbows are perched on a foam bar? I lift, I hold, I repeat. That combined with climbing, and the countless exercises you can do on a yoga mat. I found after years of climbing and training improperly, my core was actually really weak, but my back was really strong, so anything helps honestly. There is so much information about core strength on the internet and a lot of it is just repeating itself, so what matters most is that you just start doing it, trust me it doesn’t take long to get worked. I sometimes go to my wife’s core yoga class at noon, (1hr) and I am whimpering by the end of it, literally shaking from fatigue. That may be a good place to start if you have a studio in your neighborhood.

  • @nick, what happened was that it should have been in the previous post alpinism bd style where Sonnie says he is no alpinist and i strongly disagree as he is one of the finest, its not just about cold and suffering and picks and poons and I spelled markos last name wrong its Prezelj, alex Hon solo and the late great Steve Garvey was one great alaskan climber prob few pros have heard of, some of his routes im sure are still unrepeated, just giving a shout out as posting up is new to me, never owned a computer! back to work, cheers

  • Sonnie

    Ha ha, Luke that makes a lot more sense, not sure why we didn’t pick up on that:) doh! Seriously, Thanks for the props, mucho appreciated.

  • Adam Kicker

    Great post! I love the David Graham example. I just started following your blog. So glad I did. Keep on sending.

  • Cal

    @Sonnie rock on man, I loved this post, gonna be checking out your blog more regularly! We’d love to see you visit Welsford NB sometime!
    @Luke Without being too presumptuous, I’d suggest some use of this little guy here, ‘.’ and a few capitols when following that little guy. Both your posts have neither. Cheers.

  • Vincent Smith

    Thank you so much! Many times we get lost with specific trainning on internet articles, very delailed indeed. But it’s very common to lost the way to improvement by workout without aur main goal CLIMB BETTER. You said it, keep it simple, climb as much as you can, as often as you can and stay psyched. Thanks for reminding it us!!!
    (sorry my poor english, I hope I made myself clear)
    Cheers from Chile, hope to have you down here sometime soon!

  • Wow! Thank you so much for finding the time to write and give us the inspiration to keep climbing! I like your last point (#5) the most! 🙂

  • Hey Sonnie, thanks for the good read and advice on the core and finger action. I’m a Vancity boy and spend most if not all my free time in Squamish bouldering so i was wondering about this “new crag” you mentioned. Even though my passion is bouldering i’ve been thinkin about pulling my harness outta the back of my trunk soooo?, what’s the word?? cheers. ian

  • Cody Leyden

    Nice works Sonnie, making me more excited to climb. I have been working way to much. Have a fun season.

  • @Cal, thanks man will do!!
    also forot to mention the (montana ace alpinists) Perkins and Pedraza,Grant and Jennings and the Magro twins and my own brother Guy of course who has stood atop the big mt Logan!!
    @Sonnie, yes great inspiration here,!! carry on

  • Daniel

    Great Post, Sonnie. Love the little anecdotes! This core workout doesn’t look bad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ij2dVBOd8Wk

  • Sonnie

    Ian, the new crag is out towards Pet Wall, but instead of going left out towards the highway, cut right, you’ll see some blue flagging tape, then go all the way up the steep hill. Very nice back there.

    Daniel, thanks, that’s great. I think that’s my friend Caroline from Boulder. Very impressive indeed. Also check out Stevie Haston, he’s mad to the core mate:)

  • Yup, keeping it simple is right. Get out there and climb a lot and you will become a better climber.

    Me and some friends have been building a training app which more or less centers around this concept.

  • Nick

    Great post! 🙂

  • Stuart

    I like 4 the best. Climb till your tips bleed. Tape them and climb some more

  • Simba

    Great post Sonnie, good basic no-nonsense tips for getting strong like the freaks!

    Good core workout from a fellow Aussie is herein:

  • Great post Sonnie! i totally agree with the core, fingers and especially mind strength required to test the limits and try hard. Staying psyched despite failure or crappy weather is also essential.

    Can’t wait for the season in Squamish!

  • Keith Preston

    Sonnie…..your advice reinforces the aspects of my training that I’ve been working on: more core, more cardio, more climbing. I’ve taken up mountain biking and that has been an awesome way to get in more cardio. The core is definitely key and your info reinforced my notions for sure.

    Keep crushing. Keep sharing. Keep living.

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