Wednesday, March 1, 1995

Reprinted from Allez... Training: Starting a Cycle

This is an exact reprint of my third training article published in the Spring 1995 issue of Allez Magazine.
"To become a champion requires a condition of readiness that causes the individual to approach with pleasure even the most tedious practice session."
     - Bruce Lee
Last issue‘s article covered training phases and scheduling. Now, let's talk about constructing your personal workout routine. Choosing a proper workout method is a complex, controversial, and personal problem which requires experimentation to discover what works best for your body, lifestyle, and goals. This is not a specific workout plan, but a concept-oriented approach that explains the ideas behind training, as opposed to simply recommending the same workout schedule for everyone. Part I of this article covers elements common to all phases of training, Part II covers specific foundation phase training.

Part I: Designing A Workout
No one answer is right for everyone - even the experts keep revising their opinions. For years, climbers insisted that the best training for climbing is climbing. That is no longer true. Fingerboards, campus boards, artificial walls, and even weightlifting are tools essential for climbing and training your best. (Weightlifting is still a controversial method which I would not recommend for all climbers.)
   Setting a goal is the first step to reaching it - and in determining what workout routine should succeed. For example, onsighting long routes emphasizes movement efficiency and endurance, both of which are trained excellently by climbing; whereas redpointing a short route emphasizes power that cannot be gained efficiently simply by climbing.
   The following example may shed some light on what should be considered. Jack Tanner’s primary goal is to redpoint a 45’ long 12b. The crux is 35’ up: a difficult undercling. The hold seems way to small for Jack to use and his biceps aren’t strong enough to hold him in on the overhanging wall. Chart #1 (previous page) shows various training methods available to Jack along with their pros and cons. Clearly, Jack must weigh many factors, not forgetting his other climbing goals or his primary one. This is by no means a complete list of your options, and a mix of various methods will generally work best.

Choosing Exercises
Next, you must decide what specific muscular movements to train. If you are training for steep routes, you could climb steep routes, boulder in a cave without your feet, or do lat-pulldowns in the gym. You might even select highly specific strength exercises for a certain move. Hans Florine, for example, does a right
handed cable-pull exercise to train for the crux of Better Than Life. You could target specific weaknesses without a move in mind (i.e., underclings in general) or simply train upper-body strength in general. The fingers are of primary importance and I would suggest that they should be given as much, or more, attention than all other muscles combined.
   Specific exercise suggestions will be given in this and future articles, but there is no substitute for personal experimentation and research. Chart #2 (next page) lists some possible exercises and the different aspects of climbing fitness emphasized.

Many factors must be kept in mind when performing your exercises. These include, but are not limited to:
  1. Number of repetitions: This is the number of muscle contractions; i.e. 5 pullups. The fewer reps that can be completed before failure the more powerful the movement.
  2. Number of sets: The number of times you attempt a given number of reps.
  3. Rest Between...
    1. Reps: Resting between reps is not normally done; but, especially with powerful movements, a brief (2 seconds max.) rest can increase intensity.
    2. Sets: More rest is needed between more powerful sets. Still, some exercise routines recommend short rests between relatively heavy sets. Longer rests emphasize the phosphagen system while shorter rests stress aerobic and anaerobic elements. Rests over 5 minutes are generally not necessary, unless you are doing long (30+ minute) sets for aerobic training, in which case rests should be 15-45 minutes.
    3. Exercises: For a better cardiovascular workout, keep this down (<1 min.); otherwise, rest long enough to let your heart rate return to normal for an optimum strength workout.
    4. Training Days: This is a difficult area. Certainly, the more powerful the workout the more rest you will need. In my power phase, I rest two days after every training day. Still, many people train power one day, power-endurance the next, and then rest. Training two energy systems like this probably allows for greater training volume, at the expense of one's maximum power.
  4. Speed of the Repetition: Power = Work (i.e., Force x Distance) / Time. The faster you can execute a given exercise, the more powerful you are. This will be covered more in-depth when we cover power. (All foundation phase exercises should be done at “normal” speed.)
  5. Intensity: With the exception of foundation phase exercises and warming-up, every set should be performed at maximum intensity. That is, if you plan on doing a fingerboard hang for 30 seconds to train your power-endurance, find the exact difficulty for doing just that, no more no less. Don’t give-up after 25 seconds if you can hold on for the next five. Thus a second hang and a 2-minute hang are both done at maximum intensity. This brings us to the last, but most important topic...
  6. Progressive Overload: This is one of the most fundamental concepts universal to all athletic training. It is a simple fact, but it is often overlooked. Stress to the body and/or exercise intensity must consistently increase. If you exercise (stressing the muscles) and then rest, your body adapts to the stress by overcompensating and rebuilding itself stronger than it originally was. If you then perform the same workout, it is no longer a stress to the body and it will not overcompensate during rest. Clearly you will have day-to-day fluctuations in your workout ability, but the average intensity level or workload must, in general, increase. Many approaches to progressive overloading exist. You must do your own experimenting. I favor a very gradual approach, setting a goal for my next workout barely above (0.52%) my current workout; but I cannot weigh the injury risks for you.
Now that you've determined your goal and outlined a rough estimate of your workout plan, keep a log of your workouts. This makes it easier to set a goal for the next workout that is slightly above what you accomplished today. A training log helps to insure that you follow the rule of progressive overload. But keep in mind that this is still only a guide, don’t force yourself to attempt a workout that feels too hard for you on any given day (i.e., to the point of possible injury).
   Additional factors that must (unfortunately) be considered when designing a workout plan are:
  1. Diet (Food challenges, Palazzio, ...)
  2. Social conditions (Work, “friends”, ...)
  3. Weather (Rain. Endless rain.)
  4. Injuries (Skin, tendons, etc.)
  5. Personal Mental Factors (Motivation) 
Part II: Foundation Phase Training
The foundation phase is the start of any cyclic periodization routine. If you have chosen not to cycle your training, read on, there may be some useful recommendations. As mentioned in the last issue, this phase targets movement efficiency (engrams), general conditioning, and the aerobic aspects of strength. As with all of the phases, this phase has many subtleties and related controversies. Two factors are central to this debate.
   First is the aerobic/anaerobic threshold. At some intensity level, lactic acid accumulates faster than it can be
removed from the system. Below this intensity level, you are training aerobically; above it, anaerobically.
   Foundation training is usually performed just below this level. Still, many people favor getting as close to this threshold as possible; while others move well into the anaerobic range. The difference in these three approaches may seem slight, but it is quite real. Those who keep intensity levels lower usually do so to avoid lactic acid completely and are emphasizing movement. Higher intensity levels result in lactic acid production (this is how you identify the threshold level) and insure that the aerobic system has been properly overloaded. The drawback of the first approach is that there could be insufficient stress to the aerobic system to promote improvement; the drawback to the second is that excessive lactic acid is counterproductive at this point in the training cycle.
   Second is the fact that aerobic training is detrimental to maximum recruitment (power). In order to adapt to the stresses of aerobic exercise, the maximum recruitment in the muscles decreases to make them more efficient at lower intensity levels. Also, prolonged aerobic training can convert fast-twitch (power) muscle fibers to slow-twitch (aerobic) muscle fibers. Again, you must consider your goals and decide yourself.
   Combining the viewpoints of these two main factors suggests a variety of training methods, see chart #3 (below). Most training programs would emphasize area 1, since this most accurately targets the goal of the phase, independent from the goal of the cycle. As with most training, diversity is beneficial and I would recommend a combination of areas 1, 2, 4. Experiment with these and weigh your personal results against your goal. For example, with the current goal of redpointing a route under 50’ long (about 2-2.5 minutes to climb), I divide my foundation phase training as follows: 80% in area 4 and 20% in area 1.

Regardless of the method(s) used, you should do enough sets to total at least 1 hour of training. (This could be two 30 minute sets or twenty 3 minute sets.) It you have more time, do more sets, the only maximum limit is dictated by free-time and rest required. You should train 2 to 4 days on. The third or fourth day on should be almost as intense as the first. After one rest day, you should feel fully recovered, and ready to push beyond your previous workouts. If one rest day isn’t enough, you’re training too hard. Remember: you should rarely, if ever, get a deep, burning pump during this phase.

Foundation Exercises
Climbing on rock and/or artificial walls is the best way to train in the foundation phase. Since this is the phase to learn new movements, you must be doing new movements, not pumping iron or hanging on fingerboards.

On Rock
If there is a good selection of rock climbing in your area, line up as many climbs as possible before starting this phase. Seek routes that are long, so that you can do continuous moves, but toproping is best for this phase. The routes should be well within your ability, perhaps 2-3 number grades below your hardest redpoint or 1-2 grades below your hardest onsight. (This is only a guide as routes that you have wired could be significantly harder.) Easy routes can be made harder by skipping rests and off-routing holds. Don’t let yourself get pumped, fall and rest on the rope first. Boulder traverses and/or boulder circuits (multiple problems done one after another) are usually a better method than roped climbs since no belayer is necessary.
   If you are inclined towards the maximum recruitment and anaerobic training methods described above, there is another way to spend some of your most time on rock during this phase. If I have a project I’m working on, I often get on it in my foundation phase to get me used to the movements. I do two or maybe three moves, then rest on the rope, never letting myself get pumped and never testing my power. If a move is too hard, skip it, or get your belayer to aid you through it. I figure this gives me more goes on my route without hindering any of my training phases. Note: It wouldn’t be possible to use this method if the route was 20’ long and constantly tested your maximum power.

Artificial Walls
Training on artificial walls is done just as described above, with a few more options open to you. Have a boulder circuit and a boulder traverse lined up before you start your phase. if your goal is to redpoint a route, recreate as many of the moves as possible using bigger holds than are on the route This lets your body learn the movements without undo stress.

Non-Climbing Exercises
Weightlifting (including pull-ups and fingercurls), fingerboards, and campus boards are the most common non-climbing exercises. As chart #2 described, each method has its own potential benefits and drawbacks. Campus boarding should not be included in foundation phase training, unless you are highly experienced and have a long, successful (injury-free) history of campusing. Fingerboards can be included by reducing bodyweight placed on the board (via elastic straps) to a point at which you can stay on for the duration of a set (3-45 minutes depending on the method used). If you plan on doing weightlifting during your training cycle, definitely include it in your foundation phase. Again, I do not recommend weightlifting for everyone, but I am convinced that it is one reason I have stayed injury-free (for 10 years) while improving my strength.
   Weight training during the foundation phase should consist of high repetitions (30-60) and short rests (30-120 seconds, or less than the duration of the previous set). Do 3-6 sets of the exercises which you plan on doing throughout the phase. Include some exercises for your negative or pushing muscles and alternate them with climbing-specific pulling exercises. Keep the pace of your workout fast enough so that your heart rate stays above normal. Keep the total time of the workout under two hours (or one hour for lesser trained individuals); this helps to keep the intensity level high. Chart #4 (below) is a sample workout routine that works for me, and quite possibly no one else, but it might give you some ideas. I highly recommend selecting your exercises by reading some books on bodybuilding and/or articles (old climbing mags) specific to the subject. In my foundation phase, I do workout #1 twice (with 1 rest day in between), then #2 twice, and so on, for a total of ten workouts; always resting one day between every workout. This is done after 1-3 hours of climbing on rock and/or artificial walls.

Schedule of the day
Scheduling of training days should be reviewed from last issue‘s article. Within a given day, do all the climbing you intend to do before doing any other exercises (weightlifting, pullups, etc.). Otherwise, movement is compromised by muscular fatigue. Time permitting, I recommend breaking the day up into three or four 1-2 hour training sessions, with a hour or so rest between each. The first two or three sessions should be climbing, and the last session should be your additional exercises. If time is short, and you must fit your workout into say 2 hours at the gym after work, just do the climbing, or one hour of climbing and one of weights. You can get a very good workout in in 2 hours, just have it planned out ahead of time, don’t socialize or waste time, and keep rests short and the intensity level high.

Conclusion? Already?
l have not, nor do I intend to, write specific training regimens or exercises. The examples given are intended more to convey an idea efficiently, than to instruct you as how, specifically, to train. My goal is to present you with the “philosophical” basis of a training program. This allows you to adapt the ideas herein in a way not possible if I were to write, “Do 10 sets of 8-12 pull-ups." If it seems as though I have been rather broad, contradictory, or even confused in my training suggestions, this is because the “science” of training is not known.
   Most important, keep in mind the following: set a goal, train specifically for that goal, remain flexible and willing to try new methods, and, most important, stay motivated.
   Good luck. Please send me feedback, information, and results (address page 2).

Next Issue: Hypertrophy and POWER

Recommended Reading: Operation: Crumb Weasel by Belt Potter

Credits, Sources, and Further Info: Hatfield, Frederick Power: A Scientific Approach. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, 1989.
Many of the ideas herein are compilations of my discussions with Russ McBride, Ty Foose, and Kevin Brown, all of whom work with CityRock, Emeryville. Thanks also to Steve Edwards and my mom.