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Important Training Distinction for Climbers

In Uncategorized | on March, 14, 2012 | by

From a training perspective, there is a necessary distinction between two different kinds of non-team sports. They are Repeating Motor Pathway Sports and Non-Repeating Motor Pathway Sports, each having their own limitations and requirements for maintaining a high level of effectiveness during training cycles. Examples of repeating motor pathway sports are weightlifting, running, swimming or bicycling. Each of these sports has a very specific movement pattern that is repeated nearly identically, over and over again. Their refinement develops technical proficiency essential to improvement as well as the development of the physical qualities specific to that sport.


Other kinds of sports rely on a readiness to improvise in the midst of a match or during a challenging round due to “unknown” variables. Rather than knowing the intimate details of one specific neural pathway for success, the wrestler has no way of knowing how their opponent will strike and has to act accordingly while intuiting their own window for an offensive attack. The tennis player too is constantly reading and reacting within a state of exertion without thought while making subtle adjustments during quick, powerful movement to remain on top of the match. These examples of Non-Repeating Motor Pathway Sports are what I use to make a compelling case to climbers in the quality of work they perform while making a deliberate effort to improve their abilities.

With so little information out there for climbers that is based on sound training principles, it’s easy to see why there’s a lot of confusion and a lack of repeatable productivity surrounding the subject of training. Borrowing weightlifting methodologies is a popular template for designing a training program, but the significance of climbing as a non-repeating motor pathway sport completely changes the approach one would use from that of a weightlifter. The weightlifter (… or runner, or swimmer…) can only workout within the limitations of their current abilities. The vernacular is to “build a base” within their ability, and then their absolute ability is tested during competition with maximal efforts.

One way to build a simple training program for these kinds of sports is to perform large amounts of sub-maximal work in an effort to suppress hormonal activity (the tissue building kind). Decreasing the amount of work while increasing the weight or the pace (depending on the sport), an active recovery is made even though the athlete is performing much closer to their absolute ability. This build and taper model is an effective method to prepare for a specific competition or competitive season, but is simply not analogous to climbing.

Here’s why…

Imagine a tennis player following this same approach of spending weeks of valuable training time before ever expressing their maximal effort. Large volumes of work were performed at 80-90% of their ability in those weeks. Remember, in weightlifting or running, this is to suppress anabolic activity to produce a stress response; it’s the same to say that elevated cortisol levels indicative of an inflammatory state are what signal the stress response. Producing an inflammatory state before ever challenging 100% of your abilities is not only unproductive, it sets the athlete up for risk of unnecessary injury when they do start expressing 100% of their abilities. In this example, perhaps it’s easier for the climber to see why it’s not a good idea to follow a similar approach.

Rather, right from the beginning of the training cycle (for tennis players, climbers and wrestlers), it is much more productive to work at 100% of your ability… it’s essential for meeting the unknown demands of the match, the route or the opponent. As much time spent there at the edge of your abilities is the bread and butter of a well programmed training schedule. Maximal effort is what will rally the improvement in the abilities of these non-repeating motor pathway sports. It simplifies the programming in that ALL the work in a training schedule is performed at 100% of one’s ability. The loading phase is entirely comprised of maximal efforts. The tapering (or recovery phase) is ALSO entirely comprised of maximal efforts but the volume decreases to facilitate the return to homeostasis and the accompanying improvement with Super Compensation.

Maximal effort in climbing means that you will be planning for failure within those efforts. It’s humbling. Whether it’s bouldering or routes, the best definition for maximal effort I’ve heard is that place during climbing “when failure is imminent but not an absolute”. Fighting that imminent failure and getting a little bit farther on your project is everything you need as a climber to develop your abilities at the fastest rate possible. If you learn how to effectively manage the loading and unloading phases relative to your level of ability then you can expect progress to remain constant and sustainable. This is done on a weekly basis for intermediate climbers and on a monthly schedule for advanced climbers.


There’s just not a lot of information out there that accurately describes the training process for climbers. The assumption that periodization models that are used successfully in other sports will be analogous to climbing is wrong. However, with the correct modifications made to those models to fullfill the needs of the sport, they work just fine. The build and taper model is an excellent method for climbers to use with this one modification: that all the scheduled work performed is done at 100% of one’s ability. I believe the tennis player or the wrestler truly desiring to improve would pay good money to have an opponent that is always just slightly better than they are. Like in the game of chess, the game always elevates to the level of the better player when they are well matched. The climber always has this unique opportunity to choose an opponent just slightly better than they are. But you have to be willing to fail in this kind of training process.

In the deliberate planning of multiple failures comes the success of lasting improvement in your abilities.