Rob Miller's Granite Page Fri, 18 Sep 2015 19:57:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Intensity, Starting Strength and The Map Fri, 18 Sep 2015 19:57:41 +0000 This article is about the role intensity plays in training. Prompted by a conversation I had with a few other coaches during an interview hosted by Power Athlete Radio, it is an example of how merging opinions have the potential to improve the clarity of one’s own ideas. Having never discussed the subject of training with these coaches before, I did my best to bridge my own knowledge with theirs as we discussed things. The conversation was recorded and is available here (link), if you would like to listen.

Much of the conversation centered on The Map of Athletic Performance, which is a visual aid depicting basic training principles I introduced in a Starting Strength article 3 years ago. Resembling a bulls eye target of four ever widening circles, the graphic represents Genetic Potential, Rate of Adaptation, ATP Metabolism, Training Carryover and a Neuromuscular distinction between Non-Repeating and Repeating Motor Pathway Sports. These are all important principles to understand if you want results from your training not just this season, but for years to come.

The Map is designed to recognize an athlete’s performance over the course of time. Encircling the Map’s circumference are many different sports deliberately listed to convey metabolic and neurological demands specific to that sport. The result of improved performance in a particular sport is the plotted trajectory (or radius) beginning somewhere within the Beginner’s circle at the center of the Map and moves outwards in the direction of that sport. Unlike an archery target where the goal is to hit the center, The Map shows an athlete’s goal is to “push” that primary trajectory outward in the direction of the Map’s perimeter.

In the original article (link to article), I wrote about additional trajectories (radii) that help gain ground along the primary trajectory called crosstraining (or General Physical Preparedness programs). By describing, at some length, the aforementioned training principles that are embedded within the Map’s graphic, I make a case for prioritizing strength training as a productive use of one’s finite physiological resources to assist the athlete in increasing their performance. That’s the big picture. Now, let’s move in closer and see what constitutes an actual additional training radius before addressing some issues that need clarifying in regards to intensity.

The program I use is the Starting Strength Model; I also teach it to others, including beginner to advanced rock climbers. Not only do they learn the skills (to be used for a lifetime) of moving the loaded barbell through space in the Squat, Press, Deadlift and Bench Press, they learn the underlying premise of “progressively loading human movement to force the adaptations necessary for increased strength”. This way, they can implement the model successfully to other climbing related movements including weighted hangs, weighted pull ups, counter-weighted one-arm pull ups and 90* lock offs. Additional exercises of importance to climbers are the campus board (in place of the power clean used by other athletes) and the front lever.

Everything listed above is a Repeating Motor Pathway intended for training purposes and are mostly done in sets of 5 reps. Let’s take the standing barbell press as an example. Climbers love the idea of antagonistic training, but in large part do so ineffectually (most of the time). Common rep schemes of 10 to 20 reps are recommended at ridiculously lite weights… so as not to “get too big”. What’s ludicrous is that the rep scheme is comparable to what a bodybuilder would use (a bodybuilder is concerned about getting bigger, not stronger), so that pretty much flies in the face of practical reasoning. Then adding insult to injury, pressing 10# to 20# over one’s head cannot effectively buffer the antagonistic “pushing” muscles against the aggressively developed “pulling” muscles of the climber. It makes no sense, yet this is too often the conventional wisdom regularly practiced and regurgitated from one climber to another.

So getting back to the practical wisdom of pressing a heavy barbell over your head for a set of five reps, it goes something like this: Not only do your shoulders become much, much more stable from regularly pressing the barbell over your head but your body…especially the abdomen… becomes much stronger too. (Yes, that’s what I said, “stronger abs from pressing the barbell over your head. It’s like a dream come true, isn’t it?). You’ve never pressed before (let’s say) so you have do so without excessive arching in the lower back when the bar is “locked out” over your head. It must be in a plumb and vertical line directly over the arch of your foot at the “lock out” position with the traps engaged, actively pushing the barbell high as possible.

It’s actually this very ability…. to hold a straight bar over one’s head without arching the lower back in the correct “lock out” position that should be recognized as the gold standard for universal shoulder flexibility. But it’s not. (Sadly, many trainees have lost valuable training time chasing an arbitrary standard in the overhead squat. What’s true is that a significant percentage of the population was simply not born with the ability to ever effectively train the overhead squat. But anyway.)

Assume the beginner has sufficient shoulder flexibility and has learned to safely press the barbell overhead. They started out by finding a weight that was moderately challenging to press 5x and they repeated that same weight for 2 more sets during their first workout. As a climber who climbs outdoors on weekends, this kind of trainee will press 2x per week, adding just a little bit of weight to each previous workout, and perform 3 sets of 5 reps across. “Across” means that the same weight is used for each working set. “Working sets” are the work that drives adaptation.

In a very short period of time, within 3 or 4 weeks, this trainee will be wondering if they’re going to successfully compete the workout or not. When they complete the 5th rep on any given working set, there would not be any 6th rep, if they were to try. In very short order, when training in this model, one is putting out a max effort. This is one of the many reasons the Starting Strength Model is so successful; it is a very high intensity training method.


Let’s get back to the conversation about intensity in regard to the Map of Athletic Performance with John Welbourn and his staff at Power Athlete. I had defined intensity as an in-the-moment effort. Defined in this way, this would also be the metric for determining a sports placement around the circumference of the Map. The greater the intensity an athlete expresses “in-the-moment” during performance, the further North (or to the top of the Map) the sport would be placed. The sprinter is very far North while the 10k runner, much further towards the South (or bottom half of the Map). Another stipulation the Map makes is a neurological distinction between Non-Repeating Motor Pathway (NRP) sports and Repeating Motor Pathway (RP) sports.

Essentially, as an athlete, do you know exactly what you need to do to perform that day (RP sports) or is it unknown what you will need to do to perform that day (NRP sports)? For example, powerlifters know precisely what they need to do to Squat-Deadlift-Bench Press that day, they just don’t know if they’ll make their numbers or not until they do or they don’t. In contrast, fighters going into the ring may have a general game plan, but they have no idea how it will actually unfold and what it will take to meet the unknown movements of an opponent.

One of the things John, Dennis and Luke liked about the Map was the training distinction I put forward with regard to training for Non-Repeating Motor Pathway (NRP) sports. It should be (whenever possible) at an intensity that challenges 100% of your current skills and capacity. As a former professional football player, with background as a sprinter, John’s contention is that sprinting is best done at 100% intensity as well, even though it is an RP sport. After all, how can it be a sprint without going all out? It’s part of the definition of Sprint. Without “practicing” that maximum recruitment, you’ll never “learn” how to recruit all you’ve got. I would go on to say that a slight performance increase would be an indication that you have more to work with if you are constantly performing your performance workload at 100% effort. Simple arithmetic.

We were able to talk a little bit about how some athletes have “it”- ‘It’ being the ability to go all out, recruiting maximum effort. What we didn’t get to discuss further was the idea of intensity as “max effort” in regard to training RP & NRP sports. It occurred to me during the conversation that the deadlift analogy I offered was of some one exerting “maximum effort at 5 reps”. The example was of someone working towards the goal of a single 405# deadlift but only had a single deadlift of 365#. What they would do is train weekly sets of 5 reps at 335# or 340# (along with the other basic barbell movements), adding 5# per week. and this was the surest way to their goal. But interviews go the way they go and we were on to the next topic of conversation before we vetted the intensity issue.

Ultimately, I was grateful because it got me thinking of the same old thing in a slightly different way. Training, to be successful, has to have max effort at the heart of the program on a regular basis. How regular depends on whether you’re a novice, intermediate or advanced trainee. Though training programs (as I have roughly outlined the content for climbers) consists entirely of RP movements, the intensity at which they are performed HAS to be done at an intensity that requires maximum effort as well. Programs, like Starting Strength, have this built into their methodology. That’s why it’s part of the program: even for climbers.


To sum it up, it seems that over the years coaches like John, Luke, Dennis and myself have recognized a lot of athletes who train excessively in a manner that is unproductive. For me, the concept of the Map came about from not only interfacing with climbers who sincerely wanted answers to their question “How do I get better?” but also from being immersed in the confounding randomness of the CrossFit community that, eventually, I calmly had to walk away from. The interview brought a new light to how I think about the Map. The degree of intensity is a critical factor in getting the results you’re after and I invite you to consider what is being shared here, but also in the conversation on Power Athlete Radio. Personally, my goal is to inform, inspire and encourage progress and improvement for my clients as well as in my own athletic goals. With so much left unsaid, I’ll leave you with the following written overview of the Map in 3D (I’m going climbing!).


Performance is the sum of one’s skills and their capacity. This is a trajectory aimed at the circumference of the Map aligned to the sport you play. Intensity plays an essential role in this process. At the Beginning stages of development, the practice and performance of the sport is a gross acquisition of the general movement patterns (skills) specific to that sport. Through this practice and performance stage, one’s general capacity also increases. The intensity at which you practice and perform your sport becomes much more integral to the process.

Intensity is what stakes your claim on the genetic potential you activate on the Map.

The initial performance trajectory is by nature, broad; meaning that it activates potential in multiple directions. An example is that even though a beginning rock climber is improving at rock climbing there are also simultaneous skills and capacities developing for other activities without ever doing those other activities (i.e. ice climbing, long route climbing, American Ninja Warrior, etc…). With this in mind, the true sense of the word “trajectory”, as it relates to one’s performance on the Map does not take shape until pushing past the intermediate threshold. The image is that of an arrowhead… broad at the base and coming to a point at the tip. This tip of the arrowhead becomes narrower and narrower for the rare few who actually do push well into the advanced stages of development in their sport. (Note: this imagery can be imagined in 3 dimensions, not just the 2 dimensions of a flat graphic).

The same way that the primary trajectory can be seen as (and actually is) a shape rather than a line, so is the “Secondary Trajectory”. Similar to the beginning stages of the primary trajectory, where there are general improvements in multiple directions on the Map, the beginning stages of the secondary training trajectory has the same qualities of improvement in multiple directions too. It’s these “general improvements” that lend assistance to the primary trajectory; not as more skills, but simply as more capacity with which to express those skills. The shape on the Map formed by the secondary training stimulus lends volume to the athlete being Mapped, much in the same way that a wider foundation of a pyramid allows for a taller structure.



General Adaptations are Persistent Thu, 04 Jul 2013 05:41:59 +0000 The overemphasis of cardiorespiratory endurance and conditioning within mainstream consciousness impacts us all, and not necessarily for the better.  The collective assumption that “conditioning is good” is accurate, but this is true only to a point. For many people it’s usefulness has long run it’s course and has become a specific adaptation… more akin (in the sense of persistence) to balance or agility, when compared to general qualities like strength and power. Quick to develop and quick to dissipate, conditioning can inhibit performance gains as much as giving them a nudge in the right direction. Perennial attempts at remaining “conditioned” can cause far worse damage, even to the body’s organs. The near immediate return on investment, compared to the much longer process required for developing general adaptations like strength, makes conditioning a popular choice for today’s quick fix culture, or the go-to method for cross training.

General training practices, when done productively, focus on cultivating general adaptations because general adaptations persist much longer than specific adaptations. There is just more bang for your buck on training time invested. Strength is a general adaptation; it takes time to develop but lasts long after the dedicated strength cycle has ended. Strength is about neuromuscular recruitment and the process of improving the quality of muscular fiber. There is a change in the body’s architecture establishing new contractile proteins for increased contractibility (I.E. strength) of fibers comprising a muscle belly. Short, intense efforts of quality movement are used to produce general adaptations in a methodical and systematic way. Gains are made with consistency and constancy, along with a little faith in the process because results are not immediate; they must be cultivated over time.

All physical adaptation occurs as a result of a stressor. There are acute stressors and there are chronic stressors. The initial hormonal signature for both kinds of stress is similar in nature. Acute physical stress is very high in intensity, and by nature, cannot be sustained for very long. Alleviation of the physical stress allows for the initial hormonal stress response (HSR) to run its natural course inducing tissue growth (anabolic). If the stress response endures for a prolonged period of time the HSR loops, or repeats itself, and can become problematic in a myriad of ways, including tissue consumption (catabolic) and systemic inflammation. The cumulative result through repeated, longterm exposure to the two kinds of stress is demonstrated in this photo of a competitive distance runner & sprinter. Each athlete has achieved a very high percentage of their genetic potential specific to the chosen event. 

The type of fiber developed through training is intimately related to the quality of intensity being applied during training. The higher the intensity, the higher potential contractibility of the impacted fibers. Add a slightly higher level of intensity to the workout a couple of days later, then a slightly higher level of intensity a couple of days after that… and again and again… then after a time (a few months)… a slightly higher quality of fiber is the result. This kind of architectual adaptation takes time. At first, it’s simply a matter of recruiting more motor units to work together–the term is called pooling– to assist the trainee in meeting the demands of a progressively increasing workload (I.E. faster times, more weight or harder boulder problems). Changes in the body are primarily neurological at this point but critical to establishing solid movement patterns that can be stressed at greater and greater intensities. Inevitably, loads will have increased to the point where the raw capacity of the trainee’s movement patterns will be tested. The phrase “every fiber of your being” comes to mind for describing the quality of effort that is necessary during workouts like these. The description of  a car’s engine red-lining is another useful metaphor, except that when a human trainee walks through the door for the next workout, it’s not necessarily the same “engine”. Our physiology is always responding… sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse… this depends on the training.

Intensity is experienced in a variety of ways. The marathon is intense but so is the 5k or the 200m. Long duration workouts at relatively light workloads become very intense because it feels shitty mobilizing that much chemical energy to fuel muscular contraction for an extended period of time. The intensity that corresponds to the potential for increased muscular contractibility (at the level of the fiber) lies only in the 200m, from the 3 examples listed. The 200m example comes close our red-lining analogy for intensity; precisely the kind of stimulus needed for developing architectural changes to the body. Drawing from our automotive metaphor, the 5k and marathon examples are more like running out of gas (or the ability to produce the necessary fuel) than hitting the engine’s red-line by nearing its absolute capacity. Lower contractibility muscle fibers are efficient and maintain contraction for long periods of time (as in yoga poses) or used repeatedly, over and over, as in the 5k or marathon events. When your training time consists of lower intensity work, you are calling on the fibers that are lower in intensity; they may be efficient but they are not getting stronger.

Fleshing out these distinctions is helpful for having a fuller understanding of the many training suggestions that are presented by others who may or may not understand themselves the fullness of what it is they are suggesting that others do to increase their performance. Equally helpful, and even more valuable, is understanding the context in which these individual training recommendations are productive. The Build and Taper method of training is an excellent periodization model used by intermediate and advanced athletes. The difference in the intermediate’s and the advanced’s rate of adaption is accounted for by the length of time that this particular periodization model repeats itself (one week for the intermediate & six weeks for the advanced). To keep the conversation simple, we’ll focus on one sport at the intermediate level and make the necessary distinctions to give it fullness and perspective for better application for those desiring a more deliberate approach to their training.

Periodization models account for the trainee’s ability to produce a significant amount of stress that cannot be recovered from by the next workout (see Simple Intermediate Progression for more information). The “period” of time that the training schedule is built reflects the time necessary for the athlete to go through the complete physiological process of homeostatic disruption (physical stress) and it’s return to equilibrium (adaptation to stress). When linear progress stalls, the athlete experiences a performance plateau that is hard to break and frustrating, especially if you’re unaware that you’re no longer a beginner. Two things that are at play in this stage of development is not enough stress or not enough recovery (most likely, some combination of the two). Because every climber has experienced a distinct performance plateau at this stage, we’ll construct a simple Build and Taper Model for the intermediate route climber.

At its simplest, the weekly intermediate period for a route climber consists of one Heavy Day, one Medium Day and one Light Day. The Heavy Day insures the stress response; 4-5 routes at the climber’s relative intensity is adequate and often much more than the usual amount of hard climbing done in a single session by most route climbers. Relative intensity refers to your project level; it’s a level of difficulty that is just beyond your current ability and also the most productive training stimulus. The Medium Day is 2-3 routes at the same intensity as the Heavy Day, and the Light Day is 1 route… one good burn on your project (again, the same high level of intensity & always after a thorough warm up). Because the Intermediate Climber has already adapted to the activity of climbing, it’s important to understand that you are still recovering even though you are climbing at maximum intensity by tapering your workload throughout the remainder of the week. Medium and Light have nothing to do with intensity levels, they pertain only to the volume of work being done. This kind of periodization model is simplified when dealing with Non-Repeating Motor Pathway Sports (NRP sports) like tennis, wrestling or skiing. (See The Map of Athletic Performance for further explanation.) 

The classic Build and Taper periodization model used by runners, swimmers and weightlifters manipulates both intensity and volume as a means to effectively drive progress. For a weightlifter, it’s hard to practice lifting 405# when you can only lift 385#; it’s just not practical. Similarly, an intermediate sprinter with a 200m time of 26.71 doesn’t practice a 200m at 25 seconds (except by doing 12.50 second 100m). Out of necessity, the sprinter has to manipulate both variables in the Build and Taper model. By slightly reducing the intensity from the max effort (ME), so that ~8 repeated efforts (I.E. the volume) can be maintained at the slightly reduced intensity (85%=30.72 seconds) for a disruption in homeostasis; the Heavy Day. Tapering the volume to ~4 efforts at an increased intensity (92%=28.85 seconds) for the Medium Day allows recovery to continue with 1 or 2 MEs to finish off the week and recovery. Rarely are the needs of the intermediate athlete taken into account, as they are in this example. They are often clumped together with advanced athletes when in a team environment and subjected to weeks of high volume “building” before weeks of “tapering”. This can work but development will not be as fast, and  could even be counter-productive for less adapted trainees.

Prioritization is another kind of Periodization Model, different from the Hormonal Fluctuation Model (HFM, already referred as Build & Taper in this article). We can use Prioritization by identifying the physical qualities that will best support the athlete’s goal, and then assign those qualities adequate training time so they can be developed in anticipation of that goal. Goals can impose a time constraint, but let’s say our intermediate route climber just finished the fall season and wants to plan a training schedule in anticipation of the spring. Strength is the most persistent of all the physical qualities for reasons already mentioned, and because bouldering is strength training for climbers, bouldering is prioritized on the schedule. Three months during the winter training season of dedicated bouldering still allows plenty of time to get “conditioned” before the spring. Very little conditioning (if any) is scheduled during this time because it can easily interfere with architectural changes previously described. Remember, the accumulation of highly concentrated efforts repeated consistently over time are required to develop strength & power. Highly concentrated efforts require adequate rest. So if you’re bouldering like a route climber and throwing yourself repeatedly at a problem during a single session, you are not developing strength or power, you are asking to get hurt. If you added up the total time that you are actually “stressing” the body during a 90 minute bouldering session, it adds up to only 4-6 minutes. So boulder like a boulderer, and sit around and rest, to make the most of those 4-6 minutes.

The nature of the physical stress during strength training is acute; it’s potent but it’s over quickly. Acute stress, in all its forms, is what makes us grow. Whether it’s literally growing tissue for strength from physical training or the figurative “chops” that help us handle life’s professional and personal demands in an emotional and mental sense; acute stress is the catalyst for increased growth. It sounds bad, but acute is good. The kind of stress that gives stress a bad name is chronic stress. That’s the kind of stress that is at the root of hyper tension, strokes, decreased bone density, chronic fatigue syndrome and a host of other ailments (including gingivitis!). It wears both the mind and the body down. That the body can endure chronic stress is good for the perpetuation of the species, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be when you’re training. Ten years ago you’d be swimming upstream to convince others that marathon runners were not healthy. Today we understand that the damage to the heart is real (and documented); mini heart attacks are suffered during competitive distance events at a shockingly high frequency. Does this mean to stay away from all types of conditioning ? Of course not !  Is it a sincere warning to those addicted to the powerful endorphins associated with endurance activities ? Yes it is ! And if you’re one of them, you may want to think about developing a taste for something more wholesome and nutritious than junkfood-junkmiles to get your fix.

To bring this back to training smart as a climber, please do not lightly choose to follow 4 weeks endurance- 3 weeks power endurance- 2 weeks strength- and 1 week rest because you read it in a book or are following the advice of a well meaning friend. This kind of program recommends 7 weeks of chronic stress followed by 2 weeks of acute stress; obviously developed with out the awareness of Prioritization and the impact that these different kinds of physical stress have on the body. However, if something in this template strikes a chord in you, simply turn it on it’s head and schedule the inverse. Boulder like a boulderer for 4 weeks, transition into power endurance for 3 weeks and follow it up with 2 weeks of endurance. If you are effectively using a Build and Taper Periodization Model within the context of this Prioritization Model, the last week of rest is obsolete. Building and Tapering is based on the body’s hormonal fluctuation as it goes in and out of homeostasis, meaning the athlete is periodically “rested” after the Taper, while following this kind of model. 

There’s a lot to know about training, but getting a grasp on a few different principles is all that’s required for moving towards your goal with confidence. It might take debunking a couple of myths, rising above collective influences or reordering your thoughts (in relation to what you’ve done in the past) to streamline your efforts, but that’s just a small price to pay in the bigger picture. General training adaptations are not yet in vogue. It’s still a sleeper, but it’s catching on slowly… often the way that things that stick around for the ages tend to do. So if you’re interested in health then do some research on lean body mass and increased bone density. What are some of the ways to acquire those significant markers for health ?  And as far as increased performance goes, there’s still a whole lot… not just to be learned, but unlearned… before the collective consciousness catches up with what is being offered here. The specific examples given to climbers in this article are just a few of many posts that relate to the sport of climbing. Read through some the different posts and see how it sheds light on your own experiences.




Leverage, Intensity & Debunking Two Training Myths Sat, 29 Jun 2013 01:36:27 +0000 Generally speaking, vertical to steep rock climbing is about leveraging your body into position with four points of contact– two hands & two feet. These four points are used to arrive at a body position that allows us to let go and move one of our points to reach the next hand hold and control that hold. The better the hold is, the less it’s necessary to maintain body position once that hold has been reached (I.E. visible relief in body language as a climber takes hold of a jug). In contrast, reaching for a marginal hand hold can force us to maintain a powerful body position. During this kind of transition, the body is what helps make a bad hold more manageable. The feet then move to the next place of balance and stability in anticipation of the next move. Positioning our center of mass (COM) optimally makes the best of a bad hold.

Achieving balance on the rock can be seen simply as placing half our mass, in a plumb line, to either side of a hold. During this placement, we are using all four points to manipulate our body into an optimal position that we intuitively sense will have both the elevation and balance for successfully reaching the next hold without falling off. This crude reduction of something incredibly complex and subtle serves as an effective teaching tool for a beginner’s awareness; ask them to look for the “balancing act” in other climbers movement, and it will help foster their own proprioceptive awareness as a climber. The basic concept of “triangulation” serves advanced climbers too; the model evolves in complexity but continues to remain helpful in working out potential solutions to tricky problems.


Climbing movement is akin to the letters of an alphabet; relatively few characters hold  the potential for every conceivable kind of communication. We never know what body position will be required while engaged in dialogue with the rock, and it varies from climber to climber. The ability for positioning the body is dependent on two lines of force production. The first, especially on steeper terrain, is producing a line of force between the scapula and the handhold; this kinetic chain is what the second line of force, between the toes and scapula, relies upon to leverage the rest of the body into position. This is a rough description for what happens inside the body while positioning COM.

The ability to hold onto the rock is based on establishing a kinetic chain between fingers and scapulae; it’s this chain (in all its various states of flexion and extension while climbing, and not just the fingers) that our trunk and legs (IE the rest of the body) exerts leverage against through our toes, heels and even our knees, while climbing on terrain that is vertical to past-vertical. “Dropping” your elbow against the rock reinforces the kinetic chain that the rest of the body is working with to find the next stable position to move from; “placing” the knee against the rock (even lightly) reduces the amount of exertion required by the torso and thighs that are holding the stable position on the rock. How well one intuitively manipulates an infinite range of neuromuscular possibilities is a determining variable in one’s skill set; the capacity at which one executes their skill set defines their baseline level of ability. Training at the appropriate INTENSITY pushes both one’s skill set and capacity at the same time.

Because neuromuscular combinations are limitless in climbing, it’s terrain that forces new combinations in our growing repetoire of movement that the most productive training stems from. This can be done by choosing terrain you’re unfamiliar with or choosing terrain that is greater in intensity that you are familiar with; either way, the tincture is in the intensity. It’s by climbing terrain that is just beyond our current ability that drives our progress most productively, both in capacity and technique. These two qualities–strength & technique– are intimately linked and are dependent on one another for further expansion. What tests our capacity to hold on (I.E. grip strength) is what forces the subtle shifts in body positioning (I.E. technique) to make that hold work. It is a frequent misnomer that you can practice technique by doing laps on something you already can do. The refinement accomplished on terrain you know pales vs. the growth in new skills acquired on terrain just beyond your current ability. With the calendar year divided into two categories–performance cycles & training cycles–there’s plenty of time for both, so don’t get confused between the benefits each of these two cycles bring.


Training takes time. The body doesn’t adapt in or from an individual workout in any except the very beginning stages of climbing. Even at the intermediate stage of development, little more than organizing your climbing workload into a periodized schedule, is all that’s needed to expand your baseline level of ability. This weekly intermediate schedule coupled with an effort to get on as much varied terrain as possible (just above your ability) will remain effective for a long period of time… possibly years. Climbing intensity provides the best stimulus for developing climbing ability; better than introducing sport-specific training too soon. Meaning that climbing is all the training you’ll ever need if you know how to stress and recover the body relative to your rate of adaptation (see The Map of Athletic Performance for further explanation; there are other ways too and these others methods will be explored at a later date). During the advanced stages of development, it’s not just an appropriate periodization schedule for one’s climbing workload that is necessary, but also an additional training regime becomes very helpful for further expanding the advanced athlete’s capacity & ability.

Productive supplemental presrciptions for advanced climbers are as unique as the individuals they are designed for. Another popular training misnomer is that these advanced protocols used by advanced climbers will yield results in less developed climbers at a modified level. They don’t. Certainly not to the degree that results from climbing on terrain of increased intensity will yield. Advanced athletes have a capacity to produce force that less developed athletes cannot. They also need an accumulation of stress (aided by supplemental means) that is unproductive for less conditioned climbers and can easily cause over-training. The active ingredient for the advanced athlete’s expansion is a prolonged exposure to training stress before entering a deloading period that facilitates recovery, or a return to homeostasis (I.E hormonal equilibrium). Often a training protocol, even one that is poorly designed or cross training in nature, is enough to accomplish the initial disruption of homeostasis that was not being achieved before the introduction of a supplemental protocol. This is the phenomena that lends credibility to methods that do not continue to work repeatably and consistently.

Few authors on the subject of training for climbing possess a deep enough understanding of the mechanisms at work in established periodization models (that have been successful for decades in other sports like weightlifting or running), and properly translate them so they are safe and productive for other climbers. One example is to represent the established Build and Taper Model extremely successful in both weightlifting and running by prescribing 4 weeks of endurance, 3 weeks of power endurance, 2 weeks of strength and follow it all with 1 week of rest for climbers. This is a recipe for injury! To sort this one out and debunk another indoctrinated training fallacy to get you training more effectively, we’ll explore the nature of chronic & acute stress, and how to train them. Also how to program, in productive ratios, these two different stressors using the training principle, The Order of Persistence… all in an upcoming blogpost.

Stay tuned!

Article: The Map of Athletic Performance Fri, 21 Sep 2012 04:53:09 +0000 For whatever small role I played in contributing to CrossFit’s popularity within the mountain communities, I apologize.

For many in those and other communities, it has brought some value, but for others it has taken away. No longer climbing as much, suffering unnecessary injury or using irrelevant markers that have nothing to do with performance out in the fileld, CrossFit has a way of becoming a distraction more than a contributor for those that have something at stake.

It’s one thing to be clear about what you are doing and choosing to train with awareness based on knowledge, experience and clarity. It’s quite another thing to get caught up in a methodology that can’t explain it’s own merits.

The Black Box Theory is a convenient diversion that doesn’t really stand up to critical thought, especially when it is coupled with years of experience finding one’s way out of the Black Box.

So as not to take away without giving back, here’s something I call the Map…


Intermediate Programming Sat, 17 Mar 2012 04:58:16 +0000 It’s easy to get the most out of your regularly scheduled climbing as an intermediate climber. In fact, this deliberate approach of using the climbing you are already doing IS TRAINING!  It’s all the “training” you’ll ever need to do as an intermediate climber.

The one simple thing that most climbers are missing for maintaining steady progress after they are no longer a “beginner” is comprising the week’s climbing schedule into one Heavy, one Medium and one Light climbing session. It’s really as easy as that. There are many variations (more days per week/less days per week/or more bouldering), but with this one simple thing in mind, much of the frustration surrounding improvement at the intermediate level can be remedied.

This weekly rhythm of loading and unloading is precisely how one takes advantage of the body’s hormonal response to stress as an intermediate climber.

Suppressing anabolic hormones such as testosterone with one Heavy session per week is what triggers the endocrine system to Super Compensate… to buffer itself from stress similar in intensity in the future. It takes more of a concerted effort than that of a beginner, because the body is much more conditioned to the activity of climbing. It needs to be “encouraged” to adapt. The system also needs to recover, but because of the improved level of  conditioning as a climber, climbing (and climbing hard!) does not necessarily interfere with the body’s return to hormonal equilibrium. Tapering the volume you climb at 100% of your ability is how you navigate the unloading part.

The words “Medium” and “Light” refer only to the amount (or volume) one climbs at 100% of their ability. During a training cycle, the climber is only interested in tracking the amount of work they are doing at their limit. No other climbing needs to be recorded or remembered because no other kind of climbing stimulates an increase in one’s ability.

Unfrequented or unfamiliar terrain is essentially what any climber who wishes to focus on technique has to do. There is no way to “practice” technique on terrain that you are comfortable on (familiar or unfamiliar) because no technique is developed. An important distinction on the topic of technique is that during the intermediate phase of development many climbers do neglect climbing on a wide variety of terrain. For progress not to be unnecessarily impeded later down the road in the advanced stages, it’s important to have exposure to many different kinds of terrain… if not different styles of climbing.

So no matter what your specific goals are relative to your desire to improve, it’s climbing at your limit that has the greatest potential for generating an adaptive response. Which is the goal of any sensible training program. The first week’s schedule for a route climber that consistently climbs 5.10 but who only periodically climbs into the mid 5.11 range may look something like…

Sunday: 5.11a-5.11b-5.11b-5.11c-5.11c   Tuesday: 5.11a-5.11b-5.11c   Thursday: 5.11b

The warm up sequence before climbing at intensity is not listed. It could be 5.9-5.10a-5.10c (on any of these given days), it does not matter. What is important is to warm up on different climbs in preparation for the day’s training load by exercising one’s ability to on-sight… possibly falling on one of the last warm ups. The second week in our example would then change slightly to…

Sunday: 5.11b-5.11b-5.11c-5.11c-5.11d   Tuesday: 5.11c-5.11c-5.11d   Thursday: 5.11c

The hardest part for most climbers who begin to train effectively is the significant increase in volume they are climbing at their limit. Often, the rhythm for many climbers is to warm up and try something “hard” but then quickly back off in intensity. This method works as a beginner climber (or for a “lifestyle” climber who is not TRAINING) but the intermediate climber needs something more substantial to deliver a legitimate stress response to the body’s endocrine system. It’s hard, and there is a lot of failure along the way. As long as there is progress though (especially on the more difficult routes), then you have chosen well. You will surely be closing the gap between where you are, and where you want to be. The third week…

Sunday: 5.11b-5.11c-5.11c-5.11d-5.11d   Tuesday: 5.11c-5.11d-5.11d   Thursday: 5.11d

You’ll notice that the way the routes are listed, there is a minimum of 3 different routes being attempted on the Heavy Day (listed as Sunday in our example). Two different routes are attempted on the Medium Day and only one route is listed for the Light Day. Once a route has been successfully climbed, it is replaced by a new climb at the same or greater intensity to insure the greatest increase in one’s ability. Onto the fourth week…

Sunday: 5.11c-5.11c-5.11d-5.11d-5.12a   Tuesday: 5.11d-5.11d-5.12a   Thursday: 5.12a

The exposure to so much climbing at one’s difficulty is mentally taxing. I have found through both my personal experience and those that I have worked with, that six weeks is the maximum time span for the training cycle to be productive. The six week marker helps to keep not only the motivation levels healthy but the body too. You’ll need both entities intact and ready to go for the next six week cycle, so it’s time to begin to back off, allowing everything to gel into a new place… the new level of ability. The fifth week…

Sunday: 5.11c-5.11d-5.12a   Tuesday: 5.11d-5.12a   Thursday: 5.12a

Essentially, we have backed off to two medium days followed by one light day. For those of you who are questioning whether the body is truly getting the rest it needs or not (because of climbing at 100% of your ability), simply does not appreciate how resilient the human body is. It’s not like you are new to the activity of climbing. It’s been years of climbing now, and there is reason you may not be climbing at the level you feel you should. It’s one of two things: 1) You have never allowed your body to be properly rested EACH and every week as you have on this schedule or 2) The climbing you have been doing has not properly stressed your body enough to invoke changes at the deepest level we are currently aware of… the subtle hormonal fluctuations indicative of a positive or negative growth index.

Trust me, you’re fine. The final week of the training cycle is the sixth week…

Sunday: 5.11d-5.12a   Wednesday: 5.12a

This is the week to be respected. If you’re an addict like me, you’ll be chomping at the bit to get back out on the rock or back in the gym because you feel great… and I’m sure you do! But whether you are preparing for another training cycle or ready to go on a long road trip, you can’t argue with the wisdom that in either case you’ll want to be 110% sure that ALL Residual Fatigue has vacated the system. This way you will be able to go into the next training cycle with confidence and the motivation necessary to get the most out of it.


And if it’s that road trip you’ve been dreaming about for the last several months… well, you’re completely knitted up and more than ready to face whatever it is that inspires you along the way. Good luck!



Important Training Distinction for Climbers Wed, 14 Mar 2012 21:32:03 +0000 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.




Simple Intermediate Progression Tue, 31 Jan 2012 18:16:44 +0000 The word “training” doesn’t conjure up the same idea for everyone. What comes to mind for a lot of climbers is not even climbing but something called supplemental training: an activity besides climbing that is specifically meant to improve one’s ability. Examples of a few methods are the hang board, the campus board and weighted hangs. These are useful methods to develop finger strength (hang board, weighted hangs) or powerful movement found on the campus board. They are especially useful when complimenting proficient technical abilities. This post is not about that.

This post is about how to effectively manage your workload as an intermediate climber to improve at the fastest rate possible. Long before any supplemental methods are necessary, this essential step in a climber’s development consists entirely of climbing. Training is a deliberate period of time focused on improving your baseline level of ability. The intention is to push the limits of how much quality work you do in proportion to the recovery time. Effectively manipulating this balance is specific to one’s ability and becomes a very useful tool at the intermediate level. Many ask the question, “When do I know I’m an intermediate climber?”

There are some indicators that have more to do with the rate at which you are progressing rather than the ratings assigned to the difficulty of routes or boulder problems. At some point, progress comes to a very frustrating halt for every climber. It stands in stark contrast to the steady gains made as a beginner. Even though those gains diminish incrementally, they are still there.

It can happen within the first year, but usually somewhere in the second year of climbing climbers experience their first significant plateau. Variables such as several days rest, proper nutrition, good sleep, high levels of enthusiasm are no longer sufficient remedies for continued improvement. If performance becomes erratic or at best, remains stubbornly static over a protracted period of time, this is a possible indicator that systemic inflammation is stalling your progress, or what I am calling residual fatigue.

The previous post “Residual Fatigue” briefly describes the effects of training in terms of hormonal fluctuation. Simply stated, the stress of training (overload event) suppresses testosterone levels essential to signaling the anabolic (tissue building) response in the body. When the anabolic response is allowed to return to hormonal balance (homeostasis) there is a net improvement in performance (Super Compensation).

The different rates that this process of stress, recovery and improvement cycle through the body are specific to one’s level of conditioning. The beginner will complete this cycle in just a few days. It’s easy to provide a stressor that the body will respond to as a beginner. Being new to the activity, it doesn’t take that much work and that work is easily recovered from in a couple of days. Technique develops quickly during the beginner stage. Although strength is developed, adaptation is largely neurological. This increased proficiency in climbing movement coupled with a new level of strength has a much greater impact on the system.

It’s precisely this greater impact on the system that the body requires an entire week to regain hormonal equilibrium following an intermediate overload event. Overload Event is the term used pertaining to the training session (or culmination of multiple sessions in an advanced climber) that signal an anabolic response. Due to the improved level of conditioning in the intermediate climber, it takes a significant physical stressor to initiate the body’s adaptive process (a survival mechanism to buffer the organism against similar stresses in the future). By the same token, light to moderate training sessions do not evoke the desired stress response in the intermediate athlete. This is ideal because it allows the climber to climb during the remainder of the week while not impeding the system’s return to homeostasis.

Resting an entire week without practicing the sport would be just as unproductive as trying to maintain heavy sessions 2-3x per week as an intermediate climber. Neither avenue is effective for steady improvement. Breaking the training workload into distinct periods of time is a simple way to “periodize” so that sustainable progress remains as steady as possible. One heavy session may only take several hours to generate a legitimate stress response, but it takes all week to recover from that stress response as an intermediate athlete. At the same time, without climbing at one’s limit there is no neurological stimulus to keep skills sharp, so it is important that the quality of work is of great intensity. Navigating the remainder of the week as an intermediate climber during a training cycle means that you’re climbing at your limit every single time you go climbing. The process of super compensation can complete itself simply by reducing the volume of climbing at 100% intensity throughout the week. This is a very effective way to train because the most time is spent at one’s threshold in this way.

Maximal efforts are essential to a climber’s development. Not exerting in this fashion is another possible explanation for an unnecessary plateau in performance. Periodization models burrowed from other sports can easily confuse good training practices in climbing if one does not understand the difference between repeating motor pathway sports and non-repeating motor pathway sports. This has to do with the quality of work during an intermediate progression. The quality of work in sports like wrestling, tennis and climbing require performing at 100% of the athlete’s ability for the training to remain as effective as possible. The subtle nuances of control and technique at the threshold of one’s ability are what win the match or get you successfully to the top. It’s in these moments that the greatest efforts often include a degree of improvisation and are the backbone of every successful climber’s training schedule.


-Simple intermediate progression can continue simply by planning weekly progress rather than expecting a beginner’s progress every session.

-The focal point of the week is a heavy session followed subsequent sessions of decreasing volume at 100% intensity so that the body has time to completely recover and able to productively sustain the following week’s heavy session.

-The body is assimilating changes in the increased ability in two different ways: 1) it takes longer to recover completely (at the level of the endocrine system) and 2) a more significant stressor is required to disrupt the endocrine system (essential to improvement).


… upcoming posts will include example intermediate schedules and a further explanation of the important distinction between repeating motor pathway sports and non-repeating motor pathway sports.




Residual Fatigue Sat, 07 Jan 2012 04:59:44 +0000 In climbers, residual fatigue is one the most common obstacles to improving one’s overall baseline level of ability. Not being able to recognize and identify when the body is sufficiently recovered makes it extremely difficult to know when it’s productive to physically stress the system again. Without stress there is no adaptation but without proper recovery there is insufficient resources to sustain both neurological and structural improvement (i.e. overall ability). Work-to-rest cycles do change as one’s ability improves, and it is in the deliberate manipulation of the appropriate ratios that intermediate and advanced climbers can most easily accelerate their rate of improvement.

The body is adapting to whatever environment it is subjected to. The Theory of Super Compensation is a useful model for visually understanding how the body responds to physical stress. The progression of Fig. 1 shows a dip in ability immediately after training. Following the recovery phase there is not just a return to one’s previous baseline ability but an increase in one’s ability to safeguard the body from future stress. The body has Super Compensated to a legitimate (and physically oriented) stress response.


Figure 1: This model can also be described in terms of hormonal activity. The legitimate stress response to training requires a 10%-30% spike in circulating cortisol. Usually inactive, cortisol is protein bound until plasma levels increase from training triggering the CMA response (chronic metabolic acidosis), which then triggers Human Growth Hormone and Testosterone. The spike in circulating cortisol corresponds with the suppression of resting serum levels of testosterone. Testosterone and cortisol are in dynamic equilibrium. When this hormonal axis is out of balance (from training) the endocrine system responds (during recovery phase) to bring them back into equilibrium. Full recovery (return to homeostasis) from a 10-30% spike in circulating cortisol results in Super Compensation (increase in one’s baseline level of ability).

To continue driving adaptation past the first of every climber’s first significant plateau–the intermediate phase–there is a simple remedy: learning to manage workloads on a weekly basis.

More on that process soon…