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Leverage, Intensity & Debunking Two Training Myths

In Climbing | on June, 29, 2013 | by

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!