Home // Basic Barbell Methodology

Considering secondary training methods, it’s wise to think in terms of force production. The ability to produce more force in the skeletal muscle… whether that’s within the forearm, shoulders or the entire body… comes down to increasing the number and quality of sarcomeres. Muscle fiber (or muscles cells) are comprised of many, many sarcomeres and it is at this elemental level that skeletal muscle is built. Not only is this where actual “muscle contraction” takes place, but it is also the limiting factor for how strong you are… or how much force you can produce to overcome gravity as you climb.

Improving the quality and number of sarcomeres does not happen in a single workout. Changing the architecture of skeletal muscle takes regular exposure to an ever increasing load over a substantial period of time. This is the premise for basic barbell training: progressively loading all of the body’s mass over the longest, effective range of motion. Persistence and commitment to a simple plan is how one intelligently builds strength. It’s not a fad, and it’s not confusing… it just is. The subject of strength training, rife with misunderstanding, is often poorly executed, even when it is the desired goal. This is why it is good to think in terms of force production.

No matter how many push ups one can do, how fast or how many in as short a period of time… the force production is absolutely the same for every single push up… even if you can do 100 reps in 2 minutes. The same is true for sit ups and the different pseudo gymnastic movements folks do in the fitness area. Even body builders who actually “lift weights” do so with a light to medium intensity in order to do more reps. More reps at lighter weights is what sculpts and “bulks” the body into the appearance of being strong, but not necessarily possessing actual strength. True strength is developed by progressively challenging the body’s ability to produce force.

Social stigma and ignorance are what seems to have stunted the intelligent use of the barbell into wider demographics. Yet for health or athletic training, the barbell has no peer. It’s effectiveness lies in the fact that it can be loaded at ANY increment to safely meet the trainee at their current capacity…. whether you are a 14 year old girl or a 50 year old veteran. Performing a moderately challenging set of 5 reps, for a total of 3 sets across, is the standard starting prescription for a beginner in the basic barbell movements… the squat, the press, the deadlift (only 1 set of 5 reps) and the bench press. The culmination of 20-30 workouts over 10-15 weeks is how you begin this process of becoming full body strong.

This methodology used in conjunction with the basic barbell movements also holds true for the hangboard, or weighted two-fingered hangs on the pull up bar. Adding a little bit of weight each work out is what forces the adpatations necessary for increased strength. Find a moderately challenging weight that you can hang from the pull up bar with both hands, using only the ring and middle fingers, for a measured count of 5-1000 (actually ~6-8 seconds). By performing 3 to 5 sets –depending on the amount of climbing that day–  for a count of 5-1000 @ (x)# is one way to apply the premise of barbell training to grip training. Any hold on the hangboard can also be used in the same manner as described for the weighted two-fingered hang. Simply add an additional 5#, twice per week, for the duration of your prioritized strength cycle to improve grip strength.

The standing shoulder press –a skill every serious climber should have at their disposal– is an efficient and wickedly effective means to develop shoulder strength & stability AND full body strength. One of the weakest links in the kinetic chain between the shoulders and the floor when shoulder pressing is your abdomen’s ability to protect the low back from over-extending. It’s like a vertical plank but better… it can be progressively overloaded at precise increments unlike gymnastic movements, which are only grossly scalable. There is no ceiling to how much strength can be developed with a barbell press. People who press on a regular basis have a highly developed and strong abdominal wall. It’s built into the movement. In time, it also yields actual muscular balance, in terms of force production, to the shoulder girdle.

Antagonistic muscle training, which is a popular theory for injury prevention, seems to make logical sense and does work well for a lot of climbers. Where the logic breaks down in my mind is when muscular imbalances are addressed with push ups, stretchy bands and pink dumbbells. Doesn’t it make more sense to begin developing a “V4 push” to bring balance to a “V6 pull”? Most climber’s capacity to perform a shoulder press could easily be characterized as “V1” or worse. Minimal skill is required to begin a strict version of the barbell shoulder press, but the other movements benefit immensely from a skilled coach. Find one.

Remember, conditioning workouts aim at increasing metabolic efficiency, but improving force production is a structural adaptation that requires time, persistence and an extremely simple plan. Learning the skills of lifting a barbell will serve a lifetime. Don’t confuse the feeling of having worked out with actually training. The truth is that just about anything will work for awhile, but even a well thought out program based on the body’s physiology will have a shorter shelf than necessary, if the workload (IE climbing at intensity) your doing as a climber is not appropriate to your rate of adaptation. For most of us, climbing will always be the primary training stimulus. All the secondary training in the world will fall short of its mark if you’re not managing your climbing workload with the stress-recovery cycle specific to you. The key to making the most out of your secondary training investment… the training you do after you climb… is to think in terms of force production. The question to ask yourself is “Are you incrementally increasing your ability to produce force or are you just getting tired and sore form working out?”