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Simple Intermediate Progression

In Uncategorized | on January, 31, 2012 | by

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.