Training for Rock Climbing Mastery

Most rock climbers want to climb better, but don’t really know what to do. There are a number of books available on the subject of training for rock climbing, but most suggest training programs that are very complex and take a long time to implement. The result is that most climbers don’t implement the programs, and do not reach their climbing potential. Does this sound familiar to you?

It is my experience that for most climbers, training consists of climbing. Climbers go to the climbing gym or cliff, and try to climb the best they can. They work to tire themselves out in the belief that this will result in better stamina and an improved level of climbing.

A typical climber’s gym training day might look like this:

  • climb 3 or 4 warm-up climbs that are easy, with no chance of falling
  • then bump up the difficulty for 2 to 3 climbs that are harder for them, but which they still have a pretty good shot at doing without falling
  • finish the day on a harder route if they have the energy, usually struggling

Does this sound like a path to higher performance athletic execution to you? From what I know about training, it is not.

My Story

I have been an athlete virtually my whole life, so I understand the basic theories and practices around training, conditioning, and nutrition. I have had many experiences that suggest that my brain, my mental state, plays a huge role in how I perform athletically. Here are just a couple of them.
When I was learning to lead climb at the 5.12 level, I recall an eye-opening event while climbing one day with my good friend and climbing mentor Fred Abbuhl. I was on a climb names Eyeless in Gaza, rated 5.12b, and I was struggling at the crux. The crux involved making a hard clip from a powerful side pull, from which I had to keep moving through some small hand holds before reaching a big rest position.

I was having a devil of a time making the clip at the crux. I would get into position to clip, and immediately get tired and yell “take.” After watching me do this four or five times, Fred yelled up to me and told me that I should not be having a hard time with the clip. Like that was helpful!

He told me to forget about the clip and instead climb into the clipping position and see how long I could hold that position. I did this and found that I could stay there for nearly a full minute. Hmmmm. Now, that was helpful!

Could it be that my brain was telling me that I was tired, overriding my true physical capability? It certainly seemed so. Another example occurred the day I finally succeeded in climbing my first 5.13 without falling. The climb is called Survival of the Fittest and is in the Gunks in upstate New York. I had worked on this climb off and on for over two years before succeeding. I tried the climb countless times over that time period, each time learning something that helped me eventually succeed.

The eye-opening moment came when, on the day I succeeded, I did the climb without falling, not once, but twice! A few years later, this happened to me on the second 5.13 that I succeeded on. It is a climb named Vasodilator, and is in Boulder, Colorado. The day I sent this climb, I did so twice.

How is it that a climb that was really hard for me and that took many attempts to do, suddenly can seem easy? This seemed to indicate to me that what truly limits my climbing is my brain, my beliefs.

Over the past few years, I have become convinced that we, as climbers, should spend more of our attention on training our brains. I researched and looked high and low for some solid and practical mental training for climbing that I could use, and came up empty. What I found is what I call, platitudinous goo. Advice on how to visualize, be positive, and think positive thoughts. I find this very hard to put into practice.

I will share the results of my research on physical and mental training for optimal rock climbing performance on this blog. I guarantee that you will find the information posted here very valuable.

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