So, in addition to the numerous more specific articles I’ve written, I thought I’d try and do a more general one that’s more widely applicable. First of all, I feel I need to point out that I’m in no way a climbing coach, and have never done any sort of focused climbing training; everything I write here is based on patterns I’ve noticed in my own climbing, things I’ve read, and discussions with other climbers, so no blaming me if none of it works for you.
I’m going to try and split this into two sections: technique and strength. However, if you’ve ever watched me climb, you’ll probably guess that I’ve got much more experience with the whole ‘technique’ thing.
There’s several different aspects to getting better technique. First of all, you need to learn the techniques, then identify which you already use, and then practice those you don’t. A good example of this would be rock-overs. Very few people will do them naturally, so most people will need to be shown how, and then actually learn how to use them on the rock. This brings me onto an incredibly important point that will be repeated throughout this discussion; practice is essential. Climbing is a sport of learned movement (AKA engrams, according to Performance Rock Climbing), so the more often you perform a certain movement, the better your body and brain ‘understands’ it. This means that your muscles are able to execute it more efficiently, thus saving you both physical and mental energy, allowing you to plan ahead for the rest of the route, and enjoy the climb. On the other hand, it’s very easy to ingrain bad habits, which can be very hard to unlearn. In particular, I wouldn’t advise trying to learn technique when you’re absolutely wrecked, especially if you’re working on something new or at your limit. I’d recommend doing it after a thorough warm up, but before you start getting really tired, so the middle third of a climbing session. Try to consciously think about what you’re doing, and moreover, why you’re doing it; analysing what works and what doesn’t will improve you’re ability to read a route, as well as help you ‘feel’ your way through tough sequences.
Having said that, something that has made me a much smoother climber has been to climb a high volume of low intensity routes, especially when tired, but with a conscious emphasis on trying to climb well. This is easier said than done, and you must be able to recognise when you are and when you aren’t climbing with good technique. A good way of doing this is finding, say three, routes that you’re comfortable with, and lead them all in a row. Leading is particularly good for this, as finding good clipping positions is very useful for identifying restful body positions.
Another good thing to do is trying a wide variety of boulder problems. Bouldering is a great way to expose yourself to new techniques, and expand your repertoire. Plus, as the routes are so short, you can get through a huge volume of climbing in different styles. However, here I must stress the dangers of learning bad habits; it’s all too easy to flail your way through a problem when tired, and never come back to it ‘cos I’ve done that one’. If you feel like you climbed a route in bad style (or even if you didn’t), it’s worth coming back to when fresher and seeing if you can find a better sequence, or even asking other people for their beta on the route. That’s another reason why it’s good to boulder with a group of people; different people have different styles, so seeing how other people climb a route can suggest new ways for you to climb it.
This is the area most people put effort into when they think of training. I’ve never actually tried to improve my strength, so I’ve no real advice if you want a specific work out routine… Tbh, until you’re climbing 6c/7a ish, the easiest, best and most fun way to get stronger is just to do more climbing. Leading everything is an ideal way to do this, as it takes much more out of you than simply top-roping routes. Bouldering is another great approach, and many climbers use specifically to get stronger.
If you happen to have a pull-up bar or fingerboard and want to use it, I’d recommend prioritising endurance and core training, rather than just trying to do more pull-ups; they’re more climbing-relevant, and you’re less likely to fall into the trap of relying solely on strength to beast your way through routes. Things like dead-hangs, lock-offs, typewriters, windscreen wipers, leg-raises, front-levers, etc. are all fantastic exercises, and will (to a point) improve your climbing. However, if you end up doing this sort of training, don’t do it in isolation. You will train your body into believing that hanging off your fingers is good, so when you get on the wall, your feet won’t get used and all of your technique will go straight the window.
Another potential danger of strength training is that your muscles will outgrow your tendons, resulting in much pain. This also carries the risk of making you try and do moves that are beyond the ability of your tendons to cope with. Damaged tendons/pulleys are pretty hideous injuries, and avoiding them is a truly fantastic idea.
I suppose I should at least mention flexibility training, but seeing as how it’s all too easy to seriously injure yourself while working on flexibility, and I’ve never attempted any sort of training, I’m not even going to pretend to give advice on it…
In summary, until you reach a fairly high level, the best way to get better is simply to CLIMB MORE. You’ll learn more movements, and gradually build up strength, hopefully avoiding injuries and other pitfalls.
Addendum from Thomas Prebble:
Engrams ( muscle memory esque stuff) plays a huge part in climbing performance. The easiest way to get better at climbing is to climb a lot. All the moves you do while climbing get put into a database in your brain. The more movements you do the more movements are in your database. When you are starting out climbing this database is empty, you have to think a lot about every move, potential ways of doing it, and use trial and error or some reasoning to choose how to do every move. This is energy sapping both physically and mentally. The more you climb the more your database fills up, meaning you spend less time thinking about all the possibilities of how to do the next move and make quicker decisions using your past experiences. The more you climb, the more of this move to a more subconscious level. Your brain has gained a better understanding on how your body moves and makes the decisions about some things for your. You may consciously decide you want to put your foot on a certain hold but your brain also decides to engage your core a certain amount, pull harder with your calf to shift your weight over your foot etc. All things that if you individually thought about would take forever but when they are combined together means you move smoothly and efficiently.
This database is the cause of you having a certain style. It could be slabs, corners or overhangs. If you climb just one style then you will be good at it but your brain wont know how to apply what it has learned to other styles. Because of this you need to climb your weaknesses as much as your positives. If you are a good slab climber but you are weak on overhangs then go to boulderworld once a week and work on your steep wall/overhangs. If you never do this then you will never be able to.
There are downsides to this database.
The main one being it remembers EVERYTHING. If setters set bad routes that force you into overly awkward unnatural moves then this will get added to your database of moves. When you are 3 metres above gear, pumped out your mind meaning you cant think straight, all you can rely on is your database of moves to get you through it. If it is full of awkward unnatural shitty moves then you will try and apply some of this meaning you end up falling 7 or so metres in a flailing pile of failure. This is why people say ‘Bad setters make bad climbers’.