I have mixed feelings on the recent explosion in the popularity of rock climbing and training for climbing. New climbers often misunderstand the notion that in order to become a good climber, they need to train. What they may not understand about climbing is that performance is almost entirely skill-dependent. By itself, training won’t improve your performance, but it will help you get stronger.
There’s a time and a place for training, but most new climbers need to practice to build skill, not train to build strength.
Strength–particularly developing a high strength-to-weight ratio (SWR)–is undoubtedly the most important. A higher SWR usually means a climber can produce more power with every movement. Yet, a very high SWR is not always better. Being ungodly strong is ultimately useless if you lack the ability to apply it to the rock. Enter technique: the proper application of strength.
With more attention being devoted to climbing, sport-scientists are looking to understand which facets of physical fitness to emphasize while training, in order to improve climbing performance. This has led to a more efficient and economical approach to training which helps climbers reach higher peaks on shorter timelines, season after season. But it all has to start at the beginning, or rather, in the present.
For now, I’m going to keep things extremely general, with the intention of diving deeper into assessments and benchmarks in future articles. The reason being: I don’t want to give the impression that physical fitness is a cure-all. This particular article is about determining your overall needs, be they physical, mental, technical, or strategic. While future articles will explore each category further, this article will focus on helping you to begin thinking objectively about your climbing. Understanding where you are is the first step to getting where you want to be.
Below is a rock climbing self assessment. For each statement, rate how often it occurs for you on a scale of 0-5:
0 = It always happens and you intentionally avoid certain scenarios to avoid the problem
1 = It happens often; You don’t actively avoid it but it’s a known issue/weakness
2 = It happens about half the time, frequently enough to notice but not so frequently as to consider it a “weakness”
3 = It happens occasionally and could be considered a slip up or goof
4 = It happens seldomly, definitely just a goof and easily rectified
5 = It happens almost never, but you’re human and incapable of perfection so you’re not going to say it “never” happens
The statements are grouped together and categorized as mental, physical, technical, and strategic. When finished, add up the numbers in each section for a category total, and compare your results.
Download your printable Self-Assessment .pdf by clicking here.
Now that you’ve made and recorded observations about your climbing, let’s break it down. Look at your totals side by side: Is one number significantly smaller or larger than the others? If so, that’s an indication of what area(s) you should focus on improving. Climbing performance is ultimately about balancing all of these attributes. Wicked strength without enough technique is just as limiting as an abundance of technique without adequate strength. You can be strong and technically proficient, but too afraid to commit to a difficult move.
Lack of Mental Fortitude
You can commit to a much too difficult move and end up injured.
Lack of Strength
You have stellar technique, are very strong, and have no fear, but you never realize your true potential because you don’t warm up well, nor do you identify areas of weakness which need improvement. This mistake commonly leads to fatigue, especially with climbers who are always trying to “save the best for last.”
Lack of Strategy
I’ve worked with climbers all over the spectrum, but I’d like to share two of the most interesting cases I’ve encountered.
The first is a rock climber who had his goals and training dialed so perfectly that he always did just the right amount, and never more. His efficiency was legendary. He had nearly impeccable technique and was racking up really good numbers in the weight room and on the hangboard. He was content with the V12 grade he had been able to consistently achieve, until some unknown influence sparked his motivation to climb a little harder. After running a thorough assessment, it turned out that his strength numbers mirrored those of someone climbing several grades lower than himself. How could that be the case? I wasn’t kidding when I called his technique nearly impeccable. His level of body awareness and ability to transfer strength throughout his body made him capable of exploiting every opportunity to “soften” the difficulty of the climbs he was on. Where some other, stronger, less technical climber may have campused their way through a crux sequence, this climber was exploring every possible combination of footholds in order to take as much weight as possible off of his relatively underdeveloped upper body. Before you take this story at face value and forsake strength training in favor of focusing solely on technique, just imagine what this climber could be capable of if he buckled down and built more strength. Plus, as I said, his strength numbers were already very good, they just didn’t suggest as high a level of performance as he was already achieving regularly.
The other story illustrates the opposite. Another rock climber I worked with had unholy levels of strength and power, but was one of the absolute worst climbers I’ve ever seen. He was pulling world-class numbers, V14 to V15 levels of strength, but had zero body awareness and poor technique. If the climb involved more than pulling hard and flying far, he would struggle. I’ve seen this guy do several one arm pull-ups, campus 1-5-8.5, and hang BIG numbers on the hangboard. I’ve also seen him utterly confounded by a V4 and spend 45 minutes working a V2. His strength, his power, his fingers…were all worthless. Because he had no idea how to use them to climb rocks.
Keeping yourself balanced and progressing all areas of your rock climbing equally and steadily is the key to consistent, long term progress.