*Due to the length of this article, it will be broken up into 3 parts*
The 3 main Power Principles
1. Back Strength
2. Bicep Strength
3. Grip Strength
Part One(Back Strength)
Looking up the word “Power” in the dictionary yields a huge list of actual definitions. Most of them in the Meriam-Webster relate to more of power as a “status” rather than a physical component of say fitness. The closest definition in the dictionary related to the purposes of this article is:
Power: noun / pow.er / ˈpau̇(-ə)r- “Physical Might”
When we speak of power most climbers know exactly what we are talking about. I refer to it as a climbers ability to generate a maximum amount of force in any given motion, typically portrayed when a rock climber moves from one hold to the next. The power, or maximum amount of force that a climber can produce on a boulder problem or route, greatly affects how strong that climber is. So its probably safe to say that power is directly related to strength in rock climbing.
We have all heard someone in the climbing gym or outside at the crag referring to another climber as being a “powerful” one. Does this mean they are strong? Typically, I would say yes. When it comes to climbing and power, every single climber out there could benefit from more of it. Whether your a 5.14 super crusher or just getting started, everyone could benefit from a training program that focuses on power specifically. With the exception of people I see climbing at a very elite level, say v10 and 5.13 and higher, most climbers completely neglect this aspect of their training in their climbing programs.
So the big question is, “How do we become a more powerful climber?” The answer is simple and a sure fire way to propel you to that next level. Whether your trying to break into a new grade or just simply working on a weakness, the following training principles will undoubtably make you a beast compared to the former shadow of yourself. You will get strong following this program. There are many things that you can do from an exercise standpoint to make you a more powerful person, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus more on climbing specific exercises to make you a more powerful climber. We will explore exercises and training variations for each of the three categories listed above.
Having a strong and healthy back is truly an essential part of becoming a strong climber on boulder problems or routes. Think of back strength like this. What muscles do you think make a soccer player strong? If you have ever watched the World Cup, you will quickly notice that every single player running up and down the field has very strong and powerful legs. They are able to run for long periods of time, sprint with short bursts of explosiveness, and lunge and jump to incredible heights. This is a perfect correlation to a rock climber. For a soccer player, their legs are their bread and butter so to speak. For a rock climber, it is hands down your back. Having a strong and healthy back will help you to not only pull up harder but you’ll be able to generate more explosiveness in the process, relating directly to power. Much like an Olympic Sprinter that’s about to launch out of the starting blocks at the start of a 100 meter sprint, a climber entering a crux sequence on a boulder problem or route, may be forced to move from one hold to the next in a very explosive manner. This is the essence of what I mean by “power” when I’m relating it to rock climbing.
Taking advantage of a sit down rest on a tufa in El Salto, Mexico
So how do you build back strength as it relates directly to climbing and the principle of power? Well, in all honestly, the best way to train power for climbing is to actually climb. You can do all the back exercises in the world but it won’t necessarily equate to being a stronger climber. We are going to get real specific here. Number One: Probably the easiest way to work on power for climbing is to do some bouldering, focusing on problems that have big moves from one hold to the next. This is a great way to train power. Even if you can’t send the boulder problem, it would be beneficial for you to work problems that have individual moves that you simply can’t do. It’s like your projecting. But again, completing the whole problem and topping out is NOT the goal. The goal is to successfully pull the one single move that you are struggling with. Pick boulder problems that are at your limit, or even better maybe a little beyond, that have really big moves in them.
A special note that by “big move” I do NOT mean a dyno. Although dyno’s are fun and for the advanced climber can be beneficial, just picking problems that have long reaches and big moves will be more helpful. When you do the big moves or long reaches on the problem, you don’t want to try and statically reach to the holds. If you do this, your working lock off strength and grip more than you are power. I like to pick boulder problems that have opening moves that I can actually do but maybe has a stopper move somewhere just after the beginning or in the middle. I would NOT pick boulder problems that have the “big” move so to speak at the very end because then your probably working power endurance over anything and working the hardest move all the way at the end when your already tired. I find that being able to do a few moves before setting up for the stopper move seems to help. It helps for you to get in a flow and also won’t frustrate the hell out of you by not even being able to get your feet off the ground. That can suck and make you resent the move. Work the move over and over, taking ample rest between attempts. Set a timer if you need to. I would recommend a 3-5 minute break between a maximum effort attempt.
Focus on the subtleties with each subsequent attempt. Focus on the holds your moving off of. Can you find better feet to setup for the big move? Can you get your body into a better position to make the big move slightly easier? Can you grab the holds your moving off of slightly different to make them feel better? All these little things will make a big difference in your success. Most gyms have an array of boulder problems and you should be able to find problems that have this description. Even if your a rope climber, training some bouldering will be extremely beneficial when you get on a route down the road and get up to a crux sequence that happens to have big moves. Either way, whether your a boulderer or sport climber, the purpose of training power in this way is to prepare you for the difficulties that lie ahead. Typically, I will work on “power” in cycles throughout the year, in a block of time that usually lasts 4 to 6 weeks. If you were to train some big moves consistently several days a week for 4 to 6 consecutive weeks, most if not everyone will experience gains in their overall power that there bodies will be able to produce in the middle of a difficult sequence. The gains are usually very noticeable. If your looking to make things more difficult at the advanced level, try experimenting with more difficult problems or try adding weight to your body while you climb to add more resistance, making that “big” move even harder. Hyper-Gravity training(adding weight to your body) is what a lot of top notch climbers use in their training to take their own climbing to the next level. It clearly works. If you don’t believe me, try strapping a mere 5 pounds of additional weight to your body and do some bouldering. The first thing you will notice, or more or less feel like, is a fat sloth. Trust me on this one…
Some other training exercises that you can do to help develop back strength that will typically correlate directly with a climber’s ability to generate power are as follows:
- Weighted Pull Up’s- The idea here is to be able to do a full pull up with good form, all the way up and all the way down with a brief 1 second pause on each end, with as much weight as you can put on your body. I like to strap a kettle bell to my waist using a traditional weight belt. I will then brace the kettle bell in between my legs to keep it from swinging. Focus less on the “more is better” in terms of repetitions. You should only be able to do 4 to 6 reps at a time. If you can do more, increase weight. You can also increase the grip to make it more difficult, although this starts working more grip than it does pure back muscles. I like to use a taped 1 inch thick standard pull up bar. This will allow you to go even heavier.
- Lat Pull Down- Although not as climbing specific as I like(I would prefer body weight exercises over a machine), most climbers in the 5.5 to 5.11+ range could benefit from doing this exercise. To change things up, you can do a lat pull down with two arms in a standard format or simply use a handle and pull down with one arm at a time. This will help develop sheer lat strength which is a crucial component of generating climbing power between holds. The lat muscle happens to be a key muscle in generating explosiveness in climbing movement. If your climbing at the 5.12- level or higher, weighted pull ups as described above will be more beneficial and will translate more onto the rock.
- Hyper-Gravity Training- Invest in a good weight vest or weight belt with the option to increase or decrease the weight. Most people will only need to be able to adjust up to 10lbs. If you ever want to explore what it would be like to be a lighter climber( a topic I will discuss in a future article), simply add 5 pounds to your body during a climbing session. The difference is quite noticeable right from the start. In a nutshell, you will feel like a fat sloth. Holds that you are use to using will feel much worse. Individual moves will feel much harder and getting to the top of problems or routes you normally have no problem with will become quite a challenge. On the flip side to this, imagine what losing 5 pounds would be like? In essence, it’s the exact same thing, only it works in reverse! (Again, look for this in a future training article titled “The essence of being light”). When you add weight to your body, you ultimately get use to that weight. Everything from the large pull muscles in your back to the tiny tendons in your fingers will adapt to the new stresses of the added weight. Over time, if you train like this consistently, what do you think will happen? When the weight vest or belt comes off, you won’t believe how “light” you will feel. All the holds your use to using will feel bigger and better. Moves will become much easier. This is the added benefit of incorporating hyper-gravity training into your program. A lot of top climbers swear by it. If you have ever read any of the training books written by the famous climbing coach Eric Horst, you will certainly come across this type of training. It is really that effective and a type of training that most people neglect.
I recommend trying this for small blocks of time throughout the year, say 4 to 6 weeks at a time before changing up your training. If you do the above things too much without taking a break, most people will simply burn out. If you do this type of training too little or not at all, your seriously missing out on a HUGE opportunity to increase your power as a climber. If you do decide to incorporate some of these exercises into your training regime, you just might surprise yourself the next time you get into a crux section of a route or boulder problem.
You may just find yourself blasting through it like never before…
The man, the myth, the legend! My close friend Chaz Ott showing us what a powerful climber looks like…
*Part 2 of this article will focus purely on how to develop power for climbing, through your biceps specifically*