Neil Gresham's Guide To Learning From Other Sports

Article by Neil Gresham
Monday 23rd November 2009


Modern training for climbing is based almost entirely on ideas borrowed  from the world of mainstream sport, and then adapted to the needs of climbers. For ages we held on to the misconceived notion that climbing is a unique physical activity which warrants minimal comparison with other sports and disciplines. Yet as standards progress, and we approach the plateau, top climbers have become increasingly reliant on training techniques which were devised for better researched sports such as athletics, gymnastics, power lifting and so on. This article will look briefly at ten such examples, some which are well known and others which are recent, close-guarded discoveries.

1. Over and under-distance training (Applied sports: athletics, swimming, cycling)

Climbers who wish to train for a particular route or project might at first presume that the best approach is to concentrate your training specifically on routes, circuits or boulder problems which are the same length (or number of moves) as the aspired project. However, athletes in virtually all events from the 100m right through to the marathon will always perform a percentage of their training above and below the prescribed distance. The reason for this is that no specific energy system can be developed maximally unless the energy systems which overlap on either side are also developed to some degree. The extent to which you will prioritise either under or over distance training should be determined by on your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, a 400m runner who has good speed but poor endurance will need to perform much of their training at 500m-600m, whereas a 400m who has good endurance but poor speed will need to train at 200-300m. An equivalent example is to take two climbers who are both training for a 25 move power-endurance project. The first climber lacks strength but has good endurance and thus will need to perform 15-20 move work, the second climber lacks endurance but has good strength and thus they must do 30-40 move work. This principle also has broader and  more general applications, for example, no boulderer can ever hope to fulfill their potential unless they perform at least the bare minimum amount of anaerobic endurance training.

2. Interval training (Applied sports: athletics, swimming, cycling)

A training board is ideally suited to the interval training method

The conventional approach used by climbers for anaerobic endurance or 'middle distance' training is to try routes or circuits which are as hard as possible and which cause you to climb to the point of muscular failure. As such you can only get one or two good tries before you have to reduce the difficulty of training until, eventually you end up so burnt-out that you can barely get up your warm-up route. To any athletics or swimming coach, this would be a preposterous idea. In mainstream sports physiology, it has been clearly understood for over a decade that the best way to develop the anaerobic energy systems which are commonly used in middle distance events is through Interval training. Interval training involves optimizing a critical blend of quality and quantity of training. The athlete accepts a reduced level of initial difficulty but opts to perform a greater volume of work, thus ensuring that they don't reach failure until the very end, or climax of the session. For example, a 400m hurdler who's PB is 1.04 will run 8 intervals at 1.15 with 3 minutes of rest. The first few intervals will feel straightforward, the fourth and fifth will be an effort, and the last few will be an all out struggle but they will always complete the work in the same prescribed time and using a consistent duration of rest. The French competition climbers have achieved incredible gains in anaerobic endurance since adopting a similar interval training structure for the majority of their training.

3. Fartlek training
(Applied sports: Cross country running, mountain biking)

The randomly fluctuating nature of the terrain in a Cross country or Mountain bike race will dictate the intensity of activity in much the same way as it does for climbing. When Cross country runners or Mountain bikers are forced to train on the road, it is vital for them to make continuous, random changes in pace to prevent them from entering a steady rhythm. Fartlek training is the German method which is used to achieve this affect and it has been applied to climbing to much success, in particular by the European competition climbers. 'Stick training; as it is sometimes called involves the use of a training partner who points you around a board or bouldering wall by selecting holds on a random basis. They will set you hard moves followed by a rest, then a long sustained section, then another crux and so on. You never know what's coming next and worse still, you never know when it's allgoing to end. The good thing is that it's your turn next with the stick!

4. Plyometric Training (Applied sports: Athletics, Martial Arts)

Using a campus board: an extremely efficient way to train plyometrically for climbing. Massive power gains can be made relatively quickly if this method is used correctly and safely. All climbers must be aware of the extreme danger of overtraining on a campus board, however.

Power is defined simply as strength x speed and the discovery of Plyometric training meant that, for the first time climbers started to see the benefits of concentrating on the speed side of the equation as opposed to the strength side. Plyometric training demands the use of intensive reactionary contractions in response to eccentric training forces in order to increase what is known as the 'amortisation phase' of the athlete. In lay terms this means improving the time it takes to turn a negative movement in a positive movement. Sprinters perform Plyometric training on a knee-height box by jumping off and bounding back up (sometimes one legged) as quickly as they can. This is known as a depth jump and the climbing equivalent can be performed effectively using a Campus board. Here the climber starts on a high rung, drops, catches a low rung with both hands simultaneously and explodes back up again as quickly as they can, the idea being to spend the minimum amount of time on the low rung.


5. Isometric training (bar work) (Applied sports: Gymnastics)

Isometric bar work is another efficient way of making quick strength and power gains.

Gymnasts have an obvious need to develop strength in static positions and they achieve this by performing specialised isometric training. This involves isolating particular positions within a range of motion and holding them statically for set time periods. Deadhanging was the first example of the application of isometric training principles to climbing although, more recently, some of the French have started to perform gymnastic-style 'Bar work' routines to develop specific locking strength in the muscles of the arms and upper body. Similar methods were also used by American training guru and ex-gymnast John Gill back in the early 80's.  Isometric training principles can be applied to climbing to even greater effect if actual climbing positions are held statically on a board or bouldering wall. Malcolm Smith used this exact method to gain the specific undercut strength which he required to make the second ascent of Hubble in 1992.

6. Deinhibition training
(Applied sports: weightlifting & gymnastics)

Deinhibition training, or Neuromuscular recruitment training as it is also known, is used by Power lifters and gymnasts to enable them to tap more deeply into their stored maximum strength and power potential. The use of short, explosive, all-out 1-rep contractions in training, does not so much get you stronger in absolute terms but it trains your bodies 'muscle regulator', the golgi tendon receptor to activate more muscle fibres more quickly, thus enabling you simply to use what you have more efficiently. In our natural un-trained state, the golgi tendon organ dictates an overly cautious safety zone which prevents us from activating our deepest and most powerful muscle fibres (known as 'high threshold motor units). The progressive use of De-inhibition training teaches us to extend this safety zone to allow us to recruit more power yet still within safe working limits.

7. System training (Applied sports: weight training, gymnastics)
As described last issue, this is the most recent discovery which top climbers have made from mainstream sport to enable them to structure their power training in order to get the maximum benefits from each session and to work specific weaknesses.

 8. Level 4 training (Applied sports: cycling)
Cyclists who undertake volumes of training which would make even the most dedicated climbers quake with fear operate a simple system to help them avoid under resting. The 'Level 4' system categorises each training session according to it's overall intensity using a simple scale of 4 (very hard), 3 (hard), 2 (medium) and 1 (light/active rest). The idea is that you will calculate an upper limit for the collective total of your weekly or monthly training sessions and ensure that you don't exceed it. For example, if your weekly maximum is 20 then you could achieve this either by doing a '4,1,4,1,4,1,4' pattern or a '3,2,3,2,3,2,3' pattern.

9. Technique repetition and stress proofing
(Applied sports: Gymnastics, ice skating, martial arts, ballet)

Imagine if the first time you ever tried to dyno was when you were pumped stupid, twenty foot above a poor runner - it simply wouldn't, or couldn't happen. Gymnasts, skaters and dancers understand that new techniques must first be learnt in a safe, familiar, stress-free environment. They must then be reinforced by repetition and finally 'stress-proofed' to make them ready for competition. This in climbing terms means subjecting a new move or technique to progressively higher levels of fatigue, then sharp-end pressure, then, ultimately both. Gymnasts feel that a newly acquired technique is not ready for competition unless it has been repeated successfully over a thousand times. One to think about before you commit to that gritstone onsight solo with the notorious 'weird' move right at the top!

10. Periodised training (General sport applications)

Some of the more dedicated top climbers, especially those involved in competitions are starting to make good use of periodised cycles to structure their training. This involves the use of a series of pre-planned phases which emphasise particular themes to enable you to get the maximum benefits from training and avoid under resting. 1-7 days of training is regarded as a microcycle, 2-6 weeks as a macrocycle and 3-6 months as an overall peaking cycle. Each macrocycle will be prioritised towards a particular aspect of training, for example power and this will make up the majority of training sessions in that phase, whilst stamina and anaerobic endurance are merely maintained with 'top-up' sessions. The chronology and length of each macrocycle will determine the overall affect of the peaking cycle. For example, a 2 week stamina macrocycle followed by a 6 week power macrocycle and a 2 week anaerobic endurance macrocycle will have the overall affect of emphasising a peak for power.

11. Mental training techniques
(Applied sports: general sport, martial arts)

The use of mental training is the single characteristic which distinguishes sporting champions from their less successful contemporaries. Visualisation, relaxation and concentration techniques are also becoming far more commonly used for both sport and traditional climbing. Competition climbers will often go through a psychological warm-up which covers attunement techniques (preparing and adapting to the competition environment) black-box technique (reconciling insecurities, problems and unlikely mishaps so that they don't distract you during the event) meditation, focusing and so on. Sport climbers will often employ mental rehearsal techniques to enhance the process of kinaesthetic learning for a particular project. More general imagery techniques, subliminal programming and autogenic training will also have much relevance in preparing the climber to do battle in a high pressure environment.


Whilst this article only suggests eleven of the countless examples of how climbers have started to look at other sports for training inspiration, it will hopefully have given you a few helpful tips to improve your own training. It should also prove beyond that the future of training for climbing will emerge from sources far beyond the climbing world itself. If you really want to be the first to have the strength to do 9b+ or the develop the boldness to onsight-flash a trad E9, you're going to have to do battle with an endless library of sports texts, papers and journals first! Other than that then you're just going to have to be extremely naturally talented, but there's nothing I can write to help you with that! 


To find out more about Neil Gresham's performance coaching services and coaching holidays, visit

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