Neil Gresham's Guide To Mid-Season Training

Article by Neil Gresham
Monday 27th April 2009

As the gym season draws to a close, it's time to start getting excited about those longer sport climbing or tradding road trips. The thought of warm rock has kept you sane over the last few months so the bottom of your priority list will be indoor training now that the crags are dry. But think again.

- all photography copyright Adrian Croome / Masterclass DVD's - 

Specific training on the board or boulders between April and October can make a huge difference to your summer climbing performance. 

Without wishing to spoil your fun, there is a great deal to be said for the idea of returning to the gym sporadically throughout the main season to address those weaknesses which tend to develop over time. The more you hit the crags, the more you will hone technique, 'rock sense' and general confidence and, overall, the better you will climb. The down side to this, especially after long periods during which you just climb routes is that your raw power levels will be reduced. Even if you manage to break things up with a bit of bouldering on rock, this tends to improve 'sharpness' (or neuromuscular recruitment) more than pure strength. An alternative scenario is that you've spent the winter bouldering - or, worse still, doing very little climbing of any kind - and are in urgent need of some power endurance and stamina to get you up anything higher than your home woody. If any of this rings true, then here are six of the most effective blitz-style work-outs to help you get back on track quickly and safely..

Section 1: Strength and Power

If your technique is good but you're still struggling to fire the crux of a short, powerful redpoint project or boulder problem, then you should base your sessions on core exercises which emphasise pure strength and power.

Fingerboards are an ideal companion on long road trips for a quick top-up work out. Use a bungey elastic stirrup or a small foothold if you need to decrease the level of training resistance or a weight belt if you need to crank it up.

Fingertip Pull-ups

Use a flat first-joint edge with three different grips: full-crimp, half crimp and open hang. Training intensity can be increased over time, but the following will make a good starting point:

1) 4 reps x 2 - 3 sets for each three finger grips (small, sloping hold). Rest 3 mins between sets.

62) 6 - 8 reps x 1-2 sets per grip (larger hold). Rest 5 mins between sets. 

Footless boulder problems

Work out a sequence of 6-8 steep moves on an indoor board - or at your local bouldering area - and climb footless between the holds. Do 3-4 sets and rest as above.

Pull-ups on jugs

For variety, try travelling from side to side at the top of each movement. Alternatively you can hold static 'lock-offs' during either on the up or down side of each pull-up. Use three positions: full-lock, 90 degrees and 120 degrees and hold them for anything between 4 and 8 seconds.

2-4 reps x 3-4 sets  (max resistance ie: weighted or 1-arm)

6-8 reps x 2-3 sets  - rest as above              


Use 1 or both arms depending on your ability and hang for 4-12 secs, once or twice on both hands for each of the three finger grips. Rest 2-6 mins between sets.

Deadhang training can produce huge gains in basic contact strength on holds from crimps (above) to slopers and jugs. 

Section 2: Campus boarding

When you need power fast, training doesn't come much better than Campus board sessions. But go carefully, since they can also be a fast-track route to chronic elbow and shoulder injuries! Make sure you're up to this level of training and warm-up thoroughly.

Ladder climbs on finger rungs

Use 3 rungs with the maximum possible spacings (eg: 1,4,7 or 1,5,8). Make 3-4 attempts leading with each arm with 2-3 min rest in between.


Hang the first rung with both arms, pull-up and touch the highest possible rung with 1-arm, drop back down and catch yourself on rung 1 and then lead with the other arm. Repeat to failure. You should only manage 3 or 4 reps. Rest 2-3 minutes and make a total of 3-4 attempts.

Ladder climbs (cont.)

As for 'Ladder climbs', but use 10 rungs with closer spacings (eg: 1,3,5,7,5,3,1,3,5,7,), Do 3-4 sets total with 4-5 min rest in between.

Touches (cont.)

As for Touches but use a closer rung (eg: if you hit 5 the first time then use 3 this time) Aim to complete 10-12 reps. Do 4 sets with 4-5 minutes rest.

Section 3: System Training

If you have access to a special 'System board' with ladder rungs and holds arranged in a matrix pattern, this can be one of the best ways to focus on pure strength gains but in a highly specific manner.

Neuromuscular Recruitment

Neil demonstrates basic NMR on a leaning board 

'Neuromuscular Recruitment' is a fancy name for the technique of 'teaching' specific muscle groups to work in a certain way. For the purposes of climbing, this means teaching our muscles to use holds that place very specific demands on them, such as sidepulls, undercuts, crimps and slopers.  

Choose a hold on the board and one or two appropriate footholds.

Using small, appropriately-placed footholds for NMR training

Pull on and simply hold a position. For example:

1) Side-pull static hang with one foot on. (4-8 secs each arm x 3-4 attempts)

2) Crimpy undercut static hang with two feet (4-8 secs each arm x 3-4 attempts)



NMR using an undercut hold on limestone

3) Ladder problems

Slopers ladder (with a mid-move 'footless swing' ie: take your feet off and replace them)

Crimpy side-pull ladder (with weight belt)

Jug ladder (with 4 second lock mid-move and one foot only - alternate feet)

Pinches ladder

2-finger pocket ladder (with 2 second lock mid-move)

6) Footless problems

Make 2-4 attempts at each problem with 3-5 minutes rest between attempts and at least 8-10 minutes rest before moving onto the next type of problem. Use quality form on each problem and make every attempt count.

Section 4: Power Endurance & Stamina

An indoor board indeally suited to power-endurance and stamina training, with sections between 10 and 30-degrees overhanging.

If you find that poor fitness is letting you down, first ask yourself if it's mid-range endurance that you require for sport routes of between 20 and 40 moves in length, or upper-end stamina for much longer, pumpier trad pitches. The sessions given below are listed in descending order intensity so it's up to you to diagnose and prescribe the right one for the job!

'On-the-minute' & interval training for Power endurance

Choose a 'mid-grade' boulder problem, for example: a grade below your maximum first-go capability, and approximately 6-8 moves in length. Start your stop watch and do the problem immediately. Leave the watch running and rest as long as it takes for the minute to come round then do the problem again. You must aim to do between 5 and 7 repetitions of the problem on your first session; but add at least 1 or 2 more repeats in subsequent sessions. If you commence training and realise that the problem is clearly either too hard or too easy then adjust it immediately so that you conform to the target number of repetitions.

Alternatively, construct a circuit of moves on a bouldering wall or take a route of approximately 25 moves in length at an equivalent grade. Repeat it successfully 8 times with 5 minutes rest in between, aiming to go to failure only on your 9th or 10th attempt. Note that both these sessions require careful judgment in order to guage the difficulty of the climbing appropriately.

Stamina pyramids

To save boring your belayer to tears, these sessions are best carried out on a bouldering wall or crag which offers plenty of good holds and easy ground. You should feel taxed when climbing, but never out of control and hence the climbing must be no harder than approximately 30-50% of your limit. Experiment by attempting some routes or circuits which have a fairly constant level of difficulty and others which have particular crux sections interspsersed with good rests. Never allow yourself to totally pump out!

Session 1 Ascending Pyramid

    * 30 mins on at 50% effort (30 mins rest)
    * 20 mins on at 60% effort (20 mins rest)
    * 10 mins on at 70% effort (10 mins rest)
    * 20 mins on at 60% effort (20 mins rest)
    * 30 mins on at 50% effort (30 mins rest)

Session 2 Descending Piramid (more advanced)

    * 10 mins on at 70% effort (10 mins rest)
    * 20 mins on at 60% effort (20 mins rest)
    * 30 mins on at 50% effort (30 mins rest)
    * 20 mins on at 60% effort (20 mins rest)
    * 10 mins on at 70% effort (10 mins rest)

Section 5: SACC Training

For the super long-term, low grade stamina that comes in handy for long multi-pitch, all-day trad climbing, clearly the best way to get fit is to go out and do just that. However if you're worried about your 'Specific Aerobic Capacity and Capillarity' levels during the season and fancy preparing for a particular trip or route then try this for size: use a bouldering wall but makes sure it's so easy that you can climb anywhere with only the very mildest of pumps. Ideally you should feel like you could carry on climbing forever if you really had to. Do a 20 minute stint followed by a 10 minute rest, a 30 minute stint followed by a 15 minute rest and then finish off with another 20 minute stint. Finish the session feeling completely relaxed and composed having barely entered the work zone.

Putting it all together: Kitty Wallace (aged 14) cruising the final moves of Daniboy, (8a), sector Spartacus, Kalymnos. 


It should be clear that an obsession with training at any time - and particularly during the height of the climbing season - will probably prove detrimental to your long term performance as well as your enjoyment of climbing. However - remembering that the difference between almost doing a route and actually doing it could be several weeks' training - the odd, strategically timed mid-season gym session could well make all the difference in helping you get the most from a trip, or achieve a dream route. Go steady and good luck on the crags this year.

- all photography copyright Adrian Croome -

Click on the link below to find out about Neil Gresham’s extensive climbing coaching services, including holidays, training programmes and 1-to-1 coaching.

The definitive instructional films for training and climbing: Neil Gresham's Masterclass and Get Out On Rock DVD's.

Buy Neil Gresham's Masterclass Part 1 here>>>

And Neil's Masterclass Part 2 here>>>


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