“We are talking about practice man, not the game……... Practice!” Allen Iverson
Why do we always think the climbers who are putting up big numbers are doing so because of physical strength alone?
Are Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Anderson Silva, Tom Brady, or Kobe Bryant synonymous with being especially strong?
It is common to overlook crucial performance attributes outside of physical strength that enable people to climb their best on difficult routes. These “strong climbers” have honed the technical and mental aspects of climbing through intentional practice. Climbing at our best is a representation of our technical prowess, mental acuity, physical strength.
There is much to learn from training methods implemented in other sports where key performance attributes are broken down into drills and mini-practices. Marathoners don't run marathons to prepare for a race. First, they use coaching feedback and evaluation to optimize their body position, foot striking, and stride length. MMA fighters often use the term “working techniques” to describe a large portion of their practice on the mat. Football teams rarely practice by playing actual games. Instead, they focus on drills and playbook rehearsal.
A multi-tiered feedback loop composed of self-observation, video analysis, and coaching are the best tools for improvement. Dedicating some climbing time every week to deliberate practice is an investment into your ultimate progression as a rock climber.
Five proven ways to practice
Climb submaximal routes, sections of routes, or boulder problems (this can be sections of your projects) and try to receive the proprioceptive cues coming in, but are often unaware of. This could look like climbing a boulder problem that is 1-2 grades below your flash ability, 5-10 times in a row while sensing the feedback cues and increasing the movement quality on subsequent ascents. You may also try new beta or alter your speed to feel a new movement, body position, or balance point.
A cornerstone of improvement is to realize the feedback we receive, then use that information to produce a more refined ascent with higher quality movement.
Simply Put: Climb 5 boulders problems below your flash limit and repeat each route 5 times.
Take 15 minutes while you're warming up, and practice 2 movements in need of improvement. But how do we find movement weakness in our climbing? Ask a climbing partner for feedback, use your phone to record yourself, or watch a high-level climber (in person or on video) and pick out moves that look unique or challenging. As you warm up execute these movement patterns even when it feels awkward or inappropriate. The more places you're able to execute the maneuver the more neurological ingraining is occurring, and the better your eye will get for spotting where the move is best served up.
I have always enjoyed the saying, “Repetition is the mother of all skill, provided there is skill in the repetition.” The flip side is we must experience bad reps to know what a good rep feels like. Be playful and experiment-See where a drop knee works best or how many times on a traverse you can do a foot swap.
Simply Put: Before your warm up choose 2 movements that you would like to improve then execute those movements as many times and in as many situations as possible.
Minimize Your Grip
The following 4 drills work to enhance your kinesthetic awareness of both your body position and grip position. Relaxing your grip can help you realize the best and the worst body position because you are diminishing your reliance on upper body strength. You can do this drill as a warm up or cool down, while traversing, or on submaximal routes.
1. Traverse the wall using only your ring and middle fingers to grip the holds. This will cause you to sag into your feet and use your leg strength.
2. Climb a route without crimping, using only an open-handed grip position. This drill brings awareness to how often we overuse the crimp position and build open hand endurance.
3. Complete an entire route or traverse using only 1 hand. Analyze every movement and sequence to complete this drill. It also teaches us about dynamic movement.
4. While climbing, never readjust on a hold once you’ve made initial contact. Climbers often readjust on holds. Repeated readjusting increases the number of moves on the route, wastes energy, and adds to the pump factory.
Simply Put: Use grip minimizing drills to create awareness and feedback of body position and over gripping.
Be your own quarterback. The best professional athletes in the world watch a ton of “tape”. We all have phones attached to our hip, so let’s use them to help our training instead of hindering it. Whether your day is dedicated to practice or performance, record and review your climbs. Have your climbing partner take a look and offer feedback. Ask yourself a lot of questions. Did it feel like it looked? Could I have moved more dynamically or statically to preserve energy? Could I do the route in less time or fewer moves to reduce my pump? Were my hips into the wall? How can I increase the efficiency and quality of my movement? After taking in some observations, try the route again with a specific intention and video yourself again.
Review, ask questions and repeat. A critical point here is to repeat the route after watching the video. The more your repeat, replay, and ask questions the more space you have created for learning.
Simply Put: Video yourself as often as possible, ask questions, and repeat the route intent on searching for a higher quality ascent.
A wise climber once said, “The only thing better than climbing, is more climbing.” At the end of a climbing day or bouldering session, climbers often take long rests in order to recover for one, or two, last good burns. That is fine if you're trying to perform but a waste of quality practice time if your intention is to improve. Toward the end of your training session when you're feeling fatigued–dedicate 20 minutes to practicing difficult and technical maneuvers that demand quality movement. We rarely get to the crux of a route feeling fully powered up. In fact, many redpoint cruxes on sport climbs must be executed with a deep sense of fatigue.
Repeat sections of climbs that require technical and precise movement. Pay close attention to the quality of your movement. Use first person visualization to hone the sequence while you wait to repeat another burn.
Simply Put: Sharpen your ability to execute hard sequences by practicing them in a fatigued state at the end of your training session.