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Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – SAID and Overload (Part 3)

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Part 1:


I touched on the concept of SAID – or Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands – in my recent entry talking about triceps training. This simple training concept offers one of the easiest paradigms for effective and efficient climbing training, especially if you’re training for specific climbing-performance goals. Basically, you train for what you want to be better at by doing what you want to be better at – i.e., you train for climbing by climbing. Your time spent trying to improve your climbing game is better (more efficiently) spent actually climbing than it is spent, say, running or swimming or biking or some other fairly-irrelevant-when-it-comes-to-climbing activity.

Aha – but haven’t I said that this exact approach is what failed me, and failed me miserably, to be honest, (and undoubtedly too many others to count) in my own efforts to improve my climbing?

Yes – well, sort of.

In fact, SAID has been serving me really well these past few years of training, and the more I’ve learned to apply it effectively, with particular attention to the overload principle (OP), the more improvements I’ve seen in my climbing. (OP, as simply explained on ExRx.net, states: “If overload is not present, adaptation is not necessary, and will not occur.”)

I’ll explain this from a sport climber’s perspective (mine); the basic outline I’m offering here can be manipulated for bouldering or other climbing disciplines as well as other sports. Actually, it already has, because these are athletic training principles that have been effectively applied beyond what I’m briefly explaining here – obviously.

Back to the topic at hand though – when I first started climbing, and for a long, long while – years, I’m sure – I improved a lot at climbing just by climbing and trying climbs that were harder and harder: SAID/OP in action. But I also gravitated toward the style of climbing I was best at and avoided what I wasn’t naturally good at – which also resulted, inevitably, in SAID/OP in action. Meaning that I got better and better at technical vertical face climbing with lots of bad footholds and intermediates, but not much else – never developing the skill set needed for steep, thuggy, powerful climbing – or steep endurance climbing, for that matter. Or crack climbing or true friction slab climbing, either.

Those latter two are still victims of SAID/OP for me, actually – I’m sure I “suck” at them, still, but that’s how it goes; I won’t get better at them without practice…of course not. But frankly, I don’t much care at the moment. Climbing is personal – as in you choose to train because you love the results or you love training or both, or you choose not to train because you’re happy enough just climbing or you’re getting the results you want from just climbing or both, and you choose to care about certain angles/styles or you choose not to; it’s up to you, always, to choose what you like and want to care about in climbing, or in anything, really.

For me, as someone who really likes seeing the results of training manifested in my climbing, I’d rather focus my training efforts now on the areas that I’m passionate about getting better at – the areas that will help improve both my steep climbing game AND, at this point, my ticky-tacky vertical maneuvering, too, because I did hit a wall there that I couldn’t get beyond, as I’ve discussed too many times here to count – hit the limit of routes/route level I could climb near home that didn’t require more strength and power than I possessed. And that’s where a whole different application of SAID has come into play for me.

Part 2:


On to how I now use SAID/OP these days to inform my training choices differently than I used to. For sure, if I’m struggling with linking specific sequences or performing specific moves on a route, I’ll still start any outdoor climbing season with training those sequences on the route regularly, within reason (enough rest between efforts/days on the route in question). I’ll also work on refining the rest of the route and building up my power endurance/stamina (topic of a future entry) and endurance (topic of yet another future entry) if necessary in the process. If and when I feel that I’ve mastered the problematic moves (otherwise known as cruxes, haha) sufficiently on their own, I’ll then steadily work on trying to incorporate the problematic or challenging moves/sequences into the rest of the route.

But – and this is where the big learning curve and training outside of climbing for climbing part of SAID/OP has come for me – if I am attempting a route that I can’t seem to put together after a ton of effort and refining and too many tries to count at building up the necessary power endurance or endurance or even just percentage on specific moves, these days, I have learned a different way to apply SAID effectively and to enhance the effect of the OP. With the help of my partner, I try to break down and then specifically strengthen the muscles or muscle groups responsible for movements on the route(s)/sequence(s)/moves(s) that consistently shut me down.

This means that now, instead of beating my head mercilessly on whatever (obviously too-hard-for-my-current-strength-level) route I might have decided to try my hand at, which was my former not-so-fun approach, I’ve learned to take this information with me into winter training season and use it to my advantage. My strength-training routine involves exercises replicating the movements we’ve noticed as being most responsible for my shutdowns or difficulties throughout the previous season and/or on specific long-term projects. I work these using the overload principle (OP), gradually progressing the levels I can lift in a strength-building scheme designed to make the needed muscles stronger so that the overall drain on my strength will be lessened when I return to the route(s) in question — so those troublesome moves and sequences hopefully won’t feel quite so hard in and of themselves.

Also, consequently, my power, power endurance, stamina and endurance will all have the potential to be built up to a higher maximal level as I gain strength (since all these are subsets of absolute strength). Strength, as I’ve mentioned before, also impacts your technique – a lesson that I was loath to learn, but that I accept fully now. When I deliberately strengthen the weakest muscles in play on specific moves, my technique improves, too – I can better hold positions and execute complicated maneuvers more deliberately and precisely.

The problem/downfall I’ve repeatedly experienced with trying to train these muscle groups specifically just with climbing is that often, multiple other factors will play into an inability to execute movements before the muscles or muscle groups in question have actually been trained to their full capacity – so if my fingers get tired on a hold because they’re tired from all the other climbing I’ve been doing, but part of the problem in the move is locking off and contracting my biceps fully, I won’t get to overload my biceps enough to get the gain I can from doing biceps curls regularly over the course of months of training them specifically. In other words, it’s just not as efficient, because whatever is the weakest link on any given day makes me fail on the climb, whether it’s my biceps or my delts or my core or my legs or my skin or even my brain – but when I isolate the elements in resistance training, I choose to fatigue them and push them consciously and systematically, without having all of the other elements in play potentially interfering. And, then, those elements inevitably get stronger – and the more appropriately I choose which areas to apply SAID/OP to, the greater impact it has on my overall climbing ability (meaning if I train my areas of relative strength, I lose out on the potentially greater gains I could make by training my relative areas of weakness).

Part 3:

Okay, so how about some real-life examples of SAID/OP?

Sure, I have some already this season early on, though it has been long in coming (and I’ve never been the patient type, but I am learning to bide my time) – bad spring weather kept me off a rope consistently for the longest time in years, meaning my strength was up but all the other stuff was pretty much down when I started on a rope again this year (except my head – which I can only explain by the fact that I have noticed as a bonus that every time I’ve gotten stronger, my confidence goes up as far as just getting on and going for it).


I honestly didn’t mind this time away to train this winter/early spring – not after last year’s debacle of the nerve injury and the subsequent loss of training time, which was followed by a scary ‘n’ tentative rehabilitation training period and then make-up/catch-up training period that I chose to employ through most of the summer season. That decision, hard as it was to make, left me in a much more solid stance and a more educated place to train intelligently through the winter. By that, I mean that my biggest goal was to have enough of a base to not get injured in training, and after that, to train my weaknesses smartly using SAID/OP to my greatest advantage.

With strength and power still (probably always) being my greatest weaknesses, being more of the slow-twitch type than the fast-twitch, I chose to train these almost exclusively through the winter. In addition to some standard exercises and opposing muscle exercises that I will likely always include in my training, I chose some new ones this year – biceps curls and dumbbell rear delt rows, to share a couple. These motions mimicked areas we’d classified as severely problematic in my climbing – the culprits of many of my falls and failed efforts, though honestly I hate to use the word “fail” anymore, because I’ve come to view those longest-term, hardest projects that I’ve bitten off as the greatest educational resources in my climbing world – they’re much more instructional than the routes I send easily or onsight, of course.

Thouhg my season has just begun, I’ve already seen real benefits from using the principle of specific adaptations to imposed demands (SAID) and the overload principle (OP) in as training tools – coming out and being able to perform a move easily on one route, for example, off a hold that I couldn’t even begin to pull my body into, let alone execute the move off of the hold, last year at this time. And on another route, I’d been just constantly irritated by the knowledge that if I was a stronger short-ish person, I’d just jack my foot up on a high step and lock off deeply and grab the next hold, but I just couldn’t hold the lock-off, so I was doing this wild, unpleasant, off-kilter and power-sapping throw. This season, I went up and out loud said, “Well, I’m going to take here and try this move again how I want to do it and not be able to do it, and then go back to the other way,” (stellar positive thinking example there, but hey, I’m human, too!) and then I pulled on and did it the way I’d always wanted to – shockingly enough to me, because, yeah, I am still surprised when I see the results of training, even though I believe in it. And then I lowered down and climbed all the way through the sequence that way, and have since kept to that new, stronger-short-ish person beta.

Part 4:

A great way to train for specific moves or sequences on a project route right now, if you’re at the start of your season, is to repeat them regularly (i.e. work the route, a great application of SAID — specific adaptations to imposed demands) to see if you can build up to doing them on the route (more on this when I talk power endurance and endurance). If you do happen to have lots of time midweek, and you’re recovered, and you can’t climb outside or you don’t want to or can’t replicate those moves on an indoor climbing wall but you want specificity in training, you can also try to break out any specific areas of strength that are lacking and train them in isolation with weights or resistance work.

This can lead to accumulation of fatigue for those specific moves, though, so use this method with caution – what I mean is that you can sabotage your efforts by tiring out the muscles you’re working to strengthen, and then carry that fatigue into your climbing days. I did this a lot last year, but I did it consciously, as I was working on a bigger-picture goal – trying to build and balance my injured left side back to and then beyond where it was before, while also noting what areas were really lacking on my long-term projects in terms of strength deficits. So I sacrificed the short-term satisfaction of trying to send for the (hoped-for) long-term gain of having a body that could take on the training plan, without injury, that I wanted to pursue this past winter, and hopefully come back stronger and send some routes more quickly while feeling better doing it as a result.


But for most people right now, it’s most likely too late if you’re smack in the middle or just starting your performance season to pick out your areas of weakness that hold you back or cause routine failure in terms of muscle strength and to implement a new weight-training program at the moment, unless you want to devote some or all of your season to training rather than performance, of course. And it’s honestly probably too early on for most folks to have hit their stride in terms of routes fitness yet, too – I know I’m not there yet. But SAID/OP is something to keep in mind as you go through this season, just taking note when you struggle on specific moves OR get a project dialed but still have trouble with a certain sequence or move despite knowing how to do it – and to try to figure out what muscles/muscle groups/motions are in play when you fail to execute.

And let’s say that you do happen to work on a project for a month, two months, three months, or more – and you just hit a sticking point, a move or sequence you can’t seem to put together or perform in sequence no matter how hard you try or train on the route. You’ve refined the beta ad nauseam, and you have nothing left to work out given your current strength level. Now, you have a choice – you can 1) try to stick with the route and hit that one lucky peak day where you’ll crest the wave and nail all the sequences, which does happen sometimes or 2) you can walk away – or perhaps the weather or your trip coming to an end will force you to walk away, ending your season despite your psych – armed with awesome training knowledge, so long as you can take it in that way (instead of “I’m a failure for not completing my ultra-hard-for-me project.”)

Before you walk away from the project, though, whether you intend to abandon it forever or just for now, if you want to get the most out of your efforts, take the time to ask yourself and those around you, “What muscles or motions am I specifically lacking strength in that hold me back from executing these movements more easily?” This sounds simple, but it often is more complex than the obvious (i.e. “I need to be able to pull harder.” But pull in what direction? Are there leg/core muscles involved? Is it about finger pull or lats or biceps or triceps? And so forth.). If you’re in the realm of No. 2 (which I have been for many of my long-term projects around here), it might in the end be more effective and rewarding (or less tedious or infuriating — two terrible ways to feel about rock climbing, for sure) to break out those motions and muscles and train them in isolation over a longer period of time to build up more strength so that you DO feel more secure and less drained when executing challenging movements and sequences as a result.

So to sum it up, unless you want to sacrifice some potential climbing performance now (or your season happens to be ending instead of just starting), routinely applying SAID/OP methods outside of climbing is something that you’re more likely to start looking at toward the end of the season. But it’s worth thinking about now and starting to take note of in the present (for example, though my biceps are stronger, they still aren’t strong enough, something I already recognize and am psyched to train again through another training season, which will happen whenever I decide I’m over this whole “climbing outside” thing — right now it’s all I want, though!). At the end of this season, then, you’ll round up what you haven’t been able to do or the moves/sequences that have given you the most trouble, and assess the motions, holds or angles that you struggle with – and then you can adjust your training program accordingly to address those areas. Strength training outside of climbing for specific climbing-related gains – applying the principles of SAID/OP to specific areas of weakness that hold you back – can and should get more and more route- and movement-specific the more you do it, allowing you to pinpoint your areas of weakness and strengthen them accordingly.

~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador

Learn more about Alli

Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey