Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Building Power (Part 5)
Climbers and boulderers often interchangeably use the terms power and strength, but in actuality they refer to different, albeit strongly linked, athletic capabilities.
As explained by personal trainer Kevin Richardson in his fascinating must-read entry called “Aerobic Exercise & Strength Training – Does It Help Or Hurt?” appearing on his well-researched Naturally Intense High-Intensity Personal Training ™ Blog:
“Power and strength are closely related but not exactly the same thing. Strength is defined as the capacity for gross muscular effort. Power on the other hand refers to the speed at which effort can be performed. Its development is paramount for athletic performance since most movements in any sporting discipline are executed as forcefully and as quickly as possible.”
A simple way to differentiate between the two in your own mind is to picture how differently it feels to execute a move by pulling slowly through your range of motion on a hold and locking off statically to grab the next hold on a route or boulder problem vs. dynamically throwing for that same hold. The first would be an example of almost using exclusively muscular strength to accomplish a task, the second, of almost exclusively using explosive power to achieve the same goal.
A quick aside here: for the purposes of climbing, I’d change that final sentence in the above quote to read “as efficiently and quickly as possible,” just for accuracy’s sake. Climbing requires the precision delivery of power, meaning that we’re not always putting as much force as possible into every movement we make, but rather, we’re striving to use as little power for each move as we possibly can while delivering it as precisely and quickly as we can, often repeatedly, on the same route or boulder problem. (And again, I run into the complexity of climbing and trying to separate out relevant elements for discussion, because this obviously involves technique, power endurance and endurance as well — all which I’ll discuss in upcoming entries).
So for now, back to power.
Keep in mind that most climbing movements meet somewhere in the middle between these two extreme examples – and that where they meet on that continuum will depend on both the climbing style (angles, holds, length of climb, etc.) in play on a route and the individual strengths and weaknesses of the person attempting to climb the route.
For some people, power (for climbing, this means delivering the required force – often explosive, at least to a certain extent – for a movement with speed and precision) comes more naturally than others. These folks probably have more and/or better-trained fast-twitch muscle fibers than slow-twitch. I don’t want to get into a hugediscussion about muscle-fiber composition here; if you’re reading this and you climb regularly, you probably already know if you’re comfortable climbing dynamically and quickly or not, and if it comes pretty naturally to you or not.
If it does come naturally, you’ll likely find power easier to train and utilize, and you quite possible already have, at least to a certain extent. If you don’t like to move dynamically at all and you prefer to climb very slowly and deliberately, you’ll most likely find it more difficult and less comfortable to train power than fast-twitchers do, to let go of your control and to learn how to coordinate your body, to use momentum to your advantage, and to move explosively – and to be honest, you’ll probably never move – or at least, feel comfortable moving – as explosively as your more naturally gifted speedier counterparts. But despite this, you stand to gain so much from making the effort to train yourself to move more powerfully — because, as always, the less you’ve trained something, the more potential you have to improve.
The good news is that whether you love to dyno already or you’ve never popped for a hold in your life (yet), SAID rules in training power just like it does for all other climbing training aspects (please try not to get bored with SAID – I’m going to keep beating you over the head with it for a while longer). This means that if you want to challenge your current power level, you need to push it higher by training specifically to this end.
Can you do this with weights? Yes…well, sort of. Strength training, which I discussed in WI 8, will definitely yield a gain in your power potential and is a cornerstone of improving your power. Another great and succinct statement from the same Naturally Intense blog entry quoted yesterday says simply, “…you can be strong and not powerful but you can’t be powerful without a certain base of strength as the two are very directly related.” This is why it can be so very helpful to regularly spend a chunk of time training strength in your areas of weaknesses with weights or other resistance methods – because if you have little, no, or simply not enough of a strength base to build upon for the moves you want to perform, trying to build power on those moves can be a painstakingly slow and ineffective/inefficient process, potentially leading to overtraining, injury or burnout. (Read “The Importance of Strength for Enhanced Explosiveness” for more on how strength training contributes to your ability to generate power).
But let’s say you already do have the strength base for the moves/level of climbing you’re attempting, whether from a smart resistance training program or from climbing or from a bit of both. When you’re aiming to build power, one option is to transition to using lighter weights than your strength-training levels and attempt to “dyno” the weights, or move them more explosively, optimally in climbing-relevant motions. Campus boards can help with training this type of motion, too, but only if you’re strong enough to campus correctly without getting hurt – and they may help you develop better timing and contact strength while also teaching you to recruit and deliver explosive power. And plyometric workouts for legs can help you strengthen and get used to the prospect of using your legs to help generate explosive movements in climbing as well.
However, though I’ve experimented with all of these outside-of-climbing power-training methods, I’ve come to believe that at least for me, alongside training with weights to build my strength up, that the majority of my time is more efficiently and effectively spent by training this strength-related skill (power) in a direct climbing context – both by repetitively practicing dynamic and power-sapping moves and sequences of moves, as well as deliberately moving through difficult climbing sequences more quickly and explosively, both in the gym and on real rock.
As you get stronger from strength training, your potential power level rises, too, but as with all strength-related athletic capabilities, you will need to dedicate some time – often more than you might expect, as usual – to training your muscles to recruit more explosively and generate power; in other words, it will take time to add speed and specificity to that strength. But you want to condition your body for climbing movements specifically – to coordinate your body’s muscles to respond to climbing situations correctly and efficiently, by recruiting all of the muscle groups needed to execute powerful movements in a technically proficient and precise manner.
How do you accomplish this? Simply use repetition within reason. I suggest 3 to 10 times per difficult (power-sapping) move or sequence per session, total. Stop for the day either a) after you’ve performed the move or sequence correctly 1 to 5 times (perhaps doing it up to 2 or 3 times per effort on a given route, with a lot of rest in between your actual attempts on the whole route) or b) whenever you start to lose your form or ability to perform the move/sequence correctly, as you definitely don’t want to train the motion incorrectly or encourage overuse injuries.
Just like is true in weight training, an overabundance of volume (frequency and duration) may not be the quickest path toward mastering the movement(s). This means that training specific, powerful moves or sequences with a limited number of high-quality, high-intensity efforts during each training day can actually yield quicker results in the long run, particularly if the issue at stake truly has more to do with your precision delivery of power (i.e. molding your strength to the technical demands, which requires that you refine the movements in play by teaching your body how to execute them efficiently and explosively, if needed) rather than deficiencies in your power endurance or endurance. (Of course, sometimes it can be a little bit or a lot of each area that holds you back – oh, the complexities of climbing).
Allow your body to rest, integrate and recover, and then try again the next day/session – whenever you’re recovered enough to execute the moves better than last time. If you come out and you do worse, check it up to not being recovered and not resting enough — and if this begins to happen repeatedly and consistently, you’re probably on the brink of diving into the potentially deep well of overtraining. Remember, too, that the best training plan doesn’t result in a consistent linear upward progression – it always undulates in waves. Your aim is for the crest of each subsequent wave to be higher than the last crest, and to be rational and accepting of the troughs when they happen, instead of training even harder when you see “negative progress” on a specific move, sequence or route.
Consistency in repetition – repeating specific powerful moves/sequences required for specific routes/problems over the course of many days/training sessions – can be a very effective and efficient way to train power, especially if you already possess the raw strength necessary to succeed on the individual moves (or close to it) when you start to attempt them.
As explained in the article “Improving Athletic Power,” “Power is best improved by strengthening all of the body’s musculature and by spending countless hours practicing the specific sports skill they are trying to improve – not by trying to mimic them in the weight room.” In other words, the author of this article suggests that you strengthen your muscles with high-intensity weight training, and then work just as hard to mold those raw strength gains into climbing-relevant power by practicing specific, powerful climbing movements that challenge you.
While I feel strongly that it’s important to develop a balanced body that’s strong everywhere for climbing, I do think (slight disagreement with the above-mentioned article, perhaps) that using some climbing-specific weight-training exercises can be helpful and effective – but then again, this may be just a question of interpretation. I’m definitely not lifting weights to mimic exact climbing moves, but more to target specific areas of weakness that saturate my personal climbing world as well as to promote an overall strong and balanced body for climbing and life in general.
Regardless, I have come to realize that even when I make significant gains in strength over the course of months of strength training, it also takes lots of time outside of the weight room every year to convert those muscle strength gains into their full potential for yielding climbing improvements. Usually, this involves months of shaping and molding via repetitive efforts to refine those newly gained areas of strength, to train them into being able to generate more precise and coordinated power delivery and often, more explosive power delivery, too.
Note also that it takes much, much longer to develop consistency in powerful repetitions on a route when you can’t even come close to performing the moves to start with – meaning you might be better off (i.e. it would be more efficient in the long run) identifying why you can’t do those moves, and then spending your time getting stronger in the weight room or with other resistance training methods before you seriously attempt those moves, let alone try to link them into the route they’re a part of.
This is not to say that it’s always impossible to train up to a route even if you can’t do all the moves to start with. It most certainly isn’t. This is more about the most efficient way to do that — to tackle a route that challenges you beyond your current power level on multiple moves. A side bonus of more nonspecific strength training is that the gains tend to be more global than training up for a specific route, meaning that you’re likely to walk out of a solid cycle of strength training with more potential ability to take on a whole slew of higher-level routes instead of being trained only specifically for the precise movements on one single route of one single style of climbing.
I’ll wrap this discussion up with a very simple example of how you might use both repetition and strength training to develop more power: let’s say you find yourself confronted with a huge (for you) dynamic movement on a route or problem. If you’ve never even done a small dynamic move before, you might start training for this move by trying a much smaller, but similarly laid out, dynamic move in the gym that still pushes your comfort zone and teaches you how to better coordinate your body to move dynamically.
Once you’ve mastered a smaller dynamic movement, you can gradually increase the distance you’re trying to span as you develop better dynamic coordination – but at some point (the plateau/sticking point), you might realize that you will need more strength than you have to progress to the next level – to have a chance at nailing the huge dynamic move – indicating that it’s a good time to head to the weight room and get stronger. Or perhaps you won’t need to take that step for this particular dynamic move, but for the next similar move that you encounter. When you comprehend how to execute a move correctly and yet you’ve tried it innumerable times and cannot make it happen, this often indicates a true power shortage (unless your technical understanding is incorrect, of course), one that can potentially be corrected through a smart and directed strength training program, followed by power training yet again.
Simply put, “If a muscle is too weak to provide a necessary response, activity will be uncoordinated,” as stated in the ACTION Personal Trainer Certification Textbook. (Warning: I’ll likely repeat this quote in my future entry or entries on technique.) In other words, if you’re not strong enough to perform a technique correctly, you won’t be able to execute, no matter how well you understand what you’re supposed to do. (BTW, this is just one reason why great coaches can sometimes be overweight and out of shape but still invaluable to their athletes — if they comprehend the how of a movement and can communicate this effectively to a well-trained athlete, they can help that athlete skip all the bumbling trial-and-error steps he or she might take in experimenting with performing a move correctly. Likewise, the coach can help identify subtle errors in the athlete’s execution of movement and help them improve their efficient delivery of power. And so forth.)
For more on this method of approaching power training, check out the article I referenced above, “Improving Athletic Power.” It includes more details about why, in addition to the repetitive specificity of movement training described above, both strength training using weights and flexibility training can and should play important roles in improving your power as well.
~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
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