One of the most frequent questions asked on climbing forums around the internet is some form of “hey, I need feedback on my training plan.” Usually, these climbers are self-coached. The plans run the gamut from “meticulously collected from respectable, vital training books” to “do every drill I could find on the internet every day from Monday to Sunday in a random order until I break myself.”
If you’re a self-coached climber, here’s a good set of questions you can ask yourself after you put together a new training plan. These are questions that I ask of myself when I look at forum posts like the above, and when I put together plans for my clients
1. Could it be simpler?
Break the plan into weeks, and each week into sessions or activities. Chances are good that there’s something in there you could remove. The more well-adapted a climber is, the more training activities they probably need to continue making strength gains. However, the more advanced a climber is technically, the more they need to focus in order to make technical improvements. This can be paradoxical. I’ll break the activities into climbing, strength, and technique.
At least 75-80% of your training should be climbing. Period.
Most untrained or amateur climbers should stick to the basics for strength training: squat, hinge, press. I omit “pull” because most amateur climbers are already getting plenty of pulling work from their climbing. The easiest way to have sufficient pulling in a program for beginners is to climb on steeper walls.
Medium proficiency climbers and elite climbers may need a wider variety of strength training activities to continue progressing their strength. Pulling work becomes useful because it can be loaded much heavier than the stimulus from climbing. Loaded mobility work is another good example. However, more than a few activities a week is still pushing it. Pick a handful of things. Load them heavy, do them well, and cut out the rest.
As far as technical drills, stick to 1-2 different physical drills and 1-2 different mental drills in any training cycle. Keep going with them for a few cycles if you can. Visualization, sequencing, breathing, relaxing on the wall, practicing positioning – doubling down on these fundamentals is probably more useful than adding in a new fad from youtube. If you’re an advanced climber, ask yourself if you are spectacularly good at these fundamentals before you skip them.
2. Could it be more specific?
Life is short. Don’t waste it training random bullshit.
If your plan is not specific, that’s either a problem with the plan, or a problem with your goals. The reason coaches hammer athletes to choose goals is to make sure that the training plan is as specific to those goals as possible. If your goal is simply “to climb better” then your training plan is going to be vague, your results are going to be impossible to measure, and you will likely wind up frustrated with your progress. Conversely if your goal is to send a certain problem, make a link on your long-term sport project, or build a pyramid of benchmarks on the Moonboard, your plan can be very specific and your results will be tangible.
A training plan with no goal is like a rocket without a guidance system. It might be powerful, and it will burn through a ton of fuel. But you have no idea where it’s going to end up. Even if your goal isn’t perfect, it’s still enough of a guidance system that you’ll know at the end of the training plan (rocket flight) where you wound up in relation to that goal.
Think of it this way: if you decide you want to drive from Washington to Florida, and you only make it to Arkansas, you’re still a hell of a lot closer than you were to your goal of Florida. But if you get in your car in Washington and just start driving in a random direction, you don’t know where you’ll end up. And when you realize later that you wanted to go to Florida all along, you’re gonna be pretty bummed if you’re in Alaska!
Goal-setting is hard, and makes us feel vulnerable. Practice setting goals like a skill, because it is. The good news is, once you get used to it you’ll see that it makes training life a lot better. Goal-setting crystallizes our training: you’ll realize that if something in your plan isn’t specific to your goals, you can cut it out and do something more important instead.
Pick some goals. “Climb stronger” does not count – make a specific goal. Make the plan specific to those goals. After a month or two, reorient towards your goals.
3. Does it emphasize climbing and climbing skill?
If you’re a climber, the vast majority of your training time and recovery budget should be allocated to climbing sessions. These sessions should be focused: trying to send and repeat climbs, trying to do certain moves or increase your movement fluency, or working on improving a certain mode/style of climbing.
Here are several reasons that training plans made up of mostly climbing are more successful:
- Climbing is a skill-based sport.
- The best strength training for climbing is climbing in a strength-oriented mode.
- Climbing intensity can be autoregulated if the climber is tired, underrecovered, etc.
When I say climbing and climbing skill, I am not including energy system training. Energy system training is very popular, especially in self-coached plans. You don’t need to specifically train your energy systems all the time. Nothing is more important than developing your climbing skills and your climbing-specific strength. Because each individual move is easier when you’re stronger and better, in the long-term view strength and skill are the most important attributes to train. 4x4s are a great way to get tired, but they’re a terrible way to develop skills or get stronger.
Books like the Rock Climber’s Training Manual made a big fuss of sessions like ARCing and 4x4s, without emphasizing that these sessions make the most sense for linear periodization in athletes who aren’t climbing for performance all the time. Energy system work is what we lay on top of strength “as needed” cyclically or for goals. If you mostly climb outside, or you are focused on gym climbing, you’re already working the energy systems you need to while developing your skills. There is no training more specific than climbing on your project. If you’re planning for a peak season, or for a trip, then this type of training makes sense to increase your capacity when you can’t train directly on the project.
Everyone is different, but here’s what works for me after years of trial and analysis:
When I’m in a sport climbing phase, I only do energy system work when time or weather doesn’t allow me to go climbing outside, or when I want to “top off” my energy systems in a training block before a campaign of trying a project. Otherwise I get the adaptation from the climbing.
When I’m in a bouldering phase, I only do energy system work when my project is very long for a boulder (12+ moves) and I can’t try it regularly. For instance, if I can only try a project every other weekend I’ll try to simulate the number of moves and intensity once or twice during those “breaks” away from the project. Otherwise I get the adaptation from the boulder.
When I’m training for a trip, I will target essential energy systems for that style of climbing and prepare them adequately. This is the main time that energy system work appears in my training.
The rest of the time, the majority of my climbing is strength-oriented.
4. Where is the plan most likely to fail?
Most training plans fall apart for a few reasons:
- Plan is too complicated => climber only does the parts they like
- Plan is too hard => injury/overtraining/demotivation
- Plan is too ambitious => climber only does some parts, maybe not the right parts
- Plan isn’t climbing-focused enough => climber winds up just climbing and ignoring the training
- Life gets in the way
Asking yourself the questions in this post is a good start to avoiding these pitfalls. Your intuition is probably a good guide. What do you generally feel when you look at the plan laid out, week by week? Have you followed a plan like this before? Is it more than a 10-20% bump in intensity or complexity over plans you’ve followed in the past?
If your intuition tells you that it’s too complex, too intense, or too ambitious, it probably is. If your intuition tells you that you don’t have room in your life to train this hard, you probably don’t. Trust me – it’s much easier to avoid an overtraining hole in the first place than to claw your way out of one.
If you’re a relative beginner, your “training plan” should be mostly climbing, and should resemble the climbing schedule you used before you started training.
If you’re an advanced climber and you’re sure you need something ambitious and intense, follow the plan for a few weeks. Double down on your sleep and nutrition. If you notice signs of overtraining, figure out what the absolute essential priorities are, and cut out the rest.
5. Does it sound fun?
An athlete’s enthusiasm to get started is not always a good gauge of a training plan’s quality. Climbers are notorious try-hards, and many of us would rather break ourselves in half than admit that we aren’t having fun. Resilience to challenge is a feature of a good climber’s psyche, not a bug.
If I’m excited about my next training plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean the plan is good. But if I’m not excited about the plan, I know I need to ask myself what I’m apprehensive about.
If your plan doesn’t “spark joy” then ask yourself why. It might be one of the other above issues, like it seems too complex or it’s not climbing-focused enough. Maybe now isn’t the time in your life for proper training, and you should just focus on climbing for fun.
If you’re working with a coach or following someone’s suggestions then you might want to give it a few weeks to a few months before you judge too much. Often working on our weaknesses isn’t fun at first. But nothing’s more fun than seeing our own progression!
6. Could it be simpler?
Seriously, this is so important it needs to be said again.
Trim the fat. If it’s not one of these things:
- Climbing sessions dedicated to performance & learning
- Essential strength training, with compound patterns and easy to overload
- 1-2 technical/physical drills or focus areas
- 1-2 mental drills or focus areas
Then get rid of it.
When making a training plan for yourself, ask yourself these questions.
- Could it be simpler?
- Could it be more specific?
- Does it emphasize climbing and climbing skill?
- Where is the plan most likely to fail?
- Does it sound fun?
- Could it be simpler?