Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Route setting to facilitate RCTM training

The Rock Climbers Training Manual describes four types of forearm training that serious climbers will want to have easy access to in their regular training facility, whether it be home wall or local bouldering gym.  RCTM training refers to climbers who follow the general recommendations of the Anderson brothers, as outlined in their RCTM book. Strength training is performed on a hangboard so it is not discussed here, although gyms would be wise to follow the Anderson brothers suggestions on set up of good hangboard areas [corrected link address].  The remaining three types of climbing training are ARC, power, and power endurance. Here are my thoughts on how route setting in both home walls and gyms can best facilitate these activities.

Bouldering for ARC/MSS:     ARC training involves staying on the wall for long periods of time and requires alternative hand and foot sequences to allow climbers to manage their pump while climbing at 10% to 40% of their maximum effort.  Traverses, with integrated upward problems and restful down climbs should be the staple in better training gyms.  This does not mean filling an entire bouldering area with such traverses, but gyms should set aside a section of the facility with problems that are designed to work together as a larger system of movement options appropriate to the grades needed for ARC training.  Gyms with auto-belays or treadwalls can apply the same principles behind hold layout to those surfaces.

However, well designed training areas with integrated sets of boulder problems have an advantage of allowing multiple climbers to use the resource at once, assuming they can coordinate on direction and pacing.  In our little Dojo (500 square feet of climbing surface) we are able to accommodate four simultaneous climbers without too much trouble.

Ideally, an ARC area should also have sections with extremely dense hold layouts, such that climbers can also create their own memorized problems that allow them to tailor their workouts to make them more specific to their goals.  The ARC area also needs challenging footholds and diverse hold types to allow climbers to engage in technical skill exercise and otherwise practice better climbing during their long sessions on the wall.   ARC training also requires areas with good rests, so if your ARC area is steep like ours, you need to have some bomber holds scattered throughout, and should take advantage of dihedrals and aretes for rest stances.  Beginning and intermediate climbers are the least likely to train ARC in a gym, and this is partly because there are not enough decent rests for climbers in the 5.10 and lower range to recover on vertical and slightly overhanging walls.   These are the climbers whose performance would benefit the most from following the RCTM combination of ARC and skill training recommendations.

Our setup:  Even with limited space a good set of integrated traverses will allow you to create high quality ARC training resources. Our Dojo is a small bouldering room (26ft long by 20 wide at one end and 10 wide at the other).   Our layout allows loops that can include roof traverses as well as restful stances in dihedrals and on a couple of less steep sections.  Starting near the clock we have 4 traverses, and all are about 50 to 60 hand moves long.

  1. Any hold (5.10ab)
  2. Mercy the Pabst (5.11a)
  3. Orange mustache (5.12a)
  4. Blues Clues (~5.12b) technical problem with limited foothold options

I use a combination of all 4 of these options for my ARC training by moving in and out of easier or harder sections of each of the traverses in order to cultivate different intensities and raise different technical challenges.   At my current level I primarily use the 11a, and add in splashes of harder and easier sections to keep it interesting.

Bouldering for power:  There are four great resources for power training:  campus boards, well designed bouldering areas, system walls, and Moonboards.   The Anderson brothers have great suggestions on campus board design, including a nice description of a mini campus board setup, suitable for folks with limited home wall space (see How to build a campus board).  A good training gym will already have a campus board, but some additional design considerations should go into the setup of the bouldering, system wall and moon wall with a mind for allowing RCTM climbers to create limit problems that meet their training needs.

Power training on campus boards:  the Anderson brothers describe this well, and they also make it clear that folks with lingering injuries, especially elbow injuries should NOT power train with campus boards until those injuries are fully cleared up.  This means that many active training climbers will need to train power in another way, and that is the limit problem.

A limit problem (see Anderson and Anderson, 132) should be only 1 or 2 or, at most 3 moves long, and the moves should be so hard that the climber has to work across multiple attempts to even complete a single move. These should be "drop the clutch" hard, but set up on holds that are as non-injurious as possible.

Power training limit moves on bouldering walls:  The definition of a limit problem implies that given the angle of the wall, and given the training level of the climbers, you will need some futuristic hold options. These should allow training climbers to identify limit problems on relatively comfortable holds that are seriously hard to use on wall angles similar to those where route cruxes appear in their goal routes/problems.  Open hand crimps and thin pinches are some of the best candidates because they can be difficult while minimizing injury risk and wall space.  Slopers may be central to some climbers goals, but they make less ideal candidates for limit problems because they may depend too much on conditions to be ideal for training.  Slopers also take up a lot of wall space, and if you set up limit training zones, you will want to have an array of related holds at slightly different levels of intensity. This is easiest to accomplish with openhand crimps and thin pinches.  In summary, for route setting purposes  this means that at least for the higher end climbers, there will need to be areas with collections of related holds, at slight gradations of differing difficulty that seem dauntingly hard.   Or at least, there are hold concentrations that are hard to use and have sufficiently bad feet nearby to to make the moves fully intense.

Power training limit moves on system walls is primarily an option for climbers who are training at lower levels of difficulty.  System walls are typically composed of medium challenge holds, and are not usually extreme enough to make compelling limit moves for the top end climbers.   For such climbers, campus boards and Moonboards will make better options.

(photo from three rock blocks)

Power training with Moonboards (see Moon climbing for a great description) Moonboards are single angle bouldering walls with a uniform set up, beginning with the angle (40degrees), layout of t-nuts (numbered and lettered grid), and specific holds.   This uniform structure allows climbers to develop shared problems across locations.  The holdsets are thin and challenging.  Footholds are small.  There are no jugs.  These walls are ideal for crafting limit problems because the holds in the standard package sets are extremely challenging.  Gyms can set up Moonboards, or they can make their own version of Moonboards by identifying a section of single angle wall (at a good angle for training of cruxes at the local area) and filling it with challenging holds and technical feet. There are huge power and crux move technique benefits from integrating a wall similar to a Moonboard into any training setup.

Our setup:  Currently, our Dojo is set up with three limit move areas (30 degree, 50 degree, and 70 degree walls).  However, none of these are really suitable for advanced climbers because not enough of the holds are difficult/intense enough.  For example, this is the 30 degree wall, and this section would benefit from about 15 more holds that are very difficult to use.  Edit:  I have since added several holds, but still could stand to have more limit holds on this angle. Here is the updated photo:   

I hope to add more challenging holds soon, build a small campus board, and eventually, I hope to build a version of a Moonboard at 25 degrees in the downstairs of our garage where the ceiling is over 9 feet high.   The pseudo Moonboard will allow us to create limit moves that involve powerful upward movements at an angle that is simply not possible in our low ceiling attic.  This would help simulate many of the crux sections at local crags like the New and the Red.

Bouldering for power endurance:  power endurance is the easiest dimension to integrate into the route setting of any gym.  Power endurance training involves making repeated attempts at problems with continuous difficulty that demands powerful holds, without rest, for 15 to 30 moves in a row.  This problem is then repeated after a brief rest period of only 1 or 2 minutes.  Problems of about 20 to 26 hand moves are ideal for most training purposes.  Once again, the angle should be as specific to the routes/problems in the climbers goal set.  The problems should also have slight options for hands or feet that allow climbers to diverge slightly to raise or lower the difficulty of the moves to maintain exertion right at the limit for the full number of moves.

(Jay Bone's photo from Flagstaff comp)

Power endurance training on normal gym bouldering problems. Assuming the problems are of the right length, or that they can be linked to get the right hand move length, then it seems like not much change needs to be made to standard gym set ups.  However, it is often the case that climbing gyms set problems primarily for entertainment, and the setting program strives to represent the full range of challenges present in bouldering, including things like commitment, confronting fear etc.   These issues, while important in a developmental and entertainment sense, get in the way of the training value of the climbing resource. Boulder problems that are created to facilitate power endurance training need to take fall safety and height into careful consideration and ideally, will be set in a way that minimizes danger and reduce fall distances, or concentrate fall risk over well cushioned landings.

(photo, Rene K-A)

The Shop III is a great example of an ideal power endurance training facility, that has some low and some tall problems, but the landing surface is very well cushioned, minimizing the risk of injury from falls.

Power endurance training on super dense walls.  The classic super dense wall is ideal for this type of training.  This image from a recent post in the FB route setting group illustrates the type of density that we all would like.  However, one shortcoming of this wall, at least for the North American sport climber who trains indoors is the preponderance of large slopers and pinches and the generally large and imprecise footholds these hold types present.   If you are training to reach outdoor sport climbing or bouldering goals, this wall would be better composed with a higher concentration of open crimps, thin pinches, technical feet, and occasional pockets

(photo, VOLNY)

Training indoors should be specific to the type of goal routes that the climbers at that facility aspire to.   Even for folks who climb primarily at the RRG, this example photo seems to over rely on pinches and slopers in a way that reduces the specificity of the training.  A middle ground (like the Shop III) is between the holds on this wall those typical of a moon wall would greatly increase the training value of this facility for sport climbers in most of North America (Maple Canyon an exception).

Our setup:  we have several problems and variants that can be integrated with the stand traverses to make ~24 move problems intense for most climbers at the Dojo.  There is a direct finish on the 12a traverse which bumps up the route with three boulder problem sections.  Also, because the wall is low, it is easy to push limits with little concern for injury.   The 50 degree wall with it's system wall sections has plenty of potential for making PE move sections to tack onto and intro traverse.

Friday, May 16, 2014

How training can spur greater improvement.

How to read this graph:   The four rectangular shapes represent the four types of training / fitness combinations directly related to forearm fitness described by the Anderson brothers in RCTM.

ARC/MSS (moves: 60 to 700; intensity: 10% to 40%) this training involves large numbers of consecutive moves at low to moderate effort levels, and requires climbers to manage their level of pump by controlling their activity and resting behaviors.  Seldom will performance oriented climbing days include these combinations of moderate intensity with extremely long duration, which defines the activity and spurs maximum endurance fitness growth.

Power endurance (moves: 12 to 30; intensity 60% to 90%, duty cycle 1 min effort to 2 min rest) workouts are can include 6 sets of 20-26 hand moves, at intensity high enough to prevent resting, organized in rapid 1 min on / 2 min off duty cycles.  While power endurance challenges are encountered in the context of climbing, they are not repeated sufficiently, nor are they organized into a series of duty cycles with only two min of rest between each 1 min of activity.  Thus the adaptive response is limited as climbers instead seek to maximize their chances of success on a particular route.

Finger strength (moves: 3 to 7, intensity 55% to 80%)  is best cultivated through hangboard workouts, organized around grip type, and with multiple sets of brief repetitions (7 seconds) separated by briefer (3 second) rests.   These workouts allow climbers to reach muscular fatigue for particular grip types in 5-7 reps, which maximizes adaptive response while minimizing risk of injury, unlike in route situations in which randomly encountering a grip type may be in a single repetition and near the climbers limit.

Limit bouldering and campusing (moves 1 to 5; intensity 80% to 100%) are the best ways to cultivate power, which is instantaneous application of finger strength.  This is best trained on comfortable consistent grip types over a short range of 1 to 5 moves.

There are at least three reasons that systematic training can spur greater amounts of adaptive fitness response than simply bouldering and climbing for fun.

  1. Routes are too arbitrary. Arbitrary selections of holds, intensities, moves, and durations do not inspire as strong of an adaptive response from the forearm muscles.  
    1. Most routes include a wide range of hold types, intensities, and durations.  This reduces the chance for systematic fatigue in any one set of forearm muscles.  
    2. Route challenges will seldom match climbers specific training level needs.   The four different dimensions of forearm fitness are responses to different types of climbing challenges, and for any climber, these will require particular combinations of hold intensity, duration, and variety.  Most outdoor routes and problems are just too idiosyncratic to be effective training vehicles for general fitness goals (though parts of routes can be selected for fitness training).
      1. It is possible to use outdoor routes as training resources, but most climbers tend to treat all outdoor routes as performance tests, rather than as a means to cultivating particular types of fitness (see 3 below). 
  2. Routes are too limited in any one dimension.  Systematic training includes combinations of durations, intensities and hold types that are more extreme and are intentionally specific to types of climbing fitnesses. 
    1. Hangboard workouts focus effort on repeated, controlled loadings of the exact same muscles until those muscles fatigue to failure.  Routes will seldom have repeated grip types to specifically fatigue forearm muscles to failure in a systematic, progressive way.   
    2. Power-endurance workouts are tailored to generate and sustain intense forearm pump thought a series of numbered moves, and are repeated before full recovery is made.  Bouldering for fun would remain more performance than training oriented.  
    3. ARC sessions are much longer duration than most climbers encounter in ordinary route and problem completing situations.
  3. Climbing for fun is too focused on performance over process.  Climbers who only climb for fun tend to focus on their strengths and leave gaps in their training procedures, such that certain types of fitness are insufficiently cultivated.   
    1. Fear of failure or pressure to complete routes can inspire climbers to risk injury or keep them from attempting routes that may actually provide the best workout.   Others may continually get on routes that are too difficult, only to spend most of their climbing time hanging at the next quick draw.
    2. Everyday climbing can encourage climbers to stay in the comfortable middle ground of challenge.  For instance, it is easy to meet climbers who have been climbing for fun, but have never put in a session of ARC climbing with more than 100 moves in a row.  Correspondingly, these climbers are unable to rest and recover effectively on routes.   
    3. Other climbers might climb in extremely static styles, and will have insufficient power and lack the neuromuscular habits of efficient deadpointing, and "go-for-it-ness" that they use in campusing or limit bouldering.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A foundation for ongoing improvement

The Rock Climber's Training Manual shipped in early April.  I had decided to pre-order it, based on the valuable insights that the Anderson brothers had already shared on their blog.  I find it to be the most important climbing training publication since "Performance Rock Climbing"  because it expands and extends principles of improvement and periodization of climbing training to maximize performance.

Most crucially, as a parent with a busy work schedule, I am glad for the patient and long term perspective that it advocates and the fact that the authors themselves are middle aged climbers who manage to balance careers, families and a dedicated training and climbing system.  Reading the chapters has also helped me identify my priorities in terms of climbing goals and ways to organize my training, practicing, and climbing time.  I wish I would have had access to this book when I was younger, but, I am am glad that at least I can benefit now.

If I were to oversimplify, here are several big picture principles I draw from this book:

  1. Articulate what you want to enjoy from climbing and how you want to improve in order to enjoy those dimensions more:  Personally I am most motivated to improve at my capacity to climb gymnastic, overhanging sport routes.  I want to be able to travel to crags and enjoy the best of the gymnastic sport routes that I can find, and especially, to be able to enjoy the world class gymnastic routes at local areas like the Red and New.  
  2. Identify concrete short term and long term goals:  I articulate my goals elsewhere, but the Anderson brothers are correct to emphasize that working towards specific goal routes is much more motivating and valuable than simply working to improve or to climb a certain grade.   Apollo Reed is a brilliant route, and if you are inspired to climb it, you can quickly deduce how you need to become stronger and wiser in your climbing.
  3. Tailor your training and practice towards achieving your goals, given your current capacities and weaknesses:   Currently, my limiting factors are endurance and power endurance.  Once I know that, I can work to elevate all of my performance areas, but concentrate extra attention on climbing medium intensity for long time periods (20 to 40 minutes) and high intensity for 20 to 30 hand movements with no rest.  
  4. Be patient:   You will need at least a minimal level of patience if you divide your year into three climbing seasons, and specify the last month of each season as your time to focus on performance on outdoor routes.  If you also recognize that slow steady improvement is the only type of sustainable progress then you will not be in a rush to "climb harder".  Instead you see that improving is one of the great joys of any athletic pursuit, then you need to savor and enjoy the moments of progress.  The joy is in the journey, not the end result.  
  5. Progress results from training when focused, consistent, and progressive.  Therefore, careful documentation of both objective dimensions, and subjective experience are key to making continual, incremental adaptations to the demands of training.  A good dose of bureaucratic record keeping and self monitoring go a long ways towards both motivating effort and achieving progress.  
  6. Take time to cultivate all four of the relevant dimensions of fitness for the forearms/fingers.  Ultimately, the limiting factor for most climbers and climbing is defined by capacities in endurance, strength, power, and power endurance of their fingers / forearms.  The body increases capacities in these dimensions by responding to particular combinations of effort, duration, and rest.  Reflecting carefully on how you currently climb / train, will help show you what is missing.   

In addition to finger strength, other areas of strength need to be developed, and technique needs to be refined and practiced, but these can be integrated into the larger program of developing those forearm capacities. A good fitness plan for climbing addresses 6 key areas:

General bodyweight fitness and flexibility:  climbing involves moving and supporting the body through three dimensional spaces.  Secondary and antagonistic (relative to primary climbing related) muscles of the body should be trained to some minimal level of fitness to support this and to add general athletic capacity.   These can be accomplished either through weights, or better yet, through body weight exercises, including progressions related to:  pushups, dips, L-sits, handstands, and some integrated lower body work like squats (in the lower body especially, strength without hypertrophy is advantageous for climbers).   Flexibility work with yoga, stretching, and foam rolling are key especially for older climbers.  All of these can be pursued on rest days from climbing / training.

Climbing specific bodyweight fitness:   climbing is mostly about pulling your core up and in.  Increasing strength at progressions related to pull ups, inverted rows, and core strength progressions like hanging leg lifts, front levers, and plank are key.  Depending on the climbing related trainings, these can be added to more climbing specific work.

Finger / Forearm ARC/MSS Endurance Or, in words, Aerobic Recovery and Capilarity / Maximum Steady State describe fitness related to the capacity to exert low to moderate levels of effort with the forearms for extended periods of time.  The maximum steady state is the highest level of exertion that a climber can perform without reaching a state of overexertion that requires temporary cessation of effort.  This type of endurance is trained climbing a level immediately at the MSS for long durations of time.  An ARC session might include two to four repetition of 20-35 min periods of constant climbing, where the climber works to maintain/ manage a mild forearm pump.  These long sessions can be integrated with skill work that focuses on small footholds, body tension, finding rest positions, pacing, etc.

Finger strength refers to the amount of weight each hand can support from a given type of hold, and is thus highly specific to hold type and angle of loading.   Performing dead hangs from a fingerboard is the safest and most predictable method for increasing finger strength.   Finger strength defines the upper bound of power that a climber can cultivate, and in general, finger strength should be cultivated earlier in a training cycle than power.  However, since muscle increases strength more rapidly than connective tissue, this strength should be cultivated slowly and should allow sufficient periods of rest where maximum strength is not cultivated.

Finger power is the immediate application of maximum finger strength.  Whatever strength has been cultivated can be tailored towards greater power by encouraging the body to stimulate growth and activation of more of the fast twitch muscle fibers.  Power is enhanced by training brief intense loadings, through either limit bouldering or campusing.  Limit bouldering involves problems of 1, 2 or 3 hand moves that are maximally difficult.  Campusing for power involves 1 to 5 hand movements at maximal difficulty.   Great care should be taken in power training to avoid injury and overtraining.

Finger power-endurance refers to the capacity of the body to sustain high levels of effort for medium numbers repetitions, for instance, the crux section of a route may be composed of 20 moves of near constant difficulty that does not allow resting or shaking out.  Power endurance is produced by short term adaptations of the body to increase the amount of recovery enabling enzymes in the trained muscles.  Thus power endurance should be the attribute that is trained in earnest immediately prior to the performance phase.  Power endurance is trained by performing 20 to 30 high intensity movement sets, with brief rest periods between repetitions.  For instance, develop a 25 move boulder problem where every move demands an effort of 80% or so, or is intense enough that resting / shaking out is not possible.  Repeat that problem 6 times with just 2 min of rest between each repetition.  

Periodization of training cycles.   You can't train all of these things at once.  But thankfully, they can be cultivated in turn, during different training periods.   Each of these time periods can include climbing for fun or training outdoors as well, but the available training time for climbing should be focused on the types of workouts that cultivate that dimension of climbing fitness.   Here is an example 16 week season.

Week 1    Rest.
Week 2    ARC/MSS     (2-3 bodyweight sessions can be integrated throughout each period)
Week 3    ARC/MSS
Week 4    ARC/MSS  + Finger strength
Week 5    Finger strength
Week 6    Finger strength
Week 7    Power
Week 8    Power
Week 9    Power
Week 10  Power endurance
Week 11  Power endurance
Week 12  PE / Performance
Week 13  Performance
Week 14  Performance
Week 15  Performance
Week 16  Performance