Climbing Performance Coaching

“Which part of the hip leads the movement?” — with Akiyo Noguchi

Since my approach to climbing performance coaching in recent years has been informed by my work with the German Bouldering Team, you might wonder how the demands on a competitor at an international boulder comp relate to that of a general climber, who might have goals in for example rock climbing. If it is a higher overall competence in all climbing situations you are aiming for, your goal is remarkly similar to that of top competitor— to be prepared for whatever the climb demands!

Check out my on-going Climbing Performance Coaching mind map here!

What the climb demands and if we’ll be ready for it, is already difficult to foresee in a formalized competition context and obviously much more complex on rock, outdoors or wherever your climbing goals are.

There are commonalities though, that I’ll try to outline in this text. As we will see, improvement in climbing can be greatly facilitated in the right conditions…

My approach to practice session design is to start with the ‘WHAT’ and get to the ‘HOW’ by adjusting the complexities

Designing Training

“No one can directly teach the learning system how to organize. All the coach, physical therapist or movement expert can do is create conditions that optimize the self-organizing system’s chances of finding generally valid principles of satisfactory solutions.”
Everybody is different and every climbing position is (ever so slightly) different — telling you where to put your hands and feet won’t cut it for long term improvement — it is more important to understand the underlying principles

Guided Discovery

My role as a climbing coach is in sharing what I know and providing guided discovery to my athletes. I’m neither a a drill instructor, who shouts at you to do one more rep, nor a motor-learning guru that feeds you specific information about exactly how to do a move. Human beings are self-organizing systems, that will develop good movement patterns and therefore improve in climbing. The movements patterns and solutions that you have deveIoped will be staying with you much better than somebody elses solution, regardless who this somebody is — you OWN them! I completely trust in that with careful guiding, you will discover the deep skills you already have (from millions of years of evolution, moving about in trees) under the right conditions.

My role as a climbing performance coach is in providing these conditions.

planning the sequence of climbing challenges in one of our “Route-setting for coaches” clinics

“Providing the right conditions” in climbing performance coaching starts with assessment, followed by exercise selection and designing meaningful training through creating challenges with for example route-setting.

Over the decades I have developed several curricula for skill acquisition, practice design and climbing technique improvement for individuals and teams of all levels. Here is an example of a coaches’ workshop I did in fall 2017 in Paris.

“« Udini » le prestidigitateur” it says in the caption, have to look this word up!
Perfect conditions for Boulder Contest preperation at Studio Bloc

The demands of climbing

Mobility, strength and control

The demands of climbing are fairly simple:

Mobility -> Strength -> Control

As we move up an inclined surface, we must fight the force of gravity to raise our body. The challenges of climbing include moving on less than ideal contact points, moving up and down inclines, balancing, crossing gaps, and dealing with obstructions. All climbers must have strong grasping abilities, and they must be able to position their centre of gravity in an ideal angle to the object being climbed.

factors contributing to climbing performance

Climbing involves sophisticated movements with complex biomechanics and the constant management of forces such as gravity, elastic recoil, torque and momentum. Its training therefore needs to be a rigorous, disciplined and sophisticated integrated movement practice that develops your full physical and mental potential.

The Weakest Link Principle

One concept that still guides my approach to any kind of training and preperation, is the Weakest Link Principle that Dale Goddard and I first described in Performance Rock Climbing in 1993.

„Although performance represents the combined result of many different abilities, it is not the simple sum of them. Performance will be pulled down to the level of the weakest of the abilities you must use in a given situation. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, your vehicle’s performance will be limited by its weakest areas.
A small change in your weakest areas will have a great effect on overall performance, while a significant improvement in the strongest areas will have a much smaller effect. For this reason, maximizing improvement requires discovering your weakest areas and targeting them as your top training priorities.
If you work on any one area long enough, you eventually reach a point at which your efforts would be more profitably applied to weaker aspects of your performance. The challenge, then, is deciding which are your priority areas. Finding your weak spots is a matter of asking yourself the right questions and persistently examining your climbing.
Self-examination will shed light on the weak facets of the repertoire of skills you bring to your climbing.
Seeking your weaknesses shouldn’t be regarded as “dwelling on the negative.“ On the contrary, learning about your weaknesses is like discovering a gold mine, for this is where your potential for improvement lies. Self-knowledge is the source of your ability to grow.
It’s the climber who doesn’t know his weaknesses whose future is dark, because he has no focus for his efforts. His is the discouraging state, for his gains will be sporadic and random at best.
You need not forget your strengths. They will continue to give you confidence and motivation. But it is through your work on your weaknesses that you improve.“
Athlete performs motor control screen based on research behind the star excursion balance test.

Assessment

A throughout assessment includes physical screening, tactical- technical profiling and analyses of psychological aspects like character traits. In performance sports we have to constanstly review and update our tools and methodology.

For now I will focus on the physical and training aspects and leave the assessment of coordination to a later article. After gathering the data, the next step is to thoroughly analyse it and provide detailed and useful feedback.

General assessments like the FMS or the Y-Balance / Star Excursion Balance Test already say a lot about the coordination and level of self-organization of a climber, especially when put into context as in the example below.

To get a closer look into a climber’s abilities, tools like the Kraftolizer can be useful and often yield surprising results. I will never entirely trust any single test set-up though, but gather a whole range of, often rather playful, impressions, sometimes just to mix things up and get out of a formalized laboratory setting.

Strength assessment of athlete Juliane Wurm with an early prototye of the Kraftolizer
Rate of Force Development as tested with Kraftolizer prototype, 2015

Klettertraining (German for “training for climbers”, used from here)

Now my job is to come up with the plan, based on what we learned through the assessment.

Regardless of the level, I’d rather err on the side of caution. The most important is a healthy climber showing up at the wall or the competition. Better to be just 90% fit, but show up and give it your best, than training even slightly too much, getting injured and being forced to watch the livestream at home. Injuries are not at all glamorous, in my book!

No hard-to-hold contact point training for kids until they are grown out!

Especially with young people I don’t emphasize on physical training that much, but encourage them to find solutions in clever movement first. As Jaques LeMenestrel, the father of the legendary LeMenestrel brothers so wisely told his sons more than 40 years ago: „Put as much power on your feet, just at the limit where your foot is going to slip… and only after that, the power you can’t put on your feet … you put on your fingers!”

Marc LeMenestrel, 8:04: “the game was to put as much power on your feet, just at the limit where your foot is going to slip… and after that, the power you can’t put on your feet … you put on your fingers!”

For kids and beginners, effective exercises for core, shoulders, legs, connective tissue and joint development are recommended. A strong and stable core provides balance and effectively connects the upper and lower body and its extremities. Exercises should challenge your kinesthetic senses — proprioceptors, mechanoreceptors, visual and vestibular apparatus — and help to increase range of motion and improve circulation and posture. Multi-joint and multiplanar exercises develop coordination, balance and strength.

instead of counting repetitions, count only SUCCESSFUL repetitions (in this case passes) of a difficult challenge. this will keep the quality up!

Exercise selection

For improving overall climbing ability, we are using exercises, tasks, challenges and obstacles that promote the following elements:

  • Mobility
  • Cross lateralization (improving communication of right brain with left side and vice versa, so that the right arm works in concert with the left leg, left arm with the right leg and upper and lower extremities work reciprocally).
  • Upper and lower body stability and strength (especially scapular control), upper body strength, trunks — and hip strength
  • Body Tension (If you can control tension you can control movement!)
  • Breathing Efficiency
  • Reflexive stability of trunk and extremities
  • Stimulation of the three senses that contribute to balance (vestibular system, visual system, proprioception system)
  • Spatial awareness
no skill, however impressive, should be an island

Some words of advice concerning exercise selection

As impressive as „party trick” exercises like the one-arm chin-up or the muscle-up are, you first have to understand their mobility/strength prerequisites and the risk/reward ratio involved!

It’s not always necessary to train a particular movement solely for the sake of performing that movement. Sometimes exercises have alternatives that may be more appropriate for YOUR specific needs. Find your “why” and be intentional with your goals!

Mastery in fact can become a problem for your progress in the future. Think about it — Once you’ve mastered an exercise, it has lost it’s power to challenge you! Instead of getting perfect at exercises, keep adjusting them so that they keep on challenging you. A pull-up is an entirely different beast with balancing a bottle on the head. Show them off at a party or at the beach, sure — but keep in mind that this is not training. To keep improving, you have to be failing and fail until you fail to fail!

the ultimate test for any training program — how well does it transfer into your climbing? Adam Ondra, mid-2014 in Haiyang not yet happy with that. Later that year he became double- world champion though!

Context and transfer

The problem of transfer from training to performance is known in every sport and becomes more important, the more complex an activity is. Climbing is much more complex than for example sprinting. Many climbers don’t see a return in performance from the time they invest in strength training.

“The strongest athletes are by no means always the fastest sprinters, and evaluation of training always shows that, in somewhat technically complex sports, increased force production does not automatically lead to improved performance.” — Frans Bosch, Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrated Approach

My approach to Klettertraining regards strength training as coordination training with appropriate resistance. This makes our training more efficient, along with a greater chance of transfer.

conventional strength training improves maximum strength, but doesn’t necessarily transfers well

Having said this, I still keep the athletes age and history in mind. Conventual strength training can have a positive impact for example on rate of force development for beginners, since every repetition they do still has a lot of variation at this stage. Younger, less-experienced climbers therefore can make big gains through conventional strength training. The more advanced athletes becomes in terms of training age and development though, the more they need variation and complexity in training. Repetition and practice is necessary to get better, but improvement will suffer if it leads to reduced motivation and injury. Variation in training increases motivation and avoids monotony.

instead of repetitions and sets, I organize physical training in challenging movement combinations

The more realistic and life-like a task is, the more engaging it is. With intent and focus, gains made through our exercises transfer better to climbing performance. Klettertraining is therefore not exercise and drill-, but obstacle and challenge based. It is task-oriented movement practise that focuses on the movement outcome. This allows the motor system to naturally self-organize. One idea along those lines is for example, to instead of counting repetitions, count only SUCCESSFUL repetitions of a difficult challenge to keep the quality up!

catch ball with left hand, throw it back, switch hands, catch ball with right hand… repeat. If you drop the ball, that “repetition” doesn’t count! Count only successful reps in a given time, try to improve!

Klettertraining, when done right, creates body knowledge, movement awareness, and, over time, will make you tougher and more resilient.

Lead competition climbers have to deal with the practical constraints of peaking in stamina when it counts!

Programming and Periodization

The only aspect in climbing that truly benefits from periodization is stamina and power-endurance. All other aspects, like mobility, maximum strenght and general endurance should be trained year round with varying extend intensity.

typical programming as used in Crossfit

The same is true for programming the exact order in which work is done. Apart from stamina I see the value of programming and periodization mainly in planning the increase of variability and thus motivation.

simple “qualitaty-” periodization for World Cup boulders (season starts in April) from general to specific

Journaling and Autoregulation

My main coaching goal is to get my athlete’s experienced in their training, that their awareness improves so that they accurately can judge their effort. Knowledge about yourself is more valuable than the most sophisticated training plan. Eventually you should be able to take cues from your warm-up to inform you what and what not you should train that day. This is called autoregulation. To learn about yourself and how you respond to various stimuli, journaling is highly recommended!

Serena Williams and the value of journaling

Rating Perceived Exertion (RPE)

RPE is an essential aspect of your training diary. Immediately after the session, you ask yourself how hard it was, using a scale of 1–10 and write it down. After doing this for 2 weeks, look at your notes — if your goal is to become world champion in one month time, yet you only gave one session “7” our more, that will most likely not cut it. If you have a full time job though, and are giving 10 of your sessions within these two weeks a “10”, you might be over reaching and heading to injury and/or burnout. A good coach will inform you about YOUR ideal relationship of rest and exertion, the final goal though should be, that YOU are able to make the best descission about what to train on a given day!

training protocol of Jibé Tribout, one of the best climbers in nineties, that still is a good template. Subjective parameters have been shown as being just as useful as scientific tests.

So, that’s a first outline of my concept of

Climbing Performance Coaching — please comment and get in touch!

one of our clinics at Studio Bloc, Pfungstadt, Germany