This is Part Five of our “How to Start Climbing” series. If you haven’t yet, check out Part One: Get Started at a Climbing Gym, Part Two: Your First Visit, Part Three: Finding Climbing Partners, and Part Four: Buying Gear.
Out of the corner of your eye, you’ve seen that tricky V5 or 5.10b you just can’t send. How are you going to work up to that? You see people training on hangboards or the scatter walls, but they’re so overhung or crimpy that you can’t even play on them for longer than a few moves. How are you going to improve so you can send that route?
By now, you’re climbing a couple days a week. Hopefully, you’re meeting up with some new or old friends to run through the routes or problems you like and chat about them. You’ve got your routine: warm up on the VBs and V0s, climb for an hour or so, lapping the V1s and trying a V3.
Becoming a better climber is a huge motivator for lots of people. As climbing’s grown over the past few years, fancy new training methods have emerged as the “answer” for improving as a climber.
Here’s the thing: people have been climbing for decades, and improving all the while. They didn’t use intense hangboards and campus boards, though tools like that can definitely come in handy down the road. They stuck to some basic principles that any climber can apply right now:
1. Climb more and “try hard”
It sounds obvious to say, but the first thing to try is to climb more often, work those routes and to put serious effort into those attempts. No training plan can replace simple exposure to the movements and effort needed to send your project routes. If you’re climbing twice a week for an hour or so, pop in a third or fourth time, or even spend longer at the gym. Once you’ve warmed up, try that problem you haven’t been able to do, even if it seems too tough. Don’t throw yourself at it, but focus on working it, a move at a time.
Telling you to go to the gym might sound self-serving coming from us. But listen to Jonathan Siegrist, who put it best: you need to try hard. It’s not a moralistic, “you’re lazy!” kind of statement, either. “Trying hard” in climbing means giving your body the physical stimulus necessary to adapt to the route or problem.
2. Warm up, stretch and rest
Even more important is all the stuff that happens around the actual climbing: warming up, stretching and resting. Climbers can easily overtax specific muscles, leading unwary athletes to chronic overuse injuries. Avoiding that is worth the effort, so warming up, stretching and getting enough rest matters. You can’t climb if you’re hurt. So it’s critical to warm up slowly, stretch consistently, and then start working harder problems or routes.
Practicing yoga before or after a hard climbing session can help you warm up or cool down key areas of the body for climbing—not to mention build up opposing muscle groups to keep your forearms, shoulders, and hips in balance.
To work on harder routes, you need to rest harder. Strength grows during rest, after you’ve “tried hard” on your projects — your muscles regrow larger than they were before. Eating a good diet helps, too. Not only does it help you send your projects, it’ll make you feel good!
3. Practice specific technique
Have you seen the film The Dawn Wall? There’s a scene where Tommy Caldwell builds a replica of the legendary dyno to practice over and over. That’s the kind of specific practice you might want to apply to your projects.
Is there a gaston you’re struggling with? Find a bunch of problems in the gym with that type of move, and practice it. Make yourself the First Ascent gaston master.
Are you struggling with endurance for a project route? Run laps on easier routes, with timed rests. If you’re afraid of falling, there are ways to manage that fear. Try to maintain a level of pump that’s manageable with rests, but high enough that your muscles learn to keep going longer.
It’s also helpful in the long run to practice good technique. You can find drills online to help you develop your footwork, avoid overgripping, and so on. Good technique puts you closer to sending by saving you energy as well as building your strength.
4. Work projects with friends
Besides being fun, working your projects with friends will give a few advantages to you as a climber. First, you’ll get built-in rest times, which can be difficult to manage if you’re climbing alone. You’ll also see different beta for your projects if your friends work the same routes.
Maybe you have a shorter friend who gets through the crux in his own way. Or your buddy with good footwork sets her body positioning differently and prevents herself flying off the problem like a barn door. Watching other people try their own beta is just data you can feed into your own understanding of your projects.
5. Take a class
Lots of people improve more when they can focus on the effort, and have someone else guide those efforts for them. Classes that give that guidance can help. We offer classes in our “UpGrade series” for both bouldering and sport climbing. These classes help you break into the next grade of route or problem over the course of 3 weeks. We’ll cover technique, movement, and approaches to climbing 5.10 and V3. In the future, we’ll be offering UpGrade classes for even higher grades, when you’ve inevitably started crushing all our routes.
And that’s a wrap on our How To Start Climbing series. We hope you found the information in this series helpful as you get started and work to get better as a climber. Climbing, ultimately, is a lifelong pursuit. There are always new things to learn and new routes or boulders to try. Chasing grades or projects can wear you out, so we can’t stress enough how important it is to have fun and be good to yourself and others along the way. Climb on!