A General Guide to Training for Climbing

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Dave MacLeod (and others) - August 2006

This article is a 'training guide'. Instantly, the sight of the word 'training' will conjure up images of slugging it out in a gym or on a campus board and make many climbers switch off. Some climbers might even shake their heads in disappointment at yet another piece of climbing-related writing which apparently fuels a mistaken ideal that climbing is like other competitive sports - all about being fitter, stronger, better, rather than the true reasons why many of us started climbing. Well, don't click 'BACK' just yet, read the next paragraph first.

Training is a bit of a hateful term for the reasons I just mentioned. But it is often a misused and entirely misunderstood word in sports. I think its safe to say most climbers were first attracted to the sport because it was a bit different; exciting and adventurous, but athletic at the same time. It takes us to some really amazing places, lets us meet new people and it's also a fun and rewarding physical challenge. Because 'training' is often linked only to the physical side of the whole experience, people often feel it can take away from the other aspects. It can only do that if you limit how you think about and do training to the physical side. The real (or at least ideal) meaning of training is preparation for the activity. Deep down most of us do the activity of climbing for fun and for the reward of overcoming its challenges. Good training should (and can) prepare us to have more fun and overcome more challenges. So how can training mean more fun and reward instead of a seemingly dull chore?

Well, there are a few key stages to go through to learn how to be better at climbing (higher grade) and get more out of it too (fun!). If you short-cut some of these elements you might end up either not getting better or getting less enjoyment, or both. Whether you've been climbing for aeons or you've just started it's always a good idea to think through these again to reaffirm why you're doing what you do and if you are doing it the best way.

Motivation and direction

What are these two characters thinking about...?

Most of the training that makes us better at whatever we are doing happens in the mind. It is important to see thinking as training. The more you think about what you are doing, the more you tend to learn about it. The other really good thing about training in your head is that your mind takes much longer to tire out than your body - if you apply yourself, you can go very far in a short time.

So, the very first piece of training to be done when you decide you want to get better at climbing is to ask yourself 'what for?', 'why is getting better a good idea?'. Answering this question will probably be the hardest bit of training you'll ever do, but believe me, if you can even nearly manage it, the rest will fall into place.

Different people see the rewards from doing any sort of endeavour differently. For me, the reason it's worth putting a huge amount of effort into getting better is because the reward comes from breaking barriers - making something that seems impossible possible. Climbing motivates me because the barriers are obvious, in-your-face and intimidating.

When you are deciding why you think you will get more reward by getting better at climbing, it's important to be able to separate out the different strands of your motivation. For instance, I enjoy the act of climbing because I like being in the mountains, I like working out moves, learning what moves I can do and how subtle they can be and many more aspects besides. However, these are not the aspects that make me want to get better, I only need to participate in climbing at any level to enjoy them. The aspects that drive me to get better are breaking barriers (as I described above), adventure (the buzz of not knowing if you can do something) and the process of physical training itself (the simple pleasure of using your body - I like to call it 'athleticism').

Not many people are very aware at a deep level what makes them train or climb. This makes them drift in and out of motivation. If you can get it clear what you're in it for, you will never have this problem and can get on with the nitty-gritty of chasing the rewards you are looking for.

Unfortunately, only you hold the answer to why you climb and what you get out of it - but there are a few things you can do to help. Reading about the experiences and thoughts of other climbers can be helpful, so, with this in mind, I asked some prominent Scottish climbers to write about what motivates them:

Andy Nisbet

Why do you climb?

1. I enjoy being outdoors, particularly in the hills. This motivation is the same as hillwalking, which I started first and still do. I did climb trees when I was young (before hillwalking), so I must like the climbing side too.

2. I have always been competitive, but my competition is to do well in my own terms, not directly competing with anyone. It gives me pleasure to do climbs which the climbing community thinks are hard, but that is not crucial because climbing at my top level in summer gives me almost as much pleasure even though my standard is modest. I have never been competitive with my climbing partner, considering climbing as a team of two.

3. I enjoy other sports, so I do like physical exercise.

4. Sense of achievement. I hate failing on a climb, so much so that I rarely try climbs I think I might not manage. Climbing is very clear cut, you get up or you don't, and getting to the top is very important. I was a nervous beginner, and really am still considering how much I have climbed. But this tension when I'm climbing increases the achievement when I succeed.

How has your motivation changed since you started?

Not much, the only slight change being in recent years is that I've mellowed, and get more out of just climbing for its own sake than pushing myself. I can't climb as hard now as I used to, so being competitive with myself is less rewarding.

Do you still do the same kind or kinds of climbing as you did when you started?

Yes. Summer and winter, prefer multi-pitch in the hills.

What experiences, either climbing-related or non-climbing-related, have affected your motivation?

The first fall I took when I hurt myself (after a year's climbing), although not seriously, made me quite scared for about a year, gradually getting over it. After that, falls had a much lesser effect, usually slowing me down for a week or two. My most recent and most serious fall has slowed me down a bit.

Is there anything you don't like about climbing, and why don't you like it?

I don't like folk praising their own abilities - I like their routes to do the talking.

Have you had periods of lower motivation?

Nothing significant, but then I am particularly keen. I always have a period of lower motivation in the autumn, but then the weather is rubbish for climbing in the mountains. I think because I winter climb, then summer climb, then have a hillwalking spell in the autumn, then I don't get bored with it.

How and why did this happen?

I become less keen on rock climbing after a whole summer.

How did you deal with this loss of motivation?

I start thinking about winter and training for it (not very intensively).

Did you climb less frequently or less well, or did you focus on an aspect of your climbing that still motivated you?

I do climb less frequently and less well than I used to, but the problem is not easy to solve (over 50!).

John Watson

I climb because I love the absorption, the exposure, the texture and movement built into rock, which is why I predominantly boulder and solo easy mountain routes - the prolonged contact with rock just makes me at ease and happy. There is no greater contact than with 2000 million year old gneiss in the far northwest of Scotland - the motherlode, as it were.

Motivation always requires influence... it is what keeps you going in the lean periods. The reason you climb is your main motivation and you have to keep that close - it is often forgotten. Low motivation is simply a case of having forgotten the basics. My father is my greatest influence in teaching me that respect and happiness lie in an appreciation of the complexities of nature and the physical environment. This in turn has been my greatest motivation - humility and understanding of your place in this world has a lot to do with how much you get out of climbing. I am motivated to dissolve myself as fully as possible into the 'wilderness' - bouldering on fine rock in remote locations often produces that timeless buzz. Look carefully at the rock, enjoy the precise structure of a handhold, or the perfect sequence of a good line. Move fluidly, mould your body into a rock seam...

And never be scared of failure... enjoy small acheievements like gaining an extra foot by a twist of the hip or reaching that gear placement... if you need to abseil off, this is not a reason to give up, why should it be? Too much emphasis is put on success in our culture and too little on the more common elements of failure and fear... this is where we learn the most. The adrenaline of success is short-lived but even if you have failed, some other drug remains in the system, a deeper addiciton to something more primal. Failure has to be 'enjoyed' and this has to be tapped and reflected upon - it builds motivation, just don't give in too easily!

I used to be motivated more by competition and danger and chasing grades, but that now all seems irrelevant, like I had been missing the point for years. I have seen many climbers 'disappear' because they had specific goals such as grades, but the happiest climbers seem to be those who continue their exploration despite age or 'genetics' and are seeking a broader remit. For me now, it is more a mental kick rather than an adrenaline rush, a gentler appreciation of balance, power, geology and choreography, but nevertheless I'm still busting my grades - it's all about finding that motivational level where strength gives way to the need for self-belief...

Low motivation comes from many things, such as a niggling injury, but usually from an over-concentration on one goal. It can be struggle to break through this to achieve a specific goal - say one particular problem or route - and that can be part of the battle and the reward. You just have to work hard mentally to find your own balance, focus well, and don't give in to 'black' feelings. Go for a walk up a hill, or an easy climb in the wet, but occupy yourself in these moments. The weather and midges can be a real downer in Scotland - accept that you can't climb all the time. Go exploring...

Sometimes the competitive element annoys me, but I guess it's good for kids to be competitive - as long as they don't confuse it with machismo. There is no such thing as 'hard' climbing or 'easy' climbing - more of this needs to be understood. 99 percent of us end up being just climbers, not 'Rock Gods', but really we haven't stopped doing the same things. When we give up the idea of competition and start motivating ourselves with our own goals rather than others' expectations, it becomes apparent nobody was watching all that time... your belayer is most likely thinking about dinner, a warmer duvet jacket or the next lead... whether you've just cranked out an E8 headpoint or topped out on a gripping V Diff, as long as the motivation has been rekindled, that's all that matters. Climbing on your own, solo, or just bouldering alone is a great way to source the real elemental stuff - it reminds you of your own limits, the boundaries you've set up. It is just movement on rock, moving through our own internal maps and renegotiating these boundaries - the only one you can't bribe is yourself! Also, too much concentration on training can be a bad thing, make the effort to get out on the real stuff despite the weather. Again, go exploring.

Climbing is a holistic experience: friends, geology, the route, weather, situation, history... you can rely on other elements while your motivation wavers: help a friend on a route, go out with someone new to climbing, go exploring, learn about geology, read some history, absorb other elements and don't expect to be the best climber on the planet... there is no such person.

Natalie Berry

I climb because of the thrill and enjoyment I experience from it. I enjoy the mixture of emotions gained from the combination of the physical movement and the mental activity associated with problem solving, and the 'buzz' from overcoming problems. Training and competing hard allows me to build up my climbing engrams and thereby aid success in future events.

I feel I have become even more motivated since I started climbing. This, in the main, is as a result of competing and a determination to succeed and achieve my goals.

I still do the same kind of climbing that I did when I first started: indoor bouldering, leading and competitions. I have a distinct preference for competitions because I enjoy the experience of competing so much! I have made many new friends, who I speak with regularly, from all over the world due to my competition experiences.

Success in national and international competitions and the inspiration gained from watching other climbers have very often fuelled my motivation. Doing well in a competition is a huge incentive and means that I am training correctly and this fires my motivation even further. Watching other climbers overcome obstacles in unique and innovative ways is also a big thrill and a motivating force for me to attempt to emulate them.

The only thing I don't like in climbing is Trad (and some of the old dinosaur-like attitudes to indoor and competition climbing that often seem to come with it, particularly from the older generation of Trad climbers). This is because I feel it limits the natural movements of my climbing, and overpowers the adrenaline rush and feelings of enjoyment by encouraging fear onto my mindset. To me climbing is not about fear or overcoming fear, it is about movement and problem solving and the 'rush' I obtain from both of these activities combined. I know a lot of people may not like that statement but that is the way it is for me! For me climbing is more like a technical three-dimensional dance!

I have never had periods of lower motivation, as there has always been another incentive or inspiration in view, usually a competition, to inspire me onto training to achieve success. However, I do periodise my training to peak at relevant times with respect to my competition schedule. This serves two purposes: it allows my body time to recover from any minor niggles I may have picked up (known or unknown - thereby reducing the chances of long-term injury) and also allows me to return to my peak psychologically refreshed. There are also some theories that the 'shock' associated with periodised training can improve the bodies response to training. My trainers and belay partners are around to assist in planning my training correctly and to ensure that I build up gradually to a 'plateau' prior to the target event(s) and avoid over-doing it at all costs. This periodised approach is particularly important for younger climbers, like myself, who still have developing growth plates and need to reduce the stress on these as much as possible. Event-specific periodised training eliminates the constant stress (physical and mental) associated with the kind of continuous hard training that I still see some of my contemporaries doing!

Rick Campbell

I climb because outside my family life it is the one thing in my life that is intensely satisfying and exciting.

At the start it was finding an activity that didn't just require fast hand-eye co-ordination or pure physical strength: Leaving aside the subsport of bouldering / micro sport climbing, climbing is 20% strength, 30% technique and 50% mind control - the latter the hardest thing to learn and one that cannot be learned in the gym (hence the empty crags). Look at top climbers onsighting hard sports climbs to see this is just as applicable to sport as to trad climbing. Basically if you're not relaxed you're holding on too tight so you get pumped quicker.

Myself, being a bit short on the 20% bit I've learned to compensate with the 80% I find I can do (I've also learned to keep away from Malham etc. where the 30% bit will do you no good at all without the 20% bit!). At the start it was the competitive streak in me that fired me up to fight like a cat to get up the routes I tried; I sought out routes that were poorly protected because you got at least 2 extra E-grades over similar well protected routes, plus you got a much bigger buzz when you got to the top and realized that you were still alive! Now I'm 'old and bent' I need to get on really special routes in really special places to get me fired up; no fired up Ricky - no chance of getting up the route. Basically it would be beneath my dignity to go to Balmashanner even to have a dump! Family and work commitments now mean that I get out climbing one day in every third weekend in the summer months and train only once a week. This means trying to get going on the mountain routes I cherish has in recent years proved rather frustrating - huge drives, bad conditions and lack of fitness being the cause (bouldering and sandstone are now out of the question with one terminal ankle, and outcrops with routes I still want to do are at least 2 hours away!).

Still, I don't want to sound like a grumpy old twat, there have been highlights in recent years: Stork and I opening up the Pink Wall on Pabbay, one of the top 20 crags in the country; Trajan's Column E6 on the Ben largely ground up (doing a bold route at my physical limit in that style in such a fabulous setting (why does no one climb on the Ben in summer?) gave me a buzz that still warms the cockles of m'eart 2 years later!); Regeneration on Foinaven E6 in one huge day trip from Rieff, 250m route and 14 mile hike!

My approach to climbing dictates I try the hardest routes with the least resources of strength and pre-inspection which means a lot of failures on routes or occasionally forcing them in less than ideal style but it does come together sometimes like doing Cannibal as my first route at the Dubh-Loch and first ascents of Aphrodite E7 and Hybrid Vigour E6.

The huge shift towards sport climbing in the late 80s egged on by the Peak-centric On The Edge magazine was something that saddened me, all the 'working on routes', the removal of the 'go for it' spirit which was always central to British climbing seemed to make the whole exercise quite pointless - why climb, why not golf? In Scotland in particular which has next to no potential for sports routes of European quality (that means rock, environment, accessibility - sorry Dumbarton Rock) the headlong rush to sports routes seemed daft unless you really enjoy driving to Malham every week. The plus side of this was 'open season' for the Luddites for more than 10 years - until someone invented McNair and MacLeod. Drat!!!!

Alan Cassidy

I climb because I love it. Sometimes, when I least expect it, a shiver runs down my spine as I realise just how much I love climbing. I have no favourite between boulders, routes, in, out, comps, sport, and trad. Since the age of 11 I have had a severe dependency on rock climbing. A girlfriend once asked me whether I preferred her or climbing. Questions like that are worth avoiding - I think I just smirked!

Throughout the year my focus changes from one aspect of the sport to another but without adequate climbing time in my week I don't feel right. I think most real climbing people are quite similar in this respect and this is something that unites us a group regardless of grades, ethics or whatever. When I first started climbing I was mostly into doing trad routes but soon discovered sport climbing and to be perfectly honest this is the area that gets my palms sweating - the most giant caves littered with tufas, the seemingly impossible lines! Sadly there isn't too much of that sort of stuff in Scotland but if you know that the time spent on the plastic brings the routes you most aspire to within your reach then it's easier to train.

I must admit that my eagerness to climb has never gone through any lulls. Since my Dad died walking off from the top of a route at Polney I have been less enthusiastic about going trad climbing but I'm sure I'll be back out there once again.

If I could change one thing about my climbing past it would have been to train more specifically from a younger age. I'm weak-willed and spent too much of my youth doing the usual rubbish with my non-climbing school pals. If you are psyched get to it. I very much believe that climbing is about what you do on the rocks but that has been for too long an excuse for being crap and staying off the torture boards at the local wall. I get most out of climbing when I feel like I have pushed myself to my limit. Going home with a paralysing forearm pump is special indeed.

Climbing in Britain can be a frustrating experience because the climbing community is dominated by people who for some reason think that it is wrong to consider climbing a sport, to want to train for it, to want to improve. Thankfully the younger generation are moving away from this ethos. Climbing is a richer experience than just going out biffing V.Diffs. Aspire to better yourself and you will be rewarded - even if you don't reach the upper echelons there is a lot to be said for the process of seeing how far you can go.

Motivation ebbs and flows, especially when you have a knock-back, be it injury, failure to do a project or getting beaten by a 12 year old at the comp. I can find myself getting annoyed that I am not motivated enough. But life is like that and as long as you don't behave too drastically during the lulls in your climbing, you will soon have that all important psyche back and be out there almost as strong as before.

My golden rule for staying motivated for climbing is to keep setting myself new targets. Maybe aspire to the next grade or the one you were climbing when you were younger, or the one your mate climbs. Or aim to climb some stunning feature, or the blue route down the wall. If it keeps you awake at night and makes you want to get out there climbing ASAP then it's the sort of goal for you.

Julian Lines

1) Why do I climb?

I climb because it is the one sport that takes me to a whole variety of beautiful places and gives me mental and physical harmony without being competitive. Also I am an adrenaline junkie, and I see routes (ones I solo) as a packet of adrenaline, so to speak - the higher the numbers the more the adrenaline... it's definitely not an ego thing with me.

2) How has my motiviation changed?

Yeah, my motiviation has change considerably in 20 years. When I started I wanted to go everywhere and climb everything I could and get better along the way. As I get older I have work commitments, so I have been many months working abroad without climbing. Over the years I have done all the challenges I have set myself, so my motivation wanes until I find myself a new objective, and they are thin on the ground in this country now. Deep water soloing on new cliffs around the world excites me now! So I am still motivated but at less regular intervals.

3) Do I do the same kind of climbing as when I started?

I started off as a traditional climber, leading Severes with a minimum amount of gear, and yes, I would still say I am a traditional climber, although I solo most of the time now... I prefer it becasue it's less fuss and pure. However in the last 8 years or so I have tried to have one sport climbing trip a year to gain fitness!

4) What experiences have affected my motivation?

I guess the usual, work commitments (offshore for long periods of time), relationships (I was in love for the first time when I was 34, and when we broke up I couldn't concentrate on climbing at all) and of course injury... small injuries like tendon damage in fingers just frustrate you, whilst broken bones make you relax!

5) What do I dislike about climbing?

The things I most dislike about climbing are the competitiveness and the egos, and also the way climbing is like a drug - it can swallow up most of one's time and upset a balanced life.

6) Have I had periods of lower motivation?

I think I have answered this above... injuries and a break up of a relationship, and times in later years when I have had no clearly defined objectives.

7) How do I deal with this loss of motivation?

1. I don't, time is the great healer.

2. I think of a new objective or project, to get pysched on.

8) Do I climb less well or less frequently?

With the type of climbing I do, I never really climb less well (physically) because I am always trying to stay fit and healthy. My climbing is all in the head, and my head has always been strong, so even if I haven't been out for 3 months, I could go out and solo an E5 if I wanted to. However I do remember after my finals at university in 1992, for some strange reason my head went and I climbed appallingly (just scared all the time), I don't know why, but I stayed scared for a good half year or so!

The big picture

There is another important dimension to 'sealing in' your motivation. If you realise that because of your reasons for climbing, you will get more rewards if you improve (by breaking your own barriers, etc.), there is something else that might get in your way. You have set yourself a depressingly huge task! On my first ever day of climbing, I saw a climb that really inspired me and I decided I was going to climb it. Then I read a guidebook and found out it was the hardest climb in the country. So it might seem that the thing that inspires you (it might be E10, HVS or just climbing better than your mate) is a long way off and your progress towards it is painfully slow. There is quite a simple way of looking at (and solving) this aspect of motivation. Read on.

Basically, our brains really aren't wired up to understand amazing things, even though we are capable of them. Look at your own body - it's a bloody miracle! Think about the billions of cells all doing what they are supposed to, your brain reacting and planning in milliseconds etc. You are so complex and amazing it's unbelievable really. So how is this possible? Amazing abilities that seem so improbable are the result of the accumulation of a large number of small, probable steps. In the case of the creation of our bodies, it was a lot of small steps in evolution, each one unremarkable but - laid end-to-end - amazing.

Climbing hard or getting extremely good at any skill is exactly the same. It's difficult to comprehend and it amazes us that anyone can do things like climbing an E10. The reality is the E10 climber has just made a lot of small improvements over a sustained period. Anyone is capable of making a small improvement. If they stick at it and make many more, they WILL get to a high level. With the exception of circumstances we can't control - and there aren't many of those - it is inevitable.

So for the climber starting out on what seems like an impossible task, don't think about the whole task in one. Accept that your brain isn't designed to deal with it that way. Break it down into small steps, like doing one more route at the wall or spending five minutes watching the footwork of a good climber, and the steps will accumulate into something amazing.

Learning technique

Watching others climb is a great way of learning how to climb more effectively

Technique means how you move on the rock to get the best result. I think almost everyone who tries climbing can see that it's really important. Most people understand it to mean 'how to move efficiently'. That is correct, but good technique also means knowing how to make the most of your strengths and tactics. This is a general article, so I won't go into too much detail, only discuss how to go about learning technique (since most people don't know or use the best ways). I'll discuss the separate area of tactics in the next section.

Stage 1

Most people, like myself, are not naturally talented at climbing. That means we don't 'see' what to do intuitively in our minds. We have to consciously learn from others as well as try hard to understand how our own bodies move. When untalented climbers put a lot of effort into these two aspects of learning technique, they can eventually climb like the talented.

So, stage 1 is learning from others. Basically you have to spend time watching how better climbers move (as many as possible), try to understand what it is they are doing, and then attempt to do the same. There is one crucial additional rule to follow while you are doing it - you must believe you are capable of moving like them (because you are!). If you are thinking 'they move well, but I could never do that' you might as well not bother trying to improve at climbing. Climbing walls and videos are great places to see good climbers in action. If you manage to find a regular climbing partner who is much better than you, this will be good news for your ability!

At first it will be hard enough to try to understand how the best climbers move. Break their movements down - watch their footwork, watch how they get their balance before they move their foot, watch how they twist their body to get close to the rock and how much extra reach it gives. Watch how fast they climb, Where do they stop to chalk up and clip? Could you have predicted that from the ground? Watch how they get pumped and struggle but hang in there. Would you have said 'take'? Watch them take a big fall. Did anything bad happen or did they just laugh and look relaxed? Next time you are running it out you could try to be this relaxed. Remember - if they can do it, you can too! You just have to practise and learn.

Stage 2

Once you start to understand techniques (this is a never ending process of course) you can begin to understand how your own body shape deals with moves best. What are your best assets? If you are stocky and powerful, you can use this to climb quickly and dynamically. If you are tall and thin, you can use this to stay low on the holds and reach the next one without using much power.

This is complex stuff. The more moves, problems and routes you do the more you will understand it all. However, you must concentrate while you climb. Sometimes this is hard if you are knackered from work or just out having a laugh at the crag with mates. Try to 'switch on' your concentration when you need to. Give each and every climb - even the last one before you hit the road - your very best attention.

Technique training is not emotionally neutral. It is hard work just like pull-ups. If you put in effort, believe you can move well, and be hungry to learn how, each month you will climb better than the last. If you just climb and don't think, you will still be wobbling on the same grade as today in 5 years time.


Very few climbers pay attention to tactics. There is one excellent thing about improving your tactics in climbing - you get the benefit of adopting a better tactic instantly. There are thousands of tactics, I can only give examples of a few to illustrate my point. Generally speaking, tactics just mean giving a bit of thought to what could make your next climb easier. Here are some examples:


If you are working out a problem you can't complete, remember you don't need to start from the beginning each time. Work out each move one at a time diligently, memorise them and then link it. Then you won't have wasted all your energy by the time you have sussed it out.


The most commonly missed opportunity to onsight a climb is not reading it from the ground. The saying is 'if you can't see what to do from the comfort of the ground, how are you going to figure it out when you're pumped and scared?'. Even those who are beginners at reading the rock can get a lot of information by having a good look at the route from the ground.

Where are the best holds? Are there any holds you might not be able to see while climbing (e.g. round an arete)? Are there obvious places to clip from? Where do you think the cruxes will be? Can you tell if certain holds will only work with a left or right hand? If you can see one that is, say, definitely right hand, you can work out a whole sequence based on this. Sometimes the position of chalk thumb-prints can give a clue.

Watch people leading at the climbing wall - how long do they spend on each route hanging from the holds trying to figure out the next move? Time it - it will amaze you how inefficient it is. You can cut out all this extra time by working it out from the ground. Remember its even more important to do this outdoors. As the P.E. teachers say - P.P.P.P.P.P (prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance).

If you are climbing a hard route outdoors, is it going to be hot and greasy? Have a look at the guidebook to see which way the crag faces. It will feel a grade easier in the cool of the shade rather than in full glare of the sun.

Winter climbing

Not knowing what your axes will stick in is a huge confidence destroyer. On the sharp end in a serious situation on some winter route is a bad place to experiment. What is the result? You spend huge amounts of time faffing until you find a placement which is utterly bombproof, and if it's not then you probably abseil off. You (quite rightly) stay very far inside your comfort zone because you don't know how to predict what your axes will do and the consequences of getting it wrong are bad news. Try 20 minutes of traversing with tools on a railway bridge (or a dry tooling wall if you have access to one) to find out just how little a tool will stay on and how to make sure it does. What would you rather do - get ten IV,4s done in the season in your old super-cautious style, or spend one day at Birnam, the Ice Factor or your local sandstone wall and the other 9 days doing grade Vs?

Like technique, you can learn tactics by watching others and trying out their tactics to see if they help you. Many climbers have made bad tactics a habit that is hard to break, such as clipping too early, carrying too much rack on a trad route etc. These bad habits have to be tackled head on with self-discipline. This is hard, but if you do it you will probably get as much reward from beating the habit as from the harder grades you will climb.

Physical training

Our bodies are not well set-up for rock climbing. We are really designed to move ourselves using our big and strong lower limbs. So, to climb well we have to play to our strengths (using technique to generate force with our legs where possible) and work our weaknesses. Our big weaknesses are the tiny muscles in our forearms which flex our fingers and the muscles which stabilise or move our shoulders and arms. There are many ways to train these muscles to prepare us for the climbs we want to do. Which activities you choose must depend on your individual circumstances. Thankfully, there are some quite simple set rules our bodies follow with respect to physical adaptations to training. This means we can home in on roughly the best types of things to do just by following these principles. If you do follow all of them you really can't go wrong - it's inevitable that you will improve!


Your body has the remarkable quality of adapting to its surroundings and the demands put on it. Muscle is one of the most adaptable tissues we have. The adaptation we are after is for the muscle to get stronger and fitter. For this to happen we have to tell it to adapt (it won't do it on its own because there is a massive energy cost to change your muscle physiology). The stimulus it responds to is being forced to do more work than it is accustomed to - a very simple concept. To become stronger and fitter you have to do more than last month or last year. This 'more' can take different forms: it can be more intensity (more force or harder moves), or more volume (more or longer routes per unit time). If you did 10 routes at the wall, three nights per week last winter, are you doing more this winter? If not, you may not be producing an overload on your muscles and therefore not telling them to improve.


Front levers will make you good at climbing roofs

This concept is summed up by the idea 'what you do, you become'. If you spend most of your waking hours pumped you will have good endurance. If you avoid taking on large run-outs you will never be good at them. From this principle you can immediately start to build your own training schedule:

Say you want to get better at single pitch traditional climbing. The pitches are about 80 moves long and take over 20 minutes to complete. You will spend an average of 30 seconds on each hold. You normally fail because you get too pumped after a while. So you need to replicate this as closely as you can in your training. If you only climb routes at the climbing wall which take 2 minutes to complete you will get better at 2 minute climbs, but might actually get worse at 20 minute ones. This type of self-analysis of the climbs you are aiming for is what you need to foster.

Boulderers are often particularly bad at paying attention to the specificity principle. If you are training to climb problems on real rock, is spending whole winters climbing on large blobby pinches on an indoor bouldering wall really the best use of all your energy and time?


'Use it or lose it' - this principle refers to the rather irritating tendency for our bodies to let go of abilities (mental or physiological) that we are not using habitually. It is the reason why the large majority of climbers spend a fair bit of time training each winter, yet somehow seem to still be climbing the same grades next winter! If you train four months of the year (say winter evenings at the wall), well done, you have worked hard. What a shame to let it all slip away because of a summer of climbing outside a little more sporadically and the odd week here or there when you went on holiday or work got a bit much.

The reversibility principle has a silver lining though - reversibility maintenance. It turns out that it takes much less effort to maintain the same physical level than it does to improve. In practice this means that if you have to train three times a week for an hour on a fingerboard to get finger strength improvements, you will only need one session a week to maintain that level. With just a small commitment over those busy periods when life gets in the way or circumstances change you can use this feature of our physiology to prevent yourself slipping back to square one each year.


Short and stocky climbers can climb effectively by using a powerful, dynamic style

Due to our genetic make-up and the effects of our physiological history in life we all respond to physiological stimuli (training) at slightly different rates. In some sports this means that you might never reach the top level even with the best training schedule possible. Climbing is less like this because it hasn't reached a really high level yet and it relies on a very wide range of physical and mental skills. In practice what climbers have to pay attention to in order to get the best from their training is to find out through trial and error what works for them, and also to find ways round the aspects they are not so good at. Another important point here is to remember that we are whole people and not just training robots - you might be good at getting strong but hate training on your own. In this case, if you do lots of solitary strength training it could put you off the sport completely.

A common example of this principle in action is the injury-prone boulderer. They are strong and respond well to training, and hence become quite ambitious and also quite focused on the strength aspect of improving at climbing - but they keep getting injured fingers. This has caused many a climber to get frustrated and eventually give up climbing. The injury-prone climber needs to accept what they cannot change and find a way round it. If they become more focused on technique and train less aggressively, they will climb better and give their injury-prone body more time to get used to hard training. The end result being good technique, less tendency to get injured and eventually strong fingers too. Not bad, eh?

Mind-body problems again

The first aspect of physical training to think about once you have digested these principles is a mental aspect (remember, we are whole people, we need to be happy doing what we are doing to get better): how are you going to enjoy physical training which can be an intensely monotonous process at times? For the most ambitious climbers this problem becomes the central issue in how hard you will eventually climb; the harder you climb, the more you have to enjoy the preparation.

You have to decide whether you like doing training on your own. If you do naturally, great! You already have a really important quality that will stand you in good stead. If not, it's not a problem, you just have to think up some ways to make it fun. Do you enjoy it more when you have a competition to train for? Can you time your training so you meet up with friends? Do you work harder when others are watching you? Maybe even just thinking about training in a different way can remove the boredom factor. For instance, I can't afford to climb in a climbing wall as often as I'd need to get stronger, so I use a finger-board in my house 5 days a week for 90 minutes. I pick a good CD, stick it on and get hanging. I just think of it as listening to a CD and having a break from work. Before you know it, you're done.

The nitty-gritty

It's impossible to write down a formula for what to do to be a strong and fit climber, because a single one doesn't exist. The only guidelines are the principles I described above and some aspects that nearly all climbers need to work on.

Finger strength

In rock climbing your fingers can never be strong enough, so working on finger strength is never a waste of time unless you do it at the expense of other types of training or if it's causing you injury.

Up to a pretty high level, bouldering is the best way of getting stronger fingers because it challenges different gripping positions and works technique at the same time. You need to apply the basic principles: you want to get good at using small holds, so you need to find an angle and types of moves than allow you to do this. If you are a beginner this will be a slab.

You can also use supplementary techniques to get strong fingers like campus-boarding and finger-boarding. Even for the most ambitious climbers they should always remain just that - supplementary. They should be used in addition to real climbing, not instead of it. Otherwise they will ultimately make you a worse climber in several different subtle ways.

It is easy to give yourself chronic injuries to the tendon supporting structures by doing lots of finger strength training. Your fingers are small structures and not designed for supporting your body weight - treat them as such (i.e. with care). It takes years of slow, steady improvement for them to adapt to hanging off small holds. Specifically, try to climb in control and be ready to let go if something nasty happens which might pull a finger. The most common cause of finger injuries is when your feet suddenly slip off giving a sudden loading on the fingers.

If you do very repetitive types of training such as laps on problems or campus-boarding, take care to vary the exercises and don't be scared to take a few days off if something doesn't feel right. Remember that good recovery from training makes a huge difference to your susceptibility to training injuries (sleep, diet and lifestyle).

Finger-boarding is a very powerful tool for getting strong fingers because you can set up a very simple and cheap wooden rung above a doorframe at home and do short sessions frequently. This means more training but you don't get so tired as when you do a full session at the climbing wall. Make sure you don't replace your climbing with this training or your technique will suffer. You can use finger-boarding to tie in with endurance training by doing a short (20-90 mins depending on your standard) session before your endurance session (or an outdoor climbing day). It doesn't work so well the other way round.

Finger-board workout

There are many commercially available types of finger-board designed to fit above a doorframe. You don't need to go to this expense. A 20mm-thick length of sanded wood with a slightly rounded edge is all you need. Remember you can also use holds on the bouldering wall or the crag. Make sure you use chalk as sweaty fingers can slip under big loads and cause tendon injuries. You must also hang with your elbows slightly bent, as if starting to do a pull-up. Repeatedly hanging from straight arms causes elbow injuries.

Do several easy hangs and pull ups to get thoroughly warmed up. A bar is useful to start off with to increase blood-flow and loosen the muscles, progressing to easy hangs and then pull-ups on the finger-board itself. The warm-up should take between 10 and 30 minutes. Work through as many different grip positions as you can (this will depend very much on your current ability) including:

  • 4 finger open-handed
  • 3 finger open-handed
  • 4 finger crimp
  • 4 finger half crimp
  • 2 finger pocket (middle fingers)
  • 2 finger pocket (index + middle finger)
  • Mono pocket (middle finger)
An open-handed grip
A full-crimping grip
A half-crimping grip
Holding a pocket

Finger-boards are very cheap and very effective

You are aiming to perform each hang for 5-8 seconds at the limit of your ability - it should feel very hard to hang on. There are many ways to adjust the difficulty level to create the right intensity. You can use one or both hands. If you need to reduce your body weight you can stand in a suspended length of bungee, cord or on a chair at the optimum distance in front of the board. You can work on different combinations of fingers, for example, 4 fingers with one hand and two with the other (swapping hands for each set). Wearing a weight belt or doing pull-ups while hanging on also increases the difficulty.

At first only a few hangs will be enough to improve. You will over time develop an awareness of how much volume you can handle. You will need to increase this volume in steps very carefully, sometimes staying at the same level for months. I have been training hard for ten years and I do 5 sets of each grip, on average 4 times a week for around 8 months of the year. You can vary the focus of your workouts to suit your ambitions and weaknesses at the time. For instance if you are going on a trip to an area with lots of pockets, you can do more open-handed and 2 finger pocket work.

Playing a CD or watching telly is a good way to prevent boredom while you do it. Because the sessions are short, you can build up to doing it quite often (several times a week). But it's best to take breaks from it every so often as it is a very repetitive type of training. Finger strength is very slow to develop after the first few weeks so you need to stick at it for months and years to really reap the rewards. The plus side of this is that you will notice a slow, steady increase in the difficulty of moves you can do and this type of training (if you are doing the other things right too) could be your passport to some impressive grades.


These days, most climbers use route climbing on indoor walls or sport climbing outside to improve their endurance. This is without a doubt the most efficient way to improve your ability to climb routes. There are some other methods too such as intervals on long boulder problems which have been described in detail in the magazines and on climbing websites. In this section I'll simply go through some the aspects that hold many climbers back from getting the most out of their time spent training endurance.

Training for this by nipping up routes at the wall? Think again!

A mistake made by many climbers in deciding what endurance training to do is not thinking about specificity. You must always try to replicate your eventual climbing goal in your training. If you are preparing to lead long E3s next season, think about what will cause you to fail. If the answer is lack of endurance near the end of long pitches (which take between 30 minutes and 3 hours to lead), then you need replicate this situation by focusing more on high volume, lower intensity climbing. This could mean doing a wider, flatter pyramid of routes per session at the climbing wall. For instance, doing 15 routes (~ 225 metres) up to F6c rather than 8 routes (~ 120 metres) and trying to climb three F7as before feeling wasted and dropping to F6a.

It's quite common for climbers to use a certain cliff, or maybe even a particular route to build up their endurance on a seasonal basis (Hamish Ted's at Dunkeld is a much-abused route for this purpose). It can be good for the motivation to be on familiar ground and revisit a route you enjoy, and the routine of doing the same thing can be very effective for keeping people going. However, it is better to mix things up in the long run. The underlying purpose in training is to apply stress to the body as a stimulus. Remember - it's got to be emotionally and physically hard work to force the body to react (especially if you have been at it for years). For some quite subtle reasons, training in exactly the same way on exactly the same routes year after year - even if you are trying hard - can be ineffective for improving. So try somewhere new!

To improve from year to year in climbing routes, you have to do more. You can increase the grade of the climb to create the overload. But because of the specificity principle this doesn't always have the desired effect. Always keep in mind what you are training for and keep track of the changes in the intensity (grade) and volume (number of sessions and routes). This is easier if you write it down. Otherwise you can slip easily into a yearly process of going through the motions without any real progression happening.

Training endurance doesn't always mean getting pumped. If you want to get all-round fitness for different types of routes, there are three main types of adaptation you need to stimulate:

Anaerobic endurance training

This is the name given to the intense pump associated with short routes (i.e. anything from about 10 moves to 2 minute climbing wall length routes). The most efficient way to improve is by doing several routes not far below your maximum level. The first couple should feel comfortable, the next few should feel hard and the last two or three should feel desperate and right at your limit. The adaptation which takes place is an improved release of energy in large muscle fibres, as a result of which you can get through a few more moves despite being very pumped.

Aerobic Endurance training

This is the longer-distance type endurance you need to do long sustained routes (from 2 minutes to 3 hours long). It allows you to delay getting pumped, recover quickly from difficult moves and handle a lot more of them. You can get this type of endurance by doing several different balances of route difficulty and volume. All of these will involve doing many routes and 2-5 sessions per week to get an improvement. The adaptations include more efficient energy release from all muscle fibre types and improved blood flow to the muscles (see next item).

Capillarisation training

This type of training involves long sustained periods (from 20 to 60 minutes at a time) of relatively easy climbing. It causes the muscles to become chronically flushed with blood and stimulates the growth of a denser network of blood vessels in the muscle. This improves your endurance - especially the rate at which you recover from moves or routes. It can also help you recover from more intense endurance and strength training if you are training at an advanced level. Because you do a lot of moves in a low-stress situation, you can use it to work on technique too!

How much time you spend doing each or all of these types of training depends on what kind of climbing you want to get better at. It's also worth remembering the effect of strength on endurance. If you are stronger each move is easier for you, so you will automatically have an endurance advantage (although this will not be the case if you have trained strength at the expense of endurance training).

Young climbers

Climbers in their adolescent or pre-adolescent years have some additional aspects to think about when deciding how to get better at climbing. Training hard for sport during adolescence has some risks (but also some huge benefits):


If you love everything about climbing and want to do it as much as possible and get really good, that's great! Go for it. Being totally psyched is one of the best feelings climbing gives you. Keep in mind what it is that gets you fired up and excited and follow that. In other words, be driven by your own thoughts. If you ever find yourself going climbing or training 'because you've got to' then ask yourself if you are really enjoying it. Don't let others steer you too much although if someone you know well thinks you are doing something wrong or should think about things (especially when it comes to bold climbing) it's a good idea to listen. Remember that physical improvement comes slowly, you cannot short-cut this without storing up problems for later on.

Physical training

Heavy training at a young age needs to be done according to some carefully applied rules, otherwise you can get some serious injuries which will defeat the whole point of training in the first place. However, it is also the key to reaching your full potential as an athlete. If you are really serious about getting good at climbing, you will understand that you need to educate yourself and be patient and careful. Getting some advice from a professional coach is a good insurance policy against injuries caused by your own trial and error. If you don't want to go that far, some careful research from up-to-date sources will help guide you.

For climbers the most significant risk comes from heavy strength training. It takes a long time for the body to adapt to high loads on small body-parts like the fingers. Repetitive high loads from hard bouldering and things like fingerboards, campus boards or weights can cause deformities in growing bones and strains to lengthening tendons which have not built up resistance to high loads yet. For this reason it is best to do only a little of these types of training before you are 15. If you gently introduce the body to these types of training over these early years it will be ready to do more without getting injured. Once you reach 15 or 16 it is a good time to do more work on strength. Your hormone balance in your late teens creates a good opportunity to get strong. But again it must be stressed that the progression must be slow and it is very hard not to over-do it without getting some good supervision from an experienced professional.

In climbing it is an advantage to have a low body fat percentage (actually it is thought to be a big advantage but it's not nearly as big as it's been made out to be). However, young climbers often go too far with staying thin to short-cut their development to high grades. This is a very bad idea in the long run. It will limit your ability to reach your strength potential and make you too tired to climb as much as you otherwise would. For girls it is even worse - it will delay menarche and affect your bone health and possibly even psychological health.


To get good quickly, young climbers should focus on technique - learning to climb really well. Why? Because you can safely do it as much as you like and because your young brains learn faster than any other time in your life. Go out and climb as many routes as you can, hook up with other good climbers and learn from them. Visit different areas, and enjoy them. Soak it all up. By the time you have learned to move well, your body will be ready to get strong too - then things will really start to happen.

Other aspects

There are many other physical qualities which might help you climb better such as core body tension, flexibility, general cardiovascular health and other physical training practices that can be grouped under the term 'lifestyle choices'. I will cover some points about these in future articles.

A final note on physical training

One of the great challenges in planning physical training for climbing is how to set your priorities. It is very difficult to be objective about yourself and 99% of us don't use a coach to accurately analyse our weaknesses for us. It's really important not to think of your performance limitations purely in terms of the physical symptoms you feel. When they fall off a route, climbers often blame lack of finger strength or endurance. It could be either of those, but there are other possibilities. Maybe their technique was poor so they had to use more force than was necessary? Even if that was the case, they just felt that the holds were too small and blamed their finger strength. Maybe they climbed too slowly, either because they hadn't read the route from the ground or were hesitant through lack of confidence. Yet they still might have blamed lack of endurance just because they inevitably felt pumped.

Cubby avoiding making more effort than necessary by placing his feet exactly

Understand that the causes of your limitations and the symptoms you feel when you run up against them may not be the same thing! Asking your climbing partner how they think you did can often reveal some more objective insights into your weaknesses. Another way is to watch a very good climber climb the same route. If they climbed it like you did, yet you failed, then maybe you can say it was lack of strength or fitness.

In this way you can avoid wasting your time. If you don't pay attention to technique and tactics you could end up working hard on endurance for a decade but still failing to realise the improvements you could have had in 6 months if you had perfected good tactics.

In summary, think hard about what your real limitations are, then work hard to sort them out. The working hard part will always be easier than the thinking part. Don't lose sight of the big picture - all the aspects discussed above interact to make you the climber you are. The most important aspect should always be having fun.


If you want to get better at climbing you need to understand a lot about what makes us good climbers and make decisions about your own priorities for improving. It isn't always possible to manage this by yourself because you need access to demonstration of the skills you need to learn, the detailed principles of how to go about improving, objective analysis of your own priorities and time and energy to digest all this information in order to decide on the best use of your time. You can use a coach to direct your efforts and allow you to focus on the process of doing the work and enjoying the results.

I offer coaching to climbers of any ability and experience level in whatever aspect you want to work on. My coaching is flexible and can take any form you need, but consists of different levels of advice:

  • one-off e-mail based written assessment and guidelines to follow towards a specific goal;
  • a one-off meeting for one-to-one assessment, coaching and written advice;
  • regular coaching sessions with an updated written and personally coached program.

I have a background in sports science and exercise physiology to Masters level, regular coaching experience and climb at a high level in all disciplines.

If you want to contact me to find out more please get in touch:

Tel: 01389 600465

Mob: 07929 839 329

e-mail: dave.macleod@davemacleod.com

www: davemacleod.com

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