Probably the most common topics of conversation at any climbing area are training programmes and the location of bakeries. It’s funny how everyone will remember the location of the bakery but few will remember the fundamentals of a training programme.

There are two fundamental elements of a training programme that most people forget and unfortunately, if these elements are missing, the training programme will almost certainly fail.

Being consistent is the first critical element. You can’t expect to improve if you train or climb for two weeks and then have four weeks off. To improve physically it’s important to train or climb at least twice a week. This ensures your body receives the stimulus it needs to gradually adapt to the stresses of climbing.

For a lot of people, the reason they’re not consistent is they can’t always find the time. If you have a busy job, study and/or have a family it can be very difficult to fit two training/climbing sessions into each week. The trick is to make training as time efficient as possible. Climbing gyms are great in this respect. The ropes are already in place and in winter when it’s dark after work you can still go climbing.

If you can’t always make it to a gym, set up a fingerboard at home. You can hang from it for finger strength and do chin-ups for upper body strength. It’s a great conversation piece for dinner parties and it can make Melrose Place worth watching.

Goal setting is the second critical feature of any training programme. To maximize your rate of improvement you need specific goals. To say vaguely “I just want to improve” will make your training random and unfocused and improvements will be slower and less rewarding. Set yourself short-term (six weeks) goals and a long-term (one year) goals. Write them down and stick them on the fridge or above your fingerboard.

To set goals you need to look at the physical and mental skills needed to climb well. Generally speaking, climbing can be broken down into strength, flexibility, technique and mental attitude or approach. Strength is obviously very important – if you can’t hang on to the holds you fall off! Flexibility, particularly lower body flexibility, is a great help when it comes to technique and technique itself, maximizes your reserves of strength. Overseeing all these aspects is your mental approach. This will determine how effectively you train, the amount of effort you put into training, and how you approach any particular climb.

One catch with setting short-term goals is that they have to be realistic! I suggest you work on all the above aspects at once. Have short-term goals for strength, flexibility, technique and mental approach. Here is an example for the average climber at the beginner to intermediate level.

Strength

Setting strength goals is relatively easy. Divide strength into finger (hanging from a hold) and upper body strength (chin-ups). Make or buy a fingerboard or find the one at your local gym. After warming up carefully to avoid injuring yourself, find the hold you can hang from for approximately 20 seconds before falling off. Use an open-handed grip, don’t crimp and don’t use your thumbs! Get a friend to time you. Your goal for six weeks time is to hang from this hold for 30 seconds. Also see how many chin-ups you can do, off the largest holds. Say this is 6, your goal for six weeks time is to be able to do 8 easily.

Flexibility

Your goal for flexibility may be to touch your toes, or to get a bit closer to them, or to get into a position where you can see them! You can quantify this by measuring, with a ruler, the distance your hands are from your toes or how far you can reach beyond them.

Technique

To quantify improvements in technique is very difficult unless you have someone videoing you. The best way to improve technically, at first, is to climb with someone more experienced. They may be able to suggest ways to improve your technique. Watching good climbers and comparing what they do and what you do can also help. The more frequently you climb and to greater the variety of climbs you do, the better.

I divide technique into two aspects contact techniques (the way you keep in contact with the wall) and movement technique (the way you move your body in order to preserve and maximize your limited upper body strength). A good contact technique exercise, for people at the beginner to intermediate level, is to climb a very easy route without making any noise with your feet. That means not a sound! Plywood walls in indoor gyms are great for this, as they are particularly noisy. This exercise helps develop good footwork by teaching the climber to concentrate on careful foot placement. Remember to use the inside edge of your toes to stand on the holds.

Mental approach:

This aspect of climbing includes an enormous range of possibilities. Just thinking about your training, making it convenient as possible and setting goals is a start. Attempting to “on-sight” climbs in the gym and on rock is also a great exercise. Seriously wanting to complete a route on your first attempt helps develop a good attitude. I find on-sighting to be the most rewarding climbing style.

Long term goals (to be achieved in one year) may include consistently on-sighting one or two grades harder on rock, or consistently climbing the next difficulty level in your local gym.
Another important rule of training is to avoid becoming injured. The most common climbing injuries are tendon related finger and shoulder injuries. The best way to avoid these is to warm up carefully before each session and to increase the intensity of your training sessions very slowly. This way your tendons have time to strengthen.