This question comes up quite a bit, along with the more specific, ‘when should I start hangboarding?’ Obviously this is a personal decision, and for many climbers (perhaps the vast majority) the answer is ‘never’. For that reason it makes sense to start with the question, why train at all? A few reasons can be found here. I’m going to assume that if you are reading this blog you have at least some interest in training (or you are cyber-stalking me, in which case I live in Iowa with my many shotguns and doberman pinschers).
I used to always tell people that a reasonably fit person ought to be able to work up to redpointing 5.12a sport routes just by focusing on movement skills and climbing regularly (2-3 times per week), and therefore, that was about the point one might consider following a structured training program. In retrospect, I think I said that simply because that is what I did. With hindsight, I think I would have been better off as a performance rock climber had I started training earlier. The two years or so I spent getting from 5.11- to 5.12- included three major finger injuries and lots of frustration. I’m confident I could have avoided those injuries, and likely progressed further, faster, had I followed a structured training program.
Considering the above, why not start training immediately? There are at least three standard reasons often cited:
1) Developing proper movement skills is the top priority for beginners, and time/energy spent training will take away from movement training.
2) If you get too strong, too early, you will develop bad movement habits that will plague your entire career (i.e. you will campus every move, never use your feet; Chris Sharma has this “problem”).
3) The delicate connective tissues in your hands and lower arms will not be able to handle the stress of training, thus resulting in injury.
Hopefully by this point I’ve been on my soapbox long enough that we can just eliminate #3 with minimal discussion. Training stress is simply a function of volume (itself a function of intensity and duration) and recovery time, both of which are FAR easier to control in a structured training program than in random climbing activities. When done properly training reduces injury risk. That said, it would be wise for children & adolescents to use caution until we learn more about how their fingers respond to such activities.
Number 2 is a simple matter of self-discipline. Anyone Jedi-enough to follow a structured training program ought to be able to focus their attention on acquiring and practicing movement skills with sufficient frequency to keep pace with the relatively slow rate at which muscles and connective tissue adapt to training stress. Its simply a matter of paying attention and continuing to work on it. A good training program will incorporate specific phases and activities focused on movement training, resulting in far more time spent on such activities compared to the typical ‘random climbing activity’ control group. Developing finger strength is a life-long pursuit. Even the best finger-strength program on the planet will not have you ripping holds off the wall overnight. You will have several years (perhaps decades) to perfect your outside flag before you will surpass Chris Sharma’s crimping power.
Number one is probably the most valid, but as I suggest above, there is more than enough time to do both, in my opinion. You can only spend so much time practicing drop knees and back steps before your mind goes numb. Most movement training is not especially strenuous by design, leaving some gas left in the tank for other training activities. If a typical beginner were to climb every third day in a climbing gym, they could spend the first 30-60 minutes doing movement drills, which double as a warmup, and the next 30-60 minutes on sport-specific training. That is plenty of time to acquire new skills and new strength, endurance and power in significantly less time than it takes for a single day of unfocused cragging.
And that leads right into the best reason to delay training, and that is that most of the time, climbing is a lot more fun than training. As my brother Mike once said to an enthusiastic begginer:
‘Why don’t you just enjoy climbing for another couple years. You have your whole life to systematically, slowly, and painfully, but certainly suck out every golden drop of innocent joy that the sport ever offered you….Get back to me when you find yourself camped out at the base of some shitty road-cut chosspile throwing F-bomb infused woblers every time your foot pops off that polished, over-chalked smear at the crux of your super-sick new linkup/eliminate of “Warmup Problem” and “Center Problem Direct” (the good crimper is off) with a downclimb of “Middle-Left-Right-Left-Down Problem”.’*
[*In fairness, I should probably point out that Mike was recovering from a potentially career-ending injury when he wrote this, so he was in a bit of a dark place at the time--he's feeling much better now ;)]
Which brings me to the bottom line. If you can maintain a relaxed attitude, have fun with your ropemates and continue to progress steadily through the grades, why not just keep at it? This is a completely valid approach and it works to some extent for many climbers. Once you get to the point that you have stopped progressing at a rate that satisfies you, start training. This is why I describe the decision as personal. Each person needs to decide how to weigh the fun & casual aspects of climbing against the performance aspects. What rate of progression is satifying to you? Looking back at my own experience, its easy to say that I regret not taking things more seriously when I was younger. But at the same time I had some of the most rewarding experiences of my career during those chaotic years. I would like to think its possible to have balance between the two but to be honest, that is something I really struggle to maintain.
In conclusion, from a purely physical perspective, I don’t buy into any of the standard reasons given to delay training. If you’re psyched to start a structured training program, including hangboarding or other sport-specific finger strength training, I don’t see any reason to wait.