Spice Up Your ARC Routine

The book that started it all

“ARC” is short for Aerobic Restoration & Capillarity training.  This training method was first described in the legendary Performance Rock Climbing.    If you are unfamiliar with ARC training, you can get the rundown here.  Many climbing periodization plans call for massive amounts of this training; as much as 90+ minutes per workout, with several workouts per week for several weeks.  Considering the long, repetitive sessions coupled with relatively low intensity, its pretty much certain these workouts will become stale sooner or later.

There are some things you can do to alleviate this problem.  First and foremost, evaluate how much ARC training is really appropriate for you.  Some plans call for six straight weeks of exclusive ARC training, some call for none.  My recommendation is that beginning climbers should do the most ARC training, perhaps as much as six weeks per training cycle (although I never did more than four weeks when I started training as a 5.11 climber).  As you progress as a climber, you can gradually reduce the length of your ARC phase, assuming your technique continues to develop at a pace at least equal with that of any strength gains you experience.  If technique is always your limiting factor, continue to emphasize ARC workouts.  Even advanced climbers with great technique can benefit from longer ARC phases if they are training for ultra-endurance-oriented climbs (like those at the Red River Gorge, for example) .  At this point in my career, my ARC phase is never more than 6 days, and some seasons I don’t ARC at all.  That said, a paltry three ARC sessions can be enough to bore me out of my mind.

If your goal route looks like this, think twice about minimizing your ARC phase

Here are some things I do to keep my ARC sessions a bit more engaging:

-If you have route-setting privileges, create pre-set traverses, (or vertical routes/treadwall routes).  At first simply climb these routes, but then repeat them (over the course of a single session, and/or progressively throughout the phase) gradually eliminating holds (trying to do the traverse in the fewest possible number of moves). 

-Movement drills. Pick a particular movement and then practice doing that move over and over.  You can select 4 or 5 particular moves and set aside 5 minutes or so for each movement.  Do a set number of reps (say, ten–something easy to track in your head), with each hand/foot (left and right).  You can add slight variations on the theme, and use progressively smaller holds to make the moves more difficult.  Here is a brief list of example movements you can drill, feel free to add others (you may find it helpful to print this list and keep it handy for your next ARC session):

  • Silent feet movements
  • Straight Arm reaches
  • Backstep
  • Inside Flag
  • Outside Flag
  • Rock-over
  • High step
  • Twist-lock
  • Cross over
  • Cross under
  • Twist-lock & reach across
  • Reach up from low under cling
  • Reach across body from low under cling
  • Undercling over head & step up
  • Gaston
  • Heel Hook to rock-over
  • Drop Knee
  • Extended foot stab
  • Hip thrust
  • Deadpoint

Look for unlikey rest stance and practice awkward or strenuous shakes.

-Practice awkward rest positions.  Try to find spots where you can just barely get a rest or “unlikely” rest positions (big stems, underclings, etc).  In particular try to find rests on steep terrain.  If you have a goal route in mind, and you know what the rest stance are like, attempt to replicate them and practice the positions (they should get easier over time).  On less steep terrain practice resting on insecure, slippery feet.  Stances like these tend to encourage over-gripping, so focus on remaining relaxed.  Learn exactly how much weight you can put on your feet, using the bare minimum of hand strength.



-Try “Fartlek” style workouts.  This Swedish running workout involves alternating periods of higher and lower intensity.  For example, set a time interval, say 5 or 10 minutes, within the 30 minute session, to climb on smaller holds, or steeper terrain than you could normally sustain during the ARC set.  Try to increase your focus during the hard interval.  When the higher intensity interval is completed, follow that up with an equal length interval of easier climbing where you can relax, let your mind wander, or work on technique with easier moves.

A good outdoor ARCing route will require you to weight your arms without causing an unsustainable pump

-ARC outside.  The trick is to find a crag with the right type of routes.  Stay away from slabs, dihedrals or other routes that allow you to stand on your feet the whole time.  You want routes that require you to hang from your arms but aren’t overly pumpy.  If the routes have easy rests, limit your time at these rests or avoid them entirely.  If you have a willing parnter take turns climbing 2-3 routes in a row before switching belay/climbing roles in order to get your “set” time as high as possible.  Ideally you would have enough draws, etc that you could just lower & immediately move to the next route without removing your shoes or resting between routes.  Remember this is training, not play time; continue to hone your technique during these sessions.  As you add outdoor sessions, continue to get atleast one indoor session per week.  While outside sessions can be better for training technique, indoor sessions are usually better for training local endurance.

Training Intensity

Intensity is simply a matter of how much effort you put into a given training activity.  In other words, how “hard” you are trying.  You may already be performing the prefect training activity, but if the intensity is wrong, you won’t get the proper results.  After observing many climbers in their natural habitat its clear that intensity levels vary greatly between climbers.  Unlike pure aerobic sports (where a good heart rate monitor or power meter can do the trick), intensity in climbing is difficult to quantify, which makes it very difficult to prescribe.  It also makes it very hard to get accurate feedback as to whether the proper intensity has been applied. 

However, finding the proper intensity for each training activity is vital.  It is absolutely possible to follow a precise training plan and see few results if the intensity is wrong.  There are two primary culprits, the first and most obvious being that many people just plain don’t know how much effort to apply (and many don’t realize how much effort they are truly capable of).  That is primarily what I would like to address in this post.

Applying the proper intensity during a hangboard session.

Its worth noting there is a potential to apply too much intensity, especially when recovering from injury, but in my experience the opposite problem is far more common, particularly among folks that came to the sport of climbing without much background in other organized sports.  If you’ve never really pushed your body to the limit you will have trouble knowing just how much effort to put into a workout.  Not all pain is bad, and its worth discovering the difference.  If you have access to an actual coach, it may be worth the money to have them assess your training intensity in real-time, but most of us will end up figuring it out on our own.

Determining the ideal intensity is somewhat personal and will take some trial and error for each athlete to get it dialed in, but here are some starting points for various activities to get you headed in the right direction:

– Local Endurance Training: AKA “ARC” or “CIR”, the earmark of this training is its LOW intensity.  Sounds simple, but this can be one of the most difficult to gauge correctly.  Even if you find the right intensity, it can be difficult to keep it up for the long set lengths involved (routinely greater than 30 minutes).  The danger of too much intensity is that the effort will become anaerobic, theoretically producing different results than those desired.  In my experience most climbers err on the side of too little intensity and I think this is a mistake.  These workouts should not be effortless; try to push yourself by climbing on steeper terrain or avoiding the best holds.  Avoid vertical (or slabby) terrain and any hands-free rest stances.  If you have a heart-rate monitor you might try using it for these workouts to establish a baseline, but don’t assume it will correlate to big-muscle aerobic exercises like running or swimming.  If you struggle with finding the right terrain, consider a “Fartlek” style workout, by alternating between periods (Say, 5 minutes or so) of more intense and less intense climbing.  Varying the intensity will allow you to give more focus during the intense period and relax a bit or hone technique during the easier interval.  During a typical ARC workout, I will keep a pretty good sweat going and will be breathing steadily as you would for a moderate-intensity run or bike ride.

– Movement Technique Training:  Most technique training should be done in the low intensity range.  When new techniques are introduced, the intensity should be very low, but eventually you will need to increase the intensity to “stress-proof” your technique.  At some point you will find yourself using these new skills on a limit-level boulder problem or redpoint crux, but you can’t consider yourself a master until you are routinely applying the technique while onsighting at your limit.  Usually in such a scenario the intensity will be very high.

– Hypertrophy and/or Muscular Strength Training:  This phase can be tricky because its not black or white.  Let’s assume that we are following a strength building regimen that involves different “exercises”, each with multiple “sets” of a varying number of “reps”.  Each individual “exercise” should be done to failure or very near failure, implying 100% intensity.  However, it is unlikely you can achieve failure at the last rep of the last set if you give 100% intensity to each prior rep.  Generally your intensity should ramp up as you work through the sets.  I generally use 3 sets for a given exercise, so the first set will be around 80% intensity.  Not “easy”, requiring attention, but completely in control.  I will be fatigued at the end, but I could do more reps if I wanted to.  By the third set, I will be breathing heavily, perhaps trembling a bit, my form will just be starting to suffer and I will be giving 100%.  For a 5 rep set, by the 3rd rep or so I will have doubts about my ability to complete the set.  By the end of the 5th rep I will just about be sliding off the hold.  If you’re a screamer, you should be screaming on the 4th & 5th reps.  The second set will be somwehere in the middle, starting out controlled and perhaps relatively casual, but will feel very difficult by the end of the set.  If this doesn’t sound familiar, increase the resistance until your experience is similar.  If you are applying the proper intensity, you won’t be able to handle much more than 20 total sets in a single workout (i.e., 7 exercises with 3 sets each).

– Power/Max Recruitment Training:  This one is pretty simple on paper; give 100% or more to each set, once you are properly warmed up (if campusing, your warm-up should inlcude some low, then moderate intensity campusing), then rest however long you need to be able to give 100% again.  The tricky part is summoning 100% intensity for a 5-10 second effort.  In my experience that is easier to do during a progressive strength training or power endurance routine, where you can gradually dial up the intensity over several minutes.  In a true Power scenario, you will need to summon that intensity very quickly.  A gradual warmup can help with this, as well as learning how to tap into elevated states of arousel.  The cliff notes version: screaming, boisterous encouragement, and aggressive breathing can all help with arousel.  Fortunately dynoing can be painful if you aren’t very accurate, and pain will help stimulate arousel as well.  Succeeding on every set is a good sign that the intensity is too low.  If you’re really attempting the most powerful movements, you should be failing most of the time.  Another indicator is number of movements in a single set.  True Power or Max Recruitment should trend toward a single extreme movement, but certainly no more than five.  In my experience after three movements you can’t really give anything more of value.  If you’re doing more than that, and they’re all ‘hard’ moves, then the workout is not  really  targeting Max Recruitment.  As for warming up, while its important to be thorough, be careful not to waste all of your power during your warmup.  Power is the first thing to fade during a workout so experiment with different warmup lengths and keep track of what works best (I’ve seen  a clear decline in performance when my warmup last more than 45 minutes).  Finally, once the warmup is over, there are no easy campus sets.  If you can’t give 100% effort then the workout is over.  Move on to something else or save it for antoher day.

In this example, only the 2nd movement is truly at my limit, the others being mostly window dressing.  I’m not a grunter, but I did grunt spointaneously during the hard move.

– Power Endurance Training:  Similar to Hypertrophy, PE workouts should begin in control but get progressively more intense to the point where you can just barely finish.  Near the end of the last set, my motor skills will be totall shot, and I’ll have to swing my feet to get them from hold to hold; every hand movement will become a dyno.  At the end of my best PE workouts I literally feel like vomitting and passing out (not necessarily in that order).  My breathing is completely out of control, on the verge of hyperventillating, and I can’t stand up unsupported.  My forearms are totally pumped; not only can I not squeeze anything, I can’t relax my grip either.  When I go to record my effort, its difficult to write because my hands are shaking.  Unless its extremely cold, I’m dripping with sweat.  Some plans suggest taking a 10-15 minute break and then repeating the workout.  There is no way I could do this, and in my opinion if you can, then the intensity is too low for PE (but it would make for great stamina training). 

– Rest:  A bit tongue-in-cheek, but many climbers aren’t very good at resting.  Proper rest will probably take some effort.  Digging a trench, building a retaining wall, running a marathon; these are not rest activities.  Plan to do basically nothing for at least a week, and take it easy on your fingers for the entire rest period, or add anditional rest time once the retaining wall is finished.
Beyond an understandable lack of knowledge, the second most common cause of improper intensity is a simple lack of effort in one form or another.  This is usually not caused by laziness, but a number of other possible causes including  external distractions during the workout time, unexpected interruptions, general fatigue from overtraining or lack of sleep, and other factors that culminate in a gneral lack of focus on the task at hand.

At the end of the day, you’re unlikely to get much out of your training program if you’re just going through the motions.  I’ve found myself in this position on many occasions.  If you’re scratching your head after a season of ho-hum results, think hard about the effort you put into your training.  Were you giving it 100% (when 100% effort was called for), or were you mailing it in through your Hypertrophy phase, just counting the workouts until you could start bouldering again?  Did you save some strength for the Campus Board during you Max Recruitment phase, or did you blow all your power during your so-called warmup? 

Most of us have a large resorvoir of desire and are able to access it when needed*, but focus and attention are not so easy to maintain.  The majority of my own sub-par efforts stem from a lack of focus or attention when the opposite was required.  Fortunately this can be simple to correct once you learn how.  Look for more on this topic in the near future….

(*If you routinely find yourself struggling to muster the desire to give it your best effort, check out some of my tips on motivation here.)

Q&A #2: Training at the Crag

This is a quick post to answer a pair of questions I received here.

Scotty O. wrote:

“I recently moved back to Bend, OR (and Smith Rock!) where I began my climbing career. I moved from Colorado where I climbed Rifle almost exclusively. After a Fall of screaming forearms, I focused on training my severely lacking endurance over the winter. The gains I noticed this Spring were HUGE and I began to cross Rifle and Maple endurance-fests off my list quickly.

Now that I’m back at Smith Rock, I rarely feel pumped on a route, but find myself falling off more powerful/bouldery cruxes. What can I do to overcome this and balance out my power? What can I do to keep my endurance up while I’m here? I’m not opposed to sessions in the gym, but I would rather maximize my time here at Smith and maybe reserve some days at the crag strictly for training and mileage…”

Thanks for the questions Scotty,

Nothing beats bouldering if you want to build power while climbing on real rock.  Smith has some bouldering, but it tends to be pretty miserable due to the freakishly sharp stone.  As a great compromise, I would highly recommend “roped bouldering”.  In many ways this can be even more effective than real bouldering, as usually the fall consequence is less serious.  The flip side is that it works best with a dedicated partner (although it can be done solo with a rope soloing device and much gear fiddling).  The procedure is simple: find a route with a boulder-problem crux, get a rope on it (preferably toprope through the next highest bolt above the crux) and work the boulder problem repeatedly off the dog.  I find it more motivating to pick a route I’m actually interested in redpointing at some point later in the season.  If you plan to spend a long time on your bouldering sessions, be considerate and pick a route that isn’t super popular, or save it for a weekday.

Smith has a number of great ‘shorties’ that can make for a great boulder project.

If you prefer to actually have a shot at sending something, another option is to pick a really short route.  These routes need love too, and they tend to pack a wallop relative to their grade.  Smith has a number of great mini-routes that could equally be described as extended boulder problems.  Heresy, Da Kine Corner, Energy Crisis, Mothers Milk and Jam Master J are only a few examples.  Remember to get a decent power workout you need to do it while you’re fresh, so do it first thing after a complete warm up.

As for your second question, consider doing “laps” on a pumpy route you know well.  This is a popular past-time for the Smith locals–I’m sure you’ve seen them lapping Churning in the Wake as the sun sets at the end of a long day.  Ideally you would select a pumpy route without much rest (and certainly no hands-free rests; or skip any such rests), and a route you know fairly well.  At Smith another consideration is to find a route that isn’t super sharp (good luck with that!).  Some good choices off the top of my head might be Magic Light, Overboard, Heinous Cling (short or long version), the aforementioned Churning, Aggro Monkey or Scarface.  Obviously its key to find the right difficulty, probably around 1 number grade below your redpoint limit (or just about equal to your onsight limit).  Climb the route from bottom to top, then lower, rest 3-5 minutes (keep track of your rest interval and keep it consistent), then repeat.  Try to do 3-5 laps, building up progressively by reducing the rest interval and increasing the number of laps from workout to workout.   If it becomes trivial, move to a harder route.  If you fall off, try to pull back on and continue  Climb at a normal pace, but don’t milk any really good rests.

Good luck and enjoy the great routes at Smith!

Strongman Fred hucking a lap on Churning