Mission (im)Possible! – New Post on RCTM.com!

Check out my new post on “Mission (im)Possible!”  over at RockClimbersTrainingManual.com:

“Last spring I climbed Mission Overdrive in Clear Creek Canyon, a linkup that begins up Daniel Woods’ 5.14c(/d?) test-piece Mission Impossible, and then traverses right at mid-height to catch the upper half crux of the canyon’s mega-classic 5.13d Interstellar Overdrive.  At the time I was curious to investigate the complete Mission Impossible, but the remainder of my season was already booked solid.  After returning from St. George in mid-January I decided to focus my attention on Mission Impossible…”  Continue Reading

Advertisements

Tips for Effective Campusing Part 2: Going Big!

As implied here, I’m inspired by the climbing career of the legendary Jerry Moffatt.  During his prime, Moffatt was the best climber in the world, and he dominated on redpoints, onsights, boulders and competitions.  What inspires me most though, was his commitment to hard work and his dedication to training.  He was a phenom in his early years, but that didn’t stop him from putting in long hours in training rooms, on the Bachar Ladder, and the campus board.  He was near the top when 5.12+ was the world standard, and he managed to stay on the crest of the wave as the grades exploded all the way to 5.14c over the course of two decades.

Moffatt notes in Revelations that his best effort on the Campus board was 1-5-8.  Since I first read that, 1-5-8 has been in the back of my mind.  That is something I might be able to do someday. Furthermore, although I haven’t been able to find anything definitive, I’m pretty sure Moffatt is at least a few inches taller than me.  He looks to be within an inch or so of Ben Moon who is 5’11” (I’m 5’7″). Considering the obvious height dependence (or perhaps more precisely, arm-length dependence) of Max Ladders, I feel like it would be quite an accomplishment for me, to match Moffatt’s best.

[Historical aside: Moffatt also says in Revelations he did 1-5-8 statically, which begs the question, if he could 1-5-8 statically, why didn’t he do anything harder than 1-5-8?  Surely he could have.  Examining pictures of the original Campus Board and the Schoolroom Board in Sheffield, it looks like they didn’t have half-steps, so 1-5-8.5 was off the table.  Still, if Moffatt could do 1-5 statically, surely he could do 5-9 as well.  Perhaps the original Campus Board didn’t reach that high. The below pics shows at least 9 rungs, and this video appears to show Gullich campusing up at least 9 rungs on the original board (watch from 0:40 to the end). 

Original Campus Board on the left, Schoolroom board on the right.

Original Campus Board on the left, Schoolroom board on the right.

However, it’s quite possible that either or both of these boards evolved over time. Just because they have 9 rungs in these pics, doesn’t mean they had 9 rungs when Moffatt was using them in his prime.  The 9th rung of the Schoolroom board clearly looks “tacked on”; it’s not evenly spaced, and the material doesn’t match the other rungs.  The classic film The Real Thing shows footage of Moffatt and Ben Moon campusing together (beginning at about 5:00 in this clip ).  Moon does 1-5-“9” (the 9th rung is not at the proper height for a true 1-5-9; it looks to be at about 8.5).  Moffatt does many sick campus moves in this footage, but he doesn’t match Moon’s 1-5-“9”.]

Last year I did 1-8-15 on my Metolius-spaced board, which is pretty close to 1-4.25-7.5 in Moon Spacing.  So I was somewhat close, but as soon as I switched to Moon Spacing I discovered that 1-5 is extremely difficult for me.  I could do the move, but as soon as I latched rung 5, I felt a deep ache in my low shoulder.  The pain didn’t feel threatening, just quite unpleasant, like the burn you feel in your muscles when you have a deep pump.  It was impossible to sustain this position for more than an instant, let alone try to explode upwards from this position. This is where height dependence comes in to play on big campus moves.  The distance between rung 1 and rung five is about 34.6 inches.  The distance from my finger pads (when placed on an edge in a “half crimp” position) and the middle of my armpit is 27″. So even when locking my low hand all the way down to my armpit, I still have to eek another 7.5 inches of reach out of my body to span between 1 and 5, and I’ve discovered that to do so requires significant shoulder strength.

Any excuse to post a pic with my shirt off :)  Here's me spanning from Rung 1 to Rung 5.  Note the difference in height between my two shoulders (about 3 half-increments, or 33cm/13 inches). I've found this requires a lot of strength in the low shoulder.

Any excuse to post a pic with my shirt off 🙂 Here’s me spanning from Rung 1 to Rung 5. Note the difference in height between my two shoulders (about 3 half-increments, or 33cm/13 inches). I’ve found this requires a lot of strength in the low shoulder.

I’ve tackled this weakness in two ways, and I would say each has contributed equally to my improvement.  First, several years ago I added some shoulder strength exercises to my Strength Phase.  For the 4-5 weeks preceding my Power Phase I will perform 3 sets of “Lateral-to-Front Raise” and “Shoulder Press” exercises after each hangboard workout (in addition to other exercises).  This has helped prepare my shoulders for campus exercises, and for doing big/reachy moves in general.  Furthermore, Explosive Pull-ups, Biceps Curls, and Hanging Leg Raises all strengthen muscle groups that are essential to limiting campus moves.  The pull and upper arm muscles are obviously pivotal to generating upward movement, but are also key for slowing decent, making it easier to deadpoint each move.  Not surprisingly, your abdominal muscles play a significant role, and you may notice your abs feel sore for a day or two following the first campus session of each season.  It’s tremendously helpful to prepare these muscle groups prior to beginning your Power Phase, so you have good strength to build off of when you hit the campus board. 

Second, I started trying 1-5 regularly.  About a year ago I started to introduce this move (or 1-10 on my old Metolius-spaced board) in my campus sessions (aka, “Max 1st Move”).  At first I just tried to stick the move, then drop off.  Eventually I start trying to match the high rung as my strength improved, or go to rung 5.5 or 6. 

As I was improving with 1-5, it became apparent that 1-5 is very hard to move out of, because you’re so extended the low hand can’t contribute much to the second move.   Improving your shoulder strength as described above will help a lot, but there are several other complimentary ways to improve at the second move:

1) Get ridiculously strong, such that you can do a 1-arm pull-up from a small campus rung 🙂  However, as discussed last week that kinda defeats the purpose, and there are much easier ways to do it.

2) Use momentum.  On the biggest moves, momentum becomes critical.  It’s much easier to pull up if you keep your hips moving and never stop pulling upwards.  Follow the methods described in Basic Tips, realizing their importance becomes magnified on bigger moves. 

Additionally, in the Basic Tips post I discussed aim and accuracy.  I find it’s much more difficult to accurately place my fingers at the correct depth than it is to deadpoint to the proper vertical height.  Failing to place your finger pads deep-enough on the rung can (and often does) ruin a set.  If you don’t get deep enough, you will either fail to latch the rung, or need to bounce your hand into position before proceeding, thus killing any momentum.  For this reason, I find it helps on difficult moves to aim “through the board”.  Assume you are trying to latch a rung that is a quarter-pad deeper than your rung really is.  This will often result in smacking your tips into the plywood, so don’t over-do it–try to aim for a 1/4″ or so deeper than you need.  Your tips may get slightly bruised and sensitive, so go easy at first.  With practice, you should be able to hit the correct depth on most moves without this technique, but on the most challenging sets, this can really help ensure you can keep your momentum flowing upward to the top.

3) Push with your low hand.  This is critical, and probably the biggest difference between medium and large moves.  For shorter folks in particular, once you are in the 1-5 position, your low hand will not be able to maintain a normal position for pulling for long (with your palm facing the board).  Once you’ve pulled up off Rung 5 a few inches, your low forearm will be more horizontal than vertical, and your palm will be more or less facing the ground.  Get in the habit of pushing down from this position (another reason I like the Shoulder Press is that it trains the Triceps for this motion).  Push for as long as you can maintain contact with Rung 1, before stabbing upward for the high rung (Ben Moon exemplifies this at 6:55 here.  His low hand pushes until his low elbow is nearly locked and his low arm is pointing straight down).  

This shows the action of my low hand while attempting 1-5-8 (Moon Spacing).  The left frame shows the moment of latching Rung 5.  The center frame is a point midway through the second move.  The right frame shows the right hand's last moment of contact with Rung 1. Note that my right arm is almost straight, and my hand is level with my thigh in the right frame.

This shows the action of my low hand while attempting 1-5-8 (Moon Spacing). The left frame shows the moment of latching Rung 5. The center frame is a point midway through the second move. The right frame shows the right hand’s last moment of contact with Rung 1. Note that my right arm is almost straight, and my hand is level with my thigh in the right frame.

This will help with smaller moves as well, not just 1-5-9, but it takes practice.  Dedicate a few sets each session to practicing this movement.  Do the first move of your Max Ladder, but rather than focusing on latching the second move, focus on pushing with your low hand.  Don’t even try to latch the high rung, just try to improve your ability to generate upward movement by pushing with your low hand.  Once you start to get the hang of it, then try to focus on latching the high rung.  Note that this will be easier to do on steeper boards and vice versa.  If your campus board is less than 10-degrees overhanging or so it will be difficult to push properly.

This is another aspect of campusing that translates directly to rock climbing (and something that even beginners can benefit from improving immediately).  If you watch me climb, you will notice that I’m almost always pushing down with my low hand until the last possible moment, particularly on big moves.  Many climbers ignore their low hand once the shoulder passes it.  This is a mistake, and it puts unnecessary strain on the opposing arm’s fingers and pull muscles.

Using the low hand to push on real rock.

Using the low hand to push on real rock.

There are other factors that can affect your campus training besides strength and movement:

Body Weight – As in all aspects of climbing, body weight is a significant factor.  If you’re strictly training, and not trying to perform on the campus board, there is no need to be at your fighting weight.  However, in the interest of minimizing injury risk, it’s a good idea to be within 10 lbs or so of your fighting weight.  As discussed, campusing with added weight can increase the risk of injury, and it doesn’t really matter that much to your elbows if the added weight is iron or fat 🙂

If you are trying to perform on the campus board (for whatever reason, such as to set a personal best), dropping to at, or near, your fighting weight will definitely help.  As with any weight loss, don’t overdo it, lose weight intelligently, and incorporate it into your Seasonal Training Plan to ensure you can sustain it through your performance phase.  For me, I struggle to stay at my fighting weight for more than about 4 weeks, so if I get to that weight in time for my Power Phase, I’m likely to struggle mid-way through my Performance Phase.  Most climbers are concerned with their performance on the campus board, and so would be better off timing their diet to peak later in the season.

Arousal – As with any power-oriented exercise, your mental state of arousal can play a big part.  In other types of climbing, excessive arousal can be a hindrance (like a technical route where precise footwork is required).  There is certainly a technical aspect to campusing, as discussed at length.  It’s important to work on the technique, but it’s also important to just go for it at times and see what you can do.  If you are stilling learning the technique, spend the first half of the workout going slow, working on individual aspects of your Max Ladder, and using your conscious mind to control your actions.  Then get aggro for the rest of the workout.  This is the time to get fired up and go for it.  Don’t worry about doing the movements perfectly; focus on giving each attempt your most intense effort.

Different people have their own triggers, so experiment with different methods and see what works best for you.  I like to listen to  upbeat music, usually Hip Hop or something with a strong beat.  Occasionally I’ll grit my teeth and make a “GRRR!” sound just before I start a set.  I’m not much of a screamer, but I will occasionally let out a brief ‘yelp’ as I begin the second move of a Max Ladder.  Some folks have tried external stimulants like caffeine (and who knows what else in the ’80s), but I generally avoid that kind of thing.
 
Record Keeping – One could argue you aren’t training if you aren’t keeping track.  I went many years without documenting my campus work, and it was a huge mistake.  I had no idea what my plan was, or any way of telling if I was getting better.  As soon as I started documenting my workouts I started making significant progress.   Use a log sheet like the one shown here to document each set of your workouts.  Make not of your personal bests, and strive to match, and then surpass them, each season.  Also, use the log to desribe your campus board’s specifications in case you ever change venues.

At my ever-advancing age, I’m constantly tempted to think I’ve peaked as an athlete, and my best years are behind me.  Three years ago, at the spry age of 33, my personal best was 1-7-13 (in Metolius Spacing,  which equates to roughly 1-3.75-6.5 in Moon Spacing).  I couldn’t do 1-5 at all, let alone pull off of it.  Three weeks ago, I put all these tips into action, and sent 1-5-8, Moon spacing (admittedly, with some slight dabs against the wall):

Perhaps 1-5-9 isn’t out of the question for me after all?

Tips for Effective Campusing Part 1: The Basics

Campusing is one of the best training activities for climbers who are looking to improve explosive power and contact strength (detailed rundown on these terms here).  However, campusing is one of the most difficult training activities to perform well. Many would-be campusers struggle during the initial stages of learning to use this tool, they become frustrated, and so they move onto to other tools never realizing any of the benefits of this type of training.  This post will provide a few tips on how to campus well, which will make sessions more enjoyable, reduce the risk of injury, and ensure that you maximize transference of this training to the rock.  …And it will help you ‘burn off your mates’ on the campus board 😉  While I’m at it, I hope to explain to any remaining skeptics some of the reasons campusing will help you improve your rock climbing.

Campusing well is composed of at least the following three elements.  As such, all of these elements can be improved through dedicated campus training, and once honed, will improve your outdoor climbing. 

Contact Strength – As discussed here, this is the ability to quickly latch small, distant holds.  This is essential for grabbing and securing a distant campus rung, but more so it is critical to executing any dynamic move on the rock.  Contact strength requires both strong fingers, and the ability to contract them quickly.  The first trait is best achieved through dedicated hangboard training, the latter is best developed on the campus board.  By attempting to execute increasingly more difficult moves (usually, latching more distant rungs) your fingers will be required to generate larger force, and to generate it more quickly (so the rung can be latched before you fall away). 

To improve your contact strength, you need to dyno.  These can be done on the rock, on a plastic bouldering wall, or on the campus board.  The campus board is ideal because the rungs are not sharp or abrasive, so you can attempt dynamic moves many times in a single session without thrashing your skin.  I prefer a campus board to plastic bouldering because the movement is much more simplified, allowing you to focus completely on producing power during the latch.  Establish a baseline of campus moves you can perform, and then incrementally increase the difficulty from your baseline as you progress.  If you can’t perform basic or matching ladders, ask a partner for a power spot until you get the hang of it.  Another option if matching ladders are too difficult, is to try a simple match: start with one hand on Rung 1 and the other on Rung 2, lift your feet off the ground, then match the low hand from Rung 1 to Rung 2. 

Putting my contact strength to the test on Breakin the Law, 5.14b, St George, Utah.  Dan Brayack Photo.

Putting my contact strength to the test in St. George, UT. Dan Brayack Photo.

Moving with Momentum – For the wickedly strong, campusing can be done statically.  However, that misses the point  (or at least, it’s beside the point).  Momentum is a critical element of difficult climbing, and if you are striving to climb near your limit, you must learn how to utilize momentum. Many of the best climbers in the world utilize momentum constantly.  That is, they use momentum even when they don’t “need” to, because when used well, it makes climbing easier, saving lock-off power for where it is truly needed. (Furthermore, campusing slowly or statically eliminates the need for good contact strength to latch rungs, drastically reducing any potential for improvement to your contact strength.)

The campus board is the best tool we have for developing and practicing the use of momentum in climbing, because momentum is almost always required on the campus board, and the holds are smooth to the touch, so they don’t punish dynamic movement like abrasive rock does.  If a campus move can be done statically, then the climber could certainly do a more difficult move.  A well-performed campus move at your limit will DEMAND the flawless use of momentum. 

The “Max Ladder” is the best campus exercise, consisting of three moves.  The first move is an explosive pull-up from the first rung, with one hand reaching high to latch a distant rung.  During the second move the low hand reaches through, without matching, to latch an even higher rung.  The third move is a match to the rung reached during the second move. During this exercise, many climbers explode off the first rung, latch the center rung, and then pause, adjust the high hand, etc, before launching into the second move.  This is a mistake. Try to make your max ladder a continuous, flowing movement.  Try to keep your hips in constant motion.  Theoretically, it would be nice if you could keep your hips moving continuously upward. In reality, there will probably be a very brief pause in upward motion once you latch the first move, however, your hips should keep moving, swaying noticeably to the side (the side that latched the center rung) to build momentum for the next move.  Think of your hips as tracing an upside-down “J” on each move, with the two moves flowing seamlessly into each other.

Your hips should trace an upside-down "J" pattern on each campus move.

Your hips should trace an upside-down “J” pattern on each campus move.

Of course, achieving momentum in campusing (and climbing) is easier said than done.  Often the first move is latched poorly, making it impossible to proceed without adjusting or bouncing on the rung.  That is why it is essential to campus accurately.

Accuracy – Of the three elements of campusing well, accuracy holds the most promise for beginners.  It may take years of training and climbing before the need for substantial contact strength becomes apparent in a novice’s outdoor climbing.  But climbers at every level can benefit from teaching their body to precisely locate holds in space.  Campusing will train you to aim precisely for every rung.  Usually in only a few sessions you can learn to deadpoint most moves, making rungs much easier to latch.  Furthermore, by deadpointing, the strain on your shoulders, elbows, and fingers is minimized, vastly reducing the risk of injury.  This is true while campusing and while climbing in general.

During a perfect deadpoint, your arm will be at its furthest (safe) extension, and you will just barely be able to reach the hold when your hips are at their apex.  This is an ideal worth striving for.  Practically, this will be difficult to perform initially, so as you are improving your deadpoint skills, focus on preventing your hips from falling away as you latch each rung.  Attempt to latch the hold when your hips are at their apex, and then bend your arm as necessary to take up any “slack” before your hips begin to fall.  This too will take practice and focus, so break up your efforts into individual moves that you can learn to perform well before moving onto more complex sets.

A pretty good deadpoint, producing just the right amount of heigt to latch the high rung.

A pretty good deadpoint, producing just the right amount of height to latch the high rung.  Focus on the trajectory of your hips, not your hand.  Ideally your hips will rise, then pause, but never descend.

From a purely mechanical perspective, there are three linear dimensions or axes to consider when aiming for a distant hold (there is also rotation about each of the three axes, but that usually isn’t a huge factor in climbing).  In simple terms, you need to aim for and hit the correct vertical position, horizontal position, and depth.  The campus rung simplifies matters by vastly reducing the need for horizontal accuracy (for advanced climbers, campusing to pockets can provide an all-encompassing challenge).

The first step in achieving accurate hand placement is to keep your eyes on the prize.  Many climbers unwittingly blink or close their eyes during dynos.  Don’t do that!  Notice how good free-throw shooters (or golfers attempting a putt) pause and stare at the basket for a moment before shooting.  During this period the subconscious is making numerous calculations in preparation for the ensuing movement.  When you step up to the board, grasp the first rung with both hands, then pause and stare up at the target hold for a moment before lifting your feet off the ground.  Keep your eyes open and fixed on the target throughout the movement. Have a partner verify that you are keeping your eyes open and locked on target (or film yourself). 

When performing two back-to-back moves, as for a Max Ladder, moving with momentum will prevent you from staring down the target rung before the second move, so take a moment to locate both rungs before your feet leave the ground.  With practice, you will keep both rungs in view as you complete the set.

Staring down the target rungs before beginning.

Staring down the target rungs before beginning.

For improving vertical and depth accuracy, practice the following exercise (which we will call “Touch and Release” to distinguish it from “Touches”, which are used to improve lock-off strength).  From a matched position on Rung 1, lunge upward, release one hand and attempt to touch a pre-determined distant rung.  Do not attempt to latch the rung. After you touch it (or try to touch it), release your low hand and drop to the ground. Repeat this exercise, attempting to improve your hand placement on the distant rung, ultimately striving to place it perfectly on the rung at the deadpoint, with no wasted movement and all four finger pads engaged on the top surface of the rung.  Once you can routinely touch the rung well, put pressure on the rung for an instant before dropping off the board.  Repeat as necessary until you are confident you could latch the rung.  Then try to latch the rung.  Consider using a power spot when first attempting this exercise, but eventually strive to do it solo.

The below video shows the whole process of a well-executed Max Ladder:

    • Staring down the rung before starting,
    • Latching each rung with speed
    • Moving with momentum,
    • Striving to deadpoint (I overshot the first move slightly, but the second move is a pretty good deadpoint).

Another important consideration for campus training is rest between sets.  This is a power exercise, meaning the Time Under Tension should be short and the rest should be(relatively) long.  I’ve experimented with rest periods of 45, 60, 90 and 120 seconds between sets.  In my experience, longer is better.  Bring a stopwatch, and rest as long as you feel you need, but at least 90 seconds.  Currently I rest for 60 seconds between warmup sets, and 120 seconds between every other set (that is, I start my stopwatch, and begin a set every even minute).  Two minutes feels like a long time, but it definitely makes a difference (compared to 90 seconds rest).  If I feel it will help, I will rest for three or four minutes occasionally.  Usually these longer rests are taken later in the workout as the sets get more difficult.

Finally, a few tips on injury prevention.  First, keep your shoulders “tight” (slightly flexed) and elbows slightly bent when latching distant rungs.  It can be very tempting to lock your elbows or relax your shoulders to get an extra bit of reach, or to over shoot a rung, and strain to latch it on the way down, forcing your elbows and shoulders to suddenly snap eccentrically into a locked position.  This is really dangerous!  The bottom line is, DON’T BE A HERO!!!  If you fail to hit a rung well, just let go, rest up, and try to do better on the next set.  Any campus move can be done with good form.  There is no need to lose control and risk catastrophic injury.

Latching a rung with elbow bent and tension in my shoulder.

Latching a rung with elbow bent and tension in my shoulder.

This goes for the fingers too.  Most campusing injuries result from folks hitting a rung poorly, then attempting to desperately latch the rung with only a few fingers in play.  If you do not land well on the rung LET GO!!!  This includes having all four finger pads (or three if using an open grip with the pinky dangling) in contact with the rung, and all aligned ergonomically (with respect to  the grip position you are trying to use).  If your fingers get tangled or contorted in some manner, just let go and live to fight another day. 

Many folks have asked about campusing with weight added.  I would not recommend it.  The forces on your shoulders, elbows and fingers are high-enough without adding weight to the equation, not to mention the risk of falling to the ground with extra weight added.  If you don’t take my word for it, listen to the words of Sonnie Trotter:

“the aches in my elbows started the morning after I strapped on the weight vest.  I campused up the wall and back down again, 5 times, on top of some other stuff.  Super bad idea, I know, but I couldn’t help it, I felt invincible.  I wasn’t.  I never will be.  Stop fooling yourself fool.  But I did it anyway and I paid the price.  The shock load one puts on their elbows coming down (without footholds and an extra 20 pounds on your body) is extremely severe.  It’s never, ever a good idea to do this…” 

It is also possible to suffer skin injuries on the campus board.  In my experience, these are usually chronic skin injuries caused by trying to perform too many sets in a single session (or too-frequent sessions).  Use smooth, large-radius rungs, and limit your sessions to a reasonable number of sets.  For me that means no more than about 15 total sets per leading hand (including warmup sets).  If you choose to campus on pockets, I strongly suggest taping your fingers to protect your skin.

Lastly, campusing demands repeated falls to the ground.  Use a good crash pad (or several), ensure the fall zone is safe, and use a spotter if possible.  Occasionally you may fall in weird positions, so clear the area in all directions around the board.  Get in the practice of landing safely, with knees bent, and practice absorbing the fall force slowly as you hit the ground.

Using my entire body to absorb the landing.

Using my entire body to absorb the landing.

My hope was to fit everything I had to say on this topic into one post, but as usually I’ve failed 🙂  Check back in a week or two for Part II, advanced tips for going BIG.

Recommended Reading – Revelations by Jerry Moffatt

The holidays are upon us, which means friends and relatives will soon be pestering you for your wish list.  If you don’t already have it, I highly recommend asking Santa for a copy of Jerry Moffatt’s outstanding autobiography Revelations.

RevelationsJerry Moffatt was probably the best climber in the world for most of the 1980s, and he continued to push standards throughout the 90’s.  He was integral to the explosion in free climbing standards that occurred during the 1980s.  He was also a highly accomplished trad, headpoint, and solo climber and perhaps the best on sight climber of his generation.

While Moffatt’s story is a fascinating and entertaining read in itself, I mention it here because the book also offers countless insights for the performance-oriented climber.  Moffatt was among the first climbers to really embrace training, and he goes into considerable detail explaining how he trained for different objectives.  He also recounts the legendary characters (like Bachar and Gullich) that influenced his ideas on training, while discussing his thought process when developing training plans for different goals.

Moffatt possessed legendary focus and determination.  He dreamt big, but he backed up his dreams with hard work and tremendous effort in the moment of each ascent.  His book describes in detail how he approached stressful performance situations (like the first On Sight ascent of the Gunks’ Supercrack and World Championship competitions).  Any climber, of any ability, can benefit from these lessons.

ANY climber can benefit from Moffatt's considerable wisdom!  Photo: Nick Clement

ANY climber can benefit from Moffatt’s considerable wisdom! Photo: Nick Clement

While Moffatt was often head and shoulders above his peers, he was not superman.  He provides a glimpse into an elite world that most of us will never experience, yet his story is very relatable.  He frankly describes his various injuries and accidents, humanizing himself while tackling the frustration and despair that comes with any setback.  He confronts many of the same challenges we all face on our own paths to continuous improvement, giving us real hope that we can overcome them too.

I’ve read the book cover-to-cover three times now, and I will surely read it again.  Its hands-down my favorite climbing book.  His trials and eventual triumphs never fail to motivate me, and should give you the extra boost you need to fire up your winter training sessions.

For those who’ve already enjoyed Revelations, here are some other recommendations.  None of these are technical manuals; they are entertaining reads that also impart random snippets of climbing wisdom:

Wolfgang Gullich: Life in the Vertical by Tillmann Hepp.  This biography of the world’s most beloved climber is now out of english print and therefore correspondingly rare and expensive.  However, if you can get your hands on a copy you won’t be disappointed (check your library or ask around–the AAC Library in Golden has a copy).  In addition to recounting Gullich’s countless ground-breaking ascents, the book also discusses his training methods, tactics, and attitudes, including several interviews and short pieces penned by Gullich himself.

Beyond the Summit by Todd Skinner.  This book describes Todd’s quest to free Trango Tower, but also details his development as a climber and other groundbreaking ascents like the Free Salathe Wall.  As a training tool, this book will help you with goal-setting and motivation.

Full of Myself by Johnny Dawes.  To put it simply, Dawes was a rock genius, in the sense that he was an artist of completely unique ability and vision.  He was never the strongest climber, but his talent for movement was incomparable.  His book goes neck-deep into what it takes to become a technical climbing master.  If you’re unfamiliar with his work, consider viewing his legendary film Stone Monkey to get an idea of his abilities (in fact, if you can find the DVD, you might just ask for that instead of the book!):

A History of Freeclimbing in North America: Wizards of Rock by Pat Ament.  This tome is an encyclopedic catalogue of noteworthy ascents from 1869 to 2001.  It’s not the kind of book you would normally read cover-to-cover, but many of the entries include long, first-person accounts from the players themselves.  It’s absolutely essential for any lover of climbing history, but it also has some good insights for the performance-oriented climber, such as interesting training and tactical tidbits from legends like John Bachar, Tony Yaniro, and Alan Watts.  Ament’s occassionally editorializing on style comes off as petty at times, but it’s generally easy to ignore.

If you have any other recommendations for books that offer a bit more than an entertaining read to get us through the long winter, please post them in a comment below.

Campus Training Part 1: History, Theory & Campus Board Construction

This is Part 1 of a 3 part mini-series on Campus Training.  Check back for the rest of the story in the near future.

Gullich going big on the original Campus Board. Note how low his left hand is!

The legend of the original Campus Board is well-known and often re-told, not unlike the Epic tales of the ancient Greeks.  The incomparable Wolfgang Gullich installed the first board at a Nurnberg gym known as “The Campus Centre” to help elevate his finger strength to levels that could only be described as “futuristic”.  The board consists of a ladder of finger edges, and the training method is to move dynamically between these edges with feet dangling.

The concept behind the Campus Board is to apply methods of “Plyometric Training” in a manner that is specific to rock climbers.  Plyometrics have been around for a while, originally developed by Soviet Track & Field coaches in the 1960s to help train explosive power in their athletes.  Early plyometrics involved activities like jumping off a high surface, landing on a lower surface and immediately springing back up to the original height.  Theoretically the landing causes an involuntary eccentric contraction in the leg muscles which must be immediately converted to a concentric contraction in a very short period of time.  This type of training is still widely regarded as the best method for improving explosive power.  Gullich’s visionary adaptation of these concepts proved to be the key to his ground-breaking ascent of Action Directe in 1991, amazingly still one of the hardest routes in the world.

Gullich mono-campusing on his opus, “Action Directe”

Considering that (simplistically speaking) Power equals Force divided by Time, there are two key reasons Plyometric Training is effective at developing explosive power.  While it helps increase muscle fiber recruitment (key to maximizing the force element of the equation), there are many ways to increase recruitment some of which are likely more effective.  What sets plyometrics apart is the dynamic aspect of the training, which helps train muscle fibers to contract more quickly, allowing us to generate high levels of force in short order.  The obvious application to climbers is to use plyometrics to improve “contact strength” (if you’re unclear on the definition, read this), the key to performing difficult dynamic climbing moves (and often the key to success on hard routes or boulder problems). 

As with classic Plyometric training, the act of latching a difficult dynamic move entails a short period of eccentric contraction in the forearm muscles followed by an immediate concentric contraction to achieve the desired isometric grip position.

In addition to the pure strength benefits of Campus Training, this method is very helpful for improving the inter-muscular coordination required for good “accuracy” in dynamic movements.  The more you practice dynoing or campusing, the better your brain gets at aiming for holds. In a few sessions I can pretty quickly get to a point where I’m basically deadpointing every campus move, which makes the moves much easier. This accuracy translates directly to the rock, although on rock, every move is different, so your accuracy on an onsight will likely never be perfect, but it should improve over time.  The more you practice dynamic movements, the better your body & mind get at remembering those types of movements, meaning you should find yourself better able to “dial” dynamic moves on your projects over time.

Consistent Campus Training will greatly improve your muscular coordination, key for moves requiring tremendous accuracy like this dyno to a mono pocket

Finally, its well known that some climbers just don’t do well on dynamic moves.  This could be due to a general lack of aggression or a strong desire to remain “in control” on the rock.  Campusing can work wonders with these issues.  By encouraging aggressive and committing movement in a low-risk environment, climbers can overcome years of overly static movement after only a handful of short campus sessions.

With all the many great things Campusing has to offer, its worth noting the downsides.  First, there is no doubt that campusing is much harder on the joints than other methods of recruitment training such as hangboarding.  Campusing is by its very nature somewhat wild and out of control.  With a hangboard you can dial-down the intensity at will, and let go the moment things get uncomfortable.  Often in campusing (or dynoing in general) the only sign of injury comes after its too late.  For that reason, its critical to minimize the amount of time dedicated to the Campus Board, and ensure that you are 100% injury free before beginning any campus activities.  Elbows are particularly at risk, but shoulders and fingers need to be healthy as well.

Hopefully your board looks something like this, or perhaps even better. From left to right the board has “Large”, “Small” and “Medium” rungs.

Now that you’re all psyched to get campusing, you just need get yourself a Campus Board.  Ideally you have a local gym with an acceptable board.  The board needs to be in good shape, with a large quantity of smooth “rungs” of uniform size and shape, spaced at short intervals (around 3-4″).  Many boards have way too few rungs.  The result is climbers quickly progress to whatever is near their limit, then its pretty much impossible to improve any further because the next increment of progression is too great.  The legendary Ben Moon has popularized the spacing of his board (22cm intervals), which is famous for the “1-5-9” ladder.  This spacing is way too big!  Someone like me can do 1-4-7 on Moon spacing, but I would have no prayer of doing 1-5-9.  So I would be forced to do something that is too easy to be at my limit.  Some day I may be able to do 1-5-9, but I won’t get there by repeatedly doing 1-4-7.

Another common problem is boards that mix different sizes and shapes of rungs on the same ladder.  This causes the same problem as a board with too few rungs.  The board should be ~15 degrees overhanging, and free-hanging to allow your feet and legs to swing around without dabbing on nearby walls.  If you don’t have access to a good campus board and you want to build your own, I highly recommend wooden Campus Rungs like these.  For some great tips on building your board, check out this guide.  You don’t necessarily need all three sizes of rungs–at this point I have no use for the Large rungs and only use the Medium rungs for warming up.  Finally, the rungs need to be numbered so that you can record and track your training.

Look for much more on how to get the most out of the Campus Board in the next few weeks….

Smarter, Not Harder

Tom brought up a couple of questions in response to the Climber’s Fest post which I will start to address here:

tom on July 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm said:
“you brought up two very interesting areas i hope you will discuss in detail:

a) being aggressive in climbing – what’s the mindset, how do you turn it on? how do you get it back when you get out psyched by the rock?

b) trying hard – sometimes it frickin hurts, and you need to try harder to get through. but sometimes trying too hard leads to flailing around….

looking forward to a deeper discussion!”

These are really two different questions, so I’ll address them under separate posts.  Let’s look at “trying hard” first since I have better anecdotes for that topic.  Generally speaking, its a good idea to try hard, but what does that really mean?  Many years ago my brother Mike had a chance to spend some time with Tommy Caldwell, so Mike asked him what he does to train for climbing, in hopes that they would discuss proper set lengths, number of repetitions, etc.  Tommy’s response was, “just try really hard, all the time”.  End of discussion.  I’ve always thought this was interesting advice to give to a total stranger and it brings to mind a classic legend.  An aspiring climber hired a local wunderkind to “coach” him.  The coaching session consisted of aforementioned wunderkind yelling “pull harder” throughout the session, right up to the point of catastrophic tendon rupture in the client. 

‘What do you mean you don’t track your hangboard workouts in an Excel spreadsheet?!’

These stories remind me of a concept discussed extensively in “The Self-Coached Climber”, that is, often people who are really good at stuff don’t really understand what makes them good.  For example, Usain Bolt is the best at running 100m fast, but that does not necessarily mean he would make the best coach for another aspiring sprinter.  Admittedly, this is a somewhat condescending attitude.  Tommy is clearly an extremely intelligent and thoughtful person, so I don’t suggest this theory in anyway as an insult to him.  However, I think it indicates that those standing on the top of the tower, looking down on the huddled masses often under-estimate the amount of drive, focus and effort that even “regular joes” put into climbing.  There is a great line in the excellent running moving “Without Limits”, in which the Bill Bowerman character is lecturing the late great Steve Prefontaine:

The incomparable Pre

“Your insistance that you have no talent is the ultimate vanity.  If you have no talent, you have no limits, its all an act of will…I’ve got news for you.  All the will and hard work in the world isn’t going to get one person in a million to run a 3:54 mile.  That takes talent.  And talent in a runner is tied to very specific physical attributes.  Your heart can probably pump more blood than amyone else’s on this planet, and that’s the fuel for your talent. Your bones in your feet – it’d take a sledgehammer to hurt them. And that’s the foundation of your talent. So your talent, Pre, is not some disembodied act of will, it’s literally in your bones…”

I think that many aspects of climbing (like finger strength) come naturally to some elite climbers (not that they didn’t have to work hard to get strong, but they didn’t have to put a lot of thought into it), so all that remains is to try really hard at the moment of truth.  They see someone struggling on 5.11, and they think that person just isn’t trying hard.  ‘If only they tried a little harder, they could climb 5.15 too!’ 

Sometimes trying hard can have negative consequences. This flapper took my entire finger pad off after an ill-advised dyno.

I’ve climbed all over with all kinds of different people, and I’ve observed a lot of people trying very hard at the crag, at all different grades.  In my expereince, lack of effort is rarely the limiting factor in those who are well motivated (and there are plenty such climbers).  In fact, I’ve observed many climbers trying too hard on occasion.  That is, beating their heads against a brick wall with no potential positive outcome.  Climbing until their fingers are bleeding, thus forcing additional rest days that otherwise wouldn’t have been necessary.  Taking huge whippers or dynoing repeatedly for blind holds, risking severe injury or bloody flappers, either of which could be avoided by simply hauling up a stick clip.  Or simply “flailing around” as Tom suggested.

One of my favorite expressions is “smarter, not harder”.  One thing I like about this philosophy is that it emphasizes the long view over that which is obvious and immediate.  Performance rock climbing is all about finding the easiest way to do that which is inherently difficult.  Advice to the effect of “Try Hard” is often misinterpreted to mean, ‘squeeze as hard as possible or dyno wildly as you scream like Sharma WHILE YOU ARE CLIMBING’.  However, most of the time, it turns out that squeezing harder is not the answer.  Rather, discovering a new body position, distributing weight perfectly between fingers and toes, rehearsing the accuracy and timing of dynamic movements, pacing the effort correctly–these are generally the keys to overcoming a challenging route.  Rather than trying hard to do a move that requires 100% of your crimping power, try hard to find a body position that allows you to do the same move with 80% exertion!

Furthermore, those that try hard only when they’re literally on the rock are missing out on countless opportunities to improve their climbing.  Try hard to schedule adequate rest, stick to a healthy diet, get enough quality sleep.  Try hard to wake up on time so that you can get to your project when the conditions are ideal.  Even in the unlikely event it does come down to a simple matter of brawn, try hard to use your brain to develop an effective training strategy to develop the needed horsepower, as opposed to simply squeezing until your knuckles explode.

The decision to use your brain is not an exemption from giving 110% come gametime.  Trying really hard on Tommy’s masterpiece, ‘Grand Ol’ Opry’.                      Photo Matthew Oscadal.

Rather than simply, “try really hard, all the time”, how about, “try the appropriate amount, all the time” (really rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it?).  Sometimes, maximum force is required to get the job done, the gear is good, and your body is prepared to handle the stress that maximum force will produce.  In that case, by all means, go for it!  On the other hand, often caution is the better part of valor.  Many times it makes sense to take it easy, save some energy (and some skin) for the next burn, or next climbing day. 

So how do you know when its time to give it one last all out effort, and when its time to throw in the towel?  Experience, which of course, comes from bad judgement, or by observing and listening to others.  Dose your efforts with a preference for quality over quantity.  Listen to your body; if you’re too tired to give a quality effort, save whatever you have left for tomorrow.  Don’t climb frustrated, which is a sure path to regret.  When you find yourself facing a tweaky crux move that presents the risk of several months of injury, consider whether it really makes sense to “try really hard”.  Maybe there is another route just as challenging but not so tweaky (or, if you have your heart set on it, hit the hangboard for a few seasons and come back when you are truly ready, or limit yourself to a pre-determined number of tries per day on the tweaky move).  Say “take” during a too-hard warmup to avoid a flash pump that might ruin the entire climbing day.  Take a break to tape up before hucking for that jug yet again, thus avoiding a handful of bloody flappers.  Rest when rest is called for.  Take a moment to consider new beta before trying the same move the same way for the tenth straight time.  Don’t feel compelled to perform for the gallery.

When you are on redpoint (or onsight), on a meaningful climb, that is the time to go for it.  If you’re already in dogging mode, don’t be a hero.  Use that seemingly useless blob of ballast above your shoulders to do what makes sense in the long run.

Three Reasons to Train for Climbing

Many people are stoked to go to the crag week in, week out, and climb the same routes year after year.  For some folks climbing is just recreation, not sport.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  I don’t consider watching TV a sport.  I don’t seek methods for improving my TV watching (although I did get a Tivo a few years back, and that pretty much revolutionized my TV watching career), I watch TV for the pure fun of it.  I’m happy for those who approach climbing with that attitude, I wish them all the best, and thank them for leaving the hard routes that much less crowded 🙂  Other people would prefer to see some form of steady improvement over the years (and perhaps a large percentage of the first group are truly part of the second, but they’ve become frustrated after spending years stuck at a plateau, and simply accepted that its not their destiny to climb beyond the level they’re currently at).  If you’re like me, and you want to improve, its just a matter of deciding how to go about doing it and following through with conviction.

Take it from someone who spent a long time climbing 5.10, routes just get better as they get harder

Now, there are many paths to climbing improvement, and they are not all the same.  If you’re a hard worker and you have your head on straight, I think its quite possible to experience slow and steady improvement by simply going to the gym or crag on a regular basis.  If you’re willing to put the time in, its probably not necessary to follow a structured training regimen.  On the other hand, I believe there are some significant advantages to following a designed program.

In my experience, there are basically three primary reasons to “train” for climbing.  First and foremost, because it works, in the sense that most of the time, if done properly, training produces steady improvement over time, which is pretty sweet.  In some cases, it will produce radical improvement in a pretty short period of time.  Check out What I Know About Training for some evidence to back up that claim.

Second, training reduces the risk of injury.  Training prepares your muscles and connective tissue for the stress they will be exposed to once you get out on the rock.  If done wisely, this preparation is controlled and quantified to maximize the amount of stress your body can withstand without doing harm.  In the process, training teaches you to get a feel for exactly how much stress those structures can handle before you need to back off.   Not only does training reduce the risk of injury, but it provides a framework and methodology for recovering from existing injuries.  Once you convert to the mindset of an athlete in training, although you’re still likely to suffer injuries from time to time, they will rarely hold you back for long, because you will become an expert in listening to your body, identifying weakness, stressing weak tissue to stimulate growth, and managing rest periods to maximize recovery.  “Training” and “Rehabilitation” are really just different words for the same thing, and you will become an expert in both.

Third, training saves time.  In fact it saves lots of time.  Nothing is more inefficient, in terms of time, than going to the crag and climbing random routes in an effort to stimulate tissue growth.  With a good training regimen, you can identify precisely which areas you want to stimulate, and apply stress exactly where you want with no wasted effort.  With the proper equipment and a well-conceived program you can work every grip position to failure in less than 90 minutes. Good luck doing that at the crag!  Plus it can be done without a partner, at the gym or in your basement, any time of the day, any day of the year, regardless of weather, work schedules, etc.