Trainer to the JStars: Part 1 – New Post on RCTM.com!

Check out my new post on “Trainer to the JStars – Part 1” over at RockClimbersTrainingManual.com:

“Over the past six months we’ve been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to train one of America’s most accomplished sport climbers. I can say unequivocally that the experience has been one of the highlights of my varied climbing career. It’s every coach’s dream to work with the very best athletes within a given sport, and we are no different. While we have tremendous confidence in our program, and its long track-record of producing results for mortals like us, we’ve long ‘fantasized’ about recruiting an elite-level guinea pig for some next-level experimentation. Would it work for a top-level athlete? Can it be adapted to the full-time climbing schedule of a legit pro? There was only one way to find out, but we needed a strong climber with an open mind….”  Continue Reading

Lander Days – New Post on RCTM.com!

Check out Mike’s new post on “Lander Days” over at RockClimbersTrainingManual.com:

“The family and I just got back from a great week in Lander. If you’ve never been, Lander is a throw-back; it’s a small community at the foot of the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming, so the pace of life is a little slower, and life is a bit simpler. When we’re in Lander, for whatever reason, there is no TV watching or any of those distractions. Instead, we’re outside a lot, and we spend time with great friends. On this trip we were fortunate to stay with Steve and Ellen Bechtel, and BJ and Emily Tilden. Thanks for the hospitality!  When we first arrived, I was in the midst of my Power phase, so I sought out powerful routes to supplement my training. That’s a big reason we were in Lander in the first place, to climb at the Wild Iris…..”  Continue Reading

Designing A Transition Phase – New Post on RCTM.com!

Check out my new post on “Designing A Transition Phase”  over at RockClimbersTrainingManual.com:

“In this post I introduced the concept of the Transition Phase.  This is the several-week period during each training cycle in which you shift your focus from primarily indoor training to primarily outdoor climbing (and sending!).  Chapter 10: Building a Seasonal Training Plan from the forthcoming  “The Rock Climber’s Training Manual” thoroughly describes how to build a training plan, and it provides numerous sample plans to get you started.  These plans include these transitions, but we’ll talk about some of the “how and why” in more detail here, to help you build your own plan …”  Continue Reading

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

Sunny St. George Part I: Breakin’ The Law

On rare occasions I take a short hiatus from thinking about training, writing about training, and training, to actually go rock climbing.  Over the New Year’s Holiday the family and I headed west to the warm climes of St. George, Utah for a week of climbing.  St George is home to a vast array of rock climbing possibilities, from the Grade VI Big Wall free and Aid climbs of Zion, to the bouldering of Moe’s Valley, and everything in between.  The guidebook lists more than 40 distinct crags, and the area hosts a wide variety of different rock types, including sculpted sandstone, basalt, Volcanic tuff, conglomerate, and some of the best limestone in the US.

Sunny steep stone in the capitol of Utah's Dixie.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Sunny steep stone in the capital of Utah’s Dixie.   Fencing with Tortuga, 5.12a, at The Turtle Wall.  Photo Dan Brayack.

My primary objective for the trip was a power endurance route called “Breakin’ the Law“, which climbs out the upper of two shallow limestone caves at the Black & Tan crag.  The route was the vision of Salt Lake hardman and fellow training advocate Jeff Pedersen.  However, a young Dave Graham nabbed the first free ascent, and the name is reminiscent of the confessionary “I Am a Bad Man” (now known simply as Badman), so-named by JB Tribout after his friend Alan Watts told him, ‘you can have any route [at Smith Rock] except that one’.

The Black and Tan Wall.  Breakin' the Law climbs out the subtle dihedrdal in the left side of the higher cave.

The Black and Tan Wall. Breakin’ the Law climbs out the subtle dihedral in the left side of the higher cave.

The route begins with big moves up a steep wall to reach the roof of the cave.  The crux is climbing out to the lip of the cave, then turning the lip to get established on the headwall. It would be quite a challenge for me to send a .14b in a week, but I’d heard from various accounts that the line was soft.  However, just before we set out for Utah I talked with a prominent, much-stronger-than-me climber, who assured me the route was quite hard for shorter folks.  Apparently tall climbers can get a big stem/dropknee that essentially eliminates the first, harder crux.  So as we left Colorado I was apprehensive and anxious to find out for myself.

Breakin' the Law: Midway through the first crux, a difficult traverse to the lip of the cave.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Breakin’ the Law: Midway through the first crux, a difficult traverse to the lip of the cave. Photo Dan Brayack.

We planned to split up the long drive with a break in Grand Junction for lunch and a hike out to Independence Monument.  I avoid aerobic exercise when I’m in performance climbing mode, but I like to go on “brisk walks” at least every rest day.  It helps keep my metabolism humming (for the purpose of weight management), and it allows an opportunity to clear my head.  The trail was snowy and muddy in places, but it was still a fun hike.  I’ve climbed Otto’s Route at least three times that I can remember, and I suspect I’ll climb it again with Logan some time in the next decade.

Hiking to Independence Monument outside Grand Junction, CO.

Logan and I on the hike to Independence Monument, outside Grand Junction, CO.

We spent the night in a flea-bag motel in fabulous Salina, Utah, then continued toward St. George the next day, making a beeline for Black & Tan.  We met my friends Dan Brayack and Lena Moinova at the crag, who happened to be on vacation as well.  Dan is a fellow Trango team-mate, and an outstanding climbing photographer.  A hefty chunk of the photos in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual were generously provided by Dan. Some of Dan’s images are peppered throughout this post, or you can check out his amazing gallery here. 

After warming up , I got on my presumed project.  The climbing starts out with fun, huge spans between large holds.  There’s a big jug at the crook of the roof, then the first crux comes traversing from that jug to the lip of the cave.  You can either shuffle or cross between several holds, but you end up with a good incut crimp and a tufa pinch.  Depending on your sequence you can either dyno into a big iron cross, and then struggle to climb out of it, or you can make a wild lunge to a flat edge at the lip.  I think this is where the drop knee would be used if you were tall enough, allowing either sequence to go statically.  Since I was not able to use the dropknee, I tried the two alternatives and settled on the Iron Cross solution. 

Struggling to climb out of the Iron Cross on Breakin the Law. Photo Dan Brayack

Struggling to climb out of the Iron Cross on Breakin’ the Law. Photo Dan Brayack

Once at the lip, a really hard crank off a thin, sharp crimp gets you onto the slab.  I struggled quite a bit with this move, perhaps because I was tired from working the lower crux.  I figured this would end up being the redpoint crux but I was too exhausted to really work it.  I moved on to the headwall, which was mostly fun, technical face climbing, but hosted one sinister move in which you have to high-step your right foot onto a polished block that slopes away at a 45-degree angle.  There is a faint bit of patina on this block that allows you to toe-in a bit, which is key since you next have to reach for an over-head undercling, using this dire foothold to push against.

Beginning the second crux, a heinous crank to gain the headwall.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Beginning the second crux, a heinous crank to gain the headwall. Photo Dan Brayack.

At the end of the day I had all the moves worked out.  Typically if I can do all the moves, I can send, but I had no idea if the moves would come together in the four climbing days remaining. The second crux requires a pretty hard crank after a long series of hard moves, and that is something I struggle with.

"Rest Day" hike to the West Rim of Zion Canyon.

“Rest Day” hike to the West Rim of Zion Canyon.

The limestone surrounding St. George is much more monolithic than the stone at most US limestone crags.  That means it’s not very featured, and generally quite sharp.  There are the odd pockets, but most of the climbing is on small edges.  The result is that the climbing tends to be less steep at any given grade than you might encounter at other, more featured limestone crags like Rifle, or the Wyoming crags.  This is great for technicians like me, and these crags really shine in the 5.12+ and up range.  Below that, the climbing often isn’t all that fun; it’s certainly not the type of climbing you want to do on vacation.  Fortunately St George is all about variety, and there really is something for everyone.

Jumanji is one of the better limestone 5.12a's in the area.  It's a fine route, but its sharp, polished, and so not particularly fun by holiday standards.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Jumanji is one of the better limestone 5.12a’s in the area. It’s a fine route, but its sharp, polished, and so not particularly fun by holiday standards. Photo Dan Brayack.

With this in mind, we opted to experiment with some different warmup crags over the next few days.  The notorious Chuckwalla Wall is often derided by serious climbers, but I really enjoy climbing there.  It’s by no means a wilderness setting, but the routes are just plain fun, and the approach takes about 90 seconds, which is key for climbers with kids.  The cliff is stacked with 30+ classic sandstone jug hauls from 5.9 to 5.12, and they make for great warmups and fun all around.  For the next two crag days we started at Chuckwalla, then after my last warmup we hopped in the car and raced down Highway 91 to Black & Tan, slightly frantic to get on my project before my warmup had faded (note: it took us about 50 minutes to get from crag to crag, approaches included; this turned out to be quick enough that I never lost my warmup.)

Unwinding from the Iron Cross.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Unwinding from the Iron Cross. Photo Dan Brayack.

I made good progress on the second day, primarily refining my foot sequences, and rehearsing the big dyno into the Iron Cross at the lip.  I was able to do the crank onto the headwall much more consistently, and on my second go I managed a 1-hang, which is always a nice milestone, but certainly no guarantee of future success.  We celebrated New Year’s Eve by watching Logan’s Strawberry Shortcake DVD 4 or 5 times in a row and hitting the sack at 11pm.

Spotting Logan while while hiking near the Chuckawalla Wall on New Year's Day.

Spotting Logan while hiking near the Chuckwalla Wall on New Year’s Day.

On our third climbing day we revisited Chuckwalla, then hightailed it to Black & Tan.  My last warmup route felt really soft; either that or I was just feeling really strong.  We got the kids situated (i.e., turned on the Ipad), rigged the rope, and I started up.  Often I have a tendency to sprint on short power endurance climbs like this.  Each of the crux sections involve careful foot placements and subtle pressing to stay on the wall.  Perhaps since I didn’t know the moves super well, I took my time and made sure I did every move correctly, following Alex Lowe’s adage to ‘never move up on a bad [ice tool] placement’.  I expected to pump out at any moment, but I just kept motoring, going from one move to the next until I was on the headwall.  After a nice long shake I hiked up the headwall to the chains.

Logan and me at Black & Tan.

Logan and me at Black & Tan.

The total effort took 5 burns over three days.  I think the route is comparable in difficulty to Mission Overdrive in Clear Creek (which took me 6 goes over 3 days), which is to say its a hard 14a or easy 14b, without the stem/dropknee.  I’m inclined to go with b 🙂  I’ve been crushing the campus board lately and I believe my power has reached a new level.  Occasionally periodization doesn’t work out quite like you hope, but this time I think the timing of my fitness was perfect for the characteristics of Breakin’ the Law.

To celebrate, we headed to Kelly’s Rock (named for my old friend Kelly Oldrid) and climbed “K-8”, ‘one of the best 5.11s in Utah’, according to the guidebook.  The climb includes two exciting roof pulls and some of the most amazing jugs I’ve ever seen.  Certainly a worthy line and easily the best limestone 5.11 I climbed that week. 

Tune in next week for Sunny St. George Part II!

Celebratory Double Meat with Everything (hold the cheese), add whole grilled onion and chili peppers, from In N' Out Burger. Definitely not on the diet plan but well worth it.

Celebratory Double Meat with Everything (hold the cheese), add whole grilled onion and chili peppers, from In N’ Out Burger. Definitely not on the diet plan but well worth it.

Logan stoked at In N' Out.  His new favorite food is Chocolate Milk Shakes.

Logan stoked at In N’ Out. His new favorite food is Chocolate Milk Shakes.

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.