Designing A Transition Phase – New Post on!

Check out my new post on “Designing A Transition Phase”  over at

“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

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?

Where There’s A Will, There’s a Way to Weigh Less

Performance rock climbing is all about strength-to-weight ratio.  We tend to fixate on the “strength” side while ignoring the “weight”.  Perhaps because the strength side of the equation seems actionable, and the weight side is all about restraint.  The reality is that losing weight is probably the easiest thing a climber can do to improve.  Unlike strength and technique, body weight can be improved substantially in a matter of weeks.  However, many people just feel powerless to affect their body type.  There is also now a bizzare element of social pressure to discourage any form of dieting, or even any interest in healthy eating.

There’s a story circulating right now about former NFL Offensive Lineman Matt Birk.  Birk recently retired from football and sought a lifestyle change for the sake of his health.  He dropped 75 pounds over the course of eight months.  I found the before and after photos pretty inspiring; he looks like a totally different person:

Matt Birk, before and after.

Matt Birk, before and after.

I didn’t start paying attention to my weight until 2011, and that is probably the single biggest training mistake I’ve made in my career.  I would weigh myself before hangboard workouts, but that was just to better understand my training intensity for that day’s workout.  I never weighed myself during my performance phase.  And I used to eat garbage, mostly.  When I first got out of college, I would routinely consume an entire 12-pack of Dr. Pepper cans over the course of 2-day weekend trip to the Utah dessert.  My staples were pizza (usually frozen/cardboard) and spaghetti.  At the time I felt I was pretty fit and healthy (amazingly), because I excercised all the time.  While exercise certainly can help, its very easy to wipe out hours of exercise in a few minutes of over-eating.  Furthermore, often excercise increases your appetite, making dieting much more difficult (these days, when I’m trying to get lean, I limit my exercise to a few brisk walks throughout the day.  I save the intense cardio work for the months when I’m not concerned about my weight). 

This picture was taken around 1999.  I'm on the left.  Definitely not lean and mean.  When I look at pictures of myself from this period its easy to see why I was struggling to climb 5.11

This picture was taken around 1999. I’m on the left. Definitely not lean and mean. When I look at pictures of myself from this period its easy to see why I was struggling to climb 5.11

Any serious climber should have good muscle definition throughout their body.  If you don’t, you could probably stand to lose some weight, and the amount may surprise you.  For me, the difference between my mom thinking I’m skinny and actually being skinny is about 10 pounds.  Anyone with hangboard experience knows that’s a huge amount of weight to your fingers, and so, a tremendous variable in climbing performance (obviously the amount will vary from climber to climber).

If you’re already lean, you may be able to trim a significant number of pounds by shedding un-needed mass in your lower body.  If that sounds like you, see this post.

The rest of us just need to go on a diet! It’s easy to adopt a fatalistic attitude, but the fact is we have a great deal of control over our destiny.  The human body is amazingly “plastic”, meaning it can adapt and change to suit different needs.  Even for those at the advanced age of 37, like Matt Birk ;). 

There are many healthy and reliable ways to lose weight, but I think the biggest barrier facing most climbers is simply that they don’t believe its possible, or important. A lot of people think that weight loss can only be accomplished through copious amounts of suffering and self-denial, but making a few simple substitutions in your diet can go a long way. Our upcoming book has an extensive and thoroughly researched chapter on Weight Management, so I won’t go into too much detail, but here are a few quick tips:

  • Get a scale and use it daily; it can be very motivating
  • Eat lots of veggies, and most fruits are ok too
  • Protein and Fiber are your friends; eat a reasonable amount of LEAN protein each day (not a full rack of pork ribs), and eat as much fiber as you can stand
  • Avoid eating foods high in carbohydrates (basically anything that tastes good when you’re already full)
  • Don’t drink anything but water

For example, instead of whatever you normally eat for lunch, try a salad of spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and tuna, dressed in a modest amount of balsamic vinagrette.  You could eat these foods until your stomach is on the verge of exploding and still loose weight.  For dinner, eat a lean piece of grilled chicken breast or grilled fish, with sides of steamed vegetables (like brocolli or sparagus).  Skip the rice, potatoes, bread, etc.  If you crave lots of sweets like me, load up on fruits (watermelon is king, but canteloupe, grapes, apples and pears are good options too).

If you choose to go on a diet, remember there is a point of diminishing returns.  Your body needs energy to perform well, and constantly starving yourself will inhibit your performance more than an extra pound of lost weight will help. Experiment with different healthy weights until you find that “sweet spot” where you perform at your best.  For me, I’ve gotten down to 139 pounds in recent years, but I find I perform the best around 143-145 lb.  At that weight I’m more energetic, I have a better attitude, and I’m still resistant to illness and injury.

A leaner me, in 2013, age 35.

A leaner me, in 2013, age 35.

Excessive, persistent dieting can lead to injury and illness.  Most serious athletes will “cycle” their weight management on and off, as with physical training.  That’s great news for people like me who love food!  That means you can have periods of enjoying life’s many treats, and periods where you buckle down and send (that said, “yo-yo dieting” can wreak havoc on your metabolism, making weight loss extremely difficult, so keep your variations within reason). 

When I’m ARCing and hangboarding, I eat pretty much whatever I want within reason (although I have a fairly healthy diet now, even when I’m not on a diet).  I aim to stay within 10 lbs of my goal weight, but otherwise I will eat (and drink) whatever I please. During my power phase I begin adjusting my eating habits, with the goal of reaching my ideal sending weight near the end of my performance phase.

Weight is a tremendous factor in performance–as important as strength.  Fortunately its actually pretty easy to manage once you learn how.  If you have any other tips for healthy weight loss, please post them in a comment below.

The No-Effort Plan to Improved Performance

At a certain point (the point where the cliffs start to overhang) climbing performance is all about strength to weight ratio.  Most of what we focus on as climbers is the strength part.  In some ways, that’s the easiest thing to do, because it requires action, whereas dieting, or whatever else we might have in mind for weight-loss, often requires restraint from action.  If you’re already skinny in all the right places and sporting six pack abs, pat yourself on your tight butt and skip to the next post.  For the rest of us, there is certainly some room for improvement in the weight area, and reaping the benefits might be easier than you think.  Obviously if you have a beer gut and rolls of flab hanging over your gear loops you can start by seeing a nutritionist about your eating habits.  This post is for folks that are already relatively fit, but looking to eek out a few more pounds of extra performance by cutting out some dead weight.  And there is no greater source of dead weight for the fit climber than the thighs.  For whatever reason, many climbers have thick, tree-trunk thighs.  Thighs designed to dead-lift automobiles, when pushing 100 punds of lean bone & muscle is all that’s required.  How did that happen?  How did our legs get so disproportianately large? Probably a lot of different factors, including genetics, athletic background, and eating habits, but lets cut to the chase.   

Not a lot of leg muscle in this room, yet somehow both of these guys managed to climb 8c+ in the early ’90s.

There is no doubt that reducing your leg mass will have significant benefits to your climbing.  Look around, 90+% of the world’s top climbers have sickly skinny legs.  The steeper the route gets, the more leg mass is a hindrance and the less use it is.  How much leg strength do you really need to rock onto that foothold?  Hardly any, certainly not so much that it requires ten times the muscle mass required to execute a one-arm pull up.

If you are like me, you are probably somewhat skeptical of these comments, but I was fortunate.  I was forced, against my better judgement, to undergo an accidental thigh-shrinking experiment.  The result was the greatest single-season improvement I’ve experienced since I started training. 

Fabian Cancellara, 6’1″, 180lb. The world’s greatest Time Trialist, but can’t hang with the best pro “climbers”

As far as how, there are multiple ways to skin this cat.  Its interesting to note that the top pro cycling “climbers” all have (relatively) skinny legs.  So apparently its possible to ride a bike like a maniac and maintain skinny legs.  I think this relies somewhat on restrictive dieting, combined with high reps at very low weight, but I also think genetics is the primary factor.  If not, why wouldn’t Fabian Cancellara just “deceide” to get skinny and become a badass climber to win the TDF (which he says is his greatest dream)?  All of the freakishly skinny climber types have zero muscle mass anywhere on their body, so my guess is whatever they are doing, beyond genetics (I suspect starving themselves), will be somewhat detrimental to rock climbers, because we need some amount of muscle mass in the right places. 

Andy Schleck, 6’1″, 150lb. The world’s best “climber”* (*that hasn;t been busted for cheating)

Climbing is not an endurance sport in the sense that cycling up Alp D’huez is.  You need muscle that can generate power & force, and given typical genetics, that is going to come with some amount of muscle mass.

The solution for me turned out to be exceedingly simple.  I just stopped using my legs.  My athletic career began when I was ~12, as a long distance runner.  I ran competitively for more than ten years, and maintained my 60+ mile-per-week habits for another five years as I began to seriously pursue rock climbing.  My body tried to warn me of my folly by giving me a foot injury in 2007, but I stubbornly replaced serious running with serious road-cycling, maintaining my disproportianate frame.  Finally when Logan was born I just didn’t have the time or energy to train for climbing and cycling, so I decided I would take a short hiatus from the cycling until I could better juggle the new demands on my time & energy.  I stopped cold turkey the day Logan was born, and within 2 months I lost 10 lbs without even trying.  I didn’t even realize I had lost the weight, I just noticed I was suddenly crushing all the projects in my gym that had shut me down for several seasons.  I couldn’t understand what was going on until I jumped on a scale.

If you currently engage in some form of leg-training (such as running, biking, tele-skiing, step aerobics, speed skating, rowing, weight-lifting, P90X, Crossfit, etc) several times a week, I recommend you stop, at least for a couple of months to see what happens.  You might be pleasantly surprised by the results.  Maybe you will find the cross-training is vital to your over-all happiness and well-being, and eliminating it is not worth the extra gains in climbing performance.  For those that want the best of both worlds, you can resume your aerobic passion from time-to-time and still reap the benefits of skinny legs.  You just need to plan your cross-training in phases that allow plenty of time to slim-down for peak climbing phases.  For example, I “got skinny” for the Spring and Summer seasons of 2011.  As my summer climbing season was winding down, I began training on my bike to ride down the Oregon Coast, which I did in early August.  I spent the rest of August & September training to climb, and by early October I was lean and mean and sent the hardest route of my career.

From “Grampians Selected Climbs” by Simon Mentz & Glenn Tempest. Copyright 2001, Open Spaces Publishing.

Finally, to answer a common question, in my experience, hiking to the crag is fine, no need to do the Frenchy rest-step on the trek from the parking lot to the Ruckman Cave, place your legs in a cast a la Tony Yaniro, or have your wife push you around in a grocery cart.  Just eliminate the obvious endless hours of quadricep training that serve no purpose for rock climbers.







Disclaimer:  Obviously, there are many health benefits to aerobic conditioning.  Use your own judgement when weighing the risks and benefits of such training.