Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sinking The ARC

ARC (Aerobic Restoration and Capillarity) is the new buzz word around my gym. I've seen or heard of 5 or more climbers recently making this ARC training the focus of their sessions. One even told me that you can't build endurance unless you're training ARC.

I disagree. Strongly.

First off, let me say that ARC training is an extremely useful tool... when used correctly.  It's a perfect way to begin a periodized schedule.  It's also a great way to cool down a few times per cycle after a workout.  When doing ARC training, you can get much more out of it if you train several weak techniques during the workout.  Simply put, it's the best training tool going for beginners or a climber embarking on a training plan.  The problem is, I have yet to see someone who employs it to it's greatest benefit.  I have however, seen several people use it as an excuse.

Now, if you aren't familiar with ARC training, I'll give a brief explanation.  When you climb at a high intensity, your tiny little capillaries can't provide enough blood flow to keep muscles oxygenated and keep them from being fatigued.  So basically, you need a more dense capillary network to stave off a pump.  ARC training is an effective way to build that network.  The aim is to climb for 30-45 minutes at no more than 30% of maximum strength.  You should sustain a very mild pump throughout the workout.  What this does is allow the capillaries to stay fully open while keeping a steady blood pressure on the capillary walls.  Your body then adapts to this pressure by creating new capillaries.  Now you're an endurance monster, right?


You've now given yourself a useful tool, and the training is really ready to begin.  Here's why your ARC training just isn't enough.

1.  Your Endurance is Killing Your Power. 
 It's true.  All those boulderers with overdeveloped backs are right... routes WILL ruin their power.  The fact is, they are opposites.  With endurance climbing, you ask your muscles to use as little energy as possible, though when training power, you're asking your muscles to recruit every fiber that they can.   Yes, now you can stay on the wall for 45 minutes on jugs, but why do you fall off the minute you hit 3 smaller holds in a row?

2.  Climbing is NOT all Physiological.
In fact, I'd argue that it's mostly NOT physiological.  4 days ago I fell off of an 11b because I was pumped.  Today I climbed up it, down it, and back up it without ever getting pumped.  Did my physiological endurance improve that much in 4 days?  Aww hell naw.  I just relearned how to be comfortable while leading with a pump.  I got relaxed.  I found my rhythm.  It was all in my head.  What is ARC training teaching you except how it feels to climb without a pump? 
3.  Your Project is not an ARC workout.   
I'm making a big assumption here.  I'm assuming that you're training because you have a goal of climbing something hard for you.  I'm also assuming that your goal project isn't only 30% of your maximum ability.  If it is, you have problems that I'm not licensed to fix.  I'm willing to bet that if you picked a project anywhere near your ability limits, then you're going to get pumped, you're going to freak out, and the whole crag is going to hear you screaming "TAKE!!!"the minute you get that crux 3rd bolt clipped.

4.  You're Taking The Easy Way Out.
Here's the problem with your easy way out... it's doesn't lead anywhere.  Ok, actually it does.  It leads you directly to more difficult training, but you're making a U-Turn when the hill gets steep.  ARC training is the first step, and a maintenance step after that.  I hate (actually I love) to be the bearer of this bad news, but there is NO easy way to getting the most out of your body.  It's going to hurt.  It's going to mess with your head.  And it's going to be the most fun you've ever had.  Might as well start now.

Just so that I'm not accused of being completely a Negative Nancy, I'll answer your very important question.... "So where the hell do I go from here?".

Well my friends, click HERE, explore a little, and ye shall be saved.

Happy climbing!



  1. Great Post!!!I completely agree with your assessment of ARC training. But one of my biggest gains in the last couple of years has been addressing my footwork weaknesses through ARC training. That climbing at 30% freed me up to put an incredible amount of attention into precisely the movements I was struggling with. Not for a couple of reps or a couple of sets of reps but literally hundreds if not thousands of foot movements in a couple of 30 to 40 minute sessions. Previously, I couldn't see the point of climb easy climbs for me other than to warm up. In fact, warming up used to annoy the crap out of me for this very reason. So I rushed it, missing a golden opportunity to train technique. ARC training opened my eyes to mastering easy movemens rather than rushing from one resting hold to the next.



  2. You're one of the few who take that time to notice anything other than how cool they must look for being on the wall for so long. Good work!

  3. Kris, to play off the graphic, I think you are missing the boat in a couple areas here.

    1. I agree that muscle recruitment and anaerobic endurance are somewhat mutually exclusive, however, recruitment is a neuromuscular adaptation, and once you build up your recruitment, you are not doomed to recruit all fibers all the time, it merely gives you that option. This is where ARCing is very critical because ARCing trains your neuromuscular system and your conscious self to ration effort while climbig. You got pumped on that 11b because you were overgripping. ARCing helps you overcome that. The question of endurance vs. power comes down to your goals. Do you want to send V10 or 14a? If your goals are bouldering-focused, definitely ditch the ARCing.

    2. I agree 100% with everything but the last sentence. You are ARCing incorrectly if you believe what your wrote there. ARCing teaches you to climb AND MAINTAIN A RELAXED COMPOSURE while mildly pumped. That is a tremendous asset. Imagine you just stuck the crux of your 13c project and you've got 30 feet of 12a to the don't need physical strength to clip the chains, you need poise while can get that through ARCing. Example, my brother was attempting an onsight of Apollo Reed at Summersville last fall. He made it through the bouldery crux about 3/4 of the way up and had a few bolts of juggy 5.11+ left, but I could tell he was starting to panic and get pumped. I said to him, "Mark you're ARCing, you can do this pumped". He immediately relaxed and got the onsight.

    3. Parts of your project will be above your anaerobic threshold, parts will be below. The more moves you can get below the threshold, the easier the send will come. ARCing raises the threshold, pushing more of those moves below it (in theory...assuming you don't overgrip - BIG assumption). It would be nice to arrive at the crux unpumped, and to be able to recover quickly once you stick the crux. Route climbing is complex, and there are many facets to it. The smart money trains all of them, hoping for a synergistic effect. Further, if you have any interest in onsight climbing, ARCing becomes even more critical, as more moves will be closer to your AT. This is another reason why a crux-less 12c at the Red can feel nearly impossible for some, and stupid easy for others. If the moves are below your AT, you won't be able to tell it's hard, if the moves are even slightly above your AT, it will feel like an insurmountable pumpfest.

    4. It's true ARCing isn't "painful", but it's not easy. ARCing correctly is one of the hardest things to do because it is so subjective. It's easy to do 5 reps of weighted pullups, there's no guesswork.

    Anyway, maybe I'll see you at the crag or The Shop some time and we can talk more. Good website

    Mike A

  4. Thanks Mike. For the most part, I agree with your assessment. However, I think you missed the key phrase "Here's why your ARC training just isn't enough."

    ARCing is a great tool, like I mention in the article. This post is aimed at the people who train by ARCing and only ARCing. Those who incorrectly believe that ARC training is a magic bullet that will suddenly shift their endurance into hyperspeed. It won't.

    As for your example in #2, I'd argue that most people in the situation of a hard onsite attempt wouldn't be ARCing at all, but would be climbing out of a hole created by a vicious pump... one that the folks who've only trained by ARCing have never experienced.

    Again, it's a valuable tool, but not by far the only tool you need. I know that you know this... but several people I've talked to in the gym do not.

    Hope to see you out there sometime Mike. Thanks for stoppin by!