Sunday, November 3, 2013

The High/Low Approach Part 4: Falling Into The Middle

The High/Low approach to training for climbing sounds incredibly simple.  If you feel strong, and it's been at least 48 hours since your last "high" day, then do another.  If you don't feel strong, or it hasn't been that long, do a "low" day.  The problem is that it's much more challenging than first meets the eye, particularly when you are training for something as complex and hard to measure as rock climbing.

Too Much High.

As you've hopefully already learned, training isn't about trashing yourself so badly that you can barely walk out of the gym on your own power.  Quite the opposite actually.  I've talked about this ad nauseum, but I'll say it again, and then I'll add to it.  

When you're training for strength or power, you must quit while you're ahead.  Don't dig a hole.  

Ok, now that I've gotten that out of the way, let's move on.  There is an extra challenge that presents itself here.  Not only shouldn't you dig a hole for yourself, but you should quit when your power levels dip low enough to keep you from doing moves at 95% of your maximum.  As if the rock climbing world doesn't have enough trouble trying to attach numbers to it's routes and boulders, now we have to monitor an even more ambiguous number.  What exactly is 95% of your maximum?  We don't have weights and times to measure by, so frankly, who the hell knows?  
Here's how I go about deciding when to stop, and ensuring that I don't fall into the middle.  
As this type of very high intensity training is largely targeting your central nervous system, I watch mostly for coordination.  The moment my coordination feels off (yes, you still have to go by feel), I stop.  If I'm fumbling a move, airballing a deadpoint, or missing a foothold, I know that I'm WAY past gone.  Be a student of your own movement, and when it deteriorates, call it quits.  I usually last less than an hour at this, and that's with plenty of rest between attempts.
Lets say you overextend yourself and neglect to end your session until you're at about 75%.  You "feel" like you've gone harder, which must be even higher intensity, right?    You rest your 48 hours, and begin your next high session at only 90% recovered, which means you never actually get to train at high intensity, even though you try, which leads to an even deeper hole.  And then a deeper one.  And then a deeper one.

Middle intensity workouts breed more middle intensity workouts.  Avoid them.

Not High Enough.

It is certainly true that to reach high intensity levels you have to "go hard".  The major problem encountered with this thought process is that most of us take "go hard" to mean something entirely wrong.  "Go hard", in this case, does not mean:
  • Throw yourself relentlessly at a problem over and over until your skin is wasted and your elbows are wrecked.
  • Do as many hard problems as you can complete in a short session, leaving you weeping as you pack up.
  • Constantly fling yourself from one big hold to another, doing the largest spans known to mankind.
  • Do 35 moves on the smallest crimps that you can use continuously for 15 minutes, splitting 6 fingertips in the process.
  • Hang for 60 seconds on the monos on your hangboard, while simultaneously doing leg raises.
  • Campusing up, down, up, down, up, down on jugs while wearing a weight vest.
As odd as it may seem, this isn't reaching high intensity.  All of the above examples fall squarely into the middle intensity zone.  High Intensity training looks more like:
  • 1-3 move sequences on holds that are difficult for you to use.
  • Short sequences or single moves that are body position and core intensive, requiring maximum full body effort to complete.  
  • Short, heavy hangs on bad holds.
  • Brief, explosive movements on the campus board, lasting no more than a few seconds.
An easy way to gauge it all is that if you feel at all tired muscularly, but can still complete the exercise you've been doing, then it is far too middle to be called high intensity.  

Not Low Enough.

Low days are an important part of the High/Low Approach.  If they weren't, it would just be called the High Approach.  In practice, low days might be even more difficult to gauge than their higher counterparts. 
Lets say that you've gone into the gym for a simple technique training session.  You're working on heel hooks, which you've always had a hard time using if it wasn't a huge, perfectly cupped jug that seems made for your heel.  The session starts out perfectly, on big holds, really feeling the weight transfer that happens when you pull on progressively more difficult heel hooks.  Then comes the danger.  You start trying heel hook moves that you can't do.  You're no longer weighting the heel, but excessively pulling with your arms.  It's ceased being about the movement, and now its all about sticking the next move.  

You've gone too far.  

In scenario #2, that familiar enemy, the ego, rears it's ugly head.  You're in for a volume session on easy problems.  You've kept a nice rhythm for the last hour, doing loads of moderate problems while moving in a relaxed manner.  You decide to add in a harder problem that you've got dialed.  Then another.  Then another.  You're on a roll now, so the problems get progressively more difficult.  Pretty soon you're falling off of moderate problems that you warmed up on.
You've gone too far.  

You should feel warm, rejuvenated, or lubricated so to speak, after a low session.  Learn to keep it there.  Low days are as much about active recovery as they are about training, and you can't recover if you keep digging that hole.



  1. With the fall season at it's peak, I would like to know how you feel skipping the power endurance stage is working for you down in the Red?


    1. I'll be posting soon, but the results I've seen thus far from both my season and one of my climbing partners seasons (who also used the same training method), tell me that I'll never again do a power endurance phase. He just completed his two hardest routes, both power endurance in style, and I'm on the verge of doing my hardest route as well. I feel like my fitness, including power endurance, is at an all time high.

  2. Thanks for all your amazing posts - they're really some of the most thoughtful, helpful, and useful posts I've seen. Intuitively useful, rather than barrages of tables and charts and periodized schedules.

    One request: could you provide a list of some of the sorts of things you do on low days, just to help me get my head around it? My tendency is always to go hard at the hardest problem I can find. Back when I was starting, some of the basic technique drills from Self-Coached Climber (one foot-on climbs, etc.) were really useful, but I've sort of outgrown those. Any ideas for more advanced technique drills would be *deeply* appreciated.

    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, I appreciate it. I've been meaning to write more about technique drills, so now is as good a time as any. I'll get started on it asap!

  3. Kris,

    Maybe I missed it, but I am setting up my fingerboard routine for winter and am trying to structure it under the "High" guidelines. I am assuming repeaters are out, as they would most likely be "medium" in nature. So I was thinking of a warm up and then heavy 5-8 second hangs every 30 seconds for 4 reps with each grip and then a 2 minute break between changing grips. I was thinking open hand, half crimp, sloper and IM finger pocket and MR finger pocket and then done. Total workout should be under 20 minutes, not counting warm up. Thoughts?

    1. That's nearly identical to what I did this past season, and seems to have been a good choice.

  4. The other week there was a live broadcast of Daniel Woods training with team of 2 in which they basically wore him out with various exercises then had him climb some V11's. They said the point of the drill was to make him work on staying focused and controlled while tired. Everything seemed pretty "middle" but do you think this still has merit in the high/low approach as "mentally high" training?

    1. Hey Mark, Great question! I watched about half of the broadcast as well. Despite the obvious flaws and the workout collapsing nearly before it began, I understand their theories. I think it would be a fabulous workout for an alpine or big wall free climber, or particularly for a comp climber. I also wouldn't mind seeing something similar as a general workout for climbers who aren't quite ready for high/low training. Personally I don't believe an athlete should begin high/low training until they've mastered that aspect of keeping it together when all systems should be starting to fail. If you often see strong climbers fall and think "why the hell did she fall, she looked strong!", then it's probably someone who's mastered this. So in my opinion, at most I would use it as high level general conditioning before a high/low plan, or not at all.

  5. How do you jibe the theory behind high/low with your previous statement in "Sinking the ARC" (below)?

    "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?"

    Nonetheless, I think another aspect that is worth mentioning to work into low days is falling. If someone is using roped climbing to work on their movement and aerobic endurance, it seems to me to also be a perfect time to work on becoming extremely comfortable with taking large falls. It wouldn't even interfere with the movement training or the endurance training since everything is so low key anyways. Just a thought.

    1. Good question Joel. Basically, I'm still not a fan of using ARC training as your main means of training endurance, as it never teaches how to climb after being pumped, and that's an important skill to learn. I am fine with using ARC training as a low day because it does promote recovery. In my suggestions for who should use the High/Low training system, I specifically (at least I think I do?) suggest that if you don't have experience with climbing while pumped, then the High/Low might not be for you.
      I like the idea of falling practice for low days, and for those people that are helped by taking falls on purpose (which I've found is fewer than one might expect), it's a great idea. However, again, it comes back to that suggestion of being familiar with climbing while near the redline. If you've spent time there, its likely that falling isn't a big issue.

  6. Well it seemed to me that the intent of the paragraph regarding "Your Endurance is Killing Your Power," is that ARC and power do not mix. It would seem to me that ARC (and similar "low day" activities) minimize recruitment while threshold bouldering (and similar "high day" activities) maximize it. It seems to be an attempt to force the body to adapt to two diametric stresses. Or is it the case that "low day" activities are so low with respect to muscular intensity that they do not alter recruitment patterns? In that case, would it be something more like a 4x4 that would minimize recruitment?

    Thanks for clarifying!

    1. More good thoughts! My intent wasn't necessarily that ARCing is killing your power, but that ARCing being your main form of training is killing your power. Sorry if that wasn't clear. In the High/Low system, the low days definitely have to be low enough to not alter recruitment patterns. I look at them more as active rest days than as another stress for the body to adapt to. I rarely (never) actually ARC (I find it very difficult to control the intensity in a commercial gym. If I had my own wall it would be simpler), though I do sessions that are similar in physiological response. Frankly, it's difficult to stay low enough, but if I find myself moving past the feeling of being warm and moving fluidly, I quit. Anything past that has to be considered middle intensity.
      Thanks for keeping me thinking!

  7. Could you critique my campus board workout? Would you consider this high?

    1 lap up, down for warm up (I do a longer warm up before hand too)
    2x 1-3-5 on medium rungs
    2x 1-4-6 on big rungs
    2x 1/2 lap on big rungs with index/middle fingers only
    2x 1/2 lap on big rungs with middle/ring fingers only

    1. Looks good Mark. My one question is do you reach failure? If you complete these, then they fail to be high enough to demand adaptation. Once you send one of these, then I'd suggest bumping up the intensity, not the volume. For instance, when you do 1-4-6, start working on 1-4-7 and 1-5-6. Or, move from big rungs to medium rungs. I generally prefer to stay on the big rungs and do harder moves, though I do move to smaller rungs once I max out the bigger ones. Good luck!