The Glass Ceiling: Has Your Skill Set Limited Your Training Gains?

Several years ago I came off of a hiatus to rediscover rock climbing, in the form of clipping bolts.  After embarrassingly realizing complete failure on an 11a (and an incredibly painful pump that lasted about 6 hours) it was obvious that I lacked endurance, specifically when the rock was even slightly steeper than vertical.  Like any good boy, I got my ass into the gym asap, and ran laps like a madman.  Up, down, up, down, up, down again.  Soon I was an endurance machine.  5.12 went down without a fight.  12d seemed tough, so I spent a week in the gym training my anaerobic endurance on pockets, and I went back out and did 12d... twice, back to back.  My first 5.13 took 4 tries.  I was cruising along, thinking that 5.14 must be just around the corner.  But right about the time I hit 13b, I hit something else as well.... a glass ceiling.  I trained harder than ever.  No improvement.  Still harder.  No improvement.  Harder again.  Burnout.   Why couldn't I get stronger?

More than once I had made the comment "Who needs power when you have technique?".

How wrong I was.  

This glass ceiling I had bumped into was all about a lack of power and the techniques associated with it.  Without that extra power, my anaerobic endurance was absolutely maxed and could go no higher.  I had upped the intensity, but the workout had basically stayed the same, and my body needed something different to respond to.

If you've been stuck at a specific difficulty for some time, you may think that you're nearing your genetic potential.  Often times, this is far from the case.  Reaching genetic potential isn't as easy as destroying yourself at every training session and hoping that it transfers to the rock.  Take a look at your training.  Has it gone through any dramatic changes in the last year or two, or have you, like so many others, succumbed to the trap of repeating a familiar workout ad nauseum?

Let me first say this... if you have a glaring weakness, consider yourself lucky.  Realizing that my power was a major weak link was the last easy conclusion I've come to regarding my training.  When the weaknesses are harder to locate, the decisions about how to train become infinitely harder, and the improvements miniscule.  So count your blessings, and lets take a look at your weakness and at how you're training.

Let me guess how it plays out...  you discovered some unique training tool or workout that sounded like exactly what you needed.  After a few weeks of use, you saw great results.  You kept with it, and reaped the benefits for months.  Then the results tapered off.  Every time you were getting flustered at making little progress on the rock you would just flog yourself harder in the gym.  When you were about to drop the workout, you found some small reason to keep doing it.  And on it goes.

Stop.  Now.

Open your eyes, and look very closely at your climbing.  No excuses.  No saying, "Oh, that's just how I climb".  No citing that one time you tried to use the sloper instead of the crimp and it didn't work.  Just an honest evaluation.  In the past year have you talked about a weakness repeatedly, but not addressed it in the gym?  We all know what we're bad at... we just generally push it to the back of our mind, and keep building on our strengths, with little or no improvements in overall ability.  Pull that thing, or things, out of that dusty corner, brush off the cobwebs, and make it your main focus for the next phase of your training.    Take those training tools that you've been using, and turn your back on them for the next few months.  If you always do laps, go bouldering.  If you always boulder, run some laps.

Do you always climb square?  Learn to backstep.

Do you always crimp every hold?  Learn to openhand.

Can you climb V10 but fall off of 12a?  Train your endurance.

Can you climb 13b but fall off of V4?  Get some power.

Do you always find it easier to campus?  Learn to use your feet.

Is your 2nd route of the day a catastrophic failure compared to the 1st?  One word...Stamina.

And on and on and on.  Yes, you.

Maybe I'm beating a dead horse here, but I'll say it again.  This all seems simple, but most climbers I talk to have some excuse as to why they aren't training their weakness.  Most of their workouts are the same, every week, year after year.  They talk, read, eat, and breathe training and climbing, but rarely make the necessary changes to their training to stimulate their body.

The fact is, you WILL NEVER get to within earshot of your genetic potential if you don't have a complete skill set.  No matter how hard you train, no matter how much blood, sweat, and tears you contribute to the cause, you'll never get the job done without the tools.  So what are you waiting for?

I understand.  It's scary.  It's a blow to the ego to go into the gym and really suck in front of everybody, or even just in your own head.

But how comforting is it to watch other climbers keep passing you up?

Train smarter, not harder.  When you learn that, train smarter AND harder.

Kris Hampton Power Company Climbing