The High/Low Approach, Part III: Are You In or Are You Out?

Conditions worsening by the second.

I’m in the car on the way to Denver from snowy Lander, Wyoming.  We arrived in Lander just in time for the good weather to fall apart.  Realizing that my main objective, "The Strawberry Roan", would be completely out of the question with the impending snowstorm, we headed up to Sinks Canyon so I could put in a little work on a 13c called “Endeavor To Persevere”.  As we hiked up, temperatures steadily dropped, and by the time I was halfway up my warmup I had lost all feeling in all of my extremities.  At nearly the exact moment I touched back down to ground, a mix of sleet, snow, and rain began falling.  We made the right choice and bailed, waking up the next morning to 10 inches of snow, with at least 2 more to fall throughout the day.  Another climbing day lost.  No matter, it allowed me to slow down a bit… something I rarely afford myself.

Near perfect conditions.  Two days post snowstorm.

After a whirlwind trip across the Tetons (which somehow saw no snow at all?)  to see a close friend's gorgeous wedding, we made the four hour drive back to Lander with a two hour window of perfect weather up at Sinks.  Knowing that “Endeavor To Persevere” would take more work than I could muster in two hours, I opted to try the easier start, known as “Dr. Endeavor” (13a).  I managed to put it together on my second try, with a screaming battle that I’m sure scared the love of adventure out of the NOLS kids who were picking their way down the hill.

Next morning, with one last two hour climbing window and perfect weather, we trudged back up the hill so Annalissa could try “Harvest Moon”, a great 11a just left of the Killer Cave.   Again making the most of our short time, she clipped the chains on her second try to complete her first 5.11 in her home state.  And on we go.

Alright, back to training.

I’ve been getting tons of questions and comments about the High/Low approach to training that I’ve been exploring and writing about.  I figured that it might be prudent to let people know, in one post, whether or not this style of training is for you.

Who’s In, And Why? 

If you fit into one of these categories, but not into one of the “out” categories, print your tickets and board the train!


The obvious first choice, boulderers are particularly apt to reap the benefits of skipping the middle ground.  More often than not, boulder problems don’t require the anaerobic endurance of hard sport climbs.  Of course there are exceptions to this rule, like the recent rage of climbing enormous hard roofs and giant highballs, but 9 times out of 10 you’ll be doing less than 10 moves to topout your boulder project, so pure power is top priority.  The fact that training High/Low raises your anaerobic threshold is just gravy here, so "The Wheel of Life" can still be on your goal list. 

Aging Athletes.

As we get older, there are several factors that make High/Low training very attractive.  #1) We just don’t recover as quickly.  Middle intensity training takes far too long to recover from, so our effective training time during a normal anaerobic training phase, like 4x4’s, is greatly reduced.  #2) Life gets in the way.  If you have a full-time job, kids' sport schedules, a wife to keep happy, and any sort of hobby, then your training time is cut to almost nothing.  Going into the gym for a middle intensity session can take up several hours of your day, particularly if you are climbing on ropes with a partner.  By adopting the High/Low approach, your sessions can be easily cut to an hour or two tops, leaving you more time to act like an adult.

Seasoned Vets.

If you’ve been training through several cycles, and understand the difference between training and performance, then you might be a candidate.  There is a skill that you have cultivated through years of both training and performance that is an absolute necessity for route climbers (and enduro boulderers), and it's a skill that you just can’t learn through High/Low training alone.  Simply put, it's the ability to push forward, to keep climbing when your forearms are bulging, your elbows are raised to your ears, and you aren’t sure you can make even one move more.  If you haven’t been in that situation before, it’s a safe bet that when you are, several things will happen: your footwork will start to deteriorate, beta will be impossible to retrieve, and you’ll either drop off without really trying, or you’ll say “TAKE!”.  However, you - the seasoned vet, can avoid all that and keep it together, staying cool, calm, and collected to clip the chains.  Now is the time to switch gears in your training.  High.  Low.  Do it.

Weekend Warriors.

Particularly, the weekend warrior who is in the midst of the best of the season.  While it may still be beneficial for the weekend warrior to train in the middle zones (if you fit into a category below), when the conditions reach their peak it’s best to keep the training in the polar zones of high and low.  You need all the rest you can get before you go outside and try to perform at your best.  Training in the high zone near the beginning of the week, and in the low zone near the end, will have you in the perfect spot to make the most of your weekend. 

Who Should Opt Out, and Why?

First Timers.

If you’re still fairly new to training, there is a lot to learn before the High/Low approach can be effective.  First off, you can’t possibly understand how to stay in the high or low zone until you’ve trained across the entire spectrum.  The fact is, for those who are new to the world of training for climbing, nearly ANY smart and regimented schedule that you set out upon will cause improvements.  The popular periodization method of training has been helping climbers for decades.  That isn’t changing, and you have some important things to gain from it.  Start there.

Power Mongers.

Now that Daniel Woods is roping up on the regular, I have a feeling that young, strong boulderers will start coming out of the woodwork to crush routes.  Or to get crushed.  Again, the big shortcoming of the High/Low method is that you will not learn the mental capacity needed to pull through a redpoint crux while totally fatigued.  Since V9 is just a warmup for you, it’s a lock that a 5.13 crux isn’t as hard for you as it is for me.  However, I’m not trying like it’s V9 when it’s only 5.12 and 15 feet above a bolt.  Years of route climbing has taught me to relax, taught me to keep it together while pumped, and, well, taught me to climb routes.  You don’t have that yet, but you can get much of it through training and climbing in the middle intensity zone for at least one phase per cycle over a couple of seasons. 

Old Traddies.

I’m not talking about Peter Croft here.  I’m talking about the guys in the gym who have been climbing trad for 25 years, who still think 5.11 is ridiculously hard, and are just now looking into actually “training”.  Please, ignore this approach.  You’re probably very good at climbing in the low zone.  There isn’t much realistic hope that you could even fathom what the high zone feels like until you’ve put in more time learning to train.  What you need to do is really learn how to move like a sport climber.  You need to stop toproping in the gym.  You need to climb in the middle zone as much as possible for a couple of years, because it’s going to feel VERY high to you.  Get pumped.  Try hard.  Learn to climb all over again. 

New Climbers.

I understand the immediate desire to be Chris Sharma (let’s face it, who wants to be Adam Ondra?).  Jumping straight into a full-on training program, particularly the NEW! BEST! method that everyone is talking about, MUST be the speedy way to pro climber stardom.  Not exactly.  It’s possible that if you have been an athlete for much of your life, are a devoted student of movement, and have exactly the right training plan, that diving into that plan would be the best thing for you.  But for the average human, (and most above and below average humans, for that matter,) there is a better path.  Go climbing.  A lot.  As much as you can.  Climb it all.  Slabs, roofs, steep jugs, hard boulder problems, cracks, everything.  Everything but offwidths.  Nobody likes those.  Once you’ve built up a huge library of movement that is specific to climbing, then you’re probably ready to start training.

These aren’t hard and fast rules.  These are just generalizations based on how I would suggest a particular person should approach training.  I can’t imagine a group of climbers who wouldn’t improve by training in the High/Low method, but it just isn’t the best plan for everyone.  However, nearly everyone, with a few new skills added to their quiver, could certainly become a candidate for High/Low training.

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