Why the Daniel Woods 4x4 is Not a 4x4.

Recently Rock and Ice posted This Video, from Daniel Woods and The North Face to their Facebook feed, and like everyone else, I watched.  At first I just dismissed it, but the more I thought about it, the more I needed to rant a little to you guys (and whoever else will listen).  I mean, it's already confusingly impossible to navigate the amount of training for climbing information out there, and this video is just plain and simply wrong.  This isn't the only video like this.  There are loads of pro climber "training" videos that are, at best, silly, and at worst, irresponsible.  Once or twice a week there is a new pro training video that makes me smh (I just learned what that means!).  It just so happens that this video is the most recent that I saw, and I have some time to write.  And to rant.

This is certainly not a knock on Daniel.  He's a good dude.  I've seen him spend an inordinate amount of time talking to his fans and admirers, always with a smile.  I've got zero problem with Daniel.  Nor is it a jab at the North Face... they are simply selling their athlete (though they could be smarter about it).  Honestly, I'm not really even mad at Rock and Ice, though they should know better than to promote it, but I get it.  It's a business.  Daniel Woods sells things (why do you think I put his name in the title?).  And if it gets people psyched to go to the gym and try harder, then great.  Still, it's problematic.

Shit, am I getting soft in my old age?

Here's where the 1st problem happens...  There are tons of people out there looking for training information, evidenced by the number of you reading this.  Many of those people (no, OF COURSE I'm not talking about YOU) have a tough time digesting all of this info and putting it into any sort of good plan, so instead, they just do what they're told, particularly when it's a pro telling them what to do.

"D.Woods is strong.  He does it.  I'm gonna do it too, so I can be D.Woods strong."

Here's where the 2nd problem happens...  The 4x4 is an exercise that's been around since the beginning of time.  Ok, not that long, but it's at least been here since those silly strong Brits started doing it in the 80's or something (which I could be making up entirely.  Point is, lots of people have some vague idea what a 4x4 is).  Most everyone associates the 4x4 with power (anaerobic) endurance, which it most certainly should be associated with.  

The workout in the video?  Most certainly NOT associated with power endurance.  

It's Wrong By Definition.

Even if you've never heard of a 4x4, there just aren't enough "by's" in the term to match up with the video.  What Daniel is suggesting is a 4x4x4.  64 total problems.  A 4x4, by definition, is 16 total problems.  "More is better", you say.  "Semantics", you say.  Not quite.  By quadrupling the volume, the energy system that's being taxed is changed, so you will definitely not get the same results.  This workout is closer to a local endurance workout than a power endurance workout.

It's Bad Advice.

First, I'll just post the description attached to the video, which has been watched over 28,000 times, so you can see what I'm talking about:

"Pick 24 boulder problems that exists onsite.  After the 5-minute warm up, set a countdown timer for 50 minutes, and then climb the four problems, in succession, without rest; this is 1 set.  After you finish the four problems, take a 1-minute rest.  Repeat 3 more times, taking 1-minute rests between sets.  
After your 4th set, you've completed a "group" - or 16x boulder problems.  Rest 5 minutes, then try to get in 3 more groups.
Each group of 4x4's is 16x boulder problems.  So if you complete 4x groups you'll do 54x problems total.  You can change boulder problems between groups.  As you work into the session, your forearms are going to get pumped.  This is very intense.  Don't be afraid to chose easier problems as you proceed through the session.
Stop at 50 minutes and record how many groups you get through.  At the end of the training plan, strive to get 3.5 to 4 groups in the time limit."

Why am I picking 24 boulder problems?  I only warm up for 5 minutes??  I can change problems, even making them easier???  At the end of the training plan....wait, how long is my training plan????

There is so much wrong with this.

  • I'm not sure what picking 24 problems has to do with anything.  I hope this is a typo.
  • A 5 minute warm up isn't just irresponsible to suggest, it's dangerous.
  • A 1 minute rest between sets is too little, unless the intensity is really low.
  • Choosing easier problems lowers the intensity.  This is a sign you're doing too much volume.

Now, the video itself.  It doesn't quite match the written description.   Daniel suggests only choosing 4 problems, which is much better.  He does, however, suggest picking 4 that you know you can onsight.  Unless you are an amazing onsight boulderer, or have absolutely horrible power endurance, then this is way too easy.  And he suggests a 10 minute warmup.  Better, but still not enough for an actual 4x4, and probably not enough for a low to medium intensity volume workout like this.  But where the audio description goes way wrong is,

"Climbing fitness hinges around grip and pulling strength.  Bouldering 4x4's are a great way to train both."

4x4's are not an effective way to train grip or pulling strength.  4x4x4's are an even less effective way to train grip or pulling strength.

No human, not even Daniel, can keep up the intensity required for an effective High Intensity Interval Training session, which is what a 4x4 is (or should be), for 64 total boulder problems.  Not even a crossfitter can do it, but only because you wreck your knees when you try to kip your way through boulder problems.  Not to mention, is there a situation in which you need to go hard for 54 boulder problems in a row?  If those are 5 move problems, that's more than 320 moves.  I generally suggest around 90 total moves for a beginner doing a 4x4, and closer to 60 total (but more difficult) moves for more advanced climbers.  Even then, I'd prefer to see less volume and more intensity.  

Now, to be fair, I have experimented with doing two separate 4x4's in the same session, though for my second 4x4, it was on mostly vertical terrain and more about keeping my balance and technique together when my body was already fatigued... not at all about maintaining my strength and power for a set duration.  

It's Not All Bad.

Does my rant mean that this isn't an effective or challenging workout?  No.  It just isn't effective for power endurance, which is what an actual 4x4 is used for.  It also isn't going to be effective for grip or pulling strength, like the video suggests.  It is, however, a seemingly decent moderate intensity volume workout, and I'd suggest something similar to a very specific client.  That client would look like this:

For a route climber:

  • Mental Game/Lead Head........... Good to Great.
  • Strength/Power...........................Good
  • General/Local Endurance............Poor
  • Pump Management.....................Poor
  • Technique Under Stress..............Poor

For a strictly boulderer:

  • Strength......................................Good to Great.
  • Power.........................................Good to Great.
  • Power Endurance.......................Good to Great.
  • Stamina/Endurance....................Poor.

Keep in mind that all of those "ratings" are in relation to the other aspects, meaning that if the boulderer had poor stamina in relation to his strength, then I'd suggest it.  It's entirely possible that for Daniel, particularly when switching to routes, this is exactly the exercise he needs.  For most of us, it's not the case.  

If the video hadn't been titled "Bouldering 4x4's", I may not have been bothered.  If Daniel hadn't suggested (while obviously reading a script) that Bouldering 4x4's are a great way to train grip and pulling strength, then I may not have been bothered.  They could have called it "Daniels Climbing Workout", and it would have been a perfectly fine medium intensity volume workout.  But they didn't.  

However, it's time that our best climbers do what athletes in so many other sports do... defer to trainers and coaches when it comes to training.  Sure, athletes in every sport show off their workouts, and the best climbers may very well know EXACTLY what they need.... to be a great athlete you need to be in tune with your body.  However, that doesn't always mean they know how to get it.  And even when they do, it certainly doesn't mean that they know what's best for other climbers.  It certainly doesn't excuse irresponsible suggestions like a 5 minute warm up, or completely erroneous information.

But I get it.  Daniel sells things.  It's a business.  

Disclaimer:  I realize that I still haven't told you what a 4x4 actually is and why and how it works.  I will very soon.  I just can't rant and be organized at the same time, but you've probably already guessed that!