Progressing After 20 Years of Climbing: Guest Post by Chad Volk

Forward by Nate Drolet

We all have different backgrounds and experiences in climbing. While Chad’s experience might not be the exact same as yours, there are some great lessons here for anyone looking to make long term improvements in their climbing.

Chad is one of my favorite people to talk training and climbing with. While he consumes as much information as most of us training nerds out there, he excels at separating the signal from the noise. I often joke with Chad that his approach to training and improvement is shockingly reasonable. It’s for that reason that, on top of this guest post, I made Chad this month’s Walking the Walk. If you aren’t sure what that means, then you should check out the monthly newsletter that we put out here at Power Company Climbing. If you like it, hit subscribe in the top corner.



I am not a professional rock climber. It took me over thirteen years to climb my first 5.12a. I don’t have any secrets to improving at rock climbing overnight. Everything I know I’ve learned from other sources. I don’t have much experience with making rock climbing feel easy. What I do have experience with is transforming myself from a lover of 5.10 trad climbs to a sender of 5.13 sport climbs.

I’m going to go through some different, generalized eras in my sport climbing development. I’ll share what worked and what didn’t and what I’d do differently, if I could do it over again.

1998 through 2009 -- Climbing for Fun

I was not very good at figuring out how to improve at rock climbing during this time. I didn’t follow any specific climbing training programs. However, I did want to get better at climbing, sometimes desperately. I made some attempts at demystifying climbing training by purchasing books such as “Performance Rock Climbing” and “How to Climb 5.12”. However, while these books contain some great information on how to improve your climbing ability, they failed to plainly spell out how to create a structured climbing training program and I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to ultimately create a viable program. Instead, I figured if I just tried harder I would improve. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I spent many days wondering why I wasn’t getting better while climbing partners were improving. I just couldn’t figure it out and was frequently frustrated.

Chad Volk on Outer Limits (5.10c), Yosemite. Photo: Rachel Avallone

Chad Volk on Outer Limits (5.10c), Yosemite. Photo: Rachel Avallone

Progress Made:

  • Increased my climbing volume from one day every week or every other week to climbing three or four days per week.

  • Had a lot of fun climbing some amazing multi-pitch trad routes and made some great climbing friends.

  • Tried progressively harder rock climbs and had sporadic success in sending them. Success on harder climbs was generally achieved by picking climbs that played to my strengths.

  • Moved to Colorado in 2007 which put me into contact with much stronger climbers than myself and planted the seed of really buckling down and trying to improve.

Mistakes Made:

  • Failed to realize that getting stronger in the weight room didn’t correlate with getting better at rock climbing.

  • Should have tried harder to figure out the whole training for climbing paradigm instead of thinking that training wasn’t for me.

  • Became disheartened about a lack of improvement and basically gave up on ever becoming a stronger rock climber.


2009-2011 -- Rebuilding and Reevaluating

    In 2009 I was in an avalanche, which left me with a broken ankle and a dislocated wrist and kept me on the couch for six months. After being cleared to resume climbing, I went as often as I could handle. Grades were irrelevant. I just wanted to be outside on rock. I climbed all sorts of moderate routes during this time, limping from one to the next.

While injured all I wished for was to be able to climb again at any grade. But, I also began to look back and wonder why I had never been able to climb harder than 5.11 on my very best days. I realized that I had never really tried to improve at rock climbing. I had sporadically tried to push myself out of my comfort zone and to climb harder routes than I was used to climbing. However, these routes just left me feeling scared -- scared of the uncomfortableness of trying hard moves, scared of falling, and scared of failing. So I would retreat back to the safety of the hand cracks that I frequently climbed
I decided that I didn’t have much to lose by wholeheartedly trying to get better so I chose to dedicate some real time and effort into improving my climbing ability. I wanted to climb a 5.12 at least once before I became too old and weak. Eventually, I started to notice that my repaired ankle and wrist weren’t holding me back anymore and I started what I consider the beginning of my rock climbing training.

“While injured all I wished for was to be able to climb again at any grade. But, I also began to look back and wonder why I had never been able to climb harder than 5.11 on my very best days.”

Regular NW Face of Halfdome

Progress Made:

  • Decided to really try to become a stronger rock climber no matter how uncomfortable, weak, or stupid it made me feel.

  • Realized that I had never really tried to improve at climbing. Wishing you were a better climber and taking meaningful steps to become one are two drastically different things.

Mistakes Made:

  • Pinballed down a snow filled gulley wearing crampons and ice axes tethered to my wrists. [Although, I’m unsure if I would have decided to commit myself to improving at climbing at this time if I hadn’t had lots of injury time to reflect on what I really wanted to achieve as a rock climber.]


2011-2012 -- Taking a Shot in the Dark at Climbing Training

My first attempt at what I’d consider training for climbing didn’t include hangboarding or campusing. There weren’t any pull ups or push ups. I simply started doing what I had been avoiding the most -- sport climbing. Whenever I had gone sport climbing in the past it scared the bejesus out of me. I was use to plugging in gear wherever I wanted and the thought of having to make it to the next bolt before I could clip in and yell “TAKE!” was really scary to me. So I decided the time to focus my energy on sport climbing had come.

My climbing training during this period was basically this: go sport climbing and lead all the pitches. No top ropes allowed. I hated it. I really hated it. I was scared all the time. It didn’t matter if I was climbing a 5.8, “Why are there so many ledges for me to land on?!”, or 5.11, “I’m so pumped my arms are going to explode, I’m going to take a huge whip, then I’m going to land on a ledge and die!”

Slowly, but steadily, I became more comfortable leading sport climbs and something unexpected happened -- I actually began having fun. And even more unexpected -- I began sending some rock climbs. What is happening?!?

Another major change that I made to my climbing was I tried a rock climb more than once. It seems obvious now but at the time I never would have guessed that such a simple shift in how I thought of climbing could make such a big difference. Instead of looking at a climb as something I tried once and either sent or failed to send, I began looking at it as an opportunity to improve. By repeating climbs I was able to focus on learning how to rock climb better instead of simply completing another rock climb.

These two changes allowed me to build the ability and skill to eventually send my first 5.12a in July of 2012. I managed to send three other 5.12a climbs in 2012 as well.

Encouraged by my success, I tried my first 5.12b some time in the fall of 2012 and got nowhere near sending it. I couldn’t do the 5.11+ first half cleanly and couldn’t even conceptualize how to do the sustained crux section. It was immediately obvious to me that I needed to get stronger and to improve my endurance to send this rock climb. It was time to really start training for climbing.

Progress Made:

  • Decided to get better at rock climbing. This decision is the single most important factor in my improving at rock climbing.

  • Instituted a “lead every rock climb” policy.

  • Began to sport climb much more frequently.

  • Began trying sport climbs more than once.

Mistakes Made:

  • Formed a false belief that I couldn’t get better at rock climbing. Before I started sport climbing regularly, I let my fears and doubts keep me from trying harder rock climbs. I failed to try to push past my self-imposed barriers sooner.


Chad’s Recommended Podcast Episodes

Episode 12: P.O.E. with Will Anglin and Rowland Chen

- This helped me to realize that really strong climbers are more concerned with body positioning than strength.

Episode 64: Fixed vs. Growth Mindset with Trevor Ragan

- What a great reminder that a growth mindset is key for rock climbing success.

Episode 66: Now What? with Dan John

- Dan John opened my eyes to the idea that less strength training can actually lead to a greater increase in strength.

Episode 72: Does Size Matter? with Marina Inoue

- Having had the chance to watch Marina crush rock climbs and boulders, it's really helpful to hear how she approaches climbing.

Episode 81 (and 82): Learning from Better Climbers with Edwin Teran

- Every time I see Edwin out climbing he's better than the last time I saw him. There are some great tips in these podcasts that any climber can benefit from.

Episode 96: Project 9b with Jorg Verhoeven

- This is a chance to learn from a professional rock climber on how to approach a limit (or maybe just beyond limit) rock climb.

All the Board Meetings

Winter 2012/2013 -- Let the Pain Begin

This winter I wanted to find and complete a systematic climbing training program. Unfortunately, this was pre-Anderson Brothers Rock Climbing Training Manual, i.e., the Dark Ages of climbing training. I did have an old issue of Rock and Ice Magazine with a 12-week periodized training plan in it so, for lack of anything else, I gave it a shot. [Doyle, Mike. “Get Stronger, Climb Harder.” Rock and Ice Apr. 2008; Issue 167: 52-56.] The initial strength phase consisted of lots of exercises that weren’t climbing, which was a big change of pace for me. I followed it as best as I could but things like one-handed dead hangs were way too advanced for me so I skipped them and focused instead on two-handed dead hangs.

I also had the good luck of having a couple of other friends willing to try and follow this plan too. It really helped to have other people along for the ride. Especially when we were meeting at the gym at 6 am three days a week. When one of us was having a bad day usually someone else wasn’t and we could ride their coattails through our miserable workout. It wouldn’t be long before the favor would be returned.

In hindsight, the plan didn’t include nearly enough actual climbing for my tastes. Nowadays, I would never spent the majority of my workout strength or power training and not actually climbing. Since I spent so many years climbing at 5.10 and below, I never really developed good rock climbing techniques. Instead, my technique was just good enough. Therefore, from the beginning of my climbing training I should have spent much more time working at improving my climbing technique and less time on improving my strength. Currently, I prioritize improving my climbing technique over pure strength training by starting every workout working on technique for 30 - 60 minutes and spending around 10% (and at max 20%) of my workout working on strength specific exercises such as hangboarding. The best part is that even with a reduced focus on hangboarding my finger strength still improves year after year.

Progress Made:

  • Started hangboarding.

  • Started my core training as opposed to the ab training I had been doing for years.

  • Started to boulder for training instead of just increasing the volume of roped climbs I would do per workout, week, etc.

Mistakes Made:

  • Spent too much time not actually climbing with too much focus on what I consider now supplemental exercises -- pull ups, bench press, lat pulldowns, core work.

  • Failed to listen to my body when I needed more rest. The program called for workouts three days per week, which I more or less completed regardless on how tired I was feeling. These days I don’t worry about the number of workouts per week so much. When I’m in training mode I average three-four workouts per week depending on fatigue level. Some weeks I’ll drop it down to two if I feel I’m not recovering well enough so that I’m focusing on the quality of my workouts instead of the quantity of my workouts.


2013 -- The Big Payoff

This is the year of my big “climbing training works” cliche realization. This is the year that I truly became a sport climber. Every time I tried a new grade, I sent it. It was awesome! I sent my first 5.12b and 5.12c that spring within eight days of each other. I tried my first 5.13a that fall and I almost sent that too. Unfortunately, I also suffered my first climbing injury, a shoulder subluxation, on that route. I spent the rest of my fall and winter rehabbing my shoulder.

chad.tendigitdialing12c.jpg

Progress Made:

-Finally I was understanding what it takes to send sport climbs.

-Started and finished my first systematic climbing training plan.

Mistakes Made:

-Put my shoulder in a very compromised position in an attempt to send a route and had my first climbing injury. [I did let go immediately upon feeling my shoulder start tearing or it could have been much worse. I went to a Physical Therapist and aggressively rehabbed my shoulder. No route is worth getting injured for.]

Ten Digit Dialing, Clear Creek (12c) Photo: Rachel Avallone


2014 Climbing -- The Rock Climbing Training Manual

After many physical therapy appointments and lots of time performing rehab exercises, my shoulder is functional and strong again. Over the winter I read the Rock Climbing Training Manual (RCTM) by the Anderson Brothers and began following their well-laid-out training plan. This book has had an enormous effect on my training and my climbing. The RCTM taught me how to hangboard and how to campus. Two things I had done before in my training but I didn’t really know how to do them correctly. The RCTM also has lots of great pointers on tactics that I’ve incorporated into my climbing. I did one cycle over the winter and another cycle over the summer. The rest of the time I spent climbing outside.

The Buzzcut (12d) Mill Creek Photo: Rachel

Progress Made:

  • Learned the importance of keeping your shoulders healthy, which can be broken down into two main components: 1) keeping your shoulder in safe, protected positions while rock climbing and training, and 2) incorporating prehab and strengthening exercises for problem areas.

  • Began seeing a Physical Therapist once a year to get a head-to-toe evaluation looking for muscle imbalances and movement deficiencies that I can correct before they become an injury.

  • Sent my first 5.13a, Ultrasaurus in the Flatirons, in May and sent two other 5.13a climbs in the fall.

Mistakes Made:

  • Failed to realize it at the time but this was the start of a two-year plateau. [In hindsight, I focused too much training time on getting stronger and not enough time on getting better. I spent the next two years doing basically the same workouts cycle after cycle and achieving the same results.]


2015 Climbing -- Plateauing so Hard

This year I again fell for one of the training traps I’m prone to fall for -- confusing training harder with training smarter. I decided that I wasn’t progressing fast enough and added a third RPTM cycle to the year. I could see from looking back at my training logs that my finger strength wasn’t improving. Each training cycle I would get back to the same level of added weight on the hangboard and back to the same highpoints on the campus board. I also wasn’t sending 5.13a any faster/easier either.

Fiddler on the Woof, Clear Creek Canyon Photo: Taylor Keating

Fiddler on the Woof, Clear Creek Canyon Photo: Taylor Keating

Progress Made:

  • Adopted a three training cycle per year plan, which is the macrocycle that I still basically follow to this day.

Mistakes Made:

  • Added more of the same climbing training in an attempt to improve faster, which didn’t really translate into the results I wanted. In hindsight, I was spending too much time doing supplemental training exercises, e.g., hangboarding, campusing, weight room exercises, and not enough time getting better at rock climbing by actually climbing by way of technique drills, limit bouldering, and repeating boulder problems or routes.


2016 Climbing -- Embracing Climbing Weaknesses

I started to realize that I needed to become a better rock climber and not just a stronger one. I began to look for an outside perspective and did two in-person training sessions with Justen Sjong. These really opened my eyes to what was holding me back and it wasn’t how many pullups I could do or how much weight I could hold on the hangboard. It was my climbing mindset and my technique deficiencies. Honestly, these are still the two areas I need the most work on. Here’s one of the take away points I wrote down after our sessions: “Relax and have fun when it’s easy. Punch it with confidence when it gets hard. Recover mentally after crux and send that shit.” If I could do this on every climb I tried, I would send a lot more often.

Since 2016 I’ve also done one-on-one training sessions with Will Anglin and Nate Drolet. To start these sessions I ask them to, “Tell me why I suck at climbing.” I’m looking for what I can improve on in my climbing ability and technique deficiencies. I still go back to notes I took during these sessions to guide me when working on my climbing weaknesses.

Progress Made:

  • Started to seek out coaching/training advice from professional rock climbing trainers.

  • Really began to focus more on climbing better instead of getting stronger.

  • Sent my first 5.13b.


Chad’s Recommended Blog Posts

The Biggest Red Flag of 2018

&

You Should Probably Just Try Harder

- These two blogs were written specifically for me. I should read them every day.

The Once and Future Sport Climber Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

- Finally, a blog post that not only asks interesting questions but actually fully answers them. No half baked ideas in this series just a lot of good, honest reflection.

The #1 Reason Your Climbing Training Doesn't Work

- PREACH!

The Top 5 Bad Gym Habits of Sport Climbers

- Should be required reading for any gym climber who has said he/she can't figure out why they're not getting better at rock climbing.


2017 Climbing -- Non-Linear Periodization to the Rescue

Some time in the spring of 2017 I read Steve Bechtel’s Logical Progression and it changed my climbing training for the better. Taking a non-linear periodization approach to my training has allowed me keep from experiencing drastic peaks and valleys in my climbing ability that I experienced while doing linear periodization. I’m also able to incorporate more outdoor climbing days into my training cycle, which allows me to keep me outdoor rock climbing skills fresh so when it comes times to climb outside full-time I don’t have to spend several days reacclimating to outdoor rock climbing techniques.

Additionally in 2017, I really started to work on improving my technique. I did that by: 1) incorporating technique drills into my warmup and 2) spending the vast majority of my training doing actual climbing.

The RCTM has a great section on climbing technique. Recently, I’ve been using The Power Company’s, “Movement Skills for Climbers” and “Applied Body Tension” ebooks as my go-to place for climbing technique drills. If I’m not being very mindful, I find myself defaulting to my old warmup, which was just climbing progressively harder and harder boulder problems until I felt ready to try hard. Unfortunately, I tend to zone out while doing this and not focus on really learning or perfecting a new skill. I have to make a conscious effort every day while warming up to stick to the plan and focus on one or two technique drills.

I now try to spend at least 80% of my workout doing actual climbing. I still do “exercises” but now I’m doing things like repeating old bouldering projects, limit bouldering, on-the-minute boulders, or 4x4s. Basically, anything where you are wearing your climbing shoes counts. Hangboarding, campusing, and weight training account for the other 20%. I’ve reduced my hangboarding to two (usually) or three (if I’ve added pockets) different grips. I mostly do max weight added hangs, but I’ll add in some stints of repeaters or minimum edge hangs once I start to plateau on my max weight hangs. My hangboard routine generally takes about 20 minutes.

Progress Made:

-Explored new types of climbing training structure. [I’d like to point out that I don’t think a non-linear periodization approach is better than a linear approach to training. Instead, I think in my case what I needed was a change in my style of climbing training that would allow for further adaptation.]

-Began focusing on training my weaknesses first and maintaining my strengths second.

-Sent my first 5.13b in Rifle, which is to say my first 5.13b ever.

Mistakes:

-None. Honestly, I’m sure I made plenty of mistakes this year, but I’m not sure what they are at the moment. Overall, I think I made some huge strides in improving my rock climbing.

Great White Behemoth (12b), Ten Sleep. Photo: Rachel Avallone


2018 Climbing -- Still Learning

I followed the same basic training approach from 2017 except that after a fall of sport climbing I decided to jumpstart my winter training cycle by alternating strength and power workouts for a month to build up my strength before I switched to a strength, power, power endurance workout rotation. Additionally, I started hangboarding at the end of my warmup, which I really like as I feel it really prepares my fingers for pulling hard during limit bouldering sessions. Although, I will hangboard at the end of my workout if I’m trying to focus on sending some really hard boulders.

I also made some changes to which routes I choose to climb. I started projecting the routes I had been avoiding for years because they weren’t “my style.” I sent some, got beat down by others, and I learned a lot.

This year I decided I was going to try and climb a 5.13c. I picked one near where I live and spent most of March on it. I had a climbing trip planned in April so I decided that I’d try the route until I left on my trip, but then I’d be done with it until the fall. This allowed me to have a clear end date instead of slowly getting weaker and weaker on the route since that was basically the only rock I climbed for five weeks. That summer I really tailored my training to that route.

When I returned to the project in the fall I made fast and steady progress on it, quickly reattaining my highpoint from the spring. A few days later I was thrilled to clip the chains on my first 5.13c. It was awesome and I was really happy with how I performed.

I spent several weeks in the Red River Gorge in November and after my success on my project I was expecting big things from this trip. Since my year had been spent basically trying to send one rock climb, I was hoping to send some more 5.13s on this trip. I figured one a week wouldn’t be too hard. Turns out I was wrong. I sent a single 5.13. Now, granted it probably wasn’t my style but I figured if I could send 5.13c I could send 5.13a no problem now. Apparently, it doesn’t work that way.

In hindsight, I think since I didn’t expect any of the RRG 5.13a climbs I tried to be that hard for me I didn’t spend as much time as I should have initially figuring out and refining my beta. I just figured I could send it with imperfect beta. After many failed attempts, I eventually went up to the crux and spent some time feeling out each individual move and really paying attention to my body positioning. Essentially, once I started focusing on climbing better in the crux instead of pulling harder, I sent it. Notice a pattern here?

Progress Made:

-Spent a lot of time climbing on a Tension Board, which allowed me to recreate crux sequences of my project and steadily increase the angle until I could send it repeatedly.

-Set me sights on a big goal, trained hard for it, and stuck with it until I succeeded.

-Sent my first 5.13c.

Mistakes Made:

-Assumed that sending a 5.13c meant that 5.13a would be easy.

Reticent (12d), Red River Gorge


Thank you to Chad for writing this post and sharing your story with us. Progress takes consistent work over time, and I think this story really demonstrates that. If you’re looking to start training, or even if you want to continue with your training but aren’t sure what to do next, we have several well-proven training E-Books as well as several coaching options that can help you with your own process.