This article appeared in the magazine Climb, it is better if you read it here and support me...
Training for life goes on for a long time-hopefully! Training should just go on and on, because if you don’t you will start to loose nearly all of your very hard earned gains. What you gain in five months, will be gone in five weeks. There is a tiny bit of good news for the inveterate serial couch potato laying within all of us. The news is, if you have had it before and lost it, you should be able to get it back and a little bit quicker than the first time. Stamina will go the quickest, and a little power will remain.
If you really want to be good at a sport you should not really have a break for more than two weeks. In fact two weeks doing something else will help recharge your batteries, and perhaps re-ignite the fire. I am a person who needs fire, but I have noticed there are plenty of very good athletes who don’t self -ignite, or self -combust when they see an incredible climbing objective. Some great climbers just smoulder along nicely. I would prefer to be the latter but am stuck with being the former. In the long run, in future, we might see that the best sports people are the smouldering lifers, rather than the brilliant violent volcanoes-we will see.
The great athletes of the past have been volcanoes because that’s the way the world works, there is a small window of financial security when you have time to train and few worries. In your youth you have free time as a school kid, and are sponsored by loving parents. As a young adult you can also sometimes carry on further education and in the old days be sponsored by the state. An older person has too many financial and time restraints to be a gold medallist, although in certain sports it has proved possible for old people to compete. Climbing may well be one of these sports. To climb 8a on bolts should be possible till very old, so there is hope, but not if you don’t train and watch your weight. And now of-course we are seeing some individuals who recreate that special window of opportunity by early retirement from more odious jobs, or who are trustafarians, or who just sell it all and go for it.
The first time I heard of some one doing a big session of training I had trouble believing that humans could do things like that. After my first days work, mixing cement for three Bricklayers, I thought that a three hour training session looked a lot easier, and you know what, they are.
The first time I heard of some one doing a thousand pull ups, it was Jack LaLanne, he had a TV show, used to drive around in expensive cars, and was generally a great sportsman, and celebrated for being a fitness Guru. Other climbers obviously heard of him too, generally they lived in the States. Ray Jardine one of the developers of camming devices did a thousand pull-ups years ago. A few of the early 5.12 climbers in the states were unbelievably strong, they often had a history of an other more organised sport behind them like gymnastics. Greg Lowe, the more famous Jeff Lowe’s much stronger brother was one of the oldies who really impressed me. Built like a coal-mining gymnast, Greg was way ahead of his time in rock climbing. His ice climbing was my inspiration much more than the Ben Bashers. Once along time ago in a gym in Bangor North Wales, a similar, but more simian legend, Joe Brown impressed me with his wiliness. There was a bit off a training scene going on at the time and Joe came in with some special grips. He just clipped them onto the pull up bar, which made the thing much more specific to climbing. This Yoda like Sports Master from the former Mancurian Republic then said something like, ‘holds on rock climbs are small and not round Stevie’ and then with a sly wink, smirked off. And he was bang on the money, like he always was. It was about this time I was doing my first big sessions of a thousand pull ups, and Joe helped me back to Llanberis once when I was unable to walk. He suggested maybe I was over doing it. I have since then seen some lads, notably in France, doing sessions where I have humbly said the same thing; 8 hour sessions. Double sessions, triple sessions, 40 days in a row, over doing it? Maybe. But can you climb harder than them, hell no!
Here are a few of climbing specific tests. Can you do the following?
10 pull-ups on a small campus edge. 20, 35 pull-ups on the same hold.
Can you do front levers, back levers. Can you do front lever; go to back lever, back to front, front to back?
Can you do a good one arm? Lefty and righty?
Can you do all this in one session? Be a good routine? How about doing it three times in a session?
Big Malcolm Smith, sadly retired from competitive climbing, could do reasonable one armers on an 8mm edge. Greg Lowe (an inspiration to me) could do one-armers on an edge long before Wolfgang Gullich.
Doing a thousand pull-ups is good if you want a very strong upper body for mixed climbing, but to be specific for climbing on rock, look at what you are pulling on. An ice climber, could use axes. A rock climber should use holds more specific to their task, i.e. smaller flatter. A pull up on an edge is very much harder than on a bar, there’s a greater range of movement, and they tend to be slower. Adds up to more effort in the end.
Sessions at the crag are fun, well sometimes they are, sometimes more like torture. I have done 22 pitches at Ceuse, between 7a and 7C+, add the walk in, and you have a good general days training. Multiple comp winner Francois ‘le big’ Grande, did 15 8a’s in a day. His buddy Yuji, did every thing on the main face at Volx, a strenuous nasty crag, maybe 28 pitches max level 8b!
In Chamonix back in the day, locals Ghersen, Lafaille, Berhault, and little Stevie ‘le roast beef’ could all solo E5 on sight, had climbed 8B+ minimum, and put in big training days. Two of these guys Lafaille and Berhault died climbing. Ghersen was known for being able to hang some pretty mean sloping things and that’s by Fontainbleau climber’s standards. Was there a defining thing between these lads? Yes. They all trained like demented loons at certain times, They were all super competitive, they hated being weak and hid when they were anything less than strong. Were they proud, were they conceited were they at times a bit aloof, err yea. And so what?
Leigh McGinley is a great friend and an old climbing and training buddy of mine. When he went for his check up before a hip replacement the consultant couldn’t believe Leigh’s fitness, and this despite not being that kind to himself over the years. Why? Because he’d been training! Here is his favourite routine, pretty simple and straight forward, like the man. After work, before dinner.
I pull up + 3 press up
2 pull ups +6 press ups, and so on till you reach
10 pull ups +30 press ups
Tommy Caldwell likes to do something similar, and has ticked all the hard routes on El Cap, and is trying to add something worse. He likes this little routine, again simple. He likes to do this after climbing
5 pull-ups, 10 press-ups, 15 sit-ups. Keep it going for 20 mins.
Mine, ‘Roast beef training’, is just 10 pull ups, 10 press ups, 10 sit ups, no rest, then rest as necessary to complete an hour. Excruciatingly simple like the man, you don’t have to differ the count, and if you don’t go red, you can have your money back.
The standard training fair of most of the great Euros that I have seen is power endurance circuits on a bouldering wall. I absolutely hate these but am inclined to think they work very well indeed. They work for bolt routes, trad routes, mixed routes, you name it.
If you tend to just ‘on sight’, like alotta Brits, the ‘stick method’ aka. the sick method’ on a big board, is one of the best, and the cruellest. Your mate (wont be for long) points out the next hold with the long stick, you take the hold , then he picks another, and so on. He can also say pause, where you count to 10 or 15 (that’s 1 thousand, 2 thousand, don’t cheat!) this simulates a clip or a pause. These can be 5 minute, or 10 mins circuits. Every body must be fair, it’s training not just messing each other about.
If you have a good leading wall, power endurance training is the way to go also. Just take turns leading routes, in a team of two, you shouldn’t last very long at all, and then finish with a McGinley or a Caldwell.
Nobody’s favourite, stuff that obviously doesn’t work according to some, because they are too weak, is 1000 pull-ups and 1000 press-ups. This isn’t even one of my favourites, I hate this one, always have always will. Anyway try it, its great when you stop, or when you give in. The afore mentioned McGinley and I once ran 12 miles to Bangor Gym, did a 3 hour weights session, and foolishly finished with squats with 120 lbs. We had planned to run 12 miles back home, but I couldn’t drag McGinley out of the carb and re-hydration station, a place called the Harp.
The ‘80s in Sheffield there was a big training scene, and all that primitive training worked no question. Out of the top 20 climbers in the world there were arguably more Brits than French, and if you were talking about climbing on nuts, there was no contest.
If you are talking of the great beasts of climbing, one might think of Alistair Crowly, but he trained for magic, rather than P.E. But who are, or where the real great beasts of British climbing, climbers like Cubby Cuthberson lots of one armer’s, Mark leech, Jerry Moffat, Malcolm. Do we have beasts today? Of-course we do. Shouldn’t they now be super beasts? Where are are the Ramons, our Patchis-em Spain I think! We now have sponsored climbers who climb E.2, and couldn’t climb the warm ups of the past. The future is for the young, life is to be lived, but a body should be explored, an individuals limits touched, being content with a bit of bouldering, is not climbing. Don’t short change yourself. Even if you are a Scottish mixed climber, what of the Alps, what of Lhotse South Face. Better get on that stair master, or do some bunny hopping with a 20 kilo plate, if you want to train for the high fells. As T.S.Elliot said, ‘only those who risk going to far, can possibly find how far one can go’.
When I was a child I couldn’t believe how heavy a sac of cement was, When I first went climbing I couldn’t believe how physically and mentally taxing climbing was. Things change, you grow, you can train to be better, physically and mentally. What’s the point in training? You might as well ask what’s the point in living? Take pride in your strength, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of pride. Take pride in your standards, nothing wrong with a bit of justified pride. Are there other things in life, more important things? Sure, but do I look remotely like Mother Teresa? Sometimes climbers get all aggressive with me, and say its not just about standards, it’s about enjoyment. Then they use the quote ‘the best climber is the one having most fun’, they don’t know where the quote comes from, and they didn’t know the man who spoke it. The climber was Alex Lowe, the best all-rounder in the USA at that time, died in an avalanche. He was a 5.13a climber, a mixed M8 climber, and a grade 7 ice man. He had extremely solid standards, and do you know why? He trained like a Spartan, that’s why. He did his pull ups, he did his running, he did the lot, la total. And you know that quote, it was just to make the punters feel happy about themselves.
Good training to you all and remember ‘the best climber, is the one best trained for the job’. Stevie is sponsored by La Sportiva, Grivel, V12.com