My self-experiment was to learn how to rock climb, in 16 weeks. I set myself the challenge of reaching a V6 bouldering, and/or a 7a sport grade.
I was what you would term a royal newbie. My background of slacklining, weight-lifting and MMA would prove to be advantageous, however, as I undertook a completely new and different physical challenge.
By the end of the 16 weeks, I had reached bouldering grade V5, and even sent my 7a sport climb, after weeks and weeks of attempts.
I achieved it all by hacking the learning process, discarding the useless info, people and attitudes, and embracing relentless change in the name of achievement. Not to mention suffering an injury and healing it in record time.
This post should help explain how I achieved my climbing goals, briefly cover how I got injured and what I did to rehabilitate, and offer you some resources and tips so that you too, can push your climbing grade, whether you’re a noob or a veteran.
I’ve tried to include the 20% of vital knowledge I gained over the 16 weeks that contributed to 80% of my results, to save you wading through…
(For the record, I understand that I believed my project climb to be graded at 7a. It’s possible it was a soft grading, or a hard one. It’s also nothing like climbing 7a outside. However, I feel these are not the most important points. Being specific is more important to achieving your climbing goals than righteous grading, even though I know there are the nerdy climbers out there who will cry “But his climb was barely a 6a!”
Here are a selection of principles I found to be immensely useful to live by during the 16 weeks. Not all of them were a part of me from the beginning… but they all proved to be very useful.
You’ll need to research the 20% of techniques you’ll use to achieve 80% of your climbs – an easy way to do this is to honestly take a look at your real weaknesses, not your weaknesses within your strengths.
If you’re a beginner, it will be everything, so focus on the most common (some of which I have listed below).
If you’re advancing, apply this principle to your project climb – what are the 20% of moves within the route that you suck at?
Specify your climbing goal, then think of a suitable deadline. Now shorten that deadline by 20% – this will force you to simplify your approach.
I researched my deadline for this experiment by asking around my local climbing centre – What was the average time taken to reach grade 7a, from a beginner’s level?
The answers ranged from: minimum 36 weeks, all the way to 18 months.
I chose 16 weeks because, a) it was the length of my job contract at the climbing centre and b) because I genuinely believed, in 16 weeks of attacking, I would achieve my goal that was just enough outside of my comfort zone.
The Law of Opposites
I came to realise this principle early on in the experiment, incorporating it initially to ensure muscular balance and stability; for every push, I wanted an even pull.
I’ve since realised it’s a powerful principle to use through any skill acquisition process, and life in general.
Here are some examples;
- If you want to get good at climbing up, get good at climbing down.
- If you want to get good at pulling up, get good at pushing up.
- If you want to control your relationship with food, control your relationship with no food.
- If you want to get good at doing big things, get good at doing small things.
- If you want to get good at controlling your breath in a matrix of air, get good at controlling it in a matrix of water.
Note: the variable you choose to oppose is important. Make sure you are opposing the right thing!
Always Pursue the New
This is a principle I used when learning how to slackline to a high standard in a short time.
It’s very simple – every climbing session, you must do something new, and be aware that you are doing so.
Note, I said new, not easy or hard, but different. And you must be aware that it’s new. What happens is you push a little out of your comfort zone every session, so that pushing limits becomes a small, but powerfully ingrained habit. It also makes creativity a habit, applying your creative thought process of ‘what can I do here that is new?’ to climbing situations.
There’s nothing worse than trying to keep your sessions comfortable and familiar. Get in to the habit of trying a new something every time you climb.
Upgrade your definition of “Success”
Success, when I get a dictionary definition, reads like this:
“The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted”.
The problem I have with the current definition of success, is that it doesn’t contain the word consistency, yet without being consistent, it’s very hard to achieve success.
As The Rock says; “Success isn’t always about ‘Greatness’, it’s about consistency. Consistent, hard work gains success. Greatness will come.”
Upgrade your personal definition of the word success to be founded upon consistency.
To reach 7a in 16 weeks, I had to be consistent; with my focus, application and commitment. And it paid off.
“If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.” – Bruce Lee
The Foundation is Coordination
Coordination is a powerful ally in learning how to combine strength with momentum, or what are know as “Dynamic Moves” in climbing. I found the slackline a great tool to improve coordination, and learning how to do Muscle-Ups on the gymnastic rings.
Having these two tools to help improve my level of coordination meant that coordinating strength with momentum to complete climbing moves came a lot faster.
It is important to combine strength skills with movements skills as part of your conditioning program – the muscle-up, for example, is a fantastic conditioning exercise to develop sport-specific strength with coordinated momentum.
The Ruthless approach to spending your time
The following quote was a great principle and motivator to have on board during this experiment…it speaks for itself.
“Imagine there is a bank account that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening the bank deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day. What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course? Each of us has such a bank. It’s name is TIME.
The Bell Curve Approach to structuring climbing sessions
See more on this further down the post…
Get yourself a cranking Mentor
I strongly suggest the use of a mentor, or even better, coach, when learning a new physical skill. I go into this, too, a little deeper, further on in the post..
Here’s a wicked video my friend Jack Daly made, about my climbing ambition.
2. HOW TIM FERRISS INSPIRED ME TO CLIMB
Tim Ferris released a book called “The 4 hour Chef” which uses the process of learning to cook as a model for learning any skill you want. I chose to use climbing as the new skill I wanted to learn. Here’s how I used the Ferriss formula over the 16 weeks to maximum effect…
D.S.S.S. for climbing harder
Deconstruction: What are the lego blocks for learning to climb from grade 5 – 7a?
Here’s just a small sample of all the lego blocks that contribute to learning this super-complex sport…
- Starting at grade 5, progress to 6a, 6b then 6c. Finally, 7a.
4 grades in 16 weeks = 4 weeks per grade
- Finger strength
- Use a Mentor
- Condition the body and speed up the recovery process
- Try to avoid injury
- Fit it all in with a 36 hour-per-week job
The selected vital 20% of the above blocks that would get me 80% of the way towards 7a:
- A critical selection of climbing moves with good technique
- Breath Control – for composure and controlled exertion
- Balance – for coordination, focus and proprioception
- Kinaesthetic Visualisation
- A Mentor
- A conditioning program for strength and flexibility
- A project to work on a.k.a. have a climbing goal to achieve
- The Bell Curve Approach
- Find the right shoes!
LET’S GO INTO THESE NUGGETS A LITTLE DEEPER…
How to effortlessly equip an arsenal of climbing moves
Having one or two very easy boulder problems that contained the vital 20% of climbing techniques I needed for 80% of my climbs, meant I had a physical resource to refer to every climbing session to reinforce my motor-neuron movement arsenal.
My boulder problem contained these moves, vital for a beginner to know and perfect:
- A sit-start, containing a pull/push move that utilised the physics phenomenon of opposite forces….
With pure strength it’s very hard to do, with technique it can be laughable!
- A hand/foot match
- An outside flag
- A rock-over
- A foot match a.k.a switching feet on the same hold
- A hand match a.k.a switching hands on the same hold(If you’re not familiar with the above terminology, I highly recommend Neil Gresham’s “Improve your Climbing” DVD.)
I would climb these easy problems at the beginning of every session for about 4 weeks. Once they were taken down off the wall, I would find another 2 to use as my warm up.
Find boulder problems that are at 40% of your limit, that contain moves or pieces of the puzzle that will contribute to your harder climbs.
Doing this really propelled my speed of progression and if I had to chose one vital training tool for teaching technique to beginners, it would be using basic boulder problems that contain the essentials.
Having said that, my warm-up boulder problems didn’t include smears!! And they are the one vital technique for footwork that carries over directly to climbing outside on real rock. If you want to get good at using your feet, learn how to smear, and slowly climb down everything you climb up.
You need to know how to control your diaphragmatic muscles and how to separate breathing into the chest only, the belly only, and both together.
A smooth, consistent breathing cadence is the most effective way to control your breath; breathe into the belly and then the chest for a count of 4, and out of the chest then belly for a count of 6.
You need to know how to bring awareness to your breath during a climb. This can be trained in exactly the same way as you would train to bring awareness to a muscle group to activate whilst climbing.
Start on something easy, and make it your only focus to concentrate on your breathing whilst doing an easy climb. Let everything else take care of itself. Repeat as often as it takes before you are able to tune it to your breath on harder climbs. Incorporate breath control into your warm up and warm down, via stretching and calisthenics.
My background in slacklining really helped. I found my levels of coordination increase from training on the slackline, directly transferring to climbing when I need to coordinate my whole body to perform a move on the rock.
I recommend slacklining at least twice a week, for an hour at a time. Your focus will increase, your proprioception will become more sensitive and you will find yourself able to transfer your balance skill directly to the balancing on the rock.
The easiest way to trigger my kinaesthetic sense whilst trying to visualise a move, was to simply watch a video of myself climbing. I could see on the screen the move I was visualising, and because I had already completed the move repeatedly, I knew what it felt like. Combining the two, visualising and feeling, whilst closing your eyes, and you have a very powerful tool for preparing yourself before a climb.
I did this exact thing with the 7a project, over a period of about 4 weeks.
Get yourself a Mentor!
- Your mentor must be better than you at what you are trying to learn.
- Having them help you twice a week, for 2 hours, will gain mad results
I had a bouldering mentor, and a sport climbing mentor. Both of them climbed harder and more precise than I did. They were at, or above the level I wanted to be. And they were each available to help me for at least 2 hours a week, totaling 4 hours a week of mentored climbing.
Those easy boulder problems were coached to me in the beginning. My mentors would watch with eagle eyes how I climbed the problem and combined the moves. He would then climb the problem, and show me how it was supposed to be done. Then I would repeat, until it was up to his approval.
To see what exercises and principles I chose for my conditioning program during these 16 weeks, refer to my previous article in this Learning to Climb series, here.
Choose your project
It’s important to choose your project quite early on in your quest. The earlier, the better, in fact. Especially if you have honed your goal down to one specific climb. If your goal was like mine – to eventually reach a higher grade, you won’t know what your project will be until you’re ready to explore. If you know which climb is calling you right now, perfect.
Find the right shoes!
My first trip to the famous Peak District in the UK and my friends absolutely rinsed me for having shit shoes. At first I became defensive, but soon realised when I changed shoes, just how important it is to have a super tight, glove-fitting shoe if you want to get technical and improve your grade.
I think the longer you’ve been climbing, the stronger your fingers are, so the more campusing (climbing with out your feet) you can get away with. However, I was a newbie, so I had no finger strength. This meant I had to focus on my feet a lot more, and changing shoes from 5.10 rogues to 5.10 dragons was a massive catalyst for improving footwork.
Down-climbing every easy problem in my warm-ups, meant that I could visually focus on planting my feet solidly, learning how to use these new shoes.
The Second S: Sequencing
The order in which you place your lego blocks can vary, depending on the time scale. Sequencing is a fractal concept, and can applied to anything. Essentially, it means the order of events over time. What time scale you choose, is up to you…
In Part 2, I showed Sequencing within the timescale of climbing a problem. Although this is applicable, what I found during this experiment is that the climbing sequence is actually a very, very fast series of conscious and sub-conscious processes – far too fast to stop and analyse, unless the climb is very, very easy.
Not feeling satisfied with just giving you a sequence that is too fast to use, I want to give you some other examples of how I have used sequencing during this experiment to yield great results:
For example, using the time scale of a week, this is my sequencing:
- Monday – Friday: Climbing and Training
- Saturday – Cheat Day and perhaps Climbing or Training
- Sunday – Complete rest
The Bell Curve Approach
Employing this simple principle allowed me to double my volume of climbing, every session, whilst still maintaining the same recovery time between sessions.
Using the time scale of a climbing session, the X-axis (vertical), represents exertion, the Y-axis (horizontal), represents time:
- The start of the bell curve is where you warm up on the mat with a pulse-raising activity, e.g. skipping, and then some dynamic stretching, such as yoga flow (notches 1-3 along the bottom of the picture above).
- Notches 3-4 are where you are warming up on routes and problems that sit at around 30-40% of your limit. This is the time to focus on training technique, when the pace of the climb is able to be slowed right down because of its ease. I find it easiest to choose one principle per route – straight arms, for example – and keep that as my focused technique for the entire route.
- “Deliberate practice, on the other hand, is designed with clear objectives and goals. When top performers practice, they break down their skill into sharply defined elements. After breaking down a skill into parts, a top performer will work intently on the element they need to improve most. During the entire practice, they focus solely on that one aspect.” – The Art of Manliness
- Notch 4, around the apex of the curve, is where you should be limber as hell, have a good sweat on and be pushing your physical limit. You’ve got about a 30-60 minute time frame here. The important thing is to be constantly in tune with how much you have left in the tank. As soon as your energy levels drop below what you know is needed to crush the problem, suspend your ego, note where you got to and leave the route until next session. It’s time to begin the down-shift.
- Notches 4-5 are where you intuitively seek out problems and routes that match the energy you have left. They should be at around 70% of your limit, working down to 40%, over a 30-60 minute period. This is the time to hone your focus, even if you’re a little tired. You’re getting so much extra volume to your climbing this way, rather than hitting your limit and calling it a day.
Strive to move with quality on every problem for this section – you should be able to because they are routes well within your physical ability.
- Notches 5-7 are back on the mat for the warm-down and stretch out. I usually start with some Yoga flow, into deep stretches and finish with stretching the forearms, wrists and fingers.
- After notch 7 = Eat! To learn more about what to eat, and when, check out my post on Nutrition.
Notice the bell-curve is also a fractal scale – it represents so much, from how you breath, to the behaviour of the sun.
Here’s a sequence using the time scale of climbing my chosen project:
- Make sure I have BCAAs or light meal in the stomach, up to 2 hours prior
- Warm-up on the mat, with mobility, Yoga Flow and resistance bands – 20 mins
- Break a sweat, then move to climbing at 30-40% of my limit for 20 mins
- Take a break: begin kinaesthetic visualisation, route reading and breath control for 10 mins to engage psyched emotional state.
- Once the correct mental state has been achieved, crush the route!
If you fail on the route somehow, rewind two or three moves, then start the climb from there. Keep down shifting through the bell-curve as you get more tired.
- Warm-down and Stretch out, with a smile on your face / Rest and try again following day.
Here’s a crash course in sequencing showing how the whole experiment actually went:
- WEEKS 1 – 4 – Conditioning program and basics begin – lots of core work and lots of skipping!
- WEEKS 5-8 – Serious Nutritional program begins
- WEEK 10 – Changing my climbing shoes from slippers, to 5.10 dragons for £40. Bargain.
- WEEK 11 – Realising what climbing shoes should really feel like
- WEEK 12 – Religious experience climbing super-high trees! The beginning of my bicep tendon injury
- WEEK 13 – Injury Rehab
- WEEK 14 – Injury Rehab
- WEEK 15 – For 5 solid days, all I have done is attempt to climb my project. I’ve reached the last hold. I’ve taken whippers, catapulting my belay partners into the walls. They’ve had bashed arms, trapped fingers and dead legs. I slept and lived in the same clothes for over 3 days. I even told my lady I could not be there for here right now. I was somewhere else. Emotionally void, tunnel-visioned and unshaven – I had reached the unexpected, deep realms of obsession.
- Day 5 and I work the top part of the route – the area I had subconsciously been avoiding, hoping to successfully pass its gates during send attempts without forming a relationship with it first.I apply the bell curve to my nemesis, and I am absolutely fucked by the end of it.
- WEEK 16 – Two itchy-footed days’ rest, and it’s time to crush.
I really knew the whole sequence now, no bullshit.
I had a kinaesthetic relationship with every bloody move on that wall.
Warmed up until sweat started to permeate my clothes on the mat, then on to the wall for easy climbing, then on to my project. Music in, crushed it first go.
Cue explosion of ecstatic screaming and emotional outbursts:
The third S: Stakes
Stakes are an interesting topic. For me, if I really want something, I will get it, or do everything I can to get it. The hardest part is aligning truthfully with what I want. It’s happened all too often that I’ve set out on a journey of skill acquisition or adventure, thinking it’s what I really want in life, only to find that the underlying motivations were not the correct ones to really help me push for attainment.
My ego and pride helped me attain my 7a project, but was also a massive hindrance. For the entire 5 days before I sent, I was battling my ego and pride constantly, telling myself I was ready to do this, if I can only get to the top as fast as possible. I refused to admit that I might not actually know the entire sequence inside out. This unfamiliarity bred cowardice, allowing fear to be reborn, recycled within. Not good when you’re climbing at your limit.
By this point, the time deadline of 16 weeks was 7 days away. That was a stake, I tell you! The thought of not smashing this climb in my allotted time was all too much for my ego to bare.
Egotistical stakes are to be used as a tool. They are not your friend. This pride-knocking effect had me realise that if I kept rushing the climb and not admitting to myself that there were gaps in my sequence, I would not make it.
But, if I risked the chance of failure in front of the world, and instead focused on one move at a time, for the entire climb (not just the first 2/3 which is what I was doing) then the quality of movement would be present enough for the climb to complete itself.
In short, use your ego’s insecurity towards failure, as a tool to your advantage.
Notice when you are rushing for ego’s sake, take a breath, and just focus on the immediate task at hand, nothing else. Accept failure as an outcome – it doesn’t matter, you’re still getting closer to your goal.
In hindsight, I have also realised that a strong stake in this experiment was proving my worth to my new colleagues. Sounds strange, but working at a climbing centre and not climbing meant that subconsciously, I really felt I had to show these people I was worthy! Ancient evolutionary social-survival tactics, perhaps?
3. REALISATIONS AND COOL SHIT
a. Learning to tie a bowline knot really quickly meant I didn’t waste time trying to undo the household favourite, the figure of 8. It’s a great knot, but a pain in the arse to undo every time you fall on. Cue using the bowline – here’s how to tie one quickly and efficiently:
b. When I passed my driving test and received my license as a new driver, my instructor told me “It’s now that you start learning to drive.”
Completing a 7a sport climb and a v5 boulder problem for this experiment carries similar wisdom: learning to climb really starts now. I also understand that I don’t climb at 7a or v5 standard. This experiment has proved however, if you want your project bad enough, there’s no reason why you can’t send it.
c. If you’re new to climbing like myself, then don’t bother with advanced finger strength and risk hurting your tendons. Stick to training your grip strength via isometrics and finger tip push ups. The one thing I couldn’t rush on this journey was my finger strength.
d. You’ll notice in the full video that accompanies this article, that I missed clips on the 7a project. You can even see my managers shaking their heads in disapproval. The reason I did this was because I didn’t have the finger strength to hold myself in a good clipping position. I only had enough stamina to charge the route – I was confident for the first half of the climb that I would not fall off, so I missed the clips. I didn’t have enough time left in the experiment to increase my finger strength, and I realised this after I had become emotionally involved with my project.
I have realised that clipping technique is highly underrated. I spent a few hours on the floor practice-clipping, and then with my eyes shut, so that I wouldn’t have to think about what I was doing during my climb.
4. OTHER VITAL COMPONENTS
My hands took an absolute battering over these 16 weeks. I’ve never really done any prolonged physical labour in my life. I’ve had callouses from weight lifting in the past. But never toughened tippies from relentless cranking.
It was quite a fascinating experience witnessing my hands morph throughout the experiment.
The best solution to callouses that I was taught from fellow mentors:
Before sleeping, file down as much of the callous with a semi-course piece of sandpaper.
Apply Climb On! balm to the area, then go to bed. It’s quite a greasy balm to have on your hands during the day.
Any time the skin feels more sensitive to heat, for example holding a cup of tea, apply Climb On!
Forearm, Wrist and Finger Abuse
The most common comments I received when people heard about my learning to climb experiment, were related to that deep fear climbers seem to possess within; the dreaded ‘pulley’ injuries, also known as a harsh snapping of the finger tendons.
To be honest, I was only worried about this happening in the first couple of weeks of the experiment.
I sustained no injuries to my hands, wrists or fingers during the entire 16 weeks.
That should debunk the fear, right? Complete beginner to 7a, in 16 weeks, and no tendon snappage? How did I manage it?
Well, the pulley-fear comes as no surprise after I observed climbers at the indoor centre where I work. It was an amazing insight:
Nobody stretches their goddamn hands, wrists or forearms!!
I couldn’t, and still quite can’t believe it. Of course climbers are scared about busting something. Your contracting your hand matter to its limit, and then not even loosening it out when you finish. Are you mad!? It’s bound to snap under those conditions, eventually.
I see maybe 1% of climbers stretch their hands, wrists and fingers after a climb, and about the same do some sort of mobility before their session. Unreal!
The amount of climbers, friends and strangers alike, who whine to me about their pains.
“How often are you stretching your forearms, wrists and fingers then?” I’ll ask.
“Oh, I’m not,” they all say.
There’s your answer!
After each session, I tried my hardest to stretch hands, wrists and fingers for a minimum of 10 minutes, maximum 20. This was the most time I allotted to stretching any one part of my body, and to be honest, it’s probably paid off the most.
The method is simple, and really works:
- Make sure your forearms, hands and wrists are still warm after you’ve finished climbing. Roll them out on a foam roller or tennis ball if you must.
- Put a stopwatch in front of you – I use my telephone.
- Kneel down, palms flat (or as close as you can manage) on the floor.
Hold for 1 minute.
- Now alternate the stretch, so put the backs of your hands flat on the floor. Hold for one minute.
- Keep alternating every minute. Be sure to include finger stretches and positions that stretch the tendons that attach at the elbow.
- Shake out between alternations for a couple of seconds.
If you want some really good wrist mobility exercises to do before you start climbing, check this video out. I still do these exercises religiously before I start a session:
Healthy Joints you say? No, this is not Rastafarian medicine, but indeed a popular and easy method referred to me by other climbers for keeping hands, especially finger joints, in good condition, all the time.
In the beginning when I ordered my Omega oil super-capsules, I was skeptical. I took them for about 4 weeks after feeling more and more of an ache in my hands from climbing. The ache subsided, subconsciously. Only when I stopped taking the oils did I really notice how much they helped, as the aches returned full force. Now I take a high dose of Glucosamine Sulphate and Omega 3 fish oil to keep the finger aches at bay.
During week 12, I fucked my bicep tendon – specifically the long-head. I didn’t feel anything twang during climbing, but after my session finished, I could barely raise my arm. Overuse is a bugger. I sought out a diagnosis asap, from a qualified sports-masseuse and chiropractor. I then followed a recovery program from Sportnetdoc.com which comprised mostly of stretching. In all, I did not exert the tendon and muscle group for 4 weeks. Lots of stretching and self-massage later, I had recovered and could climb again.
Skin – Climb On
Joint Health – Glucosamine and Fish Oil
Yoga – Power Yoga with Rodney Yee: Flexibility
Wrists – Wrist Mobility
Books – 9 out of 10 climbers – Dave MacLeod
The Self-Coached Climber – especially chapter on Bio-Mechanics
Flash Training – Eric J Horst
The 4 hour Chef – Tim Ferriss
Nutrition – Leangains.com
Goal Setting – John Assaraf Video
Injury – Biceps Tendon Rehab – Sports Doc Net
Other articles in the Learning to Climb series:
- Part 1 | Goals – How to set them
- Part 2 | Using the Secret Formula
- Part 3 | The Importance of a Trial Period
- Part 4 | How to use Nature to your advantage
- Part 5 | The Dirtbag’s Guide to Eating Clean
- Part 6 | How to get strong for climbing, FAST!
Some more articles you might find interesting: