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Climbing / School / The 3 Training Phases For Climbing

The 3 Training Phases For Climbing

The 3 training phases for climbing:

Power, power endurance and endurance

These three concepts of power, power endurance and endurance are banded about all over the place. Do you know what they practically mean and how they can all fit together to help your climbing improve? Climbers specialising in any area from trad to bouldering to short powerful sport climbing will need to focus on these 3 areas at some point in their climbing to improve.

To start to understand what they mean and how all three are important together, think about a recent example of something you recently failed to climb. There must be one out there – we’ve all got them somewhere. Ok for now you need to forget your head (i.e. you freaked out because you were above a piece of gear and you didn’t like it) and technique (you failed to commit because you’ve forgotten how to hand jam): think about something at the climbing wall or a sports climb or boulder problem.

Did you fall off because:

1. you couldn’t do the moves? ………you need to work on power or strength

2. you kept on falling off at the top once you’ve done all the hard bit, pumped?……….. you need to work on endurance

3. you could do all the moves but you couldn’t string them together?………. you need to work on your power endurance

These are very clear cut examples but you should be able to relate this to your climbing at some point in the past. Clearly getting up any sort of climb will rely on a number of factors but generally you will be better in one area than another and the weaker area needs to be trained.

Here is some basic theory about what the different phases mean:

Endurance: Put simply having endurance means you can climb forever without getting too pumped so that you fall off. It also means that you can do a hard section of climbing, get pumped but have the ability to recover on a big hold on steepish ground for the next section. Generally an endurance route will have many, many moves but none are particularly hard. In order to climb in this manner oxygen feeds the muscles in the forearms to produce energy. It can also be referred to as aerobic capacity.

Examples: In the UK we have few pure endurance routes. Classic endurance fests abroad are Lourdes 8a (Spain – 40m sport route) the Enduro corner on Astroman 5.11 (Yosemite 40 metres of the same lay back move), generally a lot of overhanging tufa Spanish routes. In the UK think ‘The Strand E2 (Gogarth – continuous climbing, with no definite crux), Supercool 8a+ (Gordale – 35 metres of climbing with the crux at the top, but a few good rests on the way). Note: practically nothing on the grit can really be considered as ‘endurance’ – it’s not long enough.

Power endurance: This is the mainstay of British Climbing and in fact most climbing in general. Unlike ‘endurance’ instead of getting a manageable pump, you will become very, very pumped and in extreme cases almost fall off because you are so pumped, but are able to get to a rest to recover. A 40 metre route with good rests every 10 metres is not an endurance route, it will be power endurance because of the type of climbing required in between the rests. It is usually a burst of about 1.5 minutes of climbing. You may think this isn’t long, but you can cover a lot of ground in this time and hopefully get to a good rest. The word power can be substituted for strength. Basically you need the strength or power to do moves when you are pumped. This can be referred to as anaerobic capacity where you are not using oxygen but glucose to feed the forearm muscles.

Examples: We don’t need to look abroad for these. The classic textbook power endurance route is Raindogs 8a at Malham (12 metres of intense all out effort), Strapiombante E1, Frogatt (you can faff all you like with the gear, but ultimately you need to climb fast and efficiently), Right Wall E5 Llanberis Pass (its got 2 no-hands rests on it – it can’t possibly be endurance), The Asp E3 Stanage (short – less than 10m and sharp, but enough moves to get you really pumped). However if you hang on these routes in the middle of the cruxes for half an hour they will all become endurance routes.

Note that training endurance and power endurance are all about training the forearm muscle – i.e. where you get pumped. Here is a table taken from Dave Binney and Steve McClure’s Climb magazine articles linking pumped feeling to the corresponding types of endurance you are working:

Level 1 No pump Endurance = aerobic

Level 2 Slight pump Endurance = aerobic

Level 3 Moderate pump Endurance = aerobic

Level 4 Very pumped Strength/Power endurance = anaerobic

Level 5 Extremely pumped Strength/Power endurance = anaerobic

Power: Having power is the ability to pull off dynamic, explosive difficult moves in isolation. Power is different to strength which is a static controlled force which enables you to make a difficult move. Power can be associated with fast and strength with slow. The name of this phase is confusing as during a ‘power’ phase people will also try to get ‘strong’ either in their muscles or fingers (or both). In this phase what you are trying to do is build muscle and then get it to work 100%. Some people naturally climb more on power than strength. Compare Gaz Parry – strong and controlled to Steve McClure – powerful and dynamic.

Examples: Often associated with bouldering, but not all bouldering is power/strength based, particularly if its technique based (slabby or relies on ability to climb arêtes e.g. Crescent Arête at Stanage). Think short routes at the right hand side of Raven Tor (2 bolts long) – Out of My Tree, Pump up the Power (both 8a). Boulder problems such as Demon Wall Roof 7a+ (Almscliff), Blockbuster 7b+ (Caley).


Any climber needs to ensure that all three ‘plates’ are kept spinning at all times, but some will be spinning slower than others. A boulderer needs to ensure they keep up some element of power endurance in order to do longer boulder problems and be able to boulder a number of problems in a day. A trad climber needs to have a good endurance base in order to be able hang around and place gear but needs to be able to handle crux bulges, thin wall sections etc.

Spinning plates

If you don’t attempt to spin all or at least one plate(s) you could run into problems. If you focus entirely on power based bouldering training you are asking your muscles to work 100%. You have ‘recruited’ all your muscle fibres to work in one explosive effort. The minute you go on a route you are asking your muscles to work at 70% for 10 times as long. No wonder you get pumped! Hence maintain a form of endurance training during a bouldering phase, and then focus on an endurance phase, keeping your power topped up.

Phase your climbing with one dominatory phase. E.g. If your overall aim is to build endurance train endurance for 70% of the time, 20% power endurance and 10% power. Vice versa if you are focusing on power. Each phase will last about 4-6 weeks.

Get to know your body

Everyone will have a natural tendency towards one type of climbing. I am naturally much more powerful and endurance is hard for me. For my husband Nic Sellars it’s the opposite. You might chance upon things that will work for you but you need to experiment. For example, Nic was trying Progress 8c at Kilnsey. He could lap the route from the first bolt to the top but adding the first few moves meant he always fell at the crux. He spent more and more time doing hard circuits but to no avail. By chance he went on a bouldering weekend to Northumberland. That was all he needed and next time on the route he reached the top. For Robin Barker, who was working the route at the same time, it was the opposite. Every time he would get through the high crux, but fall higher because he was too pumped. More endurance may have been the key for him.

Note that despite us all having a natural tendency towards one thing or another, all bodies can be trained to be much better in anyone area. If you are naturally strong but with no fitness, that doesn’t mean you are stuck like this. It is possible to train endurance whilst training power in the background.

Finally, clearly all this points to you having a goal in mind. Just going through these phases aimlessly will be demotivating. Think about what it is you want to achieve and put together a plan which will help you work on your weaknesses whilst topping up your strengths.

Coming up soon will be a series of articles explaining how you can train for each individual phase.

Katherine coaches for planetFear. See www.planetFearextra.com