It’s a tough case to make that rock climbing isn’t merging into the mainstream. What with the Dawn Wall on every major news outlet and an estimated 4000 new waivers signed at gyms each day, climbing is on the verge of blowing up. This growth has a lot of side effects: even more gyms to get even more crowded, the correspondent if diffused crowding at most major climbing areas (at least ones with “gorge” in the name, or various other references to major drainage systems: creek, valley, canyon, etc), climbing companies becoming publicly traded and in general starting to act like big businesses, and climbing superstars acting more like superstars than climbers. Another result is that there’s actually a population of climbers worth marketing to, and one of the most powerful ways to capture the market’s attention is through self-improvement. Just look at the most recent cover of Climbing.
Thus, just as we can learn 37 revolutionary ways to lose 10 lbs. as we stand in line at the grocery store, a given perusal of any climbing media reveals just as many ways to be a better rock climber. Eventually, at least to me, it starts becoming noise, and the result is often that one simply dabbles through lots of different strategies for improvement or just ignores them all together.
But I think, at some level, we all want to get better. It just feels good to do something well, so doing it better will, logically, feel better. It many ways, it comes down to focus and commitment. Which makes the noise of self-improvement even more challenging.
Enter Vilfredo Pareto, a late 19th Century economist, who noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. As it turns out, this ratio, now known as Pareto’s Principle or the 80-20 Rule, plays out in all kinds of ways: in economics, math, ecology, cellular metabolism, criminology, and other arenas. It can be (over) simplified by saying that, generally speaking, 80% of the results of any given endeavor are created by 20% of the effort. The trick is to know what 20% is doing the work.
Tim Ferris applies this concept in his books The Four Hour Work Week and The Four Hour Body. While I’m not advocating for reading these books (I haven’t done more than flip through them), the idea is intriguing. How do we get the most out of our efforts in life? As a climber, I’m constantly trying to maximize the effort I put into climbing. Over my career, and especially recently, I’ve pondered what those things are; what is the 20% of efforts in climbing that yield the greatest results?
Below I’ve listed my (completely anecdotal, unscientific, 100% subjective) big-bang-for-your-buck efforts. For me, these are that 20%, the low-hanging fruit. Before I get into them, however, I want to say one thing: This is the least to improve performance. This is not how to maximize performance, to become the best climber possible. For true maximization, the devil is in the next 80% of effort, using all of it as effectively as possible. The complement of the 80-20 Rule is the Law of Diminishing Returns, yet we can only know the asymptote of our climbing potential by obsessively trying to bump into it.
But that’s not for everyone, which is great because it means most folks are well balanced and not obsessed. And for most folks, here’s where I think you should put your effort:
This is fairly obvious but worth mentioning first, but don’t die. Double check the basics and generally be somewhat conservative. If you die, you will not improve.
Likewise, don’t get injured. What this really means is that you should put effort into injury prevention. Get strong shoulders, work on your antagonist muscles, avoid climbing more than two, maybe three days in a row but also climb consistently (as in, don’t climb as hard as you can one day a month and then eat Cheetos and play video games the rest of the time), and when you do tweak or blow something up, actually put serious, disciplined effort into healing.
Hangboard. Physiologically, your fingers are almost always the weakest link and are almost certainly your limiting variable. Get them stronger, and the rest of climbing becomes easier. It is actually that simple. There are plenty of ideas for how to hangboard out there. It’s not rocket science, but it does take know-how and skill. I use the Rock Climber’s Training Manual protocol because it’s simple to do and reliably effective. The RCTM, as well as lots of other training sources, gets into much detail about long-term periodization training. This stuff is great, but it requires a lot more commitment of focus and time, and it varies significantly depending on what kind of climbing you want to do. But, as long as you want to climb things that involve grabbing holds, improved finger strength will be an asset. A commitment to each year doing two to three hangboard “seasons” (i.e. 6-10 workouts every three days with minimal actual climbing in that time) will produce results.
It’s important to explore a diversity of climbing, but having projects that are challenging and require long-term effort is important to improve. There are many dimension of what make hard climbing hard, and so the process of exploration, learning, rehearsal, and performance is very effective to break into a new level. These don’t need to be mega projects, but routes or problems that take more than a few tries, more than a few days, to send are great learning experiences.
Be honest with yourself about your psychological weakness. The first step is admitting you have a problem. And yes, you have a problem. These usually involve some combination of:
fear of falling, fear of failure, tunnel vision, attachment to a specific outcome, impatience, lack of focus or awareness, poor breathing or eye control, poor technique, being unable to shift your climbing “gears,” “thinking down,” and problematic motivations to climb
There are lots of ways to work on these things, but no matter how strong your fingers are, you can’t out-climb your brain.
And finally, choose depth over breadth. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t be a well rounded climber. Often one discipline can support learning in another (like bouldering to trad climbing). But the idea here is to dedicate yourself to a goal. Don’t just take one afternoon in the gym to practice falling; make a campaign over weeks, months, even years to get comfortable falling. One hangboard workout won’t do anything but make your fingers sore, but seven workouts will make them feel like steel hooks. The idea is to commit to a direction, a process, and stick with it for long enough that the novelty wears off, you experience frustration, and then persevere into a new level of opportunity.
So there you are, some 100% money-back guaranteed (since reading this is free) advice on improving climbing performance. I spent years just trying to rock climb as best I could, dedicated to the old adage that the best training for rock climbing is rock climbing. I can’t help but wonder at the potential I simply missed out on in all those years of just climbing. Sure, I was doing some things right, but what would my learning curve look like if I’d just been a bit more effective in where I put my effort ten years ago? The reality is that all of the strategies I’ve outlined above are pretty easy to do, and most are totally free. So, few costs but plenty of benefit: Now you’ve got no excuse. Which reminds me of my last kernel of advice: Stop making excuses. Yes, climbing is hard. Enumerating why it’s harder for you is wasted effort. If you want to climb it, figure out how to climb it.