Good Gym Habits

4 06 2008

A couple weeks back, Phil over at Rock Climbing Blog (the journey to 7a and beyond) posted about difficulties in the gym. Struggling on routes rated below his abilities. Pumped forearms early in the session. Etc.

Flash pump?

Yesterday, while replacing my stolen bike, the sales guy at Alpine Hut confessed he avoids bouldering in the gym because he hurts himself. “I don’t want to climb V1s and V2s, I want to do something fun” – inducing ligament and tendon strain in the pursuit of happiness.

Climber’s finger?

I commiserate with both gentlemen.

Mr. Alpine Hut’s idea of “fun” might be V5s or V6s, I don’t know, while mine hovers at V3s and V4s, but the effect is the same. We both want to play at the edge of our limits. Before I developed good habits in the climbing gym – and I don’t mean bagging chalk and giving neighbors enough space – my sessions were hit or miss. And my fingers were constantly aching.

Now, my technique improves with each session. I test it on real rock and the skills stick.

What follows are some tips for getting the most outta your gym sessions. Be warned, it takes more discipline than simply showing up when you feel ready and working yourself like a dog until you are, on the rope, behaving like a hang dog.

The hardest part is committing to a schedule. As I read recently in How to Climb 5.12, never train more than 2 days in a row. For me that means in the gym. Outside, I figure, you have time between pitches. You’re messing with equipment. You’re hiking from one route to the next. If you want to spend a four day weekend at the crag, you’ll survive. Indoors, you’re packing in sends like sardines and working your body in a more concentrated manner. Your body needs the rest. Train no more than 4 days a week, and never more than 2 days in a row.

If you’re like me, you might get into the zone and want to climb every day for two weeks straight, sometimes morning and night. Don’t do that. It feels like you’re working hard, but you’re taking the path of least resistance. Sticking to a more moderate schedule allows your body to absorb new movements, build new muscle, and accept real discipline.

Next up, stretch! Stretch your legs, groin, shoulders, arms, and fingers. 10 seconds each. Roll your ankles and wrists. Do that funky dance before every session. Do it in the bathroom so no one sees you sweat. Breath deep. Get ready already. Don’t wait til your forearms are swollen and you naturally stretch them to ease the pain. Do it first and last.

After stretching, warm up to avoid flash pumps and order your climbs by difficulty to increase the length of your session.

Warming up on easy routes is fine, but traversing is even better. Personally, I have a hard time doing this because ascent and achieving goals are a big part of why I climb. But you don’t have to spend twenty minutes circumnavigating your gym. As advised by my erstwhile climbing instructor Kelly Sheridan, traverse once until your muscles feel ever-so-slightly warm. Use only jugs. Open-hand the holds. Don’t stress. Traverse a second time, still palming jugs, doubling the distance. That’s it. You’re done warming up.

But don’t head straight to the hard stuff.

In the past, I thought jumping on my own personal testpieces immediately, before I was tired, gave me a greater chance of sending them “fresh.” Not true. I just felt fatigue faster and usually didn’t climb any better.

In How to Climb 5.12, Eric Horst details an intricate plan on how to order your gym sessions. Decide what skills you want to practice, target those problems, then move to more difficult grades. Or was it lap “wired” routes when you’re tired? I don’t know. It was too organized for me to remember. If it you take a look and it makes sense to you, great! My simple plan involves three stages:

1. Seek out accessible problems first. You won’t get tired. Imagine every “easy” problem you send adds 5 minutes to the end of your session. That’s 5 more minutes for attempting the doozies.

2. Train on chunks. Break apart the hard bouldering problems or establish one skill (like dynamic movements or heel hooks) to focus on for the majority of your session.

3. Get in it to win it! At the end of your session, not the beginning, feel free to wear yourself out on body-boggling, Twister-esque assaults on rock. Start at the start and finish at the finish.

So yes, I do advocate climbing hard. If you’ve warmed up adequately and scheduled wisely, your chances of injury should decrease. But I’m no doctor. Please don’t consider this medical advice.

In closing, remember to stretch last of all. And it’s not a bad idea to intersperse hands-free training days for when your fingers inevitably feel like they’ve been through a vice. Pick out a slabby section of wall (less than vertical), get on the rope, and focus on footwork. Try anything you consider easy, but without using hand holds. Palming is ok.

Hope this helps and good luck.