Post-Novice Program

In my last two posts I discussed some important training principles that are foundational to the training program I am about to describe here. If you haven’t read them yet I suggest you start there and come back to this post with an understanding of these concepts.


You can read Part 1 HERE.


You can read Part 2 HERE.


In this post I will discuss what the basic structure of a potential program might look like if we applied some of the ideas we have talked about previously. I will outline a rough training plan that will help bring the concepts together for many of you reading.


To refresh you, in the second part of this series I explained an important idea for intermediate athletes;


Intermediate climbers need to organize their training into weekly microcycles where volume is manipulated each session to facilitate recovery.


I also gave some examples as to why submaximal (aka medium to low intensity) climbing does not necessarily help climbers improve skill or specific climbing strength. Traditional periodized programs normally have athletes build a base with a large amount of submaximal intensity. This is not ideal for a sport like climbing which is skill based. Skill is not effectively practiced at low intensities. Sure maybe new skills need to be learned under low intensity but in order to improve they must be challenged at the edge of ability.


“‘...imagine a tennis player that played 5 matches, all with different opponents at 80% of the better player’s ability, one after the other, and they were all easily beaten, how would the better tennis player benefit?’ So why do climbers do the same thing as the example tennis player, and climb routes that don’t really challenge their abilities – a bunch of sub-maximal work that doesn’t challenge the skill set? Since there is no specific motor pathway being practiced – because the sport consists of myriad ways to climb any route – there is no point in the sub-maximal repetition. The worse case scenario is that the sub-maximal work at higher volume sets them up for injury when they do ramp up the intensity, like ‘junk’ miles on a bike for a cyclist.” - Rob Miller, Map of Athletic Performance


In fact, these low to moderate intensity/high volume programs may do more harm than good by allowing the climber to accumulate a lot of “junk stress” which decreases performance and long term can lead to overtraining syndromes or repetitive strain injury if not managed properly.


“‘Junk stress’ is stress that causes more fatigue than its potential adaptation. In other words, it’s good at decreasing performance due to the effort required to perform the work, but it’s not that good at improving the performance of that work over time.” - Jordan Feigenbaum, MD


Not only that, but weeks of submaximal climbing is a waste of training time the way it’s being used by most climbers. Endurance training is usually why most climbers spend time working in submaximal intensities. It takes longer to develop strength and skill than it does to develop endurance. So why spend 4 weeks on endurance and only 2 weeks on strength like the traditional model does? It makes a lot more sense to spend MOST of your training time on strength and skill and just a small amount of time on endurance since it’s easy to gain. I will talk a little more on this later in the article.


Submaximal climbing isn’t totally useless but too much value  is placed on it’s usefulness and too much time is wasted on it in training. I’d like to change that for my athletes and those reading.


Defining Some Terms


Before I go into the program itself we need to define some terms so that climbers and coaches can better understand some of the ideas I am trying to convey.


What is Maximal and Submaximal Climbing?


The term submaximal seems to be confusing for a lot of climbers. It may not be the best term to use but it’s the one being used so I will try to explain further here.


Due to the varying and technical nature of climbing, submaximal is very difficult to quantify and is highly situation dependent. This can be explained in many different permutations depending on the climber. Here are a few examples:


I can climb highly technical, crimpy V11 in Yosemite but I’ll be damned if I ever send Bum Boy (V3/4) at HP40, which involves very large slopers and some groveling. I have tried! Come at me with your short person (5’2”) beta, ladies!


If you’re a V10 climber then V5 would appear to be submaximal for you. But if you’re a V10 climber who excels on steep powerful moves in Hueco Tanks but not so much on slab in Yosemite, then Blue Suede Shoes (which is V5) is probably not submaximal for you.  


If you’re a V6 climber who sucks at heel hooks but you just took some sessions from a coach or your more experienced buddy gave you some tips, then getting on V3’s or V4’s that are heel hook intensive is probably maximal for you and that’s fine. You’ll need to practice that skill there, at the edge of your ability, to get better at it and eventually be able to apply it to a V6 or V7 project.


To be clear;


Maximal* or high intensity climbing is climbing that is just above your onsight level. Climbs that you can project and eventually send or get very close to a send.


Submaximal* is moderate to low intensity climbing. It involves any climb that is at or below your onsight level.


*These terms don’t just mean grades. Style, technique, grip type, rock type, length of the climb, strengths, weakness etc all come into play here to define what maximal and submaximal is for each individual climber as discussed.


Climbs must be carefully selected to reflect this during training. This means the grade level can be all over the map depending on what you are climbing. If you can’t figure out where your limits are on your own then it can be very helpful to work with a coach to discuss strengths, weakness and goals to tailor your program specifically for you.


The Intermediate Program


As mentioned in previous posts, these ideas were first brought to my attention by a series of posts written by Rob Miller. They initially piqued my interest because Rob and I have both studied the Starting Strength model and both rely heavily on concepts derived from Practical Programming by Mark Rippetoe. In the past I have thought a lot about programming for climbing and have tried to imagine how to apply some of these ideas to training for climbing but practical application of some of these ideas has escaped me until I read some of Rob’s posts. The traditional periodized model of training has failed me in the past and I have seen it fail many of my friends and athletes so I am excited to present a new way of approaching training for climbing in this post.  


After discussing some of these ideas with Rob, I have started using a type of heavy, light, medium (HLM) program with my athletes. “Heavy”, “light”, “medium” refer to the amount of volume you will climb during the training cycle. It’s a very basic program and the intensity will remain high throughout.


In this program you will be climbing at your limit and the only variable that will be manipulated is the volume to allow for recovery. No matter what your goal is, climbing at your limit has the most potential for generating adaptation. Failure is expected and is part of the program as long as over time there is progress via completing crux moves that you were not able to do before, linking sections or an eventual send.


“In the deliberate planning of multiple failures comes the success of lasting improvement in your abilities.” -Rob Miller


Manipulating volume

Volume is the only variable that will be manipulated on this program to allow for sufficient recovery. In order to manipulate volume, we need a way to quantify the volume. The way you would do this is to break a session into the “Number of Attempts” climbed.


An "Attempt" is any of the following:

-sending a problem

-a near send attempt (falling at/near the top)

-doing a problem in parts

-doing every move of a boulder problem

-performing an isolated crux sequence 3x

-rehearsing a sustained section twice


The program breaks down like this:


  1. Set a goal for the training cycle. It could be something like sending a specific V8 in Hueco or just having a good trip with multiple hard sends. It could be to improve on slopers, get better at roof climbing, whatever! But have a goal that you are working towards for each specific training cycle.

  2. Pick climbs just above your onsight level to start. These climbs should be specific to your goal. If you have a short, powerful V8 project you want to send in Hueco then pick short, powerful climbs to train on. If you know you are planning a trip to an area that has long 10-15 move “power-endurance” climbing then pick climbs like that to train that reflect that. If you’re working slopers then pick hard sloper climbs most of the time etc.


DAY #1: Heavy Sessions: Pick 5 climbs, 18-21 attempts total

DAY #2: Light Sessions: Pick 1 climb, ~5 attempts total

DAY#3: Medium Sessions: Pick 3 climbs, 10-12 attempts total


Recall, the difference between novice, intermediate and advanced athletes has nothing to do with strength or grade level and everything to do with ability to recover from stress. For an intermediate climber the program would look something like this:




If you don’t have a trip planned you can start ramping the volume up again and start weeks 1-4 over again. The fifth week is basically a built in deload and is recommended ever 5-6 weeks.


Remember, an intermediate climber needs more stress than a Novice to elicit an adaptation but also requires longer to recover from that stress. The “Heavy” day is a high volume day and is considered heavy because it is the most stressful day of the week in this program. This day is needed to cause enough stress for the climber to adapt.


Following this is a “Light” day. This is a hard one for most people. It’s literally 5 tries on 1 hard climb and that’s it! This is necessary to allow for recovery from the heavy day while still allowing the climber some practice on hard moves without further stressing them.


The “Medium” day is what follows next. This is where we start to ramp the volume back up as the climber recovers so that they can handle the next Heavy day coming up. Going from Light straight to Heavy would be a system shock and programming two Light days in a row might cause the climber to de-train between Heavy days.


This is a very rough outline of what the program might look like. There are some nuances to it and the goals of each individual athlete have to be considered. The numbers for this program were suggested to me by Rob Miller who has years of experience coaching his athletes with this method.


Everyone Responds a Little Differently to Training


It’s important to note that the tolerance for heavy workloads vary from climber to climber. Some climbers don't have a very high tolerance for volume while other climbers seem to perform well with more volume. Age, sex, previous history training in other sports and diet can all affect a climber’s ability to tolerate training. The younger and more male you are, the better you will likely respond. Especially if you have a background training for another sport and you eat and sleep enough to support your training.


The numbers for this program may not work for every climber and may need to be adjusted. This is where hiring a good coach can help. A good coach can also analyze movement inefficiencies and help you develop better climbing habits.


For an advanced climber the program will be even more nuanced and specific to the individual and I won’t generalize on that here in this article. The details of the program are more complicated for an advanced athlete and for right now I will hold off on diving into that.


This Program is Taxing and Should not be Done for Periods Longer Than 6 weeks


The hardest part of an effective program like this for most climbers is the increase in the volume of high intensity or “limit” bouldering they are doing. It can also be frustrating for some to fail often. The program is mentally taxing and therefore, based on recommendations from Rob Miller who has run this program with a lot of athletes, it’s not recommended to be on the program for longer than 6 weeks without a deload in training volume.


Track Carefully to See Improvement


The difficulty of the climbs you are doing should continue to increase, or you should see your climbing heading in the direction of improvement. You’ll be able to do harder moves, link crux sections, get very close to sending or actually send. You need to track carefully to monitor for improvement. It’s helpful to work on the same set of climbs so progress can be tracked.


Skill Practice/Drilling


Most of us don’t have a lot of time for hours and hours of training. So if you were working on specific techniques like learning how to heel hook better or drop-knee you would drill these on easier climbs as part of your warm up for the session and apply the skills to your climbing during the high intensity sessions.


What About Training Endurance?


“Climbing is a skill sport, not an endurance sport and not a strength sport. Blindly pulling training habits from cycling, or running, or powerlifting will be of dubious value. We need to train only insomuch as it helps improve our ability to move, to generate force, or to handle hard work. Beyond that, your ‘training’ should actually be practice.” - Steve Bechtel, Logical Progression


So what about working on endurance in this context? As mentioned above, you need to pick a goal for the training cycle. If you have route endurance goals in mind you would choose longer routes instead of boulders for this program or you would link boulder problems with less rest to simulate routes. If you have a trip to Hueco in mind you would pick boulders to train on that are the specific style and length of climbs there. You need to pick an objective goal and base the training around that on this program.


Which brings me to a second point…


Energy Systems and the Utility of Submaximal Training


Many climbers who have reached out to me about the last most seem to have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that submaximal climbing is not helping them reach their goals.


The idea of training within certain energy systems when creating a training program is a very popular one right now. Energy systems basically refer to the metabolic pathways that produce ATP for muscular contractions. These ideas are important but probably overly complicated and unnecessary for most climbers to worry about in detail.


Aerobic capacity, or what most refer to as “endurance,” is a specific adaptation that is easy to develop relatively quickly (and is also lost relatively quickly). It’s fun to train endurance because of the easy gains but it’s because of these easy gains that they should spend less time developing this energy system and more time developing other things like strength and skill. Things in the general adaptation category. These things are harder to develop but persist much longer and give us more “bang for our buck” with regards to training time invested.


The energy systems all overlap anyway and you are working in all of them at some point during normal climbing. It’s  much better use of your time to keep the intensity high and develop better climbing skill and strength on limit boulders. The stronger you are the less your endurance will matter. The better your technique and climbing economy, the less your endurance matters.


At the end of the day it’s very easy to spend the last 2 weeks before a trip getting pumped to get your endurance up. I know many climbers who don’t bother and build their endurance on their specific projects when they get there.


The following are two stories from Will Anglin that demonstrate these points:


Endurance comes quickly. Strength does not.


In 2013 I went on a sport climbing trip. The main objective was a .14b/c "route" that was only 17 moves and more like a V12/13 boulder problem. To train for that, all I did was focus on bouldering hard. I sent the route and we went to another area with 80-110ft routes that were more power endurance and endurance oriented. The main climb I worked on was called Fruit Stripe (5.13d/14a), a super resistant climb with 60 feet of stacked V7 bouldering to a powerful V8 crux boulder at the very top, with no rests. When I first tried the route I could only link 1-2 bolts at a time and was pumped out of my mind. I worked the route 3-5 attempts a day 4 days a week for 2 weeks. When I sent I didn't even start to get pumped until the last 2 moves.


"Endurance" on routes is not just about energy systems. There also large technical and tactical components that make a HUGE difference.


On a whim, Rowland and I decided to try sport climbing in the gym for a change of pace. We picked a resistant .13c and decided it would be our project for a few week or so to take a break from bouldering. The first few attempts were dismal. We got pumped, fell, climbed bolt to bolt. We were frustrated because falling off easy moves isn't very fun, so we decided it wasn't going to be a week long project, we were going to figure out how to do it NOW. So we took turns, worked and rehearsed every section until it was perfect and required minimal effort. 2hrs later we both sent, then repeated, and then did 2 laps on the route. We decided we may as well keep bouldering.


Being Strong is Important


“Absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. The bigger the glass, the more of everything else you can do.” - Brett Jones


The stronger you are the less energy you will use on longer climbs because each move is a smaller percentage of your max effort than a less strong climber.


Here’s a recent real world example:


Alex Puccio, who boulders V14, mentioned on social media that she trained 15 days on routes to prepare for sport climbing Nationals a few weekends ago. She place 3rd at the competition and possibly could have done better is the finals route was more challenging. She competed against and beat girls who were taller and who have climbed harder routes than she ever has in the range of 14c, 14d and multiple 15a’s. How is it possible that a boulderer can keep up with some of the country’s (if not the world’s) greatest female sport climbers?


Because she is already strong, trains hard moves and skills at the edge of her ability and has a lot of competition experience. It’s easy for her to take what she already has developed and spend 2 weeks on “endurance” and podium in a national level sport climbing competition against some of the best sport climbers in the world currently. I am certain if she wanted to she could go to Spain for a month and climb La Rambla. While Margo is very strong, I am not so certain that she could do the same and climb V14.


While I have been learning these basic concepts for the last 4 years as they relate to powerlifting, applying them to climbing is relatively new to me. These ideas are understood very well in the strength and conditioning world but they are not very well understood in the climbing world. The only person I know who has experience applying these ideas for many years to his own athletes is Rob Miller who I have been corresponding with for these articles. I have started all my athletes on this program recently but Rob already has years real word experience with it.  


My goal with these posts was to get this out there and introduce these general ideas to the climbing world via my audience. These ideas are not set in stone and I would love to discuss them! I plan on writing more about these ideas and as I apply them and learn from my experiences. I would love to hear from you if you try this or if you have some input!

Natasha Barnes