Training for Gnar: Intro

Now, I’m not a certified expert on the subject of training, but I do have a lot of tips to give. I train like a complete masochist, pouring every ounce of my being into each session as if my life depends on it, because it does. Lets be blunt, when I’m soloing 200’ in the air there is nothing between me and the ground except for my fingers and my mind. They simply are not allowed to fail, so I put a lot of thought into training them properly. This blog mini-series will counteract a lot of myths and mistakes I’ve seen folks ascribing to in gyms around the nation, as well as outline the ideas and theories I use to come up with my routines so that you can hopefully make a program that works for you as well. Don’t copy what I do, but rather use these ideas to tailor a regimen that’s geared towards your fitness level and goals.

I’m not going to tell you what to do for your training routine. I want to tell you how to develop your own.

Wolfgang Gullich (Inventor of the Campus Board) soloing
Wolfgang Gullich (Inventor of the Campus Board) soloing “Separate Reality”

The most important thing is to have a goal. What do you want to climb? Hard bouldering? Hard lead? Onsight? Comps? Or do you perhaps want to climb 5.6 trad all day? Each one of these requires a different focus for training. If you do not set a goal there is no way to train for it. Without focus you will not be able to progress effectively. Think of it this way: If you don’t have a target, how can you hit it? Just as you need a goal for your training overall, you need to have an intent for each session. Is this a recovery day, a training day, or a day for fun? You can’t train properly without a little forethought.

The main reason people tend to stagnate is due to the fact that it’s easy to come into the gym and randomly climb whatever looks fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but without focus your training will stagnate eventually. Even if your training is “just climbing” and you’re not a fan of fingerboards or other tools, you still need to focus your efforts to make progress.

In order to train one facet of your climbing, you must remove as many variables as possible and only focus on the one thing you are attempting to improve. The biggest mistake I see in climbers attempting hang-board routines is that they lack specificity. Walking up to a fingerboard and doing tons of pull-ups on two-finger pockets has next to no value as a training tool, because it’s not specific enough. Climbing hard sport to up your mental game doesn’t work because you have the variables of difficulty, and clipping in addition to fears of falling. To truly work on a goal, you need to target one thing at a time. If you want to get better at clipping, perform lots of clips. If you want to work on falling, stay on easy climbing and fall when you chose to instead of adding extra stresses. If you want to work on finger-strength, don’t engage the biceps. If you are terrified of falling, adding difficult climbing into the mix might be too much stress. Just take it one thing at a time, and remember you can train multiple things in a session if you plan well.

Wolfgang's project required long throws into mono-pockets, so he designed the Campus Board to train that specific strength
Wolfgang’s project required long throws into mono-pockets, so he designed the Campus Board to train that specific strength.

Rest and Recovery:
Nobody ever built strength in a gym. Or on a rock for that matter. Your strength is built at night when you’re sleeping after a good session. Without proper recovery time your workout will be wasted because you didn’t have enough time to build strength before your next session. Drinking excessive alcohol, sleeping too little, and stressing your body in other ways that prohibit recovery will only exacerbate this and can lead to injury in the long-term.

When I’m training hard, I can only stand a maximum of 3 training days per week. That drops down to 2 days per week when I’m working on more severe strength/power exercises. Jan Hojer progressed incredibly rapidly through the grades, and currently has several V15’s under his belt. His training schedule rarely exceeds 12 hours per week.

Injury Prevention:
I’ve been training like a masochist on fingerboards and campus-boards for nearly seven years now. I’ve never had a single over-use injury. No tendon tweaks, no tendonitis, no pulley tears, no shoulder injuries. You must respect your body in order to progress. Frequently you must make an active decision between climbing NOW and being able to climb tomorrow. Always exercise caution, and keep your entire body fit to prepare for the stresses of training. If you’re sore, you might want to lay off. Muscle soreness is a wonderful thing because it means your most effective training for the day is just sitting around and relaxing, or doing all that housework you’ve been putting off because of climbing!

Also try to reduce the number of sets on an exercise to a reasonable level. You wouldn’t attempt the crux move on your hardest boulder problem 20 times a session, multiple days a week and expect to get away un-injured. Why would you apply different logic to training?

Warming Up:
Most people warm up improperly. It’s called a warm-up for a reason, your body temperature and heart rate are both supposed to elevate. If you haven’t begun to perspire ever so slightly, the odds are high that you haven’t been warming up on easy enough terrain. The ideal warm up is so easy that your muscles don’t get pumped on any of the moves, and for this reason it is difficult for most folks to warm up properly by climbing boulder problems unless your body is already highly trained. Climbing is hard, and bouldering is just the hard part, make sure you keep it easy in the warm-up. Personally, I love warming up on 5.6 auto-belay routes and V0’s.

Even Adam Ondra considers training important, despite his natural talent. Photo: EpicTV
Even Adam Ondra considers training important, despite his natural talent. Photo: EpicTV

Types of strength:
We tend to use the term “finger strength” to include anything that will help us claw our way to the top of a problem, but what is that comprised of really? It boils down to four important aspects.

  1. Strength: How much force can you apply with your fingers, what is the smallest hold you can grab? This is the limiting factor on boulder problems and stopper-cruxes. If you find yourself failing on a problem/route because you simply can’t hang on the crux holds, even when fresh, then training strength might break your plateau.
  2. Power: This is a climber’s zero-to-sixty rating. Right now, as you’re reading this, make a fist. Now squeeze as hard as you can. Do you feel how it takes a moment to engage all of the muscles in your forearm? Power is a term we use for how quickly your climbing muscles will engage. Power is the ability to snatch a small hold on a desperate move and apply full strength before you are overcome by momentum and swing off. If you have difficulty latching the hold on crux lunges, or your fingers slip off even after your fingers stick the hold, perhaps you could benefit from increased power.
  3. Muscular endurance: This is your ability to keep pulling one hard move after another without pumping out, think in terms of 15-30 difficult moves with little rest. Commonly this is referred to simply as “endurance,” but endurance is more complex than that. If you fall off the crux of a route because your forearms feel like they’re filled with concrete, and you can do the moves when you’re fresh, then working on muscular endurance might bring the send!
  4. Cardio Endurance: This is your ability to keep climbing hard routes/problems all day long at the crag. This is what separates folks with the ability to give one good project burn, from those who can work a hard route 5 to 6 times in a day and still make progress. It’s your ability to recover, and it’s what gets blood flowing in your muscles. This is essential for recovery between moves, between routes, and between sessions. If you find yourself overly fatigued after a short session at the crag, lack the ability to keep climbing “easy” routes at the end of the day, perhaps your days could be extended with a little cardio that’s specific to climbing.

Coming up Next:
Warming Up for Gnar


The Ultimate Question

“There are two kinds of climbers, those who climb because their heart sings when they’re in the mountains, and all the rest.” – Alex Lowe

There are many questions that cause folks to get on or get off on each other in the world of climbing, questions of ethics, style, and doubt. It’s easy to lose sight of why you even climb to begin with if you get lost in the minute details of it. Now, why are you up there to begin with?


It can’t be for glory, attention or adrenaline. Those seeking a fix will ever seek more. You become desensitized to the whole endeavor and have to step your antics up even higher, and higher, risking more and more. The only acceptable reason to be up there, is because it brings you joy. If you’re up there for any other reason, you’re an idiot and you’re probably going to die.

Now, I’m assuming you’re not an idiot. You and I actually like being out there enjoying life. And yet we are all attracted to pursuits of varying risk within the vertical world (or the flat one for that matter). What makes one person choose certain types of risk? Ultimately it comes down to that sense of joy in the moment, humans naturally seek out activities that make them happy. But what separates those who prefer toprope from free-soloing, or Sudoku for that matter?

“We climb in the mountains because it brings us joy, but we have to ask ourselves: Will this joy lead to harm?” – Dean Potter


Dean nailed it on the head in his latest film “When Dogs Fly.” It’s the ultimate question in this human world: “Will this joy lead to harm?” We all have carefully trained skillsets for the purpose of avoiding harm, that’s what keeps us alive and active in our favorite pursuits. And there are a lot of forms of harm. There’s harm to yourself, harm to those you love, harm to those around you at the moment (rescuers, etc), harm to the places we love (chopping bolts, worn gear), and harm to our community in general (access and regulatory issues). And no matter what climbing you participate in, you have to understand that balance between how much joy this activity brings you, how likely it is to bring harm, and what sorts of harm could be visited upon you. If you’re unsure of any of those things, perhaps it’s time to go sit on a rock somewhere and contemplate life for a bit.

You can usually smell out access issues pretty easily. In the modern world we have websites and regulatory agencies with this information publicly available, along with any regulations in your prospective place of adventure. Follow them, don’t ruin it for the next guy, it just takes a little research to see if your activities could harm your community.

As for the rest? We all know we have a certain set of physical, technical, and tactical skills. You have to evaluate long and hard to decide if you’re up to the task. If the consequences are dire, and they easily can be when gravity is part of the equation, you have to be quite sure things will go your way. I intend to have a long life of climbing with many thousands of pitches logged. If there’s a 1% chance of deadly or serious injury, it will catch up to you VERY quickly.


Someone once quoted John Bachar to me as having said “The purest form of climbing is toprope with a little slack.” I don’t know if he said it, and I can’t find attribution to the quote anywhere on the internet, but it’s a sentiment I really appreciate. There’s a human on a wall, going generally upward. That’s climbing. Everything else is just a set of names we came up with to yell at each other on the internet.

Take whatever risks are appropriate to your skills, and make sure to know them well. Understand that there are unintended consequences of every action, and likely hazards that you haven’t thought of. Always to have some extra reserve just in case, especially when the risks are high. The closer you creep to the edge, the easier it becomes for something unexpected to tip you over.

Make a ritual, stop and contemplate at the base of every route you climb. If you’re not absolutely sure that this joy won’t lead to harm, then it’s simply not worth it.

Dopey Duck: First Natural Ascent

Michael Reardon soloing at Joshua Tree
Michael Reardon soloing at Joshua Tree, with the best chalk-bag placement in history

“The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.” – Alex Lowe

Shenanigans have a long and vibrant history within the world of climbing, stonemasters with spoons and carabiners hanging off their noses, michael reardon soloing naked, taking whippers off El Cap for fun, making huge rope swings, John Sherman chugging a beer in flip-flops on “Lord of the Rings”…. We have a long history of mocking the seriousness of gravity, we have to make fun of it to survive, you just can’t be serious all the time! Better to save that for when you really need it. And hell, since when did we forget that climbing is supposed to be fun? After all, what could be more absurd than throwing yourself at some rock and attempting to fall your way up it? (for example, sport-project climbing).  If you’re not going to have fun, go home.

Yvonne Chouinard says if you take the risk out of climbing, then it’s not climbing anymore. Personally, I think if you take the shenanigans out of climbing, you’ve ruined the whole endeavour. You’re going to have fun if you’re doing it right!

C'mon guys, why so serious?
C’mon guys, why so serious?

I’ve had the pencant for climbing chalkless for a long time, ever since college when I was too lazy to move the chalk bag from my car all the way over to the climbing gym…. Hell most of the time I pick up chalk that’s already on the holds, and that’s plenty to cobble together an ascent!

Barefoot climbing has always been a hilarious pursuit, and I’ve always maintained that climbing a route barefoot says more about the route than the climber. I onsighted 5.11a barefoot a few times at The Red, but if you had instead stuck me on a 5.7 slab in North Carolina…. Not gonna happen.

Ben Rueck engaging in shenanigans on "Lord of the Rings" (5.13d)
Ben Rueck engaging in shenanigans on “Lord of the Rings” (5.13d)

To this day, I still haven’t roped up on Dopey Duck. I onsight soloed it a little over a year ago, and tend to take a good lap up it every time I’m in the area, it’s just too beautiful of a line to pass on. I watched an instagram clip of this guy performing an “FNA” (First Natural Ascent) on some V3 boulder problem, and that put the bug in my head….

It’s there, I’m there, I’m going to be soloing anyhow, so why not? Lets get some prime shenanigans! The area was remote, so I decided to solo naked. If you’re stripping everything down to the basics, might as well leave the chalk behind! and barefoot? Well, that’s just funny!

Climbing naked? It’s just kindof a jackass stunt, but isn’t all of climbing just a jackass stunt when you get down to it? Now get out there and have some fun!

 there are two kinds of climbers, those who climb because their heart sings when they’re in the mountains, and all the rest.
-Alex Lowe