Some readers might be about to start the 8-week ice and mixed program, or they might be somewhere in the middle. I am about halfway through, so I thought I would share my experience up to this point. There’s quite a lot of text here (sorry about the long post) so if you just want to see the results skip to the bottom.
I had an active childhood, and was generally always healthy and fit. From about the ages of 15 to 30 I was involved in bicycle road racing. During this period, I did a great deal of structured training, and reached a relatively high competitive level. After I stopped bike racing, I stayed active, and continued mountain biking, running, hiking, and swimming. Now my principal sport is climbing. I’m 44, 6’4” cm tall, and weigh about 93 kg. I average just about 7 hours of exercise per week, and I have maintained that for the past fifteen years, with no extended breaks. Most weeks are 3-6 hours of short duration low intensity exercise. Occasional weekends in the mountains and climbing trips bring the average back up. I have a good base of aerobic fitness, but very little climbing specific strength, and essentially no experience with structured core and upper body strength training. I work nearly full time at a demanding job, I am the primary care giver for my eight-year old daughter, and I do the majority of work around the home, so my life is stressful.
Climbing level and goals
I live in Europe and climb mostly in the Alps. I climb rock to about 5.7, ice to about WI 4, mixed to about M5, alpine to about D. Sometimes I climb higher grades, but the numbers above are where I am solid.
It’s probably worth saying that I have been struggling with climbing over the last few years, trying to figure out what climbing means to me, wondering if I should quit now that I am a middle-aged father, thinking about how I can enjoy the mountains with a margin of safely while still challenging myself These are huge topics, but this ongoing process is part of what brought me to this training program.
My goal is not to climb harder, but to climb with more confidence and control. I want to be stronger than I need to be for any climb I might do. I want to know how know how it feels to climb steep ice and rock when I actually have some core and upper body strength. I hope it will make climbing safer, more relaxed, and more enjoyable.
The program is 8 weeks long, but I knew from the start that I would extend the program for longer. My plan was to do the general strength portion for 6-8 weeks, and the specific strength portion for 6-8 weeks. It took me 7 weeks to complete the general strength portion, so I am roughly on schedule. I have at least 8 weeks to complete the specific strength portion, although I might extend that to 9 or 10 weeks depending on how I feel, and when the ice conditions develop.
I got sick during week four. It would be easy to attribute this to over training, but it’s just the reality of my life. I get sick about 8-10 times per year, I eat well, I don’t drink or smoke, and I get at least seven hours of sleep each night, but I am exposed to hundreds of young people every day at my job, and having a child also increases my exposure to germs. I have a weak immune system, and I struggle with low iron levels, and low vitamin D levels, but I actively monitor these with a doctor, and maintain them as best as I can with supplements. Anyway, in week four I took five days off with no training, and then did one very light workout, going through all the exercises with low reps and no weight, as a way to start training again.
Next week, between the general and specific strength portions, I will take a recovery week. Then, somewhere in the middle of the specific strength portion, I will take another recovery week. I don’t think I could keep training for the next eight or nine weeks with no break in the middle.
Number of workouts per week
The number of specified workouts per week varies, but I decided to do just two workouts per week. I was a little afraid that this might not be enough training stimulus to see real benefits, but because this is essentially the first time I have done structured core and upper body strength training, I thought it would be better to go slowly.
Looking back, I can say that this was a good decision. I really needed two or three full days to recover from these workouts, so that I could get the most out of the next workout. Also, by doing the workouts only twice a week, I was able to schedule them on roughly the same days of the week, which helped with general life planning.
Difficulty and recovery
Earlier in the program the workouts felt light, almost easy. Later in the program, they were much more difficult, and required real concentration to complete. After a hard workout, I was tired for several hours, and I could feel the heaviness in my arms and upper body. That said, apart from a few minor pains and some general weakness, I was never really sore from these workouts, even on the second or third day afterwards, when I usually feel the effects of increased workload. I don’t know if this response is normal, but it felt right to me.
Where to workout?
It was not easy to figure out where to do these workouts. You need a certain amount of space and some simple equipment. One option is to go to a gym, but it’s not guaranteed that they will have everything you need, and you might have to negotiate about things like ice tool hangs. Another option is to stay at home. For me, the big advantage of staying home was the efficiency and the ease of scheduling. So I bought some inexpensive weights, found an old sleeping pad, and strung up some webbing for ice tools. This came with some compromises, but it made the workouts much easier for me to complete.
Conflicts with other training goals
Very early I ran into a problem that might be common—how do you combine one training program with another? When I started this program, I was working with a rock climbing coach in a local gym. His instruction and guidance have been incredible—I can’t believe I waited so many years before getting technique instruction. This coach suggested that I do regular high intensity rock climbing workouts, for example, climbing steep, overhanging routes to failure. I was afraid that if I did his workouts I would not have enough time to recover for the ice and mixed workouts. Conversely, I was afraid that if I committed to the ice and mixed workouts I would not have anything left for rock climbing. In the end, we worked out a compromise. During our once a week workouts, we focused on technique and drills. We also tried some overhanging routes with big holds, but I did not push myself too hard, and I made sure that I rested between attempts. This was more intense than the specified climbing workouts in the ice and mixed program, but because I was doing the strength training only twice a week, I decided it was acceptable. Maybe I was wrong. Mmybe I should have focused only on these workouts. I’ll have to wait and see how I feel when I start the specific strength portion.
Before I started the program, I spent a few weeks experimenting with the exercises, to allow my body to adapt, and to calibrate the difficulty for my strength level. This was harder than I expected. It took me several weeks to figure out an appropriate level of difficulty for each exercise, and as I grew stronger I had to keep changing what I was doing. I suggest that anybody who tries this program spend some time determining the appropriate initial level of difficulty, and be ready to adapt as you go along.
I found it really important to keep notes during each workout, including the sets and reps of each exercise. The program is delivered on the Training Peaks application. Every day I printed my workout on a sheet of paper. Then I kept notes on that sheet of paper. Later, I entered my notes back into my computer. This allowed me to process what I had done, and gave me a record to see how I progressed.
I generally followed the rest intervals between exercises, but after a few weeks I just went by my feelings. I think that overall I probably took a little more rest between exercises than suggested, but this helped me feel patient and focused, so that I could get the most out of each workout.
To boot or not to boot
When I started the program, I thought I would wear boots for the full length of each workout. I though that boots would add some weight for exercises such as pull ups, and have the best specific transfer to climbing for exercises such as calf raises. But I ran into some unanticipated problems. For example, my mountain boots left black marks on the wood floors in out house, and doing dynamic movements with mountain boots was noisy. This might seem trivial, but anybody with a new house, a wife, and a young child, will understand. In the end, I wore my sneakers for the warm up and core routine, where I was moving round on the floor a lot, and wore my boots for the general strength routine, calf raises, and ice tool hangs. During the core routine, when I felt like I needed more weight on my feet, I used ankle weights.
The specified warm up took me about 10-12 minutes. It felt right. I was ready for more exercise, but not overly tired. The dynamic stretching range of motion exercises were helpful. Just out of curiosity, since climbers are always wondering how to become more flexible, maybe it would be interesting to consult athletes who are truly flexible, such as gymnasts or dancers. How do they get that flexible? At the start, I could not do 10 push ups with full control, so doing doing 10 burpees felt too hard. I did just five burpees. Likewise, instead of just hanging from straight arms, I hung from both arms with my feet on the floor and swiveled my body in big circles. This moved my shoulders through a full range of motion. 360 degree arm swings were specified twice. I did the arms swings once forward and once backward. The warm up did not change throughout the program. I just kept doing the same thing.
The core routine was interesting. Some of the exercises, such as the bridge, felt easy. Other exercises, such the 3-point hold, felt difficult but possible. And other exercises, such as L-sit, felt impossible. To a large extent, this reflects my background. For example, the bridge requires significant gluteus maximus and hamstring strength. I have good leg strength left over from cycling, so it’s no surprise the bridge felt easy. In contrast, the L-sit requires very specific core strength. I have no training with this kind of movement, so again it’s not a surprise that this exercise felt impossible.
With some exercises, I found that small changes of arm or hand position made big differences in difficulty. For example, with the side plank, if my lower hand was not directly under my shoulder, the exercise was much harder. Likewise, for some exercises, such as the super push up, I found it helpful to rest by feet against a small edge, such as the threshold of a doorway, to keep them from sliding away from me.
Also, I found that small changes in position, or simply concentrating on form, were the easiest ways to make the exercises harder. For example, with the windshield wipers, if I focused on keeping my legs straight and moving them slowly, I could significantly increases the difficulty.
Last, I did not follow the specified order of exercises. Instead, I changed the order to what felt better, taking into account things like how many times I had to change position, what kinds of weights I needed to hold, and so on. I can’t imagine that the order of the exercises really matters, but it’s something to consider.
Overall, I would say that the core routine was really helpful, but it takes some time to figure our how to make it work for you.
General strength routine
The general strength routine was relatively straightforward.
I did not have anywhere to do real dips, so I did bench dips on the edge of a table. By extending my feet with my heels on the floor, and later adding weight, I was able to make these more difficult. Buying or making a simple apparatus to do dips might have been better.
I did not have anywhere to do real pull ups. It might seem simple to hang a pull up bar, but there is no appropriate doorway in my house. This problem is compounded by the fact that I am tall, so it’s hard to find a place to hang straight down. In the end, I switched places where I did pull ups throughout the program. I started doing pull ups with my fingers wrapped around the edge of a metal beam in out basement. This worked, but it required a good deal of finger strength, like a rock climbing exercise. Then I switched to doing pull ups with a piece of webbing and some sections of PVC pipe for handles over a beam. Again, this worked, but the grips changed position during the pull ups. Finally, I bought a thick wooden dowel, and hung it from the ceiling with webbing. This was the best solution. These changes had positives and negatives. On the positive side, I worked a variety of different muscles in slightly different positions. On the negative side, the changes made it hard for me to gauge my progress. I would say, if possible, find one way to do pull ups and be consistent.
Push ups were straightforward. Wearing mountain boots added a feeling of solidity. I know there are different ways to do push ups, for example, elbows out or elbows in. I don’t know of there is a preferred method, so I just kept my arms where they felt natural.
The calf raises were also straightforward. I did them on a stairway holding onto the rails lightly for balance. The total number of calf raises in the program is high. The felt easy for me, again probably because of the strength I have from cycling. I could have started with one leg calf raises, but I did two leg raises with no weight for several weeks, and slowly increased the difficulty, because I did not want to get a repetitive motion injury.
Ice tool hangs
I ran into the same problem with ice tool hangs that I had with pull ups. It was hard to find a place to hang from my ice tools. I ended up doing ice tool hangs with the tools hooked over a beam and pieces of foam to protect the wood.
One important problem involved body position. My understanding is that this exercise is designed to isolate forearms and grip strength. To do this, you need to hang straight down from your tools. However, as I said, I am tall, so I could not hang straight down from my tools. Instead, I had to bend my hips and knees, and bring my feet forward. This turned the hangs into something more like a core exercise. I could feel the muscles engaged over the length of my body, from my legs, through my hips, torso, and upper arms, to my forearms. The muscles that fatigued first were not my forearms, but muscles in my upper arms or shoulders. On one hand, this was positive. I need more core strength, so the more core work the better. On the other hand, grip strength is important, and I wanted to try to isolate my forearm muscles. Eventually, I found a way to hang straight down from my tools. It was a totally different exercise. When I hung straight down, I could hold on for much longer, and the muscles that finally fatigued first were my forearms. However, almost immediately, I developed pain in my shoulder on the top of my deltoid from an old injury. The program clearly states that when you do ice tool hangs you should keep your shoulder muscles engaged to prevent injury. I was very conscious of this, and I always tried to keep my shoulder muscles engaged, but in the end I could not find a way to hang straight down that did make my shoulder hurt. So I went back to doing ice tools hangs with my feet forward, a kind of mix of forearm and core strength. Of course, this made it difficult to track my progress, because I was switching back and forth. I would say that if you want to isolate your forearm muscles, and you can do so without hurting your shoulders, hang straight down from your ice tools. And if you struggle with shoulder injuries, or you feel like you need more core work, bend you hips and knees and bring your feet forward.
Did it work?
So with all that out of the way, what were the results? Did it work? Did I get stronger? To be honest, I had no idea if I would see any strength gains in seven weeks. I just don’t have enough experience with this kind of training. The short answer is, yes, it worked. I got noticeably stronger. Yeah!
I’ll try to give you a general idea of the kind of changes that I saw. Push ups: first week one set of six, last week two sets of ten. Pull ups with boots: first week one set of three, last week two sets of five. Ice tool hangs: first week one rep of twenty seconds, last week four sets of eighteen seconds with 7.5 kg weight. Calf raises: first week four sets of ten with both feet, last week ten sets of six on each foot.
In addition, for nearly all of the core exercises, I had to add weight and/or increase the difficulty to remain within the specified number of reps. By the end I was doing the bridge with 15 kg of weight and my leg pointed straight up, I was doing the kayaker with 12 kg of weight, and I was doing the side plank with 7.5 kg of weight. Best of all, by the fifth week, I could actually hold an L sit. This gave me an absurd amount of satisfaction, and I felt silly about how happy it made me, but it had been impossible at first.
I should say that all of these exercises are from the last workout of the seventh week. My body is tired, and I think I might see even more substantial strength gains after I take a recovery week.
There were some exercises where I did not seem to improve, or did not improve as much as I did in others. The three-point hold was hard when I started and remained hard at the end, although I do think that I had gained some stability and control. Hanging legs raises continue to be difficult. Again, I could see an increase in strength, but I have not yet been able to progress past the knees to chest stage. I’m embarrassed by how few pull ups I can do, but I guess I’ll have to keep training.
To summarize, I can say that it was really satisfying to complete these seven weeks, and I have no doubt that if I successfully do the next portion of the program, I will be much stronger in the winter. The exact numbers don’t really matter; it’s obvious that the training will help me in the mountains, if not simply how much physically stronger I am, then in the confidence and determination I have gained knowing that I have trained as well as I could.
I’ll write more when I finish the next portion of the program.
Steve and Scott, you guys have really given me direction at a difficult point for me in climbing. Thank you.