ARC Training is Base Training for Rock Climbers
By Steve House
We spend a lot of time talking about building the aerobic base for mountaineering, alpinism, mountain running, ski mountaineering, and SkiMo racing. But what constitutes base-training for rock climbers? Spending many hours running and hiking is not useful for leading your first 5.10 outdoors or redpointing 5.14. (except possibly as weight management.) But ARCing, short for “Aerobic Respiration and Capillarity” Training, is to rock climbing what a long zone 2 run is to a mountaineer. As with these more aerobic-based sports, this training establishes the base fitness that climbing performance relies on: strength, power, and power-endurance.
ARC training is focused primarily on the forearm muscles. Though your upper arms, shoulders, back, core and lower legs will also be getting trained, these aren’t typically the areas of limitation. The goal of ARC training is simple: to extend time at which you can hold on, and keep climbing.
Choose a section of the gym that has routes within your limit that you can climb without falling, or hanging on the rope. The climbing should generate a light but manageable forearm pump that you can maintain for the entire time. Part of the pump/fatigue management comes from climbing with good technique, finding mid-route rest positions, and generally doing what we’d call “climbing well”. Regulating how hard you are gripping is key to this exercise, and an important skill for every climber to hone.
If you are climbing 5.11 or easier, then start 2 sessions of 30 minutes split by a 30 minute rest. this means that you can do this with a partner, and he/she can be climbing while you’re resting (and belaying them). If you are climbing 5.12 or harder start at week 3/4:
This workout is ideally done with a partner, or an auto belay, but can also be completed on a Treadwall if necessary.
You may down climb some of the routes to maintain more time on the wall, some gyms may even allow you to down-lead, which adds a useful mental training component.
Here is a suggested progression assuming you can climb indoors twice a week and outside once a week.
Week 1 and 2: 2 ARC sessions. 2 x 30 min with 30 min rest. Outdoor climbing: Focus on doing pitches. As a guideline aim for at least 90 minutes of on-rock time, but not more than 120 minutes.
Week 3 and 4: Two ARC sessions: 3 x 25 minutes with 25 minutes rest. Outdoor climbing day, focused on doing pitches. As a guideline aim for at least 110-120 minutes of on-rock time, but not more than 150 minutes.
Week 5 and 6: Two ARC sessions: 3 x 30 minutes with 30 minutes rest. Outdoor climbing day, focused on doing pitches. As a guideline aim for about 125-135 minutes of on-rock time, but not more than 180 minutes.
To progress this beyond four weeks you can mimic the progression above and by using a bit of common sense. You can extend this training for a long time, arguably 16 weeks or more, depending on your goals, before you start integrating significant power and power-endurance style workouts.
Specific Finger Training
One more thing: Fingers! If you’ve been climbing indoors regularly for a year or more, and/or you can on-sight 5.10+/11- sport you’ll want to add in some more specific finger work. Try this simple hangboard workout on one of the days you are not climbing.
Start each exercise on the minute, rest the remainder of the time. Always use an open handed grip. Exact hold selection will depend on you and your fingers, remember this is only a warm-up:
3 pull-ups on jugs
15 second hold jugs. Arms at 90 degrees.
15 second hold 4-finger pocket. Arms at 120 degrees.
Repeat a total of 3-5 times through the above circuit until you feel warm and are starting to get a bit sweaty. Rest for three minutes, then:
Both hands on slopers. Arms at 90 degrees.
Hang 10” +0lbs, rest 3’ (minutes)
Hang 10” +5lbs rest 3’
Hang 10” +10lbs rest 3’
Both hands in three finger pocket. Arms at 120 degrees.:
Hang 10” +0lbs, rest 3’
Hang 10” +5lbs rest 3’
Hang 10” +10lbs rest 3’
Both hands on a (for you) small edge. Arms active (don’t hang from your joints) but straight:
Hang 10”, rest 3’
Hang 15”, rest 3’
Hang 20″, rest 3’
If that doesn’t do much for you, or feels easy, then ladder the above. Meaning walk it back down by doing the small edge routine, then the three-finger pocket routine, then the sloper routine, then walk it back up by doing the sloper routine again, the three-finger pocket, and the small edge. Cycle this up and down as much as you need. Simple, we like simple around here. Don’t continue to failure, but stop when you feel you could probably squeeze out one more set. Or, to think of it another way, quit when you’re 80-90% done.
Note: For more information about ARC Training we highly recommend The Rock Climber’s Training Manual by Michael and Mark Anderson. Close readers of Training for the New Alpinism will recognize that the physiology covered by both books is the same.