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Strength Training Versus Board Climbing, Which is Better?

Which shows more rapid strength gains? Conventional strength training isolates, but difficult board climbing strengthens the system

For someone like Alex Megos, more is more. Perhaps it comes down to the focus derived from dedication, and the subsequent learning that results. Maybe, instead, it a strength-based sport, where strength-gains produce results in difficulty. Most likely it is a combination of both, but how does a person learn where they should put their efforts?

As climbing settles in the training space, an argument persists. Should you train for climbing or should you climb to train? The first supposes calisthenic work, fingerboard, weight training, campus board, grip trainers and other non-climbing avenues as primary methods for strength gain. The other supposes board climbing as it is undoubtedly the best style of climbing for strength gain.

We are going to restrict our conversation and argument to the strength and power gaining portions of our training cycle. Although a person may argue that we are perpetually getting stronger by virtue of technical refinement, we are not talking about technique. If you want to technically improve as a climber, it is no contest: climbing is the best training.

Weights, Hangs, Pulls and Presses

Let’s begin with non-climbing training. There are six main strength elements to non-climbing strength training: flexibility, pulling power, lumbar, abdominals, shoulders, and fingers. Each of these can be further specified into their components, especially around the torso.

Pulling power is a large group of muscles ranging from the traps through the biceps to the lats and into the smaller muscles of the back. Pulling uses almost every muscle in the torse, and the training for tends to train a system more than a single muscle.

We separate the abdominals from the lumbar because both are essential for different reasons and many climbers approach them as though they are the same. As a quick aside, abdominals may help you get your feet up, but it is your lumbar that keeps your feet on holds in an overhang.

Regardless, training these six components in isolation, offers massive strength gains over short amounts of time. Although training should be more consistent than a six-week training block, this short amount of time, paired with a high intensity, high-resistance strength cycle will show rapid improvement in those areas trained.

A person’s fingers and body will notice immediate rapid adaptation, especially if they have not trained in some time. The problem with this approach is that it isolates the body’s various components.

Instead of strengthening the lumbar in conjunction with the lock-off strength a person needs to move precisely between edges on an angle, they learns to press hard with their feet, and separately learn to lock off a large amount of weight. As such, the pieces are there for immense strength, but communication between these components is lacking.

Climbing as Training

To this editor, whether the above communication constitutes technique is unclear. In some ways, knowing how to pull while pressing through feet is a technical exercise. In other ways, there are smaller muscles that were never touched in the above approach to strength training.

Although exercises like fingerboard, front lever, campus board, leg lifts, and weighted pull ups each reflect specific instances of climbing a hard project, they each differ dramatically from the process of climbing hard. As such, they do not train climbing hard as an exercise.

In a recent interview with Yves Gravelle, The Nugget Climbing Podcast asked about Gravelle’s training. He said that climbing is interesting because a person can specialize to become extremely proficient at a certain style of climbing. They can focus their attention on a certain project and become better in relation to that goal. By being specific, a person can attain rapid progress toward their project.

This argument translates either the strength training or climbing training approaches to strength gain. The relative success would function as a result of goal specificity.

If that is the case, then climbing as a form of strength training appears difficult to beat. If we choose to evaluate success in progression by a climbing-grade difficulty metric, and progression functions as a result of specificity in climbing focus and we presume similar intensities, then climbing as a form of strength training should be the stronger of the two methodologies.

While this argument appears sound, there are anthropological challenges with it. Climbing is difficult to truly optimize between burns. The biggest advantage conventional strength training has over climbing is that all exercises can be placed at a near-peak level of difficulty. Rest can be optimized, and the climber will surely complete the exercise. As such, a near-maximal effort is elucidated with each attempt. This accelerates adaptation and better approaches the specificity required for optimal progression.

What to do?

Well, if the goal is to increase strength for climbing, we will likely have to incorporate both approaches. An ideal world would see well rested, high-resistance attempts separating our rests on a climbing board of at least 35 degrees overhanging.

If this is not a possibility, however, then we must presume a small amount of strength training as necessary for progression. First, we must choose our training goal: pick a project. Next, we must simulate that project on a wall of the same angle. Then, we must evaluate the places our simulator fails to reflect the difficulty of the project.

When we have done that, we must focus on improving those strength components through weight training. If possible, complete this weight training after the climbing session, so the highest resistance portion of your session can be focused on accelerating the adaptation of the smaller muscles. The bigger muscles are easier to isolate through strength training. As such, sub-optimal strength training can occur within 30% of your max even after a difficult climbing session.