Indoor to Outdoor Climbing

By: Mack Maier

Climbing gyms are tough to beat: the camaraderie, the fun way to get your fitness goals, and the never-ending challenge that no doubt makes you a better person. But what if you feel like you are ready to take all your knowledge from the gym and take it outside to the boulder field?

Sending that red V8 in the gym feels great… but will it feel that good outside, in the sun with the wind blowing at your back; especially when the holds do not conveniently resemble the colors of the rainbow? I think so. I love climbing at the gym, it allows you to climb in all weather conditions, stay super fit, have fun with friends (and meet new ones) and best of all, get in a bunch of climbing in a short time, but sometimes you just gotta get outside, ya know?!

Alright, so you are ready to go, you’ve got your climbing shoes, chalk, and maybe if you are super hardcore, some finger tape. So, what next? Bouldering differs from rope climbing in that it’s already a very ‘minimalist’ style of climbing. One that requires little more than climbing shoes and some gumption. There are however a few things to consider if you want to stay safe and make the most of your time outside:

For starters, you are going to need a crash pad. In the climbing gym, the floors are the pads, but outside you’ve got rocks and dirt and they don’t feel that nice when you land on them from nine feet off the deck. So yes, you’re definitely going to need a crash pad. These can be pricey, so it might be best to meet up with some friends that are going bouldering or try to rent a pad from your local climbing gym, which is a great way to test out the waters and make sure you like climbing outside before you lay down your hard earned cash for a pad.

After you obtain your crash pad (the more the merrier), you are going to need a guidebook. Many gyms carry guidebooks, but you can also find them online. A great free alternative, is www.mountainproject.com, you can download all the routes for a given area or even for a given state, straight to your phone to be used offline, if you are way back in the woods. Make sure to pay special attention to what climbing areas are open and to always ensure that if climbing is on private property, that you are welcome.

Once you’ve found the perfect cleaning location; you have your pad and your guidebook and now you are ready to get after it. There are a couple things to keep in mind on your first outdoor climbing day that will ensure you have a safe, fun, outing:

  • Remember, in most cases, grades in climbing gyms are slightly, to significantly easier than outdoor grades. If you feel comfortable on that V4 at the gym, it would be best to start with a V0 or V1 and work your way up. Getting yourself up high on a boulder right off the bat can really put a hamper on the day.
    • Warming up is harder outside! In a gym setting, it’s very easy to get in a significant amount of movement in a very short time. But outside this is tough to do, boulders are often spread far apart and you simply can’t get as much movement in. To avoid getting hurt either bring a training board solution or get created by hanging from a tree climbing around on any easy boulders you can find or even doing jumping jacks and push-ups as an alternative.
  • Climbing gyms are very controlled environments. For the most part when you fall you can rest assured that the only danger is falling on another person. Outside however the landing zones can often be compromised, or even downright scary. Make sure that you’re landing zone is free of branches and rocks or other dangerous items (even a friends pair of shoes or a chalkbag can lead to a nasty sprained ankle). It’s also imperative to use pads correctly. Try not to overlap pads, this can cause instability and lead to injuries.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and in particular where you are. It’s also a good idea if you were going somewhere remote to tell someone else about your intentions. In the climbing gym if you get hurt an ambulance is a simple phone call away. However, outside you could be miles from the nearest road up a steep trail, and walking out on a broken ankle is not the way you want to spend your afternoon.
  • Have good ethics. Bouldering is an ever increasing sport, and the chances of running into other climbers outside is very good. It is common courtesy to ask other climbers outdoors if you can use their pads rather than just assuming that you can. Climbers are some of the nicest, most generous people in all of sport, but it’s still good practice to be friendly and not assume you can use other’s equipment.
  • If you tick marks with chalk, erase them. Your goal should be to leave the climbing area just like you found it, or better. No one likes coming to a boulder only to find that it already has chalk marks all over it. Chalk marks are great and can be helpful, just rub them off when you are done.

Near Longmont, some great beginner level boulders can be found at Flagstaff in Boulder, at Carter Lake near Berthoud, and in Rocky Mountain National Park at both Emerald Lake and in Lower Chaos Canyon. These last two options require more of a hike, but still offer great quality stone at lower grades.

If you’ve done all of the above, you are ready for a great time. Just remember, climbing is about the experience and the personal challenge, just as in the gym, climbing outside is not about achieving the highest grade or beating your friends. It’s a pursuit of movement in its purest form, and outside it’s a connection with nature. As the old saying goes, the best climber is the one having the most fun! So get out there, be respectful and experience all that climbing has to offer… and when you get tired of the sunburn and mosquitos, come back to the air conditioned, perfectly padded gym 🙂

Lifting Weights for Better Climbing

Climbers often ask me if lifting weights will make them better at climbing. The answer is no. As Steve Bechtel reminds us, “Climbing is a skill sport,” and the only way to improve a skill is to practice the skill. Sure, you’ll eventually need to employ climbing-specific training methods, but even those will still look a lot like climbing (hangboards, systems boards, and the like).

So it’s simple: climbers should only climb to get better at climbing, and avoid the weight room at all costs, unless they want to get bulky and slow. Right?

Not quite.

Here’s the thing. If you do one thing (rock climbing) over and over, you will eventually earn muscle imbalances and injuries. You think you’re the exception to the rule. In that case, please email me in a decade so that I can know what it’s like to receive an email from one of the genetic elites. Simply put, training with weights is the quickest, safest way to incrementally increase your total-body strength and guard against imbalances.

That said, you are a rock climber, and rock climbing is a skill sport. So you don’t want to waste any time in the weight room. You need the minimum effective dose of weight training, and you should spend the rest of your time practicing climbing.

As it turns out, you are in luck. It doesn’t take hours upon hours in the gym to gain strength. You don’t need to think about Leg Day, Back & Biceps, or Chest & Triceps. These are leftovers from the bodybuilding era that your high school coaches most likely lived through. And I’m not hating on bodybuilding, here. I’m a Schwarzenegger and Stallone fan from way back. I’m just saying that the bodybuilding methodology is not the best fit for rock climbers (among other athletes).

It’s time that climbers learned that there is more to lifting weight than getting big. You can build strength without size. You can build a balanced physique that can endure the rigors of hard climbing. Here’s how.

3 Rules

  1. Use compound movements. This means that more than one joint moves when you’re doing the exercise.
  2. Keep the reps at 5 or less. Any more than this and you will likely build non-functional muscle mass. If you’ve ever been told that “low reps + heavy weight build mass,” then please know that whoever told you that was wrong.
  3. Never go to failure. Always leave a rep or two in the tank. For many of you, this will be the hardest rule to follow, but try to be mature in the weight room. Remember, Hemingway always stopped writing for the day when he knew what would happen next. Take the same approach. Leave some ink in the well.

Below is an example of how a climber might set up a strength training program. All of the fundamental movement patterns are covered. The sessions will take less than an hour each. It’s going to take a few months, but you will get strong. If you don’t believe me, try it out and let me know what happens. Come to one of my fitness classes and we can talk more.

Starting Weights
Goblet Squat / HaloPressWeighted Pull-upDeadlift
12-20kg Kettlebell6 Rep Max6 Rep Max6 Rep Max

 

Warmup
Goblet Squat x 5x 3
Halo x 5 Left / 5 Right

 

The Program
WeekPressWeighted Pull-upDeadlift
15 x 35 x 310 x 1
25 x 45 x 45 x 2
35 x 55 x 53 x 3
4Add 5 pounds and start overAdd 5 pounds and start overAdd 10 pounds and start over
  • Do this two days per week, always with at least one rest day in between. Day 2 each week will be exactly the same as Day 1. Enjoy it.
  • If you climb outside on the weekends, then Tuesday/Thursday would be the ideal days for these sessions.
  • If you’re climbing in the gym on the same day as lifting, always climb first.
  • Once the weight starts to get feel like it’s near max, decrease the weight by 15% and start a new cycle.
  • If you stall at the same weight more than once, switch to a different program.

This program is dead simple. It’s absolutely effective. And it will leave you plenty of time for climbing. If you enjoyed this, you may also be interested in my article on progressive overload training.

If you’re unsure of how to execute any of these lifts or if anything above is unclear, please ask for Taylor at the front desk. I’ll probably be around.

Taylor


Influences

Power To The People. Pavel Tsatsouline, 1999.

Logical Progression. Steve Bechtel, 2017.

Easy Strength. Dan John & Pavel Tsatsouline, 2011.

Intervention. Dan John, 2013.