Plateaus: Doldrums or Prevailing Winds?

Proportional to this wellspring of climbing psyche (AKA, existential crisis) I have been experiencing so far this year, I have opted to spam the living shit out of my blog in the hopes of having some record of this unique period of my life. Lately I have found some satisfaction in offering my thoughts on getting better at climbing. Even after twelve years of climbing, I still find that I have huge potential for 'getting better' at the sport. From this little kernel pops the topic of the third installment of my little training series. I will figure out what to call it after I write the article, or perhaps midway through.

Notice that I didn't claim to have huge potential for getting stronger at rock climbing? In an attempt at organizing and repacking the can of worms I just spilled with that statement, I will refer to an oft-mentioned phenomenon in one's personal climbing progression known as a "plateau". Imagine a graph of the exponential equation X^2 leveling off at one Y value after an exhilarating crescendo. For most of us who are mortal and possess somewhat 'average' genetics (if, during your first ever visit to a climbing gym, you walked over to the campus board and cranked out a one-arm on the mono-doigt, feel free to 'skim' this post) a mysterious and confounding blockade will intermittently be thrown in front of our progress as climbers. This blockade will manifest in a variety of ways: whether these be injury, staleness, regression (in terms of grades and/or enthusiasm), frustration or illness, all are part of the pinched nerve that a plateau represents for our enjoyment of the challenge of climbing.

It is important to take the meaning of progress at its most abstract, at least as it relates to rock climbing: it incorporates countless possibilities including but not limited to: strength, technical ability, mentality, intentions, personal well-being, experiential learning, fitness, pursuit of fame, glory and booty (both the 'filthy lucre' and the other variety). A plateau in our progression can be as much of a cacophony of these interlacing factors as we allow it to be; in parsing the plateau it becomes important to identify key issues, the 'limiting reagents' preventing the reaction from continuing forward. The best way for me to illuminate some of the possibilities is to draw from my own experiences. Opening closet and exhuming skeletons...now!

STRENGTH vs. TECHNIQUE: This strikes me as possibly the biggest factor in performance-related plateaus in climbing. In my own experience, I can clearly remember being a bumblefuck newbie, a total gumba who wanted nothing more than to claw my way up a V3 in the gym just to say I did. I gained a little muscle, pulled a few tendons and maybe climbed some harder grades? I do recall the first V7 I ever hossed my way up. It was extremely exciting for me. Really. Meanwhile, while I was exalting in chasing grades (IN THE GYM!) my footwork was an unmentionable atrocity; I had no clue what core strength was, much less balance; words like 'precision', 'flow' and 'grace' would have garnered little more than a vacant open-mouthed stare. Despite the lingering joint stiffness from that school of hard knocks, I did eventually make the connection. Technique could perhaps be called the coordinating force in climbing. By practicing good technique, many things are possible that would otherwise be forever out of reach. The economy of movement achieved by recruiting more muscle groups via improved coordination, for instance, is why we can use our feet on small holds while climbing overhangs; it is why we can initiate moves in our feet and legs and transfer the momentum to our arms via our cores; it is why we can cut our feet on steep routes and use momentum and timing to our advantage. The list could go on, but the main idea is that technique helps to create an economy of strength no matter what level of strength we possess. We can achieve new levels of actual strength and power output via use of specific training systems like system walls, campus boards and weighted pullups. With these methods, but perhaps especially with a more general 'brute force' approach to climbing, we quickly start to 'split the field' in terms of how fast different body tissues adapt to stress. For instance, tendon and ligament strength is easily outmatched by muscular development. Guess what happens next? POP! There go the next three months of climbing (and possibly a lot of other things; ever try to play guitar with a sprained 1st finger PIP joint?). The point here is this: you can only get stronger for so long before it outstrips your actual ability to climb (to coordinate movement, to economize on strength, to successfully execute different move sequences by reading hold patterns on routes, etc) which results in a plateau. The way through depends on the deficit. If your footwork is about as good as the guy next to you in the gym with socks under his size 14 rental shoes, then you know. If your ass sticks out while you climb steep routes because you think core strength is an engineering term, then you know. If you read routes about as well as George W. Bush would read children's picture books if he knew how to read, then you know. As technique is a mental pursuit, you apply the relevant ideas to your climbing through relevant skill-building exercises. For most people this is as simple as just trying new angles or different styles of climbs. There is hope for the bumbly and it is called technique! (and tighter shoes with no socks, not hanging chalkbags backwards from gear loops with oval carabiners, not wearing harnesses while bouldering in the gym or elsewhere, learning to use a GriGri while sport belaying, keeping your mouth closed while looking up at other climbers as they climb...)

FATNESS as opposed to FITNESS: Yes. As I sit here drinking cheap Trader Joe's beer and eating pretzels I will dwell on this topic for a few more sentences. I know that my posts lately have made me sound somewhat anorexic but fear not: I eat nearly 500 calories per day and wash it down with copious amounts of Bentonite clay suspended in apple cider vinegar. So there. But seriously: when I started climbing (four days a week, barefoot or in socks, at the UW rock in Seattle) I easily weighed 170 pounds. I am 5'6". I would love to think I was more...muscular...then. But let's face the facts: I weigh around a buck thirty right now. The missing poundage is probably more related to a drastic reduction in the amount of fast food consumed than anything else, but I digress: the importance of being fit cannot be overstated. Well, it can, but let's ignore that for now. A plateau could very well be related to baseline fitness as much as any climbing specific issue. An honest evaluation of one's general fitness can therefore be enlightening and humbling, yet extremely useful. Here are some simple questions. To borrow a term from internet personal ads, which I do not ever, ever use, are you HWP (height/weight proportional)? Are you at a moderate or better level of cardiovascular fitness (do you wheeze and reach for your cigarettes when you get to the top of a flight of stairs?)? Are your eating habits in line with your fitness goals? Do you often sit on the couch reading fantasy novels and crying while eating 6-month old Halloween candy and downing half-racks of Natty Ice? Does the acronym WoW mean anything to you? Some practical applications of developing more 'overall' fitness: the 5 mile hike to your 5.6 slab climb is no longer the crux of the day; you are no longer wearing a permanent weight belt while climbing (try climbing with 20 pounds hanging from your harness for reference); you no longer have to level-grind so you can spawn-camp the Striped Terrorsaurus of Fury for 24 hours at a time in order to obtain the Adamantine Scimitar of Prestidigitation (+5 dex, +2 str, +3 int, add +6 to your saving throw). Roll 1d20 to continue.

MENTAL HANGUPS: Admittedly, this category can really get as ugly as you want it to, but it's important to consider the possibility that your plateau is a direct result of you being a vainglorious, self-loathing egomaniac whose demented subconscious will stop at nothing to soil the purity of your lofty rock climbing goals. All joking aside: if your actions don't match your intentions, your training amounts to an almost absolute shit show. This issue is more cerebral than it is physical. If you don't know why you are attempting to push yourself forward in climbing, or worse still, if you are doing it for reasons incongruous with your true intentions, no matter how hard you are climbing you are setting yourself up for failure and disillusionment. Why do you like climbing? Why do you like getting better at climbing? Why do you make sacrifices to get better at climbing? Why does climbing occupy more of your mental run time than food, sex or sleep? What are your goals? There are many right answers; the main bugaboo here is honesty: do your answers reflect actual reality? For instance, if you are trying to use climbing as a means to attract mates and you can only grunt your way up a 5.10a, you need to reevaluate your goals: you must be able to climb 5.13c or harder (and/or the equivalent V-grade; bonus points for both) for climbing itself to make you more attractive to others. If you like climbing because it gives you a sense of personal wholeness and oneness with your surroundings, then guess again: climbing is about sending hard shit and being a fucking BAWSE. Dude. Oh: I almost forgot to add a personal vignette to color this section. I used to think that when I was climbing well, I was unstoppable in other spheres of my life. Then someone told me that I was 'cocky' as opposed to 'confident' and it pretty much crushed me for a little while. Now I realize that being cocky is just fine and serves numerous purposes, but that climbing has a bit less bearing on other parts of my life than I used to believe. This is unfortunate, because it's kind of one of the few things I'm good at at this point. And by good I kind of mean by 1990's standards. Oh well. Be as honest as you can be with yourself about your goals and act as congruently as possible with said goals. Be open to change even if it means taking three months off from climbing to play World of Warcraft. Well, maybe not that open to change. I dunno.

A summary might be helpful. I could easily continue with examples, but this topic has already run away from me a little as its potential scope is huge. The main idea behind overcoming plateaus is to be creative. Evaluate the situation and identify the most relevant limiting factors. Deal with these with a combination of applied training and introspection. As a sort of meta-exercise, try to figure out ways to avoid plateaus in the first place. There is a wealth of climbing training literature available now that should adequately cover many of these issues, but personal responsibility is required to apply the information. This responsibility is conceptually simple but operationally difficult to achieve: honesty and willingness to adapt imply maintaining a certain inward humility even if outwardly you are a total badass, bro. But really, no matter your personality, keeping an open mind and becoming better at recognizing your limitations will help you overcome those limitations, realize goals and learn an incredible amount about yourself in the process. In the end, the possibility that a plateau might completely reinvent climbing for you or I makes them absolute necessities in terms of our personal learning. It's really a trifecta of victory and you needed to schlep through at least 1000 words of my prose to learn about it. Thank you for reading and since I surely omitted important details, please feel free to add insight via the comments field. Just don't use more than 10% of your response for taunts or other assorted derision unless it's accurate.


  1. Do you ever try "weird" training exercises, like climbing without thumbs, or only open hand or half-crimp? My training realm has recently grown from the steep beast maker of a 45 degree home-wall to the rolling, columnar, EP "sickness" that is the CWU climbing wall (where, it's worth mentioning, I am now the "head route-setter"; I'm sure you're so jealous).
    I spent a day outside with some of the VW and SG climbing team protégées recently- a truly humbling experience. I really think that a huge part of training, and something perhaps only hinted at in your article is the value of objective assessment of skills, and in particular, relative weakness. Those kids don't really have weaknesses- their coaches' JOB is to find and eliminate them! Even the transition from plastic to rock didn't seem to matter (although I suppose in your realm of "scary" trad this would NOT apply). The advantages of youth might also be a factor as well, but I've always reserved that more for gym and comp climbing?
    You're gonna laugh at me for this, but as I become a gainfully employed member of society (and hopefully living in a city bigger than Ellensburg), the first thing I'm buying is a gym membership and perhaps even a personal trainer/coach.
    I have greatly enjoyed these, and all, or your articles- thank you for sharing!!!

    1. Head routesetter is a title never to be scoffed at! Training weaknesses! Yes: that is absolutely critical and you're right: I didn't really delve into it much. Being objective about your abilities, including weaknesses, is a big part of getting 'better', ie, developing better technique. It actually also can be the key to getting stronger, as some weaknesses include certain types of moves (dynamic) and the use of certain hold types (pockets, slopers).
      It is interesting to think of what our (us old guys) climbing would be like if we had personal trainers. I kind of feel like I missed the boat on that one, but it never was a priority of mine to be comp ready. I kind of fused the 'traditional' method of learning to climb with the more new age gym training stuff.
      As for open handed climbing: I always do it in the gym. Physiology dictates that open handed gripping (even on edges) will also improve crimp strength, but it doesn't work the other way. I'm pretty sure it's because crimping improves leverage on the hold (mechanical advantage) while open handed grips recruit more muscle groups. Also, crimping puts more strain on ligaments and pulleys, so too much gym crimping is a good way to get hurt. I think training specific grip types is probably best accomplished on a systems wall because you can replicate moves so easily and work muscles to failure safely without putting undue lateral stress on shoulders, etc.
      I think a personal trainer could be a great idea, however, no matter how hard you are cranking. As you say, they will ruthlessly illuminate your weaknesses and make you a better climber for them.
      I've been thinking about this a lot lately, not because I'm absolutely scientific about my gym sessions but because it's interesting. I kind of want to dig around in my brain and see if I know what I think I know...or something. Thanks for the response!

  2. I think it is time for a blog about "trad vs. sport".

  3. Sure. 'Trad' has the word 'rad' in it; 'Sport' doesn't. Discuss.

  4. But "bad" rhymes with "trad", discuss.