There’s a pervasive and patently false philosophy out there among climbers of every discipline. I hear it whether I am crimping plastic, stacking pads, smashing ice, plugging gear, or clipping bolts. It’s talked about inside and outside, on short roadside choss heaps and on long alpine routes in the mountains. If you climb long enough and listen closely enough, you’ll catch some version of it from the young and old, male and female, newbies with shiny gear and crusty old veterans sporting tattered harnesses and straight-shafted ice tools. And if you’re not careful, you’ll start to believe it. It’s the belief that the best way to become the best climber you can be is simply to climb more. Advocates of this mentality decry the use of free weights and running shoes, scorning those who frequent a gym and staunchly maintaining that training for climbing by any other means than climbing is a waste of time.
A lot of people call that mindset practical, efficient, or even progressive; I call it bullshit.
Before you start looking for rocks to throw and sending me links to the websites of famous climbers who avoid gyms like the plague, hear me out. I’ll concede the point that logging a lot of hours in a harness over consecutive days, weeks, months, and seasons is likely going to result in dramatic improvements in climbing ability. You’ll learn how to move properly, you’ll build and enhance sport-specific muscle groups, and you’ll become much more comfortable in the vertical realm. I will also agree that having six pack abs or the ability to crank out thirty consecutive pull-ups doesn’t mean you’ll be a natural on the rock. While a high degree of all-around fitness generally gives beginners an edge, I’ve take muscle-bound gym junkies out for their first ride on a top rope and watched them tire themselves out in the first twenty meters. Meanwhile, the timid, scrawny girl on the next rope over sends her first route with half the effort because she’s willing to listen and apply technique and proper footwork.
However, I’m not writing this for beginners or climbers who are happy as long as they are climbing one grade harder than the masses. This diatribe isn’t intended to motivate the weekend warriors lapping familiar routes at the local crag, or those lucky individuals who are truly satisfied to climb just for fun. I am penning these words for those who climb as a means of personal evolution. There are a few of us who really don’t care what anyone else is doing unless it further illuminates the corridor of our own potential. We seek to compete with ourselves, and for those looking to maximize their personal potential, simply getting in more laps at the local crag will eventually result in a plateauing of your progression.
In a recent conversation, my brother cited elite athletes such as Ueli Steck and Steve House to point out that using weights, resistance training, and other implements and techniques originating in the gym to train for hard climbs has recently become the trend. My opinion and response to him was that it has always been the trend amongst those looking to see just how close to the line of personal perfection they could tread.
Messner carefully observed and recorded his times as he all but ran up steep hills with heavily loaded packs to train for his Himalayan climbs. Twight used free weights and the Stairmaster to make himself as indestructible as possible when he was climbing hard new alpine routes all over the world. Bachar actually invented a fitness device – the Bachar Ladder – to push the limits of his free solo rock climbing.
The benefits of non-climbing training for climbing are of course partially physical. Increase core strength and your power-to-weight ratio and you’ll go faster in the mountains for longer and have a shorter recovery time after the ascent. You’ll also decrease the time spent exposed to objective hazards like rockfall and avalanches, and therefore lower the odds of coming home in a body bag. Not an alpinist? Those same improvements will result in a greater number of daily burns on your sport climbing or bouldering project, and of course the same bit about shorter recovery time applies. Climbing also tends to stress and strengthen very specific muscle groups; if you do a lot of climbing and don’t find a way to work the other muscles and tendons, you will typically be much more susceptible to injury.
Personally though, I think the greatest benefit of cross training is mental. Day after day of early morning runs while the rest of the world hits snooze and rolls over…workout stacked upon workout of planks, curls, pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, deadlifts, squats, leg lifts, and finger-boarding…hour after hour of sweat rolling down your face and soaking your shirt. All of these things combine to build a massive reserve of psychological strength rooted firmly on the knowledge that your lifestyle of discipline has rooted out any mental weakness – weakness that could otherwise sabotage your attempts at the route you now stand looking up at.
The philosophy isn’t new, but I believe the world we live in is softer and lazier than the world even thirty years ago. For all our increases in the technology of our gear, we have gone backwards in the measure of our discipline. By simple generational inclusion, I’m as guilty as the rest, but I am willing to do something about it.