How to Build Power and Endurance for Climbing

I’ve often viewed climbing as a metaphor for life, and this especially comes to life when we think about power and endurance.  This week’s edition of BB celebrates the ability to endure and power through when the going gets tough, and it’s all too tempting to give up and let go.

When we rock climb, we put ourselves out there, and we may not always send or summit. Falls are inevitable, but we endure and power through it all.

Powering through an overhang  @ Denver Bouldering Club this past weekend

Powering through an overhang @ Denver Bouldering Club this past weekend

Whether it’s on rock, ice, snow, or the internet, the feeling of absolute vulnerability is familiar to me. I recently applied for a scholarship to an eight-week online marketing program to help transform my passion project into a business, and did not win. Shortly thereafter, I found myself 12,998 ft. above sea level struggling to ski down steep, powdery, bumpy conditions with no visibility. In both cases, I put myself out there with no guarantees of success. But what I learned were the invaluable lessons of the ability to power through and endure.

Atop Imperial Bowl, Breckenridge @ 12,998 ft.

Atop Imperial Bowl, Breckenridge @ 12,998 ft.

Power and endurance in bouldering can mean the difference between sending and falling. Have you ever had the feeling of rock hard forearms after a climb? Of course you have! That, ladies, is the all-too-familiar forearm pump – the buildup of lactic acid and restricted blood flow.  The best way to overcome forearm pump is to build power endurance.  What is power endurance? Cate of CruxCrush describes and prescribes it best:

Imagine taking the hardest boulder you’ve sent and throwing it on top of 50 feet of moderate climbing – that’s a rough definition of power endurance. How do I build up my power endurance?


Pick four boulder problems that are around your onsight limit in difficulty (a grade you can occasionally climb on the first attempt) – make sure you’ve done the problems successfully, but that you still have to try hard. Then get ready to hurt (in the fun way). Climb each boulder problem, one right after the next, boom-boom-boom-boom, without taking a break (move between problems as quickly as possible. Seriously.). Rest 2-4 minutes. Repeat 3 more times. If that sounds easy to you, try it and get back to me. Believe me, you will feel it.

In addition to climbing intervals to train forearm and pull-muscle endurance, these basic exercises have been shown to make a significant difference in climber’s endurance off the ground:

  1. Pull Up and Often:  This exercise is highly effective for building local endurance in the large pull muscles of your upper arm and back. Many climbers use mounted hang boards, specially made boards with finger and hand holds that mimic natural features on rock, to perform these exercises. The pull-up is also highly overlooked as a hand and grip exercise as well as a core exercise. Finger and grip strength is one of the first things to go in a climber’s reserve, so regular pull-up training greatly improves this weakness.  Your goal is to complete twenty, one-minute pull-up intervals which are comprised of a set number of pull-ups and a rest period taking exactly one minute. Use a stop watch or clock with a second hand so that you can stay on an exact training schedule.
  2. Be Efficient, B-E Efficient:  Learning to climb more efficiently requires a conscious effort, so get a partner and make a game out of it. The following are energy-conserving techniques to practice on moderate routes or in the gym:
    • Predetermine the rest positions on a route and only chalk up and rest there. Climb briskly from one rest to the next.• Limit your time on any given hold to five seconds or less, except for rest positions. Climb past the smallest, pumpy holds as fast as possible.

    • Vary your grip position whenever possible. Alternate between crimps, open hands, thumb locks, pinches, and pocket grips as often as the rock allows. Don’t miss a chance to sink a hand jam or finger lock — these are great energy-saving grips that many face climbers miss.

  3. Flex your fingers and wrist between grips. Recovering on a route is something most climbers just let happen. This is a mistake — instead, take a proactive role in the recovery process. Open and close your fingers or flex your wrist between each grip. Visualize flicking water off your fingers or hand as you reach for the next hold — that’s the motion you are after. This spurs blood flow through the forearm muscles — which actually stops during times of maximum gripping. The aggregate effect of doing this between every grip will significantly reduce your accumulated pump.

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