Periodization of Strength Training for Rock Climbing

pen and paper

Periodization of training for rock climbing is the planning and organization of your training plan around a single goal by fitting together training load, training intensity, and recovery times. To prevent injuries and to perform at your best when you plan to.

In this article, I explain what periodization is, how the system works, and how it’s done for different goals.

Let’s get right to it.

1.      What is Periodization?

As I mentioned above periodization is a method to organize your training to achieve your goal without getting injured.

Periodizing your training inherently means that you work towards a goal and therefore cannot peak every single training. You only peak when you want to perform at your best. The entire process before is building the foundation for your best performance. A great example is Adam Ondra who set a personal record for Speed Climbing during the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021.

However, performance in rock climbing doesn’t only depend on proper periodization. At least not in the same way as a sport like running. Because running depends entirely on physical fitness, technique, and to a lesser extent your mental fitness. And the latter means that you “just” have to tolerate high amounts of pain and fatigue. Rock climbing on the other hand requires a high amount of fine coordination and technique which are easily compromised by fear of falling, and by mental and/or physical fatigue. This mental aspect of rock climbing, combined with the necessity of proper technique reduces the relative importance of periodization as compared to running.

Nevertheless, if you have great technique and a great mental game but you train like a maniac and ignore all the rules of periodization, you’ll get injured. And can’t climb at all which leaves you with nada.

So, periodization is necessary but it isn’t the sole factor for your best rock climbing performance.

2.      Why Should You Periodize Your (Strength) Training?

The main reasons why you should periodize your training for rock climbing are:

  • To prevent injuries
  • To achieve optimal performance at your chosen moment

How?

By intentionally fitting all the training blocks together. These include the following:

  • Rock Climbing Sessions
  • Boulder Sessions
  • Outdoor Climbing/Bouldering
  • Strength Training
  • Antagonist Training
  • Fingerboard Training
  • Campus Board Training
  • Recovery Strategies
  • Stretching

3.      The 4 Cycles of Periodization

There are 4 steps to creating a periodized training plan. You start with your long-term goal, typically 4 years ahead. Yes, you read that right. Think long-term, this will greatly enhance the efficacy of your training plan today. Because you can’t train everything at once and training adaptations take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year to manifest themselves.

The 4-year plan is divided into macrocycles of years and/or parts of a year. A mesocycle then includes an entire training phase, and finally, the microcycle is your weekly training plan. Naturally flowing out of the planning steps you made before.

3.1  4 Year Plan

In the 4-year plan, you set your goal for 4 years ahead. Then you look at each year and think of what gross steps you need to make to accomplish that goal. This can be as simple as the following:

  • 2026: climb 8a
  • 2025: climb 7c
  • 2024: climb 7b
  • 2023: climb 7a

After this global overview, it’s time to zoom into the year ahead.

3.2  Macrocycle

There are multiple ways to see a macrocycle. To me, a macrocycle is a year or a large part of the year. If you have two moments you want to peak each year you divide the year into 2 macrocycles.

Now let’s continue from where we stopped in the 4-year plan. Look at each year and think about when you can climb more and when you have less time and/or other hobbies you want to focus on. Skiing in winter for example, or there might be a certain part of the year you’re usually more occupied at work.

If you’re planning a climbing holiday, make sure to write it down. That might be a great moment to peak or the perfect time to focus on weak points and come home stronger than you left.

Getting an overview of your year this way shows you when you can train more and when less. Since you’ve planned it all out, you don’t need to worry about lack of progress when you have less time. You know there’ll be more later on.

Write down for each part of the year how many times a week you can train and when you can climb outdoors. Another great action to take at this point is to see how (potential) training partners are feeling. Do they have similar goals and/or time available like you? This might be a great opportunity to plan together. A great training partner can support you and most importantly keep shouting at you to keep pushing it when you rather want to let go.

3.3  Mesocycle

The mesocycle is a single training phase that lasts anywhere from 2 to 12 weeks. This depends on what you want to accomplish during this particular phase.

Here are a few examples of mesocycles:

  • Max Strength Phase: 5 weeks of focus on bouldering, intense bouldering, strength training, and finger boarding focusing on minimal edge depth. Followed by a week of unloading where the training volume is roughly 30% of the previous week.
  • Power Phase: 3 weeks of bouldering with a focus on powerful dynamic moves, strength (power) training, and campus boarding. Followed by a week of unloading where the training volume is roughly 30% of the previous week.
  • Power Endurance Phase: 3 weeks of route climbing, repeating hard boulders with short rest periods in between, campus boarding, and hang board repeaters. Followed by a week of unloading where the training volume is roughly 30% of the previous week.

3.4  Microcycle

In a microcycle, you plan each training session of the week. That means the number of boulders/routes you intend to climb at what level, the sets x reps of your fingerboard, campus board, strength training, and antagonist training.

Below I’ll show you an example of a microcycle for the max strength phase I mentioned above. If you want to periodize your training plan 100% correctly, you’ll have to know your 1 Repetition Maximum (1RM) for all strength exercises, how long you can hold onto the smallest hold you can hold onto on your fingerboard, your current sport climbing grade, and your current boulder grade. All this information you then use to design your training plan. You start by training under your limit in the first microcycles whereafter the final 1-2 microcycles aim to push you over your limit.

  • In the example below I’ll add percentages of your 1RM to the training sessions and not absolute numbers. Those you have to discover yourself. This example is for the first microcycle of a sport climber who climbs 7a and has time for 4 training and/or climbing days a week.
  • Monday: free
  • Tuesday: Pull-Ups 3x5x70%, Deadlifts 3x5x70% with 4-minute rest between sets, Hangboard 3xminimal edge depth (MED) for 15 seconds with 3-minute rest intervals. Take a break for 15 minutes. Bouldering: look for 3 boulders that are at your absolute redpoint limit or beyond. Give each 3 all-out tries with 3-minute rest between tries.
  • Wednesday: free
  • Thursday: Bouldering warm-up well, then climb 10-15 boulders of increasing intensity. You should have made at least 140 moves before you start climbing hard. Do 10 boulders at your onsight limit with 3-minute breaks in between.
  • Friday: Hangboard 3xMED for 15 seconds with 3-minute rest between sets. Take a break for 10 minutes. Sport Climbing: do 3 warm-up routes then climb 6 routes at your onsight level. Do two antagonist exercises: Push-ups and Y-Extension on Hyperextension 3x5x70%.
  • Saturday: free
  • Sunday: outdoor rock climbing/bouldering. Focus on projects.

4        The Perfect Way to Periodize Your Training: a Quick Recap

Here’s a recap of how to periodize your training for rock climbing:

  1. Set your 4-year goal
  2. Set your yearly goal
  3. Organize the current year by time and energy availability, the number of days you can climb, and special occasions like holidays (less climbing) and climbing holidays (more climbing)
  4. Break down your yearly goal into trainable qualities, for example, max strength, power, and power endurance. Which qualities do you need more of to achieve your goal? Ask climbing buddies or a climbing trainer for their opinion on the points you can improve on.
  5. Decide on what you’re going to focus on in your next training phase and for how long (power +-3 weeks, max strength +-6-8 weeks, endurance +-6-10weeks, power endurance 3-4 weeks)
  6. Plan your microcycles according to the time you and your climbing partners have available
  7. Review each mesocycle and learn from your mistakes. What worked and what didn’t work? Did you take enough time for recovery? Or did you feel tired too often? You are allowed to feel tired and can also notice reduced performance the last 1-2 weeks before unloading. Your body will adapt during the unloading week.

Joël Broersma

Hey, I'm Joël, a Dutch Physical Therapist living & working in Switzerland. I'm an avid rock climber and sports & movement lover in general.

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