Brewer’s Ledge Treadwall Training Guide By Eric J. Hörst (TrainingForClimbing.com)
Welcome to the wonderful world of Treadwall training—your training for climbing will never be the same! This incredible training tool is now used by thousands of recreational and professional climbers to train strength, endurance, movement skills, and climbing economy. But effective Treadwall training isn’t just a matter of climbing until you get pumped. Getting the most out of your Treadwall demands intelligent use of a variety of training techniques, as well as a long-term program and the commitment to follow through.
In this manual I will provide you with numerous Treadwall training protocols that I’ve developed. Before digging into the workout details, it’s important to first learn just a bit of climbing science—specifically, you need to understand the distinct and widely varying physical demands of climbing and the energy systems that power these physical attributes. I hope this knowledge will compel you to follow each training protocol precisely—if so, you’ll get excellent results and become an uncommonly fit climber!
Physical Demands of Climbing
While the raw physical demands of climbing range across a continuum—with the instantaneous maximum power output of a hard bouldering move on one end and the endurance needed to climb all day on the other—effective training for climbing requires segmenting this continuum into four logical parts based on bioenergetic systems. Think of each part—limit strength/power, power endurance, threshold endurance, and aerobic endurance—as a unique physical attribute that you must train with a distinct protocol.
Limit Strength & Power
Limit strength is the maximum force you can generate in a single all-out effort such as crimping on a very small handhold or pulling hard through a strenuous move. While your limit strength is only utilized on the most physical of climbing moves, it is very influential in determining your levels of power and endurance. Power is the application of force with velocity—think of it as explosive strength—as in popping a deadpoint, making a fast pull and reach, or throwing a lunge. The rate of force development in the finger flexor muscles as you engage a handhold is another measure of power often referred to as contact strength. These brief maximal finger grips and powerful arm movements are fueled by the ATP-CP system, also known as the anaerobic alactic energy pathway. Cellular ATP-CP storage will largely diminish in just 5 to 10 seconds of sustained (isometric) maximal contraction and in less than 20 seconds of cyclic near-maximal gripping.
Exercises that train limit strength/power (and the anaerobic alactic energy system) include brief, near-maximal fingerboard hangs, campus training, Treadwall sprint intervals, and maximal Treadwall “grip isolation” routes.
When climbers talk about endurance, they are usually referring to anaerobic endurance local to the forearm and pulling muscles (not the aerobic endurance needed for a long-distance run or full day of climbing). Failure in climbing often seems to come down to a lack of forearm endurance—and the “pump”!—and so improving strength/power-endurance is a common training goal. While all three energy systems contribute, it’s the glycolytic (anaerobic lactic) energy system that dominants during rigorous powerful efforts lasting 20 seconds to 2 minutes. A rapid decrease in anaerobic energy production develops between 30 seconds and 2 minutes of sustained difficult climbing, depending on power output levels and the capacity of your anaerobic system. Individuals with high anaerobic capacity will excel at climbing long, powerful sequences—despite a growing pump—lasting upward of 2 minutes without a rest, whereas a climber of similar technical ability but lesser anaerobic capacity will fail more quickly, perhaps in under 60 seconds.
Training power/strength endurance is grueling, but doing the right amount of this type of training is extremely important if your climbing goals include sending difficult roped routes or long, sustained boulder problems. Ironically, many climbers unknowingly overtrain in this way due to their “pump lust”—a need to climb and train every session to the point of a muscle-failing pump. This is common training mistake among Treadwall users—more on this later. Common exercises for training strength/power endurance include fingerboard repeaters, Frenchies, campus board ladder laps, bouldering 4x4s, high-intensity Treadwall Intervals, and Treadwall climbing to failure.
Threshold endurance is especially vital for sport climbers with a preference for steep and/or sustained routes that lack maximal, vicious crux moves. European climbers call these “resistance” routes as the difficulty accumulates throughout the climb, rather than appearing as a distinct crux that demands raw power and strength. These sustained climbing efforts call heavily on both the anaerobic lactic and aerobic (see below) energy systems and, therefore, you spend most of the time climbing near the margin between these energy systems. Training near this margin is some of the most effective training an aspiring route climber can engage in, however, many climbers have a tough time getting it right. Upcoming, I’ll provide you with two interval training protocols for effectively training right around the aerobic-anaerobic threshold.
Sustained climbing lasting longer than 2 minutes relies primarily on the aerobic (with oxygen) energy system. Compared to the aforementioned anaerobic alactic and lactic systems, aerobic energy production can only support the low to moderate power output needed for sustained climbing far below your maximal ability level. (Note: It’s important to distinguish between climbing-specific aerobic endurance and generalized aerobic endurance, which relates to the capacity of your cardiovascular system). Climbing-specific aerobic endurance relates to the capacity of the finger flexor and pulling muscles to generate ATP via the aerobic endurance pathway. Improving this “local” (forearm and upper-body) aerobic endurance, however, requires a long-term commitment to training in just the right way to glean the relatively slow adaptations of increased mitochondria and capillary density. Effective training of the aerobic energy pathway via climbing is only possible if you set aside the desire to climb for performance (near your limit) and instead embrace the potentially boring process of climbing high volumes of relatively moderate terrain. No matter if the climbing is done indoors or outside, this approach will naturally involve lots of submaximal climbing at varying intensities. The critical aerobic-training guideline is that the climbing intensity must rarely, if ever, ascend into the anaerobic zone, the hallmark of which is shortness of breath and the “pump”. The goal, then, is to climb at a low enough intensity so that you can climb without strain and with little or no pump. Perhaps the best gauge is your breathing, which in aerobic endurance training should be relaxed and even. A good test to get it right is to put a piece of athletic tape over your mouth—if you climb at an intensity low enough to be supplied by only nasal breathing, then you’re doing it right!
Treadwall Training Protocols
Following are ten effective training protocols for training the physical demands and energy systems described above. Be sure to engage in a progressive warm up of easy big-hold climbing, a couple of submaximal sets of pull-ups, and a modest amount of stretching, foam rolling, and forearm massage.
Limit Strength/Power Protocols
These three protocols will develop maximum grip strength and power. Each set on the Treadwall must be limited to 20 seconds or less, followed by at least 3 minutes of rest. Begin with total of 8 sets per workout, and build to 16 to 20 sets over months and years.
- Treadwall Bouldering – Do short, powerful boulder sequences (6 to 10 hard moves) that take less than 20 seconds to complete. Rest completely between sets. Do 5 to 10 sets in all.
- Grip Isolation Training – You’ll need to set up a series of system-like isolation routes on your Treadwall—for example, a “pinch route” comprised of 6 to 10 consecutive pinch holds, a “pocket route” (6 to 10 pocket grips), a “sloper route”, a “crimp route”, etc. Each isolation route should take 20 seconds or less to complete—have a partner time you, and step off the Treadwall at 20 seconds even if you haven’t finished the sequence. Do 1 to 4 sets per grip isolation, and add a weight belt (5 to 20 lbs) to increase resistance as you get stronger—and you will! Rest 3 minutes between sets.
- Sprint Intervals – These are somewhat analogous to “gasser” sprints performed by soccer, football, and hockey teams to develop aerobic power (which drives recovery between alactic intervals). Resistance must be relatively light—that is, relatively simple sequences that you can sprint through for 15 to 20 seconds. Begin with one set of 4 sprints with only 30 seconds of rest between sprints. Build up to doing two sets of 6 sprints with a 5-minute rest in between.
Power Endurance Protocols
If you’ve got the pump lust, then you’ll enjoy these protocols! Intensity must be high (exertion of ~9 out of 10) and recovery between sets should be incomplete. Consequently, the muscle burn (due to cellular acidosis) and pump will develop increasingly fast with each interval…and fatigue will grow with every passing set. The ideal Treadwall route (and power-endurance training protocol) will involve 30 to 120 seconds of near-maximal climbing, although I believe the training “sweet spot” is a 45- to 60-second interval that ends before the point of complete forearm muscle failure. Getting the intensity right is important—you’ll know you’re in the right zone if you’re breathing heavily upon stepping off the wall at the end of set. If not, use smaller hand/foot holds, do bigger arm moves, and/or add a weight belt. Here are my four favorite PE protocols—only use one per workout!
- Treadwall 4x4s – As the name implies, you will do 4 sets of 4 climbs with only a four- to five-minute rest between sets. Each set of 4 climbs must be precisely timed—a training partner with a smartphone timing App is desirable—as you will climb hard for exactly 30 seconds, then step off the wall and rest for 30 seconds. Do 4 of these 30-30 intervals, then rest for four to five minutes while you time your training partner on their intervals. Repeat this process three more times for a total of 4 sets (16 total 30-second climbs).
- 45/20/45 Intervals – This protocol is the backbone of Hörst family Treadwall training! Climb on the smallest holds possible, making lots of big powerful arm movements, for 45 seconds, then step off the wall for a fleeting rest of exactly 20 seconds, followed by another 45 seconds at near-maximum climbing. Now take a rest of exactly 2 minutes, before commencing with another 45/20/45 interval. Once again, a training partner with a timing App is essential to get it right—it’s also nice to have them as a cheerleader to encourage you to hang on until the end of each interval! This protocol takes just under six minutes to complete. Now rest for six to twelve minutes and execute another two pair of 45/20/45 intervals. Advanced climbers increase training stress by doing up to four sets (i.e. four pairs of 45/20/45 intervals) and/or adding weight for the first interval of each pair.
- Hard-Soft, 30″/30″ Intervals – This protocol involves three minutes of continuous climbing, but you will alternate between hard climbing on small holds for 30 seconds and “soft” recovery climbing on large holds for 30 seconds. Concentrate on steady breathing and recovering as much as possible during the “soft” phases—step off the wall early rather than climbing to the point of failure. Rest for a minimum of 6 minutes before doing a second set.
- 2-Minute “Failure” Burns – Hard climbing to failure may be the most commonly used training tactic of enthusiastic Treadwall climbers. Interestingly, constantly climbing to the point of finger flexor muscle failure can lead to overtraining (and reduced finger strength and endurance) in just a few weeks of climbing to failure too often. Consequently, climbing to the point of utter forearm muscle failure is best used intermittently, and at most twice weekly. Anyway, the training protocol is obvious—climb on the smallest holds possible and do the hardest moves you can manage (given the growing pump) for a full two minutes. Rest 4 to 8 minutes before commencing with your next burn. Begin with 3 sets per session, but build up to 10 sets over months and years.
Threshold Endurance Protocols
Of the four training zones for climbers, the threshold training zone is the hardest one to dial in precisely. The common mistake is to climb at too high of an intensity, thus getting a deep pump, severe breathlessness, and ultimately training in the power-endurance zone. The goal in threshold training is to tax the aerobic energy system maximally by hovering right at the anaerobic threshold—for most climbers this margin is found around a perceived exertion of 7 to 8.5 out of 10. A moderate pump and somewhat elevated breathing is fine, however, a severe pump and breathlessness is a clear sign you’ve pushed too deep into the anaerobic training zone. Use one or both of the following interval training protocols to climb near the “threshold” for an aggregate climbing time of 10 minutes (beginner) to 30 minutes (advanced).
- 60/60 Intervals – I bet you can guess how to do this protocol…that’s right, it’s 60 seconds of moderately hard climbing followed by 60 seconds of rest. Rinse and repeat! This protocol maintains a climb-rest ratio of 1:1 for a total of 10 to 30 minutes (advanced) of aggregate of climbing and rest. As described above, it’s essential to maintain a perceived exertion of between a 7 and 8.5 out of 10—use mainly medium-size holds with occasional smaller grips to get the intensity up around “8”. End your climbing early rather than climb into the major pump zone of 8.5+ out of 10.
- 120/60 Intervals – Similar to the previous, but with a 2:1 climb-rest ratio—ideal for more advanced climbers, already possessing a relatively high level of aerobic power. Repeat this interval up to 12 times for a total of 24 minutes of climbing in an aggregate of 36 minutes. Again, it’s vital that you not climb anywhere near the point of failure.
Aerobic Endurance Training
This type of training is often referred to as “ARC”, which is an acronym for Aerobic, Restoration, and Capillarity, popularized in the 1990s book Performance Rock Climbing (Neumann/Goddard).
- ARC climbing involves doing higher volumes of relatively easy climbing with only brief rest periods mixed in. It’s essential that climbing intensity and perceived exertion remain in the low to moderate zone—between a 4 to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10—so that your climbing is powered wholly by the aerobic energy system. ARC climbing is best done on a near-vertical wall, so that the feet are carrying most of the load—this is critical as a finger flexor contractions of more than about 30 percent of maximum (common when climbing on small holds over steeper terrain) will occlude capillary blood flow to the muscle, thus necessitating a switch to anaerobic glycolysis to supply part of the energy production. The bottom line: ARC climbing must be so moderate (or easy!) that your breathing remains relaxed and even and your forearm muscles develop little or no pump. (ARCing is the climbers’ equivalent of a runners’ “long, slow, distance” pace that allows a pair of runners to converse throughout a training run.) Using a Treadwall, most climbers will need to use large jug holds and slow, super-efficient movements; and even so the intensity may become too high due to the overhanging Treadwall angle. As for specific training protocols, you can use one of the two Threshold protocols above (climbing only on large holds, however) or you can alternate 3 to 6 minutes of climbing with a minute or two of rest. Repeat these ARC Intervals for a total of 20 to 40 minutes of “easy” climbing. Again, it’s essential that intensity remains below a “7” on the Training Zones for Climbers scale.
Here are a few closing tips to help guide and optimize your training. Read Eric Horst’s Training For Climbing for comprehensive instruction and long-term program design to reach your genetic potential.
- Engage in a progressive warm-up before engaging in any of the Treadwall protocols described above. I recommend doing a few minutes of general exercise (to elevate heart rate, blood pressure, and core temperature) followed by some easy, large-hold climbing, a couple of submaximal sets of pull-ups and push-ups, and a bit of mild stretching.
- Target each workout on a single energy system, rather than trying to train them all in single session (a recipe for poor adaptions and slow gains). For example, if Treadwall training with Power Endurance protocols, you can supplement with other exercises that target the anaerobic lactic energy system (e.g. pull-up “Frenchies”, campus board “ladder laps” and such); but do little or nothing to target other energy systems.
- Don’t train in (or to) a state of excessive fatigue—you’ll only dig yourself a deeper hole to recovery from and you risk injury. In beginning a Treadwall workout, if you sense that your grip is weak and you feel “off”, consider ending the session immediately and instead engage in some other form of training (antagonist/stabilizer muscle exercise, or generalize aerobic activity).
- End your workout early if you experience any joint pain or acute tendon or muscle pain. Take a rest day and re-evaluate the situation. See a doctor if pain persists.
- Key Point: Your climbing workouts provide the stimulus for adaption, but actual gains in strength, power, and endurance come during rest periods (i.e. sleep and days off). Limit training and climbing to an aggregate of three or four days per week—any more tempts injury and will likely lead to overtraining syndrome.
- Cultivate a long-term perspective with regard to your training—you can’t cram a year’s worth of training in a few weeks! Develop an intelligent training program (consider consulting with an veteran coach) with alternating periods of intensive training, a training “deload” or taper, periods of performance climbing (important weekend trips and longer roadtrips), and a few weeks away from climbing each season.
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