My Experience Training with a Personal Climbing Coach
The following article was written by Shaina Savoy,  a climber and nutrition student living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Training. Have you heard of it? The year 2019 was a fruitful climbing year for me. I sent two of my hardest routes: A reputably hard 5.13b at the Wailing Wall called “Resurrection” in the spring, and […]

The following article was written by Shaina Savoy,  a climber and nutrition student living in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Training. Have you heard of it?

The year 2019 was a fruitful climbing year for me. I sent two of my hardest routes: A reputably hard 5.13b at the Wailing Wall called “Resurrection” in the spring, and later that year, a 13c called “Magnum Opus” at the Grail. I’d love to tell you how I trained for these two routes, but the truth is that I didn’t. Both of these routes primarily catered to my strengths in climbing. Don’t get me wrong: They weren’t easy for me and I feel proud having sent them. However, was I fully climbing at my limit if these routes weren’t pushing me to challenge my weaknesses?

Before 2020, I had never really considered training consistently or subscribing to any particular program. I’ve always enjoyed climbing because of the climbing part, not because of the hangboarding or the campusing part (yawn). For the most part, my gym sessions consisted strictly of bouldering with the occasional core or weighted pull-ups. However, watching my boyfriend, Jonathan Siegrist, climb and train to send mega hard routes, how could I not be feeling like I’m missing something? Time and time again, I’d ask Jonathan what I could do to be a stronger, better climber. His advice was nearly always the same and I hated hearing it: climb more, throw my ego in the dumpster, light it on fire, work on my weaknesses, and climb routes that cater to those weaknesses. 

Working on my weaknesses meant that I had to climb on slopers, pinches, wide/shouldery moves, and stop closed-hand crimping everything I touched… which sounded terrible. I didn’t want to climb on things that I sucked at. After all, I wanted to send and feel good about myself. Why couldn’t I just be told to do more weighted pull-ups and hangboard like everyone else on Instagram was doing? 

Finally, one day while I was bouldering at the gym with Jonathan, I tried a hard boulder problem that looked like it was perfectly within my wheelhouse… but there was ONE move that I simply could not execute. I tried this move over and over, and every single time, I closed my hand on an edge that held me back from latching the next hold. In other words: one move was keeping me from sending a boulder problem that was otherwise my style. 

Annoyed with myself, I finally realized right then that I had to commit to working on my weaknesses if I wanted to be a better climber and send harder routes. I had an upcoming trip to Italy and I wanted to send something I was proud of. I wanted to feel strong. But having never trained before and not knowing where or how to start, I sought out a trainer that I resonated with to give me a fully personalized training experience: Leif Gasch From SubStr8 Climbing Performance. 

So, if you are like me, and have never worked with a personal climbing coach before and you want to know what it’s like, this article is for you. I’m going to outline my experience, share my personal thoughts and critiques, and lay it all out for you. Was it fun? Was it worth it? Did I learn anything or grow as a climber? Would I do it again?

Photo of me on “Resurrection” 5.13b by Irene Yee

 

HOW DID IT BEGIN?

To kick off the journey of my personal training experience, Leif had me start by doing a climbing assessment. This entailed a couple things: holding a 90-second plank, completing 6 minutes straight of inverted rows, finding my max pull-up, and finding my max hang on a 20mm edge for 7 seconds. 

While I felt smug about my core strength and how easy the plank was, I dreaded getting on the hangboard and facing the stark contrast between my closed-hand and open-hand strength. My closed-hand crimp max hang came in at 45lbs on top of my bodyweight and my open-hand crimp position came in at a whopping 17.5lbs on top of my bodyweight before my shoulders became too fatigued and Jonathan criticized me for my improper hanging form. I felt like I could potentially hang with more weight on both positions, but my shoulders had dropped, exhausted from the exercises. I was aware that my shoulders were quite weak, but didn’t realize just how bad they were. I had to split my assessment into two separate days to avoid causing my shoulders any injury.

My next assessment session, I was able to do one pull-up with 35lbs, which was a little better than I thought it was going to be. The inverted rows exercise required that I complete 3 pull-ups in a 45 degree angle inverted position on gymnastic rings or a TRX, rest for 10 seconds in a hanging position with my shoulders still engaged, and then to repeat this sequence as long as I could up to 6 minutes. As much as I love climbing routes, I knew that my work capacity as a self-proclaimed sport climber was relatively embarrassing. I set a timer for 6 minutes and maxed out with 1 minute and 50 seconds left on the clock. 

Feeling a little embarrassed, I sent my assessment results over to Leif. He was nothing but positive and encouraging, reassuring me that I was strong, and that with my current assessment results I was already ahead of the game. We then chatted about my goals: I wanted to get better at climbing on pinches and slopers, become more powerful, and improve my work capacity. A few days later, he delivered a training plan to me.

Inverted rows- looks easy, feels awful after 5 minutes

WHAT WAS THE PLAN LIKE?

The training plan was delivered to me via a phone app called TrueCoach. In the app, you’re able to make comments on every exercise and training session and have conversations with your trainer. You can see every upcoming training day within the cycle so you can make a schedule for yourself. Although the training days were tied to certain days on the app, Leif granted me a lot of wiggle room and said they could be done on whatever schedule I preferred, as long as I completed all three training days every week. He really values flexibility and is a strong advocate for climbing outside to reinforce the skills you’re developing during the training cycle. Leif also believes that careful planning and recovery play as much of a role in our performance as all the hard work and training does.

There were three different types of training days on rotation every week: 

  1. Strength: Non-climbing specific days that focused on hangboarding and general strength exercises
  2. Power: Primarily bouldering, both on the Moonboard and at the gym with some various other drills thrown in.
  3. Capacity: Focused on helping me build my capacity for overall work, and were designed to be quite tiring.

If you know a little bit about training, you’ll recognize that Leif follows a non-linear periodization style of programming. If you’re not familiar with what this means, it means that the climber focuses on all the different facets of climbing during one training cycle, rather than focusing on training certain attributes one at a time for specific periods of time. For example, in a periodized program, you would focus on solely strength training for a cycle of 4-6 weeks.

Power days were my favorite, as the workouts felt really intentional. The days would start off with a couple drills that focused on different ways to experience movement and stability in climbing, as well as tension on the wall. I’d then move on to practice climbing on some of my weaknesses, and performing drills that were designed to help me become a more powerful climber. There were times when these days were frustrating and there were times when I surprised myself, but I think the mixture of failure and success was healthy. Sometimes my ego hurt, but it helped to remind myself that I was making strides toward being a better climber.

Capacity days consisted of drills and exercises that were pretty exhausting. I both loved and dreaded these days. Partly limited by how much my skin could take climbing in the gym, and mostly limited by my actual work capacity, I found that they were extremely challenging for me. However, knowing how hard they were motivated me to try to make myself better in this regard. It was a clear area of weakness that needed much improvement. After 3 or 4 of these particular days, I noticed a significant improvement in my capacity abilities. Not only did the capacity sessions become a little easier, I went to revisit an old outdoor project. It was a power endurance route that I never had the proper work capacity to send. On my first session back on it, I felt so much stronger than I had in the past, and I ended up making a high point. I didn’t continue to try this route because weather and other aspects of my life intervened, but it was super motivating to see the progress nonetheless.

Strength training days had their ups and downs for me. After warming up on some boulder problems, I would start my strength day with hangboarding. Leif trains almost exclusively in a half-crimp position, as it’s the best position to avoid injury and is the most applicable to finger strength in various grip positions. I never found myself looking forward to hanging on the hangboard before, but for some reason I really embraced it through training with Leif. I had days where I felt like I CRUSHED my hangboard session, and other days where I felt like it was a true struggle. Either way, I always felt encouraged no matter the outcome of my session and having never trained seriously before, I really appreciated this support from Leif. It definitely helped encourage me to stay committed to the process.

All in all, throughout the entire process, I had good and bad days. Some days I KILLED my workouts, and other days I felt like I took a couple steps back with progress somehow. Even though I knew good and bad days were a normal part of the process and weren’t entirely dependent on whether or not my training was working (hello, other life factors!), Leif was always supportive and reminded me that I wouldn’t feel awesome every day. He gave me moral support, told me to keep up the work, and was always there to help motivate me or answer any of my questions. However, throughout the entire process, I witnessed all of my numbers undoubtedly gradually going up. By the end of the training cycle, I had a test day to reassess my numbers and I had clear, tangible evidence that I had gotten stronger in all capacities. 

Training required lots of time on the moonboard

WHAT WERE MY RESULTS?

Jonathan and I flew to Italy late February, with intentions of staying there for over a month and sending the gnar. This happened to be during the time Covid-19 cases were just beginning to spike in Northern Italy, near Lombardy. Nervous about the virus, we reluctantly settled into our quirky little apartment in the city of Cuneo, in northwestern Italy close to the French Alps. We woke up every day to stressful news and growing numbers of the virus in Italy. However, Cuneo remained relatively unchanged. Restaurants closed a little earlier, but people seemingly still went about their normal business. 

Andonno

We began climbing at the cliff, called Andonno, which was quite old school, so the routes felt nails hard for grades. Although I wanted to climb something a little harder, on my second day at the cliff, I settled on a 5.13a project to introduce myself to the climbing style there. Leading up to the trip, I hadn’t been climbing outside and I could tell I needed time to readjust. It took me quite a few days to recover from the horrendous jet lag and being awake for 40 hours straight while traveling. (How do people sleep on airplanes?). We chose a two-day-on, one-day-off schedule. The first two days were incredibly rough. After a rest day and returning to the cliff, my muscles were starting to remember how to pull hard outside again. I was consistently taking holds with a half-crimp position, rather than a closed-crimp, and I felt incredibly strong at pinching holds, which is something I’ve never felt before. 

On our fourth day climbing, Jonathan and I both had one-hung our projects. Feeling psyched at our quick progression, we both took a rest day and explored the city of Turin. After our rest day, I was feeling fully recovered, energetic, and much like myself again. We were feeling primed and ready to send… Until we woke up and discovered that Trump had announced a border closure in the next few days. As heartbreaking as it was, instead of packing our climbing packs to hike up to the cliff, we packed all of our belongings, got in our rental car, and headed to the airport in Nice. The pandemic was more serious than our climbing goals.

Back at home in Las Vegas, we spent two weeks quarantining inside. I maintained fitness by just using the hangboard in our garage, following the same protocol that Leif had prescribed me during training. I did weighted pull-ups, core, and went on hikes. Leif was kind enough to give me a free body-weight workout, which I was grateful to have.

After a couple months and people were beginning to climb outside again, the weather was still cool enough to project a 5.13b I had my eyes on for a while. The route was hard for the grade, with a savage boulder problem, no rest, straight into incredibly pumpy, crimpy terrain. Even after not having climbed on rock for a while, I felt incredibly capable. My fingers still felt super strong and my body felt really powerful. The only thing holding me back was fitness on the route. My body just needed to adapt to the power endurance that the route demanded of me, and with this being one of my greatest weaknesses, I thought that was going to take a little longer than I wanted, but the training I had done paid off and I clipped the chains a little sooner than I thought I would. 

As good as sending feels, I felt even more stoked on how strong and powerful I felt. It was a different sensation than I had felt before. I felt more capable than ever, and I was really proud of that, because I had trained really hard for it. Throughout the entire process, I remained committed to a program that was designed specifically for me, and because of that I had great success. Leif’s coaching was incredibly effective. 

Photo of me on “Movin’ on up” 5.13b by Jonathan Siegrist

 

PROS AND CONS

Nothing is ever PERFECT. When there are pros, there is typically a con or two even if something is REALLY good. That being said, I have nothing negative to say about Leif or the program at all. The only thing I would consider a con is not having a trainer physically in the gym with me to coach me at times. Although I was supplied with great instructional videos for certain exercises, I was completely new to things like dead lifting, and even hangboarding. Luckily, my boyfriend Jonathan was there to make sure that my form was correct and I was hanging properly. However, he’s not a deadlifter himself, so I had to rely on a couple friends to check my form and make sure I wasn’t going to hurt myself. If you already generally know what you’re doing or have experience with exercises like that, this isn’t a concern. This wasn’t Leif’s fault, as I chose remote coaching with him. And let’s be real: hiring a coach to physically be at the gym with you isn’t something a lot of people do, and furthermore, that would be really expensive. 

As for pros, here is my list:

  1. You get a personalized program made just for you that caters to all your strengths/weaknesses.
  2. Leif is incredibly flexible and leaves your weekly training schedule up to you.
  3. He encourages climbing outside in addition to training because on-the-wall skills are important, and he places an emphasis on rest & recovery too.
  4. If I stayed on task, I could be in and out of the gym in 2 hours.
  5. The movement & technique drills were fun and not something I would motivate myself to do on my own, but I felt like they were really useful and I still use them in the gym today.
  6. Leif was SO positive, encouraging, and supportive every time I chatted with him.
  7. He was super quick to answer any questions or concerns that I had, and always had great advice and solutions to my problems.
  8. I loved the non-linear periodization style of training, as I always felt like I was consistently getting stronger and better, and there were no dips in my performance.
  9. I learned a ton of new drills and exercises that I can still apply in my gym sessions moving forward.
  10. I felt and saw true results in my climbing performance, and the pricetag for that was incredibly reasonable. 

WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?

Overall, there is nothing bad I can say about the training program or Leif. I accomplished what I sought to improve, I had a lot of fun with the program, and I never felt discouraged from the process because Leif was always there for support. I fully recommend this experience to anyone else seeking to optimize their climbing performance, or needing help with certain aspects of their climbing. Leif is incredibly sharp when it comes to the world of training and exceptional at what he does. Because of my experience with him, training is a new world that I am really excited about and want to continue utilizing in the future.

Above everything, if you fully commit to a training program and you show up every day to do what you need to do, and on top of that, you work with someone that plans carefully and can properly tailor your training according to your weaknesses, you WILL improve. And remember– make sure you have a GOAL, or something specific you want to work on, so you can track & evaluate tangible results.

If you’re interested in working with Leif, I fully recommend his services. You can visit his website here.

 

TrainingBeta is a site dedicated to training for rock climbing. We provide resources and information about training for routes, bouldering, finger strength, mental training, nutrition for climbers, and everything in between. We offer climbing training programs, climbing training classes, nutrition classes, regular blog posts, interviews on The TrainingBeta Podcast, personal coaching for climbing, and nutrition for climbers.


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Rock climbing is everywhere these days. From the Dawn Wall to your Instagram feed to the new gym going up in town, climbing is no longer the fringe sport it once was. Kids are starting to climb almost before they can walk, and now more than ever, there’s no reason for you not to give it a try as well. However, climbing can be one of those intimidating hobbies to begin. Many ask, “How do I get started ? ” citing fear and feeling overwhelmed with gear and safety as huge barriers to entry. We get it, and so what follows is everything you need to know to get out on the rock'n'roll.

The term “rock climbing” encompasses a great number of techniques, from bouldering to big wall climbing, to mountain climbing and mountaineering. Before you begin, it might be important to first identify what style of climbing you are interested in, or perhaps to ask, “Why do I want to climb ? ” Do you want to summit peaks, boulder at your local gym, or perhaps learn to lead climb at the local crag ? Do you want to make friends, be outdoors, or get in shape ( or all three ) ? Once these questions are answered, you can work out the potential steps you’ll need to take to get there. Below ( in the Sport vs. trad vs. bouldering section ) we attempt to inform this decision by breaking down the various genres of climbing; each has its own specific culture, gear, and learning curve.

Climbing is a complex sport : it’s potentially expensive to get into, difficult to find mentors, and can be dangerous if not done correctly. With the evolution of climbing gyms, however, it’s easier than ever to give climbing a try : just grab a friend and head to the nearest gym, rent a pair of shoes and a harness, and jump on the bouldering wall. However, if and when your progression leads you to climbing on ropes and outside, technical skills become essential to safety. Many choose to learn from friends; however, safety is so important that we recommend enrolling in a formal class. The easiest and best way to learn the essential skills, which include belaying and tying proper knots, is by taking an introductory course at your local gym. Or, if you’re interested in climbing outside or even more specifically climbing in the mountains, seek out a chic either through your gym or a local guide.

The first indoor climbing gym opened in Seattle in 1987. Now just 30 years later, there are 430 gyms across the nation, with over 50 more in construction at the time of writing. Areas like the Denver metropolis have as many as 10 gyms, all stuffed to capacity each day. Whereas climbers used to be a tiny community of mostly adult men with access to the wilderness, the climbing gym revolution has brought climbing to the masses. It’s safe to say that more people now climb indoors than outdoors. The climbing gym has developed its own culture, and climbing inside - “pulling on plastic, ” as climbers often say - is vastly different from climbing outdoors. It is arguably safer, much more convenient to access, and far more social; for these reasons, the gym is an super place to begin climbing. Gym passes cost anywhere from $6 to $30/day, with monthly memberships being the best option for those who go regularly. Outdoor climbing takes place on boulders, on cliff bands, and in mountains - anywhere where there is solid rock'n'roll, climbers can be found. Some of the most popular genres of rock'n'roll to climb include granite, sandstone, limestone, basalt, and conglomerate blends. Each of these kinds of rock'n'roll has its own style of climbing, from overhanging jugs much like gym climbs, to technical slabs, to splitter cracks. Climbing outdoors demands a higher level of expertise than climbing in the gym, as there are more variables and dangers on real rock. Weather can be a factor, as well as rock fall. Climbers will also need to possess a great deal more gear to climb outside, including their own rope and harness, quickdraws or other protection, a personal anchor and locking carabiner, and a helmet. Although many climbers begin in the gym, some learn to climb immediately outside, most commonly with the help of a guide or an instructional course.

Rock climbing is generally broken down into three categories : sport climbing, traditional ( trad ) climbing, and bouldering. Climbers tend to specialize in or prefer one discipline over the others, though many climbers participate in all three. Sport climbing is a style of climbing where the leader attaches quickdraws to pre-existing bolts, looping the rope through the quickdraws for protection while ascending the cliff. Sport climbs are often one-pitch climbs where the leader then comes back to the ground after fixing the rope to the anchor, though in some cases these climbs might continue up larger faces for multiple pitches. As a discipline, sport climbing focuses on difficult movement, endurance, learning to face fears, and risking a fall ( and being caught by the rope, oui ! ). Trad climbing is the most rootsy and historical form of climbing, in which the leader climbs weaknesses in the rock ( generally, cracks ) and places gear in these weaknesses that will hold the rope in the case of a fall. Although trad climbs can be single-pitch routes like the majority of sport climbs, they often ascend features that are more than one rope length and end at a summit ( these are called “multi-pitch climbs” ). Trad climbers generally love long and adventurous days of climbing in wilderness areas, focusing on movement, logistics, technical rope and gear skills, and partnership. Bouldering is perhaps the most modern form of climbing, and certainly the fastest-growing. Boulderers ascend boulders or bermuda cliffs ( generally 20 feet and under ), using pads and spotters at the base for protection instead of ropes. Bouldering is a form of climbing that focuses on difficult movement and problem solving, and is more social than the other techniques. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a few other forms of climbing : aid climbing, alpine rock climbing, speed climbing, and deep water soloing. Pick your poison ( or shall we say passion ) : each has its own set of joys and challenges !

One of the first things you’ll learn when starting to climb is how to choose a route that suits your ability level. In the gym, climbs generally are labeled with a difficulty rating; outside, climbers use guidebooks and often a phone application called Mountain Project to identify the difficulty of climbs. In the U. S., climbs are rated using the Yosemite Decimal System; in short, 5. 3 is a very beginner climb, and 5. 15 is an expert-level route. These ratings do not denote danger, only difficulty. As a beginner, you’ll most likely be choosing routes 5. 7 and under, and often routes that can be top-roped. Top-roping means that the climber establishes an anchor from the top of the climb so that the rope is already in place, rather than leading the route from the bottom. Many routes in the gym are set up with top ropes; outside, climbers can often hike to the top of the cliff or feature to drop a rope down over the climb.

Each discipline of climbing necessitates a different set of gear. For all variétés of climbing, however, a beginner will need a pair of climbing shoes. For just starting out in the sport, we recommend finding a comfortable pair of climbing shoes ( don’t be persuaded by the salesperson at your local gear shop to purchase painfully tight shoes ). Delicate footwork will come later in your climbing career; for now you will just be developing an ability to stand on your feet and trust the rubber of your new shoes. All climbers will generally want to carry a chalk bag and chalk as well, which they will either wear around their waist or keep on the ground ( sometimes the case while bouldering ). Climbers dip their hands into chalk to dry off sweat and keep them from slipping off the rock. Boulderers will need the above two pieces of gear, in addition to a bouldering pad ( and friends with bouldering pads ! ). Bouldering pads are placed in the fall zone of a boulder problem, and the more the merrier ( and safer ! ). tera climb on ropes both in a gym or outside, climbers will need a climbing harness. Climbing harnesses come in a range of weights and specifications - some for sport climbing in particular, some with larger gear loops or more padding for trad climbing. Harnesses need to be replaced every few years for safety reasons, so we again recommend purchasing an affordable harness and replacing it when you have a better understanding of your needs. Along with a climbing harness, it is essential to own a belay device and locking carabiner. This equipment will enable you to belay your partner in the gym or outside, and rappel if needed. If climbing outside, a helmet is extremely important in case of rock fall. The above-mentioned gear provides the basics for personal gear needed for a day of climbing or bouldering, either in the gym or with an experienced and well-equipped partner. If you are looking to buy gear so that you can be fully self-sufficient ( and not need a partner or a group with shared gear ) you’ll want to also purchase a climbing-specific rope ( 60-70 meters, 9-10mm in diameter, dynamic ), a personal anchor ( PAC ) or daisy chain, extra locking carabiners, cams, nuts, quickdraws, and slings. It is extremely important to buy new gear or to know the history and age of the gear if acquiring used. Both soft materials and metals degrade over time and with wear and should be carefully assessed before using.

We wholeheartedly recommend taking a course taught by professionals before attempting to climb or belay on your own. Climbing is inherently dangerous, though when done correctly can be very safe. After all of the proper skills have been learned, it is still incredibly important to stay on top of safety at every moment. Before leaving the ground, or transitioning from climbing to lowering/rappelling, there are a number of safety checks that must be completed.

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