Unsolicited Advice on Grade Progression

If you are a beginner climber and want to ask other climbers any questions - then this is the place to ask.
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Joined: Thu Jan 08, 2009 2:19 am

Unsolicited Advice on Grade Progression

Post by edmclen » Sun Nov 22, 2009 7:54 am

So you've been climbing for a few months (or a few years). You're super psyched that you just got to the top of your first 20 (or 22 or 26 or whatever). Sure, you had to hang three or four (or ten) times to get there, but you did it and now you're ready to move on to the next grade, right? Not so fast...

During several of my last few times out at Bronkies, I've seen too many ambitious beginner-to-intermediate climbers falling into the same grade-chasing trap I fell into during my first years of climbing. This perspective was captured perfectly in a recent post to the forum:

"When I started in August I was climbing 18/19 and with a push you might have got me onto a 21. This weekend I'm going to Fernkloof and will be working a couple of 24s, and not too scared to attempt leading them either."

For those of us with an inherent competitive spirit (whether competing with others or ourselves), pushing climbing grades can be as addictive as heroine. My experience and that of many others demonstrates, however, that pushing grades too quickly is a path to performance plateaus, frustration, and injury. While one's current climbing regimen of pushing maximum grades in each session might have enabled one to advance three grades in a mere three months, such gains are not sustainable in the long-run. I personally progressed from 5.7 to 5.10b in my first year of climbing (top-rope). One year later, 5.11b (top-rope). Three years later, after lots of intense training, cursing at plastic and rock alike, and plenty of tweaked fingers chasing my elusive 5.12 dreams, 5.11b (lead). And I promise you that my experience was not unique among my peers.

What enabled me to escape my cycle of performance plateaus and injury, as well as restoring a full measure of joy to the experience of climbing, was a complete shift in paradigm. While I did not start ignoring climbing grades, I started focusing not on increasing my maximum redpoint but on onsighting as many fun, classic climbs upon which I could place my callused fingertips. I did not abandon my 5.12 projects, but I did remove them from their rarefied pedestal so that I could focus on increasing the volume and variety of climbing instead of the intensity. In my training sessions, I attempted to introduce as much variety as possible: mixing in endurance laps on steep overhangs, circuit bouldering, slabs (which I had previously ignored); mixing up my climbing venues and types of rock; and mixing up my climbing partners. Furthermore, I vowed that I would not add any new projects of a certain grade until I had redpointed at least 4-6 climbs at the previous grade. Before long, despite having substantially less time for training due to life intruding on my climbing, I started ticking off some of those projects I'd had for years and found myself enjoying the process all the more (mothers no longer have to cover their children's ears when I'm climbing).

Without knowing it at the time, I had stumbled into many of the tried-and-true practices preached by climbing's top coaches: route pyramids, the value of variety and volume to improve technique and kinesthetic awareness, and the critical importance of a having the right attitude (a big part of which is choosing the right partner[s]). You'll find a lot of great information on these principles, and others such as periodisation, movement training, and proper nutrition, in any good book on climbing training. I personally feel that Hunter and Hague's The Self-Coached Climber is the best book out there on climbing training (http://www.kalahari.net/books/The-Self- ... 78848.aspx), but there are other great resources out there as well (I know that trad ace Dave McLeod is working on a new book, too). Amazingly, I found The Self-Coached Climber at my local library in Polokwane, which saved me from forking out more than R300.

I assure you that slowing down on pushing the grades (i.e. consolidating a grade by red-pointing four or more of a given grade before moving on) will make your fingers, your rope and other gear (repeated falls on the first few bolts of a sport climb are terrible for your rope!), your partner, and you much happier and injury-free.

- Ed

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Joined: Mon Feb 05, 2007 12:22 am
Real Name: Patrick Fraser

Re: Unsolicited Advice on Grade Progression

Post by rocklooney » Sun Nov 22, 2009 9:26 am

Oops! I can see how that got misinterpreted. Let me qualify that. I have been climbing for eight years, not since August! I broke my leg two years ago, and when I said I started in August, I meant that I started training hard on Neil's wall at St.Peter's in August! You are absolutely 100% right. A solid foundation is the way to go. The more volume you do at a certain grade, the more natural the progression to the next level. There is also less chance of physical injury, and less chance of frustration and disappointment. My post was merely to illustrate how working in the bouldering cave enabled me to quickly regain strength lost through inactivity, chocolate, pizza, beer, my couch and home movies!

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Joined: Thu Aug 28, 2008 3:41 pm

Re: Unsolicited Advice on Grade Progression

Post by Heinrich » Mon Nov 23, 2009 11:20 am

Just to add to the point Ed makes (Ed, you won't believe this, but we agree on something :thumleft:):

Adam Ondra's policy on climbing is to climb as many routes as possible (volume), rather than working one route for months, or even more than a few days (grade). The result is a super-climber who claims the worse injury he's ever had was a sore ring-finger tendon for a few days. And that, coming from a guy who consistently climbs 9a+, is the recipe for a happy and productive climbing career.

On the topic of injuries: it is equally important to take your rest days seriously. Listen to your body; if it says "STOP, REST" then do so. Don't go out climbing day after day after day at your limit or near-limit - you're asking for trouble. The past RockRally I was on a mission to do as many hard routes in the weekend as possible. I got what I wanted, but at a very high price. Since RockRally I've been out with a serious elbow injury: no climbing for 2 months, and loads of pain pain pain and physio bills. The reason? For 4 days in a row I climbed routes close to my limit and I didn't bother taking a rest day, or even half-day somewhere in-between. I fatigued my tendons to the extent that they just couldn't cope with the demands and they tore. (I am now allowed to climb again and ease into the sport but nothing hard... which sucks, but this time i believe the doctor)

Lesson learned: volume is good, but rest is crucial.

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