Setting and reaching goals is one of climbing’s most rewarding aspects. Whether those goals are free climbing El Cap or just moving up a notch on the grade ladder, improvement unlocks new possibilities and new terrain.
Getting there isn’t always easy. Whether you’re just starting your climbing journey or you’ve reached a plateau after years of effort, these steps can help you get better at rock climbing, improve your technique, and reach the next level.
1. Establish a Routine
If you’re serious about improving your climbing, make a habit out of it.
This doesn’t just go for climbing or training. Make a habit of resting and recovering. Get in the habit of eating well. The more consistent you make your climbing life, the more focused you can be on pursuing your goals.
That’s not to say that your routine can never change. Goals change, circumstances change, and perspectives change. Preparing for a big wall is different from preparing for a season of sport climbing.
Whatever you’re preparing for, make sure that you stick to it. The first step is always showing up.
2. Structure Your Routine Carefully
All climbers have to make basic choices about their schedule. How often will you climb? How much time will you leave for rest? How will you spend your time during gym sessions?
There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions. A teenager entering in competitions will have a different schedule from a working adult who gets out on the weekends.
It’s worth putting some thought into how your schedule and your goals can work together. If you have limited time in the gym each week, be deliberate about what you do each day. Make the best use of your time, and plan your training so that your performance peaks at the right time.
3. Find a Buddy (or Two)
Some people prefer the solitary process of training alone, but many climbers find that company helps. A friend can help you get motivated, try hard, and stay accountable.
Climbing is inherently social. If you like to hang out on ropes, you’ll need a belay partner. Boulderers inevitably share pads, problems, and projects. Even on the moon board or campus board, you’re likely to find yourself sharing space.
Connecting with the community is a great way to learn and stay motivated. If you can set up a schedule with a training partner or two, all the better.
When you’re truly limited to training alone (as many were during the pandemic), don’t lose hope. You can find encouragement, advice, and accountability on forums like Mountain Project or r/climbharder.
4. Dial in Your Technique
It’s easy to focus on getting stronger and overlook getting better. Having a strong back or iron fingers doesn’t necessarily translate to climbing well on the wall.
Make sure that you spend time refining your technique. Climbing technique is infinitely complex, and a full overview is beyond the scope of this article. We’ve got you covered with a beginner’s guide, and you can find a variety of useful resources on the internet.
In general, better technique means wasting less energy. Learn to eliminate extra movement, keep your feet quiet, and reduce overgripping. Learn to trust those tiny foot chips. Whenever you find yourself getting stuck on a project, see if there’s an opportunity to improve your technique. In many cases, small adjustments can unlock new levels of difficulty.
5. Add Specific Training Elements (optional)
Climbing requires highly specific forms of strength. To maximize results, training should be equally specific.
Tools like a hangboard or campus board allow you to work on aspects like power, crimp strength, and contact strength in relative isolation. If you’re not already comfortable with these forms of training, ease into it. We’ve put together handy intros to hangboarding and campus boarding.
Although these methods are effective, they can also be counterproductive. Without proper care, training on the hangboard or campus board can easily lead to injury. Make sure that you structure your routines carefully and leave adequate time for recovery.
If you find that your climbing is improving without use of these tools, there’s no need to add them. Many climbers (even at very advanced levels) can continue growing without spending significant time on a board.
6. Train Your Brain
Sometimes stumbling blocks are physical, but other times they’re mental. Climbing is cerebral as much as physical, and working on your headspace can pay dividends.
If you find yourself holding back due to fear of falling, see if you can become more comfortable on the wall. Get used to taking falls safely and trusting the systems that protect you. The more you can focus on the moves themselves, the harder you’ll climb.
Some climbers struggle with particular types of moves or terrain. If you get shaky every time you climb a slab, start easy and work up until you find your confidence level building. If you hate heel hooks or drop knees, seek out projects that incorporate those moves. The more you build your mental library of climbing tools, the more options you’ll have when you’re solving problems on the wall.
7. Push Yourself
On a related note, get comfortable pushing your limits. If you only try routes that you know you can climb, you’ll never get the chance to surprise yourself.
Don’t be afraid to try routes and problems above your pay grade. You may not always reach the top of the wall, but you’ll get a sense of what it takes to reach the next level. Once you know what’s holding you back, you can more effectively tailor your training to your weaknesses.
8. Don’t Forget to Rest
This is true both on and off the wall.
I’ve seen climbers who train and pull hard but forget to take rests on the wall. Learning to rest effectively can be a game changer. If you can manage your energy and find time to recover on a route, you’ll have more gas for the crux when it matters. Pay attention to your rhythm, your breathing, and any areas of unnecessary tension.
Off the wall, rest is at least as important as training. Gains don’t happen in the gym — they happen the next day when you’re sitting on the couch eating a good meal. Training taxes your body, and recovery provides the opportunity to build back stronger. Without adequate rest and nutrition, you’ll dig yourself into a training hole that leads to burnout, fatigue, or injury.
9. Injury Prevention
Nothing kills your training momentum faster than an injury. If you have to take significant time away from climbing, you’ll lose the progress you worked so hard to achieve.
It can be a difficult balance to strike, but every climber should stay aware of their body and build a foundation of strength and flexibility. Train those antagonist muscles, and use targeted exercises to support the areas that take the most stress.
Every workout should start with a good warmup. Give your body a chance to get blood flowing and lubricate your joints before you start pulling at max effort. When your day is over, try to find time for a brief cooldown.
10. Watch and Learn
You’ll meet many climbers along your journey in the vertical world. Most will bring a different perspective, and many will be stronger than you.
Pay attention to how others climb, train, and recover. Not every climber is worth imitating, but watching others can improve technique and provide inspiration.
Watch how expert climbers move their feet. If you struggle with dynos, watch someone who’s really good at them. Try to integrate new ideas into your own climbing. Your style may not always match up with another climber’s, but looking at the wall in a new way can lead to productive breakthroughs.
11. Write it Down
One of the cheapest and most useful training aids is frequently overlooked: the humble notebook.
As you establish a schedule, set your goals, and undertake training, write down your progress. Seriously. Do it. Dedicate a notebook to your climbing goals and record your journey in whatever way feels best to you. This doesn’t have to include only grades or reps — write down how you felt, things you noticed, ideas you had, and techniques you tried. Write down your successes and your struggles, your wishes and your fears.
Writing everything down provides a variety of benefits. You’ll have a concrete record of your benchmarks, your progress, and your struggles. Over time, you’ll be able to identify patterns in your climbing and use them to improve your routine. Do you always struggle on the third training day of the week? Are you consistently over- or underachieving on a specific type of problem? Having a written record allows you to learn from your own history and find the training style that works best for you.
12. Be Patient
Climbing performance is a fickle beast. Some days you feel great; other days gravity is extra strong. Some seasons you’ll shatter your previous highs and unlock new levels, while other seasons you may find yourself regressing.
Don’t lose the forest for the trees. Remember to look at the big picture, accept the highs and lows, and stay focused on your goals. If you get discouraged every time you hit a roadblock, your training will not only be less effective, it will be less fun.
If you’re struggling to reach a particular goal, take some time to build your foundation. Don’t expect to send your first V7 right after your first V6. Instead, see if you can send eight V5s in a variety of styles. Climb every V4 in the gym. Think of performance as a pyramid – if you can widen your base, you’ll eventually raise your apex.
13. Change Something (When Necessary)
If you find yourself frustrated and stuck in a plateau, try something totally different.
It might be a different discipline. If you’re a sport climber, try trad climbing. If you’re a trad climber, spend some time bouldering. Climbing across disciplines gives you the opportunity to build new skills, use new parts of your brain, and get some space from the frustration.
Sometimes, all it takes is a change in mindset. Let go of the project that’s stumping you, try something totally different, and come back when you’re fresh.
Even the best climbers in the world have to change things up. This is nothing to be ashamed of — it’s an inevitable part of striving for improvement in a difficult sport.
14. Don’t Get Too Hung Up On It
Becoming a better climber is a worthy goal. The process of improvement is rewarding and enlightening.
But don’t let it come at the cost of your mental or physical well-being. Putting too much focus on grades, strength, and achievement can have a negative affect on your life as well as your climbing. For training to be effective and sustainable, you need to preserve your love of climbing. Otherwise, you’ll inevitably burn out.
This looks different for everyone. Some climbers truly love waking up early to hop on the hangboard. If that’s you, get after it. Other climbers may need to reserve time to climb for fun, hop on easier routes, or just have a break. That’s okay, too.
Wherever your strike zone is, remember the reasons why you got into climbing in the first place. Try to enjoy the challenges as much as the triumphs — if you can manage that, you’ll be a better climber in no time.