How to Climb 5.12, maybe

If you are looking for some inspiration directly from an elite climber about how to climb 5.12, this post isn’t for you! I am a high school English teacher, almost 40, almost 5’4″, and I am not very elite at all. But, just because I am not an elite climber, doesn’t mean I can’t take advice from the elite climbers. And that goes for you too.

Since lockdown began in March, I have gone through 5 books about training. These books gave me so many great tips and ideas on training that have had a huge impact on my climbing and transformed my goals. I used to be a climber who was shocked she clipped the chains on an 11a. Now I am a climber who is planning weekly and monthly training cycles with the goal of climbing 5.12 next fall season.

So, all of the knowledge I want to share in this post, I got from books written by pros. But again, just because you aren’t a pro, doesn’t mean you can’t take pro advice seriously for yourself.

I am going to jump right in. If you want to read the background story of how this 5.10 climber got the cockamamie idea in her head to try to climb 5.12, check out this post!

#1 You need goals and a plan

The first lesson I learned through all of these training books was about goal setting. If you have a goal, then you actually need a structured plan to achieve that goal. You can’t just throw an idea up in the air like a softball, swing, and expect to knock it out of the park. Duh! I mean you can try, but it is not the best way to go about things, and you shouldn’t be surprised when you miss.

You could say I learned this lesson the hard way. It took me two climbing trips to really wrap my head around how important it was to have a plan. We had a handful of fall 2020 climbing trips planned, and I was going to try to climb 5.12. That was my plan: try to climb 5.12.

The first was a trip to the NRG in late September 2020. On this trip, I top-roped one 12, a 40 foot route called Pockets of Resistance. 40 feet, how bad can it be?! Ha! I left all of my skin at the second crux. I did make it to the top though. Then, on another trip to the NRG in early October 2020, I top-roped Starry, a overhanging 12, where I was stopped pulling a deep roof. A swing and a miss followed by a swing and a miss.

I suppose my highly detailed plan of trying a couple of 12s and sending didn’t work. And unless you are just lucky, this approach is probably not going to work for you either. You need a plan.

#2 Build a Foundation Outside

An important part of my plan became to build a better foundation. So logical and so simple! In October 2020, I simply didn’t have enough of a base at the 5.11 grade. I had clipped chains on a few 11s outside the previous season, and I was feeling even stronger at my climbing gym, but this was not enough of a base.

So, I started tracking and counting my outdoor climbs. Once you start tracking your climbs, you actually have tangible evidence of your progress. If you have read Eric Horst’s book How to Climb 5.12, then this little triangle below will look familiar.

In the image you can see my base so far. I keep it on my phone to daydream about.

Building a foundation is straight forward and it produces results. I saw myself progress from someone who needed 3 tries to send an 11a, to someone who flashes 11a, one hangs 11b, and flashes 11c on tr. You will see that too, but you have to track your climbs, and you have to build your base. When you hone in on the grade where you need to build your foundation, you focus in on the climbs that will provide you with the most gain in your skill set. You will know your zone of proximal development.

Tracking your progress is also humbling, because it tells you where you are, where you are not, and at what level you need to be putting in the work. Humility goes a long way in developing your climbing. There are no short cuts to the top. You have to step on every shitty foot, pull on every dime edge crimp, clip every draw, and stare at every one of your weaknesses in its ugly little face and accept that there in lies the key to achieving your climbing goals.

Get a little notebook, find a cool climbing sticker to put on it and track climbs!

#3 Have a Plan When You Go to the Gym

Stop going to the gym and climbing willy-nilly. The world of climbing is filled with training plans for all levels of climbers. So, why not have one for yourself? You and your climbing are worth it. Never go to the gym without a plan.

I am going to borrow another one out of the Eric Horst library here. (I promise, Horst is not the only pro I am going to write about in this post.) Horst has this ten week cycle called a 4, 3, 2, 1 training schedule designed to help you peak at a certain time, like for a competition or a road trip. So, using this, every time I step foot in the gym I have a specific thing that I am training: volume, power, power endurance, and whatnot.

Since I am a teacher, I have an extremely predictable vacation schedule. So, it is easy for me to map out when my climbing trips will be for the next 356 days, and I made a spreadsheet. You should make one too, take your training to the Horst level of precision!

You can see that on any given week there is a purpose to my climbing. Whether it is to build tendon strength with volume, to build power or power endurance, or to test my skills at my limit on a rope. I am never going to the gym without a plan that is part of a bigger plan.

How to Climb 5.12: #4 Start Heavy Resistance Training

In my opinion, and the opinion of a lot of others, the biggest part of your whole master climbing plan is what you do when you are not climbing. The first part of my training outside of actual climbing is heavy resistance training. It is important not only to build strength but also for muscle recruitment.

Can you bench press 75-90% of your weight? Can you squat 80-100% of your own weight? If not, you should probably do heavy resistance training until you can. I’m a 110lb lady, not huge, but I bench press 80lbs and squat 90lbs, and this helps my climbing. I do other exercises too obviously, shoulder press, thrusters, deadlift, yada-yada-yada.

To get started with heavy resistance training, I used the lifting program designed by Michael Matthews. I have refined this plan it and combined it with other training programs to best meet my needs. Heavy resistance training added half a letter grade to my climbing. As an added bonus, it made my glutes look and function better!

#5 Switch It Up with Body Weight Training

It is important to not do the same 15 exercises 3 times a week for the rest of your life. You will surely neglect some muscle group, not train a broad base of movements, and get extremely bored.

To ensure variety, I use several exercises out of the body weight training program designed by Brendan Brazier. Brazier is an endurance athlete and trainer. Things like LRC push-ups, hamstring curls on a yoga ball, lat-pulls on a yoga ball, different dynamic squat exercises, and core stuff. The whole book has like 80 body weight exercises.

Brazier’s plan is perfect to build power without building mass. Endurance athletes want to have enough muscle to perform the way we want to perform, but not more, cause muscle is heavy. Brazier trains endurance runners who want the same thing as climbers. They want to be light and they want their muscles to function extremely well. So, when you are happy with your strength gains from heavy resistance training, it could be good to switch it up to some bodyweight exercises.

#6 Climbing Specific Training

Climbing specific training is essential when you are trying to push grades. I pair my climbing specific training with my climbing days at the gym. Most of my climbing friends do too. Really, it serves as a pretty darn good warm up to actual climbing. I warm up my shoulders with some bands until I feel that nice warm feeling in my shoulder muscles. This warm feeling tells me that my blood is moving into the muscles I’m gonna need. Then I hang board, do some sets of pull ups, cause I need to train pull-ups, and then I climb.

Quick tips on hang boarding: 1. If you are overweight, don’t hang board. 2. Less is more. 3. Be careful, too much volume or too much load on your fingers while hang boarding is a great way to get injured.

I also pull out a lot of exercises from Horst’s Training for Climbing book that I do on non-climbing days. Specifically all of the exercises he recommends for shoulder stability and balance in the forearm muscles. If you are not training to ensure stability and muscle balance, then you are sure to get injured eventually. Pre-hab if you don’t want to re-hab. Which leads us to the next topic!

#7 Recovery

I am keeping this section short. More is more when it comes to recovery. I am currently going on week 7 of re-habing tendinosis in my right arm for two reasons: #1 I didn’t recover properly this fall and #2 I didn’t do enough pre-hab.

In my early thirties, I used to proudly joke about how I would go to the climbing gym 3-4 times a week. Now, at almost 40, my rest days between gym climbing sessions are 2 usually 3 days. Interestingly enough however, even though I climb less these days, I train more, I rest more, and I actually climb harder. My climbing buddies would tell the same story. We are all nearing 40, but climbing harder than we did in our early 30s because we are smarter about training, recovery, and pre-hab.

#8 Eat Like You Give a Damn

If you haven’t given serious thought and seriously planned your diet around your training and recovery, then you will reap great benefits from doing so. Do you know how may grams of protein you eat in a day? How many grams of carbs? Do you know how much you need eat in a day to maintain your body composition? Are you eating enough carbs to fuel the training demands you put on your body?

Both Horst and Brazier talk about diet in their books for a good reason. If you are planned out and organized with your training but all willy nilly with your diet, then you are only enjoying a fraction of the gains you could be enjoying. Eat like you give a damn!

#9 Educate Yourself

You have just read around 2000 words about climbing training, from one dedicated amateur climber to another. I hope you have learned a couple of things and I hope you are inspired to really dig deep, plan, and climb harder.

If you learned a few things from me, a high school English teacher who read a handful of books on climbing and training, imagine what information you would pick up straight from the horses mouth.

Everyone is different. My training goals and plan will be different from your training goals and plans because we are different climbers. We have different strengths and weaknesses. Learn from the pros themselves. Your climbing is worth it!

Resources Worth Checking Out

Finally, these are the books that I read that transformed the way I approach climbing and training. Hopefully I can apply this knowledge to make and execute a plan to figure out how to climb 5.12 by my 40th birthday!

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