Is 5.11 the junk zone of rock climbing?

Between 2005 and 2010, I focused on sport climbing. I redpointed 13c and flashed 12c. A key part of my progress was avoiding 5.11.

When I was sport climbing, I learned a lot from my friends Jay Audenart and Simon Villeneuve. Simon in particular has a fun, irreverent attitude that has helped him climb V10 and 13d.

“5.11? Skip it,” Simon said. “It’s hard enough to be tiring, but not hard enough to improve.”

Skip 5.11? Sacrilege, right? But sacrilege is usually a good thing.

But first, what is a junk zone?

A junk zone is an intensity level that is hard enough to be fatiguing, but not hard enough to trigger significant improvement. In endurance training, “the junk zone” (aka. Zone 3) lies between the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. It’s often described as “the black hole” intensity. It’s where fitness goes to die.

It’s also the most popular. Zone 3 feels like work. Non-athletes gravitate toward it, going by feel. They assume that it’ll improve their fitness, or worse, “it helps burn fat”. It does neither.

In a good endurance program, Zone 3 plays an important role, but only for a small part of annual training hours. For professionals, Zone 3 training is often only 2-3% of their program. For recreationists, it’s the only program.

Too much Zone 3 will destroy aerobic capacity, but it’s seductive. Most fitness fads build their businesses on it. It’s hard enough to feel worthwhile, but not hard enough to be a strong stimulus for improvement. It’s gratifying, but when overdone, detrimental.

Just like 5.11.

5.11 feels like work and makes you tired. But it’s not hard enough to demand good technique or to develop real power. As a result, 5.11 tires us out without teaching us much.

How do you “skip” 5.11?

I’m back in the saddle after a 10-year hiatus from rock climbing. I’m starting over, eating humble pie, and building aerobic capacity with lots of 5.10.

My rule of thumb is that 5.11 is only for onsighting, not projecting. After I onsight a few 11a’s, I’ll start projecting 12a.

5.11 is the perfect onsight grade because there are so many holds. A grab-and-go approach works well for routes with so many options. But that advantage becomes a disadvantage if a climber spends a lot of time there.

Higher grades force specific technique. They demand more strength, more power, more precision. And after a few 11a onsights, a climber is more than ready to spend a few days working a first 5.12.

So, 5.11? Skip it!