Six drills to make ARC training more effective

A photo of a boy bouldering in Cougar Canyon, Alberta
My son bouldering in Cougar Canyon, Alberta

After a ten-year hiatus, I’ve started rock climbing again. I “remember” how to move–thank God for engrams–but I started with zero climbing fitness. My forearms felt pumped and acidic within seconds. Even after two months of training, I’m just starting to feel like I have some endurance.

To rebuild my fitness, I’ve been using the methods from The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. I wish that I had that book 15 years ago. The authors, Mike and Mark Anderson, have a thorough, modern understanding of physiology.

The Anderson program starts with aerobic restoration and capillarity sessions. An “ARC” session consists of continuous climbing at a low intensity1. The intervals start at 2x 20′ and build to 2x 45′ over several weeks.

For most rock climbers, staying on the wall for 20′ is very long and super boring. Listening to music or audiobooks is an option, but that has a huge opportunity cost. By only climbing, you’ll gain some basic fitness. But you’ll lose out on something much more important: technique.

Improving as a climber has more to do with technique than fitness. This is especially true for beginners and intermediates, a group I recently rejoined. To work on technique, I prefer to train in silence and think about my movement. It’s more engaging and much more productive.

So when ARCing, don’t get on the wall and climb without a focus. That would be boring. Think like a dancer or gymnast. Practice something.

Use the slip grip

When I started training, everything felt pumpy regardless of the grade. I couldn’t tell the difference between 5.6 and 5.10. I was gripping just as hard regardless of the hold size.

After a week or so, I started testing the smallest amount of pressure that I needed to stay on a handhold.

  1. Each time I grabbed a hold, I would relax my grip until my hand started to slip off; then
  2. I’d tighten it just enough to hang on.

Soon, easy routes were no longer pumpy. My warm ups were much more thorough. ARC training was feeling much more effective.

Don’t look for footholds. Instead, put your foot on “lookholds”.

Our bodies know how to stay in balance. When running, no one has to think about where to place their feet. Each foot strike is where it needs to be to keep us in balance and moving forward.

The same goes for rock climbing. But our panicked brains usually think they know better. They don’t. We look where we need to step, and fear takes over. “That’s not big enough!”

But the placement of a foot is more important than what it’s stepping on. A small foothold closer to centerline may be more efficient than a bigger edge that is off balance.

  1. Start on a route far below your onsight level. It’s important to stay calm. Getting pumped will only interfere.
  2. When you look down to move a foot, note the place where you first look. That’s where your body wants to step. Foothold or not, it’s likely the best location.
  3. Step where you first looked.

The “lookhold” location will usually be below your highest hand, because…

We be quadripedes

Regardless of the sport, stability comes from a cross-limb connection. We connect one hand with the opposite foot through our pelvis. The mechanics are different between sports, but the principle is universal.

But what’s obvious when running and walking is much less so when rock climbing. But watch great climbers. They are masters of balance. They create tension between opposite limbs almost every move.

To practice, try this:

  1. When moving between footholds, many small steps are better than fewer bigger steps;
  2. Get in position, but use only one foothold. (Hint: Pair your main pulling hand with the opposite foot.) Your idle foot will go where it needs to go, acting as an outrigger on a catamaran;
  3. When pulling upward, create tension between your pulling hand and your supporting foot.

Some might say, “That’s not true. Flagging lets you use a same-hand-same-foot connection.” That’s true about the hand-foot pairing. But it doesn’t violate the principle of cross-limb stability.

With both inside and outside flags, a foot moves to the opposite side of the pelvis. It reverses the roles of the feet. In effect, it “tricks” the body into thinking a right leg is a left or vice versa. The principle of cross-limb stability still applies.

Don’t climb like a frog. Unless you’re in Smith Rock.

The other day in the gym, I saw a thin, strong-looking woman. “Probably 5.11,” I thought. But she struggled on 5.10.

She’s plenty strong enough to climb harder. But a common mistake was holding her back: She placed her feet parallel to the wall.

Each foot placement had full contact along her big toe, from the ball of her foot to the tip of her toe. That creates several problems:

  • The foot can’t pivot to the inside. That blocks the hips from twisting and limits the reach of the non-pulling hand. One solution is to flag the opposite foot and lean sideways. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it puts a lot of weight onto the pulling hand.
  • The foot can’t pivot to the outside either. If it’s forced to, it could rotate right off the foothold.
  • It takes up too much real estate. Placing a foot parallel to the wall makes foot matches difficult. The first foot hogs the whole hold, so switching feet requires imprecise foot-hopping.
  • It stops your hips from touching the wall. The closer your hips are to the wall, the less force you need to hang onto handholds. The frog position makes your butt stick out, putting more strain on your arms. (And even if you are super flexible, sitting like a frog is a very static position. It’s harder to move out of.)
  • You can’t pull with your toes. The upward motion should start with the toes, pulling the body closer to the wall. In a frog position, the gluteus medius muscle does the pulling. It’s a much weaker muscle than the hamstring.
  • Your weight is even between legs, making upward progress awkward. We need to alternate foot placements and “walk” up the wall in small steps. With a wide, splayed stance, shifting between legs is cumbersome. When weighted, moving a foot requires “hopping” it up the wall to the next foothold. That’s inefficient and unaesthetic. (Think about cross-country skiing. If the tracks were set three feet apart, the skier would feel stable. But it would compromise forward movement. It would be difficult, slow, and horrible to watch.)

Yes, yes, I know… On thin near-vertical climbs, parallel frog-style foot placements may be helpful. So like hand-jamming, use the technique where it’s an advantage. Don’t make your climbing harder by using it everywhere.

Stand on the tip of your big toe

My friend Simon has incredible footwork. He’s so precise that his shoes always wear out in exactly the same place. A pea-sized hole forms on the bottom of the shoe, right under the tip of his big toe.

When he was a kid, his coach would have him pull onto the wall, placing his feet with precision. Then step off and do it again. And again. And again.

Today, he has almost prehensile control of his feet. His foot placements are always right on the tip of his big toe and exactly where he wants them to be. It allows him to pull into the wall and pivot side to side.

Toe! Toe! Hips! Hands! Plan!

Instead of deliberate movement, most climbers use “Plod. Plod. Pull! Panic!” Bad footwork leads to a spastic pull and then a frantic look upward. It wastes energy and increases stress. Using a more measured movement will work much better.

Here’s a drill that puts it all together: toe, toe, hips, hands, plan. Use a route several grades below your onsight level. To start, put your hands on the wall and look at your next handhold. Ask yourself, “How far away is it? Which hand will be reaching? Which hand will be pulling?” Then:

  1. Toe! Look for your first foothold. If you’re going to pull with your left hand, then your right foot is the most important. Put your foot as close to the lookhold as possible;
  2. Toe! Place your opposite foot in a natural helpful location. Think “outrigger”;
  3. Hips! Move up in a wave. Pull in with your feet, push up with your legs, and pull with both arms until your hips press against the wall.
  4. Hands! But don’t reach too soon. Make sure both arms are pulling together and have exhausted their pull. When focused on the next hold, the pulling hand gets forgotten. It often has more to give. Let the momentum that started in your feet continue right through your body; then
  5. Plan! Grab the next hold and relax. Use the least amount of pressure to hang on. Then take a moment and plan your next move. Where is the next hold? (Know before you go.) How much higher is it? (That’s how much higher your next foothold needs to be.) Where is it relative to your centerline? (That’s how much sideways movement you’ll need.)
  6. Repeat.

  1. Duration and intensity are always relative to the goal event. ARC sessions are “long” and “low-intensity” compared to the intensity required for onsighting and redpointing hard rock climbs. From a general endurance perspective (for running, skiing, etc), ARC sessions are short (20′) and hard (just below anaerobic threshold). For general endurance, use such workouts sparingly