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Beginner plateau


Original Post
Jess M. · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2018 · Points: 0

Hello, 

I got back into climbing with a friend about 6 months ago after a long hiatus. I grew up climbing outdoors, so have a basic understanding of movement and technique. It seems to be coming back to me pretty quickly. Due to the current weather (winter) I've been climbing exclusively inside, both lead and top rope. I can consistently onsight 10c at the three gyms we frequent and can generally send 10d and the rare 11a with a try or two on top rope. On lead this drops to about 10a onsight and 10b with a take or fall somewhere. This is the level I've been at for 5 months. I'd like to progress past it, but I'm not quite sure how to. 

Do I focus on strength training? I'm a woman with a strong core and lower body and about 20% body fat, but my upper body is comparatively weaker than many other climbers. I don't think losing weight would help much since I'm relatively thin anyway. 

Do I do some specialized climbing program to really dial in my technique? Maybe it's my footwork? I don't climb with anyone who climbs harder routes so I don't get much exposure to "better" technique. I also climb with mostly men and we don't ever seem to do the same routes the same way. 

Can anyone give me some tips to get past this? I know it's not about the grades, but I'd just like to see some progress in my abilities and feel more secure trying harder routes and pushing myself. 

Señor Arroz · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 10

Couple quick thoughts with more to add later.

First, that's a pretty big drop off between your lead ability and your TR ability. Are you afraid to take falls? If so, that's always going to hold you back until you become comfortable with lead falls. Best way to get over that is just get with a trusted belayer in the gym and start doing deliberate lead falls to practice the feeling and techniques (yes techniques) of falling safely. I lead 11d/12a indoors and STILL have to continually remind myself to push limits and let myself take falls.

The things that really pushed me from the beginner/intermediate plateau were developing more hand and forearm strength + really focusing on footwork and proper technique. There are a million ways to do that. I'm not a fan of bouldering, generally, but it'll definitely hone your techniques. Also, pairing with a partner who is better than you or at least who pushes you will help.

Jay Morse · · Hooksett, New Hampshire · Joined Jul 2013 · Points: 30

Everyone plateaus, and from there on out moving up grades takes much longer, so you will have to be patient.  I went through all of the 5.10 grades to 5.11A in a single year, but it took me 3-4 years between my first 5.11A and my first 5.12A.  It took me a full year to go from 5.12A to 5.12B.

Chances are, you need to attack your weakness to get through the plateau.  You mentioned that strength and technique are weaknesses.  At your level you will get both of those just by climbing consistently, as long as you are challenging yourself.  Pick a 5.11 in your gym that has recently been set and project it.  Try it multiple times every gym session for months.  You will learn a lot about technique and gain strength.  Bouldering will help a lot too - go work on some V3s and V4s.  It will force you to dial in your technique and will be more productive in strength training than roped climbing would.  

Attacking weaknesses is different for everyone.  I moved from 5.12A to 5.12B primarily by improving my flexibility, because flexibility was my biggest weakness.  A typical girl probably doesn't have the same opportunity I had though.  Just be honest with yourself and keep after it.  

Alexander Blum · · Charlotte, NC · Joined Mar 2009 · Points: 132

Apologies for the wall of text.

Jess M. wrote:

Hello, 

I got back into climbing with a friend about 6 months ago after a long hiatus. I grew up climbing outdoors, so have a basic understanding of movement and technique. It seems to be coming back to me pretty quickly. Due to the current weather (winter) I've been climbing exclusively inside, both lead and top rope. I can consistently onsight 10c at the three gyms we frequent and can generally send 10d and the rare 11a with a try or two on top rope. On lead this drops to about 10a onsight and 10b with a take or fall somewhere. This is the level I've been at for 5 months. I'd like to progress past it, but I'm not quite sure how to. 

First, make sure you have solid technique and a broad range of movement skills. Learn new skills on easy routes, then "stress-proof" them on more difficult climbs.

The next thing you can do is work on your strategic approach and mental game. Have you ever picked up a project? Say you can TR 11a in two tries. You should be able to "project" around 11d, and send that grade in 3-4 gym visits (so probably 12-20 tries). For your lead climbing, you probably need to address whatever mental or technical barrier you are encountering before moving on to projecting on lead. I think that this article by Andrew Bisharat does a good job of spelling out the nuances of the process. Fixing your mental game and learning how to project/redpoint will do more for your long-term climbing grades than anything else.

Do I focus on strength training? I'm a woman with a strong core and lower body and about 20% body fat, but my upper body is comparatively weaker than many other climbers. I don't think losing weight would help much since I'm relatively thin anyway. 

You can improve your upper body strength via limit bouldering. See the link, but this is literally attempting moves that are at the limit of what you can physically do. It's worth googling the term and digging up more information.

Let's assume you've gotten a good handle on all of the stuff discussed above. A simple weight lifting plan (three lifts MAX, about twice per week) could be helpful, but I would give priority to actually climbing. Lifting weights eats into your recovery, and takes up time you could be spending working on the above stuff.

 An example workout could be: 3 (sets) x 5 (reps) inverted rows, 3x5 pistol squats, 3x5 dips. The broad rule of thumb for strength gains is low reps at high intensity, so if an exercise is too easy it makes sense to choose a harder one, or add weight. Being able to do as few as 3x3 for a particular exercise is still enough to be effective.

Do I do some specialized climbing program to really dial in my technique? Maybe it's my footwork? I don't climb with anyone who climbs harder routes so I don't get much exposure to "better" technique. I also climb with mostly men and we don't ever seem to do the same routes the same way. 

See the YouTube link I posted at the top. Everyone has technical weaknesses, and they can range from easily fixed to ingrained, difficult to correct habits. The most common problems people seem to have are: climbing with bent arms, sloppily placed feet, poor route reading skills, and inability to apply core tension. Videotape yourself on some boulder problems and post up on reddit.com/r/climbharder for thoughtful critique.

Can anyone give me some tips to get past this? I know it's not about the grades, but I'd just like to see some progress in my abilities and feel more secure trying harder routes and pushing myself. 

You don't need some super-systematic training plan, but doing some research based on the above would be a good idea. You can then write down some specific, measurable goals. Lead 4x 11a onsight by the end of May is a measurable goal, "climb harder" is not). Developing a plan to achieve specific goals is much easier than creating one to reach nebulous ones.

Don't feel bad about wanting to climb harder grades. The grade matters, and improving through dedication and hard work is a satisfying process. Beyond that, harder routes and boulders tend to have more interesting movement and are often more aesthetic. Enjoy the ride!

Sam Miller · · Bend, OR · Joined Oct 2017 · Points: 30

Before you start working too much on strength, make 100% sure you are solid on technique. Balance, flagging, drop knee-ing, outside edging, climbing with straight arms, twist locking, heel hooking, core tension and general creative movement.

JonasMR · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 6
Jess M. wrote:

 I can consistently onsight 10c at the three gyms we frequent and can generally send 10d and the rare 11a with a try or two on top rope. .... This is the level I've been at for 5 months. I'd like to progress past it, but I'm not quite sure how to. 

In a gym, it often seems to be the case that 11- is when "lazy" route setters start setting the same 5.10 climb but using lots of crimps.  There's lots of good training advice in this thread, but my guess is if you want to get over the immediate hurdle you might want to focus on some finger strength and doing "quiet feet" exercises.  Also, perhaps a more aggressive (or newer) shoe.  

Victor K · · Denver, CO · Joined Jul 2003 · Points: 165

Great comments so far. Given the spread between your top rope and lead ability, get someone to record a video of you climbing a route that you can lead AND top rope, preferably one that is at your lead climbing limit. If you watch yourself, you'll see the differences in your own technique. It can be very informative. If you know someone who is a solid 11 or 12 climber (and is about the same size as you are), record them on the same route too. Your technical strengths and weaknesses will be apparent.

Rich Farnham · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2002 · Points: 282

At the grade level you're at, I bet you'll see the most gains from bouldering - particularly while you're stuck in the gym.  You mention that your upper body strength is "comparatively weaker than most other climbers".  At some point, this could be worth addressing with strength training, but you will also get stronger by bouldering.  And focused bouldering gives you exposure to so much varied movement which really helps to develop technique.  

By "focused" bouldering, I mean being deliberate about the problems you get on, and paying attention to how you're doing them.  Warm up with a few problems at each grade from V0 to whatever starts to feel hard to onsight - maybe V2 for now?  Then start working V3s (and maybe a V4 or two that seem doable).  Try the hard moves a few different ways.  Do it again once you've sent it to see if you can do it better/smoother/easier.  Watch other people do it.  This is one of the main advantages of bouldering in the gym.  While you're resting between attempts, some crusher is going to come through and hike your project as part of their warmup.  Watch what they do, and maybe try some of the body positions they use.  Sometimes this doesn't work - if they're too strong, they may just be powering through something.  But often, people warming up use good technique on problems that are easy for them.

The lessons you learn from bouldering will make the cruxes on your routes feel easier.  They will also teach you better technique that makes you more efficient on the rest of the route, so you arrive at the crux with more in the tank.

One other thought about "focused" bouldering.  Chose problems that are at least somewhat similar to the kind of routes you want to do.  It's tempting to go monkey around in the cave on huge jugs, or try the strange "comp style" problems, but depending on where you climb, this probably isn't that relevant to the type of climbing you'll do once you leave the gym.  Pick wall angles and holds that are closer to routes you're interested in.  Definitely mix it up and try a variety of problems so that you learn what your weaknesses are.

Jess M. · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2018 · Points: 0

Thank you to everyone who replied!

I'll make sure to get someone to film me next time I'm at the gym. That sounds like a great way to get some constructive advice on my technique. 

I will also force myself to boulder. I've known for awhile this would be helpful, I just dislike bouldering. I can definitely get over that dislike if it will help me progress.

For everyone who mentioned the distance between my TR and lead ability, this is definitely a fear of climbing above a bolt when I'm not 100% sure I can stick a move. I don't like falling. I can do it safely and I trust my belayer, it's just gut wrenching for some reason. I'm working on this by taking purposeful falls everytime I'm at the gym and it is slowly getting better.


King Tut · · Citrus Heights · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 430

What I would add, Jess, is that fundamentally this is a personal sport and your own progression is in a vacuum as it were.

I have seen some of the world's more powerful climbers in action and it is their gift from birth that mostly determines their highest end.

I use the analogy often that the ability to throw a baseball 95mph is a gift from birth. You cannot train the ability to do that, you can either do it or you can't based on the mix of Power (fast twitch) and Endurance (slow twitch) fibers in your arm from birth. This is why some people are great milers, but a very different body type excels at 100m....

Point being, is that yes, you need to train Power (boulder or other finger training) but don't be discouraged when that eventually plateaus also. Its your own journey and pushing what you were born with is the goal. Not numbers per se as you may have a more endurance oriented muscle physiology based on your genetics. That is the beauty of climbing.

Señor Arroz · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 10
Jess M. wrote:


For everyone who mentioned the distance between my TR and lead ability, this is definitely a fear of climbing above a bolt when I'm not 100% sure I can stick a move. I don't like falling. I can do it safely and I trust my belayer, it's just gut wrenching for some reason. I'm working on this by taking purposeful falls everytime I'm at the gym and it is slowly getting better.


Here's something else you can do: It's much safer to take falls on overhanging routes. Most of those are going to be in the 10d and up range, where you say you aren't really yet leading. Go ahead and get ON some of those overhanging routes knowing that you're probably going to fall off of them. But who cares? As long as you're confident in your belay and get to your first draw safely it's all good. So you get to kill two birds with one stone. Get comfortable falling AND get on some terrain that's going to test your limits.

phylp · · Upland · Joined May 2015 · Points: 617

Jess, one thing I don't think I saw you mention is how frequently you climb?  From my personal experience as a woman, and technique aside, for me over the years, coming back from breaks due to work schedule or surgeries, 10c/d onsight is a fairly routine level to attain.  Going beyond that always equated to just putting in more time on the rock and in the gym, which led to getting stronger.

As an example, when I was younger and was climbing a lot, I made regular grade gains when I was climbing in the gym 2-3 times a week and out pushing it for two days on the weekend. So about 5 days a week. My strength just kept building.  I got to the point where I was onsighting in the 11c/11d range, and I felt like that would have kept improving, but I just decided I didn't want to spend so much of my life climbing.  Dropping down to going outside 3-4 days a month or only once a week in the gym led to a gradual decrease in strength back to the 10c/d level.  Is this a woman-specific generality due to low testosterone or just my own body?  I don't know. I know that my husband, who comes and goes from climbing, makes MUCH more rapid strength gains than I do.

Now for fun, I go to the gym on average once a week.  Even that seems to very incrementally lead to improved strength and onsight grades (from a starting point of 5.8 after my last shoulder surgery 4 years ago to 10d/11a gym onsight now), but I consider that frequency more or less a maintenance level and I'm not intentionally trying to make any gains.  I should also mention, that the fluctuation in grades with a layoff from climbing is much more pronounced on strength intensive routes (very steep but more buckety) vs technique intensive routes (slab and technical vertical stemming).

To the people who commented above and others.  What have you noticed in terms of the correlation of your frequency of climbing and improving, maintaining, or even losing strength?

caesar.salad · · earth · Joined Dec 2012 · Points: 75

Gooooooooo bouldering! For a few months. Then do laps on the systems wall for two weeks. Then crush.

Nick Drake · · Newcastle, WA · Joined Jan 2015 · Points: 476
phylp wrote:

To the people who commented above and others.  What have you noticed in terms of the correlation of your frequency of climbing and improving, maintaining, or even losing strength?

Largest improvement on plastic is with 3 days a week climbing and 1 day of "integrated strength" (hang board and resistance training). If I do more fingers get tweaky and I get injured, keep in mind I'm 37 so younger climbers likely have more recovery capacity. If I drop the strength sessions (which are low volume/high resistance) my ability to hold the tension/generate power for the hardest moves significantly wanes after ~14 days. When I drop the hang board routine I tend to injure my fingers. 

On rock I primarily sport/trad climb, just recently started bouldering. Sweet spot there seems to be 2-3 days a week on rock also, varying intensity with only one day being hard projects. One day easy mileage focusing on the basics again. If I do more, again I start to be at risk for injury. I'm sharpest at reading a particular rock type if I'm able to get on it ~2 times a week at least.

Nick Drake · · Newcastle, WA · Joined Jan 2015 · Points: 476

Jess there is some really good advice in this thread already, for the lead head portion you're on the right track simply taking falls. The more frequently you do them the more comfortable they become, I've never been as relaxed on lead as when I took around a hundred lead falls in one month (not recommending that much for fall practice, that was working on routes). When you get to that point where making hard moves above a bolt/gear comes with a relaxed mental state it's pretty amazing, but just because you got there doesn't mean you'll stay there. When you stop taking as many the anxiety can start to creep back, I usually make it a point to fall at LEAST once anytime I'm roped up now (unless it's slab). Espresso Lessons/Rock Warriors Way and Vertical Mind are both excellent books that can help you work on that part.

I do highly recommend at least one day a week bouldering, as was mentioned up thread this a perfect opportunity to observe climbers with stronger technique (it's also a great way to watch really strong dudes muscle fuck their around any semblance of technique, so be careful who you watch for beta).  When you know that you can do movements of a certain difficulty in isolation it's easier to set into them confidently on a rope. Work hard problems first, get on some steep V3/4 problems and start working on the moves, don't worry about sending the whole problem at first, just try for 2-5 move links. Once you've worked out the efficient way to do portions link the whole thing.
Later in a session, say an hour in, drop the intensity and just try to flash more problems and/or do perfect repeats of ones you have sent in the past.

Another day can be spent on very low intensity endurance.  Look up ARC training, good amount of info out there. This can be traversing a vertical wall (best way to start), auto belay, or doing boulder circuits without stepping off the wall (hardest). Aim for 2-3 sets of 30 minutes on the wall at a time with no substantial pump (1-2 out of 5), physiologically this should grow denser capillaries in your forearms. I think almost all of the gains right now will be from technique, you'll learn a lot about how much you can relax your grip and the right body positions to get the most weight on your feet. This is also a way to help recover from those harder bouldering days.

When you get the combination of focus purely on crux moves and ability to relax on the easier portions sport routes get much easier. Trying to train both aspects at the same time by just leading one gym route at a time puts in the middle ground of minimal to no improvement in my experience.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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