This is the story of how I improved my rock climbing skills from beginner to mid intermediate level in 20 hours.
I’ve encountered a book titled “The First 20 Hours” written by Josh Kaufman a few years ago. The book was about how to systematically learn a new skill and be good at it in a very short period of time! It inspired me so I decided to see for myself how far I could get with 20 hours of deliberate practice.
I had 15 sessions with roughly 77 minutes of active rock climbing time each. And 10 leg strengthening sessions for 6 minutes each.
You might be asking “what is active rock climbing time?”. And just so we’re clear, it means the actual time I used for improving my climbing skill. I only timed myself when I’m climbing on the wall or I’m doing strength training at home. I know that resting is an important part of training but I don’t count it as active training time. You can be in the gym for 3 hours but if your combined lifting time is 30 minutes, then you only practiced for 30 minutes, right?
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The Rock Climbing Research
I needed to get a good grip about rock climbing since I wanted to be better in 20 hours of active climbing time. I did some research and had conversations with instructors to understand it better.
I’m a big believer of the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule. It states that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your activities. And my research goal was to identify the few most important pieces of information that could help me improve fast.
1. Don’t rely too much on upper body strength
Most people think that you need to have a strong upper body for rock climbing. They are only partially correct though. Relying too much on it is the most common mistake rock climbing beginners do.
Your forearms are the first to get tired or pumped during a climb. They also dictate how long you will be able to climb for a session. Frequent pulling yourself up with your arms can quickly sap your energy during a climb. This is related to my next point.
2. Push yourself up with your toes and legs
Not relying as much on your upper body means that your lower body will have to work more. This is okay because if you think about it, your leg muscles are at least twice as big as your arms. Your legs can carry more weight than your arms could.
Focus on pushing yourself up with your legs instead of pulling yourself up with your arms. This habit will help you become more efficient in climbing.
Strengthen your toes and calves. The rock holds become smaller or more difficult as the walls become harder. And the only way to step on these small holds is by using your toes.
3. Basic Balancing
Losing your balance means falling off the wall. You achieve balance by eliminating the swing through good body positioning. Thus, it is important that you understand how to properly position your limbs, torso and hips.
For beginners, the most important concept is the “rock over”. Your goal is to position your hips on top of your standing leg. Doing this will lessen the amount of work needed from your arms when ascending a certain position.
4. Mental Puzzle
Rock climbing offers a full variety of rock hold combinations that will test your strength, balance and puzzle solving skills.
Muscling your way up will work for easy walls but not so much for more difficult ones. Route reading becomes necessary as the walls you climb become harder. You need to plan which moves are better to use for specific hold combinations. If you aren’t efficient with your moves, then you’ll run out of strength and fall off the wall.
5. High Weight Loss
This info is less important compared to the first four I mentioned above.
I researched this info only because I am an ectomorph who wanted to gain muscle mass and faster recovery. Ectomorphs are naturally skinny people who have a hard time gaining muscle mass.
You spend around 9 times energy when you rock climb compared to when you are resting. Rock climbing regularly is enough to lose you pounds from your belly. This also means that you’ll need to eat more if you are trying to gain weight. (You need to eat so much more if you are an ectomorph like me)
You need to measure your baseline if you wish to know your progress. Research says that it is important to have strong legs for pushing yourself up and strong arms for pulling yourself up. And your climbing skill will depend on your combined technique and strength.
Here are my baseline stats measured on Jan 21, 2019:
- 57.9 kg. I wasn’t underweight but I was definitely skinny. Arms were thin and rib cage was visible on my chest.
- Shoulder leaning half pistol squats – 6 per leg x 1 set. I chose this exercise as my leg strength baseline because rock climbing involves a lot of standing up with one leg.
- Pull Ups – 3 max reps x 1 set. Pulling yourself up is important for climbing inclined walls and overhangs.
3. Rock Climbing Skill
- Capable of climbing mid beginner routes (french grade: 5a) cleanly.
This training plan is what I’ve come up with based on my rock climbing research. The main goal of this training is functional leg development. Anything else exists as support for the main goal.
1. Equipment Used
- Rock climbing shoes – These are like ballerina shoes for rock climbers. They help you stand on your toes much easier than rubber shoes. Rent or buy one at your local gym and have your instructors assist you.
- Safety harness – This tool is what makes it possible for you to try, fail and finally succeed ascending walls. Get a basic belay training at your local gym for safety purposes.
- Gloves and sports tape – Your arms especially your hands get tired first or fail from hand skin pain. The feeling of pain can distract beginners from applying leg techniques during a climb. My solution for this is to use gloves and sports tape on my hands. This was very handy to me especially at the beginning when my hand skin wasn’t as thick as it is now.
The best way to develop functional legs for rock climbing is to do exercises or drills on the wall. These leg drills will help you depend more on your legs and less on your arms during a climb.
I tried progressive leg drills separated into 3 tiers of difficulty. You can do these drills as a warm up or cool down.
I didn’t have time to go to the rock climbing gym three to five times a week. So my solution was to have a simple leg workout program at home. It’s so simple that you can do these leg exercises for 5 to 10 minutes only. It was a great way to strengthen my legs for climbing without actually going to the gym.
4. Grip drills
- Active to Passive dead hangs – A dead hang is a great way to train your arms for climbing. You just simply grab on a pull up bar while keeping your arms straight and your back muscles engaged. Hang there for as long as you can. This will train your grip and back muscles. It also gets you into a habit of straightening your arms which complements the leg drills.
- Sloper dead hang – This wasn’t part of the original training plan. I had balance issues when I encountered sloper holds on inclined walls. So I did sloper dead hangs to train both my grip and balance.
5. Diet and Recovery
- Rest is a must. You damage your muscles every time you do intense activities. Not resting enough will accumulate all your body damages from climbing. Incomplete rests will quickly bring you to a plateau with accompanying frustration over your slow progress.
- Eat well. Food helps your body recover. The quality of food you eat will reflect on the quality of body repair you get. If you are an ectomorph like me and you wish to gain muscle mass, then you better make sure you are eating more calories than you burn.
- Don’t overtrain. I remember watching a Joe Rogan Experience podcast episode featuring the world class MMA Trainer Firas Zahabi. Coach Zahabi mentioned “I’m a big believer in never being sore – you should train, and the next day you should wake up feeling good”. He believes that we should be focusing on consistency rather than intensity. Always giving your 100% is a sure fire way to burn yourself out (pun intended).
My deliberate 20 hours of rock climbing practice ended on April 1, 2019. And I’m proud that I was able to focus on consistency. I had 15 climbing sessions with 77 minutes of active climbing time per session (2 to 3 hours in the climbing gym). 10 leg strengthening sessions at home for 6 minutes each. And I forced fed myself every single day with the right combination of carbs, protein and fats!
Let’s see my results below from the mixed research and training.
- 5.2 kg mass increase. My new weight is 63.1 kg compared to the initial 57.9 kg when I started.
- More sculpted legs. All those leg exercises and toe standing made my calves more sculpted. I noticed from my climb videos as well that cuts from quads and hamstrings are now more visible.
- Larger back. Straightening my arms during a climb or practicing dead hangs worked the hell out of my traps and lats.
- Bigger arms. My fingers became thicker. My forearms became bigger and more rounded. Biceps and deltoids were noticeably larger too.
- Maintained low fat percentage. I can say that my mass increase was mostly muscle because my mid-section showed hints of a six pack.
- Full pistol squats – 5 max reps per leg x 1 set. Full pistol squats works out your legs, core and balance. It was a huge jump in strength coming from half-pistol squats to full pistol squats. This was the result of being consistent with leg drills and home exercises.
- Pull Ups – 8 max reps x 1 set. That is 167% increase in reps. Not as much improvement compared to the legs though. This is fine because the training focused on leg strengthening.
3. Rock Climbing Skill
- Can climb 6a+ routes onsite. I can ascend walls of this grade without any prior knowledge of the wall and without any coaching from other climbers in just one try.
- Can finish some 6b routes onsite. I’m getting more consistent in finishing walls of this grade.
- Able to finish 6b+ routes. I could finish these walls after several attempts. For some walls, I still need to connect the sections without resting in between.
- ⅔ of a 6c route. I can do ⅔ of a 6c route before getting my forearms pumped. Or before I am stopped by cruxes that require finger strength. I am still working my way to ascend one of these walls.
I went from beginner to mid-intermediate level in a span of 20 hours of dedicated climbing! My starting climb grade was 5a. And the maximum grade I was able to finish was 6b+. That is 6 grades up. This just shows that you can get good fast when you combine good research and consistency in practice.
I enjoyed doing rock climbing as it was an exciting way to strengthen your body. And after this 20 hour rock climbing experience, I’d greatly recommend it to people who want to get fit and have fun at the same time!
I hope this article was helpful to you! If you enjoyed reading this, then share it to your friends! Don’t forget to subscribe to my mailing list if you want to read more content like this. Have fun rock climbing! Be good at anything fast and be a rad rookie! 🙂