How to Make Up Your Own Routes at the Climbing Gym

Juniper commented on my post the other day that she doesn’t think there are enough routes in her small gym to try out the training wheels for training workout I stole from Kris at Power Company Climbing. So for Juniper and everyone else, here’s a whole post about how I got into ‘setting’ my own routes at the gym.

Inventing or setting routes is a learned skill that gets better with practice!

Basic Method

  1. Look – Find hold(s) on the wall that you want to use! This is the fun part! Pick anything that appeals to you.
  2. Sequence – Make up a sequence that will take you from the ground to the top, using the hold you picked
  3. See  – Visualize the movement of the sequence. Decide which hands will go on which holds, think about the feet. What will your body look like at various points on the route?
  4. Climb – Climb your new route and see how it feels.
  5. Revise & Repeat – Think about what you’ve just climbed. Was something to hard or too easy, too close or to far?

When you first start, it can be hard to visualize movement accurately, or to remember all the holds you’ll need (without the visual cue of tape). This is ok! Do as much as you can. Here are some ideas that will let you practice routesetting skills and movement visualization which aren’t as memory-intensive as making up a new route from scratch.

First Steps: Modifications to Existing Routes

These are the easiest ways to make up your own routes (in order of increasing difficulty). Routesetting for yourself can be a great tool to prevent warmups and other climbs you repeat regularly from becoming stale.

  1. Track Feet – on easier routes (think warm-ups) can you use tracking feet only? Why or why not? What foot (feet) are absolutely essential?
  2. Links – take two different routes and find a way to link them together, using holds on the routes themselves or by adding extra holds.
  3. Delete – can you climb a route without using all the holds? Which ones can be removed?
  4. Replace – take a hold on an existing route, declare it off bounds, and replace it with another hold. Does it make the route easier or harder? This can help get you familiar with hold types you avoid–replace a jug with a sloper or a pinch on a warm-up, for example.

Making Up New Routes Using the Holds that are Already on the Wall 

The easiest way to start making up whole new routes is to pick a sequence of hand-holds, leaving the feet open. This way, you have fewer things to remember. To get the most out of it, it’s best to plan, visualize, and then climb, instead of adding holds one by one to the route.

Walls with high hold density tend to work best for making up problems. This is the 45deg wall at the gym where I train--it was crazy empty the day I took this picture!

Walls with high hold density tend to work best for making up problems. This is the 45deg wall at the gym where I train–it was crazy empty the day I took this picture!

Sometimes I pick a start hold and ‘build’ the sequence in my head from the ground up. Sometimes I pick a hold (often part of a route that’s too hard for me, or one that addresses a weakness (bad crimps, pinches, slopers)) and make up a way to get to it instead. Sometimes I just decide the general path I want to take, for example, all the way across the base of the 45 and then up. Or sometimes I want to find holds that put my body into a cool position. It’s up to you!

How to Make Your Routes Better

If you’ve made up routes before, but didn’t like them, keep trying! For some ideas, check out posts over at Power Company Climbing, one consisting of tips from Kris, and another which is a truly awesome interview with Chris Danielson, including his thoughts on Kris’s tips! Here are some things I do to make my own routes better…

  1. Find a friend: It’s much more fun to work on making a route with another person than by yourself. It’s more fun to discuss how a route climbs or how movement feels out loud than in your own head. 
  2. Practice: Then practice some more. This makes a huge difference in the quality of the routes you invent. If you keep at it, you will see improvement, and feel it in the way your routes climb.
  3. Break the ladder: Routes that climb like ladders–left, right, left, right, hand, foot, hand foot, all the way up are boring! Try setting routes that traverse, or set a bump move. Find ways to break the pattern, and your routes will become more interesting.
  4. Specify Feet: Take off the good ones, or allow feet only of a certain color. This requires you to keep more information about the route in your head, but will add another complex and interesting dimension to your routesetting.

 

Finally, remember that the folks that set routes work from a place of powerful passion for climbing and love of movement–which, as a climber you already have. You already have what it takes to ‘set’ your own routes.

But, I climb 3 – 4 nights a week, and EVERY time I climb I am routesetting.  No matter where I am climbing or what gym I go to, I am always creating boulders based on existing holds on the wall.  For me, this is, without question, the best way to better understand how to create movement, and also understand the movement itself better.  On your gym’s wall, or a home woodie, with enough density of holds, you can make up a dozen or more new climbs every night. — Chris Danielson, interviewed by Power Company Climbing, in a post you should go read right now

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Track It!

Today’s post is all about training logs! Many people think that training logs are only for people with training plans, or only for people who are ‘serious’ about their climbing and never play in the gym. Nothing could be further from the truth! Tracking what you’re doing with your time in the gym is valuable for climbers of all skill levels and ages, even raw beginners.

Some examples of what your training log can do:

  • Allow you to see progression and improvement 
  • Document and prevent over training, keep track of ‘tweaks’ and injuries
  • Prevent you from rewriting history with overly-rosy or overly-critical lenses
  • Help you set goals and hold yourself accountable to them
  • See how your motivation and interests change over time
  • Inspire confidence, as a record of commitment and effort
  • Allow you to reflect on past training and plan for the future

In the gallery below, I pulled a couple examples from my winter training log, to illustrate how I’ve been tracking my 1+1 training wheels workouts. In a more commercial gym (1st picture) everything is graded, and I’ll sometimes keep track of grades/colors in detail. In the bouldering gym where I normally train, I just keep track of the angle. For the second hour, when I’m working on harder climbs, I sometimes take more detailed notes, but usually not.

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What should you write? I think there are three things that every training log should capture in some way–status of injuries, difficulty, and training volume.

The first two items are fairly straightforward. All climbers are prone to injury, but you’re at extra risk if you’ve recently increased the difficulty or volume of your training, or both at the same time. If you do get injured, your training log can be an invaluable tool to help you figure out why.

In my logs, I always keep careful track of training volume–how many routes I’ve done or attempted in a particular session in the gym. The original inspiration for this post was my realization that when the gym is crowded, I don’t get much done and I’m overly negative about my own climbing. Your training log can help you see what affects your training volume, and adjust it according to your own goals.

For some, the climbing gym is a place to see and be seen, and a great place to socialize. If you don’t have a training plan, it can be easy to get distracted and climb a very small number of routes or problems during your time at the gym. For new and intermediate climbers the most important thing to do is get lots of volume to develop and refine your technique. You don’t have to stop being social–but be aware of how it affects what you’re able to get done in the gym!

If you do have a training plan, it can be difficult to stick to among all the opportunities and distractions in the gym. Instead of finishing your planned warm-up sequence, you get sucked into trying the new sloper problem with a crowd of your friends. I use my training log to see how well I’m sticking to my training goals and plans. I try to find a dynamic equilibrium between doing planned and structured training and seeking variety and inspiration.

Below the cut, check out some thoughts from climbers @Senderhq and @drglasner on tracking training, as well as a couple do’s and dont’s for your training log.

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Training Wheels for Training: A Review

Climbers are endless consumers of information about climbing. There’s always one more blog to discover, one more video to watch, and one more slideshow to click through. We’re also inundated with information about how to train. As our sport matures, we’re discovering more and more about how to achieve peak performance.

When it comes to training advice, it’s important to find the voices you trust among the growing cacophony. For me, one of those voices is Kris Hampton, who writes the blog Power Company Climbing. His training content is consistently high-quality and relevant.  After a 3 week break from climbing in mid-December, I re-discovered this post by Kris: How to Climb Harder than Other Newbs. The guidelines Kris lays out have been the foundation of my training for the last two months. They’re simple, and they work.

My sessions are almost all structured the same way–in two hour-long blocks.

I spend the first hour warming up by climbing new (to me) easy problems, or repeating moderate problems perfectly. No flailing feet, no muscling up the wall. Focus on feeling and improving the quality of your movement, not whether or not you get to the top.

The next hour I spend working problems that are hard, but achievable. Kris recommends something you think you can send in 5-6 goes. I try to carry the smoothness and precision of movement from the easy problems through to the second half of my session. If I’m too tired to climb well on the harder stuff, I either end the session or climb a bit more on easier problems.

That’s it. Simple.

Even better, it works. I am having tons of fun during the first hour, and feeling more solid on problems closer to my limit. Some suggestions and tweaks for tailoring the ‘newbie’ workout are below. Remember–it’s never to early or too late to be beginner again!

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Antagonist Muscle Training for (Intermediate) Climbers

Confession time: I can’t do a real push-up. Not even one! I’m a perfect example of the imbalance that many climbers have in their upper bodies–our pulling muscles are way stronger than our pushing muscles. Correcting or avoiding this imbalance is an important part of injury prevention.

Maggie is wondering why I can't do a real push up, and what on earth I was doing hovering a few inches off the ground with my arms shaking.

Maggie says: You really can’t do a push-up!? What are you doing in the dirt? Can I play too?

One of my training ‘projects’ is improving my the strength of my antagonist muscles to correct my own imbalance. You don’t need a fancy training program: you can fit pushing muscle exercises into whatever workout/climbing schedule you already have. Here are three suggestions…

#1 Stick, Meet Carrot

During your next bouldering or routes session, work in a light number of push-ups in between routes or problems. Decide on a specific ratio–for example–do 5 (or 10) push-ups for every two boulder problems. If your gym has free weights easily accessible, you can mix it up and do other antagonist exercises.

When I do this type of workout, what I’m usually doing is ‘rewarding’ myself for doing exercises I’m not good at by doing things I like to do. For example, I do push-up progression exercises in all of  my workouts: lifting or climbing. Sometimes, when I’ve done good work in a session, I’ll ‘reward’ myself by hopping up on the bar and doing a few pull-ups for fun.

You can work push-ups in between routes into your warm-up or cool down, or do them throughout a session. Don’t give yourself a break when you get outdoors–you may feel silly doing push-ups at the crag, but injuries are far worse than feeling silly. Ask yourself–if not now, when?

#2 Self-Assigned Homework

As Tony would say, I stole this idea from Tony Gentilcore, specifically from his pull-up progression series. Tony gives his clients ‘homework’ to do a certain number of reps per day, 25 or 50, for example.

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5 New Year’s Resolutions for Intermediate Climbers

#1 Find Strength in Numbers

Community is one of the things (for me, the thing) that makes climbing so amazing. Make it your goal to reach out to somebody new in 2013. Include the person who’s looking for a partner in your group–even if it makes odd numbers. Help out the beginners in your gym or at the crag! Make sure the guy in his street shoes and a harness in the bouldering area gets a good spot–sometimes beginners aren’t as in control of where they land when they fall. Be warm, welcoming and supportive.

#2 Use Outdoor Time Wisely

You should have three modes:

  1. Onsighting 
  2. Working
  3. Redpointing

Most intermediate climbers spend too much time trying to onsight and redpoint, and little or no time at all working or projecting routes. If you’re trying to send the minute your feet leave the ground, every time, I’m talking to you! If a route is too hard for you to onsight, you should be working it! Test out beta, try tough sections multiple times, rest on the rope, and plan tactics for your redpoint go.

#3 Work on Your Footwork 

Let’s be honest guys–we’re never going to be done working on footwork. There is no final state of footwork nirvana in which no improvement is possible. Now that we’ve accepted that, resolve to work on footwork in some way in every training session. One way to do this is to play the silent feet game–find a friend to make sure you stay accountable!

Fancy footin' on the cigar in Ten Sleep Canyon, WY

Fancy footin’ on the cigar in Ten Sleep Canyon, WY

#4 Be a Beginner Again 

Once you’ve been climbing for a while, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing what you’re good at. Trying things you’re bad at makes you look silly, it’s hard, and it often feels like you’re not getting anywhere. Do it anyway! Are slopers your nemesis? Replace a hold on a moderate (for you) route or problem with a sloper and see how it changes your beta? Technical masters, try something with a roof ! Jug haulers, try something balancy. Don’t spend any time telling everyone around you that you’re bad at whatever it is to lower expectations before you try it–just do it! You don’t judge other people when they fail, odds are, no one is judging you!

#5 Give Yourself a Break

When you have big dreams, it’s easy to fall short of your expectations. When this happens, don’t beat yourself up about it. Keep dreaming, and keep working! Someday you’ll get there, and in the meantime, there’s lots of fun to be had along the way.

What are your resolutions? What are you working on in the New Year? Want me to bother you about sticking to them in June? Post up in the comments!

3 Playful Training Ideas

Can you train and have fun at the same time? One of the big tensions in my climbing experience this spring was between having fun while climbing, and training so that I could climb harder. A spontaneous game of add-on in the bouldering gym reminded me that I know tons of ways to have fun and get stronger at the same time. Here are 3 activities you can do in the gym to have fun with your climbing partners, which will also help you become a better, stronger, climber.

1. Enduro-Fest

How it works: The basic idea is to run laps on the wall until failure, competing with the other climbers for the most number of laps. Belayers make up new ‘rules’ every time you start up the wall, to keep you guessing and keep things interesting.

What you need: A top rope wall with a rope which has a couple routes of a grade you can climb confidently, all climbable from the same rope. Vertical or overhanging terrain works well, depending on your level of fitness. You also need at least one friend and a heaping does of creativity.

The rules we’ve used: climb with your eyes closed, mantle everything, sidepulls only, left foot only, left foot red right foot yellow, etc. Get creative!

A matter of timing: Climbers get 10 seconds of rest between each lap. They may chalk while climbing, but must not remain stopped for more than ten seconds. Belayers count down while climbers are resting, on the ground or on-route, to remind them to stay moving.

Why it makes you stronger: Directly competing with other people is always more motivating than training by yourself! Doing this at the end of your workout also teaches you to keep it together when you’re tired and pumped.

Why it’s fun: Friendly competition, need I say more?

A photo from flickr user surnam, from the SCS PNW 2010 comp. Click through for more climbing photos!

2. Pick My Climbs

What to do: Climb as usual, but let your climbing partners pick all your routes for you for the entirety of the training session. Pick routes that you think will challenge your partner, or a route that you think they can do but that they would never otherwise get on. If they hate slopers, give them a route within their skill level that has slopers. If they hate overhanging routes, make them do 3 moderate overhanging routes in a row.

Why it’s fun: You get to help your climbing partners get better! For me and my climbing partners, this game can tend towards a pain-fest of one-upmanship, but always in a rewarding way. I never go home with spare energy, which is the way I like it!

Why it makes you stronger: This game gets you in the habit of analyzing movement and identifying weaknesses in your climbing partners, so that you can find routes that challenge their weaknesses. It also gives your climbing partners a bombproof excuse to give you feedback on your climbing–be ready!

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Intermediate Climbers: Do You Train in the Gym?

I switched to a new phase in my lifting program on Tuesday. I had almost entirely brand new exercises to learn and perform, including variations on my main lifts. Surprisingly, it was really annoying. The efficient routine I had down pat was all out of whack. I wasted time looking for equipment in the gym, figuring out how much weight to use, and checking the coaching cues for new exercises.

Why was I so annoyed? Change is necessary to progress,  since the body adapts to what you’re throwing at it in the gym. Thinking through my reaction to the change in my lifting program got me thinking about how I train (or don’t) in the climbing gym, and I thought I’d share my strategies in today’s post.

Flickr user wendylix with her spotter, Austin. Photo by Jim Thornburg.

I don’t follow a specific program, but I never walk into the climbing gym without a goal for the night in mind. Here are 3 training tricks I’ve used to give myself direction and purpose in my gym sessions.

These will probably be most useful for intermediate climbers. If I’m climbing 2 days a week, I’ll do one of these sessions one day, and then use the other day for a more chill, have-fun-and-just-climb-with-good-technique sort of workout.

1.  Do 10 routes 5.hard-ish or harder

5.hard-ish should be a grade that you can usually climb relatively smoothly, but which challenges you, i.e. if you’re tired, or unfamiliar with the route, you might have falls. Climb well and focus on your technique, trying to keep a consistent level throughout the session. Aim to complete 10 routes that are 5.hard-ish or harder by the end of the session with no falls. This strategy works well for bouldering or for route climbing. It allows you to get volume while focusing on climbing well.

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