Muscular Endurance Training with Climbing Intervals

posted by dpm on 02/09/2010


By Eric Hörst

Failure on near-limit routes often seems to result from the fatiguing of the forearm muscles and your subsequent inability to climb on through the pain and cramps of a deepening pump. While inefficient movement, due to poor technique and mental “fear load”, frequently contribute to premature failure of the forearm muscles, the limiting physiological constraint at play here is something called “local endurance.” While the exercise physiology of local endurance is beyond the scope of this article, it’s empowering to understand that your muscular endurance is a function of the limit (maximum) strength of the muscles in action, the muscle’s ability to tolerate and remove blood lactate and other metabolic bi-products, and your will power to sustain strenuous activity despite the painful stress signals from the brain.
So, how can you best train these factors and improve your forearm endurance? I have two words for you: Climbing intervals! Climbing intervals are the gold standard for training anaerobic endurance, because the exercise routine is tremendously specific to how you actually climb on hard routes. Consider that most long boulder problems or roped climbs possess a couple (or more) hard sections as well as intermittent sections of somewhat easier terrain and perhaps even rest stances. Such stop-and-go climbing likely pushes you to near the edge of apparent muscular failure as you get pumped and start breathing harder on a difficult section, and Beating the Pump then you recover somewhat when you reach easier moves or a rest position.
Climbing Intervals simulate this exact scenario by alternating one to five minutes of strenuous climbing with an equal period of easy climbing or rest. You can perform these intervals on a bouldering wall, or as a series of top rope or lead climbs.
My favorite interval training protocol, developed many years ago for use on my original small home wall, utilizes a pyramid scheme to challenge both body and mind in a highly effective way. You can use this training strategy on any overhanging home or commercial wall as long as there is enough terrain to move around in order to alternate between difficult and moderate movements. 
Begin by climbing for one minute, during which you climb through some very strenuous sequences, but also move onto slightly easier terrain to prevent failure before one minute has elapsed. Rest for exactly one minute and then begin a two minute burn on the wall, again alternating between hard moves and more moderate sections. You may pause occasionally using a large hold to afford a shakeout and some small measure of recovery, however, you should never venture onto vertical terrain, nor take a no-hands rest. The goal is to stay on an overhanging wall and persevere for the full two minutes despite the growing muscular pump. (If you aren’t getting pumped then you need to get on a steeper wall, use small holds, and execute harder moves). Now, take a rest for two minutes. The third climbing interval is three-minutes long. Again, do whatever hard sequences you can manage, but do move onto larger holds if needed to survive the full three minutes. Take a rest for three minutes. Next up is the four-minute interval—the crux of  the workout. No doubt, your forearms will be screaming and your brain will trigger stopping thoughts as you fight to hang on for the full interval. After taking your four minute rest, you will reverse the pyramid with another three-, two-, and one-minute burn, each followed by an equal rest period. In all, this protocol will take you through seven intervals totaling thirty-two minutes of combined climbing and rest time.
It’s vital that you stick to the time schedule exactly—use a digital egg timer (you can buy a Taylor Digital Timer from for under $6) or stopwatch to get your intervals just right. Ideally, recruit a training partner to join you in the session so that one of you is resting while the other is climbing. Perform this interval pyramid up to twice weekly (ideally  toward the end of your workout session), and you will notice significant improvement in your anaerobic endurance—and your will power to climb on through pain!—in as little as six workouts.
Less-fit climbers may want to initially reduce the pyramid by one step, doing just the one-, two-, and three-minute intervals before reversing back down the pyramid with the closing two- and one minute intervals. This total of five climbing intervals will take just eighteen minutes. Advanced climbers may want to add a five minute interval, however, making for an extremely grueling, elite-level endurance training session   comprised of nine intervals taking a total of fifty minutes.
Eric Hӧrst (pronounced “hurst”) is a renowned author and climber of more than 30 years. His new book, Maximum Climbing: Brain Training for Peak Performance and Optimal Experience will be released in early 2010. Learn more at: