TRAIN TO TEST: ’20×20′ & 25 PULLUPS

(Warning: long article)

Recreational climbers loathe training, to the point that aversion to training is the hallmark of the recreational climber. To the recreational climber, gear, excuses and statistics will fill all the gaps.

This is just accepted though bemusing, as so many climbers never reach their ambitions and so blame the gear, the clock, the route, the guide or whatever, never seeing it is their condition that is often the primary limiting factor.

Gear can be bought, technique can be taught, attitude can be copied and facts can be memorized – only condition has to be slowly developed, through the painful, lonely hours of self-confrontation and focus.

“Just climb” is the usual false wisdom that’s offered, and it speaks volumes, namely that much or even most of such a climbers climbing is little more than training anyway, and an unfocussed and barely functional version at that. Of course a good climber climbs more, to offer as profundity the blatantly obvious is not wisdom, but the good climber knows that real progress is cyclical – where capacity is upped and then tested for weakness and limitation so it can be upped again – and that to leave this to the random, anecdotal nature of ‘just climbing’ is as smart as ‘just buying’ your gear without trying it on.

Training methods that fuse strength with endurance work because they allow you to climb more, so the old cliché isnt wrong, just misapplied.

By developing your endurance, ability and condition elsewhere (often a safer ‘elsewhere’) your ‘just climbing’ time is both benefited and freed of any serious training constraints. Those climbing days are made safer because of the known quantity the climber becomes through the training process and because of the gains from the training itself. Indeed, the faster, more efficient climber can simply cover more ground in better condition to get more climbing done in the conditions and daylight that no one can change.

Training matters not just because of the gains, but because of the limitations it exposes, and these 2 factors together give a picture of an individuals function. I know lots of people who can tell me what their jacket weighs, the properties of their sleeping bag or how many kcals are in a strawberry banana gel, but have no idea in how long (or even if) they could cover 10 miles.

There are 3 categories of functions that concern me in climbing because the way they integrate directly affects how and what I climb and it makes sense to develop all 3 to progress as a climber:

The gear: ropes, harnesses, clothes, hardware, tent, sleeping bags, insulation etc

The fuel: the energy, the nutrients, electrolytes, hydration, recovery etc

The person: brain, body, perspective, technique and attitude.

Theres all sorts of overlap between these categories, but as the ‘person’ category is the one I have to pilot every second of the year, often thru matters far more pressing than winter climbing, it’s the one I put the most effort into. Using and developing special gear is also important, but of the greater paradigm its about 20% of what makes up performance.

My capacity to do what I choose both recreationally and professionally is more reliant on my ability to cover vertical and horizontal distance with loads, apply strength and agility on demand, make executive decisions when under stress, apply technique efficiently, then recover from the whole lot rapidly, than it is on the weight of the jacket im wearing or fill of my sleeping bag.

The basic equation is; the more developed I am, the greater leeway I have with the ‘add-ons’. Or in another way; my limitations are not set by my equipment.

I can and do cut unnecessary weight where I can, but that’s only a third of the ‘weight/volume’ formula. The other two thirds – as anyone who moves weight for a living knows – is increasing your ability to move weight in relation to what you weigh yourself. And that means training, which is where 75% of climbers switch off.

Training and gyms are dirty words to most climbers despite the importance these things play to the high end climbers most recreational climbers admire. In a sport fuelled by emulation the focus is on copying the gear, the comments and the results in some anecdotal way, rather than taking on the process. That some top alpinist wears G14s gathers more interest and obsessive debate than that the same climber can do 25 pull ups, cover 15 miles non-stop loaded with half their bodyweight and cope with a sustained high cardio demand under stress. And yet the G14s the recreational climbers wears are judged as if they are on the same playing field…

Superficially every climber is leveled by the gear they can use. Piolet dor winner and weekend warrior alike, we can all share the same headtorch, underwear and drink bottle, making it obvious to those who choose to see that these things have little to do with achievement.

25 pullups (or 20, or 15, or 10, or 5) matters not because they are a stunt of strength, but because they are an indicator. 10 pull ups you can grunt your way through with average decent upper body strength, but beyond that strength matters less and less.

In other words; to do 20 pull ups indicates there’s a lot of other important factors in place as well – factors that don’t come together either by chance or without effort. To me 20 pull ups says im in the company of someone who understands the real commitments of climbing, who sees that the person is more important than the hardware, who is willing to do the hard work to face that equation and whos gear reflects not his choice in branding, dogma or colours, but the demands of a system that has actually delved itself.

‘Being strong’ is another misconception about training and climbing and tho there is no pursuit that isn’t made better by being stronger – ‘strong’ doesn’t mean bench pressing body weight for ten sets of ten, and like doing pull ups, stunts of corporeal strength will only get you so far. Actual strength doesn’t refer to an act, it refers to the state of the organism and its capacity to exert a level of force on demand:  the greater the force + the greater the demand = actual strength. 10 x 10 bodyweight presses in a gym – whilst impressive – is virtual strength; a narrow application of force across a very limited spectrum of demand.

Viewed this way, the guy loading 20kg boxes of bananas 8hrs a day on a moving boat in the tropics harnesses more strength across a greater set of applications than the guy with the power-belt and the Marilyn Manson shirt over at the oly set. Essentially ‘strength’ means the strength of an organism, and not just what that organism can do, but what it can withstand.

Theres several formulae out there to weigh up actual, functional strength (folks like Mark Twight, Mountain/Military Athlete and the worlds special forces have gone deep into this) and the one I like most is arguably the simplest: carry 20kgs for 20kms, nonstop. Otherwise known as the 20×20.

Its not the most specific nor the most diverse but as I see it it’s the one that levels the field more than any other. because it looks basic and simply a matter of grunt-work – and up to about 5kms in it is. That’s about the time when the powerlifters realize their virtual strength has worn off and their body mass is demanding too much oxygen, the ultrarunners realize their stripped down frames are struggling with the load, and the crossfitters realize its not just a matter of holding on and pushing out.

What sets the 20×20 apart is the element of time, and as those minutes become hours and the peripheral details of your condition get stripped away, theres plenty of time for analyzing just how much strength you think you have, because in one way or another that is the only thing limiting you. The 20×20 is a good indicator not because it overtly shows up strengths – it doesn’t, those bench presses wont be obvious – but because it shows up weaknesses, and like the 20 pull ups, you cant bluff your way through it.

By about the midpoint it becomes clear what will get you through the exercise – capacity.

Capacity to keep good posture and form to prevent the diaphragm collapsing from the load and injuries at bay.

Capacity to stay in the internal zone that overrides the stresses of a loaded system.

Capacity to mitigate arising weaknesses.

Capacity to keep those muscles firing and pushing you forward.

A decent time is anything under about 2Hrs 45mins, though anything under 3hrs indicates walking and stopping were kept to a minimum, which indicates that speed was put as a priority over pain, which indicates a ‘zone’ was entered into and that whatever methods were used were working and as absurd as it sounds id gamble that the climber who can do 20 pull ups can also do a pretty decent 20×20.

Why?

Because they have a lot in common beyond the obvious differences. Both will demand a good strength-to-weight ratio, good shoulder, upper and lower back integrity, a decent lactic threshold and oxygen uptake, good core-to-peripheral structural integrity, they share demanding good upper-lower body connection, they require developing a ‘zone’ to go into to override stress a functioning sense of integrating breathing with movement, skeletal alignment and forward-recovery.

Neither exercises will be bluff, luck, talent or ego. And none of it will have happened without realistic effort over a period that discounts dilettante dabbling, ego tripping and token efforts.

Doesn’t sound too useless for climbing to me…

Notes on the 20×20 test:

It would be foolhardy to just strap on 20kgs and head off for 20kms without preparation – but then again, it’s a foolhardy business we are in here. An exercise like this demands preparation from several angles to deliver a good result, the foremost being to injury-proof the body. Slick abs, cut pecs and sculpted lats wont do any harm, but they will have little benefit if they are not on top of actual strengthened and integrated structure.

Heres what you will want in your system:

  • Good cardio capacity combined with a good CO2 and lactic threshold.

  • Good sub-damage stress threshold

  • Adequate shoulder mass

  • Adequate upper and lower back strength

  • Good abdominal, hip, flexor and quad strength

  • Developed knee, ankle, foot and lower leg strength

  • Good hip and shoulder range of motion

  • Good lung capacity and diaphragm range

Beware the HIIT junky syndrome that without genuine non-stop 90min+ training will fall far short of the demands imposed. Likewise beware of the loss in body mass from exclusive distance training or the oxygen-craving hypertrophy of isolation weight training.

For the exercise itself steer clear of undulating routes, as though the uphills are very applicable to alpine climbing, the downhills can massively increase your chance of injury. Groomed trails are ideal as they are softer and offer greater foot micro-placement than tarmac.

The 20kgs can be carried in any way so long as its directly onto the body (no sleds etc) and doesn’t include clothes, shoes etc tho can include the apparatus the load is carried in. basically you need to have 20kgs of weight loaded onto your body. Simple as that.

Water is a good weight source as its easy to determine volume, can easily be dumped and needn’t be carried to the course.

Work out a drinking and eating system that doesn’t affect the 20kg load.

Poles are not part of it.

Newish shoes are recommended.

The clock doesn’t stop, no one is responsible for the outcome but you. The time its done in is of no value other than in relation to other pursuits.

PS: anyone reading this who has cracked 2:30 please send me an email, ive got lots of questions for you.