Climbing Conditioning Program 2011 - What is Relative Strength?
Column #138, 18th February 2012
What is Relative Strength and why is it essential for Climbers to put it in their Conditioning program? Even though this component of strength will be developed whilst you climb, there are many major reasons why focusing on it off the wall is key to rapid gains in performance.
Phase 5 out of 6 of the Climbing Conditioning Program progresses to the relative strength training routine. The previous 4 phases have built upon each other to get you here effectively and safely focusing on injury prevention, shoulder function, posture, strength endurance, movement patterns, flexibility and much more. Now it is time to work on one of the most important components of climbing.
What is Relative Strength?
There are many different types of strength and all to some degree will be relevant to climbing. However, the most influential for performing well as a climber in my opinion is ‘Relative Strength’.
There is a more detailed discussion in a chapter on the Biomotors of Climbing.
Relative Strength Definition: “The maximum force an athlete can generate per unit of bodyweight and time of force development”
What this means is that it is essential for a climber to be strong relative to their bodyweight. For example you could have two people who had the same absolute levels of strength, but the person with a lower body mass would have the greater relative strength and likely to be more effective as a climber. This signifies a more efficient use of body mass. Absolute strength is still important, but only if it transfers to an integrated strength that is relative to bodyweight. The interesting factor is that there are distinct ways of designing programs that enhance relative strength and completely different programs that would be used to increase absolute strength.
Of course, the act of climbing itself will specifically develop this ability, but your conditioning program that supports your climbing performance will take you to another level. Consider for a moment what conditioning program you carry out at the moment to reduce recovery time, maintain muscular imbalance, prevent injury, allow to train at greater intensities and create relative strength. Do you have one, is it progressive, do you vary it, what exercises do you include, how many times per week do you carry it out, what repetitions, load, intensity do you select? If you do have a strength training program which specific type of strength are your targeting? There are many. The ultimate question is…………..are you training for Relative Strength?
The Training Program
Let’s see if we can answer that question. Do your exercise programs generally include high repetitions with low/medium intensity? If yes, then your program is not going to increase your relative strength. It will probably be doing your endurance some good (which is also important), but your relative strength will not increase and potentially decrease. You will see that in the Exercise Phase for Relative Strength that your repetitions are low, the intensities are high and the rest periods are long. This program will be challenging the necessary energy system and neural ability that produces increased strength per unit of bodyweight.
This does not mean that all climbers of all ages and abilities should immediately embark on a relative strength style exercise program. It simply isn’t appropriate for everyone. What is does mean is that, all climbers should have a plan of when and how to increase their relative strength.
Think of it this way. Your performance on the rock will suffer if you have fantastic levels of endurance, but poor relative strength and power. Conversely, it is no good if you are powerful in the first few moves and tire extremely quickly. The accurate answer is that climbers need significant levels of all these attributes and you must know a little about program design to achieve this.
Phase 5 exercises are designed to really target the weak links through strong movements. The program I have put together and teach climbers across the region typically includes single arm and single leg exercises. The tempos are purposefully slow and controlled. This ensures that momentum and stretch-reflex are not compensating for weak points. For example, if you feel that you bounce up out of the bottom of a squat or press up, it is probably an indication of weakness – the body wants to spend as little time as possible in this range.
The transfer of relative strength training to climbing is massive and not least because the controlled speed of movement matches a lot of the pace of movement on the rock. Pavel Tsatsouline (author of The Naked Warrior) suggests that if you had to pick only two exercises to increase strength, they would be the 1-Arm Press Up and the Pistol Squat. The rest of the program is balanced out for movement patterns and climbing demands.
Today’s article gives you a few pointers on how to do this for your relative strength training. For advanced information contact me with any specific training questions you have. Better yet come down to the Durham Climbing Centre Conditioning Workshops.
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