Ode to the Old-Ass Gym

Climbers stretching and talking on the floor next to a climbing wall in an old climbing gym in Ohio.
A scrappy Midwest climbing crew in an old-ass gym.

Back in my Urban Climber days, I wrote a feature called “The Rise of the Super Gyms.” It was about new climbing gyms that were sprouting up around the country and taking the indoor scene to a “higher level” (get it?!). The trend, in its early phases then, is now well underway and huge, custom-built, professionally operated climbing and fitness facilities are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Today, 20,000, 30,000, even 40,000-square-foot facilities are appearing across the country, sometimes in areas far from rock and far from the pre-existing climbing communities that once served as a gym’s customer base.

When I lived in Boulder and Salt Lake City, I was lucky enough to frequent such “super gyms,” with their fancy workout decks (this treadmill has a fan?), yoga rooms, and highfalutin air-conditioners that worked, even on hot days. They were plush and almost always busy. Their holds were new and clean (can you say jug rash). Their tall, steep walls created inhumanly strong youngsters and demoralized n00bs and out-of-shape old timers. Such gyms are clearly the future, but at the same time, they’re missing something that the old-ass gyms we used to climb at had in spades. I guess you’d call it guts.

“It’s got everything you need: free weights, punching bags, a steam room, fat guy with a mop,” thus spake Staten Islander Danny Castellano, describing his boxing gym on an episode of The Mindy Project I watched last week. It reminded me of the way I grew up thinking of working out. Basically, the more rustic the set-up, the tougher you could get. Think: Rocky doing heavy bag work on a side of beef in a meat locker, Alexander Karelin running through waist deep snow in Siberia, Marky Mark bench pressing cinderblocks in an abandoned factory. Thus, a frilly, high-tech climbing gym was at best frivolous, at worst a place where a Russian super villain might climb / get injections of an experimental gene drug for cheaters that rendered him unstoppable on crimper dynos.

There’s just something about the old-ass gym that invites you to get strong. It challenges you, makes you uncomfortable, forces you to adapt. The holds are often sharp or tweaky, the setting uneven and full of random, shoulder-wrenching moves, even on easier climbs. The lighting is poor—brightly spotlit in some areas and shadowy in others, making it hard to discern the color of the chalk-faded tape (whatever tape, that is, hasn’t already peeled off and attached itself to your shoe).

And the feet—oh the feet! They are slick as hoarfrosted cobblestones on a riverbank, their once-candylike colors layered over with a mirrored black shellack of sticky rubber. These are part of the training though. Master the use of footholds like these, the likes of which exist only on the most trafficked outdoor routes, and you’ll become a subtle god of friction.

The old-ass gym also has a soundtrack. Maybe you remember it? Usually a mixture of grunge (Nirvana, Soundgarden, STP) and classic rock (Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Hendrix), with a handful of rap hits (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Outkast). In the original old-ass gyms, they just turned on the local FM rock station and let it ride, or had a 6-CD changer set to random. (Later, people plugged in their clickwheel iPods.)

There are weights in the back—an eclectic mix of dumbbells and barbells and floating plates picked up at yard sales. Next to them, some sort of cardio machine, but it doesn’t have a fan or a TV screen. Maybe it has a heart rate monitor that doesn’t work and a squeaky belt deep inside that sounds like a frantic gerbil trying to escape. Any workout implements not used frequently are coated in a quarter-inch of dust. There is a poster on the wall taken from an old issue of Climbing, back when it was 180 pages per issue and had Rolex ads in it. There is a sign that says “Must be 18 or older to enter the workout room.”

Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter at the old-ass gym. This is where people like Todd Skinner and Jim Karn and Tony Yaniro trained. And if you’re too young to know these names, trust me when I say they were more hardcore than you. The regulars at the old-ass gym are there because they love climbing deep down, even when no one else in the world is watching or cares. They say adversity builds bonds between people, and the old-ass gym supports this theory; scrappy climbing crews formed in old-ass gyms seem to have a stickiness that is lacking in fancier establishments.

I recently moved to a small, coastal California town where you’re about 20 times more likely to meet a surfer than a climber. There’s one gym in the area and it feels like an old-ass gym. When I first checked it out, I was a little panicked. I had grown accustomed to the niceties of places like Momentum, in Salt Lake City, or Movement, in Boulder. I wanted setting that was comfortable to the joints and grades that were easy on the ego. I expected a hot face towel to start things off, and lavender scented lotion in the locker room. In short, I’d grown soft.

Luckily, this old-ass gym has everything I need: a few thousand square feet of climbing terrain, some hang boards, an old treadmill and Exercycle, some open floor space to do push-ups and sit-ups and squats, and a loading-bay door in back that opens to let the air in. When the breeze blows and you close your eyes, it’s almost like you’re outside…

The Climbing Dojo

A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Gym, Boulder, Colorado.
A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Bouldering Gym, Boulder, Colorado.

In Japanese martial arts, the dojo is a place for formal training. The “do” in dojo means “way” or “path,” and the full phrase dojo means “place of the way.” Similarly in Chinese, tao or dao—as in Tao Te Ching—carries a similar meaning. In Japanese Buddhism, dojo is also used to refer to a hall for Zen meditation. In essence, a dojo is a place where one seeks to learn not just for practical purposes, but for something deeper.

This is how I have come to see the climbing gym. Humble, dusty spaces they may be, often times housed in roughly converted warehouses, a climbing gym can be a dojo, granted you bring with you the proper mindset.

A first step to this recognition of the gym as more than a gym is to remember it is not a place to prove things to others, or to conquer anything. It is “a place where we discipline ourselves and improve ourselves to be a better person,” according to Kendo instructor Masahiro Imafuji. When you think of it this way, it is always a privilege to spend time and a dojo. Every success in a dojo is just a fleeting step on the endless journey; every failure is a gift, at least as valuable as the successes.

It is traditional to bow on entering and leaving a dojo, but it’s important to remember that bowing in this way doesn’t mean lowering yourself in a worshipping sense. Instead, the bow is meant as a show of respect. That respect is not only for your teacher, if you have one, and for your fellow climbers, but also for oneself and for the lessons that you have the honor of learning. (When you bow to an image of Buddha, you do not bow to the physical image or to a man from the distant past, but to the Buddha nature in yourself.)

There are myriad lessons to be had in a simple climbing gym. And under the definition of dojo above, I’d include every crag or mountain, too. In a sense, all the blog posts I’ve written about climbing have been encapsulations of lessons learned in a dojo of sorts. Lessons about fear and ego, about flow and balance, about strategy and respect—climbing can teach us all these things and also things beyond expression.

But climbing is not the only means to such lessons. Martial arts, painting, skiing, woodworking… many—I might even say any—activities can, if practiced in a mindful and disciplined manner, help us to understand and find “the way.”

Simply living life can be enough to find this way, but it can often be more difficult, as life can seem at once too complex and too mundane to teach us clear lessons. Instead, we take one interesting activity, climbing for example, and elevate it to the level of ritual. We find our dojos—the rocks and gyms and mountains—and we train and learn.

This is the power of the dojo. There, we learn not just about climbing but about ourselves. We learn about the things climbing allows us to be, not just to do.

The Sports Gene and Climbing: A Not Really Book Review

Photo: Karyotype - My Chromosomes, by Can H. under CC BY 2.0
Photo: Karyotype, by Can H. under CC BY 2.0

I’ve been climbing since I was 12 years old. I started in a windowless little closet of a climbing wall in a nondescript commercial area of Columbus, Ohio. I sometimes reflect on those early days and wonder what it was that drew me back to that place when all my peers were playing baseball, soccer, or running track. I have only the faintest memories of it now, but I can only reckon I must have been unusually comfortable up there, dangling, scaling, moving in the vertical. I wonder what came first: a random enthusiasm for climbing, or some innate climbing ability that gave rise to that enthusiasm?

I’ve been plowing through David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene of late, and it suggests that natural aptitude is key to creating and maintaining interest in an activity. That kid at the climbing-gym birthday party who gets to the top more quickly and effortlessly than the others, or that college student who seems to jump a letter grade every time she goes to the crag—it makes sense that these ones are more likely to self-select as climbers, while those who move with fear and hesitation, who lack a strong grip or deft balance sense will be less likely to return for another session.

Throughout his book, Epstein, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, explores the science behind the genetically predisposed strengths and aptitudes that figure so prominently in our attraction to and success in an athletic activity. While he never cites climbing specifically, the ideas he presents apply as well to someone like Ashima Shiraishi, who climbed V10 when she was only 8, as to Chrissie Wellington, a British triathlete who, unknown and with no experience in a race of such length, entered her first Ironman World Championship and won by a margin of five minutes.

My friend Alex is a strong all-around climber, but I was always particularly impressed by his endurance on the rock, his ability to climb on and on, seemingly without tiring. Years ago, I spent a couple of seasons working a long, notoriously pumpy route in the Red River Gorge called Tuna Town. It was my “nemesis.” About 90 feet long and maybe 30 degrees overhanging, it doesn’t have a single hard move on it—just a lot of very similar, energy-sapping moves topped off with a “sporty” finish on small edges that feel even smaller with a raging forearm pump. The first day Alex and I got on the climb together, he pushed through to the anchors in a few tries without being particularly fit.

In climbing as in life, one should always keep one’s ego on a leash. “There’s always someone better,” as the saying goes. But what seemed odd to me then was that fact that, by most other measures of climbing performance, Alex and I were closely matched. We had similar technical skills and, on shorter, more powerful climbs, I might even have had an edge.

My poor endurance wasn’t for lack of practice, either. I traveled to the Red, home of “the biggest jugs you’ll ever fall off of,” almost every weekend for several years, climbing with folks who all seemed to have better endurance than me. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t (and still am not) well-equipped for doing a lot of moderate moves in a row. Epstein’s book sheds some light on this phenomenon, too.

Roughly speaking, our muscles are composed of two types of fibers: fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Fast-twitch fibers provide more peak power but tire more quickly; slow-twitch fibers generate less force but are much slower to tire. The average person, according to The Sports Gene, has a little more than half slow-twitch fibers. But if you look at the fiber make-up of athletes who excel in powerful activities, such as sprinting, you’ll find a ratio closer to 75% in favor of fast-twitch. Olympic marathoners like Frank Shorter are just the opposite—when tested, nearly 80% of his leg muscle fibers were shown to be of the slow-twitch variety.

Importantly, studies suggest that differences in muscle-fiber ratio are not the result of training, but of genetic coding. People like Shorter aren’t creating more slow-twitch fibers as they run, but instead excel at running because they were born with more slow-twitch fibers.

I guess I’m more of a fast-twitch guy.

My seemingly poor natural response to endurance training didn’t keep me from climbing Tuna Town—I eventually finished the climb—but it does mean that I never would have stood a chance on the World Cup route-climbing circuit. No matter how hard I pushed, I’d always be struggling to send the warm-up routes of the many climbers who happened to have a superior mix of genetic traits: slender build, tendons of steel, and plenty of slow-twitch muscle in the forearms.

This flies in the face of what moms tell their kids everywhere: you can be anything you want to be. We’ve all heard stories of underdogs fighting to become champions against all odds. What Epstein’s book and the data it cites seem to indicate is that, if what you’re gunning for is elite athletic performance, it’s very unlikely that such dedication will be sufficient to overcome one’s own genetic make-up. The stories we don’t hear so much, but which are probably quite common, are those of athletes who fail repeatedly and then quit, or switch to another sport that better suits their natural talents.

The tendency to pursue sports we’re good at should come as no surprise. In the past, though, the explanation for why one person was so much better than another from the start, or why one person responded to training more quickly than another, was left to fuzzy ideas like “grit” and “drive” and “the love.” In light of scores of scientific studies on the topic, genetic traits seem to offer a more reliable explanation.

The great sport climber Wolfgang Güllich was the first human to climb 9a (5.14d). His groundbreaking route Action Direct, in Germany’s Frankenjura, is an improbable ladder of dangling moves on pockets that rarely accommodate more than one or two fingers. The “campus board,” which he invented as a training device for the route, is often credited as a crucial tool in his quest for the hardest climb in the world. His obsession with training was undeniably a big part of what put him so far ahead of his peers, and yet…

And yet not everyone would benefit equally from Güllich’s regimen. In one study Epstein describes, researchers asked participants to perform identical leg exercises for four months. At the end of the trials, the test subjects broke down into three basic categories: those whose muscle fibers grew 50 percent, those whose fibers grew 25 percent, and those whose fibers did not grow at all. Same training, very different results.

It’s a refrain throughout the book: there is no one-size-fits-all training method. We each respond differently to different types of training and excel at different activities due to certain seemingly indelible genetic traits. My own experiments with the campus board at first yielded impressive strength gains, and then quickly sidelined me with shoulder problems I have to this day. To push as hard at Güllich, you can’t just want it; you also have to have it.

Epstein’s book focuses on traditional sports like basketball and baseball and track and field events—ones built on a more competitive foundation than climbing, and that offer greater rewards for competitive prowess. It’s because of this that the studies he cites seem a less-than-perfect fit for climbing, which we climbers often describe as “more lifestyle than sport.” Gifted or not, what matters most in climbing isn’t how good we are, but how much we take from the act. Maybe this idealistic perspective holds for more popular sports, too, but it just gets lost in the whirlwind of fame and fans and records and money. It’s precisely such a state of affairs that many climbers fear when they rail against the commercialization of our little game on the rocks.

The Sports Gene is a solidly-researched, artfully-written work of non-fiction that is general enough to interest just about anyone. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think how cool it would be to perform studies of the sort Epstein describes on climbers. How exciting to understand the biological factors that separate a great climber from an average one, or the what types of training work best for what types of people. But I also kept thinking about how little that knowledge would really mean to me or most climbers, and how besides the point it all is, anyway.

If there’s a gene for a positive outlook, for a deep love and appreciation of life regardless of medals or world ranking, that’s the gene I want to have. And whether I have it or not, I’m damn well going to work to cultivate those traits, no matter how long it takes or how far I am behind the pack. After all, as I learned on my send of Tuna Town, success after a long struggle and against the odds, no matter how minor and unworthy of the record books, is the sweetest success of all.

You Need To Rest

You Need to Rest

“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”
– Ovid

As I write this post, I’m recovering from a cold. It came on suddenly Friday, starting with a tickle in the throat, and quickly escalated to fits of sneezing, a dripping nose, and glassy, red-rimmed eyes. Today, with flower-print tissue boxes planted all around the house and a dwindling supply of DayQuil, I have almost recovered.

Still, I move through a viscous atmosphere. Sounds and sensations are dampened. When I recline, I slip naturally into a womb-like sleep. In this sickened state, my body requires rest and I have decided not to fight it. What would be the point? To push too hard would only draw out my illness. As the Zen teacher Bankei said, “When I feel hungry, I eat. When I feel thirsty, I drink. That is my miracle.” When I’m tired, I rest. I have learned the hard way the consequences of not doing so.

Climbers are prone to obsessive activity. We want to be stronger and lighter all the time, so we train and diet and train. And because most of us climb for personal reasons and not for any specific competition or event, we don’t usually work in cycles (periodization, in sports training terms). We expect constant progression — every trip to the crag or the gym should be better than the one before. We live by the fallacy that more climbing or more training is always better. Day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, action and rest… everything around us moves to an undulating rhythm, and so do we. When we ignore our cycles or fight against them, we fall out of balance. We only hurt ourselves.

There’s a story* about a man who complains to his teacher, the Zen master Mokusen, of his wife’s unflagging stinginess. Mokusen goes to see the wife and holds his clenched fist in her face.

“Suppose my fist were always like that. What would you call it?” he asked.

“Deformed,” replied the woman.

The he opened his hand flat in her face and asked: “Suppose it were always like that. What then?”

“Another kind of deformity,” said the wife.

“If you understand that much,” finished Mokusen, “you are a good wife.” Then he left.

After his visit, this wife helped her husband to distribute as well as to save.

To this day in America, we cling to a puritanical sense of industriousness that birthed adages like, “Idle hands are the devil’s plaything,” or, to quote Ben Franklin, “Waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.” On college campuses, in executive offices, in athletic endeavors, even at home, we live in a culture of burnout. We glorify the epic and the “all-nighter.” We are all in a race, it seems, but for some reason we rarely ask ourselves: Why? To where? Against whom? Metaphysical pondering aside, proper rest has been shown to be critical in maximizing both physical performance and creativity.

After I finished college, I worked in a climbing gym. I wasn’t sure what I wanted from my life, from my career, but I knew that I liked to climb, and that it felt good to improve. So I trained. I trained or climbed (often both) five days a week, sometimes more. For a time, it worked. I scored several personal bests. But my gains were short-lived, and today I still pay the price. My left shoulder pops and aches, and whenever I start to feel fit, its weakness limits my progress. I felt the damage happening, but I was young and surrounded by obsessive climbers; injury was just part of the game. Despite physical therapy, I’ve never managed to return my shoulder to a fully healthy state. I have learned many lessons from this challenge, but none more important than the value of rest.

It is a particularly tricky problem for us climbers — we love what we do and our culture romanticizes the most extreme behaviors as admirable examples of passion and commitment. Because of this, it is easy to forget that balance between effort and rest is, for most of us, the best way to improve and, more importantly, to take joy in what we do.


* The story “Mokusen’s Hand” can be found in the excellent book Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings.

It’s Not Cool To Care

Oh, El Cap? Yeah, we climbed that. No big deal...

I was at the gym a while back when a climber I know showed up looking shredded, with muscles and veins a-bulging. He warmed up on a few easy problems, did a few cursory shoulder stretches, and then floated all over my project like he was wearing some sort of anti-gravity shorts from the future. After prancing like a My Pretty Pony up the climb I’d been hammering away at for weeks, he gave me a little “What’s up, dude,” nod, like he didn’t just burn me off. In a show of faux humility, he said something about how hard the climb was for him, as he hadn’t had time to train, lately.

“Yeah, me neither,” I replied, absentmindedly pinching my pale muffin top, glazed in effort sweat and powdered with gym chalk. Then the dudebro with the Bruce Lee abs spun a yarn about his injured finger and how busy things were at work. He made it sound like he hadn’t touched a hold in years, but I could tell by the scabs and callouses on his sausagey digits that he was lying like a shag carpet.

Why would someone obviously so fit, who puts so much effort into his sport of choice, want to pretend that he doesn’t train? What’s wrong with training, anyhow? It’s how we get better, after all. But on closer examination, we can see that training equals caring, and, if I learned anything in high school, it’s that caring isn’t cool.

One Strap Vs. Two

I was reminded of this strange aversion to caring while watching the pretty-funny remake of 21 Jump Street last week. Here’s one scene, as two young-looking cops prepare to go undercover in a high school:

Jenko: Are you two strapping?
Schmidt: My backpack? Yeah.
Jenko: I gotta be seen with you. You gotta one-strap it. Seriously, I’d no-strap if that would even be possible.

Why does Jenko insist on one-strapping it? Because it is a lackadaisical gesture, a physical embodiment of not caring. To put the straps over both of his shoulders would indicate that he cares about lame things, like school, proper spinal alignment… or anything, really. Jenko goes on to offer up the “three rules of coolness,” the first two of which are: “Don’t try hard at anything,” and, “Make fun of people who do try.” The movie spends a lot of time dealing with this Catch 22: by creating his “rules of coolness,” Jenko is violating his first own rule. Devising rules about not caring means you care too much.

There’s a history of the too-cool-to-care attitude in climbing. You can see it from the early days, when the Valley bums were viewed as the apotheosis of the sport. They smoked pot, they drank, they loafed and lolled in the grass with their shirts open to the waist like Walt friggin’ Whitman. Then, when the spirit moved them, the ascended the sheer granite faces, buoyed by updrafts of cool. Or so it seemed.

Tony Yaniro was one of the first climbers to hang-dog climbs and rehearse moves. He invented route-specific training devices to help him redpoint — an early version of the campus board, for example. Not surprisingly, he was criticized for his tactics under the guise of ethics. Yaniro would do anything to send, which is probably why he was the first person to climb a 5.13b/c way back in 1979. But to the climbing establishment of Yaniro’s day, it wasn’t cool to care… at least, not that much.

Another example? Go back and watch the Big UP video Rampage. You’ll see a young (emphasis on young) Chris Sharma goofing around in the back of a Winnebago, making fun of training and doing sit-ups in a show of mock-caring. Next we see him monkeying around in the branches of a tree, as if that’s the only training he needs to climb some of the hardest routes and problems in the world. The implication is that he’s a natural (which he is), and that naturals don’t have to train to be great (which, on the contrary, they do). Today, an older, wiser, and stronger Sharma has come to grips with caring, to the point of caring too much. And let’s not forget Alex Honnold, who lives out of a van just so he can spend all of his time climbing, often without a rope and right on the edge of annihilation. When the reporters ask him to explain, he always insists, with a wide-eyed gaze and the tinge of a smile, that his exploits are “no big deal.”

The Myth of “The Natural”

The mythology of The Natural is a powerful one, and it’s perpetrated in many a human endeavor. Child savant musicians, baseball players, math prodigies — all of these are supposedly born, not made. But while natural ability undoubtedly plays into the greatness of many of the worlds Greats, there is always a component of hard work — grueling, repetitive practice — that goes into that greatness. Even the 12-year-old pianist who seems to channel Bach has put thousands of hours of practice into her art. It’s just when she’s at the helm of that Steinway, we see none of it; we see only a seemingly magical feat of musical skill. The much-publicized story of the climbing prodigy Ashima Shiraishi plays this out. Despite her relatively few years, she trains like an Olympic athlete. It is the combination of her talent and her focused effort that have made her the subject of several short films and articles in the Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others. The truth is, behind every amazing send there are 100 days at the crag or the gym and 1,000 falls and failures.

The title for this post came from a discussion with my co-worker, Chuck Odette. We noted the strange tendency of some climbers to “closet train” — to secretly work out and then deny it, like the fellow I describe at the beginning of this post. We agreed the that such behavior is silly, juvenile, even. Chuck is 56 years old and he recently FA’ed a 5.14b. He’s got an eye on retirement, for Chrissakes — too old to pretend that climbing comes easy for him. Indeed, Chuck is all about caring.

Chuck will be the first to tell you that he’s made sacrifices to maintain a high level of fitness and skill on the rock. He climbs often and regularly, using his vacation days to stay on schedule. His diet is plotted to the calorie. He eats in The Zone, which means turkey sandwiches on low-carb bread, diet soda or water, and low-fat yogurt sprinkled with protein powder. Even when we’re all packing our spray-holes with greasy pizza, Chuck gets the salad, chicken on top, dressing on the side. He indulges in a beer only after a good send. And at work, he does yoga, opposition workouts, and martial arts “katas” behind the building during his lunch hour. Chuck knows that if he wants something enough, he has to work for it and work hard. It would take too much energy to pretend not to care. Plus, it wouldn’t be honest. Chuck loves to tell people the secret to his success, because he knows there are no shortcuts. First, you have to want it. Then you have to be willing to give up a lot to get it.

Bill Ramsey, another middle-aged crusher with a penchant for suffering, came up with a handy mental model called the Pain Box. The box is divided in two with a movable line in the middle. The space within the box represents the sum amount of pain one will feel in one’s life. On one half is he pain that comes from hard work. On the other half is the pain that comes from sucking. You can have less of one kind of pain, but that just means you’ll have more of the other. Ramsey, like Odette, touts the benefits of self-discipline as the path to achievement. Good things don’t just happen to us — we have to work for them. And if they do just happen to us, how good can they be? After all, we didn’t earn them.

The Rebirth of Cool

Which brings me back to 21 Jump Street. When Jenko and Schmidt arrive at the high-school, where they’re trying to infiltrate a drug ring, they find that everyone is two-strapping it. Much to his dismay, Jenko, a jock during his high school tenure, discovers that the cool kids are now into computers and science and get good grades. Caring, much to his dismay, is now cool. In this brave new world, Schmidt, once bully-fodder, must deal with the corrupting influence of popularity. Likewise in today’s climbing world, openly caring is becoming the norm. With a whole crop of climbers bred in gyms and the growing popularity of competition climbing, especially among the youth demographic, trying hard is fast becoming the thing to do. Not caring either means you’re a) lazy, b) not that into what you’re doing, or c) trying to cover up just how much you really care about being good. Either way, you lose.

The 36 Chambers: Climbing Lessons from a Kung Fu Classic

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, released more than thirty years ago, is to kung fu movies as The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly is to spaghetti Westerns. In typical fight-flick form, the act of training, of mastering one’s self and one’s art, is the focus. That makes The 36th Chamber a great metaphor for just about any pursuit, but especially for climbing: we set our sights on projects, objectives, and grades, but as soon as we attain them, they lose their luster, and we must set new goals. Even the Chris Sharma’s of the world are still learning, still fighting against their own inner struggles. 

A product of the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studios, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka Shaolin Master Killer) is the tale of a young man, San Te (Gordon Liu), who seeks revenge after his family is killed and his home burned by the oppressive Manchurian government. San Te makes his way to the a Shaolin temple, where he is allowed to stay on and train with the badass kung fu monks. The film follows San Te’s passage through the temple’s chambers, each holding a particular kung fu lesson. (Not all thirty-six chambers are actually portrayed, Buddha be praised.)

The training methods employed by martial artists have inspired diehard climbers over the years. The intensity of focus and the acceptance of suffering, coupled with the strong desire to master and control one’s body, make martial arts training and climbing training close cousins. Also, there is danger inherent in both activities — in martial arts, other fighters; in climbing, gravity.

For those looking to truly understand and master the intricate psycho-physical art of rock climbing, San Te’s travails at the Shaolin temple serve as a solid framework. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, to be sure, but mostly because kung fu is awesome and so is climbing I have here adapted five key training tips for climbing from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for climbing purposes.

A brief disclaimer: the recommended exercises below are not based on any formal education, just decades of climbing experience and exposure to the thoughts of other, far more skilled rock jocks. Know thy limits. If you tweak your groin or sprain your scapula trying one of these exercises, you have only yourself to blame. 

Step 1: Footwork, balance, timing

“I kept it moving: fast, balanced, light… that is the secret. So, balance your movements.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Balance, footwork, and timing. These are the foundation upon which strength must be built. Skip them at your own peril.

Soon after San Te begins to study kung fu at the temple, he finds that he must cross a pool of water to access the dinning hall. Floating in the water is a bundle of logs, the only stepping stone to help him across. Try as he may, he cannot make the leap, and always ends up in the water. In the end, he learns how to combine timing, momentum, force, and balance to cross the gap.

In climbing, balance and timing are basic critical elements. It is typical to watch experienced climbers “float” up difficult routes and think that their strength must be very great, but, in fact, balance and footwork are the foundation of any skilled climber’s repertoire. Without them, strength will only take you so far.

Recommended exercises: Climb slabby routes or problems without grabbing any handholds — use only your palms flat against the surface of the wall or rock to balance yourself, relying on your legs for support and your toes and sticky rubber for contact with the wall. To do this, you’ll need to focus on balance, timing, and momentum to shift your weight from your lower foot to your higher foot and gain upward progress.

Step 2: Shoulders, upper body strength

“Most techniques need strength of arms.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
The shoulder joint is the most vulnerable part of the climber’s body. All the force generated on a climb must pass through this complicated joint. Weak muscles here will lead to poor form and injury.

San Te’s next challenge involves carrying water buckets up to the top of a long chute. He must dump the water into a chute to help the monks below wash dirty robes. (I can’t help thinking there must be a better way… .) The catch comes in the form of knife blades strapped to San Te’s upper arms, pointed inwards. He must carry the buckets with arms outstretched or risk stabbing himself in the ribs.

For climbers, a powerful upper body is important, especially on overhanging climbs. But it’s not only about pulling hard… pushing is involved in a variety of scenarios, from stemming in dihedrals to Gastoning to manteling. Most importantly, strong shoulders, upper arms, and back offer support while climbing, allowing you to move upward with control and precision, and without injury.

Recommended exercises: To prepare the upper body for the rigors of difficult climbing, you can’t go wrong with the basics: pull-ups, push-ups, curls, dips, front and side shoulder raises, rows, and overhead presses. When using weight, it’s best to avoid lifting too heavy — anything you can’t control (read: move smoothly, without shaking or hoisting) through the whole range of the movement is likely to cause more harm than good. If you don’t know what these exercises are or how to perform them, best to consult a trainer or at least a really good YouTube video. As always, if you feel any pain, other than the pain of muscles burning with fatigue, stop immediately and don’t do what you were doing ever again. If you’re like me, you already have problems with your shoulder joints. This article does a good job offering basic exercises to help develop the small, weak muscles around the shoulder that help protect against rotator cuff implosion.

Step 3: Wrist, grip strength

“How are your wrists? Are they real strong?”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Forearms, wrists, and fingers allow the climber to maintain a firm grip on holds.

In a later chamber, San Te has to lift a hammer on the end of a ten-foot pole and with it bang a massive bell. The exercise was devised to strengthen the hands and wrists, to create and unbreakable grip on one’s own weapon or an opponent’s weapon or body.

Finger, hand, and forearm strength is the hallmark of a rock climber. They are responsible for maintaining contact with the rock. Just a glance at a persons digits (are they calloused? Are the knuckles enlarged?) or forearm muscles (are they bulging, laced with veins?) will tell the story.

Recommended exercises: Better than all the fitness-shop grip-strengthening doodads combined is hangboarding. Workouts are brief (mine usually run for twenty minutes) and you don’t need to do them more than twice a week, especially if you’re mixing them in with a regular climbing routine. You can probably find a used hangboard on Craig’s List or eBay, and your local gym almost certainly has one, too. The most effective hangboard routines don’t involve much movement: you basically grab a pair of holds and dangle for three to eight seconds (if you can hang for longer, the holds are too easy for you), and take a brief rest. repeat three more times, and then move on to another pair of holds. I usually warm up on the bouldering wall, then start with a set of hangs on jugs. Then I progress through slopers, two-finger pockets, medium edges, small edges, and finish with slopers again. Simple. The Moon Fingerboard has consistently received good reviews , and Moon provides a nice, battle-tested workouts you can use with it.

Oh, and  don’t forget to climb. Climbing tends to be the best training for climbing.

Step 4: Eyes, focus, relaxation

“A man who wants to fight, he must have perfect eyes.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Often neglected, the eyes are critical in the act of climbing. 

To make sure San Te can track rapid motion with his eyes while keeping his body still, he is asked to place his head between two burning incense sticks (they’re more like logs, really). The instructor in this chamber then whips a lantern back and forth, asking San Te to follow it only with his eyes.

Most climbers often think first about their hand holds, then their foot holds, and then maybe a third thing, like breathing or core tension. How you use your eyes, though, is important. Just like batting in baseball, where you keep your eyes on the ball until contact is made, when making a deadpoint or dyno, maintaining visual contact with the goal hold is key. In addition, what you do with your eyes at a rest can make a big difference in de-pumping and preparing for the climbing ahead.

Recommended exercises:  Find or set dynos and practice making the leap. Once you’ve stuck a particular dyno three times, staying conscious of your gaze’s direction, find a farther dyno or pick goal hold that requires more accuracy (obviously, this will be easier to do in a gym). Breathe, focus your eyes on the prize, and jump, watching your hand all the way to the hold.

You can also practice using your eyes to recover.  The simple act of looking down and “softening” your focus (letting your vision go slack, so that everything is blurry) while on a rest hold allows for a more rapid relaxation and, therefore, recovery. This I picked up from the Boulder-based climbing trainer, Justen Sjong. Get yourself good and pumped on a long route, series of problems, or treadwall, and then settle in to a rest and look down, practicing deep, belly breathing until you feel your heart rate slow. Continue climbing and repeat as many times as possible.

Step 5: Head, determination, toughness

“This phase here usually needs two years. You must pass it, or you’ll never go any higher.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Of particular importance to The Blockhead Lord, a strong head is good for more than just cracking walnuts. One must cultivate a stone mind when tackling highballs, cruxes high above protection, or other sketchy maneuvers.

The final chamber shown in the movie is focused on the head. Not so much a matter of thinking, it’s all about toughness. Heavy sandbags dangle from the ceiling, and San Te must run through them using only his shaved dome to clear a path. It’s painful to watch as he butts the bags this way and that, stumbling around drunkenly with red welts on his forehead from the impact. Still, he passes through, and goes on to train with various weapons and fighting techniques.

I have seen more climbers stymied by their own fear and doubt, usually baseless, than by any lack of strength or skill. For instance, the second most of us experience a deep pump setting in, though we might have a good bolt, cam, or pile of pads at our feet, we start to climb like a fall means certain death. We manhandle every hold and fling our feet from one solid perch to the next in terror, literally shaking ourselves off of the wall. Nearly paralyzed, we attempt to downclimb to a safer position, only to fall awkwardly in the process. But letting fear guide your decisions on the wall is almost never a good idea. Unless you are certain that a fall from your position will result is injury or worse, it’s better to pause and breath and try to let the adrenaline blinders fall away before deciding where to go next. Often, we are just a move or two away from a good stance, a huge jug, or the next point of protection.

Recommended exercises:  Look, I’m not going to recommend people go out and start taking mondo whippers on purpose. But that’s what I did. At the gym where I worked, my friend and I agreed that we’d each lead  climb out the wall’s long roof, turn the lip onto the headwall without clipping the last bolt (or two) beneath the roof, and then jump. That first moment, when no clipped bolts were visible and the air started to move around my ears, was terrifying, but the bolts and my belayer were steadfast. The falls were soft pendulums into empty space. After a while, they became less scary and more fun. It helped build the trust in the system required to climb without spirit-sapping anxiety. A similar exercise could be performed with much smaller falls than the twenty footers we took, but only on an overhanging wall with plenty of ground clearance. Of course, this is not to be attempted if you’re not a confident and competent lead climber and your belayer doesn’t have a Word’s Greatest Belayer mug. As with all things in climbing, the wisdom of taking “practice falls” is yours to determine. As the disclaimer goes, climbing is inherently dangerous, and so on and so forth.

Even more basic, the simple act of climbing more frequently can help reduce discomfort on the wall. As you get used to moving in the vertical, everything becomes more tranquil. Climb up to the point where your fear starts to kick in, then pause and practice steady, deep breaths, until you feel composed enough to look up and read the route ahead. Practice using your eyes to steadily scan the terrain around you, spotting holds that might be good for resting or for clipping, making a mental note of their location and possible sequences to attain them. Then, focus on moving to the next good hold and the next, rather than aiming for the top all at once. This works as well outside as it does in, on a trad climb as on sport routes. It is the art of confident, purposeful climbing, and it takes time and practice to perfect. In the end, no matter how you do it, you must develop a strong head if your hope to move on to climbing proficiency and even mastery.

More training stuffs:

FUN FACT: The star of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Gordon Liu, appeared as the wizened, deadly, white-bearded martial arts master Pei Mei in the movie Kill Bill.

Couch Crushers to Widgeteers: 10 Climbing Personality Types Identified

Society has long applied the blanket label “climber” to a motley assortment of vertically inclined souls. Indeed, “climbers” have been so often lumped together, despite deep and obvious differences, that it’s easy to forget just how many types and subtypes there really are.

There are the obvious categories, of course — alpinists, sport climbers, trad daddies, blocanistas, and so forth. But if you climb long enough, you will start to notice another layer of divisions beneath these divisions — personality profiles that cut across climbing-style lines.

Here, an abridged and alphabetical list of ten common climber personality profiles. Pay attention, as you will encounter these personalities at the crag or the gym, at the coffee shop and the campground. They will mystify and amuse you. You might even recognize yourself in one or a couple of these groupings. In the end, they are loose categories certainly in need of refinement. If you have noticed some personality types not listed here, please help make this a living document and add them in the comments.

Couch crusher
The Couch Crusher can hardly be bothered to get up… unless it’s time to take a dump on your project.

Couch Crushers (aka Naturals) — This rare breed’s strength and skill are unaffected by a lack of practice, fitness, or sound diet. No one is more envied than the Couch Crusher, who can often send the Self-Worther’s project after a six-month break from climbing during which the Self-Worther cross-trained, lived off of kale and unsweetened yogurt, and took expensive dietary supplements of dubious origin. Perhaps because it comes all too easily for the Couch Crusher, this type is easily distracted from climbing by career developments, romantic relationships, drugs, or even other sports.

Elites — Elites focus their efforts on the hardest climbs and rarely deign to interact with other types at the crag or gym. Though they pretend otherwise, Elite’s believe in the inherent value of their status and view the climbing world as a meritocracy centered around finger strength. They band together and share stories of hard climbs, secret areas, and the injuries that keep them from reaching their full potential. If complemented on their performance on a difficult climb by a non-Elite, an Elite will downplay their own achievement in a show of false modesty while secretly feeling a sense of validation, powerful fuel for the Elite climber’s ego fire.

High Rollers — High Rollers are middle-of-the-road climbers with high-end incomes. Their interest in climbing is genuine, but they often seek shortcuts to improvement, such as paying exorbitant fees to Elites for private climbing lessons. Because their careers, relationships, and other interests keep their calendars well inked, they rarely stick to a climbing schedule long enough to truly excel. They are often sought after as investors for start-up rock gyms, climbing apparel companies, or climbing magazines. They can be found in luxurious accommodations near popular climbing areas with Elite climbers as their guests. One interesting subset of the High Roller group is the Industry Maven — the owner or head of a successful climbing company — who is, perhaps, the highest ranking character in the perceived hierarchy.

IKEs — An acronym for “I Know Everything”, IKEs can recite move-by-move Beta for every route you’ve ever climbed, thought about climbing, or read about in a magazine. They are supremely self-confident in their grasp of training techniques, performance diets, as well as climbing history and gossip. Strangely, IKEs themselves are rarely accomplished climbers and tend to spend much of their crag time hanging out on the ground and proffering unsolicited factoids to anyone within earshot.

Original Climbing Gangsta
You can’t pull one over on the Original Climbing Gangsta! Chalk hadn’t been invented when he started climbing. They used dirt, and they liked it that way.

Original Climbing Gangstas (OCGs) — OCGs are climbers who take great pride in their long climbing careers, the inordinate length of time they’ve been able to maintain dirtbag status, and their (often apocryphal) connections to well-known climbers of bygone eras. They can be heard declaring that “new” routes or problems in their local areas were actually done years ago, without the aid of chalk, sticky rubber, or boar’s hair brushes. Many OCGs, despite their relatively advanced age, enjoy pontificating on Internet forums on topics such as “The Decline Of Climbing’s Moral Fibre In The Age Of Gyms,” “The Dangers Of Locking Assisted Belay Devices And Other Spawns Of Laziness,” and “Barbarians At The Gate: Roustabout Youths Are Ruining My Crag.” They also enjoy posting grainy, scanned black-and-white photos of themselves in proximity to real-deal OG climbers, i.e., Fred Beckey, Henry Barber, Jim Bridwell, etc.

Purists — With upturned nose, Purists look down on some types of climbing (typically sport climbing, gym climbing, and bouldering), while holding up certain other types as high expressions of the sport (light-and-fast alpinism, bold traditional climbing, ground-up new-routing with a hand drill, rack of nuts, and hobnailed boots). Purists, however, come in many forms. Less common variants include sport climbing Purists, who eschew the use of stick clips or knee pads, and even chop bolts or remove “permadraws” when they deem them unnecessary. Bouldering purists believe that short, un-roped, exceedingly difficult climbs are the most direct means to experience climbing. Habitual free-soloists are, de facto, Purists, and come in three forms: 1) Zen-like in their acceptance of death, 2) compulsively drawn to the brink of self-annihilation, or 3) willfully ignorant of the deadly stakes of their activity.

Self-Worthers — These climbers base their personal worth on their prowess on the rocks or in the mountains. The result: severe frustration when faced with a climb that “isn’t their style,” competitiveness when encountering a climber of similar skill level, dismissiveness upon hearing of other strong climbers, and depression when injured or otherwise unable to climb. Self-Worthers, basically climbing addicts, are unable to experience more than fleeting moments of joy when climbing. It has been observed that Self-Worthers are incapable of holding anything more than a passing conversation without identifying, by number grade, how hard they have climbed. When under-performing in public, the Self-Worther will compulsively generate excuses, such as, “This is my fifth day on,” “I’m still recovering from a blown tendon,” or “I ate a cookie yesterday and I feel fat.” On bad days, they will share these excuses before climbing. These “prescuses” help relieve the pressure they feel at climbing in front of others. Another close relative of the Self-Worther is the climbing addict, who may or may not base their happiness on climbing, but nonetheless cannot moderate the impulse to climb. The end result is typically injury, career suicide, and relationship meltdown.

Soul Climbers (aka Unicorns) — Like the hover board from Back To The Future, everyone wants to believe that Soul Climbers are real. Alas, little hard evidence exists to support this belief. Several reported sightings have later been revealed to be climbing addicts with outwardly mellow demeanors and dreadlocks.

The Trainer in action
The Trainer, seen here getting “ripped” for “climbing”.

Trainers — These muscle-bound souls can be seen obsessively pushing their physical limits at the gym or the crag, climbing with weight vests, pumping iron, campusing, and strapping in to semi-legal electrical muscle stimulation devices imported through Eastern Europe’s grey market. They drink protein shakes and pop glucosamine chondroitin, vita-packs, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories to keep their bodies going past the point of exhaustion. Trainers ostensibly train in order to climb harder, but can lose sight of climbing and become obsessed with the cleansing act of self-mortification through extreme physical activity. This subtype is common amongst mountaineers and alpinists, as masochistic tendencies is integral to these types of climbing.

Widgeteers — Obsessed with the gear of climbing as much, or more, than with climbing itself, the Widgeteer will routinely divert the majority of his or her paycheck to the purchase of draws, cams, stickclips, Big Bros, prismatic belay glasses, Ball Nuts, grip strengthening devices, crampons, rope bags, and so on. Ironically, though Widgeteers are well-versed in the intricacies of load distribution, impact force, and lobe geometry, they rarely have as keen a grasp of the physiological techniques of climbing itself.