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Difficulty: A Matter of Perspective?

The concept of difficulty in climbing is not easy to fully comprehend, and even harder to quantify. It is as elusive as it is prolific among our thoughts and forms the impossible justification of many climbers’ motivations, and yet clearly it is there, defining the nature of the sport. ‘Difficulty’ is a somewhat vague term which is almost contradictory; it encompasses the amount of physical, technical, and mental effort and proficiency required to achieve something, and yet it is entirely subjective and can not be shared. I want to try and discuss the idea and the extent to which perceptions of difficulty can influence progression, how those perceptions originate, and their pervasiveness at the local and national scales. This is very much exploratory for me, and I’d be really interested to hear some of your thoughts on the subject, so please comment.

Absolute difficulty can broadly be described as the amount of effort required to do something, or the amount of energy required. This is problematic for climbing because it doesn’t account for efficiency or relative ability. If it was purely based on energy required then, in order to climb the ‘most difficult’ thing, you’d have to do it least efficient way; this is clearly not the case, and explains why bouldering in particular is so hard to explain to non-climbers. Also, a relatively better climber will be able to climb a certain problem with less perceived effort than a relatively worse climber, so it will seem less difficult to the former, but that doesn’t change the absolute difficulty of the problem.

Therefore, difficulty is deeply personal and very subjective, and as I said earlier, it can’t be shared. The difficulty, and the effort required, to do any given thing is determined by your personal ability, moreover, the perceived difficulty of that task is also determined by personal ability in addition to your personal definition of what constitutes ‘difficult’. Or, in other words, the scale of difficulty that you use. For example, some people will try problems that they can barely pull onto and regard it as completely impossible, or way to difficult, whereas others view it as something which just requires more effort. The same applies in training: for one person a session could have required a lot of effort and feel extremely difficult, but for another person of the same ability, so the session had the same absolute difficulty, the session was not as high up their own personal ‘difficulty scale’. These perceptions of difficulty can’t be shared because its not measurable and because no two people will have their scales of difficulty calibrated equally, so there will always be a degree of misinterpretation.

So are perceptions of difficulty likely to influence progression? It would be reasonable to assume that those who perceive the difficulty of something to be less would have the potential to train harder and so could improve more, provided the training is appropriate. That would imply that there is an optimum perception of difficulty which is perfectly aligned with your bodies needs – you will train at an intensity high enough to stimulate improvement but not so high that you injure yourself. In reality, this is unlikely to occur, and I’d be tempted to say that most people probably perceive the difficulty to be higher than it is, or they don’t fully understand the difficulty required to stimulate improvement – which is, of course, specific to each person.

I would argue that these perceptions are not inherent at birth but evolve over time as a result of your experiences through childhood, especially, and as a reflection of other peoples’ perceptions. At an individual level a myriad of factors likely contribute to your perceptions of difficulty: prior involvement in sport and the degree to which it was pursued, coaching at a young age, work ethic of immediate family and friends, education and schooling, who you climb with, and development of the sport at national and international scales. I would be hard pressed to evaluate the relative importance of each of these, but one which I want to go into a bit is the level of development of the sport at national and international scales, and resulting national perceptions of difficulty.

The development of a sport, or more importantly, the current limits and records set in that sport, play a considerable role in defining perceptions of difficulty as they have a significant psychological influence on individuals. As a sport evolves the limits are pushed, but the improvements are incremental, until eventually the old limit is commonplace. This is particularly evident in climbing, which, being a relatively undeveloped sport, has seen its limits raised dramatically over the past few decades – It’s not that long ago that 8c was the cutting edge, and now its not even very hard.

However, changing perceptions of difficulty do not seem to have occurred equally everywhere as climbing has progressed. In fact, perceptions at a national scale seem to be influenced much more by relative improvements of that country, rather than by the development of the sport itself, although that does have an influence. This has been apparent over time; as British climbers led the improvement of the sport in the 80’s and 90’s the perceptions of difficulty at a national level rose with it, then as other countries have experienced another wave of improvement culminating in ascents of 9b+ routes and 8C+ boulder problems, the perceptions of difficulty for the countries experiencing  the developments have risen with it. For example, in Spain, climbing anything less than 9a is not newsworthy, and even the magic grade is losing its aura, unless you’re very young or new to climbing. The likes of Daniel Woods and James Webb have begun to redefine bouldering, where 8B is only newsworthy if its flashed. Other countries might be fully aware of these developments, but their perceptions as a whole seem to remain calibrated against the current limits of that area.

Clearly then, perceptions can be changed, all that is required is the experience of progression as well as awareness. Personally, I’m excited about the future of climbing in Britain, I think that a wave of improvement is approaching, and that will influence perceptions of difficulty. It might not be significant at a global level, but it will be a step in the right direction.

Make the Grain feel the Pain

Despite my best efforts, ‘the grain’ has not succumbed to my repeated floggings of late. In fact, I’m beginning to think that the pile or organic mush that is the human body is no match for the mighty wood. In a desperate attempt to get better I keep going back for more though; the feeling of leaving the climbing wall better than when you walked in is pretty satisfying, satisfying enough to outweigh the odd looks you get when you shout YYFY because you finished the hang with an extra kg, anyway.

Word on the street is that the grit has been well and truly called. There’s been a slew of apparently newsworthy ascents recently, and I commend you all on your bravery and climbing skill. But clearly all the clambering over sharp, painful rock has distracted the climbing community from the real achievements of late; the aforementioned hang with extra weight, plus the move I did on the motherboard, plus the one half-decent campus board session I had – the rest were shit, but the burl is on its way…

Anyway, not wanting to feel left out, I thought I’d go and see what all the hype was about. My first impression was that it fucking hurts your skin, wood is much more friendly to the aspiring ‘crusher’, and not wishing to become a party of the now fashionable trend of posting pictures of bleeding tips on facebook I didn’t pull on any little minging holds, and certainly not on any pebbles. I managed to find a suitably dark and dank Pitt to have a go on, and I’m going to give a personal grade of 7b+ – mainly because I want Jens to call me brave and humble.

After single-handedly saving the world from the threat of  grade inflation it was back to board. Then to the other board. Then the other board. We’re not very imaginative with our equipment names, us climbers. Perhaps that’s why so many people are less than fond of training; it always involves using something that is literally bored. Maybe if we renamed them something more inspiring then I’d have more people to talk to whilst dangling.

Now, I must get back to work so I can go on the wave later. Ah the wave! Now that’s not boring.

Progress

A lot has happened since my last post, but the main thing I’m interested in is progress. As I mentioned in my previous post this trip is a bit different from other trips I’ve been on, not just because of its length, because this one has involved training at the crag. In the past, I’ve had a trip planned for a while, and had goals for that trip, so I’d have trained accordingly, or at least have been fit at the outset from a subsequent trip. On this trip though, I’d had a couple months of just bouldering and strength training before heading out, this was followed by three more weeks bouldering in Fontainebleau, which you can read about here: http://wp.me/p2MxDj-3i This all meant that by the time we got around to sport climbing I had lost all my fitness from before Christmas. It was a pretty humbling experience; to know I am capable of climbing much harder than what I was on at the time, yet being unable to. I was reduced to lapping 6c+’s and 7a’s, getting ridiculously pumped on ground which used to feel pretty easy, just to try and build back up some resemblance of endurance.

My fitness started coming back faster than I could have hoped. After the first week I was back to being able to redpoint 8a and flash 7c, but was more consistent in the mid 7’s, which is probably a better indication of my fitness at the time. A week or so later I was able to lap some 7c’s but my aerobic endurance was still way down on what it was, I was getting equally pumped on all grades after a certain amount of time. It was like once I started climbing the timer started, and if it wasn’t a jug path by the time that timer ran out, then I’d be screaming like who-knows-what and desperately slapping even as my fingers were uncurling despite my best efforts to keep them closed. It gave me some of the best fights I’d ever had on a route, but I knew it would have to change if I was to have any chance of climbing the things I wanted to climb on this trip.

Almost a month into the sport climbing portion of the trip things were starting to look up. We were in Gorges du Tarn, which I visited previously a couple years ago with Martin Daley and Carl Kelsall. Tarn is a place of exceptional natural beauty, it also has more rock than you can shake a stick at, most of it undeveloped and world class. It was here that I began to feel like I could get on routes with some confidence, some vague sense that if I decided I wanted to do something, then I’d stand a pretty good chance of doing it, and knew that even if I got pumped then I’d be able to recover at least a little bit if I got to a rest. So fortunately I was able to climb quite a few of the routes up to 8b which I had been looking forward to trying. Plaisir qui Demonte, 8b, was at the top of the list of routes I wanted to do whilst in Tarn. It’s a big one. 55m on some of the most immaculate rock I’ve ever climbed on, with some of the nicest, skin friendly holds I’ve ever used off the board. Its one of those routes which, if you can keep the pump at bay, and get it back at the rests, then it feels easy, but if you can’t recover at those rests, then you won’t stand a chance. So not only was it a great route, but it was also an obvious indication to myself that I’d been able to get some kind of route fitness back over the last month.

We’re now in Rodellar, the ‘land of lactic’, and have been here a couple weeks. In many ways it is even more impressive than Gorges du Tarn; the rock is ridiculously steep, there are huge caves, roofs, and arches everywhere. I thought that there was a lot to do in Gorges du Tarn, but it doesn’t even come close to the amount here in Rodellar, after just a couple weeks in Tarn we had by no means ran out of routes to do, but we felt like we were running out of the best ones, the ones which you really have to do. After two weeks in Rodellar, and having climbed more than I did in the two weeks in Tarn, I’m getting the the feeling that I’m going to be coming back here for many years to come. We have another five weeks here, and it’s not nearly enough to do everything I want to do.

I feel like I’ve progressed even further since climbing in Gorges du Tarn. I don’t know if that’s just because the style might suit me more here, I suspect that has something to do with it, but so far I feel like I’m climbing well here. I haven’t done anything hugely significant, a handful of 8a-b, with a couple on the go, but I feel like I’m climbing better than ever. Climbing only on rock for four months can work wonders; I’ve never felt so comfortable or confident on rock, which means I can climb faster and more decisively, more efficiently. That could explain some of the perceived fitness gains over the last couple weeks.

So we have another 5 weeks or so here in Rodellar before heading back to blighty. Hopefully the progress will continue so that I stand a chance of climbing just half of what I’d like to. I’ll update this blog with pictures when I get some so that you can see just how impressive Rodellar and Tarn really are.

The Secret of the Powerful

Since I returned from Spain my goal has been to get strong again, stronger than I’ve ever been before. There are a number of climbs in the county that I’m keen to get on before I leave again, so far the weather hasn’t been playing along but there’s a week or so left so there’s a chance I’ll be able to have a play on a few of them. I’ve been capitalizing on the quality climbing (wall) conditions and have noticed significant improvements, in just a few weeks. Here’s how.

I picked three key areas that are crucial to being able to do hard moves. Fingers, power, and core. Its not ideal to train all these things at once, and it should be noted that if I had more time I would have focused on each one separately, whilst not entirely neglecting the others, for a period of time. When training these areas my goal was to get strong remember, so that meant very high intensity with plenty of rest. Rest is vital. Fatigue should not be part of high intensity sessions, but I have included some slightly higher volume sessions on the fingerboard and at the climbing wall in order to build a base of strength on which max strength can be built.

Fingers

These can be trained to a ridiculous percentage of their original strength, and even if you think you have strong fingers it is certain that they can be made even stronger. Think of that problem you’re falling off; if the holds were jugs you’d do it. Fingers. Fingerboarding is the way to get strong fingers, and I like to split these into two types of sessions: repeaters and max hangs.

Repeaters: 3 sets. 6 or 7 grips per set. 1 minute of 7 seconds hanging, 3 seconds rest per grip. 2 and a half minutes rest between grips, and 6 minutes between sets. That’s your basic structure, tweak it as necessary. You should aim to have the intensity such that you fail on the last second of each minute. These is the grip types I have been using on the beastmaker 2000:

30 minute progressive warmup.

Half crimp on 15mm rung – I find 4 finger too easy, but 3 too hard, so I alternate one hand with 3 fingers the other 4.

Slopers – again, I find the 35’s too easy and the 45’s too hard. I used to use 3 fingers on the 35 to make it harder, now I use hand on the 35 and one hand on the 45’s, but use my thumb and nestle my index against the crease to make it possible. Just.

3 finger drag on 15mm rung

Half crimp again – I feel like this is one of my weaker grips and is used often in climbing which is why I do it twice

Middle 2 small pockets

Back 2 – one hand in back 2 pocket, one hand in medium pocket

front 2 small pockets

I find this session bloody hard and fail a bit more than I should. But with the easier version of this session I was doing I wasn’t failing enough. This type of session will give you a good base of finger strength, and is far enough off max to be relatively safe, but you must still be careful.

Max Hangs: If you want to develop maximum strength then this is the way to do it. I’m still tweaking this session, but the general idea is that you pick about 5 grips that you find very hard, these often have to be one handed to make them hard enough; you should only be able to hang for 3-5 seconds. Do this 4 or 5 times for each grip with 90-120 seconds rest between hangs. It won’t feel like you need this much rest because you won’t feel it, but its essential. It will take a few sessions before you find the right grips for you so experiment a bit.

Power

Next up is power. Your ability to make extremely hard moves. I’ve found the best way to train this is by using a steep board, ideally 45 degrees overhanging. There’s a couple very effective sessions you can do to train this.

Max moves: Make up 5 or 6 very hard moves, each with a symmetrical twin. You don’t have to have a mirrored board to do this, but it helps.  Make moves which train different areas. Try and do each move 3 times on each side with as much rest as is necessary, I find a couple minutes between attempts is about right. You WILL fail in this session, if you’re not then the moves are too easy. I found that at first I couldn’t complete any of the moves, I could tap or almost hold some of the final holds, some I was miles off. Now I can do about 2/3 of them at least once in the 3 attempts. I’m thinking about adding weight or tweaking them to keep them hard enough. I won’t describe each move here as it would take too long, but they use a variety of grip types and are of varying sizes, in some the movement itself is hard, others holding the lower hand is hardest, and others sticking the final hold or keeping tension is the crux. I found that substantial gains were made by just trying to hold the lower hold with a foot on; pull on with both hands and let go with one, hold it as long as possible. You’ll probably feel like you just fell off and didn’t do anything, but this is a great way to get maximum recruitment.

Hypergravity bouldering: This is bouldering with weight added in a weight vest ideally, a backpack with a weight in works well, as does a harness with weights hung off it. I normally add 5kg, it makes a big difference. In these sessions I work through the moderate – tricky problems on the board and try and repeat as many of them as I can, focusing on keeping tension as the weight can pull you out easily. I don’t tend to try absolute max problems with weight because the stimulus would be incomplete, you’d be better off trying to lock off the first hold of the move to get maximum recruitment, rather than actually trying the move.

Core

The missing link for me. I’d never trained this much before but have come to realise how important it is, especially in gaining full body power so you can crush the holds out of the angles. I have been mixing in some arm work to these sessions to get a bit of burl, something I lack. I have been doing 2 full sets, each set comprised of both core and arm exercises alternated, this means there’s very little time when you’re standing around resting. I tend to do 5-7 reps of each exercise, and also do 10×1 minute efforts made up of 5 pull ups, 5 press ups, 5 legs draws (like like raises but you keep your legs at about 120 degrees and pull your knees up to your stomach or chest if you’re a beast).

Core exercises include: leg raises, attempts at front levers, side levers (can be seen in this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=H0vOH_XGWFU), roll outs on an exercise ball, walk out planks (normal planks but with arms outstretched).

Arm exercises include: assisted one arm pull ups, one arm lock offs, type writers, press ups.

Mixing these all up creates a beastly upper body workout and I’m normally feeling battered the next day.

I’ve been stretching after most sessions as well, because I feel like flexibility is a huge weakness of mine, and I’ve found that being supple helps everything. Your whole body just seems to function better when you’re range of mobility is good, nothing is holding you back. More on that another time though.

When planning on the structure these sessions base iy on your relative weaknesses and your goals. If your fingers are much weaker than your body then do more fingerboarding, and vice versa. Remember to rest properly between sessions and efforts. And Try Hard.

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