EXPERT TIP: Moving from Intermediate to Advanced Climbing

Rock climbing tends to be a sport of plateaus and breakthroughs when it comes to level of ability. Currently I’m stuck somewhere in the middle range, able to lead some sport routes in most Colorado climbing destinations, but no routes worth bragging about. I recently had the pleasure of meeting two great climbers – Paige Claassen and Sarah Janin – during a day spent on various routes at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. I asked each of them how I could leap to the next level of climbing and here’s what they had to say.

Sarah Janin secures Paige Claassen as she begins to lay out a hueco-heavy route in Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods. Photo credit: Michael Imes.

Tips from Paige Claassen:

An Eddie Bauer-sponsored pro climber who has tackled over 30 5.14-rated routes, aiming to send her first 5.15, Paige Claassen grew up climbing in the gym. While some climbers prioritize big mountain excursions or first ascents, Paige tends to focus on one very difficult route at a time, finding her success in reaching the top of a very technical ascent.

According to Paige, those trying to move up to advanced level climbing should climb as much as they can, while allowing time to recover to avoid injury. Paige recommends training for specific weaknesses. For example, if someone is not good at crimps, that is what they should work on the most. Not good at toe hooks? Find a way to practice this.

One aspect of climbing that Paige emphasized was that not every climber is the same, which means different climbers have different abilities that they should work on. For this reason, Paige recommended personal advice from a climbing coach, if possible, acknowledging that it can be expensive, but it’s also worth it. After all, coaches are able to spot weaknesses in a way that is difficult to do from the wall and they are able to form training plans specific to each climber.

Another aspect of rock climbing that plays a bigger role at more advanced levels, Paige says, is sequence planning. Knowing where to save energy, where to move quickly and where to take breaks can be detrimental to a successful climb. Paige recommends a period of observation from the ground at the start of any new route.

One aspect of training that Paige was hesitant to recommend was strength training, including standard weight lifting, but also exercises on climbing-specific tools, such as hangboards. While some people can add this aspect of training to their routine without issue, sudden changes in strength training can lead to injury. Proceed with caution and heed professional advice when adding exercises of this nature to a workout routine.

Paige also noted that improving body movement can be a big deal when it comes to progressing in the sport of rock climbing. An at-home exercise she discovered while teaching during the 2020 pandemic involved stepping onto a sturdy chair or ledge in a way that mimics stepping on a rock face. Place one foot on the raised surface and step up. Practice this from different angles, near or away from the elevated surface, to mimic a variety of climbs climbers can do.

Paige Claassen stretches her arms atop the Red Twin Spiers formation at Garden of the Gods.  Photo credit: Spencer McKee.

Paige Claassen stretches her arms atop the Red Twin Spiers formation at Garden of the Gods. Photo credit: Spencer McKee.

Tips from Sarah Janin:

A guide for colorado mountain school, Sarah Janin’s advice for intermediate climbers looking to make the leap to more difficult routes was a little different than Paige’s. In a way, it goes to show that every great climber is different and can achieve success through different means, using different strengths, but also different training methods.

According to Sarah, cross-training is important for climbers hoping to improve their game. She finds that it’s not enough to climb more and try to climb harder. Training exercises like running and strength training can help accelerate improvements when approached carefully. Sarah also recommended using physiotherapy services to help prevent injury and speed up recovery.

One example of cross-training success that Sarah shared was her experience of spending more time in the pool. She felt like it helped her build strength and mobility in her shoulders, which she credits with helping her perform better on the rock face.

In conclusion

While different climbers may use different strategies to improve their abilities, consistency was a common thread between the advice the two great climbers gave. Those looking to upgrade from intermediate climber to more advanced climber probably won’t be able to do so without additional commitment. Simply trying harder routes with the same gym schedule will likely slow progress if other changes are not made.

So, there you go, you want to become a better climber? Work on your weaknesses with consistency and a high level of effort. Whether that means more time on the wall or more time in the gym, do what works for you and avoid overtraining, which can lead to serious injury.