More Power! A Woman’s Guide to Bouldering Strength
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When I began climbing, my style could aptly be called The Sloth. I climbed with slow precision and despised the out-of-control feeling of dynamic, powerful movement. I avoided jumping and, typical of many women, used technique to maneuver around powerful moves.
This worked well enough—until competition boulder problems and the field of competitors became more dynamic and powerful. My climbing style got me to the top of the podium in national competitions in the early 2000s, but by 2011, times had changed. A particularly powerful problem in the finals of the bouldering Nationals that year felt untouchable to me, while many of the other finalists cruised it.
Thus began my pursuit of power. I am still not a powerhouse, but I have made noticeable gains using the following tips.
HOW TO INCREASE YOUR POWER
Admit that gaining power will improve your climbing. This was the first real hurdle for me. I was pig-headed about the idea that I could out-technique powerful moves and finagle my way around jumps. Coming to terms with my need to improve was the first step.
Focus. Bouldering will not magically increase your power. I bouldered for more than 10 years without departing from my static style. While I have gained a base level of power over 18 years of bouldering, it took a focused effort to improve. My quest for more power is ongoing.
Quality over quantity. Do short sequences of moves near your limit. Climbing on a systems board (see Training, Rock and Ice No. 240) is a good way to keep boulder problems short and force yourself to focus on sequences of three to six moves. I work shorter boulder problems closer to my upper ability and shorten the length of my climbing sessions.
Limit your options. Make yourself climb without using drop knees or heel hooks. This is a great way to force yourself to complete a move using a more powerful approach rather than maneuvering around it.
Strength is an important component, so build it up. Strength and power are not synonymous. Put simply, strength is the maximum force you can exert in an exercise or movement, and power is how quickly you achieve that maximal force. Exercises I have found helpful in building strength include weighted pull-ups and one-arm pull-downs, completed in low-rep, high-weight sets.
Since power involves both strength and speed, learning to move dynamically (faster) is an important part of building power. I found the transition from my static style toward more dynamic movement to be incredibly challenging, so I hired someone to force me to practice the unfamiliar style. If that option doesn’t fit with your preferences or budget, try climbing with a friend who excels at dynamic movement and work to imitate his/her style. Make up dynos with various options for starting hand and footholds as well as finishing holds so you can dial up the difficulty as you improve. Use a campus board, or campus on easy overhanging problems.
Your lower body is a crucial piece of the puzzle as well, and having more powerful legs will improve your ability to do powerful moves. Increasing the strength and explosiveness of my legs with squats, box jumps and other exercises benefited my overall dynamic ability.
Fuel up. I have struggled with the urge to feel lighter. This misguided desire led me down an unhealthy and unsustainable path of restricted calorie intake. As I lost weight, my power went with it. After fighting back from that dark and dangerous place, I realized that having power would take me farther than weight loss. I can honestly say that the peaks of my power have typically come when I weighed more. Power requires muscles, and muscles require fuel. Don’t limit your potential by limiting your food intake.
Do not be discouraged when you fall and fail a lot in the process of building power. When I began changing my climbing style, I often left the gym feeling demoralized. But like anything that is difficult and takes time, the process has its rewards. When I stuck a big, powerful dyno in the finals of a World Cup, it was all the payback I needed.
Feature Image: The powerful Meagan Martin on Belly of the Beast (V10), St. Vrain, Colorado. Photo: Alexandra Kahn.