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Plateaus in Climbing: Why they Happen and How to Break Out of One…

If you have been climbing for more than 4 to 6 months, you have probably encountered a period of time in which you did not see noticeable signs of progression in your climbing strength, skill, or performance.

These periods of little or no change in progress, even though you were training/climbing and continuing your normal routine, are called plateaus. Better than regression, but highly frustrating as you are engaging in activities that once brought you success and improvement. Why is it that these tools that once worked so well do not work anymore?

There are two phenomena that are responsible for plateaus in climbing: the Law of Accommodation and Habituation.

coach charlie helping an athlete overcome a climbing plateau

When I write my athlete’s programming, I do everything in my power to prevent these concepts from negatively affecting the progress of the climber. The law of accommodation, also known as the principle of diminishing returns, states that the body's response to a given stimulus decreases over time when that stimulus remains constant. In the context of skill learning, it means that performing the same task repeatedly leads to reduced improvement as the learner's body and mind adapt to the task. Habituation is a psychological and behavioral process where a person decreases their response to a repeated, benign stimulus over time. It's a simple form of learning that helps people filter out irrelevant or non-threatening stimuli from their environment. Both of these concepts, if not actively monitored, can creep in and stall your training progress!

How We Fall into the Trap: Doing the Right Thing for Too Long

We all know that it's important to maintain a consistent training routine for multiple weeks (typically 4-8) rather than constantly changing exercises to allow the body and mind sufficient time to adapt and develop. The common phrase “consistency for proficiency” is true in the sense that we need to repeatedly perform the same exercises/styles of climbing in order to allow our neuromuscular system to adapt, improving coordination and technique. Additionally, our muscles and tendons need consistent and progressively increasing resistance to grow stronger; changing exercises too frequently can prevent muscles from adequately adapting to the load (hangboarding, pull-up training, power endurance, etc.). Regularly performing the same exercises also helps in establishing a workout routine, making it easier to adhere to the exercise program. Familiarity with exercises reduces cognitive load, allowing you to focus more on the intensity and quality of the workout rather than constantly learning new movements (how we often find ourselves in flow state on a climb after many sessions of working the moves). All of these above points are tenets of periodization programming, where you break up your training into cycles/phases that focus on a single adaptation (endurance, hypertrophy, strength, power). But when we overstay our welcome in one of these phases or don’t change the variables, that’s when trouble happens.

How the Climbing Plateau Forms

If you are not following a carefully written training program, it can be very easy to encounter stagnation in your training. This typically happens when people don’t follow a routine for long enough periods to achieve the benefits, or when they stick to the same routine for too long. We all know the people at the gym that tell us about their new routine they found on social media every other week, or the climbers that have been coming in every day for the last year and only board climb and do the same pull-up routine. The first person will simply benefit from following through on an entire training cycle due to all the reasons listed in the above paragraph. But the second type of climber is much more confused, typically because they have experienced past success with this routine and are no longer improving! Neither their skills nor their strength will increase due to the law of accommodation and habituation.

Habituation will severely diminish a climber’s attention to detail! They will become complacent with the outcomes of attempts on the wall, having a very high tolerance for failures as they are so accustomed to the same shortcomings they often encounter. I see this all the time with short climbers who spend so much time falling on bigger moves; they are so quick to say, “I am just not tall enough,” instead of recognizing the many technical errors that I could see were the true reasons why they did not stick the move. Climbers can become so habituated that they begin overlooking errors completely; another reason to use video analysis (see my other article on this topic)! I have personally seen this desensitization to feedback result in climbers completely ignoring and even becoming unaware of valuable feedback that they otherwise would notice and use to make the next attempt more effective. Additionally, when we engage in the same wall angle, routine, or style of climbing, we become bored (sometimes even without knowing it)! This lack of novelty can decrease motivation and engagement, making the climbing/training experience far less effective and productive.

Now, the law of accommodation is a different beast in itself. Of course, by only doing the same thing over and over, a climber tremendously limits their skill transfer. This is the ability to effectively transfer techniques to different contexts (new moves, styles of climbing, terrain, drills, exercises, etc.). By only engaging in a limited amount of stimuli, the climber’s ability to generalize and apply their skills in new and varied situations dramatically decreases. However, the law of accommodation is also known as the principle of diminishing returns. Over time, the effectiveness of a constant training regimen decreases, leading to slower gains in skill or performance. The mind makes its fastest adaptations to new stimuli and then slows down as it becomes more and more familiar and sees no need to continue to make massive changes neurologically. That is why the term “newbie gains” exists. To continue improving, it is necessary to increase the intensity, complexity, or variation of the training tasks; this applies to skill and strength training.

How to Avoid climbing Plateaus and Break Out of One

The key is change. Varying your training by incorporating different exercises, drills, or tasks prevents accommodation and keeps the learning process dynamic. Gradually increasing the difficulty or changing the conditions of practice will ensure consistent progression; the more intentional and calculated you are, the more reliably your abilities and strength will increase.

With all of my programs, my goal is to gradually improve my athlete’s most influential attributes that will aid in accomplishing their goals. I do this by targeting each aspect using 2-4 methods and unique stimuli. I like to deliver multiple forms of training to the muscles or skill set and change the intensity, complexity, or volume every cycle in order to keep the athlete in a state of continuous learning. Some drills/stimuli do not need to change in their qualitative form (I may have a client hangboard for many cycles in a row), but I will always change a variable in order to avoid a plateau. It is important, however, to not change too many variables or change the stimulus too drastically, as we want to be able to recreate the positive adaptations that we experienced from the previous cycle. I also have found that switching too many drills at once can be overwhelming and result in a stalling at the beginning of a new cycle as the climber needs to learn too many new things at once, negatively impacting momentum. This momentum is something that must be taken into consideration and is directly influenced by how appropriately you adjust your program and how well you stay within the parameters of your goal pursuit.

Examples of How to Make Changes

The more I learn about movement theory, skill learning, and sports science, the more I realize that there is no excuse for plateaus in climbing training! Here are a few ways you can change a drill as simple and straightforward as limit bouldering to avoid plateauing.

Try changing...

  • The frequency of how often you train per week/month

  • The number of attempts per session/week/month

  • The time within the session that you board climb

  • The average difficulty of moves

  • The difficulty of the hardest move

  • The number of boulders per session

  • The degree of the wall

  • The type of the holds

  • The amount and angle you shoot videos for analysis

  • The pre-climb routine and visualization of movements

  • The weight of your body (add a weight belt, ankle weights, weight vest)

  • The number of fingers you use (drop the pinky)

  • The number of limbs (use only 1 leg)

  • The rules (only heels, no heels, no matching, must cut feet, can’t cut feet)

  • The number of moves per climb

  • The style of climbs (focus only on deadpointing to crimps this cycle)

  • The texture of holds (wood, polyurethane, polyester, real rock, dual-tex)

  • The duration of your rest periods

Take-aways for overcoming climbing plateaus

Plateaus in climbing are common yet frustrating phases where progress stalls despite continued effort. This stagnation is largely attributed to the law of accommodation and habituation and is inevitable if you do not actively seek to prevent it. The law of accommodation explains how the body's response to repetitive training diminishes over time, while habituation leads to reduced sensitivity and engagement with the stimuli. Both phenomena underscore the necessity of varied and progressive training for climbing to maintain continuous improvement in skill and strength. Overcoming these plateaus requires strategic changes in training routines, such as adjusting intensity, complexity, and introducing novel stimuli to keep the learning process dynamic. By implementing periodization and deliberately modifying training variables, climbers can prevent stagnation and continue to develop their strength and skills effectively. Understanding and applying these principles ensures that climbers not only avoid plateaus but also achieve sustained growth and peak performance in their climbing endeavors.

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