Breaking a Performance Plateau – Part #1

Daniel Berman sending Golden touch (5.13b), Red River Gorge, WV. Hörst photo.

As a climbing coach for more than two decades, the most common subject I get queried on (other than the ubiquitous injury/rehab questions) is “how to break through a performance plateau.” No doubt, there are few things more frustrating to a passionate climber than when improvement becomes imperceptible. What do you do when a winter full of hard gym training leaves you climbing outside at the same level as the previous season? What must you do to break through to the next grade when you’ve been stalled for months or years at 5.12a, V9, or whatever?


First, let me answer these questions philosophically. It’s a fact that you can’t get to the next level by doing the same things that brought you to your current level of ability—thus, if you continue on climbing and training in pretty much the same ways as you have in the past, don’t be surprised when your performance remains basically the same. Breaking plateaus and launching into a new trajectory of improvement demands a different modus operandi. You must shake things up by training smarter, forging a new level of mastery on the rock, and by raising your commitment to the sport.

Effectively blowing through a performance plateau demands a multi-faceted approach—you just can’t change up one thing or add one new exercise to your routine and expect dramatic improvement. The goal is to elevate your physical, technical, and mental abilities. Improvement in all three areas, rather than focusing on just one or two of them, will yield a synergy that soon makes today’s “impossible climbs”, possible!

Below is Step #1 for breaking the plateau–Steps #2 and #3 will be detailed in upcoming Training Center updates, so check back later this summer!

Step 1 – Train-up your true physical weaknesses.
Obviously, gaining more power, contact strength, and muscular endurance can’t hurt in your quest for the higher grades. But before you start training, answer me this: Which of these three physical attributes are you most lacking?

One of the most common workout mistakes is that of training your strengths. Yes, training is really fun when you execute familiar exercises that make you look like a real bad-ass—but this training won’t necessarily make you better. Whether it’s showing off your one-arm power, your campusing chops, or your ability to pump up through steep terrain that makes others flounder, doing what you already excel at is a training investment with little payoff. Instead you must identify your weakest link and design your training according. Here are a few training tips to get you started.

  • If lock-off strength and/or contact (grip) strength are your weakness, begin a strength training program that includes weight pull-ups, weighted fingerboard hangs, and hypergravity training on a HIT System wall. Or, buy a ten-pound weight belt and wear it for a half-dozen boulder problems during each indoor session.


  • If muscular endurance is your Achilles Heel (do you pump out fast on steep routes?), then dedicate a few months to interval training. On a bouldering wall, strive to put together a circuit of fifteen to twenty-five sends with only a one-minute rest between each problem. Similarly, you can train on roped climbs by sending ten to fifteen routes with no more than a five-minute rest between ascents. Enlist a partner and alternate belaying and leading. Select pumpy, but not excessively technical routes—and watch the clock so you stick to the program.


  • If powerful movements are your primary physical constraint, you need to dedicate more time to bouldering hard. Put away the rope for a few months and partner up with someone who will push you to send routes right at your limit…and then to stretch your limit. You can also add in some “campus laddering” to your workout, if you are injury free and possess the maturity not to overdo it (a few sets is all that’s needed).

Check back next month for another plateau-breaking strategy!