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How to get the most out of a too-advanced class

I am often asked by students if they are “ready” for a class with me. It's a common insecurity- nobody wants to feel that they are holding the class back, or be overwhelmed by a fire-hose of information. I actively seek out opportunities to be a beginner, partly so that I can better understand and empathise with the beginners who train with me. One such opportunity occurred earlier this year. I started bouldering (indoor climbing on low routes, no ropes) a couple of years ago, and on January 20th 2020 took a class with Neil Gresham, at my club, Avid, in Ipswich. It was a great example of being in a class way over my head. But it has been really useful, and while the specific insights regarding bouldering are probably not useful to you, the process of extracting the most value out of a class that is way beyond your current level will be.

There were 10 students, varying in experience from dazzlingly good (from my perspective), to my friend Katie and I (one year of about once a week). One person in the class had been climbing for only two months but was elegantly smashing routes I can’t do (yet), so Katie and I were definitely bottom of the class. Which is the best place to be- literally everywhere you look you can see someone more experienced doing something interesting. You should never give up the opportunity to take a class with a great instructor just because you’re “not experienced enough”. Sure, your brain may fill up in the first ten minutes, but that’s ok, there are ways of capturing the rest of the class for future reference. I’ve been working on the insights from this climbing class for nearly a year now. Money very well spent! But that's only possible because I captured the class outside my brain, and then refiled it.

In short, the process is this:

1) expect to be out of your depth, and to stop taking in new information early in the class

2) take detailed notes (I use pen and paper with stick-man sketches, but any system that works for you by definition works)

3) write up your notes as soon as possible after the seminar. Ideally on the same day. Notes work to trigger memory, and the longer you leave it, the less effective the trigger will be

4) summarise the key points.

Here is my somewhat edited write-up of the seminar, with topics bolded so I can find them easily:

We began with some opening remarks, Neil introduced himself, asked a couple of questions to get the feel of the class. Then we warmed up. The instruction was to do vigorous exercise for a few minutes to get the blood pumping. Wind sprints, burpees, and running were suggested. I did all of those, plus some monkey walks.

Then Neil lead us through some basic joint rotations; shoulders (as front crawl, then reversed), hip rotations (forward-back, then side). He advised to avoid passive stretching before climbing (I agree 100%).

Then it was shoes on, and to the wall. When warming up on the easy grades, here are the rules for improving footwork:

1. No sliding your foot down the wall onto the foothold.

2. No re-placing the foot after contact with the hold.

3. Silent feet.

4. Watch your foot until after you’ve made contact with the hold.

Goal: to improve precision in footwork that will help with harder climbs.

Practice. I spent some time on a green-grey (easiest) grade. It’s surprisingly hard to be that precise, even on really easy climbs. This one approach had me thinking two things: 1) why the hell didn’t I think of that? It’s so very like how I teach swordsmanship footwork: use very basic drills to concentrate on foot placement. And 2) I’ve got my money’s worth already. Everything after this is a bonus.

Then we re-gathered, and Neil talked about arms.

  1. Keep them extended but not locked, as much as possible.
  2. Bent legs, straight arms.
  3. Keep the shoulders engaged though, so you’re not hanging on your joints.

Practice: back on the easy grades. Indeed, as he said, especially at the start, it’s tempting to step up onto the footholds, pulling yourself into the wall. It’s better to hang from the handholds, bending the legs as much as necessary.

Finally, grip: we re-gathered and Neil challenged us to climb easy routes using the minimal tension in our grips. “Use the friction of your skin” to hold on.

Practice: with precise feet and straighter arms and relaxed hands.

Summary: when warming up on the wall, use these rules to encourage precision and minimal strain when climbing. This mental focus will also help transition you mentally from normal life to climbing.

This was followed by a discussion of bouldering training sessions: either volume, or intensity. Volume sessions involve a lot of easier grade climbs. Intense sessions involve working on a few very hard (for you) problems.

Techniques for overhangs:

We went to a part of the wall that overhangs, and Neil talked about how to do it. Fundamentally: left foot goes to right holds, and right foot to left holds. This allows you to reach with an extended arm. No frog-clambering (my term, not his). This did make life a lot easier, where the holds were set up to allow it.

If you have a right foot on a right hold, or vice-versa, you can “flag”: if there’s space, reach through with the other foot inside the one on the hold. If the foot on the wall is too high for that, you can flag “outside”. This has a similar body placement effect to having your left foot on a right hold, etc.

Note: “avoid a pull-ups competition”. Good advice, especially for me. I tend to rely on strong arms more than is gracefully optimal.

Volume sessions: When doing a volume session, try a pyramid approach: start easy, get harder, hardest climbs at the mid-point of the session, then ease back down. (Same idea as our pyramids: 1 pull-up, 2 push-ups, 3 squats; 2,4,6 etc. Until you max out on one (e.g. 4 pull-ups). Then back down the pyramid: 3-6-9, 2-4-6, 1-2-3.)

“Project” sessions: warm up with 10-12 easier climbs, then pick 2-3 hard problems and work on them. Not too long on any one, or you’ll get tired. Rest: rule of thumb is 1 minute rest for every hand move.

Using the circuit board (a wall with graded routes that go in a circle round the wall, for endurance training): two approaches:

1. “Strength”: pick one hard circuit and go round once. Rest, etc.

2. “Endurance”: pick an easier circuit, and do laps (e.g. 3-4). This trains you for longer climbs, such as rope work outside.

I didn’t mention in class that I find going round once on the easiest circuit to be a sufficient challenge to my endurance! But I’ll work on it, starting by just doing a few moves after the end of the first circuit, to get out of the habit of automatically stopping at the end.

Supportive Conditioning”: for injury prevention. Assuming you’re not a gym rat (good call).

#1 most important exercise to prevent tendonitis: finger extensor training, opening the hand against resistance, e.g. using an exercise band. 3 sets of 20, 2-3 times per week. Yes this is useful but I think I should do a class on forearm maintenance for climbers. They all seem to get tendonitis! (You can find my forearm conditioning training here:

#2 easiest supportive conditioning: push-ups. 3 sets of 10-25, twice a week.

#3: TRX handles on straps (I’d use my gymnastics rings at home). 3 exercises shown, all knees on floor to start:

1. Push-ups

2. Pec fly, arms out to the sides at shoulder level, recover.

3. Plank, extending the arms out in front like diving into a pool, recover.

#1 stretch, after EVERY climbing session: hand flat on wall, shoulder height, fingers pointing down (extending the wrist). Extend other arm about shoulder height like in a pec fly, look out over your extended hand. Seems useful.

Other stretches recommended:

1. feet wide, knees wide, squat and push knees apart to open hips.

2. Standing, knee to chest, pull knee in to stretch hip.

Best takeaways:

1) After the usual warm-up, warming up on the wall with: precise feet, extended arms, and minimal grip.

2) Flag on overhangs.

3) Pyramid sessions.

4) Use circuits more.

5) Why have my rings been in a box in the shed for the last year?

And finally:

As you can see, that is a TON of information, way more than even the more experienced climbers will be able to remember the next day. How many sets of how many push-ups was it?
And here's the kicker. I'd accidentally left my notebook and pen at home, so I borrowed a pencil and a single envelope from the reception desk. Literally ALL of that was captured in note form, covering both sides of an ordinary envelope (about 4 inches by 9, or 10cm by 22). Notes do not have to be extensive to be useful.

The specifics I tried to capture were notable phrases (such as “avoid a pull-ups competition”), the overall pattern of the class (or I would certainly have forgotten entire sections), and as many specifics as possible (such as “finger extensor training, opening the hand against resistance, e.g. using an exercise band. 3 sets of 20, 2-3 times per week”). Then when writing out the notes, I added as much detail and experience as I could recall.

Experienced students are able to remember more than the less experienced simply because they can chunk the information, and fit it into pre-existing patterns in their heads. I didn't have the experience to chunk the information, nor the pre-existing patterns of climbing theory, terminology, and practice. But even though the class had way more information than I could possibly make use of at the time, and so way more than I'd be likely to remember, I could effectively use the class insights months later when I was ready for them, because I have a way to file them outside my brain.

This is actually better than videoing the class, because it depends on the write-up immediately afterwards. Information outside your brain is of no practical use. To be useful, it must be stored inside your brain. Having a video of the class will tend to let you believe that you have it all available, and so you'll forget to ever watch the video, and the information never breaches the world/brain barrier. But having dodgy notes on a scrap of paper that simply must be written up soon or it will become useless forces you to re-enter the information in another format, which massively improves retention. I saw and heard the class, and experienced the exercises, now I have to recall the class from notes and memory, and re-create it as text. That regurgitation process is absolutely key to getting your brain to hold onto the information.

I hope this is useful, and perhaps persuades at least one beginner to jump in the deep end and take a class above their level. Feel free to share.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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