Dave MacLeod loves you and just wants the best for you

Been a while! Happy 2012, folks. The last month or so has been busy for me, filled with family, friends, and fortunate climbing weather. I had a pretty amazing 2011, and I have big plans for 2012, and I got some awesome new cookbooks for Christmas, so I should have plenty to talk about in the coming weeks.

For now, though, I’m going to dig into Dave MacLeod’s book as promised.

First off: of the four or five training books I’ve read (which is actually a fairly big chunk of the worthwhile literature from what I can tell) this is easily my favorite. MacLeod is all about the big picture here. His goal is not so much to get down into the nitty-gritty details of training as it is to help climbers learn to coach themselves and manage their training and love of the sport in a way that prevents injuries and plateaus.

Before moving onto the big picture, though, I want to point something out. Although most of the other training books I’ve read are absolutely chock-full of detailed training exercises, drills, and so on, the sparse number of specific drills in MacLeod’s book have already been more useful to me than all of the hyper-detailed hangboard workouts I’ve read about over the years. This is mostly because the typical workout routines listed in the other training manuals I’ve read either require autobelay devices at the gym for incredibly long rope-work sessions, a wall that I’m free to set holds all over to tailor circuits to my own needs, or a gym with a huge preponderance of accurately graded routes that are stripped and reset with incredible frequency. I don’t have any of these things. Furthermore, they frequently place such a strong emphasis on periodization that I feel like I’m not ‘allowed’ to climb outdoors during my training cycles. If I’m in the middle of the ‘power’ portion of my macrocycle, then surely I’m better off in the gym bouldering than out at Smith on techy slab routes.

Fuck that! I climb outside as much as I can! Happily, MacLeod seems to recognize the realities of the everyday climber’s life and suggests a lot of flexibility in your training, both to accommodate your life and to prevent injury. I really appreciated this. Other training books have made me feel like a weirdo for not making gym climbing my Raison d’être, but not so here.

However, the thrust of the book is not in the details, which is good. Sport training details are like fractals, and no matter how much you attempt to dial in the details, there’s always another level of complexity down below for you to dive into and try to optimize. Getting obsessive about those details is a good way to suck all the joy out of a thing.

The one overwhelming message that I’ve taken away from this book is the absolute necessity of finding your weaknesses and working them hard. Figure out what you’re bad at and get better at it, even if it involves a lot of thrutching and falling and fucking everything up. In fact, it should involve all those things. If you settle for only doing the things you’re already good at, then you doom yourself to an ever-shrinking realm of mastery as your neglected skills atrophy, which of course makes working on them even less pleasant. Sure, you might be a tech-wizard on slab, but if you fall off of jugs once the wall kicks back (like me!) then you’re going to get spanked around when you take that road trip to Red Rocks.

Dave MacLeod standing on air in Norway.

The one upside to this approach is that when you stink at something, you’ll improve rapidly. My crack climbing lags my face climbing by an almost embarrassing degree, but I can measure my forward progress in that arena on a more or less day-to-day basis, which is incredibly satisfying. When you’re improving already well-honed skills, gains come a lot slower.

At first it seems like a challenging exercise to determine the chinks in your climbing armor. It could be something highly specific, like footwork on small edges, or it could be an entire discipline, like trad climbing or crack climbing. MacLeod pulls no punches though:

It takes conscious effort to recognise the types of climbs, moves, angles, any aspect of the climbing experience that you find yourself drawn to for what they really are – a vulnerability to opening up weak points in your climbing… Weaknesses grow faster as you ignore them…

Find the type of climbing you like the least, which may very well be the type of climbing that scares you the most, and get to it. It’s advice I’ve heard in a muted form before, but to me it’s the central thesis of MacLeod’s book, and his blunt writing style goes a long way towards driving the point home.

Obviously there are limits to this. If you are strictly interested in sport climbing, then spending loads of time learning to deal with offwidth cracks is probably not a good use of your energy. But within the scope of your goals, the most effective action you can take is to identify the thing that gives you the most trouble and correct it, then repeat.

For someone like me, gym-trained and still climbing relatively moderate grades, the weak links are mostly not physical but rather mental and technical. Where most other books put a strong emphasis on physical training, the framework of MacLeod’s advice is flexible and broad enough to help design a plan for any sort of climber to improve.

In my eyes, this book is a more holistic version of Ilgner’s Rock Warriors Way and Espresso Lessons, of which I am also a fan. Those books teach you to coach yourself through a fear of falling; 9 out of 10 Climbers teaches you to be a self-coach in an even broader sense. Highly recommended.

4 thoughts on “Dave MacLeod loves you and just wants the best for you

  1. Have you read Maximum Climbing? It and 9 out of 10 are my two favorite training guides. Both avoid a training-manual feel and focus more on the way climbers should approach long term improvement. Good points on training weaknesses. I find training weaknesses to be unbelievably gratifying. Gains are made quickly when working on things you suck at! I find the crux of the issue is really understanding the things you are worst at. It helps to have a brutally honest friend or watch some footage of yourself climbing, I recently realized I need to train my skill at moving dynamically and not wasting energy with an overly slow and static style. You nailed it by noticing the fact that tall climb tend to reach too much and move too little. I’m psyched to get to work! If you are ever interested in training together. let me know.


  2. I agree that it’s hard to know your mistakes. I try to observe my mental state to get ideas for areas of possible improvement–was I scared? Was I complaining? If so there’s probably something about that route that I’m bad at and thus intimidated by. I think for a better climber, though, the weak points would be a lot less obvious.

    I’m with you on the static climbing. In addition to forcing myself to use intermediate feet, I really need to improve my use of momentum; I have a nasty habit from slab climbing of stopping on every single hold on a route to look around, and I rarely plan several moves out. This is fine until you’re on overhung terrain with bigger holds–you don’t really need to think about the moves, but you DO need to keep moving as much as possible!

    Honest friends definitely help… I mentioned something this past weekend about “being a different person on bolts” and Marie totally put me in my place, reminding me that I had been a big whiny baby when working Vomit Launch and falling at the very top over and over. Definitely a little bit of selective memory going on there…

  3. I wrote this in response to a strong friend who asked my opinion of the book:

    “I wound up turning my response to your question into a blog post, which is attached. One of my buddies put it into words more succinctly than I did: it’s more of a book on training philosophy and less of a training manual.

    For me, this is ideal, because I’m not really good enough to need a highly complex physical training regimen. I still have a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick in my training and MacLeod’s book is a great help in identifying that fruit and figuring out how to get to it.

    You’ve been climbing a lot longer than me, so your mileage may vary. Doubtless your technique is a lot better, so you probably don’t need to focus on that as much as I do. If you’re just looking for straight up physical training advice, you’d probably be better served by another book–I’m a fan of Performance Rock Climbing in that regard. If you’re looking for a more general ‘starting point’ for figuring out how to approach rock climbing in a more systematic way, then I think MacLeod’s book is a great choice.”

  4. Thanks for the writeup, Toby, and a good reality check. I always find myself shying away from the steep routes at the gym thinking I don’t like to muscle my way up routes. In reality it’s almost certainly a weakness that I avoid.

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