How I broke through my biggest climbing plateau

One of the most frustrating things about advancing as a climber is the inevitable plateau one reaches between grades. As a novice, most hit their first big challenge when advancing beyond V3, and after that, you’ll pretty much find yourself struggling between every other grade – except perhaps the V5-V6 transition (I hope).

I sent my first V4 nearly two years ago; The Mane Event at Stone Fort in Tennessee. It was a big milestone for me, but I had no idea that it would take me so long to beat my next big challenge.

This weekend, I finally broke the plateau.

Over the past few weeks at Tally Rock Gym, I’ve noticed a significant advancement in my indoor sends – but nothing counts until you make it happen outside. I started sending my V5 bouldering projects at the gym, and was determined to solidify it with a big outdoor send during my final summer trip out to Tennessee and Georgia.

My first V5 send was Steam Roller, a burly little roof problem that comes over a lip to a sloped top-out. At first, I couldn’t get past the first moves where I had to lift my toosh off a pesky boulder beneath the climb to pull out over the lip – but a little crafty footwork helped me out with a high heel hook that kept me from smacking on the slab below. Personally, the biggest accomplishment on the send was sticking the finishing moves. Slopers are NOT my thing, and yet with Niko’s encouragement I conquered the holds and achieved my first outdoor V5.

The second big moment for me came when I sent Sunnie Rose on the second go. Admittedly, this route feels pretty damn soft for its grade – but considering that it wasn’t downgraded in the guidebook like The Wave (which used to be a V6 and is now a V5); I’ll take it. The route was suggested to me multiple times by both Tally Rock Gym climbers and the fellas at The Crash Pad hostel in Chattanooga – so I figured it was worth the attempt.

When you first take a gander at this boulder, it doesn’t look like a cake walk. The holds are unassuming from afar, but once you get on the sweet sandstone, everything falls into place. My send of Sunnie Rose was only successful because I was full of one of the most important factors in climbing: confidence.

So, how can you propel yourself to the
next level in climbing like I did?

It really ain’t that hard, folks. If you can dedicate your lifestyle to becoming a better climber, you can achieve any grade you set yourself towards sending. The first key element is to keep your cool, and not get frustrated when success doesn’t come. Let’s face it, you’re going to get shut down, and it’s not going to be very fun.

You’re going to pop off that crimper, and your tendons are going to feel miserable. You’ll have days where you won’t even be able to send that V4 you usually run laps on – but those are all signs that you’re truly pushing yourself.

For me, one of the best things I implemented in my training efforts was spending time working on my finger strength. I started slow, with only a handful of 6-8 second hangs on the fingerboards. Eventually, I’d do the hangs frequently in between climbs or on any day I was taking a ‘rest.’ Niko suggested it as a good way to get my body moving towards the next level in climbing, and it worked.

Another key thing to focus on is your core strength. Training for climbing should always be balanced with non-climbing activities, and I’ve devised an abdominal exercise circuit that works well for me. Frankly, my workout style is as lazy as possible – so I look for exercise movements that will give me maximum results with minimal effort. Shameless. So here’s my suggestion: Find a set of five core movements that you can repeat frequently and will actually stick to, and do it twice a day or so. My personal goal right now is to do my full ab workout five days a week. Pick something that works for you, and commit to it.

This brings me to my next suggestion for breaking through a climbing plateau:

Take breaks. Take them often, and actually take them.

Honestly, I have never climbed better than when I’ve trained really hard for a week, then taken three or so days off, even up to a week. Whether you want to admit it or not, your body needs time to catch up with all the progress your muscles are making – and you’ll be able to see the best results when you give yourself a break from climbing. Hopping on that big project you’ve been working will flow like butter once you’re truly fresh.

My final bit of advice: Keep chuggin’.

It is all to easy to get discouraged by the seemingly impossible plateau you’ve hit – but hitting roadblocks is the sign of becoming a better climber. The fact that you’ve reach this plateau is indicative of your progress, and once you overcome it, you’ll be one step closer to becoming the best climber you can possibly be. Don’t lose sight of the end goal, and don’t worry about it feeling like you’ll never break through the plateau – you will.

Fair warning: Once you finally crush through that plateau, you’ll instantly propel yourself towards the next big climbing milestone. It’s an addiction, folks. Climbing is the best love/hate relationship you will ever experience. She’s a feisty one – but she hurts so good. 

Do you have any advice for overcoming the challenges of a climbing plateau?
What was your hardest grade improvement to overcome? Are you stuck at a plateau right now?
Let me know your thoughts!

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6 thoughts on “How I broke through my biggest climbing plateau

  1. Dakota Lundeen says:

    Very cool article Katie, I find what’s been working for me is to completely switch up my style. I was huge into bouldering and hit a plateau so I switched it up to rope climbing and I saw huge improvement in both areas.

    • Katie Boué says:

      Thanks Dakota! I definitely agree, striking a balance between rope and bouldering and mixing them up is really important for keeping yourself well-rounded and always on your toes.

  2. Rockstar says:

    Hate to be a debbie downer, but everybody tops out Sunnie Rose using the mailbox slot as a handhold and then says it’s ridiculously soft. It looks like you topped out a bit low from that picture. That’s how I did it my first time, but Sunnie Rose v5 goes straight up the face and you top out using the mailbox as a foot. From your post, it sounds like you already know it’s not a v5. Still, Steam Roller is a powerful v5. Try Fat Cat and Cheese Grater, I’m sure you can do those if you can climb Steam Roller. I also recommend White Trash. A bit harder because of the commitment.

    I’m at a plateau somewhere around you. I’m using pretty much everything out there as far as training goes, but I’ve had no luck so far. I’ve heard of pretty spectacular breakthroughs after extended road trips. Did it work out for you?

  3. Matthew Fields says:

    Great article! I am out here in Portland getting back into serious climbing, but years ago I bouldered for the first time at tally rock gym when I was in college. Really cool to see that gym pop up again. Very informative and inspiring, Keep up the excellent work.

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