Training with Justen Sjong

The first time I ever experienced technical climbing was during a lesson that my then high-school girlfriend surprised me with for me for my 16th birthday. And though I didn’t actually dive into the sport until a few years later, that was the first and only time in all my years as a full-fledged climber that I’d had a proper “lesson.”

Climbers, like guitar players and kama sutraists, are mostly self-taught, relying on books, videos and help from partners to learn how to make sweet, sweet music. Thus it was with some trepidation that, last Friday, I showed up for my second-ever climbing lesson, this time with the renowned El Cap free climber and sport-climbing technician Justen Sjong.

Justen is a coach, athlete and route-setter for America’s training epicenter, Movement Climbing + Fitness. Justen works with every type of climber, from your patent beginner to the sport’s top athletes and competitors. He’s an incredible climber himself. I remember when he came out to Rifle a few years ago and repeated many of the hard kneebar routes in just a few tries. His style is the definition of precision and I’d rank him along with Alex Honnold as the two most precise, in-control climbers I’ve ever witnessed.

My reasons for seeking some coaching felt numerous but also somewhat vague. Coming into the New Year I hadn’t felt that little burst of psyche and energy I normally experience each January to start training for the upcoming rock season—mostly because I’d been doing the same routine for the last two or three years. Even though my routine—which involved a stretch of weight-lifting and lots of indoor bouldering and campusing—had worked really well, taking me to new levels each and every season … I wanted to mix it up, but I didn’t know where to begin.

Since Boulder is about three hours from where I live on the Western Slope, I spoke with Justen and asked him about helping me freshen up my routine and do some long-distance coaching with me. Unfortunately, he said that a long-distance relationship wouldn’t work.  Last week, I had an opportunity to go out to Boulder to interview Daniel Woods for an upcoming article; I used the work trip as an excuse to also meet with Justen and spend 90 minutes figuring out how to take my climbing to the next level.

I consider myself pretty experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to training and technique, and self-aware enough to know what some of my weaknesses are. Plus, I think I’m a decent-enough rock climber. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting all that much from my lesson with Justen—just reaffirmation of things that I already know.

Instead, what I learned from Justen completely surpassed my expectations, challenging preconceived notions about training and pointing out a few really deep flaws in my technique and approach that I hadn’t even realized were there.

GETTING MACRO

One of the first things we talked about was the concept of a “macro-cycle”—how to approach and schedule training over the course of the year. For the last two years, I’ve trained in the winter, peaked in the spring and tried to drag my peak peformance out for about as long as I can into the summer. Usually around August I begin to flatline and I stay flatlined through the fall, which tends to be an unproductive season for me compared to the spring and early summer.

Most training articles I’ve read suggest large-scale macro-cycles that involve four or so distinct periods that each last between four and six weeks. Usually, it goes: 4 weeks of building a base and general conditioning; 6 weeks of power training; 6 weeks of power-endurance training; 1 week of rest—then the physical peak.

This approach works well if you are training for one particular event 3 to 6 months in the future (such as a race or competition). As an enthusiast climber, though, I am like most people in that I just want to climb well all the time and try to take down as many hard routes and boulder problems as I can. Sure, I focus on singular routes or boulders as my main objective—but unlike a comp or race, you never know what day you need to peak to do the project. A lot of factors need to come together to perform in climbing: conditions, a day off from work, knowing the beta, having the right state of mind, and so on—all that needs to come together to perform on a route at your limit.

Justen is a big proponent of smaller 6-week macrocycles that are very flexible in the type and focus of the training. He recommended one week of “ramping up” where you just climb a lot and get your body ready to train. That is followed by three weeks of training that involve a lot of indoor and outdoor climbing and cross-fit type exercises in the weight room. That is then followed by a week or two of performance, and a mandatory week of rest.

This happens to work out well for me in terms of my job, where we make magazines in 6-week cycles that involve peaks and lulls in terms of stressfulness and energy depending on how close we are to deadline. So, the goal this year is to try to structure periods of training in times when I can’t get out of the office because we’re on deadline, and then schedule performance weeks in the lull following a completed issue, when I can focus more on climbing.

Justen also says, “Train heavy, perform light.” In other words, eat well and and eat a lot during periods of training. Try to keep the weight down during performance weeks.

One big goal for me this year will be to see if I can break my typical cycle in August when my spring peak is finally over. The key will be to introduce a period rest, followed up by a new cycle of training, while I’m still feeling strong and climbing well. I think that will be hard to do. In other words, just when I feel like I’m climbing my best mid-summer, take a break … but hopefully not before I send a project or two.

BREATHING

Justen noticed that my breathing was atrocious. I’d lower off of routes in the gym that were technically easy for me but be breathing hard. Normally I would’ve chalked that up to “lacking endurance” … but in reality, it has more to do with how I breathe throughout the route.

There are four types of breath, according to Justen. The deep, slow, relaxing belly breath. The faster-paced endurance breath of a runner. The short, quick exhalation with a little burst of power. And the stunted breath where you are trying so hard you don’t actually even breathe at all. These four types of breath are on a spectrum, and all are fine in the appropriate situation. Most people can go up the spectrum, but few are able to control their breathing so that they can step back down the scale.

Justen is a big proponent of breathing audibly on the route to hear yourself. Getting me to breathe more audibly while climbing—not in a weird, forced way … but rather naturally—was really helpful. This exercise also unintentionally highlighted one of my biggest weaknesses: my mental hang-ups about how others perceive me as a climber.

Because I want to be a “good” climber and I want others to perceive me as such, it seems as though I am often trying too hard to look solid and in control. I hold my breathe, even, to not give that audible clue that I’m actually trying hard. I try to be controlled and static on moves. And above all, my biggest weakness, as Justen pointed out, was that I have trouble giving 100 percent most of the time. It takes a lot for me to put myself out that far.

GIVING 100 PERCENT

Learning how to give 100 percent was where we spent a majority of our focus.

First, we tend to think that trying hard comes down to a matter of simply bearing down on a hold even harder and trying to pull yourself up the wall. This is often wrong, says Justen. In fact, what trying hard should means is sinking back down onto your arms and learning to drive with your legs and core. Trying hard can and should more often mean pushing with your legs instead of just focusing on what you’re doing with your hands.

A lot of the training exercises that Justen showed me had more to do with teaching your body how to drive with your legs when tired.  The most applicable exercise for this is Jumping Pull-ups. Here, you add a step beneath a pull-up bar so that you can grab the bar with slightly bent arms. Then, over 90 seconds (or whatever time is good for you) you jump off the step/ground and pull yourself up to a full pull up. Do this really fast, as many times as you can in whatever time period you’ve determined. You’ll quickly see that the key to the exercise is to sink down as low as you can and use your legs to drive yourself most of the way up before engaging your arms to complete the pull-up.

Learning to use the legs and keep the core tight is often the key to making that next move when you’re completely exhausted on a route and you think there is no way you can make one more move.

In general, I’m reserved and try to keep my emotions under control and have everything be in check. One negative way that this is manifesting itself in my climbing is that I don’t give 100 percent because I don’t like other people seeing where my limits are. In other words, if I try my hardest and fail, then everyone will know just how weak I am. Justen pointed out that this is one of the reasons it is difficult for me to try my hardest.

The best piece of advice he gave me was that trying 100 percent and failing is often more inspiring to people than succeeding. So, it’s a win-win situation. You either succeed and people are psyched, or you give your all and fail grandly and people will be even more inspired.

 

OTHER TIPS

Throughout the session, I felt like I was amid a tornado of little tips and pieces of advice. Justen spoke about the climbing experience with a lot of authority and mastery of the subtleties that really make a difference. Climbing is an art. It’s like drawing. Someone’s drawing skill can’t be taught by giving a few concrete terms or a bulleted list of what needs to be done—drawing, like climbing, must be felt and experienced. You have to have a sense of it.

Anyway, here are some good pieces of advice and tips I learned.

Apparently my foot coordination isn’t great. I don’t always step on the foot hold just right the first time, or it takes me a second to place my foot perfectly. To work on this, wear ankle weights and climb a route—pause your foot mid-air just above the foothold before stepping onto it. At first, your foot shakes and moves and you eventually learn to steady it.

Warming up: Two routes, each climbed back to back. If you can’t climb a route twice in a row, it’s not a warm up. On the first time up, notice things that you do wrong and on the second time up, eliminate them. Take care of whatever it is that’s going badly on that day, right away on the warm up.

Warm up the eyes, too. Look around and try to get your focus going. Focus on particular things and notice them. Get your focus working so it’s very precise.

When at a rest, look a bit down and off to the right. Looking up is the future—creates anxiety. Looking down is to look at the past. But off to the right is the present moment and you can focus just on listening to your heart beat and breathing through the rest.

Jump more, and be more dynamic. Don’t force it—do it where appropriate. Really, let myself be a little looser and freer to move.

Work on climbing “faster”—though faster is the wrong word. Try to do a route as quick as you can, but the trick is to climb it without ever looking like you’re in a rush.

After the session was over, I felt a renewed sense of myself and I felt like I had a direction to focus on this year. I found it interesting, surprising and actually quite cool that a lot of my flaws as a climber have as much to do with my flaws as a person. It was really motivating to have some of these things pointed out, and I look forward to working on making myself better all around this year. My goal is to not just be more expressive, open and dynamic on the rock–it is to also be those things in my life as well. To be and feel fully alive.

My advice? Even if you think you’re a great climber, you could probably use some coaching and advice. I had a great experience, and I highly recommend it to others. Thanks Justen!

  • Gif

    Awesome article!  I like the tip about focusing on legs and core more than arms when you get tired.  It seems like your session was just as much mental as it was physical.  I got a lot out of this.  Really really good.  Thanks!

  • awesome. I feel motivated to get a climbing lesson now.

  • I did a session with Justen about two years ago and it was a huge breakthrough for me. Here’s to inspiration!

  • megbisharat

    So happy you did this! Sounds like a great new way to think about the sport. Wish your father would take just one, only just one, golf lesson; so I won’t have to listen to “Trying out my new swing/grip/stance/swing today” every Sunday of the year (for the last 30 years).

  • Neil

    The psychologial insight is great. I’m sure it wasn’t exactly easy to write about. Brave. Strong. Better. Feeling inspired to be a little more courageous with myself. Maybe I’ll climb like a better person. And climb better, to boot. Thanks.

  • Cuica

    Andrew, love your stuff.  Check the typo “Trying hard can and should more MORE often mean . . .”

  • Josh

    I was lucky to have Justen as a trainer back in highschool.  I will never forget the times he made us wear a heart monitor and have us start routes over if our heart rate ever passed above a certain level, or if our feet made too much noise.  Little aspects that you would think have so little to do with climbing made all the difference…