11 Tips for Climbing 5.11

Words by Zoë Zulauf

When climbers find a route that is just above their ability, it’s frequently referred to as a “project.” Although it might seem comical to think about using the phrase “workin’ the proj’,” in a serious context with any other combination of ridiculous climber jargon, I think the term “project” is indicative of what a completing a challenging route is: working diligently, trying hard, and using creative problem solving strategies to accomplish a goal.

So you’re projecting 5.11? Punching through the 5.10 ceiling to climbing 5.11 can be both intimidating and frustrating. I know this because I spent a good few years banging my head against that ceiling before I started to claw my way out. Focusing on strength and technique are the keys to climbing at a higher level. Here are 11 tips to raising the bar and climbing a 5.11:

Tips for Climbing 5.11

1. Focus on Progress over Perfection

Whether you’re pulling on to a 5.7 for the first time or projecting 5.13, there’s something profoundly special about the experience of climbing at your limit. There’s a whole lot in common between the 5.7 climber projecting 5.8, the 5.10 climber projecting 5.11, or the 5.13 climber projecting 5.14. I call it the “Try Hard” factor: if you are climbing at your limit, you’re trying hard. You’re fully committing to pushing your mental and physical capabilities to the brink, regardless of what the grade of the route is.

I used to believe in a “destination” in climbing; that I would train and train and train and one day be able to climb a certain grade that would validate me as a climber. It took me a lot of time making myself miserable with climbing grades and expectations of how I ought to perform to realize that the beauty was in the continued struggle and willingness to meet the challenge.

The level at which you are climbing is irrelevant. Grades are pretty arbitrary numbers when you think about it– consider them only to be signposts that briefly describe what the climb might feel like to you. As long as it feels challenging and inspiring to you, it’s a worthwhile effort to project the climb. If 5.11 is that grade level, go for it. If it’s 5.6 or 5.9 or 5.12, that’s also awesome. We’re all in the beautiful struggle together.

Tips for Climbing 5.11

2. Community Support

Create a community that will help you stay engaged and active in working towards your climbing goals. I climb and train with friends that challenge me to get out of my comfort zone, encourage me when I flail, and suffer alongside me during grueling training workouts. Friends will keep you accountable and psyched!

3. Training Plan

If you’re serious about improving the level at which you climb, you’ve gotta have a plan. Not just an, “oh yeah, I’ll climb at the gym a few times this week,” type plan, but an “I just bought a little notebook/day planner to schedule my training sessions this week” type plan. Forming a plan will increase the accountability, measurability, and consistency in your training. So find some friends, make a schedule, and stick with it!

11 Tips for Climbing 5.11

4. Climbing Training (Power, Endurance, and Power Endurance)

The triumvirate of climbing training is power, endurance, and power endurance. Endurance is how long you can make consistent climbing movement without falling off the wall. Power is a combination of strength and speed that allows you to execute explosive, challenging, dynamic movement. Power endurance is how long you can make powerful moves near your limit with moderate climbing or rests in between– fighting the “pump” all the while. To be a successful climber, you’ll need to train for all three. Here are some training exercises I’d suggest for each.

Bouldering Intervals: 20 minutes of non-stop V0-V1 bouldering/traversing, 10 minutes rest. Repeat this interval 2-3 times total. Get some headphones and good tunes, and climb!

(Choose 1-2 per session, significant rest in between)
Limit Bouldering: shoot for V4-v6, as the crux moves of 5.11 climbs convert to V3-V4 bouldering.

Hangboarding (here’s an awesome beginner hangboard workout!)
Pullups: 3 days a week. Do 2 sets of 7 pullups on day 1, 3 sets of 6 pullups on day 2, and 4 sets of 5 pullups on day 3. Make ‘em swift, smooth, and efficient. If pullups aren’t in your repertoire (yet!) try negative pullups. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll get strong enough to bust out normal ones! I climbed my first 5.11 waaaay before I could ever do a pullup (there’s hope, I promise!) but increasing your pull strength is a huge advantage in climbing.

Power endurance
Bouldering Pyramids: V0-V3 or V1-V4 range (check out this blog post on pyramid training format)

If your timeframe is six weeks, I might suggest the following training stage schedule:

Weeks 1-2: Endurance 3-4x per week
Weeks 3-4: Power 3-4x per week
Weeks 5-6: Power Endurance 3-4x per week

Always warm up with stretching and at least 10 minutes of easy bouldering!

For a more in-depth look at power, endurance, and power endurance, check out this killer blog post by Moon Climbing.

5. Cross Training

Climbing training is incredibly important for improving your ability level, but cross-training to develop specific, functional strength can do wonders for your climbing. The head coach and mastermind behind the Momentum Athlete program, Cassidy Drake, says the three most important exercises for climbing cross-training are deadlifts, push presses, and supine rows. All three activate your anterior and posterior core, engage midline stabilization, and increase shoulder and grip strength.

6. Flexibility/Mobility

No matter how strong you are, if your range of motion and flexibility are limited, you may not be able to execute the climbing movement required to complete more challenging routes. Incorporate stretches and mobility exercises before and after climbing or training, and consider dropping into a yoga class a time or two a week. Great stretches to incorporate include spinal twists, hip openers, and a variety of shoulder openers.

11 Tips for Climbing 5.11

7. Climbing Movement & Technique

Developing excellent climbing movement and technique is perhaps the most critical step of solving the crux move or complicated sequences in your project. If you focus on the efficiency of your climbing movement, you’ll have more energy and power to finish a route. If your project is overhanging, the twist-lock technique can greatly increase the amount of weight placed on your feet and the purchase you get on handholds. Climb relaxed and smoothly, focusing on moving your hips in close to the wall, finding your center of gravity, pushing with both legs, and hanging from straight arms whenever possible. Visualize the sequence of the route, and try to move your feet at least three times for every one time you move your hands. Take advantage of rest stances!

8. Find Your Style

Are you a sloper master? Can you bear down on crimps like there’s no tomorrow? Do you love steep routes? Can you float up slab or vertical walls? Do you love dynamic climbing, or static climbing? If you find a climb that inspires you and caters to your strengths, you’ll have more motivation to put work into that climb.

9. Train to your Weaknesses

However, if you’re a sloper master, putting in work on crimpy climbing would benefit you. Similarly, if you love crimping, spend some time on slopers and pinches. If you’re more of a static climber, work dynos. If you’re a dynamic climber, work balance and body positioning on vert or slab. Everyone has their preferred “style” of climbing, but you never know when a move or hold that’s the antithesis of your style might pop up on a climb. Be well rounded and ready for the challenge.

Tips for Climbing 5.11 white Tips for Climbing 5.11

10. Self Care and Rest

If you’re training hard and climbing often, you need to ensure you’re taking care of your body and allowing for plenty of recovery. Drink at least 3 liters of water a day, eat nourishing food, and get sleep– lots of it. Take at least one full rest day per week, and help your skin heal from climbing wear-and-tear with a good hand salve. Make sure you spend plenty of time warming up before you climb, and perform antagonist exercises to keep your body balanced after climbing or training. A car can’t run without good fuel and maintenance, and neither can you.

11. Headspace and PMA

PMA is an acronym for Positive Mental Attitude, a mindset centered on optimism and growth. It’s a game changer for climbing. When you climb, create a headspace where you view yourself as strong, brave, calm, and always capable of problem solving– reject self doubt, judgement, and limiting thoughts. When you fall off a climb, is your first thought something along the lines of “I suck/I’m a worthless climber”? Shutting yourself down with negative language will only impede your personal power. Monitor yourself for self-deprecating thoughts and language, and re-adjust your thought pattern to positivism and problem-solving. Try to look at weaknesses as opportunities to improve rather than insurmountable obstacles. Focus on deep, smooth, rhythmic breathing and being present in your body. A huge portion of climbing is falling and flailing. Embrace embarrassment and failure as part of the process! There are some pretty legendary works of climbing literature pertaining to the mental game like The Rock Warrior’s Way and Maximum Climbing— give them a read for some inspiration!

I’d like to leave you with an Alex Lowe quote: “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun.”

In the end it doesn’t really matter what grade you climbed. Did you have fun? Did you challenge yourself to the fullest? Did you draw strength from and encourage others in your climbing community? If you answered yes, you’ve already sent the biggest “proj” of all. Get psyched, try hard, and have fun! Venga!