How to Train for Steep Ice and Mixed Climbing

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Training for winter climbing has followed the same trajectory as training for rock in the sense that it has now become a highly specialised game. The approach for competitions is different to the approach for dry-tooling at the crag, which in turn differs from the way you'd train for a combination of steep ice and mixed climbing. There are lots of conflicting opinions out there but one thing's for sure: You always learn when you talk directly to good climbers and ask them, in simple terms, what they do. I thought I'd do exactly that for steep ice and mixed, and so I've put two of the world's best in the hot seat.

Britain's Tim Emmett and Slovenia's Klemen Premrl require little introduction, and they are perhaps best known for their futuristic and inspirational routes at Helmcken Falls in Canada. Routes such as Spray-on... Top! (WI10, M9+, 230m), their full-height, 7-pitch routes at this crag, is one of the most demanding undertakings of its kind on the planet. Both climbers also have a pedigree in competition climbing--Emmett reached the podium in the IWC in 2000 and 20001 and Premrl has been in the final many times, with a best result of fifth in 2003. At the crag, Premrl has flashed up to M13 and M14 after work and Emmett has flashed up to M11. I caught up with these guys whilst paying homage to Helmcken during a recent trip, which I trained extensively for yet was still blown away by the level of physicality that's required just to climb one pitch. This in turn sparked my intrigue as to how these guys prepare. [Interview conducted spring 2023]


Gresham: What's your overall approach to the year's training?

Emmett: I don't train for winter all year round as I'm pretty focused on rock for most of the year. This year I started training for Helmcken after getting back from Spain in November. It's a fairly short period to prepare but the advantage is that it's easier to get psyched for and all my rock training feeds into it, so I'm in good shape as a starting point. I try to maintain my finger strength whilst training for winter, so I start sessions with hangboarding. This means the sessions are quite long, but this is only for a fairly short period. Objectives are really important to find the motivation to train when you may not feel like it. The longest prep period for me was 10 weeks and this was for Mission for Mars (WI13) in 2019. We had a major objective and knew we wanted to do something longer, harder, and steeper than what we'd done before, so this really provided focus and energy for the training.

Premrl: I don't train for winter all year round either, but I start earlier than Tim, usually in September, and it overlaps with the end of the sport climbing season. Then when a trip gets close, I stop hangboarding and rock climbing and just focus the last six weeks on tool training. If you're doing the World Cup circuit, you may need to train all year round but, for me, it makes sense to phase it because I don't have the motivation. I'd still say that 70% of the tooling training I do is outside, but I do this from November on. It would just feel weird for me to be out on a tooling crag in the Summer with a T-shirt and a chalk bag!

Gresham: Talk to me about how you train for power and strength..

Premrl: Usually, in October, I focus on strength and power work, which involves one-arm max-hangs on tools. I train with 40-kg added weight, but clearly you need to tailor this to your level and take care of your shoulders when doing these. I also do max two-arm pull-ups and one-arm lock-offs. I hold lock-offs for 5 to 12 seconds at 120 degrees and 90 degrees, but not full-lock (with arm fully bent/closed) as this is stressful for the elbows (I train with 5- to 10-kg added weight for these).

The training then moves more towards board problems with tools, which involve very hard moves with a weight vest. I use a 45-degree board, as it's harder than a roof because you have to gain height and you lock-off more, whereas with a roof you can just hang. I do four different system-style problems, each which involves making a big move, lowering back down in control and repeating the move 3 times in a row for one arm and then swapping and doing the same for the other arm. The first is a one-foot-on problem, where I pull-up then reach as high as possible; the second is an under-cling move; the third is a big diagonal, side-ways move; and the fourth involves figure-4s. I work on these individually and then the goal in the next month is to link them all together in a fierce power-endurance circuit.

I also do some specific training where I try to identify which moves cause me to fail when I'm on a route and then focus on these in training; for example, big wide crucifix moves where you have to release your feet and swing and absorb the force in your arm.

Emmett: Similar for me, really. I also did two-arm max pull-ups and weighted one-arm hangs, but my board isn't set up for hard axe problems so instead, for power, I campus on tools with a weight-vest. I've screwed a load of metal O-rings into my campus board and they require real accuracy and strength. I usually try to do up to 12 moves in one hit. Klem and I sometimes set fun training challenges for each other, which is great for motivation, seeing as we rarely get to train together in person, although sometimes we get a bit competitive and things can go crazy. There was one time when I may have added slightly too much weight and got completely shut down!

Gresham: Same question for training endurance.

Premrl: When I'm short on time, I just do one-arm hang intervals on tools for 20 seconds-on, 10-seconds-off 10 times, then switch hands. I do this three or four times total with no additional rest--you rest one hand when training the other (when I'm in good shape I use a 5- to-7-kg weight vest on some sets). When I have more time I go out and climb routes that I know on a local tooling crag but you have to set rules to make it harder. I do sessions on a M13 where I start off climbing it once-at-a-time (as one rep) and I do 3 to 4 reps with a 20-minute rest in between. Then, as I gain endurance, I would try to do 2 of those reps with 5- to 7-kg weight vest. I also train on an M10 where I climb up it and back down--2 to 4 times up and down with a 5- to 7-kg weight vest is one rep, and I do 3 to 4 reps with a 20 min rest in between. The key point is that I don't allow myself to shake mid-route (I'm only allowed to shake on top and bottom of the route). I also ban matching hands and I cross through instead. This gets you so much more pumped and prepares you for sections of super hard routes, where shaking out isn't possible.

I've drilled pockets in my board at 20-cm intervals and I climb up, down and around on these, skipping alternates, so it's like doing offset pull-ups and lock-off training for endurance. I either go up-&-down footless with lock-offs (and I do this with a 5-kg vest when in shape for power endurance) then I take a rest on the ground and repeat four times. For 'long endurance' I go up-&-down many times using feet, then take a longer rest and repeat. You have to pace yourself and not always go for the best performance in one go. If you do one massive burn you will be so pumped that you destroy the session.

It’s important to change the style and occasionally I climb with figure-4s, but mostly I favour 'DTS' - (dry tooling style with no figure-4s). I also switch between a style where you swing more and a more static style without swinging. This is always a much harder workout, especially for the core and you also become more aware of where you need to place your feet to prevent the swing and to push you to the next hold. For me, cutting loose is too easy!

Overall I think it's good training in the sense that it prepares you physically, however, I'm slightly skeptical as it doesn't always feel specific enough to real climbing because I don't use bad hooks. In theory you could do this but in reality it isn't very practical as you'll end up firing off the board a lot. I guess to take things further I'd start trying to train this way.

Emmett: I'm a bit more limited with my training facilities as I don't have a decent tooling crag nearby or a large board, so I have to make do with a small campus set up at home. For endurance I do foot-on circuits wearing trainers with my feet on bad foot-holds. The help you get from your feet is minimal and just enough to help you stay on for longer periods. For the tool placements, in addition to the metal O-rings, I use drilled-out wooden holds because they require less accuracy, meaning you can keep going for longer. I usually start off like this, to build a base and then once I can do several stints of 10-minutes fairly comfortably, I step it up and try to do figure-4s. I allow myself to flat-smear with my feet but I don't use the footholds. I've never managed 10 minutes of this--the best I've done is 9! I don't really train static stuff as my climbing style is more about cutting loose and swinging but I certainly see the value in it. I also do one-arm repeaters like Klem.

Gresham: Do you do strength conditioning with weights and or TRX?

Premrl: For me, TRX is the way to go for strength conditioning. When you're short on time and can only train, say two hours on alternate days, then TRX gives you everything you need. The training is much more specific to climbing than weights and I always use this as a guiding philosophy. For maximum value I have the handles running through a pulley, which means you have to be extra controlled and balanced.

Emmett: I don't do TRX or weights but I know I should! I do a load of bodyweight stuff, such as press-ups, hanging core exercises, wind-screen wipers, alternate front levers, leg-raises.

Gresham: And do you do any supportive cardio work?

Emmett: If I'm training for any route which is endurance-based (rock or winter) then having a decent cardio base is very important. Some of the long pitches I've climbed have taken an hour (such as Interstellar Spice, which is 85 metres and with poor rests) and supportive cardio work really helps me to recover. I run two to three times a week (or up to four) for 30 to 40 mins at a steady speed. I've tried intervals but don't think it's the way forward and only tend to do this for climbing-based training. I did do a phase when I pushed the running harder, but it was detrimental. If I stay in zone 1, it doesn't exhaust me for climbing sessions. Easy runs on rest days are also good for mental health and general well-being. I stress that this approach is for steep ice and mixed, but when I went to the Himalayas it was much more about leg work.

Premrl: For walking into ice routes you need to be cardiovascularly fit, but I've never fallen off any mixed route because I was out of breath. Presuming that every athlete should do cardio to be fit, I'm pretty sure that for hard mixed it doesn't have a big impact. I do uphill running because I like it (and it may help for summer alpine and the Dolomites) but it would be the first thing that I'd cut out or my training if I was short on time. In fact, recently I did cut it out because I was busy with work and it wasn't a big deal because I have a decent base. If you're training for power you should certainly reduce the amount or cardio that you do.

Gresham: Do you work on flexibility?

Premrl: I think flexibility is less important in ice/mixed than in sport climbing but it's still important. When it's steep and the footholds are bad you have to put your feet really high and this requires hip flexibility. I stretch my shoulders statically after a hard training session on tools to maintain functional mobility.

Emmett: Bridging between icicles is a brilliant way to get rests, so it's helpful to work on hip flexibility for that, but for general movement I don't find it's useful. After sessions it's important to stretch the bicep with a straight arm and your palm against the wall as your biceps get used so much.

Gresham: And what about injury prevention?

Emmett: For me the staples for injury prevention are push-ups, offset push-ups, and powerfingers (forearm extensions with an elastic trainer gadget), and this combination has really sorted my elbows out. Also forearms and shoulder stretches too.

Premrl: I try to warm up with a Theraband and work on my rotator cuff doing both internal & external rotation. On one hand, TRX can be great for antagonist work, but it can also be stressful for shoulders, so it's important to use good form and build up gradually.

Gresham: Tell me about the future of training facilities.

Premrl and Emmett: No doubt there's scope for taking things way further. Imagine an angle-adjustable board, like a Kilterboard for mixed training! You could tilt it over to the point when your tools started to rip because the placements became too sloping and you then tilt it back to work on endurance.

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