Base Fitness

The Rock Climber’s Training Manual is now available order yours here!

Long endurance climbs , like those at Maple Canyon, require a high level of Base Fitness. Steve Bechtel on Toxic Turkey, 5.13c.

Long endurance climbs , like those at Maple Canyon, require a high level of Base Fitness. Steve Bechtel on Toxic Turkey (5.13c), Maple Canyon, UT. ©Janelle Anderson

In nearly every sport, athletes begin their training by establishing a training foundation, which gradually prepares the body for the work to follow in the coming training phases. This base-building phase provides a transition between the active rest period and more intense training activities by gradually exposing the body to a moderate version of the training stress to come. In climbing, this is generally accomplished by climbing at low intensity and long duration, and is often described as “climbing mileage,” that is, racking up thousands of vertical feet of climbing. With the critical role that technical skill plays in climbing, these sessions have the added importance of providing an opportunity to learn and refine technique. For grade-obsessed sport climbers, these training sessions also provide an excuse to broaden one’s horizons on invigorating, lengthier, moderate climbs.

The Maximum Steady State

The highest level of intensity at which a muscle can continue to function aerobically, and thus, indefinitely, is called the Maximum Steady State (MSS; aka aerobic threshold, anaerobic threshold, or lactic threshold). Climbing at an intensity level above the MSS relies sufficiently on anaerobic respiration (glycolytic and/or phosphagen) that such effort becomes unsustainable, ultimately resulting in fatigue and eventual muscle failure. In endurance sports, it is often said that the MSS is the singlemost important determinant of performance, and so the majority of training activities are geared toward improving it.

Aerobic Restoration and Capillarity Training

Moderate traversing in the gym is a great way to perform Base Fitness Training.

Moderate traversing in the gym is a great way to perform Base Fitness Training. ©Frederik Marmsater

For rock climbing, the most practical method for raising the MSS is “aerobic respiration and capillarity” (ARC) training. This consists of climbing for long, sustained periods as close as possible to the MSS. This is best performed by climbing on vertical to slightly overhanging terrain that places a steady load on the forearms so that a moderate, but sustainable pump ensues for upwards of 30 minutes. (Interval training is also beneficial for improving endurance, and is discussed on the Power-Endurance page.) In climbing, ARC training is used to:

• Develop a foundation of muscular fitness to prepare for more-intense training
• Improve local forearm capillarity for improved aerobic energy metabolism
• Improve grip control (to prevent “over-gripping”) and pump-management skills
• Aid recovery from intense training and performance efforts
• Acquire and practice new movement skills and techniques

Because of the moderate intensity, ARC training gradually develops muscular fitness in all of the prime movers needed for climbing. This provides a gradual introduction to the more-intense activities that will be introduced later in the training cycle, stimulating modest adaptations to prepare the body for the upcoming additional stress. More importantly, this training establishes the base level of fitness that each climbing performance relies on, and off which other performance characteristics (strength, power, and power-endurance) build. Therefore, Base-Fitness training is an integral part of any training program.

Learn more in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. Base Fitness topics include:
• Comprehensive explanation of muscle function
• The cause of muscle fatigue in climbing
• How muscle attributes and the forearm pump inform our training
• The goals and benefits of ARC Training
• How to properly perform ARC Training
• How to utilize Outdoor Mileage Training
• How to incorporate Skill Practice into Base Fitness Training Sessions
• How to schedule Base Fitness Training into a comprehensive training program Articles related to Base Fitness Training:

  • Spice Up Your ARC Routine    “ARC” is short for Aerobic Restoration & Capillarity training.  This training method was first described in the legendary Performance Rock Climbing.    If you are unfamiliar with ARC training, you can get the rundown here.  Many climbing periodization plans call for massive amounts of this training; as much as 90+ minutes per workout, with several workouts per week for several weeks.  Considering the long, repetitive sessions coupled with relatively low intensity, its pretty much certain these workouts will become stale sooner or later.  Read more…
  • Training Intensity  …AKA “ARCing”, the earmark of this training is its LOW intensity.  Sounds simple, but this can be one of the most difficult to gauge correctly.  Even if you find the right intensity, it can be difficult to keep it up for the long set lengths involved (routinely greater than 30 minutes).  The danger of too much intensity is that the effort will become anaerobic, theoretically producing different results than those desired.  In my experience most climbers err on the side of too little intensity and I think this is a mistake.  These workouts should not be effortless; try to push yourself by climbing on steeper terrain or avoiding the best holds.  Avoid vertical (or slabby) terrain and any hands-free rest stances.  Read more…

If you have questions or comments about Base Fitness Training, please post them on the RCTM Forum.  We will try to respond as soon as possible.


20 thoughts on “Base Fitness

  1. Pingback: When are your ARC Days? | eeebahtoehey

  2. In an ARC session that involves 2 or more sets, is there a recommended amount of rest time between the sets? Does it depend on the length of sets? So 2 x 20 min would involves less rest between sets than 2 x 35 min? Thank you!


    • J, I usually rest for 5-10 minutes
      Just enough to take my shoes off, get some water and relax a bit, but not so long that I lose my warmup or completely depump. I don’t vary the rest period based on set length.


  3. Pingback: The Season Begins

  4. Pingback: Training Gains – A Female Climber Perspective – The RV Project

  5. Pingback: Designing a Home Training Wall | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

  6. Pingback: Training Plan – Cannon Climbing Beta

  7. Is there a way to do arc training at a bouldering gym without a system wall? Will linking together a bunch of problems net the same effect? It would be difficult to traverse the gym considering how busy it is all the time. However, linking a bunch of problems seems more probable.


    • John,

      I wouldn’t exactly call it “ARC training”, but when I want to train Base Fitness at a bouldering gym/area, I do what I call “Volume Bouldering”: Climb a bunch of problems back to back with essentially no rest for a period of 20 minutes (per set). The problems need to be easy enough that you can climb them without accumulating much of a pump, and it helps to downclimb whenever possible (to keep the duty cycle high).


  8. Is it better to have sustained movement at an easier grade or climb a harder grade but shake out on a jug for 10-20seconds every couple laps on a 35ftwall?


    • It depends on your goals and where you are as a climber. For technical training, I think it’s better to keep moving. I’m more interested in physical training than movement practice, so I prefer to use a steeper wall and shake as needed.


  9. Pingback: Training Takeover: 8-Weeks to Rock Prodigy Status | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

  10. Pingback: J'ai essayé l'ARC Training - Délire Escalade

  11. Pingback: 30 minute Rock Climbing Workouts at Home for WOMEN – One Square Mile

  12. Just started the Arcing base fitness phase with a buddy. After each set of ARCs we do either a core workout or upper body workout. We were wondering if it was beneficial to be doing these strength workouts following the ARC exercises or if we should hold off on these until later, when we reach the strength phase.


  13. Pingback: Improve your Climbing Endurance: A Guide to ARC Training - Senderella Story

  14. I only have access to a local Tread Wall that is overhanging slightly and my level is still that this produces a severe pump after only 10 minutes, which I know isn’t the goal with ARCing.

    It may not be as optimal but I was thinking of doing 2 minutes on, 1 min rest x 20 which would still give me the total volume of the beginner ARC routine recommended in the book.

    Am I thinking right here or is there a better way to skin this cat? Thanks.


    • I think that’s ok. It’s always better to do something than nothing; try to do the best you can with the tools you have. That said, I would try to build up to longer and longer sets (without becoming insanely pumped). So if 10 minutes gives a sever pump, maybe strive for 5 minutes, then rest, repeat. Build that up as your endurance improves.


  15. Pingback: How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 3) | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s