Lots of people want to “get better at climbing.” However, since climbing is so varied in it’s disciplines and nuances, “getting better at climbing” has a variety of interpretations. When someone say “climbing” he or she may mean sport climbing, bouldering, trad climbing or, believe it or not, even ice climbing or mountaineering. However, it is usually the case that the person is talking about her specific, chosen sub-genre within climbing. And this does make sense - a boulderer is not going to have mountaineering in mind when thinking about his or her own climbing progression. But how much specialization is appropriate? Can a climber become over-specialized? To what degree is branching out in climbing helpful? These are ultimately questions each climber must answer for herself, but consider the following as food for thought.
There are a number of benefits from specialization within the world of climbing, but perhaps the key benefit is dialing in technique and tactics so as to ultimately reach peak performance. If you want to become the best boulderer you can be, it makes sense that you spend a great deal of time bouldering. Your body and mind will adapt to the specific demands of the chosen discipline and you will more fully develop the requisite skills and energy stores for your chosen discipline (power versus endurance, for instance). Over the course of time focusing on one type of climbing, you will learn specialized tactics that enable you to do better in that discipline. These improvements in specialized strength, technique, and tactics go far beyond the general categories of bouldering, sport climbing, etc. Really honing in on a specific climbing project will make you better at compression boulder problems or pumpy resistance routes or fill in the blank. This is why going back to “take a quick lap” on an old project (unless you’ve become a dramatically better climber) can be a rude awakening - your body and mind have moved on from the hyper-specialized state needed to do that rock climb. But for that moment in time when the body and mind are honed in on sending the climb in question, it is truly amazing to see what all the hard work of specialization can produce.
The primary argument against specialization in climbing is also an argument for skill development. Climbing outside of one’s chosen sub-genre will open the climber up to strengths, techniques, and tactics that he or she would not have otherwise encountered. The devoted sport climber may not have much to learn from mountaineering, but there are other disciplines (such as bouldering and trad climbing) which are closer along the spectrum of skill and energy demands. A sport climber will do very well to have the mental and physical ability to bust out a hard boulder problem mid-route, and she will also benefit from being able to find a good hand jam rest or being able to climb confidently well above her protection (both skills developed in trad climbing). Conversely, it is way too common to see a climber of one stripe or another get completely shut down by a technique and/or strength requirement that is slightly outside of his tiny wheelhouse. The Renaissance Man of rock climbing often wins the day.
So, what’s the answer - to specialize or not to specialize? How do you want to develop your toolbox - deep or wide? My own opinion is that there is a time and a place for both. For the beginner climber, garnering as much variety in the wide world of climbing as possible will serve that climber well as she will develop a variety of skills and experiences that will undoubtedly serve her well down the road. Avoiding specialization during the first several years of consistent climbing will also enable the climber to give each type of climbing a fair shot as she considers how she may focus her time in the future. This practice will be hard to follow as the ego will quickly beckon you to the climbs that make you look and feel good, but avoiding specialization early on will pay dividends in the future. For the advanced climber, pushing into the next level of performance will likely require a greater level of specialization. Achieving your absolute hardest route or boulder problem will not happen by spending each weekend engaged in a different, unrelated type of climbing. Finally, the plateaued or soon-to-be-burnt-out climber can absolutely benefit from the change of pace that comes with getting into a new type of climbing. Many climbers have attested to the refreshment and spark they find in being a beginner again after having spent so much time trying to eek out just a little more performance in their specialized climbing discipline. So, in the end, it depends on you. Make the honest self-assessment of where you are in your climbing and what goals you wish to achieve, then find the path that’s most likely to get you there. And, ultimately, have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously - after all, we’re just climbing tiny rocks in a giant universe!
-- Jonathan Carter, Head Coach