Steve McClure training


Monday, 19 October

Repertoire of Engrams by Steve McClure who was appointed 35+ 8a climber of the year in 2008 and who in the yearbook of 2007 contributed with a a training article. Steve has been a coach and a trainer for 15 years and he has put up numouros of 9a and 9a+'s. he has more than 100 published articles in the UK media. He is known as a humble and down to earth person in the game.

The Postage Stamp Rule.

To quote a famous training guru, “The key to most people’s improvement in climbing, particularly on real rock, can be written on the back of a postage stamp – ‘climb more’!”.

For many people this is probably true. Indoor climbing makes us fitter and stronger but does not develop the problem solving skills that ‘real’ rock demands. Following a line of blue blobs is considerably different to a heavily featured limestone wall where there may be hundreds of options for each move. Most people, quite literally ‘need to get out more’!



When we make a movement or series of movements the brain attempts to remember what happened. If the movements are repeated then the specific patterns of nerve impulses become stored in the brain as a ‘motor engram’. When faced with familiar situations the brain instantly recognises what needs to be done and executes the task without conscious interruption. A classic example is how driving a car becomes easy after a few months relative to how impossible it feels at first. The advantage of using engrams is that the brain does not have to think about the problem, it just does it! Each facet of climbing will induce a set of engrams into the brain. Indoor climbing, tufas, roofs, slabs, each style has distinctly different types of move. Obviously there are similarities between styles; a rockover on a blue blob indoors is similar to a rockover on a smear outside. However, the key is in the brain recognising the situation, a smear will feel very different to a blob inducing a whole host of conscious thoughts. There is considerable merit in practicing climbing movement indoors but without climbing outside the volume of engrams will be extremely limited.

Acquiring Engrams

Most people assume that a failed on-sight attempt was due to lack of strength or endurance. However, a limited engram repertoire is often one of the major issues. Difficult sections often confuse the climber, they don’t recognise what to do and as a result a lot of time is wasted trying to work it out. Having fallen off, worked out what to do, tried it a few times and then attempted the route again later, it’s often amazing how easy it has become. One option for improving is to become so fit and strong that you can figure out anything thrown at you, the other is to eliminate having to figure it out! When acquiring engrams there are a number of considerations;

  • Don’t try desperate climbs. As things approach our limit we can only rely on the most engrained movements and nothing new will be learned.
  • Safe environment. As above, if you are scared you will only rely on what you know works for sure!
  • Learn when fresh. As fatigue increases, coordination goes out the window resulting in learning nothing new, or worse, learning to move inefficiently.

Solidifying Engrams - Intermediate

For those relatively new to climbing or mainly experienced indoors, a large part of the ‘training year’ should consist of simply climbing, and climbing at a level that is neither physically or mentally demanding. Summer is the ideal time, its warm and comfortable. A foreign trip early in the year is fantastic for getting the brain in gear, particularly a sunny sport destination, as loads of ground can be covered. However, don’t be tempted to ‘make the most of your trip’ by jumping straight on a red-point project! Even those that have been climbing a long time may have an extremely limited repertoire of engrams because they are always chasing numbers and spend their entire time hanging on the first bolt of a ‘far too hard for them’ route. One route per trip may seem enough with absolutely no mileage whatsoever!

During the winter months travelling to different walls will introduce new styles and prevent boredom setting in, as well as feeling like a ‘new crag’! For your local wall, once all the routes within your comfort zone have been completed, the difficulty should be increased and the emphasis focused on stress proofing, both under fatigue and fear as described below.

Solidifying Engrams - Advanced

For those already possessing a reasonable repertoire of engrams, the problem is often executing them under stressful situations. Examples could be when in danger, when being observed or when fatigued. Practice makes perfect. Sports requiring specific routines such as gymnastics, red-pointing and head-pointing necessitate considerable ‘stress proofing’ to ensure the exercise is completely engrained.

  • Fear. For many climbers fear is not a result of ‘danger’ but often occurs the second a bolt is passed. Legs start shaking and technique disappears. On a top rope it would have probably felt easy. We require an altered engram that includes the element of stress. A good method is to indulge in a little sport redpointing. Practice a route on top rope until you are confident you can do it, and then lead it. Concentration will be on the climbing as opposed to fear, though you will be aware of difficult movement above protection. Engrams will become stress proofed. Ensure that it’s a safe route (no ledges, bad swings, you have a good belayer etc) and remember this fact when climbing.
  • Fatigue. Difficult climbing requires our technique to remain solid under conditions of extreme fatigue. For training purposes attempt 3 – 4 laps on a route you know well and can usually get up. It should be pumpy but not with very complex or bouldery sections. As you tire the moves become more familiar and are executed more efficiently. Stop if suddenly your climbing turns rubbish – you are over fatigued!
  • Danger. Many of the dangerous routes on British Gritstone were practiced extensively on a toprope prior to the eventual lead. Though being on the sharp end may feel very different, the moves are so wired that they have become relatively easy.

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