Brett E. Furlonger*, Andrew Oey*, Dennis W. Moore*, Margherita Busacca* & Douglas Scott*.

*Faculty of Education, Monash University

Correspondence concerning this manuscript should be addressed to Dr. Brett Furlonger, Krongold Centre, Faculty of Education, Monash University, Clayton Campus, Melbourne, Australia 3800. Phone: + 61 3 99059173. Fax: +61 99055127. Email:

The authors state that this manuscript has not been published or submitted simultaneously for publication elsewhere.

Despite the popularity of indoor rock climbing there is little information on how amateur climbers can improve their performance. A single-case experimental design with baseline, intervention, and post intervention phases was conducted using a changing criterion design within a self-management program. Discrete exercise training and combined training methods were trialled, with the effects of both on actual rock climbing compared. All discrete exercises improved over baseline; Powerball grip 45%, open-handed pull-ups by 50% and multi-stage fitness 35%. There was, however, no observable improvement in climbing performance. In contrast combined training led to a 40% improvement in climbing performance. For amateurs wishing to improve their recreational indoor rock climbing ability, practicing the task holistically rather than by training discrete skills in isolation may prove to be more effective.

Keywords: Rock-climbing, self-management, changing criterion, recreation, sport

Interest in rock-climbing as a recreational and performance sport has increased, due in part to the proliferation of indoor climbing gyms, providing ready access to the sport unaffected by the weather (6, 7). In 2005, 6.7 million Americans participated in indoor rock climbing (55). Similarly, the number of amateur rock climbing gyms continues to increase in Australia. The dearth of research examining how indoor rock-climbing performance can be improved for the recreational rock climber is, therefore, somewhat surprising (27).

Although previous research has demonstrated that performance can be improved by showing individuals how to link their own responses to a set of consequences or outcomes (13, 23, 24), no studies have examined individual rock climbing performance using these strategies. A self-management program offers the amateur indoor rock climber a structure for self-directed learning (67). The appeal of self-management is that it is inexpensive, personally relevant, easily monitored, and more likely to promote generalization, maintenance, and independence (67). Self-management also has a lengthy history associated with behaviour change in the domains of sport (56) and exercise (33, 48), although the application of self-management strategies to indoor rock climbing has received little attention.

When individuals are able to self-direct or self-manage their own behaviour it allows them, in turn, to modify their behaviour to gain desirable outcomes (12, 14, 41, 51, 56, 67). For the purposes of this study self-management is defined as the personal application of behaviour change tactics that produce a desired change in behaviour. Crucial to self-management is goal setting, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation. Ideally, goals involve specifying a level of performance that then regulates action (22, 37, 68) by providing a reference point for mental and physical action (40). In relation to training, goal setting has been observed to be effective in helping both beginner and expert athletes achieve higher levels of performance (35, 40). Goals need to be both specific and difficult with the consequences of achieving or not meeting the goal clearly specified (64). Significantly, higher levels of commitment are observed in those individuals who are themselves involved in the process of goal setting. Kyllo and Landers (36), for example, reported large effect sizes for individuals who set their own goals (.62) or were allowed to participate in the goal setting process (.49) compared to groups who were assigned goals (.30).

From a behavioural psychology standpoint, a goal can be seen as a rule representing behaviour, initially controlled by the antecedent conditions and then maintained by its consequences (44, 64). Interestingly, it has been demonstrated that goal setting on its own is not as effective as when it is combined with feedback (17, 63). Goal setting and feedback are typically categorised as motivation. The importance of motivation is that it can be a problem for those struggling to improve performance. Rushall (58) considers that individuals are motivated if specific behaviours occur at consistently high rates with few rewards. The feedback an individual gets allows for performance correction as well as performance maintenance and improvement (52, 53, 65). Such forms of self-monitoring and self-evaluation can help prevent a loss in motivation in the individual (25). However, in the past the results from some goal setting interventions have been ambiguous as they did not include goals determined by the participant nor a sufficient number of dependent variable observations (46).

Self-monitoring has often been used in the context of improving sporting performance by using measuring performance during practice drills. Monitoring further involves documenting the frequency, duration, or intensity of a behaviour, often using a diary, logbook, or cumulative graph. Such techniques have proved to be advantageous to figure skaters (32), gymnasts (69, 9), and swimmers (56). Interestingly, it would appear that accuracy of self-monitoring is not necessary to achieve improvements in the behaviour being monitored; possibly change is a function of the act of observation itself (43).

Inherent, in the process of self-management, is the comparison made between current performance and set goals. This involves an evaluation about whether behaviour change is changing in the desired direction (49). Termed self-evaluation, this use of feedback allows the individual to correct or maintain his or her behaviour and is seen to be essential in skill development (20, 49). The evaluation data collected through observations allows decisions to be made about the individual’s self-management plan, often by examining a graph (67).

The sport of rock climbing, that is promoted in indoor climbing gyms, and which is the focus of this study, called either top-roping, or lead climbing, entails climbing by using only the body to ascend the wall by gripping onto pre-arranged holds as opposed to finding suitable holds on actual rock walls. The degree of difficulty of climbs is most commonly graded using the Ewbank System, which grades climbs based on an open ended numerical sequence; starting from 1, which could theoretically be walked rather than climbed, to grades as high as 34 (21). A climber’s physiological responses to a climb are also dependent on the climbing style that is being undertaken. For example, routes with upward or vertical displacements tend to be the most physiologically demanding; producing increased heart rate, forearm muscle exertion, and increased oxygen consumption (VO2). In comparison, routes of a horizontal displacement, known as a traverse, are less physiologically demanding (16). Equipment such as ropes, harnesses, and other forms of climbing equipment, used to protect the climber in the event of a fall, is almost identical to that used by the outdoor rock climber.

Training for rock climbing can include discrete exercises that involve a combination of muscle and grip strengthening and improved aerobic capacity, all of which are understood to facilitate endurance and accelerate recovery during and after climbs (2, 16). Specifically, the training of both crimp grips and open-handed holds has been observed to improve climbing performance (57, 60) and it has been suggested that practicing various types of grips and hand strengthening exercises can facilitate improvement in climbing performance (50). However, engaging in these forms of discrete exercises, which are devoid of any rock-climbing context, may neglect the training of other secondary factors such as a route planning (spatial awareness), confidence, and patience (1). Indeed, Bertuzzi et al. (6) found that exhaustion and movement economy appeared to be the main determinants of rock-climbing performance. In contrast, isolated tasks did not appear to simulate rock climbing technique sufficiently to have an effect on performance. For these reasons, combined holistic training may be better placed to address the development of skills that may be neglected when training focuses on discrete skills only.

Despite the absence of self-management studies conducted on indoor rock climbing, the versatility of such interventions, together with the fact that rock climbing performance can be improved by way of trainable variables (27, 61), suggests that a self-management intervention may be as efficacious for indoor-rock climbers as has been reported for other sports such as soccer, boxing, football, and swimming (e.g., 10, 38, 53, 65). Therefore, it was hypothesised that a self-management program, embedded within a changing criterion design, would improve the rock-climbing performance of a non-elite climber. Based on previous research, it was also hypothesised that a combined training approach would have a greater impact on climbing performance than would discrete exercise training.

The participant was a 20-year-old male volunteer who had been indoor rock climbing on a regular basis for two years. Despite his effort and motivation, the participant reported frustration at not being able to improve his climbing performance in the previous 12- months. He was not in a position to afford personal coaching. While the participant was assisted in the development of the self-managed intervention he managed the intervention himself. He was selected as he was close to the median age for an indoor rock climber in Australia and because males appear to predominate with respect to participation in this sport (15). He was also of average height and reach. There is conflicting evidence suggesting that taller climbers make better climbers than their shorter counterparts, and while this may seem to be the case, due in part to a longer reach, taller climbers often have compromised flexibility, and a higher centre of gravity, resulting in less balance (61, 66). Goddard and Neumann (28) describe a plethora of climbing styles that are apparent when approaching a climb, which, when discussed in the context of rock climbing physiology, make it harder to categorize the physical characteristic of good climbers. For example, climbing form must be taken into consideration when discussing what makes a better climber, as there may be climbers who utilize flexibility and limber joint movements to make an ascent, compared to climbers who rely more on strength and power (8). Prior to the study, he enjoyed recreational running, weight training, and basketball but did not engage in these activities during the course of the study. The participant gave permission to be included in the study following a physician’s examination which found that his heart rate, blood pressure, weight, and height were within normal limits. While no formal psychological tests were completed, observation of the participant during interviews and climbing activities revealed no behaviour of concern.

Part 1: Discrete exercise training
The location used for the Multi-Stage fitness test was a basketball court, with cones used as markers placed 20 metres apart. Open handed pull-ups were conducted on a raised bar at a gymnasium. Powerball training was undertaken at the participant’s home.

Design and measurement
A single-case experimental design was selected as it can demonstrate a rigorous degree of experimental control, allowing a cause and effect relationship between an intervention and behaviour change to be observed (62). Furthermore, while case histories are based on correlations among events, single-case designs ideally and systematically introduce and withdraw independent variables to study effects on behaviour (34). Single-case designs are well suited to initial pilot testing because important functional relationships between an intervention and the problem can be identified using far fewer participants. Indeed, several replicated single-case experiments can potentially establish a promising avenue for treatment, providing justification for larger and more expensive randomized control studies (5). In addition, there is some evidence that single-subject designs are well suited to assessing the effects of an intervention designed to improve athletic skills (45).

Including the changing criterion design (CCD) meant that each treatment phase was associated with a stepwise change in criterion rate for the target behaviour and was used to evaluate the effects of treatment applied in a graduated manner to a single target behaviour (13) with reinforcement delivered for meeting progressively more difficult criteria. Ideally, a return to a former phase criterion is undertaken to further demonstrate the efficacy of the intervention, and in some cases allows some degree of recovery. The effectiveness of the intervention is determined by the extent to which the participant behaviour changes to meet the changing performance criteria. A CCD was used as its effectiveness for sporting interventions has been demonstrated (4, 45). In Part 1, a baseline phase with six repeat measures was conducted for the Powerball task, two repeat measures for the multi stage endurance test, and seven repeat measures for the open-handed pull-ups. To validate observations two independent observers recorded the number of completions per training episode. A percentage agreement between the two observers was calculated by dividing the total number of agreements by the total number of disagreements plus agreements, and then multiplying by 100 (13). Inter-observer agreement was calculated for all tasks at 96% (range, 92-99%).

Tasks and Equipment
Existing literature in rock climbing training suggests that training can be conducted by isolating certain muscles that are used most frequently in climbing, and strengthening them to enable extended endurance, and accelerated recovery processes during and after climbs (2, 16). Because rock climbers often find themselves needing to grip small holds, exceptional finger strength, specifically that of the middle finger (57), is required when climbers engage in what is called the crimp grip, or open handed grip (5, 60). In relation to the top-roping style of climbing, it has been recommended that practicing various types of grips, and hand strengthening exercises, would lead to improvements in climbing performance (50).

Rock-climbing: The inner-city indoor climbing venue had a total of 28 walls up to 16 metres in height with a wide range of grades (usually from 14 – 29+).

Multi-stage fitness test: This test was developed by Leger and Lambert (39) and is designed to monitor the development of the athlete’s maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) (26). In terms of improving aerobic capacity, which is reflected by a high maximal oxygen consumption, the Multi-Stage fitness test (also known as the Leger run, beep test, or the 20-m shuttle run) is one of the ways in which improvements can be measured.

The validity of the Multi-Stage fitness test in measuring and improving maximum VO2 max in individuals has been well demonstrated (34, 11, 54). Because high level climbers require an aerobic capacity that allows for quick recovery between and during climbs, utilizing the Multi-Stage fitness test in order to improve this aspect of their fitness can be efficacious (19, 66). This test requires the athlete to run 20 metres prompted by a beep on a CD recording. The interval between each beep diminishes, compelling the participant to increase speed over the course of the test, until it is impossible to keep in sync with the recorded beeps. The test includes 23 levels where each level lasts approximately one minute. Each level comprises a series of 20 metre shuttle runs where the starting speed is 8.5km per hour, increasing by 0.5km per hour with each level. On the CD a single beep indicated the end of a shuttle run and 3 beeps indicated the start of the next level. A CD player, with a pre-recorded audio signal that played beeps at pre-set time intervals, and two coloured cones to mark distance were used for training and testing.

Powerball: One of the newer technological developments for improving forearm endurance is the Powerball also known as a Dynabee (29); a device utilizing gyroscopic technology with the primary objective of increasing grip force and muscular endurance of the forearm (3). The Powerball is the size of a tennis ball, with a plastic shell around a free-spinning mass. A person holding the device can accelerate the spinning mass to high revolution rates by moving the wrist in a circular motion. The resulting resistance builds stronger wrists and forearms.

The Powerball works when the individual oscillates his or her wrist. These oscillations facilitate gradually increasing resistance on the Powerball that is a result of centrifugal force, created by a gyroscope inside the ball. Research has shown the Powerball is highly efficient in increasing forearm endurance (3). The implications of these findings on rock climbing training is that it adds yet another dimension and method to the range of training methods already available for the climber (27).

Pull-ups: The standard pull-up has long been a staple exercise for climbers as pull-ups performed a few days a week provide a base level of “pull-muscle” strength needed for all basic climbing techniques. This exercise involves a body-weight movement where the body is suspended by the arms, the hands grip a bar, and the individual pulls the body up. The wrists remain in a neutral position, the elbows flex and the shoulders adducts and/or extends to bring the elbows to the torso. In this instance the exercise was conducted by holding a mild steel bar approximately 10cm in diameter and raised 1.8 metres above the floor of a gymnasium.

The participant took baseline measurements for the three skills self-identified as requiring improvement, followed by a baseline measure of indoor rock climbing performance. After baseline measurements were taken for all conditions, performance goals were set by the participant based on baseline performance. During the climbs, a belayer assisted in securing ropes. Assistants were also used as observers and recorders during the Multi-Stage fitness test, Powerball, and open handed pull up sessions. Each discrete skill was practiced during separate training sessions. Each week three sessions of the Multi-Stage fitness test, five sessions of open-handed pull-ups, and five sessions of Powerball were completed by the participant. At the end of each week, one climbing session was undertaken to assess the effects of discrete training on overall climbing performance.

Rock climbing performance was assessed using the points system published by Sport Climbing Australia combined with the Ewbank route grade difficulty (21). Only route grade levels from 11 (350 points or less) to 28 (1000 points or more) were included for the eight climbing routes as climbs below Grade 11 were considered too easy for competent climbers. Totals were calculated by adding points from climbs successfully completed within a 30-minute time period. The belayer assigned full route points to each successful climb, and half-points for a climb where the participant fell halfway up the route or higher. If the participant fell before 50% of the route was completed the belayer assigned no points. Prior to beginning an assessed climbing session, a 15-minute warm-up was completed, involving the participant climbing an easy route of Ewbank Grades 14 (500 points) to 16 (600 points) three times.

During the multi-stage fitness test a recording of the audio prompts was played by the participant while he completed a shuttle run between two cones placed 20 m apart. The goal was to run as many successful shuttle runs as possible, reaching the 20 m marker before a beep. The Multi-Stage fitness test concluded when the participant did not reach the marker before the beep. Averaging scores from two sessions set a baseline for the Multi-Stage fitness test. The participant increased his performance goal by 7% when he met the performance criterion twice. As with the three discrete skills, the increase in performance was based on what the participant perceived to be both a challenging and manageable level of difficulty.

For the Powerball, the goal was to use the Powerball at maximum speed created by wrist rotations for as long as possible, first on one hand and then the other. A 15% increase was selected as a target. The participant increased his performance targets by 15% when the criterion was met three successive times.

The participant’s goal for open-handed pull-ups was to hang from a bar with an open-handed grip starting from a static hanging position and to then raise his body upwards until the head was above the bar followed by a return to a static hanging position as many times as possible in one set, moving onto the next set after a one-minute rest. This manoeuvre was repeated until failure, where the head could not be raised above the bar. A baseline for open-handed pull-ups was established by calculating the average number of pull-ups per set in a week. Each time the criterion was met (three successive sessions) the goal was increased by 15%.

Part 2: Combined training
An indoor rock climbing gym that included 120 routes of varying difficulty was used, with each route differentiated by handhold colours.

A changing criterion single-case experimental design was used that also included a baseline and intervention phase.

The indoor rock-climbing walls were constructed of wood boards into which resin handholds were screwed. The boards were of varying heights and steepness and had a large variety of holds. Collectively, the walls were approximately 200 m2 in area and up to 16 m in height. Routes were up to 25 m in length. Handholds included very small crimps, slanted-surfaced slopers, and jugs, which were large and easy to hold. Equipment also included harnesses, ropes, belay devices, climbing shoes, and a chalk bag.

This part of the study was conducted over 12 weeks, consisting of 22 climbing sessions conducted after the discrete training phase (including 2 baseline measurements). Each week included two climbing sessions during which the participant would select eight routes of varying difficulty and climb them consecutively, with a mandatory pause between each route to tie out of the rope, review the next, tie back in, and resume climbing. Climbs were deemed successful when the participant reached the top of the route without falling, using a wrong rock, or resting during the route by using the rope. In this part of the study the participant re-set and announced his new goals to his belayers, friends, and family at the commencement of each new phase. Such public posting of the participant’s goals was used as an additional motivator as significant others could provide delayed feedback and there is evidence that when goals are made public there is a desire for the individual to make stated goals congruent with actual behaviour (31, 59).

The participant’s overall goal was to achieve at least a 40% improvement in total points. Increasing targets were contingent on the participant attaining the criterion twice. As in the discrete training section, performance feedback was provided by way of data collected from each climbing session. Climbing session points were recorded on a notepad by the belayer, totalled, and transferred to a spreadsheet on a computer, where they could be compared against the target criterion. The participant’s goal was to climb as many routes as possible consecutively for half an hour.

The hypothesis that a self-management program, using a changing criterion design, would improve the rock-climbing performance of a non-elite climber was confirmed. However, while overall there was a positive effect of the intervention on all discrete exercises these improvements did not transfer to overall gains in rock climbing performance. The hypothesis that a combined training approach would have a greater impact on climbing performance than would discrete exercise training was also confirmed. Overall rock climbing performance only improved following the combined training phase. In what follows, details of the effects of discrete skill training and the combined approach are presented.

Part 1: Effects of discrete skill training
Both left-handed and right-handed Powerball scores showed a 45% improvement over baseline when intervention phases and baseline were compared (Figure 1 & 2).

Figure 1 Percentage increase in performance for left-handed Powerball

Figure 2 Increase in performance for right-handed Powerball

Figure 3 shows that open-handed pull-ups improved 50% from baseline with the participant meeting criteria in the final phase.

Figure 3 Performance increase of open-handed pull-ups

Figure 4 shows the multi-stage fitness test scores improved 35% from baseline over the five intervention phases.

Figure 4 Performance improvement on multi-stage fitness test

Figure 5 shows that following discrete skill training climbing ability did not show a significant improvement over baseline.

Figure 5 Rock climbing performance before and after discrete skill training

Part 2: Combined training
The results from the combined training are summarised in Figure 6. Climbing scores showed a 40% improvement from baseline to the end of the ninth intervention phase. Performance in intervention Phase 3 was more variable. In summary, the participant’s behaviour changed each time the goal level changed.

Figure 6 Combined training and rock climbing performance increase

The effectiveness of the self-management program on the rock-climbing ability of the amateur climber was positive. As predicted the combined training approach had a greater impact on climbing performance than did discrete exercise training. The results from the present study supports previous research that found self-management programs to be effective in producing desired behaviour change (12, 14, 41, 51, 56, 67). In behavioural sports psychology terms, the criterion levels included in the goal setting process may have functioned as a motivating operation that boosted the reinforcing value of the participant’s goal achievement (47, 49). They may, as Malott (42) has argued, have acted as a rule governing behaviour, creating an aversive consequence that was escaped by engaging in the activity. In other words, the participant may have attempted to avoid the aversive situation of not succeeding by completing a goal.

The use of a single-case design allowed the participant to serve as his own control, it also allowed him to evaluate discrete and combined skills, and allowed the selection of behaviours that were significant in the context of his sporting endeavour, thereby increasing commitment. In this way problems found in other studies, in which a limited number of observations of the dependent variable led to conclusions based on a non-representative sample of observations, was avoided (46).

Importantly, the present research has provided guidance for amateur rock-climbers on how they can monitor their performance, an important contribution as previous research on rock-climbing has focussed on the physiological and anthropometric determinants of elite rock climbers (61). Such practicalities are important to the recreational climber with limited access to highly specialised and expensive laboratory equipment. For adults wishing to improve their recreational indoor rock climbing ability practicing the task holistically rather than by training discrete rock climbing skills in isolation may prove to be more effective. This finding is in line with previous studies that demonstrated that the training of isolated component skills did not simulate actual rock-climbing (7). Indeed, Bertuzzi et al. (7) observed that a longer time spent training discrete climbing skills did not improve climbing performance.

Informing friends and family about goals appeared to have played a role. It is relevant to highlight the practical value of such a seemingly minor influence, as it is simple and inexpensive to include in any behaviour change program. Indeed, smart phone apps enable fitness activities and results to be digitally uploaded and easily shared with friends and family. The relative contribution of public goals to performance and achievement could be investigated in following studies by comparing results between clients who publicize their goals and those who keep them private.

Several considerations are relevant in the extrapolation of these findings to other situations. First, as this is a study with a single participant, caution must be exercised with regard to generalisation. For example, it is not known if this intervention would have had similar effects on individuals who did not already have high levels of fitness or were much younger or older participants. To address this issue future studies may consider using a multiple baseline design across participants (13). Second a form of verification known as a reversed criterion where the participant returns to a former criterion would have strengthened the demonstration of an experimental effect, and finally, the possibility of an order effect cannot be eliminated.

The results from the present study indicated that self-management was an effective technique to increase the participant’s indoor rock climbing performance and that employing performance contingencies to improve ability was more useful than relying on his previous strategy of train and hope.

This study was written with the amateur rock climber in mind. While it may seem unusual to attempt to improve performance without a coach, self-management provided a structure for self-directed learning when coaching was unavailable. The simplicity of the measurement procedures and single-case design enabled easy monitoring of progress and performance by the amateur sports person and provided further evidence of the applicability of self-management programs in amateur sport. The appeal of self-management is its inexpensiveness and personal relevance.

We thank the Melbourne indoor climbing community for their assistance in this project. There were no conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise during or after the research was completed.

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Figure 1 Percentage increase in performance for left-handed Powerball
Figure 2. Increase in performance for right-handed Powerball
Figure 3. Performance increase of open-handed pull-ups
Figure 4. Performance improvement on multi-stage fitness test
Figure 5. Rock climbing performance before and after discrete skill training
Figure 6. Combined training and rock climbing performance increase

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