What do i do now?! Structuring your sessions

We’ve all arrived at the wall or the crag, chomping at the bit and desperate to get on that climb we saw last time. Perhaps you’ve been guilty – as i have – of jumping on that project straight away. But is this a productive way to set out your session?

Chances are, getting on the tough stuff immediately won’t result in a very good session. Flash pump or even injury can easily occur when you’re not primed and ready. So how do we get ready exactly?

To be honest, most climbers do indeed structure their sessions, even if nor formally. People often start on easier climbs to warm up and increasingly, you can see people at the gym with stretchy bands, skipping ropes or even running round in circles. Warm ups are indeed becoming commonplace but even then, are they really doing what they should be doing?

In this piece, i will go through structuring your entire session, right from the word go. And that actually starts long before you get to the wall…

The Pre-Session Session: Pre-Climbing

I’m not going to discuss this very much here, as it’s something that’s covered in much more depth in this article. Suffice it to say that considering getting yourself in the right frame of mind before you get to the crag or gym can make a massive difference.

Nevertheless, we’re going to focus on how we structure our session once we get to our climbing destination.

The Basic Structure of Any Session

It’s all based on the relationship between the intensity of the exercise and the time since you started.

We’re going to break our session into four different sections:

  1. The Warm Up. The getting ready part of the session. Whether you do any sort of formal warm up or not, you’re going through this process by getting your blood flowing through the body, increasing mobilisation and getting your head in the game
  2. The Learning Window. We’ll explain this a lot more later but these are the climbs that are now challenging enough that they’re making you work and think but still easy enough that your attention isn’t drawn elsewhere, such as clinging to the holds or being scared
  3. The Main. This is the bit in the middle of the session that for most of us, is where all the fun is had
  4. The Options Section. Ideally, once we’re too tired to keep fighting it out in the Main part of our session, we want to wind it down somehow

Each section has a different level of intensity. Best way to explain it is with a graph:

So basically, we start easy, slowly crank up the difficulty until we’re trying the really hard stuff and then ideally, wind it back down again.

Each of these sections then presents us with some opportunities too.

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Session Goal

Real quick, before we get going, let’s have an idea of what our goal is for this individual session. This may be specific (like a project, competition or some fingerboarding) or it may be more vague (mileage, being sociable, even “I don’t know”). There are no right and wrong answers here, we simply need a focus for the session.

  • Specific goals need to go in the middle, irrespective of what they are
  • Vague goals will lower the peak of the curve meaning we won’t go as intense as we possible could
  • Lowering the peak of the curve will extend the duration of the session

Think of the curve as a piece of rope, a finite amount of energy we have. We can have a short, steep curve for high intenstiy sessions or a long, shallow one for low intensity sessions. Neither are wrong but it requires a choice; a choice best made before you start climbing.

The Warm Up

We always warm up one way or another. It’s just that some of us do it better than others. It’s a bit like acceleration in your car: doesn’t matter what your 0-60 time is, you’re still starting from nothing and moving upwards.

So what’s the plan here? Plenty of people know “the importance of warming up” but do they actually know how they’re best applying it?

There are basically three parts to a warm up:

  • Pulse raising, getting the blood flowing, getting literally warm. When you feel like you want to remove a layer, you’ve covered this one
  • Mobilisation, getting the joints moving, letting the muscles get stretchy. When you feel like you’ve got a full range of motion, you’ve covered this one too
  • Mental prep, getting your head in the game, preparing for the specific challenge at hand. When you feel focused on your climbing and can move smoothly, you’ve covered the last part

There’s much more to it than that but in the interests of keeping things nice and simple, that will give you a solid starting point.

There is one part in there that I do want to highlight for the purposes of this discussion though: preparing for the SPECIFIC challenge at hand. Yes, warm ups can be very generic but when you’re conducting your warm up, keep one eye on what you’re going to be doing in the Main later. Then match your warm up to your Main.

For outdoor sessions, walking in can often form part of our warm up

The Learning Window

The bulk of my coaching sessions happens during this crucial time: The Learning Window.

These are the climbs that are challenging enough that they require some effort but are also easy enough that you still have some headspace to be able to think.

You can consider it this way: the brain is a muscle that requires energy to function properly, just like your biceps, triceps, etc. If you’re spending your energy in your forearms, you haven’t got enough spare to process information. It doesn’t quite work this way but this does provide a reasonable analogy.

While for many the Learning Window is a time you want to power through, it presents us with a golden opportunity to get better. This is the part of your session that has all your drills and exercises that require thought and finesse. It’s a great time to repeat climbs and get them just right and to really refine movement skills.

The Learning Window presents us with extra Brain Space to better process information

Peaking at the Right Time

During the Main part of our session, we’re going all in to try and climb the hardest we can. I call this the Main part of the session and crucially, whatever we have gone to the wall to do goes in here. So if you’ve got a project to try, try it in the Main. If you want to train on a campus or fingerboard, that goes in the Main; don’t leave it until the end! [Note: there is a comment on training power specifically at the bottom of the page]

This can have whatever focus we wish but for most climbers looking to push themselves, this is usually their project climb. Again, the key is to have this in mind before warming up, such that we can match the warm up to the project.

The key here is that all of the drills and learning we’ve done before no longer matters during this phase. This is the try hard part of the session and anything goes. It’s all about getting up the climb, regardless of how that happens.

Over time, you’ll find that the drills you’ve been putting in the Learning Window eventually filter through to this section of your session. That can actually become the acid test as to their efficacy. But while the Learning Window is us working our weaknesses, this is us playing to our strengths.

The Main is where we go all-in, where all of our attention is on what we’re doing. It is where all of our energy is being spent on Doing and not preparing or learning

Winding it Down

Quite often, once people have become too tired to keep competing on their project, they call it a day and go home. However, much like with the Learning Window, they’re missing a trick.

This is another golden opportunity to develop ourselves both physically and technically. Crucially, notice how we are gradually decreasing the intensity in climbing. This means we’re progressively making it easier, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

This can lead to several key gains. By continuing to climb, we’re pushing the fatigue that our body is subjected to even further. Be careful though as this leads to increased threat of injury and can require more recovery afterwards.

In terms of technical skills, we can make gains here too. Once fatigue sets in, our form drops too so this period of tiredness can be a good time to concentrate not only on keeping moving but also moving really well.

However, remember this is the Options section and if you can choose “Recovery” and stop. There are many reasons why you may wish to do this including to be cautious about injury or as part of a specific power-training phase. My only comment to those that take this approach is to ask if this choice has been made tactically. If the choice to stop is because it is the best option, that is a sensible choice.

The Options section can be a good opportunity to develop aspects such as our mental resilience, our endurance or our technique under stress

Some Additional Notes


Really quickly, the graph above shows each of these sections are roughly even but that needn’t necessarily be the case. If you’ve not gone through this process before, keeping them to roughly thirds of your session works well (Warm Up and Learning Window combining for one third of your session).

Notice how none of this gives any actual times. How long each section lasts depends entirely on how long you’re at the wall. If you’ve got a three-hour session, you might want to spend about an hour on each one. If you’ve only got an hour, spending twenty minutes on each will suffice.

Notice how none of this gives any actual times. How long each section lasts depends entirely on how long you’re at the wall. If you’ve got a three-hour session, you might want to spend about an hour on each one. If you’ve only got an hour, spending twenty minutes on each will suffice.

Crucially though, it depends on how you feel. As you repeat this process, listen to your body. Some days you’ll need very little warm up, others you might need longer. Pay attention to how you feel and adjust from there.

Graph Shape

Likewise, the graph is set up as a pretty symmetrical bell curve but this needn’t necessarily be the case. As we’ve said, sometimes your warm up will be short and the intensity can rise quickly. Sometimes, it’ll need to be slower and more gradual.

Personally, I once had a project outdoors on which I only had three attempts before I was done for the session. That was my Main, three goes, with about ten minutes rest in between each one. So effectively my peak was incredibly steep and dropped in intensity back down very quickly.

It’s up to you to ensure that you manage this for each session. You can think of it as a piece of rope: if you want to go higher and stretch it upwards, it won’t stretch as far out to the right. Crucially, it’s about making the decision with what you want for each session.

Training Power as an Exception

After writing this, I shared it with a respected friend, Flynn Owen, who is currently studying a Master’s in Sport Science. He climbs hard and after some misguided training previously, was trying to get the strength back in his fingers. When he said about being tired, I said to wind it down and he staunchly disagreed.

After a chat, I realised he was right: there’s an exception to the graph. If you are specifically training power, it works differently and recovery should start as soon as fatigue means you can’t continue. HOWEVER for most climbers, this is very rare.

Tim Peck training finger strength as part of a dedicated training phase

The Session Structure graph is a framework for climbers to be able to refer back to to help with either Power-Endurance or Endurance training or in order to develop technique, tactics and psychological skills. Power phases don’t work with it and I’ll revisit this in more depth at a later date. If not sure, stick to the graph as there is a much higher chance that you’ll benefit from this approach than by trying to get specifically more powerful fingers.


There is one final, crucial point to make: every session is entirely personal to the climber, the climbs on offer, the conditions, the phase of training/recovery, and so on.

If you read this and think “hold on I wouldn’t do that at that point” then your probably right, each session is individual to everyones needs.

This Session Structure is not designed to be a decree, for everyone to follow on every single session. It is a framework, something to provide a starting point that for the majority of climbers, is an improvement on their current sessions and that can then be adjusted to match your needs for your sessions.

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If you would like more information on the courses and sessions available, please get in touch


Let’s break this down to be as simple as possible. The above graph and information has given us a framework to be able to refer to as and when we need. Now we need to drill that down to a guiding principle.

That guiding principle now simply states that any climb or period of climbing should focus on one and only one of these:

Simple as that. You simply cannot do more than one of these at the same time. So each climb you’re about to try, ask yourself which of these you are selecting: am I prepping for something later in the session? Am I thinking hard about what I’m doing? Or is this the time to Perform?

For many of us, we simply cannot find more time to dedicate to our climbing. By making clever choices, selecting when we try each climb and being tactical, we can all maximise the time we have available.