We partnered with Lattice Training and picked the brains of the one and only Tom Randall (yes, one half of the Wide Boyz) in order to bring you the answer
by Zofia Reych
Back in the day, many old-school climbers saw 6a as the gate to serious climbing. Today, indoor training allows you to whizz past the 6a barrier relatively quickly and start looking to harder grades. The next natural milestone presents itself at 7a - but just how hard is it to lead climb 7a, and is it possible for anybody?
Whether you’re already well on your way to climbing your first 7a, or still intimidated by the grade, here’s our attempt at answering the burning question.
7a finger strength
Is having strong fingers a "must"?
To better understand performance and improvement, Remus Knowles, data analyst at Lattice Training, has been collecting metrics from climbers of all levels. One of the key tests is finger strength assessed using a standardised 20mm edge. The below scores were produced by climbers whose max grade is 7a:
Lowest 7a climber score: 53.4% bodyweight
Highest 7a climber score: 98% bodyweight
The huge discrepancy represents the variety of climbing styles and the considerable differences between climbers’ body types and skill sets.
What to do?
If your score comes in at around 50% bodyweight, it is safe to say that improving your finger strength will massiv\ely increase your chances of climbing 7a.
New climbers (under two years) can easily gain finger strength through time spent on the wall. If you have significant experience but your grip is still very weak, it might be time to incorporate an easy fingerboard routine into your training.
If you’re scoring high in finger strength, identify what limits your climbing: is it endurance, footwork, flexibility…?
Weight off your mind
A “healthy” BMI varies on the basis of several factors, including sex and age. Thinkstock
A common shortcut to improving one’s strength-to-weight ratio is by simply going on a diet. Optimising body composition is, to a degree, a decisive factor in climbing performance but it is not as important as often assumed.
To access the biggest possible sample, Lattice Training analysed height and weight data logged by users on 8a.nu. For climbers maxing out at 7a, the average BMI presented itself as follows:
Average BMI of 7a climbing females: 21.5
Average BMI of 7a climbing males: 23.5
Given that the NHS (British National Health Service) suggests that a “healthy” BMI ranges from 18.5 to 24.9, it might be surprising that 7a climbers are not closer to the lower limit. As the grade increases, the average BMI drops slightly and reaches just under 20 for females and 22 for males, still fitting in the prescribed range. Interestingly, there are more extremely heavy outliers than those extremely light.
What to do?
If you want to improve your diet, instead of focusing on calorie restriction, make sure you’re eating the right foods at the right times. For example, consuming carbs a certain amount of time before your send attempt can significantly improve your chances.
You can safely cut back on all heavily processed products, alcohol and junk food, while increasing your intake of fresh, wholesome foods.
Any further tinkering with your diet should be consulted with a nutritionist.
No train no gain
Hitting a plateau always sucks but there’s one simple solution to it: training. Whether you still have to work on key metrics such as finger strength and bodyweight, or you need to improve in another way, a structured approach to training is what can take you to the next level.
There’s no prescribed number of pull ups, sit ups, or specific bendiness required to climb 7a. It all depends on climbing style (short or long route, overhanging or slabby, big moves on jugs or crimps, etc.) and how you can compensate for your weaknesses (for example, heel hooking over your head might let you get away with less pull strength).
At the same time, it is safe to say that a 7a climber needs to display a certain level of general fitness and technical ability. Extremely gifted individuals can get there purely by climbing but most mortals need to put in some training - especially if they want to get there fast.
What to do?
Keep a training journal, either paper or digital. Apart from creating a training plan, note down your results and goals.
Climb at least twice a week and have at least one full rest day per week.
Incorporate both bouldering and route climbing in your training, as well as weight lifting and TRX sessions.
If you’ve never trained for climbing before, start by downloading the free Crimpd app with interactive workouts, step-by-step instructions and progress analytics.
Strategies for success
Pulling on plastic is very different from dancing on rock but nonetheless, it’s a great tool in preparation for the big outdoor send.
Steve McClure, author of Britain's first 9b line (which he sent at the age of 47!), points to the importance of polishing your footwork even at the climbing wall. Technique drills can be incorporated in every warm up.
The secret to success is also in playing to your strengths. Yes, working on weaknesses is key to improvement but for your first of the grade, choose a route that suits your style.
What to do?
If you mostly boulder indoors, have a strong upper body and move well in overhangs, seek a short and steep line. If you spend most of your climbing days smearing on gritstone trad, go after technical verts or slabs.
Choosing a route that suits you but is on the other end of the continent might not be the best idea, especially if you expect to project it over many sessions.
The bottom line
How long does it take to whip a climber into 7a shape? “It varies from person to person,” says openly Remus Knowles. “From beginner to 7a, it could be anything from six months to a lifetime. Having said that, on average you're probably looking at about eight to twelve months with three to four sessions per week.”
If the under one year-time frame sounds too good to be true, it’s because it assumes no injuries and strictly following a tailored training plan. It can be done but it requires commitment and know-how.
Of course some circumstances or disabilities might make 7a an unrealistic goal but don’t throw in the towel too easily. One-armed climber Mo Beck climbed her dream route graded 5.12a after 50 attempts. And while we’re yet to see a 7a send by an octogenarian, Dr Ivor McCourt clipped the chains on his first 7a at the age of 70.
So, can we say with absolute certainty that every single person is capable of climbing 7a? No. But we can definitely say that most people are.
“If you apply training consistently and with the right intensity, there’s no other way than to improve,” assures Tom Randall.
 5.10a for Americans, or roughly E1 5b in British money, but comparing UK trad grades to French sport climbing never did anybody any good...
 5.11d, hence the milestone grade for many Americans is equivalent European 7a+, or 5.12a
 The standardised 20mm Lattice Training and testing edge has a 10mm bevel, meaning there’s no sharp edge allowing the climber to rely on skin friction to hold on. The rounded edge is much harder to hang but provides a more accurate insight into your strength and progress level. The assessment scores are produced in a in a 5-second one-arm dead hang with weight taken off or added by pulley system.
As mentioned earlier, US climbs are rated with the Yosemite decimal system. The first of “five twelves”, 5.12a, is the usual seen as the big number goal and equates to French 7a+. The story of Beck’s send, first by an upper limb amputee female, was documented in Reel Rock 12.