Can anybody climb 9a? Part II: Solutions  September 03 2019, 4 Comments

 Tom Randall from Lattice Training weighs in on the question

by Zofia Reych 

In Part I in our 'Can anybody climb 9a?' series, we laid out the challenges that need to be overcome to reach the benchmark grade of 9a. Now we pick the brains of Tom Randall, founder at Lattice Training and Crimpd, to find out what makes a 9a climber and if anybody can get there. 

Purposeful practice 

“When we start working with clients and athletes, some claim to devote even twenty hours a week to training,” says Randall. “Only after a careful analysis of their schedule did it transpire that more than half of that time was wasted. What is left is around eight hours of real work.” 

Tom Randall, founder at Lattice Training and Crimpd

"The minimal amount of time required to achieve satisfactory training progression is surprisingly low". 
Tom Randall, founder at Lattice Training and Crimpd


 As most of those training twenty hours a week still come short of their goals, it is easy to understand why the time commitment required for achieving the 9a level seems unreasonable and discourages most contenders before they even try. Perhaps if they knew the surprising truth, more climbers would be willing to give it a go.

The minimal amount of time required to achieve satisfactory training progression is surprisingly low,” says Randall, estimating the “sweet spot” for elite performance at anything from eight to fifteen hours a week. There is, however, a catch. 

“We’re talking here about quality work, known to many people as purposeful practice,” he says. Also referred to as deliberate practice, this learning method is most often used by professional musicians and increasingly applied in other disciplines. It allows a sustained, long-term progression. Instead of reaching a plateau once an intermediate level is achieved, a practitioner continues to develop their skill (albeit at a slowing pace, in keeping with the lowering return on training investment).

"intense, goals-oriented practice under the supervision of a teacher who provides training exercises and offers feedback to identify what the student needs to improve"

 According to Swedish psychologist and expert on elite performance, K. Anders Ericsson, this method is an “intense, goals-oriented practice under the supervision of a teacher who provides training exercises and offers feedback to identify what the student needs to improve”. 

In other words, you need to identify your short and long-term climbing goals, keep your eyes on the prize and stay consistent. And if your goals are ambitious but you are not young a Chris Sharma (meaning you’re not genius-level talented and you do have a day job) chances are you will need to follow a tailored training plan. Assessing your strengths and weaknesses against a vast database of results will determine the focus of your training and help you stay motivated.

9a finger strength

Say we piqued your interest and you are now asking yourself the unspeakable question: “could I ever climb 9a”? The first thing to do is to compare your abilities with those of a 9a climber.

9a finger strength

9a - is it all about finger strength?

Remus Knowles, the Data Analyst at Lattice, has gone through thousands of assessment results, including climbers with 9a routes to their name. The below scores were produced in a one arm, 5-second hang on a standardised Assessment Rung - a 20mm wide horizontal edge, including a 10mm bevel to reduce climber’s reliance on skin friction. Scores lower than total body weight are enabled with a pulley system.

Average 9a, male, 70kg = 100% BW 

Average 9a, female, 55kg = 90.5% BW 

While these numbers may seem outrageous, finger strength is only one component among many that come together to enable a 9a send. Consequently, the lowest scores recorded by Lattice were: 

'Across all the data the lowest scores we've seen for someone who's climbed 9a is 102.4% BW. Using the finger strength model, it's suggesting scores of 99.2% for men and 92.1% for women' as the lowest possible score for someone to climb 9a.

Knowles points out that with modelling finger strength we always need to look at profile markers that are specific to gender, weight and height, before we even consider the other factors that have an impact on performance. His work over the last few years has focused on creating a multi-factor testing kit that takes these variables into account - no one 9a climber is like the other.

The discrepancy between average and lowest scores allowing a climber to send a 9a is a testimony to a huge number of variables at play. In other words, you can compensate for a lack of finger strength by being extremely flexible, having great technique, or choosing to work on routes that are not considered fingery. 

At the same time, the fastest way to rapid improvement is by identifying and eliminating weaknesses. The real challenge begins when the body is already a fine-tuned machine and yet still needs to get better to achieve the goals. Yes, it’s hard. But not impossible.

The bottom line

Unsurprisingly, with so many variables in place, it is extremely difficult to asses the rate of progress and the limits of what’s possible. Tom Randall reckons that it is realistic - albeit optimistic - for an 8c climber to up their game and tick a 9a within just one year of training, if certain factors are in place. Dropping down a level or three, the right 8a climber could possibly get there in around five years. However, these time frames assume perfect scenarios: no injuries and uninterrupted adherence to a training schedule.

So, can anybody climb 9a? The simple answer is still no. Age (although probably much older than you’re thinking), injuries, certain disabilities and - most commonly - lack of time and motivation are very real obstacles. In addition, elite-level performance hinges not only on the physical but also on the right mindset.

In the words of Adam Ondra, “the most important thing for high-level routes is actually to trust yourself that you are capable of climbing this route or this grade.” His sentiment is echoed by Margo Hayes who says that “mentally we limit ourselves much more than physically [...] If you create your own glass ceiling, then it’s gonna be hard to break through that.”

While climbing 9a still represents an elite level in our sport, it is actually within the reach of many more climbers than we might assume. As summed up by one of the comments in the community discussion group, “9a is simply in the realm of people who actually want to climb 9a.” 

Alice, you’re next!