The Climbing Sensei

Elite climbing coach Justen Sjong on the importance of training—and how to do it right.

There was a time when training was a deep, dark secret that climbers didn’t talk about. Back in the 1960’s, ‘70s, and even ‘80s, it was just assumed that real climbers were simply gifted, or that their successes were a combination of being bolder, braver, or simply climbing more than the rest of us.

When a newcomer would visit a local crag and send a test-piece or nab a coveted first ascent, the insider gossip, of which has always been in plentiful supply in the climbing world, would be “Yeah, he did the route, but I heard he’s been secretly training!” as if that created an unfair advantage.

Climbers did train (possibly in secret), with homemade Bachar ladders, door jam pull-ups, and buildering (monkeying around on local buildings and bridges). But with the advent of plastic holds, indoor gyms, hang boards, and home woodies, training not only got easier, but more acceptable. And today, everyone seems to be training for something.

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Justen Sjong, one of today’s most sought-after climbing coaches, started climbing in 1992, and with groundbreaking ascents of big Yosemite walls under his belt (including a first free ascent of Magic Mushroom (5.14a) with Tommy Caldwell in 2008) and tons of experience working with climbing’s top athletes from Alex Puccio to Daniel Woods to the Black Diamond athlete team, he knows what it takes to help climbers of all abilities push their limits. We sat down with him to talk about his coaching philosophies.

What was your childhood like in terms of sports?

I was born in Seattle but raised in a small town near Index, in the foothills of the Cascades. I wasn’t active in team sports but loved to ski and ride trick bikes. I believe my ability to focus came from spending full days practicing my bike tricks on the one paved road near my house. There was an element of grittiness to where I lived and the need to fight for success was necessary.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Funny you ask this question. Heavy Metal was the cool thing in my small town and I had dreams of being a rock star.

When did you start climbing? 

I started just after high school in 1992 in Index. I was self-taught for almost a year until I met a few folks who most likely saved my life. I thought it was normal to untie from my harness at top of each climb to weave the rope between the metal of the sticht plate slots. It’s important to find quality mentors to take you under their wing, especially in a sport like climbing.

Another example of learning the wrong way was my understanding of the rating system. I repeated many of the climbs up to 5.6 at Index and was getting bored. I thought I would head up to the Upper Wall and check out a classic five point one one, as it sounded easier than what I was doing and would be worth the hike. In the world of decimals, five point one was very doable for me, so five point one one should be just a little harder, right?

Some days you naturally feel bold and others… well we do our best. @blackdiamond #climbingsensei

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Who are your climbing inspirations? 

Tommy Caldwell is one of those climbers, who when you meet him, you find out he is an amazing person. I admire his ability to put his head down and accomplish great things without needing the public’s approval. For years I saw him grinding away on obscure classics, honing his craft and not seeking attention. Tommy is not an individual who makes noise about his ability to be bold; he just is and quietly crushes.

How did you get into coaching?

I began my coaching career in 1994 when I started a youth climbing team in Everett, Washington. I don’t consider myself a trainer because a trainer has a primary goal of making the athlete stronger physically. My job as a coach is to help you improve your technical and mental skills through training routines. The simple question of what is technique motivated me to explore and come up with something more concrete than what climbing books talked about in the “technique” chapters.

I have a fairly natural obsession of wanting to understand climbing on many levels and am motivated to explore out-of-the-box concepts that could be related to climbing. For the last few years, my primary focus has been on eye movement and body language. I just love to explore ideas that are abstract and difficult to evaluate when it comes to how they impact climbing. The simple inside-the-box methods limit us and do not allow for formulation of new concepts. Now, my focus is on getting athletes to choreograph their performance so it fits their personality. Like many of my concepts, the kernel of these ideas comes from a student with a challenging question or request.

From my point of view as a climbing coach, my primary goal is to strengthen the pathways in your body to make wise choices while under stress. That stress could involve physical or mental challenges.

How do you assess individual climbers to determine what they need?

Learning what their climbing objectives are. Knowing their personality will affect how I suggest they train and how I make suggestions. How motivated is someone? How much available training time do they have in their life? What kind of regular equipment do they have available? I will have an athlete go through a series of training cycles that are connected to the overall goal. I like to plan two to four months out in general terms, and then each month I’ll make adjustments depending on how they are feeling. When an athlete is young, they have more of forgiveness for training too much or too little. As an athlete ages, the ideal bandwidth narrows and it becomes harder to hit the right intensity level. I like to gain an understanding of each individual, his or her needs, and limitations. Then I can help them stay in the ideal bandwidth to allow for growth.

What are the top three things every climber can do better when it comes to training?

  1. Start a training program that can be routinely completed. Feeling disappointed has a negative effect on training consistently and I want people I work on the right foot early.
  1. Write down functional objectives and goals that motivate you to train. You might have days where training is fun but you will also have many days that are not fun. So, having direction that motivates you is key to functional training. Objectives are fun to make but don’t pinpoint your training needs. Goals are the details that must happen for you to achieve your objective.
  1. Don’t train when your life is packed or mentally taxing. Wait until you have more time and energy to start training, and just stay active during those busy stressful times.

What’s the most common error you see climbers make?

Climbers are good at identifying excuses of why they failed but struggle with identifying what makes them have amazing days. Take the time to determine what skills make you feel confident on the wall.

@timmydolvn composing for the next set. @blackdiamond #liveclimbrepeat #climbingsensei @atomikclimbingholds

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How long does it take to see results from targeted training?

Some athletes see positive change in the first month but others will take as long as eight months for change to happen. It’s so hard to get climbers to understand that the goal of physical training is to reach a point where the body needs rest. That rest is not only physical but also mental. For example, during a private session with me, athletes are mentally taxed because I’m challenging them to technically perform better. To perform well you need to be emotionally rested and that means to not expect every session to be your best.

Here’s a tip: When you have a major breakthrough with your training and performance, try backing off and taking a rest cycle (two-to-six weeks of no training). You can be active, but just chill out. In general, climbers are quite intense.

The positive feedback of breaking through a plateau can lead to high levels of motivation. When we are motivated, we ignore the general feeling of body fatigue. I hate seeing a motivated climber have success and then get injured. So, when you have a major positive breakthrough moment, ask yourself if you should back off. Trust me, you will not lose the magic you just gained.

What are some of your favorite training success stories?

Lately, I have seen a number of quiet but intense athletes. I strongly believe the athlete’s goal is to inspire the folks around them with an impressive performance. When the athlete inspires, they naturally get others to provide positive energy in their direction and the send train happens. I have been able to help introverts generate ways to show emotion, energy, and attitude without being physically loud. You see this at climbing comps and those athletes get a response from the crowd.

Is training something that people should do before a specific goal, or year-round?

Training with the goal of becoming a better climber is a great goal for everyone. As a community, though, we are reaching an unhealthy relationship with training because of how we are defining the word. Training should be defined as a structure to improve our current ability. It is OK to enjoy yourself for long cycles of time, then when you are inspired or motivated, start to train.

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