Getting Too Pumped and Can’t Hold On? Try 4x4s

Bouldering 4x4 routines are one of the most effective ways to increase your anaerobic capacity and power endurance, allowing you to fight the pump and climb harder.
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Despite getting some recent attention online or getting gossiped about at your bouldering gym, 4x4s are not new to climbing. The exercise has been around for a long time. Over the years, the climbing 4×4 routine has helped countless climbers improve their anaerobic and power endurance (amongst other things I’ll detail below). But if the 4×4 is new to you, well, welcome to the pain cave.

“Why the pain cave?” you ask. Because 4x4s are somewhat notorious for being intense workouts that blast your fingers and forearms until you’re looking like Popeye the Sailorman after eating canned spinach.

Keep reading if you are curious about 4x4s and want to add this effective exercise to your training plan. And be warned– 4x4s work and will improve your bouldering, just with a little suffering.

What is the 4×4 Training Protocol?

male asian climber practicing indoors

The classic 4×4 training protocol is super simple. However, there are many ways to customize the routine to meet your abilities and loads of progressions you can take to increase the difficulty.

The classic 4×4 workout is bouldering based and gets its name from the number of sets and number of repetitions in each set–four sets of four boulders. It is as follows.

  1. Climb four boulder problems back-to-back with little to no rest in between.
  2. Rest
  3. Climb the same four boulders back-to-back
  4. Rest
  5. Four same boulders with no rest
  6. Rest
  7. For the final time, climb the same four boulder problems

Stylistically, you can select whatever style of climbing you want to work on. For example, when I do 4x4s, I climb two steep and overhung boulders and two vertical or less steep boulders. However, traditionally, the core of 4x4s has always been about overhangs and powerful movement.

Regardless of the style, each boulder should be at least five to seven moves long. No one-move-wonders or strange dynos. In addition, the boulder problems you select should be consistent and not contain any obvious rests. If there is a good resting position, challenge yourself to flower through it without stopping to shake out.

What About Rest Time for 4x4s?

tired male climber sitting down

In order for 4x4s to be the most effective, you should climb all four boulders in a set without rest between boulders. But you don’t have to be a sweaty savage– at least give yourself a few seconds in between boulders to chalk up. And if you are climbing in a busy gym, you may need to wait a few seconds for someone else to finish the route you need. But the goal is to get as little rest as possible between boulders.

For rest between boulders, follow the 1:1 rest ratio rule. Meaning rest only as long as it took to climb the boulder. So if it’s a 15-second boulder, you get 15 seconds to chalk and transition to the next problem.

However, in between sets, rest is crucial. During the rest period between sets, you want to depump and recover as much as possible. After the first set, the goal is to reset your pump meter to almost zero. As you progress through the workout, resetting to zero will become harder, and that’s by design.

Regarding rest between sets, follow the 2:1 rest ratio rule. So, if it took you five minutes to finish all the bouldering problems, then you get 10 minutes of rest before the next set.

What are 4x4s Meant to Train?

Ask any experienced climber who has consistently incorporated 4×4 workouts into their training plan, and they’ll tell you that 4x4s helped them improve their anaerobic and power endurance.

  1. Anaerobic endurance: this type of endurance is defined by your body’s ability to perform sustained, short bursts of high-intensity exercise. Typically, the window for training peak anaerobic endurance is between one a three minutes.
  2. Power endurance: in a rock climbing context, power endurance (also sometimes referred to as strength endurance) is defined by your body’s ability to sustain maximum power over a long period of time before getting fatigued.

Besides training anaerobic and power endurance, 4x4s are also a great workout for other reasons.

  • Repeating the same problems helps you focus and find flow states
  • 4x4s can teach you how to “get out of your head,” remain calm, and climb near your limit
  • 4x4s expose the ability to try hard and push yourself that you didn’t know you had
  • Sticking with the same boulder problems allows you to measure performance more effectively and track movement improvements

What Difficulty Should the Problems Be?

indoor bouldering wall

When you are new to climbing 4x4s, it can be tricky to gauge how hard the boulder problems should be. Most climbers overdo it and select boulders that are too hard, making them fail before the workout is finished. However, you want to avoid this.

The goal of 4x4s is not to make them so challenging that you cannot finish the four sets. Instead, the goal is to select boulders that, when linked together, make you work hard but never fail. If you think of it in terms of RPMs in a car, you want to redline but not explode your engine.

How Do You Determine the Difficulty for 4x4s?

Determining the appropriate difficulty for you is a matter of trial and error. The difficulty will depend on your experience, your strengths and weaknesses as a climber, the style of terrain, and how you are feeling on that day.

However, a good place to start is selecting a range of boulders that are one to two v-grades below what you can comfortably flash. For example, when putting together a 4×4 routine, I look for boulders in the V3-V4 range. However, I might make something easier if the wall angle is mega steep or harder if I’m feeling motivated and strong after my warmup.

As you experiment with designing 4x4s, it’s critical to adjust the difficulty with harder or easier problems. Over time, you’ll learn how to select boulders that provide you with the perfect amount of pump and that don’t make you fall. But if you do fall at the few last desperate moves of the fourth set, that’s okay, too.

In a perfectly designed 4×4, the first two sets of boulders should go down easily. By the third set, some “try hard” is okay, especially in the third and fourth boulders. By the fourth set, every boulder should feel challenging. Some grunting and sweating is okay, and if you’re screaming like Adam Ondra at the end, as your feeble fingers barely hang onto the holds and as your feet cut out beneath you because all technique has flown out the window, then you’ve nailed it.

How Do You Fit 4x4s into a Training Program?

enthusiastic male climber indoors

The 4×4 is not a silver bullet training program that will instantaneously improve your climbing after one session. On the contrary, one 4×4 session by itself won’t do much of anything except make you pumped and sore afterward.

Like most training tools, the gains from 4x4s come with consistency. If you want to see progress, aim to incorporate one 4×4 routine per week. Keep climbing 4x4s for at least one month or four weeks. During this time, ideally, you will climb the same four-boulder problems in all of your workouts. But understand that it can be tricky if your gym resets boulders consistently. If one of your boulders gets reset, look for a comparable replacement.

4x4s are intense. That’s why it’s recommended to do them once a week. At the very least, allow for 48-72 hours of rest and recovery in between 4×4 workouts. Even advanced climbers should need this recommendation for maximum effectiveness.

4 x 4 Progressions

If you are consistent enough with 4x4s, you may eventually get to a point in your training plan where you are ready to enhance the difficulty.

Enhancing the difficulty of a 4×4 is basically manipulating one component of the workout to make it harder to complete. What you decide to manipulate in your workout will vary based on your climbing preference.

Nonetheless, here are some common ways to crank up the intensity.

  • Increase intensity by making the boulders harder: the simplest way to progress 4x4s is to make the four problems harder. For example, if previously you climbed V2-V2-V2-V2, maybe drop in a couple of V3s or a single V4.
  • Increase intensity by incorporating fewer rest times: remember those 1:1 and 2:1 rest ratio rules I mentioned above? Chuck those out the window. For example, if you are creating for four minutes in between sets, drop that down to three minutes and see what happens.
  • Increase volume by doing more bouldering: if four problems are not enough, you can carry out the same workout regarding sets, reps, and rests, but do so in a 5×5 or 6×6 format.
  • Increase difficulty by using a different hold type: if you are doing 4xs on a home wall or spray wall at the gym, don’t be afraid to tweak your routes to make them harder. For example, if you’re naturally good at crimps, switch a crimp for a sloper or use a smaller foot that can’t support your body as effectively.

Final Thoughts About 4x4s for Climbing

male climber on indoor bouldering steep wall

If you’re peeling off at the tops of steep boulder problems or keep blowing it at the redpoint crux high up on your sport climbing project outside, then you may benefit from incorporating 4x4s into your training. 4x4s are a great workout for increasing your stocks of anaerobic and power endurance to help you stay on the wall and blast through pumpy movement that previously spit you off.

Be fully warmed up before starting your 4×4. If you are totally new to this type of training, don’t be afraid to ass a little extra time for rest between sets. And remember– consistency will be critical with 4×4 training, so stick with it over the entire course of your training block.

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