Going with the Flow

It has been a while since my last post – so first off, my apologies. (Bad blogger!) But seriously, I’ve been really maxed out with my work, resulting in my sleep patterns and diet being sub-par. In turn, my climbing/training has been lacklustre so the motivation to write about it just wasn’t there.

Fortunately, I’ve recently started to turn things around and my injuries are subsiding and my drive to  train (and climb hard) is coming back… just in time for fall! :( But such is life and that is why this post is about going with the flow. I’m not a pro climber; rather, I’m a climber that works and does other things, so sometimes my climbing is compromised and I just need to accept reality and not fight with the universe.

Knowing that climbing just wasn’t going too well for me I turned my attention inward, to build up the energy reserves (biochemical and metaphysical) for my next push. Included in this regime was going to bed early, doing lots of cooking with fresh, organic vegetables, spending time with family and friends, yoga, reading books, and a ‘chillaxed’ weekend at the family cabin. Also, I had a blood test to see if I was missing anything in my diet and sure enough that provided some great feedback as to what to eat more of!

market vegetables

In that time I was also accepted to a graduate program at Northwestern University in Chicago – specifically, a Masters of Science in Predictive Analytics (MSPA). So I’ll be pretty busy in and out of work for the next couple of years but I’m still fully committed to training, climbing and blogging. Social life – that, I’m not so sure about. But I will try and remember this lovely statement…

what counts

So now that I’m feeling healthy and generally more awesome – what’s next? Well I’d like to get in some climbing on the weekends while the weather is still good. Training-wise, I re-set my home bouldering wall. Clean holds, reconfigured ‘volumes’ and 15 or so new routes set so I will have some benchmarks to test myself against over the winter (either climbing with a weight vest and/or doing laps). That is very motivating as I was getting stale on the old layout! (I still have a few more problems to set but the main work is done.) I’ve had a few encouraging workouts already.

home wall reset

Also I am very psyched about my new training toys – the Gripster and the Globester! I picked these up through a crowdsourcing initiative on Indiegogo, by an Aussie dude living in California named Mike White. He had a compelling video (“introducing the Gripstah!”) so I went for it and I was not disappointed in the least. The Gripster (orange units below) is a multi-grip piece with sloper, edges, crimps, and pinches, while the Globester is basically a big, sphere that is SUPER ergonomic.  This upcoming winter I am going to get a lot of use as these are so versatile; you can do pull-ups, pull-downs, dangle weights from them, etc. High variety with less joint strain – a great combination for finger, wrist and arm strength training.

Keep an eye out for these as I’m sure Mike will be marketing them big-time once he gets some capital in the bank. I’m a big proponent for sure.

gripster

Hope you enjoyed this atypical post, which was as much about NOT training as it was about training. Stay psyched, train smart & hard, and remember listen to your body’s subtle and not-so-subtle cues. When you’re feeling burnt out, take time to regenerate and build back the psych so you come back wanting success and to crush harder than ever before!

Active Rehabilitation for Climbing-Related Finger Injuries

Disclaimer: If you have a finger injury, see your doctor and/or physiotherapist for a professional diagnosis before you try any of the exercises in this blog. This isn’t medical advice – it just describes some equipment and methods I’ve used to get my fingers back into climbing shape after injury. Now onto the blog…

Over the years, I’ve had my share of finger injuries, usually from crimping but occasionally on pockets or other grips. Most seasoned climbers I know have experienced some form of finger injury, often to the “tendon pulleys”. For readers not familiar with pulley injuries, essentially the pulleys are the ligaments that hold the flexor tendon down against the phalanges, or bones of the finger. If we didn’t have then “annular” pulleys then when gripping things, the tendon(s) would ‘bow’ away from the finger and it would be impossible to grip anything! Here is an illustration of this anatomy:

Finger anatomy - tendon pulleys

The most common injury (anecdotally) would be the A2 pulley due to the great strain we impose when crimping. With overuse and repeated micro-trauma, the A2 can get inflamed and weakened predisposing it to more major trauma (sometimes with an audible, blood-curdling “pop!”). Also anecdotally I would say the pulleys get injured on the 3rd and 4th fingers – aka the middle and ring fingers.

On the flipside, with smart training the pulleys should actually get stronger – as does any connective tissue with progressively increased loading over time, with appropriate rest and diet. That is of course an implicit goal of a climbers training program whether they realize it or not.

That explains crimps, but what about other types of hand positions, like pockets? Well, those are much harder to generalize upon since other pulleys might be affected, or the finger tendon(s) could be strained as well. To keep things simple I’m going to refer to two general types – first being “Crimping Injuries” (includes full and half crimp positions with flexion predominately at the proximal interphalangeal joint or PIP) and “Pocket Injuries” (includes any open-handed grip with flexion predominately at the distal interphalangeal joint or DIP).

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate some exercises I came up with using a climbing grip (edge) which can be hooked up to elastic tubing or a pulley system to simulate a climbing pull with lower resistance in a highly controlled environment. This allows you to strengthen the recovering finger(s) AFTER the initial period of rest from climbing. If remedial strengthening is not done, then you may simply compensate by weighting the other fingers without realizing it. This isn’t the best thing as it may cause secondary injuries on top of the existing one.

Here’s a photo of the device which I made from basic pieces of wood and a little bit of hardware. In the following photo you can see it is suspended from the ceiling by a loop of rubber tubing.

Finger rehab tool

In the next photos you can see two different finger positions to specifically strengthen the ring (fourth) finger. First, the crimp grip (or half-crimp grip to be more precise, or flexion at the PIP to be even more precise):

finger rehab tool, crimp grip

Next, the pocket grip (flexion mainly at the DIP):

finger rehab tool, pocket grip

With that set-up you can do a number of different finger configurations, and also different movements like pulldowns, press downs and isometric gripping. Here are some examples:

Pull down with one finger:

one finger pulldown B

one finger pulldown A

Press-down with two fingers:

2 finger pocket pressdown A

2 finger pocket pressdown B

Press-down with three finger full crimp:

3 finger crimp pressdown A

3 finger crimp pressdown B

These photo show the exercises being completed with elastic tubing, which as outlined in a previous post, exhibits variable resistant, increasing as it lengthens. The exercises can also be completed with a pulley setup with weights.

Once you have that set up, then you can experiment with exercise parameters and figure out what works well for you. The main thing to keep in mind is if you are rehabilitating, obviously you should keep the resistance very, very low and the effort should also be quite low, and if there is pain, you’ve gone too far already. It should be pain free, and each set should end as soon as mild fatigue and discomfort sets in. Over time you’ll be able to increase the level of effort as the ligaments strengthen.

I first tested this out recently over a 3 week period when a recurring / long-term A2 pulley injury acted up. As hard as it was, I took that time off climbing altogether, because the injury was cause by overtraining, and I really wanted to get healed properly for summer. I did the exercises 2 days on : 1 day off, and spent about 30 minutes doing a variety of pulls and holds with each set lasting 30-60 seconds. I trained both arms because I thought it would be a good dose of prevention.

Since then I’ve started climbing again and can say for sure I have greater confidence in that finger and I’m able to crimp again without pain. I am going to continue with it for while at a lower volume since I’d like to prevent future issues from coming up. I should add however that my climbing volume is not very high due to other commitments (1-2 days outside and 1-2 on plastic).

Next winter (can’t believe I’m talking about that already) I plan to do about 4-6 weeks of this training using pulleys with heavier weights. Very small holds and finger isolation have always been issues for me so I’m going to see if I can improve on that area using these exercises.

Of course I hope you (or your clients if you’re a physio or fitness trainer) never get any finger injuries. But if you do I recommend you try this type of exercise out. Note, it can also be done with a Metolius “Rock Ring” or “Gripster” or equivalent, if you aren’t handy with wood and tools.

Tweet at me at @climbing_strong and let me know what you think!

Variable Resistance Strength Training for Climbing with Elastics

Lifting a weight (or lifting your body) normally does involve varying levels of force during exercise due to acceleration. If you recall from physics, force equals mass x acceleration. Gravity is 9.8 meters per second squared so that gravitational force is constant. However, when raising a weight (or your body) up and down, you are accelerating and decelerating the weight vertically, so the force is usually highest near the bottom as you reverse it and start accelerating upward. At the top of the range of motion, force is normally lowest, especially if you don’t pause there. If you perform an exercise more slowly, the acceleration varies less, i.e. the force remains more constant. That’s not necessarily good or bad, it just depends on the specificity compared to what you are training for. As a climber, it is helpful to be strong at the top of a lock off in order to reach a far away hold so it’s worth giving it some attention in your routine. This is one of several benefits from using elastics to modify the force curve of common strength training exercises.

Enter the elastic band: Elastics such as rubber tubing have nominal mass so exercising with them minimizes force from acceleration. The resistance (tension) is a direct result of changing length – i.e. the amount of stretch. At zero stretch, the force is zero. As length increases, the force increases more or less linearly until some extreme point at which it breaks and force becomes zero again! Fortunately the elastics made for exercise can withstand a lot of stretch before they break.

At some point some in history, strength trainers started combining the two to get the consistent force you get from lifting weights while taking advantage of elastic force to accentuate the resistance at the top of each repetition. A specific example is a powerlifter who fails to ‘lock-out’ their bench regularly – they want to train the top part specifically to address this weakness. Turns out it works pretty well and has now become fairly commonplace. Most stores selling strength training equipment now have these heavy duty elastics in addition to traditional rubber tubing used for rehabilitation.

Here’s a photo of a guy bench pressing with elastics which clearly demonstrates the concept.

Bench press with elastic bands on a weighted barbell

I had been pondering this technique but hadn’t really made a serious effort to make it work. This last weekend I decided to finally give it a shot with my fingerboard training and was really please with the results! As a quick summary I would say the following are the main advantages:

  • For pull-ups, it felt very realistic in the sense that the effort was the highest near the top of the movement. Furthermore at the bottom, the resistance was the least, which helped alleviate some of the shoulder and elbow strain that can occur when fully extended.
  • For deadhangs, I was able to work on more difficult hangs than usual. I could do one-arm hangs from a medium size edge which I can normally only do on a large edge/pocket/jug. With two arm hangs I could safely hang 10 seconds on a small edge that I can normally only hang for 2-3 seconds with some discomfort.
  • The gear involved was fairly basic and inexpensive – in addition to a fingerboard I had a ring bolt below it, a loop of high tension rubber tubing, a climbing harness, some carabiners and slings, a 12 kg kettebell (ok, KB’s are a bit pricy) and a mat underneath to pad the floor.
  • The set up was much easier for each set than using pulleys  with weights, which can be finicky.

There are two general ways I tested, and both were very effective and fun!

Method 1: Assisted Deadhangs and Pull-ups

First, I used the loop of rubber tubing to assist by fixing one end right under the fingerboard and stretching the other end down under one or two feet.

This image shows how I set the loop length so that the assistance was equivalent to about 20 lbs pushing up on my foot (or feet).

tubing tension test

As you can see the 25 lb dumbbell reached the floor, but the 15 lb dumbbell was suspended. I don’t have a 20 lb dumbbell but can safely infer that the tension was around that level.

In the next image you see the set-up where I pulled to elastic down to my right foot, then stood up straight, grabbed an edge with a bent elbow and then raised both feet of the ground, and hung for around 8 seconds until fatigue. I did a few reps of this on each side and it was effortful, but painless, and the hang durations were in the desired range.

tubing 1 arm deadhang

I don’t have any photos here but I also did two arm hangs from the small crimp (open crimp actually, no thumb) and I could hang for a more useful duration (8-10 second) before fatigue/pain set in.

This method, I found was awesome for deadhangs, to work on more extreme grips (two hands) or one handed hangs on medium sized grips. Also it can be used for assisted pull-ups to provide some assistance at the bottom but much less at the top, for extra strength training stimulus at that range.

Method 2: Pull-ups with Additional (Variable) Resistance

The other way I tested was to hang a weight from my harness so that it rested on the floor when hanging with straight arms, but part way through the pull-up, the tension exceeded the weight (12kg) and it lifted up off the ground. From the following demonstration you can see how this works.

tubing demo with kettlebell

the following shows me doing a pull-up with this assembly clipped to my harness. I had to add a few carabiners to extend it and get the weight to lift up at the right time. This takes a bit of experimentation but one you get the length right, it is very easy to hook in and go. I did find that a kettlebell worked better than a dumbbell because its shape is more conducive to consistently landing upright. Also, its good to have a mat underneath so as to have a softer touchdown and not dent the floor.

variable resistance weighted pullup

This method was very good for pull-ups from medium sized grips because the extra effort at the top of the range was really noticeable, recruiting muscle fibres when you want them firing the most!

Conclusion

Overall I am very psyched on these two methods. I’m going to pick up some more heavy duty rubber bands from the fitness equipment store and try some more variations. But experimentation aside the workout was very good. It felt like it would result in good strength gains due to the new variation from the norm and added specificity of the pull-up force curve. Lastly I can easily think of ways to make the exercises incrementally harder so I can track my progress. It’s safe to say this method is here to stay, in my training routine!

If you are an experienced climber and trainer I recommend you give this a try and let me know via Twitter how it goes for you. Thanks for reading and happy training!

Some thoughts about injury prevention, antagonist training and hypertrophy for climbers

There’s a bit of a paradox regarding non-specific strength training and climbing performance, based on conventional wisdom. On one hand, you want to strengthen the ‘opposing muscles’ to stay balanced and prevent injuries.  But at the same time you also want to keep bodyweight as low as possible while maintaining good health (physical and mental); therefore, general strength training may cause too much hypertrophy. So what to do?

Let’s start out by defining some terms/concepts so it’s clear what I’m talking about.

  1. Agonist muscles: let’s say for sake of argument that finger and wrist flexors, biceps, and latissimus dorsi are the main muscles for climbing performance…
  2. Antagonist muscles: assuming the above, the antagonists would be finger and wrist extensors, triceps, pecs and deltoids. (This is a somewhat flawed concept already since climbing movement is so varied and you do use those muscles quite actively in some moves. Ok maybe the finger extensors aren’t that active but you get what I mean.)
  3. General strength training: activities to build strength that aren’t sport specific; i.e. don’t mimic climbing movement. Examples include: push ups, dips, crunches, leg curls, gymnastic ring training and so on.
  4. Hypertrophy: effect of strength training (maximized from exercising at an intensity causing fatigue between 8-12 repetitions, with multiple sets)
  5. Muscular endurance: ability of muscles to contract under a load repeatedly; i.e. to become fatigue resistant due to metabolic changes such as increased concentration of glycolytic enzymes.
  6. Recruitment: adaptation of the nervous system to fire more rapidly, causing the same amount of muscle cross-section to contact with more power or maximum force. Usually trained with very high loads (6 reps or less) and and/or explosive effort. Recruitment is more highly specific to the motion, however, and may have limited transfer to other exercises. Another consideration is that since you are making the available muscle fibres contract faster, they also fatigue faster, so you are actually training your neuromuscular unit to be less fatigue resistant.
Let’s discuss briefly the first assumption which is that strengthening the antagonists will prevent injury. This is a pretty broadly accepted idea. If you only strengthen the agonists you don’t have much to stabilize the joints and when you hit an unusual move, you might overtax the stabilizing muscles (e.g. rotator cuff), tendons, and/or ligaments of the joint and cause injury – either through acute trauma or overuse.

Practical experience tends to validate this from my experience. If my general training drops off seasonally it’s always in the summer time when I’m playing outside and that’s when I tend to experience the elbow, wrist or shoulder pains. If these issues do arise, the usual treatment is to scale back climbing and specific training and do general strengthening for a while. Once balance is restored, things feel good again.

The flip side of this is that antagonist training, if done too much (or increased too quickly), could become a cause of injury due to overuse. I’ve definitely done that before!

What about the second part of the paradox. Does the general strength training cause too much hypertrophy? I think it depends – really it’s a tradeoff. How much strength do you need in these areas? Clearly, you don’t need to be able to bench press 400 pounds to climb hard. But having zero strength (if there is such a thing) is clearly bad. So somewhere in that range is a sweet spot. Now the question is, can you get stronger in the antagonists without making them larger?

Well, the short answer is “yes”. How? By increasing recruitment as per #6 above. But will it translate effectively to stabilization when climbing? Maybe not, since the strength gains are specific to the exercise, and also because the muscles may fatigue more quickly if they do recruit at a higher rate. So the long answer may be “somewhat”.

If increasing recruitment of the antagonists is not the best way then the remaining options are hypertrophy and/or muscular endurance; both of which seem viable. If you are truly weak in those areas then hypertrophy may be a good option because endurance (high repetitions, say 16 or more per set) won’t improve strength much. The added bulk probably wouldn’t be that noticeable since given the situation, which is being ’weak’, the muscles are probably not very large to begin with. So even if the triceps, pecs, and deltoids got 15% bigger it might only add one pound to your frame which is less than 1% of bodyweight for most of us.

Furthermore, there are favourable hormonal changes that come with resistance training such as increased growth hormone and testosterone. (Women: NO you will not turn into a man or become un-feminine, that was debunked a long time ago!) These hormones help both men and women build muscle, burn more fat and possibly even have a greater overall sense of well-being. So the added muscle may be offset by reduction in fat from higher fat metabolism and generally eating better because you feel more positive!

That being said: if, however, there is a modest level of strength and muscle size already, but you want to ensure that the antagonists can keep working hard in a state of fatigue, then muscular endurance training may be more advisable.

Now, for the exceptional climber that has huge, bulky muscles, such as an ex-bodybuilder or powerlifter (not that I’ve ever some one take up climbing seriously) then general strength training is counterproductive and yoga and running would be advised instead! All the extra weight puts excessive strain on the fingers, and they will not take kindly to it. (Imagine crimping down on a quarter-pad edge when you have 200 lbs of muscle on your frame – no thanks!!)

To wrap things up, what is my point? Essentially I’m making the argument the general strengthening in its many forms does seem to help prevent injury to joints like the elbows, shoulder and wrists. Most climbers who do it will attest to that. But you still have to decide what modality and level of intensity. Modality-wise, whatever you fancy really, as long as the exercises are ergonomically smart and target the right areas (using weights, gymnastic equipment, etc). I propose that 8 repetitions or less is not very useful because of the specificity of neuromuscular recruitment, for antagonist exercises; and also the increased risk of injury with very heavy loads.  The ‘bodybuilding’ range of 8-12 (possibly up to 15) is good for most individuals who don’t have excessive bulk, and need to address strength imbalance – the small amount of hypertrophy may not even be noticed. For folks that are already strong in the antagonists but want to maintain and build fatigue resistance; stick to higher reps (15-20).

I should say in closing that general strengthening is only to be used a COMPLEMENT to your climbing. That means most of your time is spent climbing or doing climbing-specific training. By that virtue alone you are already doing something very different from what the beefcakes at the gym are doing to get so huge. Furthermore, you should not eat like a bodybuilder for you are not one. Downing protein shakes and chicken breasts all day (whether nutritionists accept it or not) does seem to amplify the effect and force more anabolism. So eat a more balanced diet with a modest calorie intake focusing on high quality, unprocessed foods, with lots of fresh vegetables and fruits.

I hope that my musings have provided some food for thought while addressing some of the concerns or misconceptions out there about general strength training. If you have questions, concerns or rebuttals, Tweet at me!

Happy training!

Andrew

 

My thoughts on Chris Webb Parsons’ high-intensity hangboard program

Chris Webb Parsons has just released an exciting promotional/instructional video on his deadhang training program. I say promotional/instructional because he is also promoting the climblox.com clothing brand which looks like pretty hip and functional stuff.

The training program is quite advanced, I would say, given that it assumes one can almost hang one-handed from an open crimp grip on an edge. I would guesstimate that less than 1% of climbers can do that so this is a graduate level program in my books. This doesn’t mean is isn’t good, but rather that it is geared toward elite climbers. I will make some suggestions to make this more available to the masses.

Chris is a ridiculously strong guy bouldering up to V15 and something clearly has worked for him so automatically his program will get peoples’ attention and he has some instant credibility. I’m generally cautious around training advice from rock stars because often they are really gifted genetically and they only have to climb a lot and they get super strong. However, Chris seems to know his stuff and overall I think it’s a good program.  I’ll give my thoughts as to the pros and cons from a mere mortal’s point of view.

Here’s the video, and I’ll post my comments below.

In summary:

  • It’s a twelve week plan
  • All hangs are one handed on an open crimped edge grip
  • Three different elbow angles are trained – 180, 135 and 60 degrees, and three hangs (repetitions) are done per grip, per arm, per workout
  • Rest between hang repetitions is 3 minutes
  • Frequency is at least 2x per week
  • A piece of rope or sling is used to assist with the non-working hand (minimum level of assistance volitionally possible)
  • The hangs differ in length by week, ranging from 5 seconds to 12 seconds, and a week or two of full rest from hangs are embedded
  • Few (or no) recommendations are made about what else to do i.e. other climbing and conditioning.

In case you missed the duration of each hang for each week, here it is:

  1. 10 seconds
  2. 10 seconds
  3. 5 seconds
  4. 10 seconds
  5. maximum duration, unassisted
  6. rest – no hangs
  7. 5  seconds
  8. 5s seconds
  9. 10 seconds
  10. 5 seconds
  11. maximum duration, unassisted
  12. rest – no hangs

Advantages to this program in my opinion:

  • The intensity is very high as the effort ranges from 5-12 second maximum effort with ample rest so it should increase neuromuscular recruitment and therefore maximum strength if done regularly. Some fingerboard routines going around these days are more strength endurance oriented in my opinion (e.g. two arm repeaters for 6 reps x 7 seconds on : 3 seconds off)
  • The volume per workout is not excessive (9 hangs x 5-12 seconds per arm) so it is less likely to cause overtraining and will leave some ‘gas in the tank’ for actual climbing/bouldering.
  • The open crimp is used, so the thumb is passive, and the index finger has a ~90 bend at the proximal interphalangeal joint (PIP) which is important if you want it to transfer to crimping on smaller holds. This grip is a good trade-off of specificity and lowered injury risk.
  • The hang duration and intensity is varied week to week and rest weeks are included which is excellent. I think that it’s a big mistake that people make, keeping workouts the same for too long without changing up the intensity and volume.

A few issues with this program in my opinion:

  • Using a sling/rope for assistance is not measurable so you can’t tell how much weight you’re taking off the working arm. Therefore, progress can only be measured by the unassisted hangs – i.e. how long you can hang (or almost hang) from one hand.
  • The intensity is extreme. He recommends at the end of each rep to let go with the assisting hand as much as possible until the active hand lets go. Since the volume is relatively low, this may be practicable but it’s definitely pushing the limits and may risk injury.
  • One-arm deadhangs, particularly with a straight arm, will put excessive strain on the shoulder, elbow and/or wrist for many people and this may affect one’s ability to get through the full 12 weeks.
  • The sling is hanging to the left of the board. This is odd because the left arm in supinated (palm in) and the right arm is pronated (palm out) so it’s not training each side symmetrically.
  • It doesn’t work on any other grips than the open crimp. Personally I think deadhangs are a good way to work on weaknesses in a controlled way, such as pockets with different combinations or 2 or 3 fingers.
  • The variation of hang duration is seemingly random. This isn’t a major issue but he doesn’t explain the rationale.

Here are some constructive suggestions to make this more effective and/or safer:

  • This could be done with two arms for less experienced (or less strong climbers), varying the intensity by putting weight in a back pack or hanging from your harness.
  • If you stick with one-arm hangs and you have the space for it, set up a 2-pulley system with weights pulling up on your harness (or hang onto that rope with the passive arm) so the assistance can be measured and you ensure that the working arm is working at an appropriate intensity.
  • If you use a sling for assistance, make it so you can hang it from either side of the board so that both arms work in the pronated (palm away) position
  • The cycling of intensity could be more linear like this, over 6 weeks: 12 sec, 10 sec, 8 sec, 6 sec, 4 sec, rest. This way the intensity goes up a bit each week, but I think it would only work if you used a pulley system, otherwise the shorter hangs might just be easier as opposed to more intense.
  • You could also so some sets with the three finger open hand grip – I think this is a good once to work on as well.

Thanks to Chris and Climblox for releasing this thought-provoking video. It definitely got me psyched to work on my one-arm deadhang strength!

Happy training :)

Treating and preventing finger tendon pulley injuries

Connor Magee asked the following via Twitter:

First off, I’m hesitant to give advice on injuries because I’m not a doctor or physiotherapist. So as a disclaimer the points in this blog should be viewed as general suggestions from one climber to another.

With that out of the way, as a general principle for climbing injuries, always think about the long term and remember that any injury you get could nag you for the rest of your climbing life. For example, my A2 pulley, right hand, ring finger suffered an epic tear over 10 years ago which required around 4 months off climbing altogether. Now that sucked. To this day I still crimp with some reservations although I can still crimp pretty well. But I far prefer the open crimp grip when I can get away with it. My point is that you should be calculated in the risks you take on bad holds – or more specifically crimps since this is an article about tendon pulleys.

Connor asked how to help it recover so I’ll make some recommendations, followed by some ideas on how to prevent such injuries.

  • When the injury first happens (or you think it might have happened), stop climbing immediately. Don’t be a hero and try to convince yourself it’s ok. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Ice it frequently (a few times a day) and most professionals recommend anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen. The reason you want to do these things is to keep inflammation down because inflammation can cause secondary damage whereby blood doesn’t get to the tissues surrounding the injury and as a result more cells die from lack of oxygen and/or nutrients.
  • In the first few days or so, it’s hard to diagnose what really happened because of the inflammation and also because you body is cleaning out the dead tissue. You want to let it run its course before you start loading it again because you don’t really know how severe it is yet.
  • After a couple of days’ off of climbing altogether (note: other training that doesn’t involve significant gripping is ok), if it seems significant – i.e. pain/discomfort is not gone – see a physiotherapist. It’s good to find one that has worked with climbers before. If you don’t know of one, ask the ‘mature’ climbers at the gym who have been at it for a decade or more, surely they will know of one. :) I definitely have my “go to” physio in Vancouver but luckily I haven’t had to see him for a few years!
  • Once the initial inflammation/pain part has subsided, and you can imagine climbing without cringing (that’s not a typo, I mean cringing, not crimping) you can probably start back with easy route climbing on jugs, or crack climbing. Bouldering is not advised because I find even the easiest problems strain the pulleys if they are sensitive, and climbing V0′s gets boring really quickly if you’re climbing much harder than that normally. ICE it after climbing, and as often as you can. (Sometimes if feels good to take an ice cube and massage your finger with it… I don’t know if that is a clinically accepted practice but I like it.)
  • Ok, now you’re climbing again, albeit on very easy terrain. Proceed with caution though because it’s easy to get overzealous and cause re-injury which is BAD and will prolong your recovery big time. Check your ego at the door and once you feel fatigue and you’re not in full control, you should stop. Obviously if you feel sharp pain, stop climbing and call it a day. ICE, ICE, ICE.
  • As your confidence builds bouldering probably becomes more feasible, and you can start pushing yourself a bit more on the routes. However, make sure that you use the open crimp grip instead of the closed crimp grip. Basically this means you do not hook your thumb over your index finger when holding edges. As above, if you sharp pain, stop climbing and don’t fight your way up routes or boulders; you want to be in control. This is also a good phase to work on core strength, pull-ups and antagonist like the chest, shoulder and triceps muscles.
  • Keep doing the above and at some point you will realize it’s not such a big deal anymore you can start trying harder routes and push closer to your limit. Still, go easy on the crimps – opt for slopers, wide pinches and other open handed grips if you have the choice. Occasionally you can try closed crimping, but use caution.
  • Finally you are not injured anymore. Congratulations! Now you can continue working on your crimp strength more specifically, so that crimping doesn’t become a major weakness compared to other hand positions. (One upside is that your open crimp strength will be better and you won’t have to crimp as much as you did.)

Other considerations:

  • To tape or not to tape: generally I say YES because it mechanically supports the tendon pulley. But don’t go crazy on the tape because if you can’t feel anything then you don’t know if you’re doing damage or not.
  • Use of pain killers / anti-inflammatory is a double edged sword. It has its place but you don’t want to mask the pain, otherwise you can be causing damage without knowing it. Personally I rarely use them on the same day that I am climbing/training.
  • Nutrition: eat lots of fruits and vegetables and keep processed food to a minimum. If your body is to heal it needs nutrients, especially antioxidants to deal with the free-radicals resulting from cell damage.
  • If it’s longer term pulley injury (months) and you are having a hard time getting back to climbing you can try Theraputty to start stressing the tendon pulleys again and stimulate them to get stronger.

Theraputty

Ok, now on to prevention.

  • Warm up properly – I believe 100 moves are a needed before your pulleys are ready for hard crimping.
  • Stay hydrated so your tissues are well-lubricated.
  • Personally I like to tape my middle and ring fingers on the closest part (phalanx) to the palm because I’ve injured these pulleys many  times – not always severely – so I like to do this as a protective measure for all workouts or climbing days.
  • Train the open crimp more than the closed crimp because the closed grip puts the greatest strain on the pulleys. On the flipside, you should still do some closed crimping otherwise when confronted with a bad crimper with a nice thumb-catch you will not be prepared for it and could be at a greater risk of injury.
  • Don’t do marathon training sessions. Try to keep in under two hours for bouldering – maybe longer if you’re doing routes. I find the finger tweaks usually happen when I’m fatigued, after hour two. Doing more frequent session that are shorter is way more effective and safer in my opinion.
  • Vary your routine – try different workouts to mix it up and not always strain your body the same way. Train on different angles, hold types , setting styles, route/boulders, etc.

There you have it, some general recommendations on treating and preventing tendon pulley injuries. Be safe, have fun and take care of your body so you can climb until a ripe, old age! :)

Tips for “middle age climbers”

@senderhq asked the following via Twitter:

senderhq
@climbing_strong Tips for middle aged folks who’s bodies are starting to rebel at a std schedule. Umm… you know… for a friend :)
02/21/13 11:53 AM

Before I start I will say that while I’m not quite middle aged, I’m in my mid-30′s and very much in the thick of my career, with a mortgage, a dog, etc. so I can speak to this with some knowledge. We don’t have children, though, and I know from our climbing friends who do have kids (AKA most climbing couples we know in Squamish) I can say that kids add an additional, significant challenge.

The other qualifier I will add is that for a number of years I worked as a personal trainer in addition to being a climbing coach/instructor, so I have worked with clients up to age 90 doing general fitness training. In that line of work you sure hear a lot about competing interests for one’s time and energy.

Let’s break down the issue at hand for what I will call “mature climbers”, defined as climbers between the ages 30-55 years. This is admittedly a big range and those at the higher end will be more pronounced in how they have to modify their training, but the same principles apply.

  • By age 30 or so our bodies are not as resilient as they once were. It takes longer to recover, and our bodies just can’t take as much abuse as they once did. I remember the 6 hour climbing gym bouldering sessions of my youth, followed by campus board training… sessions like this are a distant memory now.
  • Mature climbers have many competing priorities – work, spouse/children/family time, investments, pets, homes to maintain, and so on. All of these take up time; often taking up all waking hours. So training and nutrition can really fall to the wayside.

I think these points cover the main issues. So now, let’s look at what advantages mature climbers have in their favour. Yes, I believe there are advantages!

  • Along with getting older, we also tend to get wiser, or more sensible. I know in my youth I was much more idealistic. Mature climbers are more able to step back and look at their climbing and life with a long-term view and understand why they climb, what they want to get out of it, and what trade-offs they are willing (or not willing) to make to improve their climbing (or continue climbing into later years). This really helps with goal-setting.
  • Another advantage is that climbing is a sport that you can actually keep improving at relatively late in life. This is evidenced by climbers who climb at a very high level into their 50′s and beyond. For example, Stevie Haston (GB) and Fransisco Marin (ESP) both climb in the 5.14 / 8b+ or harder range and are in their 50s. So, our prospects are much better than, say, someone playing college football or basketball!

 

Stevie Haston the legend

  • We get more patient with age, generally, which helps in a number of ways. On a macro scale this helps us stick with a training plan and not give up when we don’t get instant results. On a micro scale, being patient helps us when climbing to use appropriate pacing on a climb, taking advantage of rests in order to be more efficient with our effort.
  • Climbing technique and tactics take a long time and a lot of experience on the rock to develop because there is practically an infinite range of styles of routes and boulders.

Maybe by now you’re convinced that getting older is not all bad news for climbers. So, how about some practical advice that you can put to use?

Get Serious About Goal Setting 

What’s most important to you? Getting fit for a sport climbing trip on steep limestone? Multi-pitch climbs in Yosemite? A bouldering trip to Fontainebleau? An epic alpine adventure? Being an “all-arounder” in various disciplines in your local area? Whatever it is, you should tailor your limited training time to that specific goal and if you don’t see a particular activity contributing directly to it, you should substitute for something else. Furthermore, think about how you will measure your success. At intervals make sure to do a reality check on how successful you’ve been at meeting those goals and adjust your training as you see fit.

Set Specific Training Objectives

Objectives, the way I use them, are a level “down” from goals. To meet a certain goal, there must be a number of attributes you need to develop to achieve it. They could relate to completing a certain amount of work (e.g. running X kilometres in Y months); being able to complete a particular exercise according to some parameters of intensity and volume/duration (e.g. 20 pull ups on a bar); some change in body morphology, like losing some excess weight; or a dietary goal like consuming no refined sugar for one month.

Here’s is a sample set of objectives for a climber with road trip to Yosemite coming up in a few months:

  • Run 25 km per week for 8 consecutive weeks
  • Complete 8 pitches of around 6a / 5.10b or harder, 3 times per week for 8 weeks at the climbing gym or local crag (192 pitches or 2,304 m assuming avg pitch is 12 m)
  • Be able to complete 20 consecutive pull-ups on a bar
  • Be able to complete 3 consecutive laps on the crack simulator route at the climbing gym

Here’s is a sample set of objectives for a boulderer with road trip to Rocklands, SA coming up in a few months:

  • Boulder at the gym 3 days per week for 8 weeks, minimum 1 hour not including warm up and cool down. (no socializing!)
  • Be able to complete 10 consecutive pull-ups on a 1.5 cm edge, “open crimp” grip (i.e. no thumb)
  • Be able to complete 8 dips on gymnastic rings
  • Lose 2 kg through dietary improvements (eliminating junk food)
  • Be able to touch touch the ground with full palm while doing a standing hamstring stretch with straight legs

These are just examples and you can come up with your own (by yourself or by working with a coach/trainer) that are more specific to your fitness gaps.

Focus on Climbing Technique and Tactics (i.e. Climb Smarter!)

Let’s face it. The days of just powering through climbs/boulders without using good technique are limited and best left to the teenage climbers at the gym! We’ve all had the experience where some older dude or dudette gracefully executed a move you struggled on with minimal effort by using some kind of knee-bar, jam or stem that we didn’t think of. Be that dude or dudette! There are plenty of books out there on the subject, and more than I can get into in this post but this area is a gold-mine. Furthermore, you can read all the books you want and it won’t accomplish anything until you APPLY it and EXPERIENCE it, preferably on real rock.

Or, if you can get to Fontainebleau, go there for a few weeks and I guarantee (ok I can’t guarantee) you will see tangible improvements in your technique!

Work on Your Flexibility

Nothing makes one feel “old” quite like stretching first thing in the morning and realizing you can’t touch your toes!  Technique (as above) is highly dependent on flexibility so please see my older post for more on this topic. Also, being flexible will help prevent injuries significantly.

Take Climbing Holidays Instead of Resort Holidays

I know, we all need to de-stress sometimes and that is ok. But to be blunt, you have to make smart choices if you want improve you climbing. There is nothing more motivating than a week or two at a totally new crag to test your mettle. You’ll come back ten times more psyched to train than if you just keep plugging away at your home crag and gym.

Shift Your Emphasis to Endurance Oriented Climbing

There is scientific research to suggest that strength and power maximum potential occurs around age 25, based on Olympic athletes. This is not to say you can’t improve these factors later in life; quite the contrary. However, the POTENTIAL for improving endurance (like technique, above) is much, much greater.

To prove this point, think about running – how many 50+ year old 100 m sprinters do you know?  I know none. Talking about 10 km or marathon distances, there are many people who take this up later in life and do it very well.

Climbing is similar, I don’t have statistics but I would bet there are more climbers 40+ yrs of age climbing 8a / 5.13b than there are bouldering, say, V9 on rock. I suppose it depends what you call comparable between routes and boulders but I think I’ve proved my point.

Be Smart About Injuries

Injuries happen and are more likely if you are pushing your limits. Unless you’re a one of the luck few that don’t ever get significant injuries, learn to recognize and treat them with the help of a healthcare professional. It’s better to scale back your training for a bit, then come back strong, than it is to make something into a chronic, nagging injury that plays our for months or even years.

Consider Getting a Climbing Coach / Trainer / Advisor

I can say from my personal training background that middle age people have a LOT more on their minds than training – work and parenting stress to name a few! But on the upside, they generally have more disposable income than they did in their youth (hopefully at least). So in a way having a climbing coach – virtual or in-person – may be feasible because it allows you to “outsource” the thinking part, and to some extent the self discipline required to stick to a program. If you have to report back to your trusted advisor on what you’ve gotten up to in your training and diet, you will find it easier to stick to it.

In Conclusion

So you’re approaching, or have reached middle age and you still love climbing and want to get better. Don’t give up! Unless you’re already among the top climbers in the world, you still have some significant room to improve. And climbing is one of those sports you can still kick butt at well into the later years. So, identify what you want to get out of if, how much non-climbing time you’re able to sacrifice each week, and make the most of what resources you have!

Disclaimer: This blog post is intended for healthy, active climbers that already have a high level of fitness, know about climbing safety techniques and don’t have any pre-existing injuries, conditions or illness. If you don’t meet this criteria then you should seek professional advice prior to commencing any kind of climbing and training regimen.