“The effects of two maximum grip strength training methods in elite climbers” E Lopez and JJ Gonzalez-Badillo, published in Sports Technology

Finger Strength Training – Research Paper Review

Recently a paper was published in the scientific journal, Sports Technology, by climbing training scientist/practitioner Eva Lopez and her research partner Juan Jose Gonzalez-Badillo. It was entitled “The effects of two maximum grip strength training methods in elite climbers”, and I thought was really interesting and applicable for experienced climbers seeking to increase their finger strength through a planned, systematic training program.

This paper looked at the effect of two different training programs involving two one-month blocks of specific finger training. The study had two groups, in which the average redpoint climbing level was around 5.13c/d (8a+/8b). The first group did a month of maximum added weighted hangs on a larger edge (18 mm), then a month of minimum edge depth training on a small edge with bodyweight only, and were referred to as MAW-MED. The other group did the same training except in the reverse sequence, so the minimum edge depth training in the first month, then maximal weighted hangs in the second month, or MED-MAW.  In addition to this training, which was done twice per week, the participants all did the same climbing program involving varied indoor climbing workouts on a bouldering wall, six days a week. It is important to note that after each 4 four week training phase there was a week of rest from strength training, and that there was a few weeks of rest at the end to measure the detraining effect. (Note, the rest weeks were for purposes of the study, and are not necessarily what you would mimic in your training program.)

Finger strength and endurance was tested at intervals throughout the study to measure the effect of the training. The strength test was the maximum added weight they could hold for 5 seconds on 15 mm edge and the endurance test was the amount of time they could hang on the 11 mm edge. What the researchers found was that the group that did the maximum added weight training first, followed by the minimum edge depth training (MAW- MED) obtained significantly greater gains in strength:

“The most effective training sequence to improve grip strength and endurance is to do the 10-s dead hanging with added weight and an edge depth of 18 mm and then proceed to dead hanging without added weight on the smallest edge depth that allows the participant to suspend themselves for 10-s intervals…

 …The biggest improvements occurred at 4 weeks of training (ST2) for the groups (+2.1% and +9.6% for MED – MAW and MAW – MED, respectively)…

…The explanation of this great effect could be that the use of loads while in dead hanging from a deeper edge provokes major muscular activation and recruitment of motor units, which in turn causes a bigger increase in grip strength than hanging off a smaller edge without added weight. This coincides with studies showing that there is higher muscular activation and recruitment of motor units when training with added weight (Hakkinen et al. 1985a, 1985b; Sale, 1988). In addition, the added weight dead hanging differs more from the usual climbing training than the small hold dead hanging. This may provide an extra stimulus and lead to higher adaptation processes.”

It was interesting that the strength test did not improve for either group after 8 weeks of training; in fact there were some losses in the MAW-MED group. However, the endurance test on the 11 mm edge continued to improve, most dramatically in the MAW-MED group. I suspect that the MAW training was more closely related to the strength test, which the MED training was most similar to the endurance test which could explain the timing of gains from each phase. But overall it is clear that MAW-MED was more effective for both strength and endurance.

So, the take-away message here from my point of view is that performing dead-hangs with added weight is an effective training method due to high muscular activation / recruitment of the finger flexors. But, for greater specificity and translation to climbing performance, the added weight training should be followed up by a phase of dead-hang training on small holds that are similar to the size of the crux holds of a routes/boulders that you are projecting.

The other important message is that strength training volume should increase progressively within each phase, and also that rest phases should be built into the training program periodically. I like how each phase increased the number of high-intensity repetitions per  workout (one week with 3 repetitions per workout; next week with 4 repetitions, then 5 repetitions for the last two weeks). I’m definitely guilty of not varying my training volume enough to allow for periods of high stimulus vs. periods of low stimulus to allow recovery, and this is something climbers don’t do enough, in general.

I think the importance of varying the hold size is significant, especially for the minimum edge depth training phase. Most climbers don’t have a “regletometro” (crimpometer would be an appropriate name in English) for which the edge size can be changed in small increments, as small as one millimeter. So, you can either build one as is shown on Eva’s website, or look into one of Eva’s innovative Progression or Transgression training boards which have small edge size increments. In the absence of these possibly, as a substitute, weighted hangs could be performed on a smaller edge, or an adjustable fingerboard angle could be used, but I haven’t tested these ideas so they may not be as effective as the adjustable edge depth method.

I’ve provided a cursory review of the paper here and do recommend reading the whole paper as there are a number of training insights throughout. In closing, I congratulate the authors as this is a very intelligently designed experiment and I look forward to seeing more research from them in the future!

[Note: this blog was updated March 16, 2013 as the number of dead-hang workouts per week incorrectly indicated 3-5 per week, when in fact the workouts were done twice per week throughout, except for the rest weeks. The variation in volume was the number of sets, not sessions. My apologies for the misinterpretation of the original article. -AP]