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!