Guiding Principles: “Lessons Learned”; or “High Risk, High Reward”; or both?

Disclaimer: This post is for advanced/elite climbers who have minimum 5 years (approx) training and climbing/bouldering experience. Always climb and train intelligently!

This blog post could have been called “Lessons Learned”; or “High Risk, High Reward”. In fact you could describe my whole training theory with either/both. Confused? I’m going somewhere with this.

There are two basic principles with training for climbing that I follow, HOWEVER, not in the same proportion. The first principle ,”Lessons Learned”, is 90% predominant for me, depending on the circumstances, which states that climbing (and training for climbing) is a journey and you will make mistakes along the way about yourself that you need to learn from. Add up all those lessons over many years and what you get is some kind of WISDOM about yourself, what your limits are and more importantly, where your strengths lie which you can leverage and use to propel yourself forward.

Have you been injured before while climbing/training? Probably, if you’ve been at it for a number of years. Why did it happen? What were the conditions? What type of move/exercise? Usually when you look back you can see exactly why something happened when it did. (Flashback: me bouldering 6 days on in Bishop, CA, then trying the crimpy pockets of Cholos V9 without being properly warmed up… DUH!… and OUCH!!!) I think I LEARNED something there, as obvious as it seems in hindsight.

The second principle, “High Risk, High Reward”, is predominant for me 10% of the time.  Just saying that will probably get some peoples’ backs up, but let’s face it, climbing and other sports put a lot of strain on your body and if you fail to train for that, you will get hurt and you will not succeed. Let’s say you are training for a project that has a lot of small, painful holds (pockets and crimps). Do you think training on jugs, slopers and large, comfy edges will help? Maybe a bit, but not much (unless you are novice/intermediate level, when virtually everything “works”), because it’s not specific enough. In fact it may increase your risk of injury if you don’t training specifically enough.

You are likely better off training those “risky” types of holds in controlled environment where you can progressively increase the intensity and volume, and where your adrenaline is kept LOW so you don’t fight unnecessarily and put yourself at risk.

These two principles interact and you can’t have one without the other. I’ve been climbing and training for about 18 years now (AKA I’m borderline “old”) so I err on the side of lessons learned. When I was younger I was more in the range of 50%-50%, hanging from tiny mono-pockets, bouldering in the gym for 5 hours straight, and doing 1.5 hour campus board workouts.

Many years and several injuries later, I’m a lot more careful but I still push the envelope and do things where I feel I’m taking a calculated risk.

  • My workouts are shorter and more focused (usually 60-90 minutes), but more frequent.
  • I try to have some consistency in my weekly program, and increase intensity and volume gradually.
  • I don’t go to total exhaustion, and stop when my form starts to suffer.
  • I warm up and stretch properly.
  • I limit my exposure to tweaky/injurious holds or moves (but don’t avoid altogether)
  • When I go to a climbing gym (as opposed to my home wall) I check my ego at the door and pay as little attention as possible to grades, and don’t try to ‘compete’ with others.

When I do take risks when training, most of the time I get away with it and get stronger as a result. Other times I’m not so lucky (such as when I recently overdid it bouldering with a 6 kg weight vest and hurt my rotator cuff). Another lesson learned and at least I know for next time to increase the weight and volume more gradually!

I hope you have found this to be an interesting post and welcome you to leave your comments and experiences below.

Regards,

Andrew

“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]

Training Advice: Should I keep training when I have sore fingers?

@NikkiGilbey asked, via Twitter:

“Really really sore achey fingers… #climbing people, any advice other than just cracking on regardless??”

“I have been trying to do a lot more specific training rather than just climbing which is helping….”

“Know any finger stretches/massages that will ease the pain when it happens though? Feels like my joints need to pop…”

This is a common problem for climbers who are training hard and pushing their limits. Since fingers are often the most obvious sign weakness on a climb or boulder problem, it’s no surprise that climbers must continually work on this area. But, is pain and discomfort acceptable or even desirable?

I’ll try to address this issue here, but let it be known that I am not a physician and this is not medical advice. If you have significant discomfort in your fingers, or have experienced sharp, acute pain while climbing/training you should consult with a physician and/or physiotherapist. But for this post I’ll assume that the discomfort is not severe and doesn’t represent an actual injury.

So here is my advice, in no particular order:

  • Learn to listen to your body and its cues. This comes with time and experience. Many years ago I was more reckless and would yard on crimps and small pockets as hard as I could, as long as I could, and then wonder why I got injuries regularly. More recently I’ve become a lot more selective about when I give a hold 100%, and I am more selective in what I climb and train on. Since I got back into “hard” training about two years ago, I’ve managed to walk the fine line and have improved my finger strength substantially through bouldering, campusing and fingerboard training. Sometimes it is uncomfortable to do certain exercises, but with those ones I keep the volume low and build up very gradually. For example, I may only campus on small rungs (i.e. one centimetre) every two weeks, and I only do a couple of sets/repetitions, however progress still occurs and I never get any pain as a result.
  • Think long term. Do you want to be climbing 20 years from now? I sure do. Take care of your body and err on the side of caution instead of playing “Russian Roulette” with your fingers each workout!
  • Crimp selectively and work on your open hand and open crimp grip. Crimping comes more naturally to most people, but it’s very beneficial to train the more open handed grip positions, even if it feels weaker. By ‘open hand’ I refer to using slopers, or three fingers without using the pinky/small finger. ‘Open crimp’ refers to a crimp grip but without hooking the thumb over the index finger or the corner of the hand hold. Note, this can be taken to extreme as well, where the ever-important ‘full crimp’ – with thumb – is neglected, but that is rare.
  • Don’t train everything at the same time or in the same training cycle. You don’t have to go crazy on the ‘scientific’ periodization programs (because it’s as much of an art as it is a science). But you should have a focus for training cycles lasting 4-8 weeks during which you emphasize certain things like general conditioning, strength and power, or power endurance / resistance. Your body can’t really adapt to so many things at once and the risk of overtraining (and injury) will increase.
  • Similar to the above, don’t overtrain. Do you really need to boulder in the gym for 3+ hours, 5 days a week? If you are a World Cup competitor, then you probably do. But for most of us, I recommend strength workouts lasting no longer than two hours in duration. And generally you shouldn’t do high intensity finger strength training more than two days in a row without giving them a rest day.
  • Don’t forget about the rest of your body. Fingers are important but are no the only reason we fail on climbs/boulders. Strong arm and core muscles are very important as well, and you can train these areas while resting your fingers.
  • There are various stretches you can do but these mostly stretch the muscle/tendon unit, which are generally not the main source of finger pain. I would say it’s more to do with the ligaments, tendon pulleys or possibly cartilage in the knuckles, and unfortunately stretching does not really help these soft tissues in my opinion. However, gently massage your fingers between workouts to probe for sensitive areas and increase blood flow as it could be helpful in preventing or identifying issues.
  • If you have a particularly tough workout and you’re feeling the pain afterward you could try ice baths for your hands, where you basically dump some ice and cold water into a large bowl and submerge your hands for as long as you can bear, then repeat a couple of times. This will help bring down inflation and speed the recovery process. I used to take ibuprofen but no longer do this because I think it is really just masking any issues and is not addressing the root cause.
  • Add some milled flaxseed or flaxseed oil to your diet which among many other health benefits, may have an anti-inflammatory effect.

This is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully will help you and others a little bit. At the end of the day you need to always listen to your body and understand what its telling you… is this “good pain” or “bad pain”? If you know that then you will be well on your way to preventing finger injuries.

 

Squamish Classic!

Lovely Day of Bouldering in Squamish

Today was a beautiful day and wasn’t overly hot so altogether, perfect weather for bouldering. I worked some harder problems of which I didn’t capture any good footage, but I did get a nice video of Prime Time Sit (V5) which showcases some quality granite. Enjoy!

Prime Time Sit (V5) from ClimbingStrong on Vimeo.

Climbing and Training Update

Small but significant success at Chekamus

Just a quick update on reasonably successful climbing weekend… On Saturday I went to Chekamus Canyon (north of Squamish, BC) and finally got back on “The Big Show” after a few years away from it. My good friend Jamie Finlayson, fresh off his recent redpoint of Pulse 5.14a, had finally convinced me to put my training to the test.

Several years ago, I had worked Division Bell 5.13d but never managed to send it, after a hold broke near the end, making it significantly harder for the grade. Also I had tried Free Will 5.13c but tweaked my wrist badly while pulling on a two-finger slot after the crux halfway up, which quickly ended that attempt!

So how did it go? Well, I did two burns on Free Will and made some very solid linkages on both goes, so I was pretty stoked and my training over the winter and spring have started to show real dividends. I think I might have a shot at redpointing the route this season. However, to do that I will need to increase my power-endurance. This is the ability to do many difficult moves in a row without rest. I definitely have the power for the route since I was able to climb all the sections first try, after resting on the rope.

Big thanks to Jamie for getting me up there finally!

Power-Endurance Training

This (Sunday) morning there was an incredible thunderstorm which was striking very close to home and the rain was just hammering down. So, climbing outside was out of the question. What to do? … train some power-endurance of course!

Power-Endurance Workout Part 1: Bouldering Resistance Circuits

Inspired by the new and promising iPhone ClimbCoach (www.climbcoach.org) app, I made a linkup of three problems on the  50 degree wall, going up-down-up for a total of 16 moves. I did the link-up six times in total, resting 5 minutes between each go. The last one was near exhaustion – I barely finished it.

Power-Endurance Workout Part 2: Fingerboard “Finger Fitness” Workout

Following the Finger Fitness workout from the ClimbCoach app, this workout is oriented to doing many repeated hangs with short rests to develop resistance to fatigue in your fingers and forearms.

I use slightly different terminology than the authors of the app, but here’s how I describe it.

One set = 5 hangs lasting 7 seconds each, with 3 seconds between each hang. Rest two minutes between each set.

Perform one set on each of the following:

  1. Sloper
  2. Two finger pocket – middle pair (middle and ring fingers)
  3. Two finger pocket – front pair (index and middle fingers)
  4. Supposed to be: Two finger pocket – back pair (ring and pinky); however I substituted a three finger pocket instead (index, middle and ring fingers) because hanging on the “back pair” was too painful today.
  5. Supposed to be: Crimp (closed); however, I did an Open Crimp instead since my fingers hurt too much when I dangle on a closed crimp. The Open Crimp (i.e. no thumb) is far more comfortable and translates relatively well to the closed crimp when climbing.
Now for the advanced workout I should repeat the above three times… however being my second day on and done after the resistance circuits, it wasn’t happening. I will work up to it though!
Thanks for reading and look out for updates on my quest for power-endurance!
Andrew

Exercise of the day – The Horizontal Pull-up

The Horizontal Pull-up

This a exercise is great alternative or complement to the standard pull-up, which is arguably more sport-specific for most climbing situations, since we usually have our feet on the wall and are using our arms to pull our centre of gravity into the wall.

Here are some of the key features of the exercise.

  1. The main difference with this exercise if that your feet are positioned on the ground or a chair/stool so your body is somewhat horizontal. The higher your feet are, the more horizontal you will be, making the exercise harder.
  2. Usually the exercise is done on a bar if you are at a gym or outdoor playground, or gymnastic rings that can be lowered to approximately 4 feet or 1.2 meters off the ground. The latter is my preference but the bar option is more commonly available when travelling etc.
  3. It can be done with either two-arms, or if that is too easy, it can be done with a single arm.
  4. The motion should be completed at a ‘regular’ pace –  approximately 2 seconds on the way up, 1 second pause at the top, and 2 seconds on the way down. The lock-off at the top is important for climbing since we regularly have to do this when reaching up with the other hand.
  5. The number or repetitions obviously depends on your strength, body weight, whether you’re using two arms or one arm, and how elevated your feet are. The number or repetitions should be between 6 and 12 for strength and between 12 and 20 for strength-endurance. You can adjust these parameters to get to the right range of repetitions. (One more option is to use a weight vest if you have one and you’re super burly!)

Two-arm Horizontal Pull-up – Start

 Two-arm Horizontal Pull-up – Finish

One-arm Horizontal Pull-up – Start

One-arm Horizontal Pull-up – Finish

And that’s it – please try it out and provide your feedback and comments below or on Twitter, to @climbing_strong with the hashtag #EOTD.

Thanks for reading!

Fingerboard Training Routine

There are a million and one training routines out there, and I’ve tried many of them over the years, but I’ve settled in on what works best for me, and believe will work for all climbers that have a good finger strength base.

 

The minimum qualification for this is 5.11a or french 6b+ (routes), or V4 (bouldering), with some fingerboard experience. Below this level, one should focus more on technique and mileage, achieved through bouldering and/or route climbing.

The basic principles of this routine are:

  1. The workout (excluding warm-up/cool-down) should take no longer than 30-45 minutes. Fingerboard training is so specific that it’s easy to overdo it and cause injury.
  2. It must take advantage of the contract-rest cycle which occurs naturally when climbing. This will simulate the same metabolic processes and should produce more transferable gains.
  3. There should be an element of movement – i.e. not just dead-hanging since most routes/boulders involve moving on the holds, and not just hanging!
  4. The intensity should be high enough that fatigue is reached within 30-60 seconds (including rest between hangs).
  5. It should be progressive, allowing you to work harder as your strength improves over time.
  6. It should involve a variety of different hand positions (grips).
  7. It should allow you to improvise somewhat based on your body’s cues, so you can do what feels right and avoid things that feel potentially injurious.
Disclaimer
This routine is to increase your finger strength, therefore some strain will be involved in the joints and tissues. With that comes a risk of injury, so please listen to your body, avoid pain, and perform routine this at your own risk.

The Exercises

There are two exercises – no surprises here:

  • Pull-ups: Do this on the holds/hand positions with which you can hang from for 6 seconds or longer. Perform sets of 2-10 repetitions. If you can do more than 10, use a smaller hold or add extra weight (advanced only).

 

  • Dead-hang: Do this on the holds/hand positions with which you can hang from for 6 seconds or longer. Hang for 2-8 seconds, resting for 6-10 seconds in between hangs, and repeat 4-6 times per set. If you can do 6 x 8 seconds, use a smaller hold or add extra weight (advanced only).

The Routine

Warm up

15 or so minutes with light joggings, bouldering, calisthenics, skipping, etc.

Main Part (30-45 minutes)

    • Each ‘exercise’ focuses on one pair of holds. Start the workout with larger holds (“jugs”) to progressively warm your joints and muscles, and work your way toward smaller holds (or fewer fingers) with each set.
    • Using the criteria above, perform either the pull-up or dead-hang exercise, depending how hard the hold is for you.
    • Rest approximately 1-2 minutes between each set.
    • Here is the KEY to this workout: For your first set on each hold, do about 30-40% of the max number of repetitions you are able to do. With each set, add 1 or 2 repetitions until you max out on the exercise (i.e. approach ‘failure’ for that set). Then move on to the next hold/exercise.
  • Repeat this until (A) you feel your strength is starting to diminish, (B) you’ve worked to the smallest holds on your fingerboard, (C) you’ve exceeded 45 minutes, (D) you feel a sign of pain or discomfort in your fingers or other joints.
Cool Down
Perform some light stretching for your upper body and fingers.
Sample Workout

 

Here is my workout, completed on the Moon fingerboard. The numbers after the exercise specifications represent the number of reps for successive sets.

  • Pull-up, mini-jug (2 inches, positive):  4, 6, 8, 10
  • Pull-up, large 4 finger pocket, open crimp (1.25 inches, sloping): 4, 6, 8, 10
  • Pull-up, small 3 finger pocket, open hand (0.75 inches, flat): 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (note: last set of 7 is the peak effort for the workout)
  • Dead-hang, narrow edge, 4 finger open crimp, for 2-3 seconds: 3, 4, 5
  • Pull-up, narrow sloper, 4 finger open hand, in L-set position (knees raised): 4, 5, 6

 

Closing Remarks

The exact workout above is just example, please do not emulate it exactly – start slow, and build up gradually over a period of months while listening to your body. Keep a journal so you can review your progress. 

So, please try this approach and let me know how it works for you. I would love to get your feedback and share your experience with it. Happy training!