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!

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 :)

“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]