Thursday, March 19, 2015

Bouldering and its Physical Impacts: What Should We Know?

Climbing has reached new heights of visibility so to speak with the widespread media coverage of the Dawn Wall ascent earlier this year, an ascent where the strengths and skills developed through high-level bouldering played a major part (to be discussed in another post). In this country at least bouldering as a competition discipline appears to be much more popular than roped climbing and clearly a favorite for youth team training. In other words the future trajectory for bouldering participation appears to be on an upward trend (haha), which is a good thing.

Along with this popularity, however, there is going to have be a serious discussion of how gyms, youth coaches and the industry in general will mitigate the physical impact of bouldering going forward. This is a topic that is gaining increasing traction in youth football right now and there is considerable concern that parents will be reluctant to allow their children to play football for fear that irreversible brain damage could be a result of hard hits on the playing field. It has been suggested by Dave MacLeod in his new book Make or Break, that repeated impacts on young climbers could affect vulnerable growth plates, just as with finger overuse injuries, stunting the growth of the lower limbs.

It has long been noted that in bouldering, "Every fall is a ground fall" and the (under-reported) fact is that a fair number of old-school boulderers  are paying a significant price for the harder falls of the pre-pad generation. John Sherman, author of the "other" book on bouldering,  was taken to the hospital by myself and a friend after popping off a lowball traverse and bouncing his head on a slab at the base. This was one of several concussions he sustained. He has also had two hip transplants. I had a similar experience a couple of years ago in RMNP, ironically bouncing off a pad and winding up with six staples in my scalp.

It is a concern of mine that we are not anticipating carefully enough the long-term consequences of bouldering falls, not merely hard impacts as mentioned above but also the less-obvious impacts of repeated "safe" falls, especially in the gym. While I don't think they present the kind of threat posed by the collisions of tackle football, I also am not seeing any clear effort made by the climbing industry to fund scientific research on landing materials, landing configuration, wall construction, route setting and of course fall training as it relates to indoor climbing. This is critical because although outdoor falls present the apparently more dangerous outcomes, most falls occur in the confines of a gym where the convenience and apparent safety of a wall allow multiple repeated falls in a short span of time.

As a long-time boulderer myself, I have become increasingly aware of problematic trends in bouldering wall design that have the potential side-effects of promoting long-term chronic injury for their users. The first and foremost of these is height. Despite the glamorization of so-called highball bouldering in climbing media, there are certain basic laws of physics at work that cannot be ignored regarding mass acceleration and the impact forces that result. In a nutshell, the longer the fall the more intense the forces that must be absorbed upon impact.

These forces multiply very rapidly so that a fall of two meters has half the impact of a four meter fall, basically a doubling of impact force created by a negligible amount of additional vertical rise in climbing terms. You can check this out thanks to the Splat Calculator, a page posted by a climber. What this implies for a boulderer is that a common gym design, that is a steep lower wall followed by an upper more slabby portion, is tacking on vertical gain in such a way as to make that upper portion much  more dangerous in the event of a fall. This danger can be augmented even further by a problem set with a crux move near or at the end, raising the chances for a fall and even worse an out-of-control fall.

It's my view that bouldering gyms are now making walls that are much too high. Tall walls look better in photos and create an initial perception of adding value to the visitor's experience but for regular users may have the opposite effect, raising the chances for catastrophic acute injury and inevitably, and unnecessarily adding to the cumulative impacts of repeat falls and deliberate dismounts from the wall (as when a climber is forced to drop from the top). Ironically tall walls inhibit effective training for this reason as the climber pays a real physical cost for repeated impact in exchange for uncertain training benefit, especially with movement that is all too often affected by awareness of the wall height and the potential impact of a fall.

I hear from route setters and others that actually these walls aren't that high, remarks that are often tinged with a hint of young male bravado, implying that my concerns are a byproduct of timidity or cowardice. However, I have seen too many young climbers quit the sport for various reasons, especially injury, and have heard from too many older climbers who are intimidated precisely by the potential real-life consequences of an injurious fall to take these responses seriously. Regardless of one's reserves of courage, the laws of physics are strictly enforced in the event of a fall and it seems incumbent on gyms to maximize the well-being of their customers over the ego of the setters and wall designers.

Another issue is the landing surface and its configuration. While there are commonalities with gymnastics there are also significant differences as well, especially regarding the height and irregularity of the falls, not to mention the skill level of the athlete and lack of spotting. Basically bouldering gym flooring is in a state of infancy regarding its materials and how it is set up. Gyms want a surface that is safe and durable, two qualities that do not always coincide.

So what is to be done? Obviously the first option is the status quo which so far is building high walls and hoping for the best. In my view to do this is missing a great opportunity to seriously study the costs and benefits of different bouldering setups to find the one that best maximizes climbing potential and minimizes risk of injury, whether acute or chronic. The industry is currently on a binge of wall construction which provides a great laboratory for next generation walls and landings to build upon.

If you are a frequent boulderer and want to stay healthy, focus your training time on low-impact high difficulty problems that won't cause repeated high-impact falls. If you are motivated to work a particularly high problem, a good tactic to use inside is climbing up on big holds to establish on a high crux in a less tired state, so you learn the move quicker and are less likely to take repeated falls. Avoid gratuitously dangerous high moves such as big sideways dynos as they have a tendency to wreck shoulders and pitch climbers upside down. Outside, if feasible, working a highball on toprope is a really good idea to spare your ankles, knees, hips and back the repeated stress of landing. It goes without saying to pad things as well as possible. Lastly, inside or out, learn how to fall correctly, dissipating impact forces by rolling away from the landing whenever possible. Always analyse in advance the most likely places to fall and anticipate your possible body position in flight and at impact. A competent spotter can be a big help in limiting these forces as well. Good luck and safe bouldering!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Friction Labs Chalk Review

Friction Labs Chalk Review 

The logo for Friction Labs Unicorn Dust

For bouldering, there are three essential tools: shoes, chalk and pads. Of these three, shoes probably get the most attention which makes a certain degree of sense. But the fact is that most of us really have no clue about the nature of the stuff we put on our hands to keep them dry. I have been increasingly frustrated with the chalk manufactured and sold by the bigger names in the industry, noticing that its texture and drying power seemed "off" somehow. I was also concerned about the nature of the "drying agents" and the lack of transparency in regard to the actual ingredients involved. Some of this I addressed a few years back in a post called "The Chalk Review" 

Since then some better chalks have emerged including that branded and sold by Mammut which I have used successfully in the past. However the most interesting development is an entirely new company, based in Colorado, called Friction Labs which has basically taken the approach of creating and selling via mail-order pure pharmaceutical grade chalk designed specifically for different kinds of climbing situations.

Kevin at FL was kind enough to send some samples my way that I had the opportunity to try out over the past few months, mostly in RMNP and the gym. There are three varieties of texture called Bam Bam, Gorilla Grip, and Unicorn Dust. Across the board, I was struck immediately by the excellent "hand" of the different chalks, what I would describe as a dry and slightly tacky feel when your fingers rub together. This tended to remain the case when actually gripping holds even the slippery and conditions-dependent gneiss of Lower Chaos Canyon. Kevin at Friction Labs explained that the key is the high percentage of magnesium carbonate which acts to trap moisture inside the chalk. Other chalks contain larger amounts of calcium carbonate which lacks this absorbent capacity, not to mention other unspecified filler materials. I recommend you read the chemical analysis posted at the FL website, something that to my knowledge no other company has done previously.

Personally I preferred the chunkier harder texture of the Bam Bam variety but I recommend you try out each of the different textures to see which suits your skin and climbing style the best. The only caveat is the price as it is much more expensive than other climbing chalks. However the subscription plan price includes free shipping and handling, an arrangement which is a real plus in making sure you always have the good stuff at hand, so to speak. Otherwise if you are left at the mercy of the local climbing shop's stock, you may be stuck with one of the "other" chalks, something that I have found makes a real difference, especially if you are working problems right at your limit.

For serious climbers, I think this is a great development and a chance to help a small start-up providing a very high quality product and service at a reasonable price. If you are looking for an extra tool for getting better results from your valuable climbing time, I strongly recommend checking them out.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Rock Climber’s Training Manual: A Boulderers Perspective

Images from the cover and contents of The Rock Climber's Training Manual

Over the past decade, Mark and Mike Anderson, brothers with a lengthy and substantial climbing record across disciplines, have been developing a training protocol called the Rock Prodigy Training Method. It’s clearly having results. For example, Mark has emerged as a very strong climber, repeating various testpieces here in Colorado and in Utah and Oregon, as well as doing 5.14 first ascents in places like Clear Creek Canyon and Shelf Road. When their book The Rock Climber’s Training Manual (referred to from here on out as TRCTM) came out I was very interested to see what they would come up with. As a climbing book author myself, I understand all too well the challenges inherent in gathering and presenting what can be at times a very complex subject.

Fixed Pin Publishing very kindly sent me a copy of tTRCTM for review and I was immediately impressed by the richness and finish of the book. The writing is very clear and the organization logical and coherent. The basic premise of the book is that climbing improvement is a quantifiable process and that a climber who wants to improve has to base that process on a predictable plan with measurable goals and benchmarks. I think on this level alone the book is very successful.

TRCTM is primarily intended for mid-level to advanced sport climbers, an audience that is more likely to be interested in the kinds of progression outlined in its pages. This is both its strength and weakness, at least as far as bouldering is concerned. The front cover and indeed many of the illustrations throughout the book are from the Red River Gorge and Smith Rock, areas that emphasize continuous endurance climbing and in the case of many routes in Smith, relatively low-angle technical small hold climbing. The Smith Rock photos especially give the book a bit of a retro feel, since the progression in high-end sport and bouldering in America has been on relatively steep power-endurance routes such as at Rifle or problems like those found in RMNP or Hueco Tanks.

The gist of TRCTM is that following periodized cycles of training will result in the greatest gains for your climbing, something that has been at the heart of most training books in English since the groundbreaking (and surprisingly current) Performance Rock Climbing by Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann was published back in the 90s. Establishing levels of strength, power and power endurance by means of the hangboard and campus board along with regular trips to the gym are the heart of this training program. Reviewing the basic outline of the training programs in the book, I found the workout plans and tactics made sense, although I found the means by which one finds the optimal weight at which to train on a fingerboard not entirely easy to understand. I am terrible with charts and graphs, though. Everything is presented in a relatively logical and analytical fashion and this is reassuring to anyone embarking on a training plan. It’s a solid and comprehensive guide to getting better, no question, especially for sport climbing.

For the specific pursuit of bouldering however I think this book could stand some revision. Among other things I found curious was the proposition that hangdogging and refining beta while working routes was easier and more typical than in working boulder problems because the boulderer climbs from the ground. In actuality boulderers often work problems close to the ground with sit starts or steep features that allow stepping into crux moves or sections quite easily. Boulderers are obsessive with refining beta to a degree that might astonish some sport climbers unfamiliar with this aspect of the sport. A closer look at the practices at the leading edge of bouldering today would help iron out some of these issues.

In terms of training, bouldering is not just about adding more intensity or weight, it is also about mastering very different body positions, learning types of dynamic movement, coping with mental pressures, and developing effective tactics for safe successful attempts on problems, all in ways that will differ drastically from an enduro route in the Red. Boulderers need to closely understand complex heelhooking, kneebars, toehooks, and the overall intricacies of compression climbing. Dynamic movement, though key in bouldering, is given relatively small space in the text as a whole and not much in the (very short) section dedicated to bouldering. Of course in bouldering dynamic climbing is critical to success on any limit problem. The mental pressures of working out multiple limit moves that must be linked flawlessly are similar to sport climbing but take on a qualitatively different intensity in bouldering where success and failure can occur almost arbitrarily. In other words, if training for climbing can be described as a science, as TRCTM clearly intends, bouldering still feels more like an art where criteria for advancement seem qualitative and subjective.

Is TRCTM desirable for boulderers? Yes and no. Given the relatively short space dedicated to the sport in the book, it is clear that it’s not primarily intended for bouldering, though ironically bouldering is seen as critical in providing power for improving one’s sport-climbing level. However, for any climber looking for a current and comprehensive understanding of the basics of training theory as it applies to climbing overall, TRCTM is a great and relatively inexpensive place to start. The effort and diligence of the authors is apparent throughout and the publisher’s care in terms of layout and production is clearly evident. But for bouldering training specifically, it has significant limitations. The book on bouldering training hasn’t been written though I have been working on it a bit. Watch this space.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Kilter Grips: Hold Review

As the owner of a small home wall, I am always on the hunt for good holds to freshen up the mix for bouldering and training. In my view the best home wall holds are the ones that reflect the problems you want to do outside and will get you stronger for projects. For me, that means crimpy V12 and V13s in the alpine areas and on the Front Range. However, while I have a few sharp incuts, I tend to favor holds that are on the flatter side, requiring more body tension and lock-off strength to properly control. Holds like this are typical for problems like the Automator in RMNP where the actual incuts, though small, are the "rest" holds on the problem and the hard moves are on sloping edges. Holds that hit the sweet spot between sloper and crimp are not easy to find though.
Working on Automator
Ian Powell, the shaper behind E-Grips and now Kilter, is an old friend of mine and when he asked, I was more than happy to take a few sets home to try out. My wall has three panels between 20 and 35 degrees overhung giving a good sense of the usablity of much of the line. I put up about a dozen or so and mixed them into a repertoire of holds going back more than 20 years in some cases. I stick with holds that work and am reluctant to hop on the latest fad holds that only wind up collecting chalk and spiders in the surplus bin. In other words the bar is high. And I don't mind letting Ian know what I think either. For more about Ian, read this excellent story by Caroline Treadway.

So what's the takeaway? In short, whether you are running a commercial gym or fitting out your own home wall, these holds are top-of-the-line. The finish is superb with all the detail you need and none that you don't. Ian is a genuine artist who is in touch with the shapes of nature and has a perfectionist streak as wide as the Mississippi.

From the Noah Medium Series
There are no tweaky bits or extraneous edges that catch joints or skin. The texture is just a bit on the aggressive side but not too much. Most will not want to sand these holds down.

From the Noah Medium 2 Set
The shapes are very simple yet versatile and can find their way into problems at all angles and difficulties. They take up very little extra space and can be slotted in between larger holds easily. With a little drilling many could be screwed on as well.

From the Teagan Medium Series
What has always impressed me about Ian is his ability to create originality where others run out of ideas and opt for gimmicks instead of substance. The Teagan and Noah series are excellent examples of this deceptively simple approach, where you realize that you hadn't seen these shapes before but they make perfect sense, like a really good hold outside.

From the Noah Medium Series
I would really recommend these holds to anyone with a home gym who wants to do more than hang onto incut mini-buckets or breadloaf pinches. I have recommened these to my coaching clients who want to make the move to the next level. The quality is top-notch and you will get years of enjoyment with these grips brightening up your wall.
Check out the whole line at

From the Sandstone Medium Series. Sophia age 7.5 demonstrates. The green incut two holds over is from the Winter Small Series.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Gimme Kraft: Review and Interview with Author Patrick Matros

A couple of months ago I started seeing pictures of a new training book from Germany. It was hard to miss with an eye-catching bright green cover and a distinctive title. "Gimme Kraft" translates to "give me strength" a quality for which the German climbing scene has long been known for especially through the pioneering efforts of Wolfgang Gullich, himself an important writer on the sport. I contacted one of the authors, Patrick Matros, about the book and he very kindly sent a copy to look over and comment on.

The book is a great new arrival in a field that is currently in an era of transformation. Training for climbing is changing its approach, challenged by the latest achievements of young phenoms like Adam Ondra, Alex Megos and Ashima Shiraishi. It feels a bit like the era before Chris Sharma, where the old paradigms are fading. 9a onsights and V14 flashes are changing the ways we approach the sport. As a climber in search of expanding my own limits and as a climbing coach helping others expand theirs, I welcome any new sources to aid me in this journey.

The book is clearly laid out, with both German and English text, and nice photos, though basically none of any outside climbs. The tone is friendly enthusiastic and encouraging and the English translation is generally very good and expresses the German well. Its production reflects a serious but outgoing sensibility, seen also on the contributions by climbers such as Sasha DiGiulian, Bernd Zangerl and Fred Nicole to name a few. It is accompanied by a DVD with video depicting the exercises which is a helpful supplement.

I think the primary contribution to American climbers is as a source for training exercises outside the standbys of campus board and fingerboard. Among the tools depicted here are the rings, pegboard and slings, mainly for training the bigger muscles of the upper body and torso. A number of these exercises would be familiar to anyone who has trained as a gymnast. It is certainly refreshing to see less emphasis on finger training and pure pulling.

Gimme Kraft! Trailer from cafekraft on Vimeo.

Because of the emphasis on these exercises, the book is not a comprehensive manual for climbing training. That book would be a MUCH larger tome, one that I am sure the authors of Gimme Kraft are more than capable of producing. Information on stretching and injury prevention is absent, though this is of course available widely from other sources. But overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to freshen up their training routine.

For a bit more about the book, Patrick agreed to a quick email interview, which he did in English (huge help Patrick!) and despite his busy schedule. For more info and ordering from North America, please visit

1. Gimme Kraft means "Give me strength- What kinds of strength do you think should climbers strive for?

As climbing is a sport with a plethora of different movements it demands different categories of strength. The basic categories are maximum strength, strength endurance, explosive and reactive strength. It depends on the climbing discipline and the character of the climb what mix is required. But even if you want to specialize (e.g. to boulder), you shouldn't neglect less important categories of strength completely due to the basic training principle of variation. This way you will prevent early stagnation and overloading.

Another aspect is the massive coherence between health-related aspects of fitness (e.g. strength) and skill-related aspects of fitness (e.g. coordination). You should avoid training an isolated aspect such as  a certain form of strength exclusively over a long time. Take care to unleash your strength whilst climbing! And don’t forget this after all your strength training: The basic climbing technique is to save your strength as much as possible!

2.    I noticed that the exercises in the book primarily involve body weight and not free weights or machines. Why is this?

Our idea of strength training is complex training. This means that your exercises are always performed in regard to a more or less complex movement as your goal. This helps to develop your strength economically during sport-specific movements. Your muscles work together in so called slings: These are muscle groups that are functionally connected and thereby allow for economical sequences of movements. 

During climbing you mainly make use of your upper extremity flexor sling. We recommend that you include first and foremost exercises in your training where the athlete’s own body weight provides the resistance for a specific movement. These exercises usually allow for a greater freedom in their execution and can be more easily related to climbing specific movements where your body is providing the resistance as well. Weight machines are only suitable to a limited extent, e. g. for a specific rehabilitation training after injury. Internationally renowned exercise scientists Zatsiorsky & Kraemer (2008) say: “The most serious shortcoming of many weight machines is that they were developed to train muscles instead of movements. For an athlete they therefore don’t constitute the most important area of training”.

3.    Another surprise was the limited mention of fingerboarding. Virtually every book in English spends quite a lot of time discussing this topic. Why does GK not include it?

Our decision to omit fingerboarding as an independent form of exercise doesn’t mean that we consider it as not recommendable. There are a few reasons for our decision:
- the different number of training methods on the fingerboard is pretty limited
- it doesn’t work well with our concept of complex training that  the book was written
- our space in the book was limited and we had to skip a few topics (this also concerns some parts of the theoretical chapter which are only available as PDF download)
But we didn’t skip this part completely! The described exercise “on the edge” could be an alternative for an enhanced but a little more functional finger strength training.

4.    There are many interesting and novel exercises in the book. How do you think readers of your book should pick and choose from them in planning a workout?

Climbing and training for climbing is a very individual and complex thing. We tried to choose an easy approach to it. So we only classify between “easy” and “hard” on a five steps scale. Some information about a basic mix of training forms for beginners, advanced climbers and pros completes this topic. The most important thing is, to follow a balanced strength training, where your antagonists are not neglected. This kind of exercise is marked with a specific symbol. Concerning the variation of the exercises for us, there’s a 6 week maximum to train with one specific exercise. After that you should change. 

Another piece of advice for the reader is: Don’t think too much about complex forms of periodization and top secret training plans! The most important thing in training is your motivation! Motivation is fostered when you are dedicated and like what you do. Find the balance between a structured training and possibilities to maintain it in your daily routine over a long time. For detailed plans of periodization you will need a good trainer and a great deal of time…

5.    What, if anything, do you think is different between American and European approaches to training?

Hard question and maybe you cannot answer it without any clich├ęs. Both Americans and Europeans have a long climbing history which influenced the evolution of the sport and the progress in training for it. I have read a lot of specialist books about climbing from American and European authors. I like the American (and also the British!) books for their practice –oriented approach. I also read a french book with good and fresh ideas. Last but not least I like the German way which is known as solid, but sometimes a little bit too theoretical. It was our endeavor not to comply exactly this view but also to show, that we have a specific knowledge about the things we do J  

Train smart!