Wednesday, April 29, 2020

What to Train on a Fingerboard: First Principles

Now that you have a decent setup, the question is how to use it productively and safely. Now that climbing is kinda hitting the big time, there are dozens of would-be gurus peddling wisdom via social media, not to mention the standard names in the training biz. I would trust some more than others based on a few things. Longevity of career, diversity and level of achievement and attitude toward training are the primary attributes to look for. But you can get started on your own, just as they did, and get very good results.

What does that imply for your training? Firstly it implies that you want to understand a few basic principles about training in general and training for climbing more specifically. It also implies that you are willing to follow those principles to logical conclusions and that you are willing to learn from your results. It seems simple but rarely is in practice.

So let's start.

First, the primary principle of strength training is that you must increase load to increase strength. Muscles respond to overload by increasing mass. Tendons thicken. Blood vessels increase. For climbing that load can take a number of forms but on a fingerboard it implies increased weight or increased time under tension. As we shall see, increased time has its problems and will need to be enhanced with increased weight fairly soon. For fingerboard training to be effective, you want to decrease the percentage of potential capacity you have available to use to hang onto a hold. This allows more repetitions at any given level of difficulty starting from maximum load=1 repetition (bouldering) and extending to minimum load=infinite repetitions (easy long routes).

Climbing situations requiring meaningful training tend to fit closer to the lower end of that spectrum on average, meaning you would want to limit numbers of repetitions and focus on increasing loads. This is because most routes feature no more than 15 to 20 consecutive hard (for you) moves before a rest of some sort is needed. This reflects the typical application of energy systems in the body that are used in climbing, i.e. rarely genuinely aerobic and more typically on the anaerobic side. In a nutshell, owing to the small size of human forearm muscles relative to our weight, the need to generate serious force in climbing (in other words, on your project) depends primarily on anaerobic capacity and is rarely sustainable for longer than maybe 2 minutes before some kind of rest is required. Go out and watch climbing videos of even very fit climbers on their hardest routes and typically that is the pattern. Hence the utility of kneebars on step routes!

What does that mean for you? It means you want to be able to generate force well in excess of a hypothetical necessary minimum (your body weight, basically) to stay on a hold. The less force you require out of your hypothetical maximum available strength, the longer you can hang on the hold and/or the more moves you can do on a series of holds that size. It's important that you be prepared to train for different sizes and types of holds and also different grip types, but more on that later.

So starting with the principle of increasing your maximum capacity in terms of static strength seems to me the most plausible foundation for climbing strength overall. I haven't seen anyone discuss where the point of diminishing returns is on this type of strength but I suspect for most of us, it's nowhere near where we could ever aspire to achieve and is therefore irrelevant.

That principle implies that training maximum hanging strength (called max hangs) is a good place to start a training program. It has the advantage of simplicity, easy quantification and builds a strength that is applicable anywhere in the sport of climbing. A few questions arise from this conclusion though. What should I hang off of and how? The answers run roughly along these lines:

What should I hang off of? Something roughly sport-specific is best. For harder climbing that implies flat edges of 1 finger joint in depth (approximately 20-22 mm) or 1/2 joint 12-14 mm) in depth. Most holds fit this description to some degree and the versatility of training offered by those two options is more than enough for most. Pinches, pockets and slopers present complexity, friction-dependency and vulnerability to injuries. For max hangs I would ignore them for now

How should I hang off them? Two topics need to be covered here. One is grip position and the other is duration. Recent consensus is that half-crimp position is most desirable across the board (so to speak) but I would also recommend training open-hand grip as well. Duration? Refer to sport specificity again and you will see that climbers typically stay on a hold between 3 and 6, maybe 7 seconds. Common sense and experience also inform us that real control of a position is not achieved in a mere 2-second effort and going much past 10 seconds is hardly reaching our maximum anymore. So aiming for a 5-7 second hold on a max hang seems appropriate and again that mirrors typical practice and consensus

So now we have basic first principles of hangboarding. Begin with a program of training maximum static strength on a simple flat edge of one finger pad in depth, maybe adding in a half-pad depth edge as well, training two different grip positions as we go. In doing this we lay down a strong foundation for other more complex and sport-specific training exercises, preparing our muscles and connective tissues better for both climbing and training, and gaining maximum productivity out of our limited time.

Next post: putting these first principles into practice

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Next Steps for Training at Home: Equipment Check

So now we're about 5 weeks into the coronavirus lockdown and even if you've been getting out climbing locally and following social distancing guidelines, you might be missing the gym that closed back in March and hopefully you're still supporting by remaining a member. In fact your first impulse might be to build a home wall. Don't. It will probably suck. There are much more efficient ways to train the essentials for hard climbing than a home wall, options that will deliver a much louder bang for the buck.

Basically you need two things. One, that I mentioned before, is the home hangboard. This is the key to maintaining strength and fitness above everything else. If you can't buy a good one, make one from wood that supports half pad and full pad hangs. Pockets, pinches, slopers? Forget it. 7 mm tiny crimps? Unnecessary. Make sure it's sturdy and solid and comfortable because you'll be using it a lot. More on how in the next post.

The other thing that is useful is a home campus board. Three rungs are more than enough, 22cm or so apart. More complex to set up for sure but if you have the space and skills (and the strength) a campus board will deliver the power and lock-off strength that a hangboard can't do so well. Metolius wood rungs remain the standard as far as I am concerned. They also can be used to make a good fingerboard.

What else? In no particular order...

A chalk bucket is super helpful.

Weights. 2 25-pound plates, 2 10s and a 5 will be plenty for most uses. You can use other modes of adding weight but plates threaded on a sling hanging on a harness are the best. Improvise with water bottles or canned food in a pack if you lack proper weights.

An old harness is very useful for adding or removing weight.

Gymnastic rings: many cool strengthening options with these. Try to get wooden ones.

Lashing straps with cam buckles: Use them for the rings or as cheapo TRX-style straps.

7mm static cord: use it for rigging pulley systems and other applications

2 pulleys: use high quality pulleys for taking weight off

Assorted carabiners for clipping things

Weight vests and ankle weights are nice for adding difficulty in a more movement-friendly way

Elastic bands are nice for easy warmups and weight off options

Fans: keep your hanging area as dry and cool as possible

Music: Speakers that can play off your phone are key

Clock: A large movable analog clock with a visible second hand remains superior IMO to phone apps

Floor covering: always good to have something to protect the floor and yourself.

Notebook: record your progress

With these items you can train for just about anything you want. So let's get started!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

First Steps in Training during the Pandemic

In my last post, I cautioned climbers against rushing into training. It's a lot like the way shoppers have been rushing into buying toilet paper. The truth is that training is a bit like toilet paper, there's only so much of it you can use at one time and there's not likely to be a shortage of opportunities to acquire more in the future. I have seen so many posts on social media inquiring about hangboards, how to build climbing walls, what routines to use and so on along with dozens of examples of interactive online workouts, videos, and FAQs. Again the healthy instinct here is to step away from the firehose of information and think clearly about where you are, what you have and what you need. The first step to becoming self-sufficient is understanding these things clearly.

If you're a beginning or truly recreational climber, as I have mentioned before, you don't really need to train anything except climbing, which is unfortunately unavailable for obvious reasons. So don't worry about it. Don't waste time and money on a lousy climbing wall or get bored or frustrated on a hangboard. Go for simple home-based exercises based on the use of your bodyweight and freeweights such as dumbbells. Push-ups are amazing. Running is an excellent option for general fitness especially for those desiring longer objectives outdoors and running with a bit of weight uphill is even better. Put some full water bottles in a pack for the uphill and empty them for the downhill. When the climbing areas or gyms re-open you'll have  no problem getting right back into it.

For the more advanced climbers, onsighting easy 5.11 and up to maybe 12a or b, things get complicated. A lot of climbers at this level haven't needed to personally invest in equipment thanks to the proliferation of gyms but consistently use it. Now it's unavailable and options are limited so what to do? As above general fitness is very helpful and worth pursuing but at this level so is sport-specific training. For this level, I would primarily recommend investing in or making a good hangboard. A hangboard will do more, ounce for ounce, than any other training modality. Building a good climbing wall would be awesome but hardly necessary and demands free space, time, tools, and quite a lot of money for materials and holds, along with the judgment to use them all well. I have seen enough pictures of extraordinarily bad climbing walls recently to now consider buying stock in lumber companies. A hangboard is a simple and very effective low-cost option that will definitely help. More on how to use them shortly. If you can't wait there are literal hundreds, if not thousands, of videos out there. This one is probably the best:

Great video as is all of Dave's content

What kind of hangboard? Buy or make a board that is made of wood and has options for full pad and half pad edges. The other many features that some makers tout are mostly bells and whistles and of very limited utility. Plastic is a material of last resort for hangboards and something I strongly recommend against. I personally own a Beastmaker 2000 and would strongly recommend this company's products. Tension Climbing also makes good hangboards from wood. Metolius campus rungs are another great option as well as this board. Full disclosure: I am not sponsored or supported in any way by these companies.

Another "option" for picking a hangboard is looking at ads in Craigslist. Anything that is still available for sale right now you should firmly socially distance yourself from. Chances are they will be old-school slippery plastic designs that will be neither comfortable nor easy to use. Don't waste your money; purchase (support your local climbing store) or order something that works.

12+ and up? You should include all the above plus a proper climbing wall. This is an investment you should definitely make should you be so lucky as to be employed full-time and have a family, even if there are good climbing gyms close by. If you own your own home and have the free space, this is a great investment in your climbing future. You need never miss a workout for lack of time and you can dial in your equipment to suit your needs and plans, something that even the best gyms don't necessarily provide. Especially important is hold selection, a vital component to any home training plan.

Next post I'll start getting into training specifics but suffice to say, basic is better than elaborate, consistent is better than erratic, and self-awareness beats having to be told what to do. How to get there? We'll get started shortly!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Training in the Time of Coronavirus Part 1

Hi Everyone,
I want to start by saying that in this rapidly changing environment anything I say should be taken with a grain of premium uncut chalk, maybe two. Your mileage may vary, you may experience technical difficulties, etc.

Okay, now let's begin. Based on my admittedly informal survey of the internet etc, everyone is frantic to train and is busy buying or building the thing/s they think they need to not lose those precious gains they had built up during the winter. This is a normal impulse but not one to be indulged in too heavily. Here's why.

1. At least initially, taking a week or two out around this time of year is something you should probably do anyway. Rest is good for you. Recharging by getting outside just moving around is actually really helpful for your overall climbing ability.

2. You're stressed. The pandemic is a really big deal on multiple fronts and finding the focus and psyche is not going to be automatic, especially if your training options are small, subpar and lonely. So trying to charge in there with ideas of smashing the training plans/goals/whatever are unrealistic. You don't need that additional stress in your life right now, unless that stress is productive.

3. Training is really hard. Climbing is relatively easy. Switching to only training will expose weaknesses you may not have realized you had and injury can result. This is especially true if you haven't been training seriously in the past, which describes a lot of climbers right now.

So what is the first step? Assess what you really need.

Are you climbing 5.10 or lower and just want to climb? Go running or walking while they are still options. Simple bodyweight or free weight exercises are more than enough to keep you climbing fit at that level.  A week of climbing when the gyms re-open will do the rest. You're all set. Seriously. Congratulations!

Are you climbing 5.11 or easy 5.12 and don't want to slide? Same as above but maybe add in a bit of fingerboarding. I'll talk more about specifics in another post very soon.

Are you a 12+ to mid-13 climber who wants to keep strong no matter what? Chances are you already have training equipment and some kind of plan. The question is how to leverage that situation to your benefit. Look for that post. Should you build a climbing wall? Yes, you probably should. I'll discuss that too.

13+ and up? You don't need my advice hahaha.

Regardless the way I am going to recommend you train is that it resembles brushing your teeth. You want a sustainable non-crazy routine that will be a habit that can be carried forward regardless of circumstances, one that will enable you to readily jump back on the bus when the doors are opened, whenever that it is. It could be a long time so careful planning now is a great first step.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Training in the Time of Coronavirus: First Impressions

The world has completely changed since I posted last. I wrote about the implications for climbing here at and nothing has changed since then. In fact things are clearly getting much much worse. Closures of public land seem inevitable, or worse yet, complete public lockdowns are in progress which will surely expand beyond the current handful of states. Any naive hopes of turning this crisis into an expanded spring break road trip have been thoroughly quashed by public health closures and repeated posts from climbers on social media and elsewhere saying in essence, "stay home."

My cellar wall. Yes those are original V10s. Best board shoes ever. Saw a pair on CL recently asking $200.

So what to do? How to do it? Great questions and here are my thoughts this far in.

My first piece of advice is, if you're serious about training, think really long term because this pandemic is going to take a very long time to resolve and when/if it does resolve, things may have changed a lot. So your plan has to be sustainable for weeks and more likely months.

Second piece of advice. Don't make major changes in volume or intensity of anything. Getting injured is really unhelpful and very demotivating. Plus you don't want to see a doctor right now. Seriously, you don't.

Third piece of advice. Don't buy expensive stuff until you absolutely know you need it. Make your own hangboard from scraps of wood. Build the hangboard before you build a home wall.

Fourth piece of advice. Stop stressing about this right now. In fact this might be the worst possible time to launch into a serious training regimen. Take a break. Read some books. Walk the dog. Volunteer to help someone in need. Wait until you have space in your head for actual useful training and then get into it. More on that later.

Fifth piece of advice. Keep your gym membership current. If you can afford it, your local gym needs every dime of revenue you can give. Whether gyms stay open in the future will depend on your support happening right now.

And that's all for now. Later this week or early next, I'll discuss more concrete ideas for maintaining climbing fitness.