Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Finger Power Problem

Recently I was working on my finger board downstairs in the house and discovered something interesting to me, if not very original. I can hang onto a single-pad edge with two hands and about 100 pounds added on without too much trouble. With no weight I can hold on with two hands for 45 seconds to a minute. So far so good.

Now hanging with one hand on the same edge, I can hang around 5 seconds with no weight or about 2 seconds with 5 pounds held in my free hand. Why this radical disparity? Good question and I am not sure I have heard or read any good explanation. I think it is partly biomechanical as the two arms, back and abdominal muscles working together help manage the load much better, probably through balance and opposition, than separated. But it seems to me that this finding also indicates that traditional modes of two-handed training require a huge overload for very little real payoff, especially since climbing requires that hands and arms operate independently of each other. So pull-ups, weighted or not, actually add very little to one's overall necessary one-hand strength.

So what are the implications overall? Well for me, isolating one hand for hanging on an edge certainly makes more sense than spending too much time with two-hand hangs. However even this has its limits as I will explain below, And these exercises are hard to do at all for many climbers as one-hand hangs have a very high initial strength threshold. One answer may be to use a climbing wall like a system board and work on holding one arm positions with bad feet. You can also find ways to lessen the load slightly by hanging and pulling with the free hand lower on a rope or sling. Uneven pull-ups on an edge seem like a very good idea as well.

Using a campus board can certainly make sense as well, especially as there is another factor to consider which I will call dynamic or active finger strength, in order to avoid the confusing term "contact strength." I would describe active finger strength as the strength needed to resist dynamic eccentric shockloading, the kind that is produced by grabbing a hold on the go at a distance, resisting a swing, as well as concentric loading as in pulling into the wall, resetting on the hold, and so on. This could be thought of also as finger power in that delivering force rapidly is of the essence. Typically finger strength in climbing is considered in isometric terms, i.e. a consistent load and position through the move. A simple observation of most single moves shows this is hardly the case. The initial load on the fingers is clearly much more severe compared to the later maintenance of the grip. Whatever can be done to limit the initial load (through technique, etc.) leaves more energy for successive moves. But this dynamic or active load continues throughout the use of one hold, since climbers are adding to the load by resetting their fingers, shifting their grip position, pulling their bodies in closer and of course pulling up to gain height. At every turn, body weight is shifted creating momentum and increasing force on the fingers. These increased forces rapidly induce fatigue which in turn increases force on the fingers through poor technique, clumsy grip, bad aim etc. resulting in failure on the move. The vicious cycle is experienced by all of us sooner or later.

To me this implies that relatively static strength tests like one or two-handed hangs are potentially misleading indicators of resistance against severe loads. They might provide a baseline but hardly indicate practical strength. The analogy might be that of "safe working load" with construction equipment, where the breaking strength of an item is reduced to 1/5 of the amount to indicate its "real" strength in use. So the ability to hang on with one hand for 5 or even 10 seconds is of dubious relevance compared to being able to very rapidly latch the same size hold 3 feet up and go another two feet from that with a minuscule foot. And two-handed hangs distort that strength measure even more since you almost never execute a move with two hands side by side.

The solution lies in several directions. The first is that static strength measures provide some quantifiable baseline with which to measure progress but little more and may be of surprisingly low relevance in actual practice. Second, in training for climbing you must find ways of safely shockloading fingers and arms in as sport-specific a way as you can. If possible each arm should be isolated to some extent when training finger strength. So, for example, double-dynos on a campus board are not typical in climbing and probably shouldn't be trained. In regular campusing, laddering where your arms are always going one or two (or more) rungs beyond each other should be standard. Third in actual climbing practice, finding ways to reduce the initial shockload of gripping the hold and any subsequent shifts of weight or position should be emphasized. Good foot placement is important here as with so much of climbing. Make sure that in every move, both hands are working together as much as they can to lessen the individual load, since (remember the initial finding above) two hands working together are many times stronger than one hand working alone. Obviously the more quickly moves are done, the less energy is expended hanging on, so using momentum to follow through can be very helpful.

Training arms and fingers in isolation is clearly more stressful and should be done primarily in the context of climbing, most of the time. Specific workouts that involve campusing, fingerboards, etc should be done when fresh and at least 3 to 4 days apart. Oppositional exercises and shoulder strengthening should be consistently done along with liberal stretching of forearms and even having bodywork done as needed. Most important of all is patience as the most useful and least injurious results come slowly and in small increments.


  1. Nice post Peter. One question:
    All else being equal, one might think two hands would be twice as strong as one (as it seems you're getting at). You mention being able to do a single handed hang for 5-10 seconds, but two hands for 45-60. Have you tried a two handed hang with your body weight added? This would seem to be most readily comparable as far as whether or not 2 hands really are "many times stronger than one hand working alone." Either way, I agree that there are certainly many more effective (and practical) methods to train finger strength than dead hangs with 150lbs added.

  2. Hi Doug, I have done hangs and even pull-ups with 100+ pounds but no I haven't done it with full body weight so perhaps the times would be the same as with one hand. Would I be able to hold 260 pounds with two hands? I don't know. I am not sure I would want to try. There may be other factors complicating things with that kind of overload. I think in practice however the time differential between two and one hand hangs, given the same body weight, indicates that single hands are much weaker. Unless I am completely missing something, theoretically, two hands holding 130 pounds for say 30 seconds could be roughly matched by 1 hand holding the same weight for 15 seconds but I think very few climbers would show anything like that kind of ratio. I think instead of 1/2 it's more like 1/4 or 1/5 or even less. Certainly training one hand is easier and applicable than strapping on your body weight. When I have added 80+ pounds I can barely stand up :)

  3. Do you think 2 arm weighted hangs have most of their value in forearm hypertrophy? Later, that muscle mass can be adapted to climbing with campusing or explosive bouldering?

  4. Hi David,
    My feeling is that there is some beneficial effect for the forearms but that ultimately the weighted hangs and pullups benefits the muscles of the back and biceps more than anything else. Initially, after you can hold a two-handed hang on a single pad edge for say 15 to 20 seconds, a weighted hang session or two from time to time could help the forearms build mass but the forearm flexors are so small that worrying about muscle mass per se matters less than muscle training, that is getting them to respond rapidly and having them able to withstand repeated on-and-off stress. And, as I explained above, training two hands side by side has real limitations. Single hand training might be more effective, even with a bit of weight taken off

    Absolute strength, as indicated by static tests and muscle size, has limited value in climbing for the reasons I described in the post. Working strength in actual dynamic use is what counts so it seems best to me to develop that strength and at the same time work on climbing skills by lots of bouldering mixed with limited strength training on a campus board, finger board, and weights.

  5. Peter, some good thoughts, but finger stamina is not linear. By that I mean, being able to hold a certain grip for 30 seconds with one hand would not equate to holding it with one hand for 15 seconds. This can be clearly illustrated with the anaerobic threshold. If a grip falls below the AT when held with two hands, you would be able to hold it indefinitely, but there would be a finite limit to how long you could hold it with one hand. If you're trying to compare one hand vs two hand strength (which I think is an interesting test), you need to compare it based on the load held, not the duration.

    - Mike Anderson

  6. Thanks Mike! I am trying to illustrate the drastic difference between training one or two hands. It's clear that two hands on is much easier than one, yet we generate movement with very unequal loads on different hands in most instances. So training two-hands-on all the time is not necessarily going to produce gains in strength or stamina after a while

  7. I can hold the bad simulator crimps for over a minute and a half before getting bored with two hands, no weight added. i don't think i can hold them with one hand for anything like five seconds. with another hand, even on a poor hold three feet below, i can hang for around 15-20 seconds. The stability added by engaging the big muscles in your back and shoulders strikes me as the best explanation for this phenomenon.
    -another peter b.