Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Myths of the Fingerboard 2

In my previous post I discussed why I think that most commercially produced boards are not the best investments. In this post, which is related to a much earlier post, I want to discuss why fingerboard training may not be the most effective use of your training time.

As I mentioned before, there seems to be a lot of interest in fingerboards right now. There isn't a training forum out there that isn't visited weekly with posts about whether fingerboards will help and how to use them and so on. Every post pretty much asks the same thing: will a fingerboard make me stronger? The truth is simple; it depends. Here is my view about some common beliefs about fingerboards.

First myth: Fingerboards are essential for making a step up the grades. For the climber operating much below V5 or mid-5.12, fingerboards really have no place in your climbing training unless you are stuck for time and don't have access to a climbing wall. At that level, the use of a fingerboard is a waste of time better spent getting stronger actually climbing and understanding what climbing harder is actually about. It's about moving well, using your feet, and keeping your focus when the going gets tough. Fingerboards do not train those skills. If you ask around, the vast majority of top-end boulderers spend next to no time on a fingerboard. They climb instead.

Second myth: Fingerboards should be a constant part of your training plan. I would recommend phases of fingerboarding, no more than two or three times a week for no longer than a few weeks in duration with a month or two break in between. The potential for getting stale and worse, injured, is too high considering the limited benefits. Use the board to kickstart your next power training phase and then set it aside for a while and train while climbing.

Third myth: Fingerboards make you a stronger climber. The ability to climb hard, in my view, is not merely catching a hold and hanging on, but instead is reflected in how far you can lock off to the next hold with the last hand well below you. Independence of both arms when moving on steep terrain is what it's all about. Fingerboards will not necessarily help this kind of strength as hanging on with two hands is much easier than with one, and hanging with one is infinitely easier than pulling up on one hand on an edge.

Fourth myth: you can train power on a fingerboard. Power is work produced in a given unit of time. If you can generate maximum force in half a second instead of two, you are using more power to do that and that is very helpful in doing hard moves. Power is everything in hard bouldering but it is very hard to generate power effectively on a fingerboard. Everything points to the campus board for that but as with the fingerboard, it's not that simple. Again, maybe in another post.

Fifth myth: Hanging on smaller holds equals a stronger climber. See myth 3. Hanging with two hands off a super thin edge is of minimal use because most problems don't require that kind of hold. More typical is the scenario mentioned above, a long pull from one decent-sized hold to another, repeated 6 to 10 times. That said, many commercial hangboards feature holds that are simply too big to be much use for the serious climber.

Sixth myth: Adding weight is a constructive way to increase resistance. See myth 3 again. Hanging on with two hands is too easy, even with weight on. It's much more constructive to work on your one-handed ability than to add 50 or 75 pounds and get meager gains.

Seventh myth: While I'm hanging, I might as well do some pull-ups. Sure, if they are one-arms. Otherwise, you are just training endurance hanging on with two hands which happens in bouldering, well, basically never.

So what are fingerboards good for? I like them for waking up my fingers on a regular basis in getting a power phase started but really only for a short time before moving on to campusing and then real climbing. And then there is the problem of effective pinch strength development. Again, these training tactics might be better handled in a later post

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Myths of the Fingerboard Part 1

It's been a long winter with some serious clawing back after the flu over Christmas, meaning plenty of time to think about training for spring. I've actually been doing a fair amount of coaching recently, helping clients prepare for a productive trip or generally make the steps necessary to really step up to the next level. I'm really grateful to have the chance to assess a client's skills and strengths and put together ideas for improvement especially since it helps me think about my own situation as a climber and how I can get better.

One of the real problems is figuring out how to help climbers get the strength gains that will allow success on their desired projects or grade level, especially with a limited time budget. A great tool for kickstarting this process is a fingerboard. However I wonder if too much is being made of this recently. I have seen lots of discussion on various Internet sites, along with other media, about various fingerboards and whether they are useful and more importantly whether they are worth the money as most cost somewhere between 75 and 100 dollars US, a lot of money for many climbers. The purpose of this post is to encourage you to save some money and make a board that works for you.

This could be you! But probably not... and don't worry about it anyway
My personal experience with commercial fingerboards is that they are generally too easy to hang onto and kind of uncomfortable, not to mention expensive. First I want to think about why a homemade board can be much better and make some suggestions on what to look for and why.

I think the first myth that needs to go is whether one brand/style/etc. is better than another. The commercial message is definitely something that needs to be cut through here, though I think that manufacturers are sincere enough in trying to provide a good product. The only thing that really matters in a commercial board is avoiding rough textured plastic. Commercial fingerboards are prone to this problem and while the flexibility of molding shapes in plastic is theoretically desirable, the presence of excessive friction interferes with the primary purpose of the board, training your fingers and forearms. It can also discourage use of the board if the texture is painful. This is one thing to be said for the Beastmaker brand of fingerboards, that since they are made of hard sanded wood, the relative absence of friction is a real plus.

This brings me to the next myth, namely that shapes matter. Fingerboards have been made in a wide variety of elaborate, even baroque shapes, with ornate curved edges and sets of pockets, pinches and slopers and so on, shapes that look attractive in a catalog, ad, or website, especially with some swirly colors added in. My experience has been that these shapes provide little or no practical functionality that cannot be readily supplied by other less expensive means. At their worst, they offer shapes that could promote injury rather than progress.

Instead, I would recommend that you consider the possibilities present in a simple single edge made of wood, of first-joint depth with a gentle curved outside edge, approximately 2 feet in length, similar to a typical intermediate-size campus rung. This item will cost perhaps $2-5 and can be easily mounted to a piece of plywood (cost $5-8) if need be, or screwed directly to an exposed beam as in a cellar. You can easily add more edges of greater or lesser width by visiting a local building supplies store, probably even picking up usable pieces of wood for free in the scrap pile.

By the way, the closest "commercial" version of this concept is made by Sonnie Trotter but anyone with some simple tools and a piece of sandpaper could recreate this style very easily on their own. His board however looks very good. Whether he's actually making them right now, I don't know. I can find out.

Sonnie Trotter's V-Board
The Beastmaker concept is too complicated to replicate at home for most people and is unnecessary in any case, for the same reason that complex molded fingerboards are unnecessary. That is because your fingers really only need to be trained in a few very basic configurations for significant strength gains, basic positions that are easily found on a single wooden edge.

The last myth I want to discuss, which will lead into the next post, is that a fingerboard will actually do much for you by itself. This is unlikely to be the case for a number of reasons. First climbing, while heavily dependent on finger strength, relies very much on the ability of the upper limbs to pull  dynamically independently of each other, a skill best improved by either climbing or campusing. Secondly, climbing relies on effective use of body tension and foot placement something that simple hangs on a fingerboard cannot easily develop. Finally, most climbers, because of the points made above, will find it more useful to become more efficient in their time spent climbing, planning their sessions to deliberately squeeze more climbing into them in whatever time is available.

That said, the fingerboard can be, ounce for ounce, one of the most effective training tools out there. In a following post, I will discuss how to get the most from this simple inexpensive versatile apparatus.