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

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