In climbing, your level of maximum strength in the forearm flexor and pulling muscles (of the arms and torso) is a common physical limitation. Gripping small holds, making a powerful arm pull, and locking off with one arm all command your muscles to contract briefly with near maximal force. Interestingly, your ability to rest effectively on a barely adequate medium-sized hold and express strength endurance on a pumpy sequence is also a function of your maximum strength. Therefore, training for greater absolute grip and pulling strength is the single most important aspect of an effective training-for-climbing program.
So what is the best way to train this all-important attribute? For beginning climbers, simply climbing three days per week will yield some gains in climbing-specific strength. Therefore, no highly targeted training is necessary, nor appropriate—it could very well lead to injury. Of course, training technique and movement skills is paramount at this stage, and any time spent strength training should be focused on the antagonist, stabilizer, and the larger pulling muscles (not the fingers).
Intermittent and advance climbers, with at least a couple of years of climbing experience, will indeed benefit from targeted strength training, and they have likely developed enough tendon strength to begin a gradually progressive twice-per-week, climbing-specific strength training. Elite climbers are in a class on their own: With years of climbing experience and (presumably healthy) Kevlar-like tendons, these elites can embark on an ultra-intense, two- or three-day-per-week strength and power training regimen. Breaking through the next performance plateau depends on it.
“Training for greater absolute grip and pulling strength is the single most important aspect of an effective training-for-climbing program.”
Attaining a higher level of maximum strength is a matter of increasing neural recruitment, muscle hypertrophy, and building greater cellular stores of ATP-CP. The training goal is to maximize fiber recruitment and liberate ATP-CP at the highest possible rate for five to twelve seconds. Consequently, a properly executed maximum strength exercise will utilize a sufficiently high resistance to produce near-failure in around ten seconds. It’s important to recognize that any strenuous exercise performed for more than ten to fifteen seconds will train local endurance, rather than strength, as these longer efforts are fueled more by anaerobic glycolysis. The protocol for effective strength training is to do brief exercises (3 to 5 reps or 90% of 1RM). Near-complete recovery (>=3 minutes) is essential between sets to allow for all-out efforts each time. As for the number of sets to do, I suggest intermediate, advanced, and elite climbers do three, four, and five sets, respectively. Here are a few examples of climbing-specific strength exercises:
- Hypergravity pull-ups with enough added weight to make five repetitions difficult.
- Bodyweight fingerboard hangs on holds small enough to be difficult if held for ten seconds. (Be sure to train different grips.)
- Hypergravity fingerboard hangs on medium-sized holds with enough weight to make a ten-second hang very difficult.
- One-arm lock-offs held for five seconds.
- One-arm (or one-arm-assisted) pull-ups for one to five repetitions.
A final note: Near-limit bouldering can aid in the development of maximum strength, especially in sub-elite climbers. Except for beginning climbers, however, more highly targeted supplemental exercises are essential to provide optimal stimuli for maximum strength gains. Consider that failure on boulders often occurs because of movement flaws, inadequate flexibility, or lack of power, and therefore bouldering does not necessary elicit grip or pull-muscle failure in less than twelve seconds. Shrewd, precise training—in accordance to the principles of exercise science—is paramount for eking out additional strength gains over the long term. Train smarter to climb harder!
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