Learn six effective isometric training exercises for climbers.
If you engage in serious training for climbing, I’m sure you’ve discovered that significant strength gains are harder and harder to come by as you advance in grade. Overcoming a strength plateau and achieving a physical breakthrough that pays off on the rock is difficult and, if you don’t train smart, it may elude you.
In terms of your maximum climbing-specific strength and endurance, the key to breaking new ground is tricking your body with a new exercise and novel regimen that imparts a training stimulus the body is not accustomed to. Simply flogging your body with a higher volume of the same old thing—a surprisingly common training theme—is usually an ineffective approach (although it might be an effective strategy if you enjoy nagging overuse injuries). If you want to climb harder and hopefully dodge the injury bullet, then you need to be smarter about the things you do in the name of climbing.
In this article, I present one such smart-training strategy that you can employ to target common physical constraints. The training intervention is called Long-Duration Isometrics (LDI), and it’s a proven method of shocking the muscles to overcome sticking points and long-held limits in strength.
Long-Duration Isometric Training Benefits
Isometrics are static contractions—that is, the muscles are contracting without actually moving anything. Isometric contractions are, of course, a big part of the climbing process, as your muscles work in an isometric way with every grip of the rock and lock-off arm position. In climbing (and training for climbing), you only maintain this isometric contract for a few seconds, as you move quickly from one hard move or repetition to the next.
Long-duration isometric exercises, however, involve holding a strenuous position—specifically, one that you want to strengthen—for 30 seconds or more. While this training method isn’t very specific to the way you climb (unless make a practice of hanging out at a crux move until you pump out and fall!), it is an excellent way to trick the neuromuscular system to adapt in a favorable way.
Research has confirmed that a maximal isometric contraction can recruit more motor units/muscle fibers than both a concentric and eccentric action. In executing an LDI exercise, you will progressively recruit higher-threshold fibers as lower-threshold fibers fatigue. So while holding an open-hand grip or lock-off for just a few seconds will call only a small number of motor units into play, holding the isometric contract for 30 seconds, 60 seconds, or longer will recruit the less-frequently used high-threshold fibers into play—and these are the exact fibers you want to activate and train to break through strength plateaus to a higher level of muscle function. What’s more, LDI may improve neural programming (motor unit synchronization) and strengthen tendons, thus increase muscle efficiency and endurance.
An important caveat to LDI training is that the resultant neurological enhancements and strength gains are limited to joint angles near that of the angle trained. Therefore, in LDI grip training you want to target the open hand, pinch, and half crimp positions, while in lock-off training it would be wise to train both on a vertical plane and in steep-wall position (which fires the back and shoulder muscles a little differently).
Detailed below are six LDI exercises that I’ve found effective; but by all means, be creative and come up with others! Maximum LDI sets should be performed at the end of your workout, although a single “short” LDI set (30 – 60 seconds) is highly effective to activate the muscles during a pre-climb warm-up routine. For advanced climbers, I suggest holding each LDI for 1 to 3 minutes (hard). Begin by doing one set of each exercise per workout, and then add a second set when you feel able (rest 5 minutes between sets). Doing more than two sets will provide little added benefit, yet create greater neurological and metabolic fatigue from which to recover.
6 Effective LDI Exercises:
- Hanging lock-off. Using a pull-up bar or the bucket holds on a hangboard, hold a lock-off in the top or middle position (photo above) for as long as possible. Do two sets, one each with narrow and wide grip. (Do no lock-offs if you have a history of elbow pain.)
- Steep-wall twist-lock. Using a juggy handhold and good footholds, hold a twist-lock position with the low hand pulled in tight to your chest while the reaching hand lightly grips a smaller hold above. Concentrate on maintaining a tight core and a solid twist-lock for as long as possible (30 seconds is challenging…60+ seconds is hard!).
- Straight-arm fingerboard hangs. Train only the four-finger grips (i.e. open hand, open-crimp, or half-crimp). Do just one set per grip. Tip: Engage your scapular stabilizers by maintaining the feeling of muscle tension through your shoulders and upper arms—do not dangle with passive shoulders!
- Dumbbell wrist curl. While hardly climbing-specific, this exercise works all the finger- and wrist-flexing muscles in a very intense way. Using a moderate-weight dumbbell (10 – 20 pounds for gals, and 25 – 35 pounds for guys), curl the dumbbells up from the open-hand to the closed-hand position, and then maintain a tight grip on the dumbbells as you curl your palms upward as far as possible. Holding this position for 1 to 3 minutes really fires up the forearm muscles. I’ve found this to be an excellent pre-climbing warm-up activity as well (to help work through the flash pump phase).
- Dumbbell reverse wrist curl. This is a great way to train the important but often overlooked finger/wrist extensor muscle. With your forearm in a stable, horizontal position (resting on the edge of a table or similar), hold a 10- to 20-pound dumbbell with a palm-down grip. Now curl the dumbbell up to the top position (wrist extension) and maintain this position for as long as possible.
- Floor Plank. This popular floor exercise is often performed with some positional movement as part of a larger core-training program. The goal here is to hold a static plank position with good technique (photo) for as long as possible. Three minutes is challenging…and five minutes is hard!
As with any training practice, discontinue LDI if you develop any pain in the fingers, elbows, or shoulders. If you are currently nursing a finger or arm injury, favor low-load Blood Flow Restriction training over LDI. Furthermore, you can support connective tissue healing/remodeling with this proven training-nutritional intervention.
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