31 August 2006

Home training facilities - direct comparisons

Michael asked what are the relative merits of different types of home built climbing/training facilities. The answer is always to build as big and good a facility as space/spouse/landlord allows. Bouldering is the most effective training for climbing overall because you learn technique and can work on any aspect of strength and fitness at the same time. But not everyone has the space or the inclination to build a bouldering wall in their house. So lets have a look at the options:

Bouldering Wall

Pros: You can work on strength or endurance, but all the time you are doing whole climbing moves and thus learning technique. Its also much easier to cover and target all aspects of strength you need to work on (e.g. pinches, big moves, undercuts etc).

Cons: Takes up a lot of space. You might end up trying to use it to solve all your climbing weaknesses (which it won't!) and become a super strong wall rat with no technique or tactics.

System Board

Pros: If you already do a lot of real climbing and thus your technique gets lots of work, a system board might be more effective for working on strength. Especially useful for training for a specific type of climbing (e.g. Frankenjura pocket routes). More measurable than bouldering for improvements.

Cons: Again, becoming addicted to it and overusing it at the expense of other training priorities.

Campus Board

Pros: Very effective for gaining strength on big moves and small holds. Doesn't take up as much space as a wall.

Cons: Only useful if you already climb a lot and if used as a supplement, NOT SUBSTITUTE, for this climbing. It can subconsciously alter your technique away from a reliance on footwork if you let it.


Pros: Takes minutes to set up and takes up no space and no money (mine cost less than £10 to make and install). You can put it wherever you spend the most time so you can get steely fingers while watching the box, working, whatever. Easy to build into a busy routine because the sessions are so short - just about everyone can find half an hour in their day.

Cons: It's boring if you don't play music, watch telly, chat to folk or work while your doing it.


Pros: Can be stored away.

Cons: Can waste your time by working muscle groups that are not weaknesses in your climbing and taking your time away from learning climbing technique. So only really useful for people who already do all of the above or have some significant lack of body strength in a specific muscle group.


Tom Charles-Edwards said...

Don't you think that saying that the 'pros' of weights are merely that they 'can be stored away' is a little disingenuous? You've been writing elsewhere about how you've got on top of your elbow pain by doing antagonistic exercises and how useful it is to keep an eye on this aspect of one's training - well, this is what weights allow one to do. Those who 'have some significant lack of body strength in a specific muscle group' include a fairly large proportion of the climbing population, I reckon - if I had a pound for every climber I have heard complaining about their elbows... To turn the old chestnut about power and control around one might say that strength is nothing without stability.

The great thing about weights is that the load on one's body can be adjusted to suit one's capability to perform an exercise - so long as one adjusts the load appropriately one can do any number of repetitions of any exercise one wishes. Climbing, by contrast, involves moving a fixed weight - one's body weight.

The variety and subtlety of the movements one can or must make while climbing are major attractions of the activity - but, conversely, I'm not sure how many people think enough about how much of a limitation it is that the movements one makes while climbing are dictated by one's body weight.

In terms of learning how to climb from a technical perspective one has to learn how to move one's body weight efficiently, so one needs to spend a lot of time moving it over a variety of different surfaces / objects. In terms of physical training, however, fixed parameters are bad news.

In a fantasy training scenario one would be able to alter the force of gravity to enable the performance of perfectly specific exercises at perfect levels of intensity, but one can't do this - although one can get pretty close by thinking creatively with lines and pulleys and bits of metal and wood - or broccoli...

Dave MacLeod said...

Body mass may be fixed, but the load on individual muscle groups during climbing is not fixed. It can be manipulated by changing the wall angle, foothold size etc (shifting load away from the lower body and onto the upper), Layout of the holds - lots of ways. By choosing different types of climbing terrain you can stress the muscle groups you want to at any intensity you like.

I guess the fact that you can easily monitor and alter the load by using wieghts is a pro I've missed.

It's true weights can be used effectively for things like training antagonists. But simple press ups do the job just as well a weights setup/machine that involves bulky equipment or travelling/paying for a gym. Press ups need no specialist equipment - you can adjust the difficulty by changing the height of your feet off th ground and adding weight to your back (rucksack).

There are also the more complex interactions going on with the effectiveness of different exercises relating to motivation. For a lot of people, weights are boring - they want to climb, or doing something that resembles climbing. If they choose basic strength exercises like system boarding they are more likely to train hard and see results. Or if they choose a 'body' exercise like press ups or front lever, they are more likely to stick to it than if they had to go down the gym or get the weights out of the cupboard. There are also people that go the opposite way get hooked on the strength exercises themselves. Maybe they enjoy them as end in itself which is great, but not if the ultimate motivation is to climb harder. For the person who wants to climb harder but also finds strength training addictive, its best to choose an exercise that is most similar to climbing. This comes back to rule 2 of training for sport - specificity - what you do, you become. If you pump a lot of iron, you get good at pumping iron.

In short, I am not keen on weights for climbers very often because I've seen them drag climbers ability down more often than I've seen it help.

But used sparingly by users with good motivation, understanding of their own weaknesses and discipline to stick to training priorites for their goals, they are useful, but still not essential.

Tom Charles-Edwards said...

Yes, all these parameters can be changed - often by the setters when one is just about to complete a problem or a route! If one sets up training facilities at home it is trivially easy to see what and how much of it one is doing. This is hard to do - particularly in the long-term - if one's main training facility is a commercial wall. Setting up training devices at home is not necessarily that expensive or troublesome - your simple-is-best approach to fingerboarding can equally be applied to weights (or boards, for that matter)!

For example, if one wants to do sets of x reps of big moves on small edges on a steep surface one can approximate this on a wall that is easily-angled enough for one to get enough weight on one's feet to do x moves of that size with that size of hold, or one could do x big moves on big holds on a steep wall, or x small moves on small holds on a steep wall, or less than x big moves on small holds on a steep wall, or one could do x moves of the size one wants on the size of hold one wants at a perfect - and perfectly progressive - level of intensity by sitting on a chair and pulling an edge down to pull weights up via a line and at the same time train body tension by holding oneself more-or-less parallel to the floor.

All these methods have advantages and disadvantages, but all of them are useful on the basis that if one wants to do an exercise one can't do (the basic training paradox) the logical thing to do is vary the values of every parameter of that exercise until one can do it, and then try to do it with more and more parameters at the values they will have to be at for one to achieve one's goal.

Commercial walls are businesses that exist to make money, not to meet individual customer's needs. They are designed to be fun, i.e. to occupy the time of those who are looking for something to occupy their time in an agreeable way. You say that weights being boring is a problem because people want to do something that resembles climbing; I would say that the fact that climbing at a commercial wall is designed primarily to be fun is a major problem - as is distraction / peer pressure - and that the first requirement for a proper training exercise is therefore that it should be mind-bendingly dull - the result: no conflicting motives. OK, I'm being slightly humourous - but it's a pertinent issue.

I suppose (getting a bit philosophical here, sorry!) one could say that any statement that is true in one sense can be seen as false in another sense. Take the specificity rule: one can't do something that one can't do, so no training activity is ever perfectly specific. One might say therefore that 'specificity gap consciousness' (for want of a better phrase) is the essential mental corollary to 'specific' exercises, and that all training exercises are in a sense isolation exercises that should therefore be seen in a wider context as multiple complementary exercises that counteract each other's individual 'specific tangentiality'. In a commercial wall it is very easy to lose consciousness of this specificity gap because they are superficially so specific - and holistic - by comparison with any other training exercise.

Agreed, press-ups are great, but I've always had intermittent niggles where my forearm extensors insert into my elbow. Rolling my wrists with weights is good, but pulling some weights down through a pulley with my hand out in front of me with my palm up and spotting myself with my other hand works like a charm.

Again I agree that getting into pumping lots of iron is not something that is essential, but if one looks at weights as a means of going after those bits of one's body that hurt so one can keep training, then weights (and pulleys) are so, so versatile and are, relatively, very safe if one doesn't go ape-shit with them - I suppose it comes down to the attitude of thinking about 'how' as well as 'what'.

Dave MacLeod said...

I take your point about monitoring training load and intensity on indoor walls. However, sometimes it can be a good thing that you can’t attach an objective number to describe difficulty in climbing because it forces you to monitor messages coming from your body about intensity. Our ability fluctuates quite a lot through the year, so if we follow subjective measures of effort it can actually be easier to keep to an optimum intensity. If we follow an objective number such as kg lifted or No. of seconds hung, it’s hard to accept when your level drops below your personal bests in these exercises. So we try to force ourselves to maintain this level and end up with injury. If using bouldering you can just climb problems at a level that takes you a session or two to complete- If your level of effort is high, that is fine. It is really the level of effort that is important, the percentage of your maximum at any given moment.

I also take your point that you think training exercises should be boring in order to eliminate distractions. I think this comes down partly to personality and looking at the individual as a whole person not just an arrangement of muscles. I also work better training on my own without distractions. Any athlete who does has an automatic advantage in the long term so long as they balance it with keeping in touch and learning from what others are doing. But the fact is the majority of climbers are more likely to push themselves into an overload (or even to train at all) if it is attached to fun and their mates are there to egg them on and bounce off each other with friendly competition. This is a personality issue. In short, do whatever makes you train hardest without sacrificing specificity to your goal. My comment about specificity and doing something that resembled or involved real climbing was not just related to fun, but also technique learning, which should always be the highest proportion of total training time for any climber.

The issue of problems being changed at climbing walls – this is a good thing!! Variety is essential to maintain the overload. Otherwise your body becomes accustomed to the exercise and will stop improving. It does present a problem for monitoring gains though. Here are some ways round it:

- Don’t worry so much about monitoring in the first place. Just focus on putting in a high level of effort and the results are sure to follow.

- Use problems on features or outdoors to monitor your strength progress as these do not change.

- Listen to your climbing partner’s comments about your climbing and ask them for more. They are often very insightful.

Tom Charles-Edwards said...

To add to what you've said about the benefits of home walls, I reckon that - although they are in the popular imagination all about attaining ultimate power-beast status - the major issues for folk who build home boards are putting enough big holds on them and not fixing them to a wall so their angle can be changed easily. Travel time / costs and entrance costs compel folk who only train / climb at commercial walls to train / climb when they shouldn't and not to do so when they should - but covering a fixed 45 degree home board in
cripplingly-small edges is just maintaining this unsatisfactory state of affairs.

On the other hand, when one is doing something hard there's much less temptation not to stop when one starts feeling tired or sore, or start in the first place when one warms up and doesn't feel quite right, and one also feels much less like a lemon sitting around for long periods waiting for lactic acid to disperse than one does in a commercial wall - so one gets much better power training sessions.

Craggy said...

Hey Dave

I'm semi new to Rock climbing but here my thoughts on this issue. With reference to weight training issue, I personally thing that pumping Iron Is the most boring thing to do in the world!! Tom Charles edwards says that for finger boards you cant change ur weight. This statment is wrong. If u can't do a pull up, Attach a bungee cord to assist u. If u find pull ups too easy, Attach weight to urself. I imagine u put a divers belt on full of weight when ur training and bouldering. Also I personally belive that lifting iron develops pussy muscle. This only comes from strong man competition through work and arm wrestling guys that go to the gym all the time. Farmer are usually stronger. What do you thing of this training technique that i found on the web. I'm sure u'll be know the company I got it from. http://www.metoliusclimbing.com/howto-simulator-train.htm . Would love to know thought on this. Great website. Just to let u know that Aberdeen has a new rock climbing centre called Transition Extreme, 2 mins from my door step, how greats that. Anyway good luck with future climbs, still have to watch ur dvd, u ken any sites that ripped it onto the net?? ;)

Dave MacLeod said...

I'll pretend I didn't read that last sentence!