Dave Redpath setting up for the crux of Anabolica 8a, Siurana – never mind that recruitment Dave, can you up that firing frequency, coordinate those neural waves and reduce the inhibition enough? (Ph: Hot Aches)
Based on the information in books out there about training for climbing, it has become many climber’s understanding of muscular strength and strength training that it comprises of two elements; muscle size and muscle fibre recruitment. This understanding is useful at a very basic level because it helps to underline the point that getting strong for climbing is not just about getting bigger muscles. Even for those not interested in training, it helps us to understand our observations that the best climbers are clearly not the muscliest! This is nowhere clearer than if you compare the physique of two of the world’s most famous and best climbers of today, Dave Graham and Chris Sharma.
But if you are at the stage of planning your own training for climbing based on your knowledge of strength and the factors that influence it, then it pays to have a deeper understanding to avoid making poor choices and losing out on training gains.
Muscle strength is indeed influenced by the size of the muscle and the number of fibres it can recruit, but its also influenced by the frequency of firing (rate coding) of the muscle fibres, the length of the muscle, the speed of contraction, the reflex potentiation or inhibition of the muscle and the coordination of the muscle group (after all movements involve several muscles working at once through different stages). Beyond these there are even more factors besides! So in reality there is quite a lot going on there. This helps us to see why the best climbers come in different shapes and sizes and appear to move in different ways.
So what do all of these factors mean for our strength training. I guess the best way to summarise this would be to say that the demarcation between muscular strength and technique is not as clear as it may seem. I’m not going to go into all the implications because there are several books worth of them! But the main implication is to recognise the importance of integration of gains in both tissue growth and the neuromuscular activation aspects (recruitment & rate coding) in the setting you are ultimately training for.
In real terms this mean making sure you mix up basic strength training on things like fingerboards with bouldering. This will ensure that your muscles learn the correct rate coding for given movements. In some cases this will be learning to use more force, in some cases it will be less. Both are obviously just as important, as in climbing we have to string moves together so strength is a commodity that we must save on certain moves and be able to use in abundance on others.
In future posts I’ll write up some pointers to recognise when there might be a problem with the proportions of different types of strength training in climbing. But this is a very complicated subject and worth getting help with it if you can!