18 November 2010

Avoiding pulley injuries - the hard and easy ways

In the comments of my last post, John asked about how to avoid crimping all the time and hence reduce the build up of stress and microscopic damage that leads to pulley tears. 
Of course there is the short answer of ‘just openhand everything’ and you’ll get better at it. When it comes down to it, that’s what you have to do. It’s not easy to take the temporary drop in climbing grade while you gain openhanded strength. Most climbers who’ve not had pulley injuries yet are miserably weak at openhanding and really have to take a hit. But it’s your choice - it’s only your ego you have to beat.
I’ll make a very detailed case in Rock ‘til you drop not only for why you must do it, but all the ways you can make it easier on yourself. However, since you’ll have to wait a little longer for that, here are a few headlines for now:
- ‘It’s just training’. The biggest enemy of changing habits like crimping is that climbers are always trying to compete, even in training. When you go to the climbing wall, you cannot bear to do something differently to normal because you’ll have to take a grade hit for a while. And maybe your training isn’t going perfect anyway so you are trying extra hard to the standard you’ve become accustomed to. There is only one way around it; stand back and realise that you are just training. You are just pulling on plastic blobs. Who cares what the number is? If you think other people do, you’re kidding yourself. Sure it’s ok to compete once in a while. Climb openhanded most of the time, and allow yourself to crimp when it really matters. If you don’t, you’ll only have to later when your broken pulleys won’t let you do anything else.
- Get off the starting blocks. If your openhanded strength really is that spectacularly rubbish in comparison to your crimp strength, you could get yourself off the starting blocks by a little supplementary fingerboard work with a 4 finger and 3 finger openhanded grip. Use the protocol I described in 9 out of 10. After 10 or 20 sessions you shouldn’t have to take such an ego hammering blow when you climb for real with an openhanded grip. But don’t forget that the subtleties of the movement are realy quite different than when crimping; getting comfortable with openhanded needs both the strength part as well as actually learning how to climb with it on real moves.
- Know the score. A lot of people I’ve coached reckon they just aren’t cut out for climbing openhanded. They usually invent a reason like the shape of their hands or the length of their fingers. Rubbish. If it feels weak, it’s only because you’re weak. And the only reason you’re weak on this grip is because you don’t do it. I challenge anyone to climb solely openhanded for 20 sessions or more and still tell me it doesn’t work for them.
- Do it on easy routes first. Very experienced or expert climbers have a disadvantage in that their habits are very set and egos expect very consistent performance. But the advantage they have is that a lot of the movement decisions are quite automatic. Someone who climbs 8a+ can probably do a 7c while having conversation. So there is room on easier routes during warm-up or mileage climbs to concentrate on learning a new technique like openhanding. 
Crimp everything and you will suffer for it down the line. Don’t worry about it too much - most people have to learn to openhand the hard way (post-injury). But injury is arguably the most wonderful motivator for changing the way you climb. That’s what happened to me. At 17 I scoffed at openhanded climbing. 5 years of constant pulley injuries later I couldn’t believe how much better it is than crimping on the vast majority of holds.

14 comments:

AndyB said...

Hi Dave,
Cheers for another interesting post. I'm finding open hands much more natural now than a few years back (I learnt the hard way!).

What's the likely delivery date for Rock till you drop?

Ben B said...

Hi Dave,

I was wondering whether there are any draw backs to open handing all the time. Clearly crimping excessively damages the expected tendons in the fingers but where are the load points when open handing? Could open handing be a potential cause of collateral ligament damage round the PIP joint?

Dave Redpath said...

I'm the opposite. I find the deformability (softness) of the skin on the finger tips has a lot to do with how well they grip small holds. I think climbing open handed is easier with soft skin. This year I used alot of Antihydral to thicken my skin but found I had to crimp. The harder polished skin wouldn't deform.

Blackford said...

Hi Dave, excellent post.

I've got a quick question for you. As far as openhanded climbing, which specific openhanded grip are you referring (i.e. fully half-crimped with all four fingers at a ninety degree angle, or slightly half-crimped with only the middle and ring fingers somewhat half-crimped while the index finger remains rather straight)? Are both good techniques for training or is one preferable to the other?

Also, I own a copy of your 9 out of 10 book and supplement my training with your finger-boarding regime often. I've been looking to gain strength in my pinch power. Got any good recommendations? What are your thoughts on doing something like farmer's carries with wide weight plates vs. just finger-boarding or using pinch grips?

Thanks a lot,
Thomas

andrewg said...

Hi Dave,
Another useful post, which highlights a question:
As I understand itImprovements in (muscle) strength happen through a process of damage and repair. I assume the same happens for tendons and ligaments. As long as the rate of repair exceeds the rate of new micro-traumas, then we get stronger.
If we aim to climb open-handed as much as possible to avoid pulley injuries, does we not risk developing too much muscular strength, without the corresponding tendon/ligament strength? Over the last couple of years, I've been climbing almost exclusively open-handedly. I use crimps only where they're necessary. But then when I come across a crimp I have to load heavily, I end up with a pulley injury.

Does training open-handed strengthen the supporting structures in the hand that are loaded when crimping, or must we practice at least some regular, mild crimping to make sure we encourage these systems to grow?

Cheers

Andy

Anonymous said...

While I understand the benefits of openhanding (For a while I made big efforts to strengthen and use it mroe), the only finger injury i have ever sustained is in fact while i was openhanded on a small hold. I strained my lumbrical tendon and after asking several people, it sounds like i am not the only person who has had this issue. I believe the problem comes from the middle finger being slightly bent while the rest are straight and the lumbrical tendon ends up and its longest as it rubs over the outside edge of the first knuckle.
Have you heard of this much before? Any ideas on how to avoid this injury?
-Jeremy

Nick said...

Your work is always excellent Dave and I think your advice and research on climbing training is worth listening to. The idea (fact?) of crimping being bad for you has been around for a while but I think you need to outline a lot more details about the specifics of why you think this than what is written in the OLC blog. For instance more actual figures about types of crimping, absolute levels of soft tissue stress and relative climbing difficulties. Crimping seems necessary a certain amount of time in climbing. To get stronger at it you need to train it and that involves specific training stress. Are you able to quantify general proportions of grip strength to progress in climbing ability? I know it is not useful to compare with others but many top climbers seem to crimp very hard, much of the time. Look at Nicole, Graham, Robinson, Woods, Ondra etc These guys are are putting the current limits of climbing stress on their bodies and seem to be improving. What concrete figures are there that says, for the general climbing population who are training, that crimping is to be avoided?

no said...

Although my background is similar in some ways, I'm not Dave, but by reading the comments, I think some readers are misinterpreting the post's assumptions. 'avoid crimping all the time' was meant in the sense of 'use open-hand grip positions sometimes', and not, 'avoid crimping always'. If you study pictures or video of Dave climbing, you'll notice he clearly crimps -- and sometimes very hard -- on very small holds.

When I began climbing I found myself crimping very often, even on sloper holds where I should have been using the friction of the whole hand. I was lucky in a way and managed never to face pulley tendon injuries. Yet still, after a substantial amount of fingerboard training my open-handed strength improved significantly. As a consequence I've become a much stronger climber in general, and my grip positions are more friendly on the fingers (pulley tendons, DIP/ PIP joints, etc.).

Fingerboard training is just training. So if originally you're weak open-handed (I was for sure) it doesn't really matter psychologically. You can't hang on for terribly long, but so what? It's not as disappointing as falling or appearing to perform below your potential on a rock climb. So fingerboard training can be of great use for overcoming both psychological and physical barriers.

In response to some other comments, I've sustained minor tears to collateral ligaments, and during rehab for those injuries crimping was generally more friendly on the affected tissues. Still, if you study injuries in competition climbers, that case is rare relative to pulley tendon tears associated with crimping.

Dave MacLeod said...

To all - first off, don’t misunderstand the post. A balance of grips is a good idea to spread the stress and be versatile in your ability to hold different holds. But most people aren’t balanced, they crimp far too much. If your crimping a lot and getting injured, you need to do more openhanding. The post is aimed at this majority.

If you’re getting injured by leaning on crimping too much, then training intensity (long term) goes down, and tissue weakens. A rollercoaster of training too hard to catch up to where you ‘should’ be and then layoff due to injury is the most damaging to the body.

Ben - The ligaments around the finger joints are much more vulnerable in crimping I think. In general I feel openhanding is much less risky all round. That’s not to say it’s not risky at all - no grip type is. The high risk situations are fairly similar to that of crimping eg. Snatching for a hold quickly and ‘dropping’ onto it creating a shock load, or pulling really hard when a foot slips. Good footwork is super important for avoiding finger injuries. So many guys get so little weight on their feet and don’t even realise it.

AndrewG- Of course, a little crimping is important in climbing. Gains in isometric strength are angle specific so I don’t think you need to worry about getting ‘too strong’. Variety in your climbing should be sufficient to develop strength safely; pinching and 4 finger openhanding are good bridges between the full three finger pocket grip and closed crimping.

But remember that the balance of grips are only one potential cause of injury. If you get recurring crimping injuries it might be because of poor footwork, training design etc etc…

Thomas - Nevermind the famer’s carries, just climb a lot on pinches!

Nick - I take it you have read this post: http://onlineclimbingcoach.blogspot.com/2010/05/a2-pulley-injuries-review-re-posted.html ? There are a few more studies since, but that’s pretty much all the concrete numbers you’ll get unless you fancy doing some research yourself. Until there is more research, it would be crazy to ignore the circumstantial evidence that leaning too much on crimping is a recipe for a lot of injury time.

I don’t agree that the climbers you listed crimp much of the time. I think they crimp less than most climbers I’ve coached or observed at lower standards tend to, and I think that’s part of the reason they’ve been able to keep on crimping harder and harder without getting injured. They key point here is the pace of the training overload on the specific tissue. Let’s say for hypothetical example Paul Robinson starts training at the same time as his altar-ego Roger Crimpdemon. For the next five years, Paul does 100,000 crimp moves per year and 200,000 openhanded moves. Roger does 120,000 crimp moves and 180,000 openhand moves. At a casual observation of watching them both climb in a video, you wouldn’t notice the difference. But Roger’s pullies are counting the damage, move by move! The microscopic damage accumulates to the point that a particularly brutal move in bad conditions after a poor warmup makes a pulley go ‘snap’. Then the cycle of layoff and premature return to intense ‘catch up’ training begins and Roger never gets a sustained enough period of training to become world class, like Paul.

Once Roger’s pullies have this damage, things are no longer the same. 100,000 crimp moves a year would have been fine before, but no longer. Even more reliance on openhanding will be necessary to give the pullies a chance to catch up from their weak and damaged state.

Dave MacLeod said...

To all - first off, don’t misunderstand the post. A balance of grips is a good idea to spread the stress and be versatile in your ability to hold different holds. But most people aren’t balanced, they crimp far too much. If your crimping a lot and getting injured, you need to do more openhanding. The post is aimed at this majority.

If you’re getting injured by leaning on crimping too much, then training intensity (long term) goes down, and tissue weakens. A rollercoaster of training too hard to catch up to where you ‘should’ be and then layoff due to injury is the most damaging to the body.

Ben - The ligaments around the finger joints are much more vulnerable in crimping I think. In general I feel openhanding is much less risky all round. That’s not to say it’s not risky at all - no grip type is. The high risk situations are fairly similar to that of crimping eg. Snatching for a hold quickly and ‘dropping’ onto it creating a shock load, or pulling really hard when a foot slips. Good footwork is super important for avoiding finger injuries. So many guys get so little weight on their feet and don’t even realise it.

AndrewG- Of course, a little crimping is important in climbing. Gains in isometric strength are angle specific so I don’t think you need to worry about getting ‘too strong’. Variety in your climbing should be sufficient to develop strength safely; pinching and 4 finger openhanding are good bridges between the full three finger pocket grip and closed crimping.

But remember that the balance of grips are only one potential cause of injury. If you get recurring crimping injuries it might be because of poor footwork, training design etc etc…

Thomas - Nevermind the famer’s carries, just climb a lot on pinches!

Dave MacLeod said...

Nick - I take it you have read this post: http://onlineclimbingcoach.blogspot.com/2010/05/a2-pulley-injuries-review-re-posted.html ? There are a few more studies since, but that’s pretty much all the concrete numbers you’ll get unless you fancy doing some research yourself. Until there is more research, it would be crazy to ignore the circumstantial evidence that leaning too much on crimping is a recipe for a lot of injury time.

I don’t agree that the climbers you listed crimp much of the time. I think they crimp less than most climbers I’ve coached or observed at lower standards tend to, and I think that’s part of the reason they’ve been able to keep on crimping harder and harder without getting injured. They key point here is the pace of the training overload on the specific tissue. Let’s say for hypothetical example Paul Robinson starts training at the same time as his altar-ego Roger Crimpdemon. For the next five years, Paul does 100,000 crimp moves per year and 200,000 openhanded moves. Roger does 120,000 crimp moves and 180,000 openhand moves. At a casual observation of watching them both climb in a video, you wouldn’t notice the difference. But Roger’s pullies are counting the damage, move by move! The microscopic damage accumulates to the point that a particularly brutal move in bad conditions after a poor warmup makes a pulley go ‘snap’. Then the cycle of layoff and premature return to intense ‘catch up’ training begins and Roger never gets a sustained enough period of training to become world class, like Paul.

Once Roger’s pullies have this damage, things are no longer the same. 100,000 crimp moves a year would have been fine before, but no longer. Even more reliance on openhanding will be necessary to give the pullies a chance to catch up from their weak and damaged state.

John Liungman said...

Thanks for your answer Dave! I see that you discard any reference to relative finger length as nonsense, and I see your point. However, in my own climbing I have reflected on the fact that index and pinkie are a lot shorter, which means that to get all four finger into action I need to bend the middle fingers more. Which leads to these fingers slipping into crimp position. For me, developing the strength and habit to be comfortable on just three equally loaded fingers seems to be a good venue.

Martyn L said...

Hi Dave,

I'm definately in the 'crimp too much' camp. So for the last year i've been training on a finger board - 3 & 2 finger openhanded and 4 finger openhanded for lock offs and assisted one-armers. Whilst i can see decent improvement on the board i still find my openhanded strength sucks compared to my crimp strength when climbing.
I only get to climb (indoors at the moment) once a week (due to work constraints) and I train 4 times a week. Could that be part of the problem?

Cheers
Martyn

p.s. thanks for writing the 9 out of 10 book, its a great tool that is hugely helpful - i have the technique part committed almost to memory!

Pepijn said...

Well, I wasn't really crimping too much but made the stupid mistake of going into a 6C (French grade) boulder without a proper warmup -which quickly ended after a dry snap from my left ring finger A4 pulley. That was last january, and due to an ensueing case of tendinitis, caused by me hanging onto a steel h-shaped roof support beam, I'm still recovering and have actually reserved the complete next year for healing and strengthening.

I definitely have had to slow down but also did a lot of open-handing, although one cannot really train hard on that with tendinitis. Still, my footwork has improved and so has my open-handed climbing technique. I just hope my pulley heals well enough to at least let me crimp whenever it is really necessary...

Definitely plan on purchasing the 9 out of 10 as well, hope it will help me plan my recovery training and monitor my progress.