8 August 2012

Sean McColl's training video

Always interesting to see what other people are doing. Canadian climber Sean McColl sharing his regimen for endurance circuits and core. The core work is still fairly climbing specific on the whole which is good. Plus the press-ups seem to be good for preventing ‘Font elbow’.

7 August 2012

A few Beastmaker tips

At some point I’m still planning to write a small manual on the gory details of physical training for climbing for those who’ve already got all the ‘top level’ stuff sorted from 9/10. However, in response to popular demand since we put the Beastmakers in the shop, here are a few important points about using your fingerboard:

1. It's a supplement, not a hiding place. Finger strength is such a key ingredient of climbing hard grades. Yet whenever I write advice telling people to get and use a fingerboard, I make a little cringe. This is because I have seen so often the problems it causes which cancel out the finger strength gains. As Beastmaker designer Dan Varian himself says, the world is full of strong folk who hang out on their Beastmaker every night, can perform eye watering numbers of one-armers on hardly any fingers. Yet they still can’t climb hard. Well, relative to their strength anyway. 

I can’t even do some of the hangs considered Font 7b on the Beastmaker, and my top indoor grade is Font 7c+ish yet have climbed Font 8b+ on rock. Since I’m a rock climber, that’s the way round I like it! Lots of strong youths do it the other way round. If you want to be good at pull ups, that’s fine. But most of us want to climb hard on rock.

Sometimes the over-reliance on fingerboarding as a training Panacea comes from simply not realising how important technique is (see this post for more detail). Sometimes the fingerboard becomes a comfort blanket - the only place you know you can perform well and consistently. If you are stronger than your mates but they still burn you off on Font 8a outdoors you think “I’ll go back to the Beastmaker”. Your hiding place. Hiding from the really hard training - learning to climb harder moves using less strength and getting more weight on your feet. As soon as you begin acting this out, you are no longer training, but just going through the motions. 

The solution is to keep the real rock/basic training ratio high. Many of you will be watching the Olympics right now. Imagine if the gymnasts spent their time just lifting weights and not practising their routines. Could they win? Imagine if they only practiced their routines and never performed them in a competition setting. Could they deal with the pressures of the comp day and win?

Adding basic finger strength training is always a good idea, but only if the technique training is increased too. 

2. Short frequent sessions are good. And they fit better into a busy life. Don’t skimp on your warm-up though. Develop a sense of when your fingers are warmed up and ready to pull hard. It’s not rocket science. If you are a new to fingerboarding, just be gentle and gradually experiment each session with what feels good. Once you are warmed up, working through all the different grip types constiutes your workout. The Beastmakers have a good App on the way to follow if you don’t want to use your imagination and plan your own workout.

The general plan is to train in a way that causes you to have fairly equal strength on all grip types. One of the great things about the renewed popularity of fingerboarding in the past few years has been that more folk have realised that openhanded strength is important. Often if you’ve never fingerboarded, your openhanded strength is so bad you can’t even understand how you could hold on with that grip. It’s not weird, you are just weak on it!

3. Be careful, very careful. Everyone get’s injured fingers and various other upper body tendons from climbing training. Your injuries will hold you back far more than tweaking your workouts will propel your climbing forward. So give plenty of attention to injury prevention. The weaknesses you start with and the length of your fingers relative to each other will dictate what will feel ‘tweaky’. If it means you can’t do something that your mate can, you’ll have to go with that in the short term. 

A good example of this is doing one arm hangs with a full crimp grip. Contrary to hanging with two arms, when you hang on one arm, your wrist is held at an offset angle and the force is distributed differently through your wrist and fingers. If you aren’t used to it or weak on it, it’s very easy to get injured. So just progress very slowly. Start your progression from where you actually are, no matter how weak that is. Use plenty of support from the other hand or a chair on the ground. If you don’t try and do hangs which are too hard for you, you can progress slowly and steadily and in the months to come you’ll be able to do those hangs.

Some more safety warnings:

- Don’t hang with a straight, relaxed arm. ‘Engage’ your shoulder and arm muscles so the weight of your body is not hanging through the joint ligaments. Holding a slight elbow bend is the best way.
- Deep locks are very hard on the elbows and a good way to eventually cause the onset of dreaded epicondylitis. Proceed with caution if you have healthy elbows and avoid the last few degrees of lock if you have bad elbows.
- Training when tired or distracted is the fastest recipe for an injury. If you’re always tired and have a lot on your mind, at least have a coffee and take a few minutes to focus yourself before your workout. Treat it the same way as driving in busy traffic - it’s dangerous, so if your mind is not clear to pay attention, bad things are going to happen.

4. Vary the workouts. Do a session of testing your strengths and weaknesses on different grip types at the start and then every few weeks. Then you’ll know what your weaknesses are. Right now my ‘thumb on’ full crimp and 4-finger openhand is weak (because my little finger is weak and my pronator can’t control the rotation during a one arm hang). So you can spend the next few weeks doing more hangs on these grips to strengthen them, while maintaining the other grip types with fewer hangs. What grip types you want to focus on might also be dictated by what projects you have too and that’s fine, in the short and medium term anyway. 

5. How much volume? There is a lot of conflicting advice about how many sessions per week is a good number. Certainly with the minimums it’s easy to say that one session per week will create only a small increase in strength from baseline which will level off. 2 sessions per week is also not that much to keep getting gains beyond the initial weeks. The debate starts when we talk about whether 3 of more sessions per week is optimum.

I don’t believe there is a correct answer to this because there are too many variables in the mix. Firstly, one man’s idea of a hard session is different from the next man. Some folk are great at really generating a maximal effort and creating a muscular stimulus from the session that actually justifies a rest day. Others need coaching to realise what a maximal muscular effort is. These folks could fingerboard every day with no problems.

Secondly, it depends on how much real climbing you are doing. If you’re doing a couple of wall sessions on routes a week and have a fingerboard at home you could be using of an evening, you could probably use it for 30 minutes (post warm-up) daily. But if you are doing three hard bouldering sessions a week and working on outdoor projects on weekends then 3 fingerboard sessions might even be a struggle to fit in without creating recovery problems. 

The only reasonable answer is to do as much as your body can recover from at any given time. Here are two examples from my own history:

Before the days when I had a home board, I used to fingerboard 5 or 6 days a week during the summer. My real climbing would consist mainly of outdoor tradding which is less intense and I had no problem integrating the fingerboard sessions. In winter when I was bouldering 3 or 4 times a week I’d only do 2 or three fingerboard sessions and sometimes drop it altogether if I was really bouldering hard on projects.

These days, I have a board and lots of bouldering close to home. Most of the time I’ll do 3 sessions per week fingerboarding. In the Lochaber monsoon when it rains every day from October to February I’ll up that to 4-6 sessions a week at the start of my board sessions. But some of those fingerboard sessions will be just a few hangs before I get into the boulder session and I have 18 years of training behind me to absorb this level of work.

It comes down to listening to your body. Start developing an ‘ear’ for your general and specific recovery state.

6. Get motivators. Fingerboarding is not an exciting pastime. Get good training partners, good music, good TV etc and don’t hang the fingerboard somewhere that’s going to feel like a prison cell. Don’t be one of the countless people I’ve coached who tell me “I’ve had a fingerboard up for a year but used it once”.

If the entire concept of doing something as dull as deadhangs seems like a struggle but you still want to give it a go for the sake of the climbing gains, make sure you give it a good go. The strength gains you get and the ‘opiate effect’ of a good workout takes time to tap into but are probably the strongest motivators. Loads of people hang a board, do two or three sessions then give up. If you discipline yourself to do it for a solid month without fail, hopefully you’ll start to get the nice feelings of having done some real training, and got suitably addicted to the small but noticeable gains to keep going.

But the first thing of course, get a fingerboard and get it up in your house.

6 August 2012

Beastmakers in the shop

Since this site is one of the main places on the web to get information about training for climbing and our shop sells all the best books on the matter, it was about time we started selling some of the best training equipment too. So priority number one was to get hold of the best fingerboards on the market right now; the Beastmakers.
Designed by Font 8b+ boulderers and made out of rather lovely skin friendly wood, their design is clearly a labour of love and that is why they have become so popular in the UK. Oh, and they make your fingers strong. Well, owning one isn’t enough on it’s own. It’s the numbers of hangs clocked up that get makes the jumps in grades we all want. But having a well designed and skin friendly hangboard is a good first step.
I started fingerboarding in summer 2005 just after I first tried Rhapsody. At the time I was climbing F8b and the odd 8b+ and about 8A on boulders. After a solid summer doing my deadhangs most days I got back on the sport climbs in the autumn and was blown away to discover I could now climb 8c. The following year I did Rhapsody and the year after that my first 9a.
That raw finger strength was obviously the ingredient that propelled me forward to grades I never thought I’d get to. There are of course many young strong lads I’ve seen and coached in walls up and down the UK who would wipe the floor with me on a hangboard yet can’t climb nearly as hard outside, since power is nothing without technique. And technique is just as hard won as finger strength.
So every climber needs to have a balance between learning technique and learning to pull hard. However, every climber who spends any time training or aspiring to harder grades should have and use a fingerboard. And if they are going to own any one, a Beastmaker is a pretty good choice. 
We are stocking both the 1000 and 2000 models. The 1000 is designed with those new to training in mind (Font 5-7C) and the 2000 is a better choice for those already used to bouldering walls and basic strength equipment (7C-8C). They cost £75 with our normal £1.50 shipping. Shipping to Europe and the rest of the world are at normal Royal Mail rates.
Get hanging and get strong. The 1000 is here and the 2000 is here.

The Milo of Croton school of training with Freida MacLeod. I wonder how long I can still manage this?

Freida getting started with some assisted hangs

5 August 2012

Another good injury story

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, the good writing with some depth about our favourite subjects is sometimes a little less visible online than it was a few years ago. Here is a great story from Natalie Berry about her battles with a string of injuries over the past 12 years as a successful sport and competition climber.
I really felt for Natalie reading this, it brought back some of the worst moments from my own memories of ‘dark’ injury times. As I was reading, as a coach I was thinking “would there have been anything that could have been done differently?”. Possibly not if the design of the training progression was optimum, but the one thing on my mind was that a complete change of scenery while the appropriate rehab program was under way might help. Towards the end of her story, it turned out that doing just that seemed to improve the situation at least a bit. Nat's key quote of the blog was "The pain is telling me to change something". 
Like Natalie, I also went through a long (5 year) period of having one finger injury after another. As soon as one pulley healed, another went. If I could go back in time and tell myself the lessons I learnt the hard way, I’d say this:
The string of injuries were caused by poor technique, training planning and tactics. I’m not talking about seriously bad technical errors. I mean the kind of thing that’s so subtle only a very experienced coach would spot - slight systematic errors in control of movement, body position, the way I took the holds, my tactics for avoiding injury situations etc. I should have taken more time to clock up the hours climbing in more different situations, with different climbers and with less pressure to perform. Instead I should have concentrated more on basic climbing skills to develop the kind of movement and tactical awareness that only thousands of hours on the rock gives you.
When I got the injuries I should have taken complete time out from trying to perform. Not just the practicalities of trying to do it, but the impatient mindset that goes with it. I eventually went back to VS and went trad climbing all over the place and actually learned to be a solid leader. The result was coming back onsighting E7 instead of falling off E5s. I ought to have done it much earlier.
I changed my technique to move more dynamically, reducing the stress and risk for my tendons. I gained some openhanded strength and reduced my reliance on crimping. I learned that I needed to take care of my body better, and started eating and sleeping better. Finally, I thought tactically about what today’s climbing decisions meant for tomorrow, instead of just thinking about right now. A big part of this was simply being very careful climbing in warm or humid conditions when the risk of injury was much higher.
All of these factors together worked. Better late than never. In the 8 years since I’ve had two minor pulley injuries that resolved in a short time. 
If you are going through the same sort of experience, it’s very challenging to know what to do without the benefit of hindsight. The contributing factors for your injuries will be slightly different for everyone. At the end of the day, although advice from experienced sources is priceless, only you will be able to process that advice and sense what you should do differently. You must make yourself the expert and be prepared to cut through your own hang-ups, deep set habits and prejudices. N.B. I've been writing down all the possible avenues to look at in my injuries book which I'm still making steady progress with.
No easy answers, but it can be done.