7 August 2012
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.