Training for Climbing
Products and Techniques for Climbing Training
Wolfgang Gullich once said, 'getting strong is easy, getting strong without getting injured is hard'. Gullich sent the world's first 9a 'Action Direct' in the Frankenjura 27 years ago and was perhaps the first climber to gain attention for the way he trained using his pioneering campus board and smashing out seemly inhuman one finger, one arm pull ups like a total badass. Now climbers can choose from hundreds of training aids specific to climbing which range from glorified stress balls to poorly made doorway chin up bars (there are many hilarious videos of these online, definitely worth a watch). Wolfgang and others have shown us what possible but where do we even start?
One of the greatest things about climbing is the sense of achievement following a route that was previously thought to be unobtainable, but different climbers will have to take different approaches to achieving this. For people new to the sport simply getting out on the rock more often will be most beneficial whereas someone looking to readpoint their first 8a may need to create a more complex strategy for success.
The general consensus is that beginners should stay away from using fingerboards, hangboards and other strenuous training devices for several reasons. Firstly, these require particularly a reasonably high level of resilience from the tendons and ligaments in the forearms which would be adequately strengthened safely by climbing normal routes regularly. Also the transferable gains made by finger strength training early on would mean nothing if the climber hasn't learnt the movement patterns, footwork and route reading which are more important on most routes - holding onto the individual holds on a route for a really long time isn't exactly the goal of rock climbing, that's just being stuck.
Is there a downside to this attitude? Sometimes a new climber can start to plateau but still desires to take on more challenging routes. At this stage some climbers might be cautious of training or even discouraged due to the reasons discussed previously like fear of injury, right at the time when it could be most beneficial. Some experts recommend climbing for at least two years before hangboarding to allow the tendons to toughen up which is a good guide, however this could vary person to person depending on age, somatotype, previous athleticism, intensity and frequency of climbing sessions and many more factors. In my none expert opinion, it seems to me injuries can happen to beginners and experienced climbers alike but are considerabley more likely when ambition or aspiration overtake the more basic urge to maintain one's health. Training can be beneficial or detrimental depending on how well you can stay aware of what's going on in your body and then apply modes of exercise in response to that.
Hangboarding is a more forgiving way to start climbing specific training than campus boarding as the holds are held statically but will still considerably improve finger and upperbody strength. Using one of the many training apps for your hangboard training is a good idea despite many of them being desparately hard to the point of sadism by their developers. Don't be put off just drop a few grades as tracking your progress is the key to success, otherwise it's too easy to just do a few half-arsed dangles here and there and not really get anywhere. Form is also crucial and involves keeping the shoulders depressed and away from the ears, squeezing the core tight and maintaining some bend in the elbows. Varying the angle of the elbows, which holds you use with which fingers will develop strength in the numerous pulling muscle chains in the upper body. Avoid full crimps while training, or even all together as there seems to be a link between this grip type and rupturing the pulleys in the fingers (pulleys are like fiburous straps which keep the tendons pulled close to the bones in your fingers).
Hangboarding is complemented well with calisthenics body weight training like pull ups, front levers, push ups, handstands - the list of different exercises is enormous. Many of these exercises are supposed to be done from a bar but can also be done from big holds on a hangboard, or the small ones if you're a savage. Some exercises like the front lever and muscle ups are very transferable to climbs as they use similar groups of muscles, while others like handstands, back levers and horizontal pushing movements are equally important as they keep the body balanced. Keep this in mind when choosing which exercises you want to master. Thick exercise bands are useful for progressing from preparatory moves to harder ones. Once you've reached a certain level the exercises can be taken up a step but completing them on gymnatsic rings. This is a great way to improve joint stability.
So far we have mostly covered the strength aspects of climbing but aerobic fitness is also important. Some top level climbers also hold their own fell running and potential cross overs between the two sports are huge. Having a healthy heart and circulatory system definitely helps pump blood out of the forearms during climbs on raging overhangs. It's also vital to keep the often neglected legs strong and flexible and fell running terrain tests this adequately. Fell running has the added benefit of extreme fat burning and the associated fat loss is paramount for staying lightweight for climbing.
Many climbers also regularly practice yoga. Breathing, strength, flexibility and concentration are the main focus of Hatha Yoga or the physical aspect of yoga and these attributes correspond perfectly to what is needed to climb hard routes. The cerebral facets of yoga and climbing are very similar. Yoga, like climbing, is a noble lifestyle choice and there's definitely more to it than brightly coloured yoga pants and awkward farting.
Campus boarding is definitely the most aggressive form of climbing specific training and as a result has the highest potential for gains in power as well as injury. It particularly improves contact strength meaning the ability to quickly deliver maximum force through the hold as soon as the fingers touch it. In addition it also develops upper body pulling power and the precision needed to catch small holds while moving dynamically. Jerry Moffatt and Ben Moon made famous the 1 5 9 sequence on the campus board but I suggest something easier to start with and perhaps with feet on. Being able to lock off on one arm is a definite requirement for hard campusing moves which can be worked on the hangbard, bars and many indoor walls now have peg boards. Once the lock off is mastered the arm chin up should start to seem like less of an impossibility. All of this will help with accomplishing the sacred '1 5 9'.
Paralysis by analysis
This a fairly extensive list of possible ways to train for climbing and could be seen as either inspiring or terrifying, much like climbing itself. It's easy to get frustrated with aspects of training or get too zoomed in on a particular area in the body or only concentrate on weakness and this can suck the joy out of things. There is no substitute for just getting down to the crag on a good day. Also this post has only focused on the physicality of rock climbing despite the large part that the mind as to play. When top level climbers talk about completing a ludicrously hard route they often mention letting go of all the pressure they have put on themselves to do it. This is totally paradoxical since rock climbing is always a personally motivated endevour and maybe why we all find it so addicting.