Finger Strength

I’m tackling this aspect of fitness first because it’s probably the most important. If you look at long term trends in a climber’s progression over the course of a 10, 15, 20, or 30 year career, the limiting factor on progress is almost always finger strength, or injuries. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that most of these injuries come in search of greater finger strength. We know how to warm up properly to prevent injuries now, so it’s time to get strong!

“If you do not have the strength to do the individual moves, then there is nothing to Endure” – Wolfgang Gullich

*NOTE: Fingerboarding and Campus Training are severe and shouldn’t be attempted unless you’ve been climbing for about two years, climb at least V5 or (5.12-), and you’ve reached some sort of plateau that you need to break through. Climbing is severe, and when you remove the support of your feet it becomes MUCH more severe, approach these exercises with caution, because they are the quickest way to injure yourself if your technique is poor or your body isn’t ready

What is Finger-Strength/Power?

  1. Strength: How much force can you apply with your fingers, what is the smallest hold you can grab? This is the limiting factor on boulder problems and stopper-cruxes. If you find yourself failing on a problem/route because you simply can’t hold onto the crux holds, even when fresh, then training strength might break your plateau. Lack of strength shows up when you fall on short difficult sequences.
  2. Power: This is a climer’s zero-to-sixty. Right now, as you’re reading this, make a fist. Now squeeze as hard as you can. Do you feel how it takes a moment to engage all of the muscles in your forearm? Power is how quickly these muscles will engage. Power is the ability to snatch a small hold on a desperate move and apply full strength momentum pulls you off. If you have difficulty latching the hold on crux lunges, even after your fingers touch the hold, perhaps you could benefit from increased power.

How hard is too hard?
The idea here is high, but not dangerous load. Think about the crux hold on a boulder problem, you can hold it for a few seconds, not very long, and it’s strenuous, but hopefully not dangerous to the point of injury. Your arm motion is to snag something awful with your finger tips, hold it for a few seconds, release, shake off, and hit the next one. So that’s the motion we want to repeat on finger-strength exercises. Likewise for power, we want to simulate moves where we throw with all we’ve got and barely manage to snatch the target.

Reps, Sets, and Rest:
One rep for a fingerboard repeater consists of hanging for a set time, and then shaking off for a second or two. My standard rule of thumb for strength is 3-5. You want a hold that you can hold for 3-5 seconds, which you can repeat for 3-5 reps. Then you rest 3-5 minutes between sets, and perform 3-5 sets total per session. For a hard session, 5 sets with 5 minutes rest totals up to approximately 30 minutes. When starting this routine, it’s best to start with 3 sets and work your way up to 5 when it feels appropriate. You should be somewhat fresh at the start of each set.

For power I use a similar guideline, but remove the hangtime. You want an exercise that can be repeated a few times (3-5 double-dynos, or 2 lunges for each side), then perform 3-5 sets with 3-5 minutes of rest in-between.

The idea for strength/power exercises is to come at them fresh and send the signal to your muscles that they aren’t quite strong enough even when you are well rested. This will cause your body to build stronger muscles.

Rest and Recovery:
Typically I need to have at least two rest days after a strength/power session, and I can only handle this type of training twice a week. Think about it, if you went out to the local bouldering crag and tried to crush your hardest, how many times a week could you keep it up without hurting yourself? Remember: Nobody ever built strength in a gym. They built strength asleep at night afterwards, and recovering when their muscles were sore from exertion.

Do not train on sore muscles. This will lead to injury.

My Strength/Power Routine:
I like to do circuit training for strength/power, this condenses a lot of exercises into a short period while still maintaining adequate rest periods.

Below is my current circuit, but it’s important to note that this is just an example. You don’t need to copy my circuit. The ideas behind this workout can be applied to anyone if you change or modify the exercises for each muscle group, and suggestions to make it harder or easier to match your current fitness are listed below:

Target Exercise
Arm Strength One-Arm Pullup/One-Arm Negative
Finger Strength Weighted Fingerboarding (3 finger, 45lbs, 0.75” edge)
Power Campus Board
Core Leg lifts/Wipers
Stability Olympic Ring Pushups

Arm Strength:
Again, you’re looking for an exercise where you are capable of performing 3-5 reps. I can’t do 3 One-Arm Pullups, so I’ll begin performing negatives when I’m too tired to complete a one-arm with good form. Below are some alternative exercises, listed from most to least difficult:

  1. Weighted One-Arm Pull-up (probably a bit silly)
  2. One Arm Pull-up
  3. One-Arm Negative
  4. Weighted-Pull-up
  5. Pull-up
  6. Assisted Pull-Up (pulley or banding systems can be used to good effect)

One additional exercise that works great, and can be used for any level is the Lat-Pull-Down machine in the weight-room. You can start with low resistance, and work up to pulling the equivalent of your bodyweight. If you can pull down your body weight, you’re ready for pull-ups! When you’re ready for more progression, you can add weight, and once you can pull double your body weight, you are likely ready for the one-arm pullup.

Injury Prevention: NEVER extend your arms fully, this shock-loads the elbow and shoulder joints and will RAPIDLY lead to injury. Always maintain engagement of the muscles and avoid hyper-extension of the joints. Make sure to include stabilizing exercises to prevent over-use injuries.

John Gill OAP with Weights.
John Gill OAP with Weights.

Finger Strength:
Climbers have been training finger-strength for decades, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Keep it simple. There are only a few ways to get this, and the best I’ve found is fingerboarding. When are you ready for fingerboarding? I’d say as soon as you start having trouble making progress simply through bouldering. Fingerboarding removes any support from the feet which makes it more severe than just climbing, so it’s important to make sure you are ready for the added stress. As a general guideline I’d say anyone who can climb V4 or 5.11+ would be fit enough to carefully begin fingerboarding.

Fingerboard Repeaters:
Find a grip you can hold for 3-5 seconds (this will vary over the course of your workout). Simply hang on the holds, with elbows slightly bent and your shoulders engaged. Don’t perform pullups, just hang. Adding pullups to the routine is virtually useless since you’re training two muscles at once, and one will quit first which shortchanges the training on the other. Training must be specific, so we only target one muscle at a time.

Hang, shake-off, repeat 3-5x and that’s a set. It doesn’t take much. Start with 3 sets per training session, and increase to 5 sets as you become accustomed to training.

I take a page from Dave McLeod and do my fingerboarding exclusively with holds that utilize 3 to 4 fingers, this reduces stress on the tendons and helps you live a long and happy life. If you can hold onto the worst hold on your fingerboard for more than 6 seconds with 3 fingers, start adding weight to your harness instead of going to two-finger-pockets. Unless you’re specifically training pockets for some reason… In which case I wish you luck, and may god have mercy on your soul.

Injury Prevention: NEVER train in full-crimp. Use half-crimp or open-handed finger positions. Stop if your fingers feel weird, do not train while the forearms are sore. NEVER extend your elbow fully, this shock-loads the joint and will RAPIDLY lead to tendinitis. Always maintain engagement of the muscles and avoid hyperextension of the joints. Make sure to include stabilizing exercises to prevent over-use injuries.

This one is tricky, and this is the most dangerous exercise category to attempt. Never train on a campus board or perform lunges more than twice a week unless you’re looking for an injury.. [Link to masochist line] Below is a list of exercises for power, from most severe to least:

  1. Double-Dynos
  2. Hand-Over-Hand lunges (single, skip one, skip two, 1-5-9, etc)
  3. Hand over hand laddering (match hands after each reach)
  4. Foot-assisted laddering (same as above with footholds to assist)

Injury Prevention: NEVER train in full-crimp. Use half-crimp or open-handed finger positions. Stop if your fingers feel weird in any way, do not train while the forearms are sore. NEVER extend your elbow fully, this shock-loads the joint and will RAPIDLY lead to tendinitis. Always maintain engagement of the muscles and avoid hyperextension of the joints. Make sure to include stabilizing exercises to prevent over-use injuries.

Campus Training
Campus Training

These training methods are severe, and can easily lead to injury if one is not careful. Part of that care is strengthening of the joints that you’re abusing in the rest of your workout and your climbing life. Nobody wants surgery, nobody wants a torn rotator cuff, tendinitis sucks, training to the point of injury will cause regression and you will become weaker. Let’s not do that.

Olympic Ring Pushups:
Get a pair of Olympic rings and lower them as close to the ground as you can, then perform pushups. The higher off the floor they are, the easier the exercise becomes. I do this after every campus board session, and so far have managed to avoid any form of over-use injury in my elbows and shoulders, despite the fact that I’m a masochistic campus-board addict.

If you can't find a pair of olympic rings, improvize!
If you can’t find a pair of olympic rings, improvise!

You probably know more core exercises than I do, this is one of my major weaknesses, but my preferred exercises is to perform “Leg Wipers”. You lift the legs as far up and left as you can, then lower. Then raise them as high up center, and down. Then up to the right, and back down. Repeat 3x, more if you can. This can be made easier by bending at the knees.

Coming Up Next:
Endure The Gnar


One thought on “Finger Strength”

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