Review of the Latest Climbing Research

By Mark Anderson

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Our friends at Trango generously footed the bill to send Mike and I to the International Rock Climbing Research Association’s (IRCRA) annual conference, held in Telluride, CO earlier this month. Ben and Jason at Fixed Pin Publishing also stepped up big-time to provide attendees with complimentary copies of The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. The conference was a who’s who of climbing researchers, medical experts and performance gurus, providing a great opportunity for us to spread the word about our system of training and line of Trango training products. We had the opportunity to meet and compare notes with the likes of hangboard queen Eva Lopez-Rivera, Volker Schöffl (climber-surgeon and author of the landmark book “One Move Too Many”), mental master Arno Ilgner (author of The Rock Warrior’s Way), Ben Spannuth (badass sport climber and creator of the Bam Board), Eric Horst (author of the Training For Climbing series of books), as well as prolific climbing researches Phil Watts, Nick Draper and Vanesa Espańa-Romero.

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Mark discussing the evolution of hangboard technology that preceded the Rock Prodigy Training Center.

 

Our primary purpose in attending was to present our two papers: “Evaluating the Rock Prodigy Training Method” and “Finger Strength Improvements with the Rock Prodigy Training Center Hangboard.” We gave a 30-minute presentation covering both topics. It was a bit intimidating presenting pseudo-scientific material to a conference room full of PHD physiologists and researchers, but we were very well-received and generated a great discussion about the evolution of hangboards and the importance of ergonomics in training tools. A number of attendees came up after our presentation to compliment us on the Forge and RPTC designs (and ask where they can buy one in Europe!)

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The highlight for me was a long—albeit broken—conversation with Eva Lopez. We compared notes on hangboard training methods, hangboard design (Eva designed the innovative and popular “Progression” and “Transgression” hangboards), and laughed together about the many internet debates over whose hangboard routines are superior. [We heartily agreed that the climber’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals are surely the most important factor in selecting the optimal routine.]

The world’s foremost hangboard experts (in no particular order)? From left to right: Mark Anderson, Eva Lopez, Mike Anderson

I also learned (from the truly impressive Volker Schöffl and team) that there are a lot of climbing injuries I’d never even heard of. One key takeaway is that, if I ever have a serious climbing injury, I’m going to Germany to get it diagnosed and treated. Dr. Schöffl is on a whole different level when it comes to understanding and treating climbing injuries. He’s done extensive studies comparing the various treatment options (that he likely pioneered) on injuries that your local hand surgeon has probably never even heard of (let alone treated).

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Mike going through the survey results

 

Our secondary objective was to learn about the latest advancements in climbing training and injury treatment knowledge. There were some 35 papers submitted from a truly international cast of experts (including contributors from Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, UK, and perhaps the most remote relative to rock climbing: Michigan). Below is a BRIEF summary of the findings I found most interesting/relevant to performance-oriented climbers. I’ve tried to provide links where possible so you can dig into the details if you’d like more info. [At some point all of these papers should be posted to the IRCRA web site, but they did not seem to be posted as of the date this post was published]

    • Dr. Vanesa Espana-Romero of Universidad de Cadiz, Spain presented a review of the literature to update our understanding of the physiological components of rock climbing.  According to her summary of the research, the top 3 key attributes are finger strength (relative to body weight), finger intermittent endurance and upper body power. There is little or no correlation between systemic aerobic fitness (measures such as heart rate, VO2 Max, etc), however, climbers tend to have better local aerobic endurance (within the forearm muscles). Also, flexibility isn’t correlated to climbing performance…I still plan to stretch though.

 

    • Shaking of the hand “near the body” while resting increases re-oxygenation [thus improving recovery?] ~32% compared to simply relaxing your grip over a hold (and NOT shaking the hand). Presumably because placing the forearm under the level of the heart increases vasodilative responses, thus increasing blood flow. [Reference]

 

    • Time to failure when performing repeated crimp grip contractions (10s on, 3s off) at 40% of 1 Rep Max (1RM) was significantly increased in “cold” conditions (50 degF, vs. control of 75 degF). The temperature difference did not significantly affect 1RM. I recommend taking a copy of this study to your local climbing gym in hopes of convincing the management to turn down the thermostat. [Ref. “The effect of cold ambient temperatures on climbing-specific finger flexor performance” by KC Phillips, B Noh, M Gage, T Yoon]

 

    • Dehydrated climbers did not perform as well on a Treadwall test. [Ref: “Effect of hypohydration on climbing to failure on a treadwall” by KD Hewitt, T France, G Gonzalez, M Probst, et al]

 

 

    • If you want to improve your 1 Rep Max for a 5 second dead hang, training for 8 weeks with 3-5 sets of 1, 10-second rep (with 3 minutes rest between sets) is superior to training for 8 weeks with 3-5 sets of 4-5, 10-second reps (with 1 minute rest between sets). [Ref. “Comparison of the effects of three hangboard training programs on maximal finger strength in rock climbers” by E Lopez-Rivera & JJ Gonzalez-Badillo]

 

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Eva Lopez presenting her paper comparing three 8-week hangboard protocols.

 

    • The use of chalk significantly increases hang time to failure on a hangboard (compared to NOT using chalk). [Reference]

 

    • Intermediate-level climbers make more technical mistakes when leading routes than when toproping. [Ref. “Anxiety level and ability to climb routes in recreational indoor climbing” by P Czermak]

 

    • “High” climbing level and/or intensive finger training (such as campusing) correlates with risk for early onset osteoarthritis in the hands of young climbers. [Ref. “Long term Radiographic Adaptations to the Stress of High-Level and recreational Rock Climbing in Young Athletes” by P Hoffman, S Hinterwimmer, AB Imhoff, T Kupper, and V Schöffl]

 

    • Forearm compression sleeves might beneficially affect lactate removal after climbing. [Reference]

 

    • A couple different presenters showed research that supports the theory that “near term” finger strength improvements may be mostly due to neurological adaptations, rather than hypertrophy. However, nobody directly studied this.

 

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Mike and I discussing training philosophy with Eric Horst at the end of our presentation.

Thanks again to Trango for sponsoring our trip, and thanks to all of you who participated in the Rock Prodigy survey! If you have any questions about any of the research presented, or would like to discuss any of the finer points, please post up in the Rock Prodigy Forum.

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15 thoughts on “Review of the Latest Climbing Research

  1. For this report alone, it’s great you got the opportunity to go to the event and report back for all of us who couldn’t make it 🙂
    Fantastic, thanks.
    Hopefully next year, there’ll be videos of all the talks…..

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  2. Yes he did. His first book is somewhat dated at this point, but he just released a new edition. At the Congress, he and his colleagues discussed injures such as Growth Plate fractures (in kids), Slap tares of the Rotator Cuff and bone stress fractures in the hands, just to name a few.

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  3. The article on forearm oxygenation (shaking recovery) has some interesting results buried within its data. Apparently the anaerobic-lactic capacity of climbers is not particularly different from non-climbers. This is in accord with another study that showed that lead climbers primarily used the anaerobic-alactic and aerobic systems, but not the anaerobic-lactic system.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17602238
    This suggests to me that training the glycolytic system (what most of us would call high end power endurance) might be somewhat misdirected effort.

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    • That is an interesting finding. It would be nice to know more about the test routes, since in my experience different route styles can demand very different types of fitness. Just knowing a route is “difficult” doesn’t tell you very much. It could be 40 feet of 5.11 to a five-foot 5.13+ roof pull, versus continuous 5.12+ climbing for 100 feet. Still, even if we accept the data at face value, the glycolytic system was contributing 22% of the energy on the “difficult” route. Perhaps there is a better return on investment in training the aerobic system, but there will always be a point of diminishing returns with that training (and any training), and to really maximize performance, you would need to optimize the contributions of all three systems. So I think this is a good case for ARCing, but you would still benefit from training PE (to some extent) for PE-style routes.

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      • I’ve got the article somewhere and will check to see if they described the routes. My recollection was that there were several and the relative energy contributions were similar across all. There was a trend towards more glycolytic-lactic as the routes got harder, again, IIRC.
        We’ve discussed ARC before and like you, I personally find it useful (on a tread wall) if I maintain a high enough intensity level.
        But it seems like the research (in running/cycling at least), wrt steady endurance training (a la ARC) vs intervals is pointing towards intervals being more effective for increasing capillarity and mitochondrial number.

        There are so many competing meta-analyses and reviews though, that you can almost just pick the one that suits you!

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      • Ya, I agree, with so much conflicting research, it’s hard to know what is correct. I tend to fall back on the mountains of anecdotal data produced by athletes and coaches through the decades. Usually conventional wisdom has a lot of truth to it, even though it may take researches a few decades to get around to proving it.

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      • In our conclusions, we need to pay attention to one thing though regarding the mentioned interesting study: The contribution of energy systems analyzed is IMO across ALL muscle groups of the climbers’ bodies, not particularly regarding the finger flexors (would not be possible based on the chosen analytic set-up via respiratory analysis). So the big muscle groups will dominate the outcome and unfortunately not the finger flexors, which we – for obvious reasons- would be most interested in.

        So while I strictly buy the fact that local aerobic endurance of the finger flexors is the most undervalued component in most climbers’ training, I also believe that anaerobic lactic energy production of the finger flexors might be more significant than this study can show (similar to monomaniac’s anecdotal evidence)

        Cheers,
        BicepsMou (no native speaker – hope you understand what I was trying to say 🙂

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  4. Thanks for the conference summary and highlighting some great studies.

    Please clarify a couple of points regarding the studies that you highlighted, on the Eva Lopez study examining the two 1 Rep Max protocols, what was the rest time between the 4-5 repetitions within the set and rest time between sets (you indicated 1 minute, but not clear if it is between reps or between sets).

    Second clarification is regarding compression sleeves, the thesis abstract implies that the sleeves were worn during climbing and not as a recovery tool after climbing is this correct?

    I have been using compression sleeves on and off both during and after climbing and hard training sessions and perceived exertion is less when using them.

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    • Rui,

      1) 5 second rest between reps, 1 minute rest between sets.
      2) The summary I have does not explicitly say, but yes, my impression is that the sleeves were worn DURING climbing. For example, this statement suggests they were worn during climbing: “The results of this pilot study indicate that forearm sleeves could be helpful tool to attenuate physiological response and perceived exertion level during multiple strong climbing moves.”

      Mark

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  5. The hyperlink regarding Volker Schöffl and his injury-related research seems to be broken…do you have access to the information? Thanks.

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  6. Pingback: New Anderson Brothers Podcast | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

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