Strength

Many routes, such as Chain Reaction, 5.12c, require finger strength. Alan Watts returns to this catalyst of sport climbing, 30 years after the first ascent.

Many routes, such as Chain Reaction (5.12c), require finger strength. Alan Watts returns to this catalyst of sport climbing, 30 years after the first ascent. ©Mike Anderson

Every climber could use greater strength. Finger strength in particular can overcome many other weaknesses. While technical skill plays a tremendous role in every climber’s career, those that continue to improve will inevitably reach the point where finger strength is a weak link, if not the limiting factor. While some routes can be finessed, there are certain routes — including countless legendary routes like Chain Reaction, Quinsana Plus, or The Beast, to name a few — that simply cannot be climbed without a decent serving of brute force.

Unfortunately, strength gains are not realized “overnight”; however, the gains that are made build from one season to the next, and year-to-year, making impressive strength gains possible over the course of a career. Regardless of the climber’s preferred style, finger strength will inevitably become central to his or her quest for continuous improvement, so climbers should constantly be working to improve it.

While the Olympic sports have perfected methods for increasing strength in the large muscle groups, proven finger-strength training methodologies are scarce. The fingers are much more fragile than the large muscle groups, so extreme care must be taken when training them. Therefore, climbers must develop their own training approaches, through theory, logic, and experimentation — the way the Rock Prodigy program was developed. As a result of this strong foundation, it has produced tremendous finger-strength gains in a wide variety of subjects, and is a great starting point for anyone seeking continuous improvement.

Finger Strength Training

A well-configured hangboard with the right accessories is hands-down the best way to train finger strength for climbing.

A well-configured hangboard with the right accessories is hands-down the best way to train finger strength for climbing. ©Ben Fullerton

The hangboard (aka fingerboard) is a sport-specific tool developed for the exact purpose of improving finger strength in climbers. The key benefit of hangboard training is that many aspects of it can be carefully controlled including:

• Isolating sport-specific grip positions and training them to failure
• Precisely controlling resistance to push right up against your physical limits while minimizing the risk of injury
• Accurately quantifying training results, allowing steady and predictable increases in resistance from workout to workout, ensuring progressive overload.

Finally, hangboard equipment is relatively small and portable, allowing virtually anyone to utilize this training method regardless of their proximity to climbing facilities.

Whole Body Strength Training

While finger strength is paramount, climbing is a whole-body sport. Training the other prime-movers for climbing can generally follow protocols recommended for other athletes, however, the crux is determining which muscles (or movements) require training and designing effective exercises.

Learn more in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. Strength training topics include:
• Comprehensive explanation of muscle strength training principles
• Muscle contraction types and their importance to climbers
• The best muscle training protocols
• Finger Strength training specifics
• Selecting the right grip positions for training
• Setting up the ultimate hangboard training system
• Detailed hangboard training routines for Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced climbers
• Climbing-specific, whole-body strength training exercises to prepare you back, core, upper arms and shoulders for climbing
• How to schedule Strength Training into a comprehensive training program

RCTM.com Articles related to Strength Training:

 

  • Q&A #3: When Should I Start Training for Climbing?  …Developing finger strength is a life-long pursuit.  Even the best finger-strength program on the planet will not have you ripping holds off the wall overnight.  You will have several years (perhaps decades) to perfect your outside flag before you will surpass Chris Sharma’s crimping power.  Read more…
  • Hangboard FAQ #0: What is a Basic Hangboard Routine? We get some form of this question all the time, and we usually refer people to The Making of A Rockprodigy. However, that is a bit of a long read, so here is the Cliff Notes version of a “basic” hangboard routine (note, “basic” does not mean “easy”, it means “uncomplicated”). Keep in mind that a hangboard can be used a myriad of different ways, for different purposes. This is one way that has shown excellent results for increasing finger strength. If you want to know the ‘why’ behind this routine, refer to the above linked article. Read more…
  • Whole-Body Strength Training  My training philosophy emphasizes finger strength training above all else.  For a number of mostly obvious reasons, I’m convinced that finger strength is the single most important physical factor (as opposed to mental or technical factors) in rock climbing.  That said, there are other elements of physical strength that are relevant, and worth training, if you have the time and energy.  In particular, the “pull muscles”, biceps/triceps, shoulders, and core muscles all have important roles to play, and we can benefit from strengthening these muscles.  Read more…
  • Hangboard FAQ #1: How do I progress on the Hangboard? Hangboarding has a number of benefits, and we can debate the terminology until we’re blue in the face, but the primary goal is to increase finger strength. Performance athletes have known for decades that in order to force muscular adaptation to increase strength, training must be “progressive”. This means the resistance on the forearm structures must increase over the course of the training phase in order to stimulate strength gains. On the hangboard, there are three basic ways to increase resistance: increase the duration of the hang, reduce the size of the hold you are hanging from, or increase the weight. Like most things in life, there is no clear answer, and its not black and white. The solution is most likely some combination of the three, but first, let’s consider each method individually. Read more…
  • Hangboard FAQ #2: Should I use big holds with lots of weight added, or small holds with lots of weight removed? First, it will help to review Hangboarding FAQ #1, as these topics are related. Next, consider the concept of “Specificity”. This is a fundamental concept of all forms of training, and it basically means your training should be as similar as possible to what you are training for. In the context of this question, that means you need to determine the type & size of holds you will be climbing on when you are at your limit. If you primarily climb at a single crag, this should be fairly simple, as hold types and sizes tend to be fairly consistent at a single crag, with difficulty varying with other factors such as length, steepness, or hold orientation & spacing. Read more…
  • Adjustable Mount 2.0 for the Rock Prodigy Training Center …In a previous article, we showed you how to build an Adjustable Mount for your Rock Prodigy Training Center so that you can take maximum advantage of the built in ergonomics of the most innovative fingerboard on the market. While it gets the job done, the French Cleat technique described in that article is difficult to execute, and the result is bulky. We’ll show you an alternate method here that can be built for about $20 in parts and an hour of work. Read more…
  • How’s Your Hang …After experimenting with many different configurations over the years, we’ve found the best method for mounting a hangboard is that shown in the adjacent photo, because it can be installed in any room with a corner (most rooms). It doesn’t require tall ceilings or special geometry, and it permits maximum clearance around/behind the board, and plenty of room to mount multiple training tools (the mount pictured has a pull-up bar mounted on the back side of it, but it could house additional hangboards). You will need to be able to drill holes in the wall, which could be a show stopper in some scenarios. To mount a hangboard with this method, you’ll need to locate studs approximately 2-4 feet from the corner of the wall, then attach two base mounting boards that the main beam will be strung between. Read more…
  • Adjustable Mount for the RPTC  Ever since I first conceived of the Rock Prodigy Training Center, I’ve been pondering a cheap and simple mounting system that would allow for instantaneous spacing adjustments. Once the RPTC was unveiled I got a number of great ideas from other climbers. Julian Marks suggested a “French Cleat” system in this Mountain Project thread, which uses two pieces of angled lumber to create an integrated hook on the mounting structure that slides along a fixed receptacle.  Read more…
  • The Bubble …After moving from high, humidity Florida to dry, arid Colorado; we thought we were in the clear for hangboard workouts. We were going to have crisp, dry mountain air and every workout would be just perfect, right?! Well, our basement proved to be a wonderful little humidity hoarder during the monsoon summer experienced here in Colorado Springs. After our first hangboard workouts, it was quickly apparent that we needed to do something about it. It was at this point that Mike revealed to me one of his long-held fantasies (ooh, still some excitement after almost 12 years of marriage)! Apparently, ever since we moved to Dayton, OH back in 2008, Mike has suppressed urges to create a hermetically sealed hangboarding bubble in which climate could be easily and precisely controlled. Well, apparently, Colorado’s humid air was the “last straw,” and Mike had snapped. Clearly he had put some thought into this, because once the decision was made, there was no pause for planning or analysis, just a fury of activity. Read more…
  • The Most Important Phase  …This is not to say the Strength Phase is unimportant. It too is the ‘most important’ season, but for different reasons. While I no longer believe it is an accurate predictor of the ensuing season’s quality, I do believe that for many climbers it is the most critical factor in determining long-term improvement. Unlike some other aspects of fitness, strength is “cumulative”. That is, you can build on your strength from one season to the next. Once a climber has learned and refined the fundamental climbing skills, finger strength will likely determine his or her long-term progress in the sport. Finger strength takes a long time to improve, so it’s important to start early, and stick with it, season after season, year after year. One season of poor strength training every other year will not have an enormous impact in the long run, but if a climber routinely sleepwalks through hangboard sessions, year-in, year-out, their progress over half a decade will be severely hampered…  Read more…
  • Hangboard Resistance Data Analysis As promised, here is some hangboard resistance data from my recently concluded Strength Phase.  This was my first full phase using the Rock Prodigy Training Center.  I thought it would take a while to get the loads dialed in correctly but I was able to get pretty close to the right resistance during the first workout. Read more…
  • Training Efficiently  …Strength Training revolves around my fingers, because they are the single most important factor in climbing performance.  I work my fingers first, but not for long.  When the intensity is right (really high), my fingers can only handle about an hour of work (or, about 18 ~60 second sets of deadhang repetitions, with 3 minutes rest between sets).  Once my fingers are worked, I perform a modest amount of pull muscle, upper arm, and shoulder exercises.   Read more…
  • Get ’em While They’re Hot!  The Rock Prodigy Training Center is now available for purchase from Trango’s website!  The initial manufacturing run produced a modest number of units, so order right away if you want to be the first climber on your block to have one.  This ground-breaking hangboard was designed by me, with help from my brother Mike and Lamont Smith.  In my humble opinion, this is the best hangboard on the market, and is a big leap forward in hangboard design.  This board will help beginners unlock the amazing power of hangboard training, by eliminating the top barriers to hangboarding and starting them on the fast-track to finger strength.  Read more… 
  • Beating the Heat – Tips on Training Through Summer Temps  Almost like clockwork, every year I find myself struggling to hangboard through the month of August, seemingly the hottest month of the year.  In order to be fit in time for prime Fall sending conditions, most of us will need to do some form of training in late summer, when conditions are far from ideal.  Some might wonder, why does it matter how warm it is, after all, its only training.  The primary reason is that training in warm environs can trash your skin.   Read more…
  • Training Intensity  Strength Training:  This phase can be tricky because its not black or white.  Let’s assume that we are following a strength building regimen that involves different “exercises”, each with multiple “sets” of a varying number of “reps”.  Each individual “exercise” should be done to failure or very near failure, implying 100% intensity.  However, it is unlikely you can achieve failure at the last rep of the last set if you give 100% intensity to each prior rep.  Generally your intensity should ramp up as you work through the sets.  I generally use 3 sets for a given exercise, so the first set will be around 80% intensity.  Read more…

If you have questions or comments about Strength Training, please post them on the RCTM Forum. We will try to respond as soon as possible.

13 thoughts on “Strength

  1. Hi Mike & Mark
    When do you know that it’s time to move away from a strength/hypertrophy stage?

    I’m in the midst (8th session and 4th week) of my Hangboard stage. Originally I planned on doing 10-14 or so workouts in 4 weeks, but with my job as an arborist pulling brush and logs, I need to be flexible with my routines. I’m still successfully adding weight and seeing a noticible improvement in my indoor/outdoor performance, and I am a little behind schedule on my workouts, should I move on to campusing after 4-5 weeks like most everyone else seems to or just keep chugging along till I get 12-14 workouts/stop making gains?

    Background level: 23 years old, 5+ years climbing. I primarily climb at Smith, highest RP 12c.
    Thanks for your time!
    Jon

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    • Jon,

      If you’re new to hangboard training it can be difficult to determine the ideal time to end the Strength Phase. With experience, you should be able to look back on your records from previous seasons and see where you’re sitting on your progress curve. I typically shoot for 10 workouts, but I will do one more or less depending on how the phase is going. For example, today I did my 7th hangboard workout of this phase, and I’m already at or above my personal best on 4 of 6 grips. That tells me I’m “ahead of schedule”, so I can expect to plateau earlier than usual, so I may elect to do only 9 workouts this season.

      In your case, I would say you could certainly go either way, but considering that prime Smith weather is right around the corner, I would recommend that you do 2 more workouts (10 total), and then move on to your Power Phase so you can be in shape to climb outside by mid-March. Once you’ve done 8 or so workouts, there isn’t much downside to ending the phase. Yes, you might be leaving a bit of finger strength on the table, but if you haven’t plateau’ed, you’ll likely still pick up most of that strength early in the power phase (assuming you are applying yourself during Limit Boulder workouts). Even if you don’t, you will eventually gain that strength in subsequent seasons. If you extend your Strengh Phase too long, stagnation can really kill your motivation, or even worse, you may end up injured.

      Hope this helps,
      Mark

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  2. Hi Mark, just been reading my way through your book, and will be starting a bouldering cycle in a week when I’m back from a relaxing holiday 🙂

    I had a quick question about the strength phase… It’s basically hangboarding, with very little ‘climbing’ except for warming up! I’m going to miss my Tuesday night gym sessions, that’s sure… Or, is it still feasible to have gym session and 2 hang boarding sessions a week? Would you also recommend 2 days rest after a gym session, even if I only worked on problems up to / just over flash level?

    The book is awesome, and well worth getting it shipped to the uk

    Thanks
    Daz

    Like

    • Daz,

      Yes its feasible. You can tailor the program to fit your needs, but just don’t expect the best results. If you’re new to structured hangboard training you will probably be fine doing this for a while, but once you get serious, you’re going to want to do your workouts on a regular interval so you can get the most out of each workout.

      One rest day after the gym session is probably enough, but you will have to try it and see how it feels.
      Mark

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      • Thanks for the reply. It will be the first time I’ve followed a structur hang board programme, so I will test the water and see how it feels. Thanks again

        Daz

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  3. Question: The book states that “As strength improves, it will eventually be necessary to reduce hold size to avoid using excessive weight. Plan to downsize your holds….” What is “excessive weight”? In some ways, it seems that anything over +20-30 lbs (the maximum weight that 70 meters of rope, drag, and a rack dangling from a harness) would reduce the “specificity” of hangboarding. Yet I’ve seen some of Mark’s sample logs with as much as +80 lbs!

    Currently four out of my six grips require me to remove weight – so it’s a non-issue. But the other two are maxed out at +30 and +10 right now and I foresee rapid improvement. Should I switch these holds out in favor of smaller holds? Pushing them all the way to +80 lbs seems excessive, when what I really want to train is being able to rock climb on more and more difficult holds (not hauling weight up “jugs”)…

    Like

  4. The book states that “As strength improves, it will eventually be necessary to reduce hold size to avoid using excessive weight. Plan to downsize your holds….” What is “excessive weight”? In some ways, it seems that anything over +20-30 lbs (the maximum weight that 70 meters of rope, drag, and a rack dangling from a harness) would reduce the “specificity” of hangboarding. Yet I’ve seen some of Mark’s sample logs with as much as +80 lbs!

    Currently four out of my six grips require me to remove weight – so it’s a non-issue. But the other two are maxed out at +30 and +10 right now and I foresee rapid improvement. Should I switch these holds out in favor of smaller holds? Pushing them all the way to +80 lbs seems excessive, when what I really want to train is being able to rock climb on more and more difficult holds (not hauling weight up “jugs”)…

    Like

    • Josh, it’s best to think more in terms of hold-size specificity rather than resistance specificity. It’s really hard to know how much force you need to be able to produce on a certain grip. There are many variables including how much weight your feet can take on a given move and whether one or two hands are contributing. It’s much easier to estimate hold size. If you’re typically cruxing on half pad edges, that is what you should train, etc.

      Personally I find it gets annoying/dangerous when the loads exceed about 60 lb, so I try to keep it under that. The problem I run into is that at a certain point smaller holds start to destroy your skin, so I tend to train on holds that are probably a bit too big for me. Not to sound too cheesy, but the RPTC has helped me quite a bit (especially after I sanded down the texture) because the holds are much more skin friendly than what I used before, and that has allowed me to use smaller holds.

      Anyway, I don’t think 30 lb is too much to be practical if the hold size seems realistic to you, but if you tend to climb near vertical routes, that could be pushing it.

      Like

  5. Hi Mark & Mark

    Have recently discovered your training plans and am really impressed with your structured approach – something I’ve never properly tried until now despite climbing for 20+ years.

    I’ve a question about hangboard training. I am following the hangboarding beginners routine (i.e. variety of holds, 6 reps on each, 10sec on 5 sec off, with 3 min rest then change to next hold). I’m taking off between 20 and 40lb depending on the hold. What I am finding as I go through the hold sets is that I am getting progressively pumped and not recovering from the pump during the 3 min rest. So if I fail to complete all 6 reps on one of the later holds, I’m not sure if this is down to lack of strength or just being too pumped to hold on.

    I wondered if this is what you would expect as a normal part of hangboard training? I guess I’m a little unsure whether I am still training strength if I’m pumped. And if it’s not the norm, do you have any suggestions on how to modify the routine to avoid the pump?

    Many thanks,
    Iain.

    Like

    • Lain,That is completely normal, especially for climbers who are new to this type of training. Over time, your forearms will build up the strength endurance to manage the pump you are experiencing. Until then, here are a couple things you can do to make sure you get through the workout:

      1) Reduce the resistance by whatever amount is necessary to get you through the sets.

      2) Increase your rest interval between sets. You could rest up to 5 minutes, just be sure to note that in your training log. There’s nothing magical about the 3-minute rest period. I use it because it’s about the bare minimum I need to feel recovered between sets and do the things I need to get ready for the next set. My workout (using the Advanced routine, so 3 sets per grip) already takes nearly 90 minutes to complete. If I rested longer between sets, the workout would take quite a bit longer, with no added Time Under Tension. So I use 3 minutes because its a good trade off between physical recovery and making efficient use of my limited time on Earth.

      Good luck,
      Mark

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  6. Hi Mike and Mark,

    I’ve plateaued at 5.11b level and am purchasing the rock prodigy hang board and your book to help out. I climb 2 days a week at the gym and plan on using the hang board 1 day a week (I believe a 2 day rest is needed). I’m wondering if this is too little time on the hang board to bump up to the .12 zone. I’m also 46, so my recovery time takes a bit longer. Should I add another hang board day or is 1 day a week enough? Thanks! 🙂

    Like

    • Chris,

      I would suggest you take some time to review the book, and if you still aren’t sure, ask for clarification on the forum. That said, I think adding another hangboard day is not the answer, but instead replacing your gym days with dedicated training days for a few weeks each season.
      Mark

      Like

  7. Pingback: The Rock Climber’s Training Manual Beginner Fingerboard Set - Climbing meta

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