Monday, September 17, 2012

Lock-off training in Sport Climbing (III) Do you really lock-off?

We completed the literature revision in previous posts, and now it's time to apply this knowledge, as I had set out to do.
Watching videos, and with the help of kinovea, an open source tool, I have analyzed the gesture that is the subject of this entry through the following subset of real climbing:
- lead style
- high level climbers
- different angles of climbing
- difficulty 8b+ to 9a
- rock and competition
- both onsight and redpoint
From these I have inferred some trends that can be of interest, although I need to make clear that this is a piece of field work and not a proper scientific study. So, the conclusions here exposed are more of a personal take on the matter.

Analysis of the pulling/lock-off gesture in Climbing
If we study in slow motion our pulling movements (specifically, our upper body; added sentence on 09/10/2012; thank you,  Douglas Hunter) when we are not matching, resting, clipping, in compression moves (added sentence on 08/10/2012; thank you, Gianluca), or using tiny intermediate holds, we can divide the holds into three categories; H (the one we will Hold from), R (the one we are going to Release) and T (our Target hold). Then we can distinguish several phases.
We are going to look at each of those phases to collect some data.


Phase 1: Initial. Pulling and building Momentum with both arms
This is when we are pulling with both hands from H (the one we'll keep holding) and, R (the one we are going to release); usually more force is applied on H, especially towards the end, when we are about to release R and go for T; the legs, and really the rest of the body help to impulse in a coordinated way
Duration: most of the time, 0,30 to 0,50 seconds.

Phase 2: Pulling/locking with one arm while releasing the other
In this phase we have already released R, for the time needed to get to T. For a brief amount of time we are applying our force with one arm, the H one
Duration: most of the times, 0,4 to 0,5 seconds, but it can be as low as 0,2 seconds in certain movements, more often with very explosive climbers, or as high as nearly 1 second on very long reaches in not very steep routes, especially with more static climbers.
Shauna Coxsey - Bouldering World Cup,  2012. Photo Heiko Wilhem. Source
Chris Sharma. Demencia Senil, 9a+. Margalef (Tarragona). Photo: Pete O'Donovan
Luis Alfonso Félix. Eros Tensa el Arco, 8b+ .Cuenca. Photo: José Yáñez.

Now, if we look more closely to this phase, we will realize that the static part of it, during which we are locking-off, is most often practically imperceptible. That's why in my previous post I thought it very interesting to reconsider the whole concept of locking-off.
The best climbers devote very little to no time (0,15-0,30 seconds) to maintain the desired angle and actually lock-off. What they do is to take advantage of the previous impulse so that they can keep on flexing or extending their H arm before reaching the angle needed to grab the Target, in a way that leaves little to no room for an isometric phase. This is even more true when the holds are smaller and/or the route steeper.
    Helena Alemán. Spanish Climbing Championship (Gijón 2012).
    Photo: Darío Rodríguez. Source: top30 facebook
        Shauna Coxsey

      Phase 3: Stabilization and getting ready for the next move
      Our hands are already on the H and T holds, and we are locking-off to a certain extent (although most certainly with different angle and lower intensity) with our H arm, while we steady ourselves, do the required footwork, and adjust our fingers to the T hold so it can eventually transition into our new H hold. Next we will 'undo' the lock with our former H -and soon-to-be R- hold, and move our feet in preparation for the following move.
      Duration: most often 2 to 3 seconds, going up to 5 seconds or more in the most complicated movements. This phase comes out as the longest one.
      Giannis Agathokleous
      At this point it's important noting that if we reach a hold by dynoing, it will be fundamental to quickly and coordinately pull with both arms and the whole body (with emphasis in the lower back, waist and legs) to steady ourselves.
      Sean MacColl - Bouldering World Cup - Vail, USA 2012. Photo: Heiko Wilhelm

      I have recorded 2-5 second locks when:
      • trying to onsight a route, while figuring out how to grip a hold.
      • in some sections that demand precision and body tension, like aiming for a pocket or climbing on roofs...
      • when clipping the rope, more often in competition where clipping points are used to increase the route's difficulty.
      Nevertheless, these figures are a function of level. The more experienced climbers will try to clip more efficiently, keeping their arm straight and taking less rope. They will also need less time to sort out a section or a grip position while onsighting.
      Mina Markovic. Lead Climbing World Cup, Kranj 2011. Photo: Luka Fonda
      It varies with the steepness of the route and across different moves. The most used one, though, and the most specific is the 90º one. In second place come those close to 45º, typical of slight overhangs, transitions from roof to vertical and gastons.

      Javipec at Bayuela
      This said, all these numbers vary with several factors:
      - The more overhanging and/or tinier the holds both hand and foot ones, the shorter the locking time for a given hold separation.
      - Personal style: hesitant and static; onsight (in contrast with worked), routes (compared with boulders) will yield the longest locking-off times for the same difficulty.

      - Girls in general show longer times in all phases due to our lower maximum and explosive strength. If we add that training frequently ignores gender particularities, and the tendency to choose routes that keep us from challenging our weaknesses instead of working on them, there is a tendency to develop a more static style. The outcome is an increased fatigue for a given route (due to a longer time grabbing each hold), lack of ability to solve certain moves like dynos or very steep overhangs, and a general slow down of progression. Even overuse injuries in the elbows.

      If we measure the intensity by the percentage of body weight that the arm has to bear, and look at the 2 phases where lock-off takes place, we observe the following:
      - Hand releasing phase: the intensity can be high or medium depending on the type of move and overhang angle, but as far a I have been able to observe, rarely does the H arm bear a high percentage of the body weight, and, as stated above, this isometric phase tends to be lower than half a second long.

      Jorg Verhoeven - Lead  Climbing World Cup - Denver, 2011
      - Stabilization: Here body mass is already supported by both arms, so that intensity is even lower than in the previous phase.
      Nacho Sánchez. Tolmojón, 8B+ (Tamajón, Guadalajara).
      Photo: Raúl Santano. Source: flickr

      It is around 10-15 seconds in average. Less frequently, it lasts 5-8 seconds, or more than 20, but it is conditioned by the holds distribution, the need to clip and, as ever, the climbers' style. We need to be aware that we need to clip approximately every 2 movements in competition, or every 4 to 6 in rock climbing.

      ¿Are any of these figures of relevance to medium and lower level climbers?
      The numbers above are applicable to climbers with a high technical and physical level, but can vary wildly among medium and low level climbers. In fact, they do.
      From my observations, the less experienced climbers display longer locking-off times, possibly due to:
      limited perceptive and motor repertory that leads to indecision when it comes to sorting out a sequence,
      reduced balance and poor management of the center of mass, that makes them try to put their body 'closer' to the holds, flexing their arms too often and locking-off constantly,
      insecurity due to their lack of experience or their undeveloped control of fear,
      insufficient memorization to climb fluidly through the key sections.
      ¿Does this mean that in these levels, or with these weaknesses, we need to work our lock-off more, or that it is better just to improve our physical, technical and tactical aspects?
      My answer is clear. It would be sensible to focus on the latter strategy during the initial and intermediate stages (2-4 years), and then to progressively include specific physical contents (like lock-offs, finger maximum strength, etc) once we are in the right path of technical-tactical improvement.

      And now that we know a bit more about how long a lock-off usually lasts, in high level climbers, we can ask ourselves the question:

      All right, then... ¿is it useful to train 'long' lock-offs to improve an action that normally lasts less than half a second?

      My answer is Not. And, to elaborate on it, in the next entry I will talk about the importance of training for each of the phases using exercises whit specific duration, speed and intensityI can tell you in advance that we'll learn about some explosive isometric methods and exercises, that will try to develop our ability for reaching very quickly our force peak, within those tenths of a second when we 'stop' pulling and 'lock' to make contact with our Target hold. We will also take a look at other exercises with a duration and style oriented to the previous phase, when we are pulling from the holds, something that is tightly associated with the locking-off gesture.

      In conclusion:
      Locking-off, at least in modern routes and competitions, and for climbers with a high technical-tactical level, is ideally a very brief action, and of medium an low intensity in general. In a way, it probably wouldn't deserve to be called lock-off...
      In addition, the the time that passes between the harder pulls and lock-offs should be enough to recover from them in most occasions.

      However, it is the intensity factor along with the duration, especially during phase 2, what will determine if in some instance -for a particular route or style that we are training for- this locking-off ability could become the limiting factor to send a route. This leads, you saw it coming, to another question

      What kind of movements or routes can benefit from training our locking ability? 

      By closely looking at these pictures or thinking a bit by yourself, you may find the answer:
      Mina Markovic. Lead World Cup (Kranj 2011). Photo: Luka Fonda 
      Dani Andrada. Ali-Hulk, 9a+ (Rodellar, Huesca). Photo: Pete O'Donovan
      Edu Marín. "Ciudad de Dios", 9a (Santa Linya, Lleida). Photo: Pete O'Donovan 

      Nacho Sánchez. Insomnio, 8C (Crevillente, Alicante). Photo: Rebeca Morillo
      You got it...
      For some moves in roofs, or going from a roof to vertical, crossing hands when traversing an overhang, holding a barn door, a key clipping...
      For these, or other cases that you consider this ability is important for... what would be the best method to train it?

      Perhaps with the information that we have to this point you can answer this question by yourself, but, if it's not the case, the next entry will be devoted to reflecting about it. We will discuss the usefulness of methods like functional isometrics, Cometti's static-dynamic pull-ups and other, less known, ones...

      NEXT ENTRY: Locking-off training methodology

      Lock-off strength training (I)
      Lock-off strength training (II)


      1. really intreresting analysis!

        as a newbie in climbing instruction i especially like the preparation/execution model and think it is a good framework to teach "good" climbing at any level.

        thinking over it, howeer, i maybe found another excepion in compression bouldering, be it outdoors (fontainebleau!) or indoors (WC-like "volume hugging").
        it seems to me that this situation violates some of your statements:
        -relative lenght of the two phases. Most of the time the quickest solution for move preparation is the most effective (even if not always the nicest looking, nor the most energy efficient)
        -straight arms. by definition made difficult because of the necessity to constantly "squeeze" the structure.

        would you somewhat agree?
        what % of bouldering did you include in your video analysis? was it mostly crimpy/pulling style?

        a comment might make my mind clearer on this!


        1. Well the subset studied include only lead climbing, so... no boulders! (specified in the first lines of the post). I guess it could be confusing because there's some pictures involving boulder, but those are only there to illustrate the explanations concerning the gesture analysis.

        2. Hi Gianluca,

          Thank you!

          You are right, "compression moves" are another exception.
          Regarding what percentage of bouldering did I include in my video analysis? as you already have seen, it only included lead climbing and pulling/lock-off gesture.

          But It's true that the pictures involving boulder might be confusing. I'll think about to remove them from this entry.

          Many thanks for your contribution.