Friday, July 27, 2012

Lock-off training in Sport Climbing (II) Does our locking-off ability have any influence on our performance? Is it so important to train it?

Versión en español

In modern climbing, it seems that the importance of upper body strength and endurance increases with difficulty (Giles et al. 2006); difficulty being defined by longer distance between holds, smaller footholds and, often, steeper or more overhanging wall.
Noè and Quaine (2001), observed that in a ten-degree overhanging wall, the percentage of body weight supported by the hands and arms was 62%, compared to 43% for a vertical wall. 
Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert
These are among the reasons that allow authors like Watts et al. in their 2004 review of published studies to propose the upper body strength to weight ratio as one of the performance factors in climbing, and to suggest that pull-ups and lock-off tests be used to see whether this quality is a key performance factor for climbing.

A key performance factor is one that allows us to set us apart from other sports, or can be used for talent detection, classifying climbers, or even as a predictor of performance. This means that by improving said factor, we would be improving also our level in the sport.

Grant et col., in their 1996 study, showed that initiated climbers (redpointing at least 6a) did a significantly higher number of pull-ups than beginners or non-climbers. Analog results were obtained by Lezeta (2000), Lehner and Hayters (1998) and Leong (2009) among climbers of varying levels.
The same tendency has been found in the maximum 90º lock-off time (Grant et al 1996; Balas et col, 2011).

Pablo Beltrán in an 8a+ at Margalef's Laboratori . Photo: Javipec
Some clarification is in order at this point, though, because Arija (2007) observed that pulling ability as measured by pull-ups to exhaustion with one's body weight had correlation to performance for lower and middle level climbers, but not for the higher level and elite ones. According to these authors, it means that this ability is important for progression from the lower levels, but it does not have much relation with performance at higher levels.
This said, I suspect that this is exactly the other way around for female climbers...

Female climbers and Upper Body Strength
Balas et al. (2011) found correlation between a 90º lock-off test and sport level, of 0,76 for men and 0,80 for women. Performance in this test was significantly higher for men than women, and this difference was even higher in the lower levels. These gender differences have been observed by other authors as well (Mermier et col, 2000; Binney and Cochrane, 2003; Leong, 2009).

Mina Leslie-Wujastyk 
These results, along with the fact that the stronger female climbers performed significantly better in the study from Wall et al (2004), is what leads these authors as well as others like Grant et al. (2001) and Ballas et al. (2011) to believe that this test and/or the maximum pull-ups test (Binney and Cochrane, 2003), are more specific and predictive of performance for women.
Reme Arenas. Proximo Bambino, 7b (Cuenca, Spain). Photo: Luis Alfonso Felix - Source: facebook
This stands to reason, given the lower lever of upper body strength that women have with respect to men for all sport levels:
- about 60% when adjusting for body weight,
- 70-75% when considering lean body mass (Stone, Stone and Sands, 2007).

So, it seems plausible that women who improve this aspect, would reap some performance gains. This, in fact, is what most of the authors propose, and what my personal experience confirms.

Girls, let's do some weights and pull-ups!
This is why I take the opportunity to encourage all female climbers to improve their pulling strength. They will be astonished by their performance gains

Then, is locking-off a key performance factor?
Now, saying that there is -referring to both genders now- correlation between some test and performance does not mean that the exercise is unavoidably connected to performance, but rather that it measures some abilities that it has in common with performance factors. In this case, it tells us that upper body strength is important for climbing.

So the next question to ask is this:
- Can this relation be explained because there is a connection between a maximum isometric test like lock-offs and a dynamic one like pull-ups as we explained in the previous entry,
- or because lock-off ability is a performance factor?

The answer won't be found in the researchers' articles. I have not found any studies that look at the relation between lock-off and pull-ups tests in climbers, male or female, or at the evolution of these qualities after a pulling force or lock-off training cycle respectively.

Anna Stöhr.  Bouldering World Cup, Vail, CO (USA) 2012. Photo by Heiko Wilhem
My personal take on this is that the connection of locking-off ability with performance is an artifact of the correlation between isometric tests and dynamic pulling force. In fact, the latter has an stronger correlation with performance than locking-off ability  (Lehner and Hayters, 1998). This is easy to buy, since if we can't make a reach to the next hold, there is nothing left to do.

In this same line, Binney and Cochrane (1999), propose as an specific test of elite climbers' performance, the ability to pull until exhaustion on a campus board with 30 mm edges 200 mm apart, given the high correlation found, of 0,92 and 0,82 for males and females respectively. Another specific test for upper body power, related to performance in climbing, is Draper et al. (2011) "Powerslap", which consists of hanging off two good holds and doing an explosive pull to reach with one hand as high as possible (r2=0,51); there's a similar "campus test" by Leong (2009), with which a correlation of 0,88 and 0,77 for men and women was observed.
Based on these results and my own experience, my current position on this topic is that locking-off, in modern climbing and with the exceptions that we will comment in another blog post, is not a general key performance factor.

And the limiting factor for most routes and overhang angles is...
...being able to reach the next hold, not the ability to maintain certain angle for a long time. There are two aspects that condition a successful reach:

- the initial impulse force together with the coordinated action of the whole body (especially legs, shoulder and triceps in long reaches); this can be trained through pull-ups, campus board over big holds or boulder problems with long moves.
Dorothea Karalus. Headcrash, 8c. Frankenjura - Source: - Photo: Dorothea's collection
the grip force of the hand that we are pulling from, but also of the one that we are reaching with, because it has to help as much as possible to get momentum before releasing the hold and later must be able to rapidly grab the next hold.

Iris Matamoros. Baltzolita, 8c. Baltzola (Bilbao). Photo: Gemma
Then... what about training lock-offs until exhaustion?
 Magnus Midtbø, a climber with an exceptional level of maximum strength. Source: this video
Lastly, I have the following to say about giving too much importance to lock-offs, or training them with long effort duration together inadequate intensity like the traditional "until fatigue" methods that Randy commented, in the case of climbers with lower strength and shorter training experience:

Apart from making them slow, inefficient and indecisive while climbing, induces unnecessary stress on the elbow, a relatively small area where a lot of structures converge (bicipital aponeurosis, ulnar colateral ligament, ulnar nerve, pronator teres, flexor muscles); when all of them in unison experiment shortening/stretching, high tension or compression (specially with a pronated grip), and the reduced blood flow associated to isometric contractions, we can easily visualize the risk of overuse and injury.

The issues discussed in this entry almost entirely kept me and my trainees from training lock-offs. But now that I have done a more thorough review of the current knowledge in this matter, I realize (repeat with me) that things are not so simple, and at least it's necessary to revise the current concept of lock-off, and its training methodology.

Lock-off Strength Training (I). Does Static (lock-offs) Training have any Effect over Dynamic (pull-ups) Performance?

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


  • Arija, A. (2007): Relación entre una dominada a máxima velocidad y repeticiones máximas hasta el fallo en escaladores y no escaladores. Trabajo para obtención del D.E.A. Facultad de CC de la Actividad física y el deporte. Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha. Dr.: Navarro Valdivieso, F.
  • Baláš, J., Pecha, O., Martin, A.J., Cochrane, D. (2011): Hand–arm strength and endurance as predictors of climbing performance. European Journal of Sport Science, 2012. 12(1): p. 16-25
  • Binney, D.M. and Cocchrane, T. (1999): Differences in strength between males and female competitive rock climbers. 
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  1. Very interesting post!

    Besides pull-ups, what other exercises would you recommend to women for increasing pull strength?


    1. Hi Anonymous,

      You can do specific weight training for Climbing, and once you have reached the required level (about 15 pull-ups), campus board workout on large rungs.

      In addition, it would be ideal if you adapted your training to your goals. For example, in your bouldering sessions, one-arm start in some boulder problems.

      Good luck and thank you ;-)

  2. Eva,

    Have you considered analysing this from different perspective?

    Recently, I found a provocative comment posted by Steve Bechtel:

    "But if you can do a 1-arm lock off (like most climbers) yet can’t do the same on an inverted row, your training is messed up."

    It made me think and experiment with lock-off for a while, and I'm inclined to believe Steve is correct. It's far easier (quicker) to progress in lock-offs, whereas 1-arm inverted rows (and static locks) without dynamic body twists is a one hell of difficult exercise.

    If we think about it in details, the plane of movement is very different when we pull-up/lock- off on a bar versus pulling inverted rows (with feed rest on floor or bench, starting body position is parallel to floor).

    On steep climb or roof, we almost never do moves on the plane of pull-ups, unless we cut loose and campus roofs all the way with body dangling vertically and arms raised above head.

    I found that one-arm inverted rows demand much more from the core and back. Resting feed mimic situation with feet on footholds, the body position and angle mimic a very steep climb. Lock-off on steep wall means, we build and maintain solid tension between holds *and* footholds, and we pull to lock-off. No parts are freely dangling.
    I translate it this way, that the huge tension of large group of muscles required make the overall difficulty in contrast to simple lock-off on bar.

    I'd be interested in finding more in-depth analysis on that.