Thursday, May 17, 2018

Fingerboard training guide (I). Preliminary evaluation

Versión en español

We have already talked extensively about how, why and what effects do Maximal Hangs (MaxHangs) and Intermittent Hangs (IntHangs) have on grip endurance and strength. What follows is the start of a series where we will put all those results into practice.

I will suggest a set of guidelines to build a training program; we will see how to progressively modify volume and intensity for each method. Later we will review some MaxHangs and IntHangs planning proposals, and learn when to use them (by themselves or combined) according to your short-, mid- and long-term goals.
Disclaimer: the guidelines and planning that I’m going to put forward are just a subset of all the possible combinations that can yield positive results, which include those proposed by other authors and, of course, the ones that you will create. Anyway, to help you make informed decisions I think it is a good idea to go step by step. Here we go!

I. The current state of affairs: Preliminary Evaluation
There are some questions you need to ask yourself before submitting your fingers to such an intensive and specific method to make sure it will benefit your performance:

1.1. Have you been climbing and training in a systematized fashion for more than 2 years?
Systematized means training or climbing 2-3 days per week, with some consistency and order, specially for the last year, given that the first couple of years it is normal to have a less organized approach to the sport.

On the other hand, this requisite acknowledges that while muscles can adapt to the sport in a matter of months, other structures like capsules, cartilages, tendons and ligaments take years to develop the mechanical adaptations (thickness, tensile strength, etc.) needed to safely perform dead-hangs. Based on my experience and what literature says, I would suggest two to three years as a reasonable interval.

The following question is important although it can overlap slightly with the previous one:

1.2. Do you have an average technical-tactical repertoire?
If you don’t have a lot of spare time for training and are wondering whether to invest part of it on training your fingers, would that detract from the much needed technical gains that you would achieve by climbing in the gym instead and are so important in the early years?
Johnny Dawes. Source: Into the Wild Blog
1.3. Are you 16 or older? Are you past your growth spurt?
The works of  Morrison & Schöffl (2007)  and Schweizer (2012) show correlation between intensive finger training and the use of the crimp grip before puberty and the incidence of severe injuries like stress fractures. The most dangerous period is the growth spurt that takes place at age 11-12 in girls and 13-14 in boys, but the risk remains until the growth plates (the zone where the bones grow) are closed.

Regularly using the full crimp and the half crimp under high loads, like grabbing tiny holds or applying high acceleration on medium ones, can harm an adult’s ligaments, sheaths, capsules, tendons or ligaments, while a youngster can experience from sporadic inflammation and pain to tears, fractures and chronic deformity. The problem is that this tissue is 2-5 times weaker than its surroundings, and one of them is located just where it meets the flexor digitorum superficialis (see picture below).
 When crimping, the dorsal area at the base of the medial phalanx bears a considerable tension precisely where the growth plate is located (copyright by Swiss Medical Weekly, 2012, 142, 1–9)

By the way, we should take this into account when designing our climbing classes and setting routes and boulders in the gym or in competitions.
Iziar Martínez Almendros, a promising climber competing at the “Open La Ola 2017” in Salamanca, Spain. Source: Instagram
If you are still interested in kids developing some grip strength don’t worry, there is a blog post coming to help you precisely with that.

1.4. Are you injury-free? Do you suffer from any condition that makes finger training inadvisable?
Have you adequately recovered from your last injury?

The less severe lesions take at least 2 months to heal, others can take 6 or more. In truth, once the subacute phase is over and reconditioning work starts, dead-hangs are not out of the question. An experienced physical therapist can guide you through a routine of analytic exercises followed by assisted dead-hangs (with rubber bands or pulleys) on deep, rounded holds. In all cases the programs will NOT be the ones recommended in this series.

1.5. What are your level and objectives?

1.5.1. Is your finger strength low, but not ‘very low’?
Check this with the following test on a 25 mm edge (one phalanx and a half):

- If you can hang for 15 seconds you could start doing dead-hangs as a method to develop your grip strength.
- If your time is less than 15 seconds I’d suggest you work your fingers by climbing instead of using an analytic method. Remember my philosophy: “Use the easiest dose, exercise and method that still makes you improve”. If I were you, I’d rather keep on developing my strength by climbing than doing hangs on a deep edge or a bar; instead, you could:
- Occasionally climb on steeper (more overhanging) walls than you are used to.
- Including some (10-20%) small foot- and handholds in your training routes or boulders.

Gekoaventura, Indoor Adventure and Climbing Park in Valladolid, Spain.
It’s still possible that you like to try every kind of method from the very beginning, and you have the time and capacity for it; in the end the choice is always yours.

1.5.2. Using a percentile table to assess the starting level
We can add some extra information to the test above by getting an idea of our position relative to a climber population. I built a percentile table based on data from a 2004 study of maximal hang time on several wooden edges (6, 8, 10, 12 and 14 mm) that was part of my thesis (n=37, levels 6a to 8c+). However, please be aware that the sample size is small and that in the intervening 14 years the population level must have changed. In this line, we have to take in account that this statistical measure is dependent on the study sample features (Spanish climbers, living in Toledo and Madrid, who trained and climbing in specific areas...) so you should be cautious when interpreting it. You can take it as a curiosity. Furthermore, you also need to follow the standardized test protocol (check my Doctoral thesis) to be able to compare the results.

The percentile is a measure that tells us in what position a mark is with respect to a population. In this table, if your maximum time on 14 mm is 30 seconds, then you are approximately in the 25th percentile, which means that in a representative sample of 100 people around 25 would have a worse time than yours and around 75 would do better than you.

As an interesting aside, the 14 mm test was the most reliable and showed a significant positive correlation with sport level. This means that it could be used for predicting performance or even detecting new talent, but always as part of a suite of metrics that measure other physical, technical, tactical, psychological or anthropometric aspects.

Three broad categories can be established based on the table:
Lower level: those equal or below the 25th percentile, like hanging for less than 10 seconds off a 10 mm edge.
Intermediate level: between the 25th and the 75th percentiles.
Higher level: above the 85th percentile.
1.5.3. Objectives and training grip type
If your usual climbing spot or your choice project require climbing on edges, specially at the crux, it’s advisable to train the half crimp or the open crimp (check this series to learn about grip types). If, instead, it’s mainly pockets or slopers it will be a good idea to train the open hand. For training your pinch strength, have a look at this blog post.

Anyway, if you have the capacity, time, experience and level (medium to high) consider training 4 days/week with 2 days for each grip type and 48h rest between them, or work both the same day reducing 25-30% the volume of each grip; for example, instead of doing 3 sets of half crimp/open crimp and 3 of open hand, do just 2 of each. If you need to choose one grip type do it attending to your weaknesses or, by the contrary, looking at what increases your immediate chances of success.

Here ends the first phase of “Designing your own dead-hangs training plan”. The next article will tackle Methodology: naming conventions and methods: MinEd, MaxW, IntHangs, load management and which fingerboard to choose.

-Why do intermittent dead hangs?
López-Rivera, E. y González-Badillo, J.J. (2012). The effects of two maximum grip strength training methods using the same effort duration and different edge depth on grip endurance in elite climbers. Sport Technol 5: 1–11.
Abstract of my article studying the effect on finger endurance of Max Hangs vs. Int Hangs vs. a combination.
-Some hangboarding Instructional Videos
Intermittent Dead Hangs Programs for Your Smartphone-Complex Timer: A Training app for Climbing
Published Research Article, and a Summary of the Guidelines on finger strength Methodology described in this Blog
#1 Doubts about finger training — The Arch Climbing Wall

  • Balyi, I., & Hamilton, A. (2004). Long-Term Athlete Development: Trainability in Childhood and Adolescence, Windows of Opportunity, Optimal Trainability. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: National Coaching Institute British Columbia and Advanced Training and Performance Ltd.
  • Canadian Sport for Life. (2017). Sport climbing for sport, for life. LTAD Long Term Athlete Development. Canadian Sport for Life.
  • Morrison, A. B., & Schöffl, V. R. (2007). Physiological responses to rock climbing in young climbers. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(12), 852–861; discussion 861.
  • Schweizer, A. (2012). Sport climbing from a medical point of view. Swiss Medical Weekly, 142(October), 1–9.
  • Schöffl, V., Lutter, C., Woollings, K., & Schöffl, I. (2018). Pediatric and adolescent injury in rock climbing. Research in Sports Medicine, 26(1), 91–113.

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