The importance of finger strength for performance in climbing is a fact that climbers intuitively acknowledge, but this is not just a subjective feeling, it is also supported by several scientific studies. It would be wrong to conclude that this is the only factor we need to train, but there is an unavoidable reality: if we can't grab some hold, no amount of technique, psychology, ability for recovery or endurance will help us...
When you are climbing, chances are that you can easily pull off the bigger holds, but the moment you grab a small one you can no longer lock-off, or can't perform a long reach to the next hold.
Perhaps you dyno and make contact with the hold; you slap it but don't close your fingers "fast enough" to stick it, and fall.
You need to full-crimp handholds less than two phalanges deep, and your thumb spends a lot of time on top of your index finger.
You can grab a small pocket for the time needed to get to the next one, but if you need to clip or move your feet off it, you end up falling... sometimes with the feeling that it was because your foot "popped".
All of the above are practical examples where our finger strength has let us down. The fault was not in our pulling strength, lock-off ability or endurance, neither we can blame our technique, coordination or footwork...
But... isn't it dangerous to work our finger strength?
There are those who think that rock climbing sessions are hard enough on the fingers to "risk" straining them with training. I dare say that, ironically, this mindset has the potential to cause strain itself.
If we don't develop our finger strength appropriately in terms of quality and quantity, we will get to our project -where, of course, we won't be able to adjust the load as if we were training-, and we'll end up reaching failure on some holds; a few of them may even be beyond our capacity. If we try that move many times with very short pauses (and who hasn't?), then we are really risking overload, broken pulleys, etc.
Training allows us to manage and choose the load in real time; this is a safeguard against injuries and is conducive to a more gradual, solid and controlled progression as well. This becomes especially important when we resume training after rest or lower load periods and, most importantly, after an injury.
The ideal finger training program in these circumstances will feature low intensities and ample margins before failure. Obviously, to recover from an injury we won't work our fingers in "training mode", but rather in rehabilitation mode: activating the damaged zone while avoiding pain or discomfort both while and after the session (including the day after). A good guide could be to fully respect the necessary healing periods. In the case of fingers, and given the great difference between the size of the structures and the load they bear, in most cases it would be wise to wait between 2 and 5 months, depending on the severity and location of the damage (tendon, sheath, pulley, ligament or muscle) before starting a dead-hangs program. This does not mean that finger exercises are out of the question during this period: we can do easy isometric exercises with rubber bands or other contraptions, and even progress to aided dead-hangs.
An additional benefit that derives from specific finger training is getting "acquainted" with holds that suppose a challenge on the crag; being able to perform several sets on a difficult handhold will boost our self-confidence when we are about to tackle that crux.
Is bouldering enough to develop finger strength?
I frequently come across the question of whether it suffices to train hard moves on small edges, big overhangs and/or small footholds or it is advisable to include also specific exercises like dead-hangs.
Is there anything better than the gestures of climbing themselves? What can beat that?
To answer this, in addition to what has already been said, there's this story I like to bring up when speaking about training planning for climbing: The first published training manuals, dating back to the 19th century, stated that the best way to prepare a competition was to perform the competition exercise itself. If you wanted to improve your performance in the mile run, you needed to do 1-mile sets.
Later, both athletes and coaches realized that this wasn't enough. Running was not all about endurance; speed, technique, flexible muscles and joints were part of the equation, and running one mile and then another was not going to help very much in those respects.
This insight took part in developing the foundations of modern training and the concept of specificity: Using a variety of exercises to improve qualities both main and accessory that, when combined into a proper planning contribute to the performance in the actual competition exercise, without the need to use them time and again along the whole cycle.
Of equal relevance is the principle of individualization and progression: choosing the right methods and exercises that best suit our level, our capacity and what point in the season or in our sport career we are at; as you can imagine, it is better to have in our toolbox other methods than just climbing or bouldering.
When is the right time to start using a hangboard?
Another usual question is if it's preferable to wait until we feel that we are approaching our strength limit before starting to specifically train our fingers. This is in part related to whether it makes sense or is safe for children or beginners to apply to their fingers the methods that we are going to describe in the following entries.
As for the moment to "break" our limits, you need to face them from the beginning, and deal with them continuously, day to day. For example, when I start to work with someone on their training, we first analyze strengths and weaknesses, and build a development model according to them with realistic personal goals. Then I assess whether everything is going as expected or there is some aspect that needs tweaking; at the same time I am thinking about what comes next. This process never ends, because you can strive for perfection, but achieving it is unrealistic. But this same fact allows us to venture out of our comfort zone, and exploring our limits is a way of learning and evolving. This approach should be present from the very beginning...
Failing to do this implies a passive attitude that can lead to plateauing and apathy. If you have never worked to progress past your weak points, it will be harder to do it later, when this attitude becomes a must. At the end of the day, everything depends on your approach. I use several methods to achieve this. In broad strokes, I work the physical-technical-tactical aspects through bouldering and doing routes at the gym; for finger strength (maximum, explosive and endurance) I use the hangboard mostly; for pulling strength, pull-ups, campus board and weights, depending on level and goals. And we never forget the psychological needs for a given session, or the accessory but important conditioning of shoulders, wrists and even legs.
All this said, in the case of those who are less than 16 years old or have been training for less than 2-3 years, it is more important to slowly gain strength by climbing, which at this stage has a fundamental technical component. It allows the crucial development of the efficiency of movement early on, and is consistent with a guideline that I am all for: using at each moment the easiest and lightest method that still gives results. For someone who has a lower level, just grabbing holds, no matter how long the routes are, is enough to develop strength.
Additionally, in the case of younger climbers we need to keep in mind that their musculoskeletal system is maturing up to the age of 16. That's why they have an increased risk of injuries as severe as stress fractures. In fact, Morrison & and Schöffl (2007) have observed correlation between carrying out intensive activities as dead-hangs or campusing and the onset of said injuries. When considering methods with added weight the bar must be higher still, and we should wait to be at least 18.
Lastly, the reason for waiting 2-3 years in all cases is that the muscles in the forearm adapt to the exercise in a matter of weeks, but this is not the case for the tendons, capsules cartilages and ligaments of the fingers, that need years to undergo the necessary adaptations, like increased tensile strength and thickness. After that period is over, more "aggressive" contents can be introduced, but the methods and planning will always be different from those aimed to higher levels and more experienced climbers.
Speaking of methodology and planning for each stage... that will be the topic for subsequent articles.
- Morrison, A. B., & Schöffl, V. R. (2007). Physiological responses to rock climbing in young climbers. British journal of sports medicine, 41(12), 852-861
- López-Rivera, E (2014): Efectos de Diferentes Métodos de Entrenamiento de Fuerza y Resistencia de Agarre en Escaladores Deportivos de distintos Niveles (Phd Thesis). PhD program in sport performance. Castilla-La Mancha University, Toledo, Spain.