Grip Types and Finger Strength Training. The Crimp Grip (I)
More often than not, the first issue I have to tackle when I talk about grip types -and climbing in general- is that of nomenclature. This is more true for some languages that display a richness that others don’t. When comparing English to my native Spanish, there are some possible causes:
a) the greater development or popularity of finger strength training, perhaps because the weather or the long distances to climbing areas force climbers to train indoors many days in the year. This can be the case of the USA and the UK, possibly the most influential among English-speaking countries.
b) the unique attention that is placed on technique (more so in the UK), which creates the need of more precise ways of describing it.
c) the fact that English is the most used language in publishing?
This wide gamut of terms can be advantageous, because it helps defining the observed reality (types of grip in climbing), and thus the development of knowledge. But it can also end up being confusing. For example, beginners can be perplexed when the same grip has several names or, even worse, when the same term is used inconsistently among more experienced climbers.
Since eluding this matter and jumping directly into more practical aspects would be putting the cart before the horse, let’s get the issue of terminology out of the way:
A bit of history: First classifications in the literature
I can’t say how old the term “L’arquée” is among French climbers, the same goes for the Spanish “arqueo” and the English “crimp”; but the first scientific paper I have found that includes this expression belongs to the British Steve Bollen (1988) who defines the “crimp-grip” and suggests that it is the most used by climbers and the more prone to causing finger injuries (see image below).
Later we find this concept of crimp-grip under its more usual (at the time) name in the USA, “cling grip” (Shea et al., 1992; Jebson et al., 1997; Marco et al., 1998; Peters, 2001), where we can also see other grip types that complete the basic general classification: open grip and pinch grip.
The first authors to define it were Bollen (1988); Marco et al., (1998) y Schweizer (2001). In the following years other researchers that we will mention added to these descriptions, contributing to a more nuanced and expanded picture:
Description: Finger configuration
In this grip type (figure 2) we find: – 90 degrees or more of proximal interphalangeal joints (PIP) flexion; the angle depends partly on the length of each finger.
– Extension or hyperextension at the distal interphalangeal joints (DIP).
If we look closely at the pictures above (figure 2), even though both show a similar position (90º PIP flexion and DIP hyperextension), you have probably spotted the difference: in one of them the thumb takes part in the grip. Then, should we still call both of them crimp-grip?
In my opinion, here is the root of some of our confusions, because some people, when they say crimp-grip they are thinking of the image on the left, while others have in mind the one on the right. When we are climbing this distinction is hardly relevant, but precision is important when talking about training, technique or sports medicine. This is why now may be the right moment to begin using more adequate and current terms to describe each position:
a) Half-crimp or crimp-whithout-thumb: This is a 4-finger crimp-grip where the thumb does not intervene (figure 2, left). Some climbers talk about the “pure” half-crimp, when the PIP is at 90º and the DIP is extended. In publications, the first reference I have found to it is from 2002, in one of the pioneering works about training for climbing (Hörst, 2002; pag. 77) ; other scientific papers Giles et al. (2006) adopted it from an article by the famous British coach Neil Gresham (Neil Gresham’s guide to campus boarding *online+.Available from URL: http://www.planetfear.com/article_detail.asp?a_id=206 [Accessed 2006 May 10]. We must not neglect the French contributions, though, because the wonderful and mythical Grimper! by Patrick Edlinger, as soon as 1985 already included the expression “sans crocheter le pouce” to describe this position (Edlinger, Ferrand, & Lemoine, 1985; pag 91).
b) Full-crimp, close-crimp or crimp-with-thumb: This term, as far as I know, first appears in a 1993 work (Neumann & Goddard, 1993) and in scientific studies from 2011 on (Quaine et al., 2011; Fuss & Niegl, 2012; Schweizer & Bircher, 2012).
It is defined as a crimp-grip where the thumb is wrapped over the distal phalanx of the index finger (figure 2, right), resulting in a 20% increase in the force applied on a particular hold (Quaine et al., 2011; Bourne et al., 2011; Amca et al., 2012). This advantage can be attributed to the presence of an extra finger, that brings into the picture 4 additional muscles (Flexor pollicis longus, Abductor pollicis longus, Extensor pollicis longus, Extensor pollicis brevis), which could explain why we favor it when dealing with smaller holds (10 mm to 20 mm; Schweizer, 2001; Vigouroux et al., 2008) or when we are more fatigued.
Regarding the affirmation that this variant leads to an increased risk of injury, we need to take it with a grain of salt. According to Schweizer (2012) this grip type should be avoided when possible. On the other hand,Quaine et al., (2011), carried out an interesting study where they showed that the middle and ring fingers, the most frequently injured, did not apply more force than in the half-crimp or crimp-without-thumb, suggesting that the intervention of the thumb doesn’t alter their risk of injury. As for the index finger, they could not make the same kind of inference, because there was no way to isolate the force it applied from the thumb’s contribution. My feeling is that at least the index’s DIP and skin are likely to suffer more strain, and the tighter PIP flexion that is usually associated to this grip type could lead to increased joint damage. In addition, the authors mention several benefits of the full-crimp over the half-crimp, apart from the increased force: the wrist adopts a more stable stance (medial-carpal instability has been observed in climbers; Vigouroux et al., 2015) and there is a significant reduction of the load on the pinkie, which applies 19% more force in the half-crimp.
c) Soft crimp (crimp-grip with a flexion of the DIP) Schweizer (2012) puts forward a more healthy variant of the crimp-grip to prevent or recover from injury: not using a pronounced crimp-grip-position with a flexion of the PIPjoints to more than 80–90° and trying to keep the DIP-joint always flexed to about 5–15°. By doing so, the joints are loaded in a midway-position whereas the joint contact area remains as large as possible.
d) Open-crimp: We could describe it as a mix between the crimp-grip and the open grip, in an attempt of increasing the contact area on a hold less than 2-phalanges deep while avoiding excessive strain. In fact, it is advisable for flat or slightly sloping holds. Naturally, due to the different length of each finger, the middle and ring fingers will tend to adopt a half-crimp position (although with less flexion at the PIP) while the shorter pinkie and index will display more of an open grip (with more extension at the DIP than in a “proper” open grip).
This kind of grip shares some advantages with the open grip when it comes to reducing the strain over pulleys and cartilages (Hume et al., 1991; Vigouroux et al., 2006) thanks to the PIP being less flexed, especially in the index and pinkie. The larger contact area has two effects: relying more on friction alleviates some of the load on the motor structures and pulleys, but makes it more likely to hurt the skin at the DIP of the shorter fingers (figure 4).
It is interesting to realize how in the crimp-grip the friction plays a role primarily at the pulleys as we will see in the next article, and in the open-grip variants it is the skin that suffers/takes advantage of the consequences of friction. With this in mind, each one can make their choice. By the way, there is a popular argument about whether training the half-crimp or the open-crimp on a rougher/smoother surface is better for strength training, and here are some thoughts about it:
It is true that you can’t use so much added weight or tiny edges if they are smoother or using a half-crimp instead open-crimp grip. But in both cases you will be working your strength in a very similar way. When two people perform a 10-second maximum repetition, the relative intensity and the physiological effects will be equal. The difference will be in absolute intensity, and most likely in the sensory and technical adaptation. In this line, given that we should aim for specificity, if, for example, your project has rough, 1015 mm deep edges, the holds you train your finger strength on should resemble this configuration.
Lastly, there is a handicap to prioritizing the open-crimp over the half-crimp; some climbers choose to use the former almost exclusively because it is healthier. Their index finger, being always in an extended position, “forgets” how to do a half or full-crimp, to the point that when an edge is really small or positive the climber feels insecure, the knowledge of “how to half-crimp” is nearly lost, and the fingers (specially, the index finger) hurt after a few attempts, possibly because of this lack of adaptation.
All this said, one of the first conclusions that we can extract is that we should work every variant, because the most effective one will depend on the relative lengths of our fingers, and our objectives for articular balance and type of hold. Today we have stated that the crimp-grip is the most effective when dealing with the smallest holds. In the next article we will learn why, and whether there is strong evidence to affirm that it has the most relation with finger injuries.
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Bourne, R., Halaki, M., Vanwanseele, B., & Clarke, J. (2011). Measuring lifting forces in rock climbing: Effect of hold size and fingertip structure. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 27(1), 40–46.
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