Sometimes an injury can be a blessing in disguise. While I’m not about to call my back a blessing yet—especially given how painful life is at the moment—I will say it’s led to a advance in my training I haven’t seen in a long time.
My climbing peaked in about 1995. Since that time I’ve continued to climb and some aspects of my performance have improved. But like most sports, ultimately, the highest level one can reach comes down to motivation and effective training. And my climbing training has been practically non-existent. This is by choice as I’ve been focusing on other sports, but I do often wonder how hard I could climb now if I had the same motivation to train that I did in the early 90s.
This injury could lead to some exploration in those areas. As my bikes, skis, running shoes and climbing boots gather dust I’ve turned my attention to the only thing I can do: hangboard training. For those who don’t know, a hangboard is an apparatus that is mounted to a wall that’s littered with various holds you might find climbing. You use it by strategizing different schemes using these holds the same way you would design a program using weights. The goal is to improve contact strength, which is the ability to hang onto small holds.
They’re highly effect; and highly tedious. In vogue for only a few years, now they’re mainly seen in homes of people who want their friends to think they climb and in the corner of gyms for kids to play on. It is hard to justify standing in once place doing endless repetitions of hanging off your fingertips when there’s a gym full of routes to climb. Professional trainers will also tell you that a hangboard only trains you for one aspect of climbing. That aspect, however, is far more important than anything else. As Ben Moon put it, “the only thing that really matters is how strong my fingers are.”
In 1990 I started a small business that forced me inside for about a year until it was running well enough for me to hire employees. During this period I made the biggest improvement in a single span of my climbing life. I did almost no climbing. I ran or biked in the mornings to keep my weight down and trained on a hangboard. The above quote, again from Moon, hung on the ceiling over the board. It was perfect. I couldn’t get outside so, even if wrong, it was the advice I wanted to hear. When I was again able to go outside my technique was crap but I miles stronger than I’d ever been. As my technique came around to where it was prior, my climbing level skyrocketed.
Since I’ve stopped climbing so much, finger strength is what I’ve lacked more than anything else. I can still figure out how to get up things, I often simply can’t hang onto the holds. If my psyche holds out—and right now it’s strong—this injury could be the beginning of a great season, even it it’s not the one I was planning for.
I wish I’d kept my training journals from those days. I used to graph my strength gains and was able to keep the graph pointed skyward most of the time. If my first round of training in any indication, I’m again headed in the right direction. It would be fun to go back and compare an aged climber to a young one.
I begin with a lengthy warm-up. 15 minutes on the bike (about all I can tolerate right now) or stairmaster, followed by a bunch of light weight resistance exercises to thoroughly warm all of my muscles. Then I hang each of the holds I’ll use in the workout without getting pumped. The warm-up has to feel like work. Any abridging increases the risk of injury.
The target of these workouts is hypertrophy, so I’m doing a lot of volume. Later, for power, I’ll do shorter, more intense, hangs. Right now it’s 5 reps of 10 seconds with a 5 second rest for each hold. 2 minutes between sets. I did one workout just getting used to hanging, then I began charting. Below are the numbers (total seconds hanging) for each workout on each hold, in progressive order.
Shallow 2: 20, 31, 33, 50, 46
Small slope: 30, 50, 46, 46, 50
Small pinch: 30, 50, 43, 47, 47
Small crimp: 44, 38, 41, 42, 44
Medium 2: 24, 25, 30, 36, 44
Big pinch: 50, 50, 50, 50, 50
Big sloper: 20, 34, 49, 50, 50
Slopey crimp pinch: 0, 39, 40, 44, 45
Medium 3: 0, 29, 36, 40, 41
Medium sloper: 0, 0, 0, 20, 35
Comparing like holds, I’ve improved during each workout at ratios of: 35%, 6%, 13%, 7%. The bigger increases came when I had an extra days rest. Counting increased volume my workout load has increased 140% in the last two weeks, which is off the charts. A lot of this has to do with engrams (neuromuscular patterns) kicking in so won’t continue indefinitely but it’s still inspiring. My next series adds weight, decreases the hang time, but increases the number of sets. I’ll post my progress when I’m done.