Even though I have one of the best climbing gyms in the country a five-minute bike ride from my house, a home training system is important given my busy lifestyle. It allows me to both control my training without worrying about others, and squeeze my training into any time frame. With limited space, I set out to build the most effective system for getting strong. Even though climbing standards are light years higher than they were in my time, a recent study confirms that our old school training techniques are still the most efficient way to not fall off.
A brief history in climbing training
Let’s skip any reference to alpinism here and focus on hard technical rock climbing. While climbers have often trained, it wasn’t an accepted practice until the 80s. When Tony Yaniro trained specifically for The Grand Illusion, perhaps the world’s hardest route when he did it in the late 70s, his ascent was discounted by many as cheating. This absurd stance held strongest in America, who at the time were leading the free climbing movement, and allowed Europe to take over the sport’s advancements over the next couple of decades.
Unencumbered by bizarre “ethics”, and blessed with endless limestone walls that were steep and lacked crack systems, the Euros began focusing on more gymnastic of climbing using bolts for protecting blank faces. As climbing objectives became more athletic, systems were invented to help train specifically.
training icon, rob candelaria, showing one of the first fingerboards. cool vid on the history here.
The simplest device consisted of holds that mimicked rock, which you’d hang from or pull-up on. For those with more means, or space, small boards littered with holds were set-up, often in cellars or garages, which allowed you to practice climbing movements. These crude systems helped climbing standards to skyrocket.
By the 90s, full climbing gyms were popular in Europe and starting to trickle into the US. Kids began climbing, allowing prodigy’s, like Chris Sharma, to discover natural talent at a young age. Gyms now exist almost everywhere, greatly increasing the climbing gene pool but also developing neuromuscular patterns in children, leading to ever-increasing standards and video-game like performance compared to a generation ago. This has led to incredible advancements in the sport, but the actual reasons we fall off haven’t really changed.
This explosion has lead to scientific acceptance of climbing as sport, and real studies being done on the most effective ways to train. The latest study, which you can read about here (abstract link at bottom), confirms that those old school ideals of the 80s were, more or less, right on.
While studies have yet to prove why climbers today are so much stronger, it’s mainly explained by expanding demographics. Millions of kids now are exposed to climbing. Movements become second nature, and bodies are developed that are able to train longer and harder than ever before. With scientifically-proven training protocols employed early, injury rates decline, leading to a large pool of strong, supple, technically proficient kids with ideal body types to fight gravity. With competitive climbing becoming one of the fastest growing sports in the world, it doesn’t take to study to pinpoint why standards are rising.
Yet, when you strip away the above advancements, what keeps us from falling remains the same. To summarize the study above: your fingers and forearms muscles fail first and foremost. This is followed by your elbows, shoulders, and then core. Therefore, if you want to improve your climbing, you should focus your training on these areas.
There are two caveats to this theory. First, you must know how to climb. This should be obvious, as sports specific training is never useful unless you’re proficient at the sport you’re training for. Technique can always improve but, after a time, strength will become your limiting factor. As Ben Moon famously said in the 90s, “technique is no substitute for power.”
Second is that you must be light. Climbing, like all gravity sports, is very weight dependent. The lighter you are, the better you’re equipped to fight gravity. If you’re overweight, a standard body composition protocol will serve better than specific training. Once you’re near optimal weight, specificity becomes paramount.
So what’s my ultimate gym?
My last house had nice climbing wall. It was super fun but, when we got serious about doing something, we focused on the fingerboards in the corner. My new house has no room for a wall, but that’s fine. Walls are for recreation. As my buddy Ben said, “a picnic is fun, too. We’re here to get stronger.”
i‘ve no idea why these pics are so small. my blog is a disaster. click on ’em and you’ll can see them in detail.
With that in mind, fingerboards are first and foremost for any home gym. My set-up includes a Beastmaker 2000 and a BAM! Board. The reason for this is that I want bad holds to train on, and I want wood so that skin pain is never a limiting factor. If I could only have one board, and nothing else, I’d probably choose a Beastmaker 1000, because it has jugs, which are good for warming up and other exercises, but I have jugs elsewhere, along with lots of weights and other “normal” gym stuff. I also have a belt for adding weight and a pulley system for taking it off.
Once you’re warmed up, finger training should be the primary focus of what you do, meaning a little corner of wherever you live is enough space to get you ready to climb hard. As you can see, I have a few pics of things I’d like to climb to aid my focus, and effective finger training requires a lot of mental focus. This is why it’s better achieved at home than in a gym.
With the fingers attended to, my next objective was elbows, shoulders and core—and a bit of added back. A small space under a stairway allowed me to build a systems wall. It’s not state-of-the-art, but it’s good enough. Check this vid out on systems wall training in a gym. I have a wall just like this down the street, which I’ll use on occasion. But I also wanted something at home because it’s easier to focus. This also serves as a great place to warm-up for the fingerboard.
My cellar lacks a campus board, and this should be noted as they can be very effective. Because I’m old, and have a history that includes a lot of injuries, I rarely campus. I do, however, campus in short blocks a couple of times a year. The gym down the street has one of the best and most versatile campus boards I’ve seen, so I see no reason to build my own. This is good because it would have to be outside, like the one in the rad training vid below.
I used Escape Training Pipes, because they are large and comfortable. Unlike a fingerboard, movement training should be done on comfortable holds so your focus is on the larger muscles and not fingers. To add resistance, I use a weight vest.
I have a few angles to choose from. The horizontal holds can be used with various fingers. The angled holds offer a few different “gaston” grips to focus on the shoulders. I can also finger jam a few different ways (ideally I’d have space for a hand jam option, but I don’t much like crack climbing anyway). The dangling things are various Escape pinch grip options, which are easily moved to add options. There are four undercut options as well; two large pipes, two small Metolius campus rungs, the underside of the gaston holds, and the natural “Hubble” holds that just happen to be part of the stairs because every home gym should have some type of Hubble simulation (linked vid shows the route, below shows the ultimate simulation), as it’s still the ultimate climb. Feet, of course, and uniform so movements can be done the same way for both sides of your body.
I’m not saying having a proper cellar is better than a gym or close local crags. Gyms these days are amazing, often offering every training advancement and sometimes routes that are longer and harder than local options (the case with mine). They also have camaraderie and a competitive aspect, which can aid motivation. But for those with the right mindset, it’s impossible to beat the bang for the buck of well thought out home gym.