Dragon Flag B&W Movement in Climb Strong Class

This is not the first article on “core” training I have written, but I felt the need to expand on the previous ones and to highlight what we are doing in our current programs. In general, the way we look at training the midsection has not changed, but over the past couple of years we’ve refined the program and the focus of the training. First, I’ll start with what core training is not and should not be:

 

Core training is not going to get rid of fat on your belly. By now you should know this, but for those who have not been keeping up, I’ll explain. The abdominals, obliques, and transversus are the primary groups that most of us try to target when doing ab exercises. These are important muscles to strengthen, but exercising them to reduce the fat that happens to lay on top of them is futile. Once again, I’ll reference the University of Virginia study that showed you’d have to do 700 crunches a day for a year to burn a pound of fat. Since spot reduction has been proven over and again to be ineffective, even doing those 365 workouts might not give you the desired results. If your belly fat is bugging you, it’s time to step away from the donut box and buy some spinach.

 

Core training is not “back strengthening.” Strong abs do not mean a strong low back. The exercises I’ll describe are safe for the low back if done properly, but should not be seen as a direct way to make the back stronger. A huge misconception for sufferers of low back pain is the idea that spinal flexion exercises, such as the abdominal crunch, are good for the back. In fact, it has been shown that repeated spinal flexion is overwhelmingly a bad idea if you have back pain. Dr. Stuart McGill has several excellent books on low back disorders and injuries, and if you have back problems I recommend picking up Back Mechanic http://amzn.to/1T7zno6 .

 

The core should not be treated as a prime-mover. There are many exercises that target the abdominals, but the abs should be trained the way they are used- as structural support. Most of the ab exercises we learned as young athletes use the rectus abdominus to create either hip flexion (as in supine leg raises) or trunk flexion (as in crunches or sit-ups). Although these do “work” the abs, that’s not how we use the muscles in normal movement. The core muscles are almost exclusively stabilizers, and are best used to control movement rather than to initiate it. The one exception which may be specific to climbing is the hanging leg raise and its variations.

 

It’s more than abs. The core, or what we prefer to call the midsection, includes all of the muscles that connect to your pelvis and low back. We include:

The rectus abdominis

The transversus abdominis

The internal and external obliques

All hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings, etc.)

The hip flexors

The spine extensors (spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum)

The hip adductors and abductors

The latissimus dorsi

 

“If you can’t see your abs, put down the cookies”

We want to be strong, so clearly, crunches won’t do the trick. We are looking for high-load, integrative exercise that will actually change the way your core functions in climbing. Being able to crank out five more reps of a rectus abdominis-focused exercise won’t do it.

 

Our training program focuses on creating a strong midsection to effectively transfer strength from the arms to the legs, and to maintain tension during climbing movements. I don’t feel you always need to mimic climbing movement to train the core properly. I do feel you need to train very intensely. A good rule of thumb: if you can crank out a few more reps once fatigue sets in, your exercises are not hard enough.

 

Telling you what not to do only helps so much, right? Here is what I am going to tell you to do.

 

We train four patterns for the core. By integrating the four main categories of movement, you can effectively train all of the muscle groups listed above. By training them with the correct intensity, you can have a stronger midsection that you’ve ever dreamed.  

 

Stability. This is where you hold your body in a tensioned, static position in which the muscles around the spine and pelvis must be held isometrically. The one that pops to mind for most people is the plank, but as you’ll see below, you can do better.

 

The plank can be regressed or progressed as needed. We stick with a general rule of twenty seconds: if you can hold a given position for a 20 count, move on to the next level of difficulty.

In order of difficulty, the plank progressions look like this:

Elbow Plank on a bench

Palm Plank on the floor

Elbow Plank on the floor

Plank with one limb raised

Plank with one arm and one leg raised

TRX Plank

Hardstyle Plank

 

Dynamic Stability. The plan is the same in dynamic stability as in stability, except that you try to hold to body in a rigid position while moving one or more limbs. There are dozens of great exercises that fit this category, but our favorites are:

Stir The Pot / Cauldron

Plank/Pulldown

T Push Up

Lever Variations

 

Anti-Rotation. We use the obliques to initiate rotation, like in the Russian Twist, but we also use them to avoid rotation. The anti-rotation abilities of these muscles are under-appreciated, but are implemented every time you move. For Anti-Rotation, I like to train the Core Press and the Plank with Weight Transfer.

 

Hip Flexion. This is the exception to the avoid-spine-bending guideline. We have to train the way we play, and we do train a series of movements that involve pulling the knees toward the chest.

Our progression is as follows:

Hanging Knee Raise to 90 degrees

Hanging Straight Leg Raise to 90 degrees

Seated Straight Leg Raise

TRX Pike

Knees to Elbows

Dip Bar Straight Leg Raise

Hanging Straight Leg Raise – full range

 

When implementing high level midsection training like this, you’ve got to respect the exercises. These movements should be a major focus if you are to do them and benefit from them, not something you throw in after a bouldering session. Start with 3 sets of 5 reps in any given movement, and progress to the next harder movement only of you can do them flawlessly. Plan on doing 2-3 exercises per training session, picking from separate categories. You should do these exercises three days per week.

 

A strong midsection makes all other strength easier. Be patient, and keep focused. Forget the burn…and if you can’t see your abs, put down the cookies.

Jordan Jack Demonstrates a Push Up in Climb Strong Class B&W

We’ve been training strength for a long time. For years, I struggled with just how to fit all the hangboard training, general strength training, and supporting exercises in a normal climber’s week. Many of us try to get by without the extra work, opting to just go climbing instead. A look at the big picture, at the idea of climbing effectively and injury-free over the course of a 30+ year period, forces us to understand that just climbing is not enough.

This article is not an attempt to convince readers to start strength training. What I am going to outline here are variations on a climbing strength program known as Integrated Strength. For those unfamiliar with the program, it’s a simple combination of:

1 General Strength Exercise + 1 Finger Strength Exercise + 1 Mobility or Stability Drill

 

We do these as a small circuit, each of which takes less than 5 minutes. The standard Integrated Strength Program looks like this:

 

3 sets each of:

General Strength Exercise 1

Finger Strength Exercise 1

Mobility Drill 1

 

3 sets each of:

General Strength Exercise 2

Finger Strength Exercise 2

Mobility Drill 2

 

3 sets each of:

General Strength Exercise 3

Finger Strength Exercise 3

Mobility Drill 3

 

This session takes most athletes about 45 minutes. If you can complete a session in a lot faster than this time, you’re not lifting heavy enough and not trying hard enough on the hangboard.

The standard implementation of these sessions is to do them 3x per week for 4-6 weeks in an off-season phase. The sessions can be used in-season once a week to maintain strength.

Variations

There are times of the year or training goals that ask that we diverge from the basic format. With the growing understanding that strength is fundamental not only to injury prevention but to climbing performance, we are constantly testing and finding ways of keeping strength year-round. The critical component, of course, is continuity. Training strength for short periods separated by months of performance is not only risky, but frustrating. How would you like to always be stuck at the same level in each and every facet of your training? If the standard 3×3 format above isn’t right for you, try one of the following variants:

Varied Arm Positioning

This template is based on focusing the hangboard efforts on upper body strength rather than exclusively finger strength. The three hangboard exercises all feature the half-crimp position, but we vary the angle at the elbow. The series then looks like this:

 

3 sets each of:

Hip Hinge Pattern

2 Arm Hang, Straight Arm, Half Crimp

Hip Mobility

 

3 sets each of:

Squat Pattern

2 Arm Hang, Elbow 90 Degrees, Half Crimp

Shoulder Mobility

 

3 sets each of:

Overhead Press Pattern

2 Arm Hang, Full Lock Off, Half Crimp

Core Stability Exercise

 

Long Circuits

In the Long Circuits variation, the athlete aims to complete two big circuits per session rather than three circuits of three exercises. Each of these big circuits is done 3 or 4 times, depending on the time available and the desired volume of training.

 

The standard Long Circuit session is as follows:

Circuit 1

Hang position 1

Horizontal Pull

Hang position 2

Core

Hang position 3

Squat

Mobility

 

Circuit 2

Hang position 1

Vertical Press

Hang position 2

Core

Hang position 3

Hip Hinge

Mobility

 

This protocol is excellent for those looking to add a bit of volume to their finger strength, as it allows 6-8 sets each for all three positions on the hangboard. We try to keep the hang times in the 5-10 second range, and aim for bodyweight or simple (i.e. a single weight for all three hangs) loading.

 

Separated Circuits

In the Separated Circuits sessions, the athlete completes the weightroom and hangboard portions of the training separately. This is ideal for climbers whose facilities are in different locations or whose gyms are really busy. The standard series looks like this:

 

3-5 rounds:

Hip Hinge

Hip Mobility

Press

Shoulder Mobility

 

3-5 rounds:

Squat

Hip Mobility

Pull

Shoulder Mobility

 

3-5 rounds:

Hang position 1

Core 1

Hang position 2

Core 2

Hang position 3

Core 3

 

Ideally, you’d complete all three portions of the session with just a few minutes’ rest between. If you are dealing with two different facilities, a break of up to about 90 minutes is OK before a full re-warm is necessary.

 

High Volume Circuits

This variation features more exercises and hangboard positions, but generally you’ll train fewer cycles of each. The standard set-up is as follows:

 

Circuit 1, 2 rounds:

Hang position 1

Squat

Hip Mobility

Hang position 2

 

Circuit 2, 2 rounds:

Hang position 3

Press

Shoulder Mobility

Hang position 4

 

Circuit 3, 2 rounds:

Hang position 1

Hinge

Hip Mobility

Hang position 2

 

Circuit 2, 2 rounds:

Hang position 3

Core

Shoulder Mobility

Hang position 4

 

Each of these circuits takes about 10 minutes to complete for 2 rounds. If you have the time and have a need for higher volume, three rounds of each can be completed. If you find that you can complete the circuits significantly faster than this, it’s time to consider whether you are lifting enough weight and using challenging enough hang positions.

All of the above variants still address the main goals of Integrated Strength: big muscle work with finger strength training, a focus on mobility, and an efficient way to bring in all the critical components of strength for climbing.

 

Pinch Block with Kettlebell, Photo by Mei Ratz

by Steve Bechtel

I’ve been asked to weigh in more than a few times on various discussions on which was the “best” method of hangboard training. Although this is much like deciding which is the best dumbbell workout, it got me thinking. To truly decide what the best hangboard program for you is, you’ve got to know where you want to go. For my athletes, the hangboard is simply a tool we use to prevent injury and improve strength. I am not concerned with attempting to set any time records, hit a hangboard weight max, or improve endurance. I am interested in building a training plan that an athlete will actually follow for an entire training cycle. Finally, I am interested in a program that is simple to implement and that can be executed in a variety of training environments.

The general argument I’ve seen is between “repeaters” and “max strength” methods. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, I’ll briefly lay them out here. The max strength method is sort of where we started with hangboarding. You grab a small hold, hold it for a few seconds and rest. It was a simple, very effective program. I think that’s why we had to complicate it. It’s like the old saying goes “It worked so well, I stopped doing it.”

Today’s understanding of max strength is largely based on the work of Eva Lopez. An excellent sports scientist, Eva has developed very nice training program to be used with her Transgression hangboard. On her max strength program, you spend four weeks adding load for short duration sets on a medium-sized edge followed by a phase of doing short sets trying to reduce the hold size you use, without additional load. The whole program requires the Transgression board, which is brilliant, but unfortunately very expensive to purchase outside Europe. With this method, climbers work very close to their max ability to hold on to the edge, but the stimulus switches each phase which is designed both for avoiding injury and for continued gains in strength. The loading phases generally are just 5-10 seconds with three minutes’ rest between. Bottom line: High intensity, low volume.

 

The repeater method was originally developed by the Anderson brothers, and consists of brief loading periods(7-10 seconds) followed by brief rests(3-5 seconds), done in sets of 5-7 reps. This results in a load that is primarily borne by the anaerobic-lactic energy system rather than the alactic system. By definition, then, this is not a strength protocol, but a hypertrophy or strength-endurance protocol. Although the loading in this format is necessarily lower than one would be able to use in a max strength set, this is still an excellent way to condition the fingers for strength, especially within the context of rock climbing. Medium volume, medium intensity.

It has to be understood that these are very different programs, so saying one is “better” is nonsense. In truth, there is probably a time and place for each of these in one climber’s program. However, I think that both programs allow for focusing on loading too close to maximum for effective long-term improvements.

The research on gaining strength is fascinating. Yes, working close to your max is one way to get very strong, but it’s not the only way. This is particularly true in isometric training. Isometrics sort of “burst onto the scene” in 1953 when two German scientists reported 5% gains in strength per week with only one daily 6 second action at 66% of maximum. This almost incredible increase in strength gained a lot of attention and many follow-up studies. The result of the follow-ups was basically this: Yes, the strength gains are substantial, but they are only applicable within a very small range (joint angle variance). This limited the usefulness of isometrics for most sports, but it is just great for climbing.

Subsequent research shows that any number of set/rep combinations can yield effective results. Most interestingly, Davies and Young (1983) showed that seven daily 1-minute actions at 30% of max resulted in around a 30% gain in strength in just six weeks. Multiple studies done at varying percentages of maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) show similar results. Coupled with the relatively weak structure of the fingers, these findings tend to support using lower loads for isometric strength gains.

Several studies, including Garfinkel and Cafarelli’s landmark 1992 study, tend to show us two other important factors. First, longer-duration isometric actions tend to build greater strength than short actions. This counter-intuitive information might suggest that holding positions for ten or even 20 seconds could cause greater gains than loading heavy for five. Second, the total volume of load (duration x contraction) is more important than the degree of load. I’ll rephrase, because I had a hard time believing it: the time you spend under load in a given position is more important than how heavy the load is.

The best source of information on effective training programs is not sports science, but the actual training programs done by elite athletes. The smart scientists take this data and build their studies around it. Although we intuitively know that exercising close to our maximum (90%+) will lead us to the greatest gains in strength, there is a problem: our bodies can’t take it. The relatively low volume of exercise an athlete is capable of at this level compromises the plan’s effectiveness. Therefore, we see more and more that the optimal training load for gains in strength is in the 75-80% zone. This is not only shown in strength athletes’ programs, but in the research that followed. It also reflects the findings of the isometric studies above.

In many of the strength programs at our gym, we’ve abandoned the classic 3×3 or 5×5 approach, and have settled in at training our athletes at lighter loads. The benefits are many, including better execution, less fatigue, reduced injury, and less stress. If you give me a program that doesn’t smoke the athlete, but shows huge increases in strength, I’ll try it. If it works every time, I’ll buy it. The same basic principles that apply to strength training in the gym apply to the hangboard.

Couple this information with the knowledge that climbers frequently sustain injury on the hangboard, and the path becomes more clear: more time under tension with 70-80% loads meet all the criteria for a great program. If I can see great strength gains without having to use a weight belt, risk debilitating injury, or buy a specialized hangboard, that’s the program I’ll pick.

In the search for simplicity, I looked for a way to build a plan that would meet all the criteria of a great program:

  • simple to implement
  • no need for specialized boards
  • building strength at lower loads over a variety of hang times
  • repeatable over long training periods
  • very low risk of injury

In my mind, one of the best plans that fits these criteria is the Hangboard Ladder Program, or 3-6-9 as it’s popularly known. It goes like this:

Select 3-4 hold types or positions. You’ll stick with these throughout the 6 week phase, so pick well. I suggest full crimp, half crimp, and open hand. Again you could conceivably come up with several dozen hold types and combinations…but don’t. You have very little adaptive capacity, so don’t waste it. These three hold positions will get you where you need to be. All hangs will be done at bodyweight. Pick a hold that you can comfortably hold for 12-15 seconds.

Week 1: 3 straight ladders 3-6-9 sec. resting as needed. As soon as you start timing rest, you have left the path of strength. You should never feel pumped, tired, or sweaty. If fatigue comes into the session, make your rests longer.

this means:

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

Week 2: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 3: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 4: 3 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 5: 4 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 6: 5 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

In truth, you don’t even need to progress the volume that steeply. You can approach it much more organically, increasing loads as you see fit, or even add more “waviness”…adding in sharp increases and decreases in volume as the weeks go by. The top strength coaches all agree that loading must be varied, but the linear progression we’re used to isn’t always the best way to progress our training. Variability in volume is a big key – especially if you are on a plateau.

Want even more simple? Grab a small hold, hold it for a few seconds and rest.

When it comes to deciding which hangboard program is best, you need to understand that finger strength is earned over the long haul. Bearing this in mind, figure out what you’re willing to do a few days a week for the next very very long time. The best plan in the world won’t help if you won’t do it.

Alex Bridgewater Demonstrates a 1Arm Hang Lock Off

By Steve Bechtel

Over the past few years, we’ve seen some incredible climbing gyms opening around the world. We’re talking multi-million-dollar indoor crags here, some so diverse and huge that you might never want to wander outside again. Strangely, though, the gyms aren’t cranking out superstars as fast as you’d think. I had a great discussion last year with one of America’s top climbers, and he summed it up nicely: “The crag doesn’t make the man.”

Many of our members train in basements, garages, or co-op gyms. Some aren’t so lucky and at best manage to work out on a home hangboard. Fascinatingly, these are some of our best climbers. And although this is a great intro to a “get your mind right” article, this is about a specific workout that is as close as I’ve seen to a one-size-fits-all hangboard plan.

This idea originally came from Pavel Tsatsouline in his book Enter The Kettlebell. I mentioned the idea to Chris Liddel (one of the guys who has a hangboard only to train on) and he went crazy with it for a year before coming back to me. Chris has a board, a few weights, and some plates he could add for resistance, but he didn’t like the weight adding part, so he changed things around a little.

In Pavel’s book, he shows that isometric strength is better developed through increasing volume and frequency of training than through adding load alone. I’d seen this assertion elsewhere, so we thought we’d give it a try.

The general gist is that you do several sets of exercise at the same load (weight), but vary the volume with each set. By laddering up 1 rep, 2 reps, 3 reps, and then repeating, the athlete is forcing more volume into a workout and allowing for more adaptation potential.

We picked 3, 6, and 9 second hangs to force a change in stimulus between sets. Each time you come back to the 3 second hangs, you get a little reprieve on the difficulty, but even these shorter sets add to the overall load. For climbers not able to add load to hangs, or for those who have hit a hangboard plateau, this is a good option.

Protocol 1:
2-3 sessions per week. The big key is to start on holds that feel easy, that you can hold comfortably for 9 seconds. The overload to the system is not so much muscular as it is a strain on the connective tissue of the hands and fingers. This takes a long time to develop. Several compelling studies (yes, real university studies!) show that submaximal work can create big jumps in isometric strength, so take it easy at first. You’ll know when you’re strong enough to progress.

Select 3-4 hold types or positions. You’ll stick with these throughout the 8 week phase, so

3-4 positions, all held straight-arm with “active” shoulders.

Week 1: 3 straight ladders 3-6-9 sec. on a 45 second clock.
this means:
position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

Week 2: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 3: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 4: 3 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 5: 4 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 6: 5 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 7: 4 ladders 1-3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 8: 5 ladders 1-3-6-9-12 sec.

These are all done without added weight. The value breaks beyond just strength training, and gives a good endurance stimulus as well. The time commitment toward the end gets big, and that’s where we separate the (mentally) weak from the strong.

Protocol 2:
2 sessions per week. 3 hold positions. These are done “Circuit Style” rather than straight. This protocol is shorter, more intense, and better in-season. We use half-crimp, full crimp, and an open hand position.

Week 1: 3 circuit ladders 3-6-9 sec. on a 30 second clock.

Week 2: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 3: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 4: 3 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 5: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 6: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 7: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 8: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Example of Mono Systems Board Hang, Photo by Mei Ratz

By Steve Bechtel

The hangboard is perhaps the best tool for developing finger strength in climbers. Unfortunately, it is too often “over-sold” by manufacturers as a one-stop training device for all climbing movement. When your desire is stronger fingers, let that be your goal; don’t be fooled into trying to get a pump or do a bunch of pull-ups.

A hangboard should be selected based on its variety of both open-hand and closed-grip holds. The best boards have 2-3 sizes of each hold, and these should feel like they fit you. A nice jug is helpful, too. Don’t be fooled by tons of pockets, slopers, pinches, and such…these are sales flair more than being of actual use to the climber.

Because this is the most direct and intense finger training you’ll do, a good warm-up is paramount. The warm-up should be at least 10 minutes in length, starting with general upper body movements (easy climbing, weights, or body-weight exercises), then some hand exercises such as wrist curls or grippers, and finally some easy hangs on big holds.

It is important and informational to keep records of your training. Maintain a hangboard log to monitor progress and assure continuity of your training. If you have never trained on a board before, there is no need to get fancy with your grip positions or your workout format. Save complicating this stuff for when you start to plateau.

Work slowly into this training, taking a few sessions of easy hanging to build up to the hard stuff. Eventually, you’ll work toward holding 3-4 different positions, up to 4 sets each. Hold each position straight-armed for 4-10 seconds. If you can hold all four sets for 10 seconds each, the position is probably too easy. If you can’t hold a position for four seconds it might pose an injury risk.

Intensity can be increased by:

decreasing hold size

adding weight to your body

using one hand at a time

 

Intensity can be decreased by:

putting feet on a chair, bucket, etc.

using a counterweight system

keeping one hand on a jug hold while the “training hand” is working

 

The goal is to gain strength, not to get pumped! Rest 30 seconds to one minute between sets. At first it may seem easy, but as you advance, you’ll feel the need for this rest. Remember that fatigue has no place in strength training.

The focus of a workout should address each climber’s weaknesses or be congruent with his climbing goals. Keep this in mind if working out with friends.

It is neither necessary nor possible to train every potential hold position. In general you should focus on three main positions: full crimp, half crimp, and open hand. These can be trained at various different sizes during a workout. Pinch grips, though rare, should be considered if you climb on them regularly. I recommend “pinch blocks” for this training rather than using a hangboard.

FULL CRIMP

HALF CRIMP

OPEN HAND

Improvement takes time. Plan to train no more than 2 times per week on the hangboard, and expect results to take many weeks. Improvements will only continue for a short time before a rest cycle needs to occur and a new training build started. If this doesn’t happen, expect injury. I often tell the climbers in our programs to look at this like farming: plant the seeds, water regularly, and wait – there’s no hurrying strength.