By Steve Bechtel
Contact Strength is a term unique to climbing. It refers to one’s ability to grasp a hold with maximum strength “on contact.” The ability for different climbers to do this varies widely, and many climbers have to “ramp” their strength a bit each time they grab a new hold.
Although we see our use of holds as “static” or isometric exercise, when moving quickly to a hold there is a very slight stretch-shortening event that takes place in the fingers and forearm muscles. For example, when moving dynamically to an edge, the fingertips touch the hold and the muscles of the forearm contract as force is added to the system (in the form of our bodyweight being transferred to the edge). The finger joints open slightly under this load, then contract again to a more mechanically advantageous position.
This is where climbers’ ability to use the holds begins to show differences. Some have almost no ability to use holds in this dynamic fashion. Others can stick almost anything they touch. One way to look at it is that each climber has a hold-size limit that he can use in a speed situation.
Improving your contact strength is difficult and intense business. Paying attention to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Implied Demands), we want to keep these sessions as close to climbing as possible. Campus boards, system walls, climbing gyms, and boulders can all be useful. However, some specific rules apply.
The training requires a lot of time on your fingers. You’ve got to be comfortable with the campus board or at least be experienced at the use of a hangboard. If you haven’t spent the cursory time training, it would be best to put this off and spend a few training cycles just bouldering.
Training contact strength requires an extensive warm-up. It is best to start with 15-20 minutes of general activity. Several minutes of deadhangs on progressively smaller holds should complete the warm-up. If there is any pain or feeling of stress in the joints at the end of this warm-up, the session should be stopped and no more climbing should occur that day.
A system wall or a campus board is the right tool for this job. Start out with holds you can use easily, choosing a matched pair of start holds and a “catch” hold 12″ to 18″ higher. Begin by reaching up first with the left, catching the hold momentarily, and then returning to the start hold. Repeat this move 5-7 more times then step down and rest. After 1-2 minutes rest, repeat the same number of repetitions with the right hand. Do this exercise 2-3 times (sets), then move on to more difficult exercises. No more than three total exercises need be done in any given session.
The intensity can be changed either by spacing the holds further apart or by reducing the size of the holds used. This type of training is best done on edges, though effective workouts on slopers or pockets are also possible. After your three exercises, call it a day. You should not work so long at this to feel fatigue. This is power and strength training, and increasing your levels of fatigue in a workout does not improve either of these attributes.
Because this type of strength is gained primarily through neuromuscular function, you should not notice a “pumped” or “wasted” feeling at the end of the session. Accept this, and allow that good results will come. After 4 weeks of steady training, your improvement should be quite noticeable. Cycle out of contact training for a few weeks, and then come back to it, trying for smaller holds and longer reaches each phase.