Developing Finger Strength
I am often asked about when and how to work finger strength. Many climbers who are new to the sport get very excited about the concept of hanging on the fingerboard in the corner of the gym, buying one for their homes to train on constantly, and buy codeine online learning to campus up and down the campus rungs.
The advice I give to most new climbers is to stay off of these devices until you've been climbing consistently for at least 6 months to a year. This is my best advice based on my own experience and the observations I've made of many, many clients and climbing partners. Because of the demands that climbing places on connective tissues, I think that it's important to allow our bodies - and particularly our hands - to have a chance to adapt to the physical requirements of the new activity before getting too specific. This is especially true for the fingers because their tendons and ligaments are relatively small, AND we ask them to hold the full weight of our bodies - which is not remotely a "normal" activity for almost anyone in daily life before becoming a climber.
It's been my experience that people who jump into very specific finger strength training too soon end up injuring themselves. Forcing your fingers into specific positions and postures before you've built a minimum amount of strength in the hands, forearms and shoulders to maintain those positions can be dangerous. I do think that for those of you who are still new to the sport, hanging from large holds for longer intervals (20-30 seconds) can be beneficial for teaching your body the biomechanics of holding a hanging posture, and can result in safe conditioning for the tendons without putting them at risk.
For those of you who have been climbing regularly for a year or more and have the capability to hold a variety of hand positions without feeling strain in your fingers, it's likely time for you to incorporate some specific finger training. I'll give you some suggestions on how to incorporate fingerboard training into your routine, as the fingerboard is a very good tool for safely building strength. I considered taking the time/space to identify each finger position in detail, but ultimately decided that if you are unfamiliar with the terminology used to describe each type of hold, then your probably aren't ready for this type of training! I would like to recommend, however that you do make an effort to train all types of hand positions when performing a fingerboard workout, including open crimps, closed crimps, two- and three-finger pockets, slopers and pinches.
Always remember that the whole point of hanging on a fingerboard is to gain finger strength, not risk injury. When you introduce finger work into your routine, it's a good idea to stick to 2-arm, stable hangs that don't involve any movement. Harder fingerboard training can certainly break these rules, but it takes time to reach the point where you can do that safely.
Follow these guidelines when starting your fingerboard work:
Properly warm-up before beginning a fingerboard session. Climb for at least 30 minutes first, or put your fingerboard work at the end of a climbing session (saving enough finger strength to do it safely and effectively). Use 2 arms for all your hangs. Choose holds that you can hang for 10-20 seconds. Take a minimum of 30-60 second breaks between hangs. The idea is to get the most out of each hang, so good recovery for the joints between hangs is important. Let go as soon as you begin to lose form. Keep your core actively engaged during the entire hang to protect your low back. Train a variety of hand positions, especially the ones you consider to be your weakest. Refrain from changing your hand position mid-hang. (There is a benefit to changing positions during a hang - for example alternating between a closed to open crimp - but this type of training should come later when you have the strength to do it safely.) Fingerboard sessions don't typically need to last more than 20 minutes, even with adequate rest between hangs. 2 fingerboard sessions per week is plenty! Listen to your body - if your joints are feeling sore and stiff after a workout, you may be overdoing it. Back off the intensity, volume and/or frequency. A note about crimping: Most climbers have a tendency toward either open crimping or closed crimping. What I mean by this is that when you crimp a hold you will find that you more often prefer to throw your thumb on top of your index finger (closed) or you prefer to leave your thumb off and allow your crimp to open up a bit more (open). Both are extremely useful skills as you climb harder, and both are eventually totally necessary if you want to climb really hard, so start working them both now! Pay attention to your hand positions when you climb on small holds and try to identify which type of crimp is your weakness. Include some extra hangs in that position on crimps of varying size.
Asparagus rubber bands: I know you're probably wondering what I'm talking about .... if you've been reading my previous articles you know that I'm always talking about balance in the body. Train your opposing muscles to balance the primary movers. I do lots of pushing exercises to balance out all the pulling I do while climbing. What does this have to do with asparagus? Well, I like to apply the same rule to my fingers - they pull all the time while climbing, so it's only natural for me to recommend that you do some pushing with them too. Get yourself a nice, sturdy rubber band - not too loose and not too tight - I like the purple ones that come wrapped around asparagus in the grocery (don't even try the blue broccoli bands - they are ridiculously hard)! Place it around your fingers and thumb and slowly open and close your hand. Imagine putting your hand into a bucket of sand and then spreading your fingers wide to create resistance against the sand. The rubber band uses the same concept (the sand exercise is fabulous too)! Try doing the band exercise during some of your resting periods during your fingerboard workout. Redpoint Nutrition carries the HandMaster training product (click here) that serves the same function.
I hope that these guidelines will help you to safely improve your finger strength, target your weaknesses, and see results in your climbing!