Authors: Justin Mabe* and Stephen L. Butler, Ed.D.
Justin Mabe is a graduate student of the United States Sports Academy and a faculty member of Howard Community College where he instructs in lifetime fitness and health science courses. Previously running a rock climbing wall for the Y, Justin developed an interest in the application of sport and conditioning techniques to rock climbing.
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This review seeks to centralize research on contemporary training techniques and their purpose in the development of training programs for elite level climbing. A needs analysis determined that elite level rock climbing demonstrates a need for muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility (namely in the hip joint) to be enhanced in order to improve performance in rock climbing.
Current research into sport specific exercises for rock climbers focuses on maximal strength in the finger flexor and forearm muscles with respect to body weight. Additional attributes that contributed to performance are the shoulder girdle and core muscles, flexibility in the hip joints, and enhanced anaerobic energy pathways.
The sport specific exercises identified for development of sport specific attributes are: hang board, campus board, system training, and hyper gravity training. Through an informal movement analysis, three phases of climbing were determined: stabilization, preparation, and displacement. Potential application of the sport specific exercises can be derived from these phases of movement. Exercises that closely replicate certain phases of movement present greater likelihood of improving performance.
Future research in performance enhancement of rock climbers needs to evaluate the efficacy of hang board, campus board, system training, and hyper gravity training in order to reliably demonstrate the value of these exercises. Furthermore, little research has been conducted evaluating the effect of leg and core strength on elite level rock climbing.
In order for coaches and athletes to apply these findings, close evaluation of climbing movement must be conducted in order to best match training apparatus to weaknesses in the athlete’s training. All of the exercises will improve maximal voluntary contractile strength in the finger flexor and forearm muscles. Improving this attribute alone will only assist in the stabilization phase of climbing movement, while each exercise can serve to improve aspects of the other phases of movement.
KEYWORDS: rock climbing, performance, system training
The sport of rock climbing has come a long way from its Bohemian roots. As recently as 2012 it was selected among the list of hopeful sports to be included in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Though it did not make the cut, rock climbing remains a sport growing rapidly in popularity. As climbing gyms increase in number around the nation, the need to develop grounded scientific training methodology becomes increasingly important to ensure safe and effective growth of athletes. These athletes require certain physical attributes in order to reach their full potential.
Physical attributes that climbers require are “sport specific maximal strength of the forearm muscles relative to body mass, force gradient (rate of force development) of the finger flexors, shoulder girdle strength endurance, core maximal strength, flexibility (hip joints, abduction in particular)” (16). Braechle and Earle (3) suggest that “factors limiting maximal performance must be considered in the mechanisms of fatigue experienced during exercises and training”. The limiting factors to these physical attributes are bioenergetics pathways.
In order to meet the requirements of the sport, the rock climbing community has developed sport-specific training methodologies that are not found in mainstream strength and conditioning manuals. Many of the exercises and drills are developed anecdotally and the literature evaluating their efficacy is limited. It is the aim of this study to evaluate the current literature for the sport-specific training techniques of climbing athletes, and to suggest the need and direction for future research.
Determinants for elite level performance that have been suggested in current literature include: high levels of muscular strength for maintaining contact on the climbing surface, anthropometrics that support a favorable ratio of grip strength to body weight and arm length to height, and enhanced physiological adaptations to allow high levels of work.
As previously mentioned, rock climbing athletes require greater muscular strength in relation to their body mass. This is especially true of the muscles in the forearm and finger flexors. Sheel (19), Magiera et al., (14), and Michailov (16) all confirm that forearm and finger flexor strength and rate of force development (RFD) are crucial factors to elite level performance in rock climbing.
Strength in the finger flexors and forearms do not disqualify the need for core and lower body strength, though there is little literature to confirm this. The lack of literature may be due to the misconception held in the community that strengthening muscles that do not directly contribute to grip will increase mass, causing an unfavorable increase in the strength to weight ratio.
Body composition. There is a trend in rock climbing suggesting that elite level climbers require a low percent body fat. This trend is likely because of the concern climbers have for their strength to weight ratio.
This trend is a misconception that has been dispelled in literature, yet remains prevalent in the community. Mermier, Janot, Parker, and Swan (15) found that training variables rather than anthropometrics have a greater influence on climbing performance. Similarly, Michailov (16) found no correlation between climbing achievements and body composition, but noted that low percent body fat is a distinguishing feature of elite climbers. These findings suggest that body composition does not have a significant effect on performance.
Ape index. Another trend in the community is that the ratio of height to arm length, or ape index, has an effect on performance. Ape index has been measured in several studies including, Magiera and Roczniok (13), Magiera et al. (14), Michailov (16), and Cheung et al., (5). Though Magiera et al. (14) found ape index to be one of seven characteristics that described overall performance capacity, most other studies are inconclusive on the matter.
The kinematic analysis of climbing movements is beyond the scope of this study. However, a simplified analysis of movement can assist in deriving bioenergetics and sport specific exercise needs for climbing. According to Braechle and Earle (3), a movement analysis should include “body and limb movement patterns and muscular involvement”. Low (11) conducted an in-depth analysis of the biomechanics of climbing technique. Low (11) suggested that the reaching movement needs to be split into phases. Low (11) concurred with Bourdin et al. (1) and Bourdin et al. (2), that “postural stability is a determinant of success”. Based on this information, climbing movement will be separated into a three phase cycle: stabilization, preparation, and displacement.
The stabilization phase requires isometric contractions in the forearm and finger flexor, core, and leg muscles. These contractions are necessary for the climber to maintain contact with the climbing surface and establish postural stability. The preparation phase maintains isometric contractions in forearm and finger flexor muscles, while shoulder, core, and leg muscles are used dynamically and isometrically to make adjustments in body position necessary to maintain postural stability. The preparation phase movements are meant to facilitate transition from the stabilization phase into the displacement phase. The displacement phase is the movement of body mass from one hold to the next. Much of this movement is bilateral and activation, both isometric and dynamic, of muscles is determined by the direction of displacement.
Due to the cyclic nature of these phases, isometric contraction of the forearm and finger flexor muscles is intermittent. Dynamic activation of shoulder, core, and leg muscles allows movement to new climbing holds. During each of these phases, activation of muscle groups is bilateral, suggesting the need for sport specific exercises to train bilateral movements. This simplified movement analysis is intended to summarize the movements of climbing and does not fully detail the complexity of rock climbing movements.
There is a need to train phosphocreatine, anaerobic, and aerobic energy systems to enhance climbing performance. Based on the findings of the movement analysis, there are frequent intermittent isometric contractions in the forearm and finger flexor muscles and intermittent isometric and dynamic activation of leg, core, shoulder, and arm muscles. Based on these contraction types, there is a need to train the phosphocreatine and anaerobic ATP production pathways. Based on the cyclic, but variable, nature of the movement patterns; there is an aerobic component that takes place in longer climbing routes.
A unique phenomenon is produced during climbing that is dissimilar to other athletic endeavors with respect to VO2 and the aerobic energetics to which it is linked. According to Sheel (19), “heart rate increases as climbing difficulty increases” though several studies note that there is a disproportional rise in heart rate compared with VO2 during climbing. Michailov (16) and Mermier et al. (15) note similar findings of a non-linear relationship between heart rate and VO2 during climbing. Sheel (19) credited this disproportion to isometric contractions, citing that “it is well established that isometric handgrip exercise causes a disproportionate rise in heart rate compared with oxygen consumption –that is, not linear as with dynamic exercise”.
Sheel (19) concluded “that a significant accumulation of blood lactate coincides with climbing, and it increases with climbing difficulty”. Giles, Rhodes, and Taunton (8) also observed increases in blood lactate levels at differing angles of climbing. Magiera et al. (14) cited that both isometric endurance and oxygen uptake during arm work at anaerobic threshold are two of seven characteristics that describe performance capacity. These findings suggest anaerobic work during climbing and the need to identify exercises that will further augment anaerobic energy production for climbing athletes.
SPORT SPECIFIC EXERCISES
Current sport specific exercises emphasize the development of the phosphocreatine and anaerobic ATP production pathways and grip strength. Grip strength is composed of two separate attributes: Maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) force and RFD. When a climber is reaching for an unusually shaped hold or an abnormally small/large grip, it is necessary to use greater amounts of force to increase the amount of friction between fingers and climbing surface for adhesion. Holds that are smaller and more difficult to grip require greater amounts of MVC.
“Contact strength is your ability to quickly grab a hold and stick it” (9). This is RFD and is crucial at the moment of contact with the climbing surface. Climbing movements such as dead points and dynos rely on RFD to generate large amounts of force quickly to initiate and maintain contact with climbing holds at the apex of the movement.
The following exercises have been developed within the climbing community and have been the generally accepted contemporary training techniques that lead to sport specific gains in MVC and RFD.
Hang Board Training
“A hang board is a training device usually made of plastic or wood that has a combination of different holds on it” (7, 17). This device allows climbers to train different groups of fingers for different types of finger positions that may be encountered during a climb. The most frequent are open crimp, half crimp, closed/full crimp, pinch (9), finger pockets, jug, sloper, and under cling (17).
Training different grip positions assists in the development of isometric strength in the selected positions. This type of training would benefit the stabilization and preparation phases of movement due to the isometric contractions involved. However, because hang boards do not allow the use of feet, the weight distribution is unilateral. Due to the unilateral weight distribution the training does not affect differential weighting of specific fingers caused by varied body positions. The changed distribution can affect joint stability as well as forearm and finger flexor force production capability.
Campus Board Training
Campus board training is one of several popular training methods used in the climbing community. Campus boards are “a board with slates [sic] of wood attached in a ladder-like configuration (TE T3)” (4, 13). These slats can be configured for different size grips to increase or decrease emphasis on use of grip during various drills. Magiera and Roczniok (13) found that red point climbers, who free climb the route after having practiced the route beforehand, use campus board training more frequently than on-sight climbers, who make the climb with no prior practice. Michailov (16) acknowledged this apparatus as a viable training method and Horst (9) discussed the uses of campus boards extensively in his training manuals.
Campus boards can be ascended with or without the aid of feet. The emphasis being greater use of the shoulder, arm, forearm, and finger flexor muscles to progress. Due to this emphasis, Phillips et al., (2012) cite campus training as “an excellent sport specific exercise to enhance upper-body muscular fitness and neuromuscular control”. The bilateral movements help improve strength in the shoulder girdle and dynamic strength in the fingers. Campus training benefits the displacement phase of climbing due to the dynamic nature of the exercise. This is important for elite level climbing, because there are situations where footing on a climb is poor or non-existent but initiating movement from the shoulders is requisite to advance through those sequences.
System training is performed with a system board. System boards, such as shown in figure 3 (18) is a large board with climbing holds systematically arranged to encourage the training of different arm, hand, and finger positions. Some system boards allow the user to adjust the angle of the board, allowing for practice of both high and low angle climbing. Typically system boards will train the same grips as a hang board, with the addition of toe and foot holds. This addition allows climbers to structure a workout for practicing climbing: specific sequences, isolating weaknesses in grip, body position, and footwork; and bilateral movements that cannot be practiced on a hang board. Structuring workouts this way allows for the practice of closed skills where “the performer controls the performance situation” (6). The system board allows practitioners to complete all three phases of climbing movement, allowing translation from training to sport specific application. This makes the system board an ideal training apparatus.
Michailov (16) suggested that “system training is a special form of strength training used to improve mainly [sic] intramuscular coordination”. Magiera and Roczniok (13) observed the use of system training in their study, but did not find any significance to training preferences.
When rock climbing, three factors affect the climber’s ability to ascend the wall: gravity, climbing surface, and the climber. While the force of gravity is constant, increasing the weight of a climber can simulate an increase in gravity and drastically increase the difficulty of ascension. Typical hypergravity training involves the use of a weighted vest or a weight belt. These tools allow the climber to maintain a similar center of gravity, ideal for translation of movement capability from unweighted to weighted climbing. Hypergravity training can also be combined with other training apparatus, such as hang boards and system training to further strengthen shoulder, arm, forearm, and finger flexor strength.
Horst (9) suggested hypergravity isolation training, a combination of system and weighted training that is superior to either method in forearm and finger flexor MVC and RFD development. Lopez-Riviera and Gonzalez-Badillo (10) conducted a study that suggested weighted hangs followed by sport specific training of grip strength is the most effective sequence for improving MVC. The increase in forearm and finger flexor MVC and RFD are crucial to the displacement and stabilization phases of movement based on the need to exert enough force to maintain contact with the climbing surface quickly.
Of the four exercises observed, system training is the most similar to sport specific movements, ensuring the translation from training to performance. As Michailov (16) noted, “scientific literature unfortunately does not abound with papers on effects of training methods in climbing”. Suggesting that though studies measure the frequency of use of training methods, there is a need for analysis of the specific physiological and anatomical adaptations that result from these exercises.
The bioenergetic needs of climbers require training to enhance all three ATP production pathways. The intermittent isometric contractions of gripping holds create a need for aerobic ATP production during relaxation phase contractions to augment heightened blood lactate production during isometric contraction phases of high intensity climbing.
As previously noted, leg and core strength are sparsely measured attributes in comparison to grip strength. During the ascension of one of the hardest rock climbing routes ever observed, Lowell (12) displayed the climbers, Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra’s use of leg and core strength to assist in ascension. These two expert climbers’ use of core and leg strength is contrary to the climbing community’s misconception that strengthening leg muscles will add mass that is detrimental to performance.
From the review of literature, more studies need to focus on the following areas: analysis of physiologic and anatomical adaptations to climbing training apparatus, efficacy of MVC and RFD on training apparatus, clarification of the effect that added leg and core strength has on strength to weight ratio. Increased information on these topics would allow coaches and strength training professionals a more broad understanding of training techniques for rock climbers and bridge the gap between the evidence based scientific community and the anecdotally driven climbing community.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
Coaches seeking to improve athlete performance will find that training goals can be simplified when exercise and workout tasks are selected based on the phases of climbing. The stabilization phase emphasizes isometric contractions throughout the body in order to adhere to the climbing surface. Preparation phases involve a mix of isometric and isotonic movements as the climber adjusts their position to move to the next hold. The displacement phases are isotonic and plyometric movements where the climber is moving from one set of holds to the next and attempting to stabilize upon contact.
The best training apparatus that allows training of all three phases of movement are system training and hypergravity training. The ability to isolate specific climbing movements allows athletes to repeat specific movements and sequences in order to perfect them. Athletes can also derive benefits found in other sport specific training methods with system training. For example, holds that require campus movements to reach can be set for athletes to repeat, similar to a campus board.
Campus board exercises will assist in developing plyometric capability in athletes. Plyometric movements can be necessary during the displacement phase of movement. Finger board exercises are the least sport specific training apparatus due to the lack of involvement of translation phase movements that would provoke the need for stabilization and preparation phase movements.
Hypergravity training is the most diverse exercise due to the capacity to increase intensity of each of the aforementioned exercises. Hypergravity training will not only increase MVC strength but also RFD due to the higher forces required to execute climbing movements when weighted. This would suggest that all phases of climbing movement can be improved if weighted system training is practiced.
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