How Data can Inform your Hangboard Training

hangboarding

In 2020 I embarked on a five week training plan with the overall goal of becoming a better climber. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 crisis, that training plan did not involve doing any climbing.

It did involve some productive sessions on the hangboard. From March 19 to April 25, I completed a 7:3 repeater-style hangboard protocol inspired by the intermediate program in the Rock Climber’s Training Manual. Unexpectedly, I gained a significant amount of finger strength in a short amount of time – and I have been training on the hangboard for years.

This is a long one, but there’s a lot of good stuff here. So go grab a cup of coffee and let’s dive into finger strength and effectively leveraging data.

Related: 4 Hangboard Protocols to Increase Finger Strength

hangboarding
Photo by Teagan Maddux

Some History on my Finger Training

Before we get started here is some background on my finger training history. It has been about a year since I trained with a 7:3 repeater protocol on any grip type and it has been about four months since I participated in any formal finger training program. The last protocol I trained with was a max hang protocol. I chose 7:3 repeaters to prevent staleness in my finger training since I have not done them in a while.

The Session

Here is what a session looked like, after warming up of course.
I used the 7s on 3s off protocol for all of these holds. A 3-4 minute rest was taken between sets. In the scientific literature, six reps of a 7:3 repeater is notated at 6×7″:3″, so I have adopted this notation below.

  • 3 Finger Open Hand on a 20mm
    Set 1 6×7″:3″
    Rest 3-4 minutes
    Set 2 6×7″:3″
    Rest 3-4 minutes before starting next hold.
  • 2 Finger pocket on a 20mm edge
    Set 1 3×7″:3″
    Rest 3-4 minutes
    Set 2 3×7″:3″
    Rest 3-4 minutes before starting next hold.
  • Half Crimp on a 15mm edge
    Set 1 6×7″:3″
    Rest 3-4 minutes
    Set 2 6×7″:3″

As time went on, I was eventually able to add weight to the three finger and the half crimp as I did the repeaters. Additionally, I was able to increase the volume of the two finger pocket from three sets to four sets on occasion. Please note that as I was settling into the protocol, there were a couple of sessions where I played around with the edge sizes. However, the majority of the sessions used the edge sizes as described above.

Progress over Time

Here is a graph of the load score of each session over time. The load score is a calculated value that takes into account the edge size, total weight, and total time under tension in the session. In terms of weight added, it was nothing crazy. Weight added ranged from 5-15lbs. I was doing repeaters at about 65-75% intensity in terms of my max weight.

Figure 1. Session intensity score over time.
  • I had to cut the session volume in half on April 8 and was not able to do two finger pockets that day.
  • You can see somewhat of an upward trend in the half crimp and two finger pocket, seeing an increase in my personal best between March 28 and April 25.
  • I obviously had a very good day at the beginning of the cycle after having a week off from any training whatsoever. Evidently, this burst of energy did not last.

I also graphed my sessions from a volume-only perspective.

Figure 2. Total Session Volume (time under tension) over time
  • I was generally able to increase the volume of my sessions over time. Remember though, that this figure does not take into account whether or not weight was added.
  • Again we see the gap in the 2 finger pocket data on April 8

Why I am not Going Crazy with the Analytics

Perhaps some of you want to see a big, fancy statistical analysis on this. But as much as I would love to flex my engineer skills for you all, there is no point. I am using this data to figure out if I need to keep on with this protocol for a few more sessions or if I am plateauing and it is time to call it quits. I do not need an R-squared value for that.

The Results

After taking a week off of hangboarding between April 26 and May 1, I stepped up to test my max weighted hang again. Here is a table comparing my March 19 results to my May 2 results.

Figure 3. Comparison of March 19 results vs. May 2 results.

In five weeks, I added 12lbs to my max weighted hang on a 20mm edge by doing 7:3 repeaters.

Assessment Results March vs. May

During my assessment on March 19, after I did my final set (bodyweight + 54lbs), I knew I had nothing left. However, when I assessed myself on 5/2, I still had gas in the tank for one more round.

I was also able to hang bodyweight + 70lbs for eight seconds. It was not the full ten seconds, so I did not include in the chart above, but I can say that there was substantial improvement from this cycle of the repeater protocol.

Hanging bodyweight + 70lbs for 8 seconds during my 5/2 finger strength assessment.
I have a Tension Flashboard, but this similar hangboard is readily available since I knowTension has unfortunately been shut down due to the crisis.

Discussion: Applying the Research

Going into my assessment on May 2, I genuinely did not think that my max hang would change by much, if at all. Based on the research of Dr. Eva Lopez, repeater-type protocols are theorized to produce structural adaptation in the muscles in the forearms and fingers, but not necessarily provide significant increase to max strength, not as well as a max hang protocol anyway. Here’s an analogy if you need a more thorough explanation of this concept.

Hypertrophy and Strength: The Office Analogy

I like to think about strength and hypertrophy in terms of an office building. A business can perhaps generate more money if they add more workers to their staff. So the company builds a new floor in the office. But, the business will not simply start making more income by adding another floor to the building, they have to hire people to do utilize the new work space in order to generate additional income.

Hypertrophy is the office building and neural recruitment is the staff. Make sense?

So based on the general theory, I assumed that after this cycle of repeaters, I would need to do some maximal hanging to teach my brain to recruit any newly developed muscle; however, this was not the case. It was a fun lesson to learn.

“There’s no hard line between strength and endurance training. You can get strong from a more endurance based protocol even though it’s probably not the most ideal or efficient way.”

Natasha Barnes, elite climber, power lifter, and physiotherapist

In search for the reasons behind my successful training cycle, I again turned to the experiment from Dr. Eva Lopez for answers.

Comparing myself to the Eva Lopez Intermittent Hangs Experiment

There are a few key differences between what I did and what Eva recommends for her intermittent hangs protocol, so this comparison should be taken with a grain of salt. Here is a description of the protocol used in Eva’s experiment for the intermittent hangs group.

Eva’s Training Protocol

“The Intermittent method in the first 4 weeks consisted of 3-5 sets of 4 repetitions, each repetition being a 10-second dead-hang; the pause was 5 seconds between repetitions and 1 minute between sets. No added weight was used, the load was managed by choosing the smallest edge (MED) that would allow to complete all the prescribed volume and reach failure or close to failure in the last repetition of the last set.”

Maximal hangs, Intermittent Hangs (Repeaters) or a Combination. Which 8-week program is more effective for developing grip strength in rock climbers?

Obviously the work to rest ratio, total volume and edge sizes are differ between my training sessions and those done by Eva’s group. In any case, here is a comparison of my results after ten sessions to the 4 week results of the participants in Eva’s Intermittent Hangs experiment.

Comparing Testing Protocols

Though my training was completed on a 15mm edge and Eva’s trainees trained on the minimum edge depth they could handle, this is not how the standardized testing was carried out. I performed my testing on a 20mm edge recording my max hang for 10s. Eva’s cohort performed testing on a 15mm edge looing for max weight for a 5s hang. Though the comparison is not perfect, here is how my results look relative to Eva’s group.

Figure 4. Comparison of my results to Eva’s cohort.

My results exceeded the average results of those in Eva’s study. There could be a lot of reasons for this. The average number of years of climbing for those in the study was 11.7 – more than double the number of years that I have been climbing. I suppose I have more room to grow than those in Eva’s cohort. Overall, this protocol was really effective for me at this time.

tension board lauren abernathy
Awkward two finger pockets.

Using this Data to make Decisions

In hindsight, I wish I had done some assessment on the three finger and half crimp grips, but I did not. No experiment is perfect, I suppose. However I learned what I need to from my assessments.

Overall, I can see that my half crimp strength is plenty strong for my climbing goals this year (see Self-Coaching for more details on this). Additionally, I know that with my trip to Wild Iris coming up, a focus on pocket training is critical.

When I look at the graphs, I can see that my two finger and three finger grip progress has not leveled off as much as the half crimp. To me, this indicates that there are still improvements to be made.I plan to continue training these two grips as I have been doing for at least another four weeks, twice a week.

Conversely I am going to reduce the half crimp training. I plan to train it once every couple of weeks to maintain the strength, but this will not be my focus. There is no point in adding the additional stress of the half crimp grip to my training when I know I need the most adaptation in other grip positions.

With that, here are a few less tangible lessons to be learned from my self-analysis.

Don’t Get Obsessed with Numbers

Though it is fun to play around with hangboard data and look at our numbers, finger strength is just one factor in the picture of our climbing. I do not expect that just because I have stronger fingers that I will not face challenges when I get back to climbing.

The numbers give me confidence that I am strong, but climbing is so much more than finger strength.

Progress is Not Linear

Something else that is interesting to note in the tracking of these sessions is that my performance went up and down. I had some shit days during this training cycle, but I still showed up and got it done, even if it meant I cut the session volume in half. Consistency is the key to results. There are going to be bad days in your training, but it does not mean that your overall trajectory is downward. Progress is not linear.

Details Matter but Consistency Matters More

They are many ways to utilize a hangboard effectively. But you will not reap the benefits of a good hangboard program if you do not choose one and complete it with focus and consistency.

Key Points
A strength-endurance protocol can yield maximal strength benefits.
– Changing up your protocols is important to prevent staleness.
– Progress is not linear.
Using data and assessment to track progress can be meaningful when planning your training.
– Showing up consistently is required for lasting results.

Have questions for me? Want to know more about how I analyzed my own numbers. Shoot me a note at lauren@senderellastory.com or leave a comment below. I would be thrilled to hear from you.

Want more tips to help you become a better climber? Stay up to date on my latest posts by following me on Instagram, Facebook, and subscribing to my monthly newsletter!

Please note that the post above contains affiliate links. If you happen to purchase anything from the links above, at no cost to you, senderellastory.com gets a small kickback which helps keep this site free for all to access and supports further content creation. Thank you for your support.

Resources

https://strengthclimbing.com/eva-lopez-inthangs/#Disc

https://www.powercompanyclimbing.com/blog/self-climbing-assessment

https://en-eva-lopez.blogspot.com/2018/03/maximal-hangs-intermittent-hangs.html

https://natashabarnesrehab.com/aboutme

A Climber’s 21 Day Meditation Experiment

girl climbing gym senderella story

I always liked the part of yoga class where you laid down on the floor and did nothing for ten minutes. It was my motivation for showing up actually. I suffered through the vinyasas, holding planks for too long, and eating shit while trying to do crow pose, just to dissolve myself in the last ten minutes of nothing.

For some, the ability to find ease in the present moment is commonplace. For many, it is not.

Whether I’m at work or training or trying to enjoy dinner with my other half, parts of my mind are nibbling away joys of the present. It is sometimes difficult to avoid mulling over the worst parts of my day or skip to planning out the next. You might feel this way to.

These thought patterns are a detriment to our progress and well-being – in climbing or otherwise. The ability to focus is critical to enjoying our lives and our performance as climbers.

Focusing on technique and the execution of moving is always priority number one when training. If you are not there and conscious, no learning is happening.

Marius Morstad

Which is why in 2020, I set the goal of “developing a regular meditation practice”. Frankly, this is a crap goal because it lacks specificity and timeliness. However, I am writing this from month four of this project and I see that the end goal is to have meditation become a part of my day everyday – just like brushing my teeth.

Getting Some Help

To help with this, I received some help from Jenifer who runs Oasis Climbing Club, a guide service providing yoga, meditation and climbing retreats in locations throughout Spain. We connected on social media and I mentioned my goals to her. A certified yoga teacher with a specialization in meditation and visualization, she graciously offered to help. She is certainly the expert I needed. Since Jen is in Spain, we communicated via WhatsApp. Each day she uploaded a ten minute recording, allowing me to sample different types of meditation. For those who have not meditated before, this may seem absurd. “How could sitting on your ass with your eyes closed be categorized into different ‘types’?”

This confused me at first too, but after twenty one days with Jen – I began to understand the nuances.

My Favorite Meditations

In the 21 days with Jen, a few of the meditations really stood out. My absolute favorite was a visualization of a day at the crag. From getting out of the car to the crux of the project, Jen’s voice guided me through a visualization. The purpose of this is to breed familiarity, control and confidence when I face these situations in real life.

If you think visualization is too “woo woo” for you, then perhaps some research may be of interest.

Research: Physical Strength Gained by the Mind

In a 2004 study, researchers took to finding out what happens if individuals used only their minds to improve their strength in comparison with physical training. There were four groups. One group trained their pinky flexion performing only mental contractions. There was a group that trained physically, and another that did no training, but was measured as a control. After twelve weeks, the results were in. The group that trained physically saw an increase in pinky abduction strength of 53%; the mental-only group saw strength improvements as well: 35%. Not bad for not even lifting a finger.

We conclude that the mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength.

From mental power to muscle power–gaining strength by using the mind

Visualizing is not just for strength, however. The best of the best climbers have used this technique for some of their greatest ascents.

Then I visualized a lot. In my head, I cut it down into different sections. Here climb fast, here slow down. In the end, I figured there would be two moves where I could fall.

Adam Ondra on his Flash of Super Crackinette, the world’s first 5.15a flash

So if you think that increasing your mental sharpness and visualizing your sport will not help you, you might want to think again.

Lauren Abernathy Flesh for lulu
Me getting ready for the first crux on Flesh for Lulu, 5.12a/b with some deep breathing and visualization of the crux moves.

Jen’s calming voice did not only help me with a day at the crag, I also learned techniques for eating – mindfully, that is.

Eating Meditation

Another one I really enjoyed was a meditation on mindful eating. I “mindfully consumed” a sunflower buttercup. It made me realize how much I rush through eating my food. Though I don’t always remember to, I do recall these ideas when I am eating on occasion. It helps to slow me down and squeeze a bit of extra joy out of my life.

What I Learned

Though there were certainly days where I didn’t feel like I had even ten minutes to myself, I was always glad when I did take the time. Showing up to meditate is a lot like showing up to train for climbing. Some days you are going to suck at it — not that you can really suck at meditation, but some days definitely feel harder than others. However, you build the practice and reap the benefits by being consistent, not by giving up when it seems difficult.

Why this is important to me and my climbing

Practicing the mental aspect of climbing is difficult, especially since it lacks the tangibility of physical practice. Meditation is a common practice for many elite athletes, especially in the climbing space. Though I can’t keep up with Adam Ondra’s campus session, keeping myself mentally sharp by meditating like Hazel Findlay seems like a good option.

The mind is a muscle just as much as the body. We should train it as such.

You would never train your fingers and then expect your fingers to be strong for years without continuing up your finger-boarding. Equally, you can train your mind, but if you don’t continue that practice it will get weak again.

Hazel Findlay – Power Company Climbing Episode 57

In addition to benefits in sports performance, the body of research relating meditation with improved health and wellness, is absolutely booming. There is an entire sector of Harvard research dedicated to mindfulness. This practice that has been around for thousands of years, seems to have significant positive effects on our wellbeing. I have found that taking this time for myself feels really good and the scientific community seems to resoundingly agree.

Several studies have shown that the constant practice of meditation induces neuroplasticity phenomena, including the reduction of age-related brain degeneration and the improvement of cognitive functions… The effects of meditation are correlated to improvements in attention, working memory, spatial abilities, and long-term memory.

Mindfulness Meditation Is Related to Long-Lasting Changes in Hippocampal Functional Topology during Resting State: A Magnetoencephalography Study

Where to Next

After the completion of my 21 day experiment, I had the kick start I needed. To keep the journey going I use a combination of my white board as well as the HeadSpace app.

I am far from perfection, but I am showing progress in being consistent. I had a fifteen day streak of meditating in March – a personal record. Though I missed a couple of days throughout April, I am still keeping up with the practice.

The HeadSpace app has meditations as short at 3 minutes. It’s hard to say you don’t have the time to be consistent when you can invest just three minutes a day into improving your wellbeing.

Have you meditated before? Has it helped your focus while climbing? Have questions about how I made it a consistent practice? Drop a comment below or shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com.

More about Oasis

I would like to point out here that this is not a sponsored post for Oasis Climbing, Jen is simply very kind and offered to help with me with my self-experiment. It would be a total disservice to the climbing community to not share that this sort of kindness exists. So if you are in the market for a guided climbing trip, check out Oasis. A week of Jen teaching you yoga and meditation after a day at the crag sounds like paradise to me. Learn more here.

Want more tips to help you become a better climber? Stay up to date on my latest posts by following me on Instagram, Facebook, and subscribing to my monthly newsletter!

Resources

From mental power to muscle power–gaining strength by using the mind

Power Company Climbing – Flow and Mental Mastery with Hazel Findlay

When Science meets Mindfulness

Mindfulness Meditation Is Related to Long-Lasting Changes in Hippocampal Functional Topology during Resting State: A Magnetoencephalography Study

Interview: Adam Ondra Completes World’s First 5.15a/9a+ Flash

The Essentials of Increasing Your Pinch Strength

lauren abernathy triangle rock club

“Sticking with what’s comfortable isn’t a slow steady way to improve. It’s a slippery slope that starts off too shallow to notice, but steepens alarmingly down the line.”
Dave MacLeod

You know the boulders at your climbing gym that you actively avoid? I do. I am consciously aware that if a route looks especially pinch-intensive, I am turned off. I would rather climb something else. In 2020, I decided to finally address this gap in skill.

One could try to avoid certain types of holds for the entirety of their climbing career, but that seems almost as difficult as attacking the weakness itself.

If improving your pinching abilities is on the to-do list, here is a guide to help you do that.

Who should be doing this?

Similar to hangboarding, everyone has an opinion on who and when you can start training pinches. Personally, I was about five years into my climbing career before even thinking about needing to train this grip specifically.

“If we’re going to set a basic rule that applies to most people, for the first year, they should just climb a few days a week… Then in year two, they can start to ease into training.” – Eric Horst, world class climbing coach

I acknowledge that as I write this, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and most of us do not have access to climbing walls in which we can practice pinching. Therefore, the general advice changes a bit in this scenario.

In a recent workshop I took from Natasha Barnes, she advised that her position is that if you have been climbing 2-3 times per week, hangboarding is a perfectly safe activity if you load and dose the activity correctly. She did not mention pinch training specifically; however, I am assuming that the same logic applies.

Whether or not you engage in pinch training based on your time as a climber is completely up to you. However, if you have climbing 2-3 times per week for 6-12 months and your perform the protocols and rest properly, this is likely a safe and productive activity for you. As always, I advise you to use the information available and decide for yourself.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the details of pinch training.

What is a pinch?

This may seem obvious, but the pinch position has quite a bit more variety than one might consider. To you, a climber, pinching is the big blobby hold in the gym that you keep slipping off of. However, from a scientific perspective there are many classifications of the pinch movement. These range from what it looks like when you turn your car key, to your hand position when holding a chopstick.

I will spare you the details. The biggest take away here is that the climbing researchers classify and discuss pinches using these four variables.

  1. Depth of the hold: number of pads
  2. Orientation: vertical, diagonal, etc.
  3. Shape/positivity: shallow, rounded, sloping, incut
  4. Width/span: distance from thumb to other fingers

    source: Eva Lopez Training Pinch Strength for Climbing
lauren abernathy triangle rock club

With the wide variability of this position in mind, let’s discuss its ergonomics.

Pinch Ergonomics

Overuse and sub-optimal form while training your pinch strength can lead to injury.

One injury in particular related to the pinch position as discussed by Eva Lopez, is De Quervain’s tenosynovitis. This type of injury is generally related to overuse; in particular, uncomfortable wrist positions like the one seen below.

Obvously, there are times in our climbing where we will be in these tweaky wrist positions. However we should avoid training in these positions since we can achieve gains in our pinch strength without excessively engaging in these sub-optimal postures.

“By observing a correct position we can avoid injuries like De Quervain syndrome, caused by overuse of thumb muscles under excessive ulnar flexion, exactly the posture that we get when we grab a high, front-facing pinch.” – Dr. Eva Lopez

So what is a good pinch position?

An optimal position for grabbing a pinch is to do so with your wrist flat. There should be a generally straight line from your elbow to your fingers like we see below. If you’re a total hard ass, then you can train pinches in a front lever position like Kris Hampton. This leads to optimized ergonomics and minimization of injury risk. However I understand the most of us cannot do that.

Photo credit powercompanyclimbing.com

Here is what optimal wrist position looks like when using a pinch block, which is what most of us mortals will need to use.

If you want a video explanation of this positioning, check this out. At around three minutes and 30s, of the youtube video below, Eric Horst advises GeekClimber. More on this later.

So how can I improve my pinch strength?

Now that we have a grasp on what pinch strength is, let’s get into how we can train it and improve it.

Pinch Strength Improvement by Climbing

Though it may sound too simple, a good way to attack this weakness is to program it into your climbing sessions. It might be a good time to pick a specific pinch project on your gym’s Moondboard, Tension Board, or create one on a spray wall.

Additionally, you could make it a goal that every time you boulder, you put in at least five quality attempts on difficult pinch problems. By consciously setting these measurable goals, you will stop actively avoiding the weakness.

However, if you have been training for a long time, your fingers are prepared, and you want an even more focused approach, then there are some supplemental training protocols that may benefit you more directly.

Pinches on a Hangboard

While some hangboard models do have pinches on them, it takes significant strength of the supporting musculoskeletal system to train on a hangboard without excessive wrist flexion (remember, we want our wrist flat while we train pinches, not flexed back).

The Rock Prodigy Force with narrow and wide pinches on the side of the board.

If you are strong enough to train them with your hangboard, more power to you. However, if you are not, there are certainly other training solutions.

Pinch Blocks

My personal favorite way to train pinch strength is using pinch blocks. These are blocks of wood or plastic from which you can hang a load to increase your pinch strength. As with hangboard protocols, there are many ways in which to utilize this implements.

Pinch Training: Max Hangs

When I first started training with a pinch block, I extrapolated Eva Lopez’s max hang protocol to pinch training.

In each pinch training sessions, I did 3-6 hangs at 80% of my max weight. Max weight being the total weight I could pinch for 12-13s. I rested for 3-5 minutes in between sets.

This gave me pretty good results and I felt noticeable improvement in my pinch strength doing this about once per week. Here’s a comparison of the same moonboard problem taken four weeks apart. I had done seven sessions of the max hang protocol described above between when these videos were taken.

In the first session, that pinch was really difficult for me to hold. A month later, I felt like I owned that hold. Night and day, really.

Please note that the pinch training was done in conjunction with working on this boulder and other helpful training activities. I cannot say that training pinch max hangs directly resulted in improved climbing, but I would not be surprised if it contributed at least partially.

Pinch Training: Repeaters

Another protocol you can do is the Repeater Protocol described by Eric Horst.

For this protocol, you do seven seconds on in each hand, alternating until you have done six hangs on each side. This is one round. Rest for 3-5 minutes and repeat. Eric recommends keeping it to 2-3 rounds. As a reference, I was using 18lbs when I did the max hang protocol. For repeaters, I am using 10-12lbs. Here’s an example video of what this looks like.

Which protocol should I choose?

Extrapolating from general hangboard advice that you want to maximize neurological gains before attempting hypertrophy, it might be best to start with the max hang protocol as I did (if that sounded like gibberish, more on this here). However, depending on your situation, you may not have enough weights on hand to do this. Additionally, Eric recommends his repeater protocol to pinch neophytes, so I think whichever you choose, it is certainly better than none at all.

Either protocol will help your pinch strength if you put in the work.
Pick a protocol and stick to it for at least eight to ten sessions. After these sessions, re-test your max hang to see if you have improved. If you stop seeing gains after a while, consider switching up the protocol.

Wide or Narrow?

As discussed above, pinches come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. If you had a project that you knew had certain pinch sizes, perhaps it would be advantageous to train those specifically.

For simplicity, I have only been training the wide pinch. Eric mentions in his discussion with Geek Climber that a wide pinch will also benefit your narrow pinch strength, so it seems like a wide pinch kills two birds with one stone. Since my pinch strength is so bad, I think anything is better than nothing. I am keeping it simple and sticking with training the wide pinch only. Perhaps down the road, I will change it up. For now, one size is enough for me.

Have questions? Want to learn more about pinch strength? You can read the resources below. As always, I encourage you to leave a comment if you have any questions and please feel free to shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com if you have any other questions.

Want more tips to help you become a better climber? Stay up to date on my latest posts by following me on Instagram, Facebook, and subscribing to my monthly newsletter!

Please note that the post above contains affiliate links. If you happen to purchase anything from the links above, at no cost to you, senderellastory.com gets a small kickback which helps keep this site free for all to access and supports further content creation. Thank you for your support.

Resources

Eva Lopez: Training Pinch Strength for Climbers

Mayo Clinic: De Quervain’s Syndrome

Geek Climber Pinch Block Training ft. Eric Horst

Natasha Barnes – Hangboard workshop

Eva Lopez: Max Hangs vs. Intermittent Hangs

How I Dealt with Tennis Elbow

hangboarding

At some point in your climbing career, the act of cranking out a set of pull-ups becomes a mundane task. So it came as a surprise to me at 6:15 on a Monday morning, while doing a bodyweight pull-up, the familiar sensation of fatigue was replaced by an unfamiliar shooting pain in both my elbows. My arms lit up like Christmas trees.

This was the first time I had ever experienced this kind of elbow pain. And it seemed to come out of nowhere.

For one week I proceeded to pretend it was not a problem. The week following I started trying to figure out what to do. This resulted in the plan you see below. Between February 9 and 25, 2020 I changed how I was climbing and the exercises I was doing. I also had a five day stretch away from climbing during this period for a ski trip which may have contributed to reducing the severity of the injury as well. Over the course of February, I continued climbing, training, and largely resolved my elbow pain. In this post, I give the details on how I did it.

First, let’s start with the basics.

What is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow is the inflammation of the tissues surrounding your lateral epicondyle – the bony notch on the outside of your elbow. It is commonly referred to, in medical terms, as lateral epicondylitis.

In his post on ‘Dodgy Elbows‘, Dr. Julian Saunders explain the common conditions of both golfer’s and tennis elbow. He elaborated on the differences between tendonitis and tendonosis, both of which can result in the symptoms that encompass tennis elbow.

“Tendonitis elicits a sharp pain, felt around the medial or lateral epicondyle. It tends to worsen with activity to the point that you may have to stop the session. Left to its natural course (without aggravating activity), it should resolve in a few weeks. Tendonosis, on the other hand, is a dull ache (same place) that is felt at the start of climbing.”

Since my case of tennis elbow set on really quickly and subsided quickly as well, I am led to believe that I suffered only from tendonitis (inflammation) and not full-blown tendonosis.

What Causes Tennis Elbow?

Sources vary regarding what causes elbow tendonoses. It seems that these conditions are typically brought on by overuse, and repetitive motion. Interestingly, tennis elbow is sometimes related to excessive typing, weight lifting, carpentry, painting, and ironically, golf. Dr. Saunders evaluates tennis elbow in the context of climbing.

“The classic scenario is a sudden increase in training. The muscle, having a greater blood supply, is able to increase its strength faster than the tendon, leaving the tendon comparatively weak. Further use leads to tendon damage and degeneration. “

Evaluating the cause for myself, I believe some combination of desk work with an increase in training volume in January lead to the temporary demise of my elbows.

What can you do about it?

When I asked for feedback on instagram for how you all have dealt with elbow issuas, answers ranged from flex bars to yoga to cutting out gluten. There are many ways to skin a cat, but here is what I did to resolve my own elbow tendonitis.

Isometric Hangs at 120 Degrees

These were recommended to me by Kris Hampton at the Power Company (and many of you recommended these to me on instagram as well). Three to four times a week, I completed 3-4 sets of 120 degree isometric hangs. The duration was long, about thirty seconds per hang. I used pretty big edges in a half crimp position, edge size being 25mm+.

I incorporated these into my strength routine and warm-up. Here’s a video from the Power Company for more details.

Related: Dr. Tyler Nelson on the Power Company Podcast

isometric hangs
Me hanging around as part of my “heal my elbows” warm-up before a climbing session.

Reverse Wrist Curls

Similar in frequency to the isometric hangs, I completed reverse wrist curls three to four times per week. I used pretty heavy weight (10lbs) and used my other hand to support the movement. I performed 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps. Some argue that the sets/weight/reps don’t really matter as long as you do them. However, I have noticed that many esteemed trainers recommends that you load these heavily and I found that 10lbs was OK for me. Whatever you do, you should be getting fatigued.

These I incorporated into strength workouts or into my climbing warm-up as well.

Note that I prefer to keep the tempo a bit slower on the eccentric part of the motion than what is shown in the video below.

Related: Hooper’s Beta on Outside Elbow Pain

Ice and the Incurable Shitty Ankle

In one of my favorite pieces of stand-up ever, Louis CK talks about turning forty and his “incurable shitty ankle.” After being told to stretch for thirty minutes a day he asks the doctor “so how long will that take to fix it?”. To which the doctor replies “No, that’s just something you do now, until you and your shitty ankle both die.”

This sums up my feelings towards ice. If the doctor were talking to me he might say “Your elbows are effed up, you should do your exercises and you should ice after climbing. Forever. Period.” Though hopefully the exercises and the icing won’t go on forever, I am going to keep at it for at least a few months.

Perhaps some would argue that the ice is not doing anything, but it also does not cost anything to strap some ice packs to my elbows for a few minutes in the evening. Since the combination of these handful of protocol is working, I will probably continue icing after climbing 1-2 times per week until I feel completely recovered.

Research on Cold Exposure

Though the mantra of “Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation” is commonly touted in the context of soft tissue injury, there is not an exceptional body of evidence to support it. That being said, it is likely because in many cases, science is actual behind practical application. Interestingly, however, in a systematic review of cryotherapy, it was concluded that it had positive effects on return to participation for athletes.

In short, I think ice works and I think it worked for me. There is at least some science to back it up, so I will keep icing.

In addition to cold exposure after climbing, I also altered my climbing sessions.

Changing my Training

After getting over the emotional hump of acknowledging my injury and deciding to climb “around it”, I adopted a new rule of thumb: if it hurts during or after the training session, it is out of the training plan.

Basically, I knew what definitely hurt my elbows during training, these activities were swiftly removed and sometimes replaced. For example, I realized that power pull-ups were not ‘elbow-approved’; however, bent over rows were. So I replaced what was painful with something else. A little different, but it got the job done.

In my first week with this new adage, I made careful notes of what hurt and what didn’t — the day before and the day after training.

An important note: tendons tend to let you know if they were okay what you did 12-24 hours later, which is part of what makes tendon injuries tricky to deal with.

Then, I proceeded to do what I could without hurting myself more. I continued to train, though it was not as much or the way that I wanted to. However, I made sure to have an attitude of gratefulness that I was still able to keep climbing at all.

I could get into a lot of minutiae on what and how I changed in my training to accommodate my whiny elbows. If you want more details, leave a comment and we can discuss below.

Additional Upper Body Static Stretching

Though my warm-up typically involves some dynamic theraband stretch with the upper body, I was previously not including very much static stretching.

In TrainingBeta Episode 71 with Esther Smith, the renowned climbing physio posits that those with both tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow could benefit from increased mobility in the upper body.

“Some people are much more prone to inner elbow problems, some people are much more prone to outer elbow problems. And even if you don’t have an active elbow problem going on, it’s these types of exercises to balance what is tight and what’s weak that I think every climber should be doing…”

Esther then goes on to list a front pectoral stretch, a tricep and lat stretch. I took this idea she introduced and incorporated it into my warm-ups and cool downs.

Based on this, the stretches I added were as follows. I did these during my warm-up before climbing and sometimes in my cool-down as well.

How do you move on from an injury?

As I write this, I would call myself 90% recovered. I am climbing strong and pull-ups no longer hurt. However, I am still taking care not to overdo it. My plan from here on out is to be conservative, vigilant, and continue doing what I am doing to eradicate the injury.

Have you struggled with elbow injuries in the past? What has worked for you? What has not? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com, I would love to hear from you!

Want more tips to help you become a better climber? Stay up to date on my latest posts by following me on Instagram, Facebook, and subscribing to my monthly newsletter!

Resources

https://www.orthobullets.com/shoulder-and-elbow/3082/lateral-epicondylitis-tennis-elbow

https://msspc.org/causes-of-tennis-elbow/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3396304/#i1062-6050-47-4-435-b54

https://www.powercompanyclimbing.com/blog/2019/10/21/ep-147-making-sense-of-science-for-climbers-with-dr-tyler-nelson

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC385267/

Unstoppable Force

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Featured image in thumbnail by Teagan Maddux.

Essentials of Antagonist Training for Climbers

Lauren Abernathy pull-up

Nearly red in the face, I pulled my chin, a 53lb kettle bell, a 10lb plate, and my harness up high enough to call the whole thing a pull-up. My personal record for a one rep max for a pull-up went up: bodyweight plus 63lbs. My bench press on the other hand was less than stellar, 5 reps at 75% of my bodyweight was all I could muster.

There are not many sports that rely so heavily on pulling strength, but climbing is one of them. As as you might be able to pull, if you cannot push, there is trouble ahead. Enter antagonist training.

Despite what you might have heard, antagonist training is not captain hook working to improve his sword-fighting. It is not a buzz word you use to describe doing whatever exercises please you at the end of a climbing session either. But if not these things, what is antagonist training? And how can we use it to be stronger and prevent injury?

Let’s start with the basics.

In every movement, there is a prime mover and an antagonist. A simple example is the motion of a bicep curl. The bicep is the prime mover, the tricep is the antagonist. Simple enough.

Now, let’s complicate things. I really like how Dr. Jared Vagy explained this in his blog post on the topic, so I will steal a page from his book in my explanation.

Primer Movers and Antagonists in Climbing

In climbing, we are mostly pulling. So when you hear the word antagonist training in the context of climbing, you should think “pushing”.

This is not to say that we do not push in climbing. Sometimes, we do have to mantle or push against holds for stabilization. At which point, the script is flipped between the prime movers and the antagonists. However, the ratio of pulling to pushing in climbing is clearly skewed towards pulling. With that, we need to focus our antagonist efforts towards balancing out all the pulling we do.

For years we programmed push-ups and overhead presses as injury-proofing antagonist movements, but as our involvement with competition climbers has advanced, we are seeing a greater and greater need for good total body strength to deal with the specific demands of the sport.

Unstoppable Force pg. 177

What the Research Says

Though I was not able to find extensive research explicitly relating antagonist strength ratio to injury risk or athletic performance, there are a few studies that I want to discuss here.

Measuring Antagonist Strength Ratios in Healthy Adults

In one study, 180 healthy and active adults (69 males, 111 females) aged 18 to 45 were tested to determine their pulling to pushing ratio. This was done by measuring the number of repetitions for push-ups and a modified pull-ups (shown below). On average the push:pull ratios were 1.57:1 and 2.72:1 for men and women, respectively.

Photo as shown in the aforementioned research article. Modified pull-up.

This study was done to show a benchmark for injury-free, active adults. I would be curious on the outcomes of this study if it were conducted with a population of climbers. Though we do not have this information, we do have a study on a different group of athletes: elite rugby players. Do you think they will be just as push-dominant as the recreationaly active adults? You might be surprised.

The Rugby Players

In another study of 42 elite male rugby players who regularly train both weighted pull-ups and bench presses were studied. For as much pushing as these athletes do in their sport, the average push:pull ratio between their one rep max (1RM) bench press and their 1RM pull-up came out to be nearly 1:1. Though I am not a male rugby player, this does give me some information to infer as a climber. If these push-centric athletes are managing a 1:1 ratio in their sport, perhaps climbers should try for the same. However, research is not everything. If this does not speak to you, perhaps a coach with decades of practical experience will.

A Coach’s Recommendation

In Unstoppable Force, written by Charlie Manganello and Steve Bechtel, Steve calls out the risk of imbalances in our antagonist strength.

We downplay the need for pressing strength in climbing, but strong pressing muscles – the ones we to push loads away from the body in training – are fundamental to good movement, joint stability, and continued progress in our pulling strength.

Unstoppable Force pg. 63.

Steve and Charlie go on to advise that if you cannot do three reps of a bench press at bodyweight, you may be holding back your pulling strength.

Why it Matters

Perhaps if you have just started climbing, this may seem like absolutely too much information. However, if you are a year or two in and you have done nothing but climb 2-4 days a week, it may be time to take a look in the mirror to see if you are overdue for some antagonist work. No guarantees, but it may grant you some strength and injury prevention in the long haul. Like Steve Bechtel says “strength is safety.” So how can you tell if you are overdue for some opposition training? Why not give yourself an assessment?

A Quick and Dirty Push to Pull Ratio Assessment

Here’s a little assessment you could give yourself. Ideally, perform it before climbing, but after warming up so you are not fatigued. Additionally, try to take at least a full day of rest between each of these assessments.

Day 1: Upper Body Endurance

  • Perform as many push-ups as you can do in one set. Record the total. Make sure you are doing real push-ups, not the ones where your arms are a thousand miles from your sides and your ass is in the air. If you cannot do a push-up, perform an incline push-up on a bench instead.
  • Rest 3-5 minutes
  • Record as many pull-ups as you can do in one set. If you cannot do a pull-up, use a band or a chair to remove resistance from the bar. Record the total number of pull-ups you can do. Do not kip, swing, or cheat between reps. Do them well and do them right.

Day 2: Maximal Upper Body Strength

  • Find your one rep max for the bench press. If you don’t know how to bench, I suggest finding a trusted friend to teach you and help to spot you. Make sure to warm-up and work up to finding your 1RM (with a spotter or safety bars). If you don’t want to load up all the way to a 1RM, I recommend finding your 2-3 rep max and using a calculator to predict your 1RM instead. Make sure you rest for at least 3 minutes between sets.
  • Rest for 3-5 minutes before moving onto the 1RM pull-up.
  • Find your one rep max for the pull-up. Warm up for this as well. Do a few bodyweight pull-ups. Start adding weight, continue adding until you reach your one rep max. Make sure you rest for at least 3 minutes between sets. Record your 1RM.

Disclaimer: I am not demanding that you do this, perform at your own risk and make sure that you are not putting yourself in harm’s way by partaking in the above. And don’t blame me if you find that you are sore the day after!

Let me know your Assessment Results!

If you decide to take this assessment, shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com and let me know how it went!

This is part one in a series. In the next installment, I will tackle my favorite antagonist exercises and provide tips on working them into your climbing schedule. Make sure to subscribe to my monthly email list to stay up to date when the next post comes out! You can also stay up to date by following me on Instagram.

Resources

Upper Body Push and Pull Strength Ratio in Recreationally Active Adults

Push to Pull Ratio in Elite Rugby Players

Unstoppable Force: Strength Training for Climbing

The Climbing Doctor: Train Antagonist Strength for Climbing

Three Mistakes You are Making in Your Pre-Climbing Warm-up

lauren abernathy gravity vault

The massage therapist clapped her hands together and smiled wide. Her client had just handed her a lovely bit of information: that she warms up her shoulders with theraband exercises before she begins any strenuous physical activity.

Well, that client is me. I have a religious pre-climbing ritual and I follow it wherever I plan to climb. In the interest of continuing to climb injury-free for an extensive career, you may want to do the same.

With that, here are three mistakes you are probably making in your pre-climbing warmup.

Mistake #1: You do not warm up before you get on the wall

This is one that I see all the time. Someone walks into the gym, climbs three V0s and decides that this is sufficient to start working on their V5 project. Then they wonder why they aren’t very flexible and why their shoulders and elbows and fingers are tweaked. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the picture.

According to a review of many studies published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, the following conclusion regarding warming up prior to exercise can be drawn.

 A warm-up and stretching protocol should be implemented prior to physical activity. The routine should allow the stretching protocol to occur within the 15 minutes immediately prior to the activity in order to receive the most benefit. 

Warm-Up and Stretching in the Prevention of Muscular Injury – K. Woods, P. Bishop, E. Jones

But you knew this already. You know you should warm up before you get on the wall. So don’t wait until you have your first real injury or first bad tweak.

You might think you don’t have time to warm-up.
The truth is you don’t have time NOT to.

lauren abernathy gravity vault
Me warming up to boulder using resistance bands Full cheese because I’m psyched on preventing shoulder injuries.
Photo by Teagan Maddux

Mistake #2: You’re not Stretching Dynamically

Does it feel great to lean down, touch your toes, and hang out there for a while? For some, maybe. But for all, this modality of static stretching is not ideal for warming up to climb. Static stretching is defined as holding a challenging position for 30 seconds or more.

Similarly, ballistic stretching (“bouncing” in and out of a stretching position beyond normal range of motion) is not ideal either.

Here’s is an excerpt from an article written by Dr. Jared Vagy (the climbing doctor) on the subject.

“Static stretching is a poor choice: The research shows that statically stretching a muscle before activity impairs muscle strength and leads to decreased performance. There is also evidence that shows that it can actually increase injury rate.

Ballistic stretching is a poor choice: It has been shown in numerous research studies that ballistic stretching is hazardous when used as a warm-up. The rapid nature of the movement activates a reflex in the muscle causing it to contract to protect itself from harm. This can cause micro-tearing of the muscle.”

Dynamic Climbing Warmup by Dr. Jared Vagy (aka The Climbing Doctor)

According to research, the stretching you want to be doing prior to physical activity is dynamic stretching. Vagy goes on to recommend the following:

Dynamic stretching is the best choice: Research supports that a sport specific dynamic warm-up is the best way to increase blood flow to the muscles and tendons in the body.

Dynamic stretching is defined as movements that take you “gently to the ends of your range of motion” in a controlled manor. They are usually performed in sets of 8-12 reps. ( source: mit.edu).

Summarily, dynamic stretching before you climb is the way to go.

Mistake #3: You do not take your warm-up outside

So you’ve figured out how to warm-up. You do it every time you hit the gym. Your sessions feel better and you have your routine down. Then the first time the weather breaks and you head outside, you throw the whole thing out the window. You pull onto one easy route then immediately start projecting.

flashboard rumney
Mike warming up his fingers with our flashboard before hopping on Flesh For Lulu in Rumney, NH.

Warming up is not only for your indoor training days, you need to take your off-the-wall warm-up outside as well (especially as a matter of fact). Here’s a word from Eric Horst in a section of How to Climb 5.12 regarding preparing for an onsight outdoors.

What’s the best way to warm up for a serious on-sight attempt? Some mild full-body stretching and sports massage of the fingers and forearms is a good start.

How to Climb 5.12 – Eric Horst pg. 102

This is a simple concept but it’s very easy to mess up. Personally, my off-the-wall warm-up involves resistance bands (and some stuff with my hands on the ground). I bring my theraband to the crag with me every time I go outside to climb and I use it to get warm before hopping on the wall.

Resources and Further Reading

If you’re looking to get yourself a pre-climbing warm-up here are a few resources I would highly recommend.

Dynamic Climbing Warm-Up with Dr. Jared Vagy

Logical Progression – the first book that convinced of the importance of a good warm-up and taught me how to do it.

Preventing Climbing Injury pt. 1 – Power Company Interview with Dr. Jared Vagy

Injury Free Bouldering with Neil Gresham – Rock and Ice Magazine (see point 1)

I’ll be posting my own article on how to warm up in the next month. Subscribe to my monthly newsletter to stay in the loop when it gets published!

So what about you? Do you warm-up before you get on the wall? What do you like to do to warm-up? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com. As always, if you don’t already, give me a follow on Instagram or a like on Facebook to stay up to date when new posts come out.

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