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Finger & Back/Arm Strength popular

Submitted by greatgarbanzo on 2005-12-28 | Last Modified on 2007-03-24

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The author cranking some (better say one...) one arm pull ups on a tiny edge.

The single most important thing for a climber should be finger strength. No matter how strong is your back, how good your feet or how great is your endurance... if you can´t hold on to the holds you can´t climb the route. This usually becomes more truthful when you start pulling really hard on small to medium holds in overhangs. Once you are able to hold on to the holds you have to pull on them and if your back and arms are not strong enough you will not climb the route...


The best training for climbing is climbing. This article is intended to be used as a tool to strengthen your fingers, back and arms ONLY if you are NOT a novice climber -if you are a novice climber (have climb up to 5.8) the best thing you can do for your fingers is climb-. When you don´t have time to go out and climb the best thing you can do is some finger & back/arm strength training.

To gain finger strength is a very slow process, it may take months, this is because the gain in finger strength occurs when the tendons and pulleys of your fingers get stronger. Now probably you are wondering... what are tendons and pulleys? Well, the tendons are like small flat cords that run from the tip of each of your fingers to the base (knuckles) of the fingers and continue to the wrist and so on... they are the ones that you use to move your fingers. The tendons are useless without the pulleys. The pulleys are the fibers that keep the tendon attached to the bones of your fingers. To better explain what a pulley is try to imagine your hand naked to the bones, then imagine the tendons running from the tip of the finger to the wrist. If you want to bend your index finger to a “C” position you will have to pull on the tendon, but if this tendon is only attached to the knuckles and the finger tip when you pull on it the bones of the finger will make a “C” shape but the tendon will still be running from the tip of the finger to the knuckles making of the whole finger look something like a bow. This does not happen because of the pulleys that are like rings that run beneath the skin, over the bone and over the tendon between every single joint of the fingers.

The tendons and pulleys are not like muscles that can very easily increase of size, they take longer periods of times to strengthen than muscles. If you don´t give yourself and your fingers enough time to build strength you will end up injured. The most efficient way to climb harder is not getting stronger but acquiring a better technique and mental control. The best way to strengthen your fingers as fast as possible is to reduce the quantity of climbing per week so that you are able to increase the quantity of finger training. This may decrease the strength on your back and arms and this is the reason why we are going to mix Finger Strength training with Back and Arm Strength training in this article.

Theoretical Basics

Isometric Strength: This is the type of strength required by your fingers in climbing. This means that you will hold an static position with your tendons and ligaments for a period of time (just like when you grab a hold and hold the position while the other hand goes for the next one.)

Dynamic Strength: This is the type of strength required by your arms, shoulders, back and almost all your body in climbing. When you move a part of your body and at the same time you are supporting a load with this part you are using dynamic strength.
The Different Positions: (This concept is an adaptation of “The joint angle variance theory” by Neil Gresham) When you climb you find a huge variety of holds that each require a different angle on the joint. You have to train every single angle because the strength in one angle does not translate to other angles. This is the reason why some people can pull really hard on pockets but can´t pull in small crimps or slopers.

The Progressive Method: To train your fingers you have to do it in a progressive manner. This is very important, you have to start with big to medium holds (depending on ability) and make them smaller as you get stronger... do not attempt to train on very small ones from the beginning. The correct way to do it is to start with a hold on which you can hang between 3-12 seconds. No more than 12 seconds (the hold is too big if you can hold more than 12 seconds) and no less than 3 seconds (the hold is too small if you can´t hold on it for 3 seconds). As you get stronger you will be able to decrease the size of the holds and still be able to hold on it for at least 3 seconds.

Stronger Fingers = Less Injuries: If you train on the whole variety of holds (Yes... including small crimps and pockets!) you will be less susceptible to injuries. At the beginning of climbing the myth that: “to train on pockets and crimps increases the risk of injuries” perpetuated quite well. This last sentence is not true! What actually happens is that we get injured at the crag on this holds because we do not train on them. If we train on them in a progressive manner we will get stronger and less injure susceptible fingers!

Stronger Back/Arms = Worst technique: Do not fall into this trap. Always try to work your way up the route with your feet. Be smart. Some people thinks that the only way to climb harder is to get stronger. This is only truth for the experienced high level Professional 5.13+ climber because he already has all the technique honed!. For the average climber is really good to train the Finger & Back Strength because once this training is incorporated on his regular training he will be able to start the slow progress of getting stronger Tendons and Pulleys. Supposing that to get stronger tendons and pulleys will take 3-5 years (to do a one finger/only finger tips pull up) you can say that you will also have enough time to build a really good technique. By the end of this time period you may have the tendons, the technique and the mental focus to climb 5.13 but to do this you have to start your finger training now!

The Training

Why & How to warm up or down and stretch:
If you really want to make your fingers strong you have to warm up and stretch, WHY??? Well... if you begin a finger strength training program and you DON´T WARM UP you are going to INJURE your fingers, if you begin a finger strength training program and you DON´T STRETCH you are going to INJURE your fingers. WHY??? The thing is that if you want more strength you are going to work a lot at your top limit of weight tolerance (you are going to be doing lots of exercises with loads on your fingers so big that you are going to barely be able to hang on). This is like a professional weight lifter... he trains to get stronger and he trains with loads that –most of the times- can´t handle and to do a couple of reps needs assistance of an extra hand. Now The weight lifter is using his muscles and the muscles tolerates lots of punishments. You are going to use the tiny tendons and pulleys on your fingers and still be doing lots of top tolerance hard work. IF YOU NEGLECT TO WARM UP AND STRECTCH, YOUR TINY TENDONS AND PULLEYS ARE GOING TO suffer so much on the training that they will GET INJURE FOR SURE.

The best way to warm up and stretch is to do it in the following sequence:
1. In order to warm your muscles and to get some blood pump to all of your mayor body muscles is to do some aerobical activity. You may dance, jump, jug, or simply pretend you are having a seizure for about 4 minutes or until some sweat starts to appear.
2. After the sweat appears what you want to do is to work the full range of motion of your shoulders, elbows, wrists, torso and fingers. Move them in circles, back and forth. Do this for 20 seconds each.
3. Now some stretching. You want to stretch all the muscles and tendons involve in your training... shoulders, elbows, wrists, forearms, torso and fingers are the more obvious ones. You also have to stretch your back muscles. To accomplish this simply hold each of the positions shown on the images for 12 seconds 3 times each. DO NOT BOUNCE on the stretch, simply HOLD the position. DO NOT stretch to a point that hurts... simply try to extend the muscle/tendon by applying some force.

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On the images the arrows indicate how the force should be apply. The grid red area indicates where you should feel the stretch.

4. Before starting your training you should do some light exercises like push ups and pull ups to prepare the muscles.
5. Now go ahead!

To warm down you have to wait until you loose the pump of your last exercise. Then you simply do some light exercises like pull ups, dead hangs, abdominal crunches, etc. Some of this exercises may not involve completely the muscles used during the training session but will make the blood circulate and help out on the process of eliminating the lactic acid waste produced by the exercises. Is very important to do after the light exercises some light stretching of all the muscles and tendons involve in the training session to accelerate recovery.

The 10 commandments of your Finger & Back Strength program:

  1. You will do your training after a deep and progressive warm up and stretching. Just as described above.
  2. You will perform all of your training on holds on which you can NOT hold for more than 12 second (this means that you WILL FALL from the hold before 12 sec. Is does NOT means that you will let go) or less than 3 seconds. To enhance your strength you have to work your limit... you can´t expect to enhance your strength by doing one hundred reps with 5 pounds! You have to do anywhere between one to five reps at your maximum capacity and take long rests between attempts (usually 1 minute per rep done). With time and experience you may even do only one super hard rep and get the most of the exercise this way.
  3. You will do you training at the beginning of your session, when you are fresh and ready. Because you will work a lot at your limit you need to be freh and focus... don´t expect to do well on your strength training after the endurance one!.
  4. You will start your training with your “weak” holds or hand positions/technique (the ones that are your weakness). This holds and hand positions/technique stress you a bit more than the holds on which you are good. You better handle them at the beginning and do the “easy” ones at the end when you are a bit tired.
  5. You will stop training if something tweaks or you feel tired. Because you are working with loads so big on your fingers is normal to feel them as cardboard after a hard deadhang. This feeling will go away after a couple of minutes. If it doesn´t you better stop training.
  6. You will drink lots of fluid during your training. When your body lacks on fluids is more likely to get injure.
  7. At the end of the training session you should still feel strong. Do NOT trash your fingers on a strength session. Don´t forget that when you train you may feel OK and still be really tired, this happens because your muscles and tendons are warm and ready but once you cool down you will feel them trashed. Now, if you are warm and you feel tired... man you really did it wrong! After the cool down you re going to feel like a train went over your fingers!
  8. You will do a warm down and some light stretching after the work out. Just as described above.
  9. You will do your training ONLY after 48hrs of total rest. NO climbing the day before!!!.
  10. After a session of training you will wait 48hrs of total rest before any type of climbing. REMEMBER: You get stronger while you recuperate. Give your fingers time to get stronger!

How to design your training

Until now you have read about how your training should be. In order to get some help on how to design your training you can use the following examples.

Notice that, accordingly to commandment number two, you may want to change the size of the holds or, accordingly to commandment number four, the order on which you will train on them. Also notice that the more extenuating the hold is for your tendons the less reps you will do on it and when the hold is way too hard to simply hang on it do NOT attempt to do pull ups on it. You can also mix deadhangs with pull ups and don´t do them separately.



2. Finger board deadhangs:

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3. Finger board pull ups:

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4. Work out on a pull up bar:

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Terminology on the tables:

A.W.: Added Weight. This mean that you will add some weight so that you can NOT do more than 5 reps without assistance.
A.W. M.L. : Added Weight, Maximum Load. This means that you will add some weight or do one arm pull ups (depending on ability). The weight has to be enough so that you can barely do 1 rep.
Big: The hold is big enough to accommodate 2/3 of the finger length.
Medium: The hold is big enough to accommodate 1/3 of the finger length.
Lock offs: This are like regular pull ups but you stop the movement of up and down at some angles. Recommendable to do at least 3 different angles (i.e. full, 90° and almost dead hanging). One Rep means one Lock off no matter the angle.
Small: Only the finger tips!
Travelling pull Ups: This are like regular pull ups but you raise your chin alternately to each hand at the top of the pull up.

This is only an example. You may add or substitute with some System training, Campus boarding, Supersets, etc.

As you can see ON THIS EXAMPLES of training sessions all the angle of joints and holds are cover either doing deadhangs or pull ups.
If you are a 5.13 and over climber you should add some campus board training also, but, if you are a 5.13 climber you probably are not quite in need for this article... you already know how to train your fingers or you are some kind of freak from other planet who does not needs to.


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19 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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I can't see any images/tables?
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So you are saying that only invalids need to strengthen their fingers?
Sorry mate, but climbing 5.8 does not make you a novice.
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so nice
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No offense but have someone proofread your articles...they're pretty hard to follow grammatically speaking...
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Sorry guys!
raptorallah: I said "...if you are a novice climber (have climb up to 5.8) the best thing you can do for your fingers is climb..." Thats a fact mate!

lumineferusother: Sorry about my english... Send me a PM and I`ll fix anything! Is allways good to polish my english skills!
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personally, I like your whole training reg...and stretching is the most important thing you can do to build strength and muscles..I used to stretch for 1 to 2 hrs a day...Kevin
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First of all, if 5.8 is your limit (which is what is being reffered to in this article) then you are a novice, and shouldn't be training like this yet! He is right, you will injure yourself!

Excellent article, and I didn't find it to hard to follow. I think this is a pretty excellent recommendation for an at home training series. That being said, I also think that this training regiment is more suited for bouldering. This will certainly increase your power and ability to pull hard moves, but it is neglecting your endurance training.
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what's a pocket and what do you mean by the hold type?
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Pranav akshaya, Check out this if you have questions on any terms:
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Ahhhh!!! I'm such a perfectionist when it comes to punctuation and grammar mistakes...on a side note, this seems rather helpful. I can climb 5.10a and have started bouldering to help strengthen my fingers. It's a painfully slow progress. D:
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So i have a question. Ive been climbing for a little over 2 months now, and i go at least 5 days out of the week. But recently ive been getting some really bad pain in my fingers, mostly in the mornings when i wake up. At first i figured my fingers would get use to it, but it hasnt really gone away. What d you think would be the best solution for this?
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take a rest day gus, dont climb 2 days in a row if you are thrashing your fingers... in fact take off enough time to recouperate between climbs, however much or little that is.
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Started climbing about a month ago and climb 5.9 comfortably and 5.10 are challenging. I'm at V3 bouldering and tried a couple V4 routes. I have a really good partner that has been climbing for 3 years. She has shown me that proper foot technique is the way to being a better climber. It is very apparent however that I will need to strengthen my fingers. Some bouldering routes no matter how well my feel are placed, require incredible hand strength. I also found this to be true on a 5.10 climb last night. Thanks for taking the time to put this valuable info together. I'm so eager to be a better climber, that I may have injured my tendons had I not read your article. See you at the top!
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I don't understand what the text between the images is supposed to mean. From what I can see it refers to the images but then "4. Work out on a pull up bar:" seems to conflict with the image which talks about hold types and crimps, how does one crimp on a pull-up bar? Also, "2. Finger board deadhangs:" seems to conflict with the image which describes pull-ups. Is the text separate from the image? Am I reading it wrong? If so, how is it to be read and what is the correct number of sets/reps for the text-based exercises?
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I've been climbing for the past two weeks and i've completed a 5.8 route. Should i wait for a few more weeks until i follow this ?
Or after passing which route should i start this ?
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TwistTheNeil: I've heard people say you don't really need to start hangboard workouts until you're climbing somewhat solidly on V4 or 5.11. I'm just starting them now, climbing pretty solid on V4, because I'm starting to notice that my finger strength isn't good enough to hold on to the smaller holds. The reason I've heard that you shouldn't start sooner is that your tendons aren't up to it yet. If they're strong from something else (like maybe if you're a construction worker), I don't see why you shouldn't go ahead and do a hangboard workout, other than that if they _are_ already strong, there is usually the accompanying muscle strength, so you don't actually need to do hangboard workouts yet. Hope this helps.
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TwistTheNeil: I've been gym climbing 5.11s for more than a year and I've started training in order to break through a barrier at 5.11c - 5.11d. From what I've heard akelleh's advice is correct: if you start training aggressively you will injure your tendons, as they take a lot longer to strengthen than your muscles. I recently tweaked an index finger tendon and had to back off because otherwise I won't be able to climb anything. The best way to improve is to focus on technique: watch for the guys (or girls) with skinny forearms who are climbing 12s and look at how calm and balanced they are. Without technique no amount of strength will get you very far.
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Images in example workout are in reverse order. This is causing confusion.
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You have to have the strength to overcome technique flaws early on, but you have to isolate the two for the fastest possible improvement, IMO. I try to work technique as much as I can but once I'm at the point where I can no longer maintain a grip on the holds, there is no further benefit.

I'm not sure why there's such an aversion to strength training for beginners. I think the key is to get enough rest between days. When you climb, your focus is technique and efficiency, but if you're like me, and can't get to the gym 3 times per week, you have to build strength on the off days. The added strength only enhances your technical learning curve provided you don't hurt yourself.

Football players don't just play football. Baseball players don't just play baseball and hockey players don't just play hockey. They have to break their sport down to smaller functional activities if they are to improve beyond just a familiarity with the sport. They all do strength training, they all do cardio (although many baseball players may not, judging by appearances -- E.G. CC Sabathia), and they all break the technique down to a manageable context so they can get more reps in without being completely worn out.

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