Some Questions for Evaluating and Choosing Training Activities
In climbing, training information is often spread in a folkloric fashion. This is clearly the case on the Internet where many different climbers of diverse attitudes, abilities and experience levels gather together to share their personal accounts of the training techniques they use and why. This type of sharing appears to be an important activity on the level of developing community and “getting psyched” but are these training activities any good? Which one’s will work, which won’t, and why?
The point of this brief article is to provide some pragmatic questions that you can use to evaluate training advice received from friends and strangers, on line, and at the crag.
1) What is the goal or described outcome of the activity? Often claims about the effectiveness of training activities are rather vague, and focus on the idea that doing such-n-such activity will make us “stronger”, or that something is a “great” activity for finger strength, or body tension etc. The biggest problem with these claims is that they are made in a way that the effectiveness of the workouts can’t be measured. If something is going to make us stronger, we need to know how much stronger, and most importantly we need to understand the link (if there is one) between this new found strength and our climbing performance level. The idea of getting stronger sounds great but if a training activity does make one stronger, does it do so in a way that is relevant to climbing? What type of effect is the workout going to have on our performance? How much time spent doing the activity do we need before results will be seen at the crag? Getting concrete answers to these questions is critical. If you can’t get answers to these questions then don’t do the activity. Or if you do the activity and don’t see the described results stop doing it and re-evaluate.
2) How closely does the training activity simulate the demands of climbing? Climbing requires specific tactics, from how you pace your movement, to reading sequences, to what we do to stay calm and focused when we are getting pumped. Climbing has specific movement skills that include placing our hands and feet, initiating and controlling movement, and balancing among others. Climbing performances last a certain amount of time, for example, the majority of red points last only a few minutes and utilize both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems etc,etc,etc. How do the activities being advocated relate to these and other basic facts of climbing? Too many training activities have little or no relation to the demands of climbing. They may be fun, it may feel really good to do them, they may leave you feeling like you just did a great workout but if they don’t closely match the demands of climbing, doing them is pointless.
3) Is the training activity consistent with the basic principles of physiology, kinesiology and general sports science? Many activities that are advocated by climbers can easily be dismissed due to the fact that they don’t make any sense scientifically. For example, there are many types of wrist or fingers curls that climbers do in an attempt to improve finger strength. There is no question that these workouts can be effective at improving finger strength, but not finger strength for climbing.
There are two important reasons for this. First is that curls utilize a totally different type of muscle contraction than climbing does. Finger Curls are isotonic, or dynamic in nature, meaning that the muscles shortens and the fingers move through a range of motion. Climbing, on the other hand, utilized isometric, or static contractions in which the fingers are stationary, the muscles do not shorten, and the force exerted by the muscles is equal to the force they are resisting. As it turns out there is little correlation between strength developed in isotonic contractions and that developed in isometric contractions. Second, our strength in isometric contractions is very dependent upon finger joint angle. There is little correlation between how strong we are in a crimp position and how strong we are in an open handed position. This being the case, doing finger or wrist curls will be a very poor way to develop the finger strength used in climbing(1).
Another example is slack lining. It is often claimed that slack lining “improves balance.” The best scientific studies of balance insist that this cannot be the case. In order for slack lining to improve one’s ability to balance in climbing there would need to be a general ability to balance that is a global and fundamental skill informing all human performance. Scientists have looked for this general balancing ability and have not found it, in fact they have found good reasons to believe that it does not exist. In clinical balance test it has been shown that skilled performance in one type of balance activity has little or no effect on other, even closely related balance activities. This is the case because a great deal of what we think of as balance is actually learned muscular control. Your ability to stay on a slack line is due largely to your learning how to control the specific muscles used in that activity. Slack lining and climbing are very different activities that require different types of muscular control in order to create balance. They will have minimal or no effect on one another, despite the claims made by avid slack liners(2). These are only two examples, but there are many others, so look out!
4) How efficient is the activity? Efficiency in training is achieved when we are able to achieve the greatest gains in performance with the least amount of effort. The most important word here is PERFORMANCE. Training activities should directly target specific, critical areas of climbing performance. In the very best activities we can draw a direct link between the intensity of the training activity and a certain level of climbing achievement. For example, being able to do a 4X4 workout consisting of V4, V3,V2,V2 signals good preparedness to red point 5.12+ sport routes, assuming the problems are accurately graded and are similar in nature to the sport route being considered. In contrast, no such link can be drawn between one arm pull-ups, campusing, or hang board routines and climbing a specific grade. This is because these workouts are not efficient, and they do not closely simulate the demands of climbing.
5) Do you have enough information? Does the person telling you about the training activity provide you with enough information to do it correctly? Do you know the details of performing the workout? Does the description of the workout give you an idea of how often to do it, and what intensity level is correct for your performance level? Does the description of the activity give you an idea of things to look out for, common questions about, or problems with, doing the activity being advocated? Without this information trying to do a training activity is ill advised.
Being able to answer these questions is a good way to develop a critical awareness when considering training activities. Climbing is a young sport and to date there are very few proven, efficient workouts that do a good job of simulating the demands of climbing. We are all excited about the possibility of finding that better way to train and improve but we can’t let our excitement trick us into wasting valuable time on training activities that are not likely to help us. Asking these questions is a good way to keep yourself grounded in the scientific and pragmatic realities of training.
1. A good review of the scientific literature pertaining to fore arm strength and performance level can be found in: “Physiological Aspects of Difficult Sport Rock Climbing,” by Phillip B. Watts, published on the CD-ROM The Science of Climbing and Mountaineering, 2000, Human Kinetics Software.
2. Drowatzky, J.N. & Zuccato, F.C. (1967). Interrelationships between selected measures of static and dynamic balance. Research Quarterly, 38, 509-510.