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by Jon Vickers /

What is Strength?

Strength can be defined as many different things, but when it comes to climbing, most people refer to finger strength and lock-off strength. This ability to squeeze, pull and hold body positions is critical for moving ourselves up a wall, but ‘strength’ is often misunderstood and not clearly defined. While some define ‘strength’ as the ability to perform a movement at a climbers max, most modern texts split this max effort category into ‘strength’ and ‘power.’ This article and the following posts will review the basics of ‘strength’ specifically.

My favorite definition of strength comes from Training For The New Alpinism and uses the traditional physics equation for ‘work’ as a metaphor for ‘strength.’ When House and Johnston replace the term ‘work’ with ‘strength’ you get the equation ‘strength’ = force x distance. Since an equation isn’t very tangible, let’s define it another way.

In ‘The Self Coached Climber,’ Hague and Hunter define strength as, “…the force that can be exerted without regard for the time necessary to reach maximum exertion.” Just like the mathematical metaphor, this definition does not take into consideration the amount of time a specific movement takes. This illustrates the static nature of strength and allows us to differentiate it from power. Using the original mathematical metaphor, this would mean ‘power’ = work / time. Power as a concept will be explored in a future article.

In it’s simplest terms, strength is a climber’s ability to grip a given hold and pull to the next hold statically, but training strength requires us to get a little more specific than that. I personally subdivide this strength into ‘finger strength’ and ‘body strength,’ but it is possible to further divide the different types of climbing strength. Some, such as Robbie Phillips in this Edelrid Blog post, divide strength into the categories of finger, arms, core and shoulder strength. These distinctions are important to consider because they allow you to identify weaknesses that can be targeted through training and types of moves you may excel at. No matter what type of of strength you are talking about, it is first important to understand some of the physiology that dictates how strong you are.

Two Components of Strength

Strength is affected by several factors. According to The Self Coached Climber, the four major factors are genetics, intermuscular coordination, hypertrophy and recruitment. Genetics are relatively fixed for any given individual and, for the most part is, something we must live with. Just as my ape index is never going to change, other physiological traits such as height and muscle types are hard to alter. The second factor, intermuscular coordination, is simply your ability to visualize and execute complex movements through space and is best improved through practice such as rock climbing or performing sport-specific drills. Don’t be tempted to only pursue greater finger strength. Remember physical strength can fade, but technique lasts forever.

The final two factors, hypertrophy and recruitment, are related to actual ‘strength gains’ and are the focus of most modern strength training. Hypertrophy is the size of a given muscle, and recruitment is the ability of a muscle to fire, or recruit, muscle fibers at a given time. For muscles related to climbing, both an increase in mass and a higher level of recruitment is generally a positive for climbing performance. However, the performance benefits from increased muscle mass in the legs and other less used areas may depend on the discipline of climbing you are training for. In general, sport climbers and boulderers have little to gain from increased muscle mass in the legs and this increased weight might even be a negative in regards to a climber’s strength-to-weight ratio.

Increasing strength can be done by focusing on hypertrophy or recruitment, and most climbers will find it best to focus on both. Of course, improvements in these two categories require completely different approaches to training. To grossly oversimplify this concept,t hypertrophy is best achieved by performing lots of lower intensity repetitions, while recruitment is achieved through a few high intensity repetitions. For more about this check out this article from The Power Company (Part 1, Part 2)

The main thing to consider is whether or not hypertrophy is worth it in certain muscle groups. In some areas, such as in the forearms, hypertrophy can be worth the extra weight, but in other areas of the body, the benefit may not be worth the heavy cost. Deciding how to split your time between pursuing hypertrophy versus recruitment will depend greatly on your body composition, goals and climbing style.

Basic Strength Training and Progressive Overload

Much of what we know about strength training is borrowed from other sports. Despite recent efforts to create more sport specific research, there are very few studies done in the area of climbing training. However, , there is still plenty of information to be gained from general strength training. In fact, much of the jargon we use to describe climbing workouts comes straight from weightlifting literature.

A basic workout consists of a series of intentional exercises that target specific muscles and groups of muscles by repeatedly making them work under an additional load. The load or difficulty is the resistance and the repetitions, or reps, are uninterrupted load cycles. A set is one completed cycle of repetitions. The ability to track ones progress is based entirely on understanding these concepts and being able to appropriately set the resistance-rep-set-rest ratios to achieve the desired gains.

According to the Rock Climber’s Training Manual and much of the training community, muscular adaptation is achieved by performing a cycle of overload, recovery and supercompensation. In general terms, this applies to both hypertrophy and recruitment, the difference being that recruitment gains are seen much sooner than gains for hypertrophy and decisions for repetition and set amounts often differ between the two. According to the Anderson’s, this cycle of progressive overload requires the training volume to “exceed the body’s baseline capability and continuously increase from one workout to the next”.

In either case, you need to be able to track your routine to control the progressive overload needed for adaptation. To do this you must be able to quantify your resistance and adjust that resistance incrementally. This approach has been used by weightlifters and other athletes for a long time and is often applied to sport specific training for climbing.

The general gist is if you can do a desired number of repetitions for a certain amount of sets, the resistance should then be incrementally increased in some way. The amount and way of of increasing resistance is based on your body, personal goals, preference and many other factors. Some common ways to increment resistance is to increase weight, increase difficulty, decrease rest time and decrease hold size. Once you can track what you are doing, you can increase resistance systematically to achieve progressive overload.

The important thing to remember is that ‘getting after it’ is only one part of the cycle to getting strong. Recovery and supercompensation are just as important, if not more so. These final two steps are the part where an athlete actually gets stronger. Without the proper rest a climber will never fully recover from their training and will only continue to dig a deeper hole to recover from. Once recovered, there is also an opportunity to make improvements. This is known as ‘supercompensation.’ This is the post training period during which the trained muscles achieve a higher performance capacity than they did prior to the training period. This supercompensation is what we are all after. It’s these gains that we hope to achieve through all the hard work and discipline. Make sure that you don’t hinder your progress by overtraining!

Bouldering for Strength

First, we’ll start something to do before we dive into finger training in the upcoming Strength 2 article.. Go bouldering! Bouldering is one of the best climbing routines for improving strength in a way that directly relates to climbing. This ‘specific’ training allows you to not only improve strength in a variety of categories such as fingers, arms and core, but it also trains technique and other skills not present in more ‘general’ routines. As you become a better climber, your time spent on just climbing or bouldering may begin to shift to routines that allow for more trackable results. This may include increased time on a fingerboard or lifting, but making sure your routines are as sport specific as possible is still something to strive for.

If you are trying to achieve strength gains from bouldering, it is important to pick and choose the best problems for the task. Choosing straightforward problems that emphasize a single grip type are often the best for strength training. It is also important that the difficulty of the climbs is near your limit. If you are able to flash a chosen problem, it is most likely not hard enough to stimulate max strength gains. On the flip side, if it is too hard to link or even make moves after working out the beta, it is likely too hard. Avoid strength training on problems that are low percentage or have a single crux move.

Climbing on the woody problems is great way to find these types of problems. I recommend prioritizing boulder problems that emphasize holds and movements similar to those on a goal project or that represent a weakness that you have. Then move on to other hold and movement types. Make sure to get sufficient rest between attempts on each difficult problem. Once the quality of your attempts goes down, move on to another type of training or end your session.

General Strength Training Terms

Strength-to-weight ratio: your strength divided by your body weight.

Concentric: This contraction shortens your muscle as it acts against resistive force (like a weight). For example, during a biceps curl, the biceps contract concentrically during the lifting phase of the exercise.

Eccentric: During these contractions, the muscles lengthen while producing force—usually by returning from a shortened (concentric) position to a resting position. Using the same example above, the lowering the weight back down during a biceps curl is an eccentric contraction for the biceps.

Isometric: Isometric exercise or isometrics are a type of strength training in which the joint angle and muscle length do not change during contraction (compared to concentric or eccentric contractions, called dynamic/isotonic movements).

Hypertrophy: Muscle hypertrophy refers to muscle growth together with an increase in the size of muscle cells. This occurs as a result of strength or resistance training that stimulates activity in muscle fibres causing them to grow.

Progressive Overload: The training volume must exceed the body’s baseline capability and continuously increase from one workout to the next.

Supercompensation: The post training period during which the trained function/parameter has a higher performance capacity than it did prior to the training period.

Recruitment: Describes the proportion of active motor units contributing to a given muscular contraction.

Repetitions: A term used in physical training to denote single exercise cycle, such as lifting a lowering a weight.

Set: A term used in physical training to denote a group of repetitions performed consecutively, such as lifting and lowering a weight five time in quick succession.

Our Next Articles:

Strength Part 2: Finger Training and Hangboarding

Strength Part 3: Sport Specific Lifting for Climbing

Works Cited and Further Reading:

The Self Coached Climber by Dan Hague and Douglas Hunter

The Rock Climber’s Training Manual by Michael and Mark Anderson

Training for the New Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnston

Edelrid’s Strength Basics with Robbie Phillips


  • Steven Low says:

    Hey, your article was posted on reddit’s climb harder (/r/climbharder), so I posted a comment over there which would help correct a bit of misinformation in your post!

    >> “Strength is affected by several factors. According to The Self Coached Climber, the four major factors are genetics, intermuscular coordination, hypertrophy and recruitment.”

    There’s more factors. For example, what you mean by genetics? Do you mean percentage of fast twitch or slow twitch fibers in muscles? Do you mean pennation angles? There’s a bunch of different things that can refer to.

    Also, strength, based on modifiable factors, is probably best defined as:

    Strength = neurological adaptations * muscle cross sectional area (e.g. hyperrtrophy)

    Neurological adaptations are not solely limited to intermuscular coordination and recruitment. There are:

    1. Recruitment — increase number of motor units firing
    2. Rate coding — increasing firing rate of motor units
    3. Intra-muscular coordination (synchronization)– increase in motor units firing at the same time (think tug of war synchronized pullers versus without why this is important)
    4. Inter-muscular coordination (contribution) — way the muscles fire to perform complex movements
    5. Antagonist inhibition — reduced resistance from muscles that inhibit the movement
    6. Motor learning — the programmed skill the body learns to fire motor units in a coordinated manner

    Generally, most slow twitch muscles like the forearms, abs, low back, and calves which require a lot of endurance are very highly rate coded for strength which is why training them extensively can be very fatiguing. This needs to be factored into any program that is made generally. If you look up the studies on the forearms, you’ll see that at about 50% maximal force output the forearms will start to rate code until they reach 100% of their maximal force output as opposed to 85-90% 1 RM for other muscles.

    Both inter-muscular coordination and motor learning are a result of rapidly improving climbs and via technique during sessions whereas strength related attributes such as recruitment, rate coding, intra-muscular coordination typically are improved via systematic strength training. Based on progressive overload principles of course.

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