Is your climbing stuck in a rut? You need to tackle the weakest link in your chain. For some people, that’s finger strength. Ned Feehally thinks it’s time you hung out on the fingerboard.
Why train finger strength?
If you can't hold on, you're not going to do the next move. You can have all the upper body strength and snazzy technique you want, but as soon as you can't hold on then it all becomes irrelevant. As a kid I always ignored finger boarding because I didn't know anything about it. I thought that learning to do a one-arm pull up was way cooler than holding small holds, and I didn't have a decent fingerboard to use anyway. That was until I read an interview with Malcolm Smith. However, it is possible to permanently damage your fingers through over-training, with young climbers being especially vulnerable. Read the BMC guidance, approved by the UIAA Medical Commission.
Scottish climber Malcolm Smith is renowned for having some of the strongest fingers in the world (he's no slouch having climbed French 9a and Font 8b+). His training advice is simply "Fingers, fingers, fingers," making the point that no world-class climbers have weak fingers, even though many can get away with relatively weak bodies. Wise words. I took this onboard and set about finding out more. As usual, there's a huge amount of information available on the web. The problem is filtering out the nonsense, deciphering the coded training talk and creating some sort of useful system for training without totally losing motivation.
For finger strength, fingerboards are the ultimate training tool. Bouldering has its place but the large number of variables (hold shape, hold size, hold type and moves being 'learned') often limit the training benefit to the fingers. Fingerboards allow you to train the fingers to their maximum without anything else letting you down or getting in the way. The only problem is that fingerboarding is boring, anti-social and hard. That's enough to put most people off, but the idea of any training is to make progress and improve, not to enjoy the process itself. Training becomes fun when you start to see the gains that come from it and the associated increase in your climbing ability.
Choosing a fingerboard
Nowadays this should be easy. Sharp, nasty edged fingerboards are a thing of the past. These days you should expect rounded edges and well thought-out materials (wood, or a very smooth textured resin) with a good range of nicely shaped holds. This means you can train a range of grip positions without discomfort. Go to your local shop or wall and have a feel of the boards. Find one that suits you, with the right selection of holds for what you want to train. Don't just buy one because it's cheap, and don't just buy one because it's got some nice big jugs on it! A fingerboard isn't that big an investment: it will cost less than a pair of shoes but it'll never wear out – and it won't smell terrible after a few months.
A basic fingerboard exercise
It would be impossible to explain exactly how to train on a fingerboard in this small article, but here is a very basic exercise that should get you started.
Use a decent-sized hold with 4 fingers (open handed) on each hand.
Hang for 7 seconds, rest for 3 seconds. Repeat a total of 6 times.
Rest for 3 mins, repeat 2 or 3 times.
Hang with a slight bend in the arm, at least 'engaging' the arms a little: hanging purely on the elbow and shoulder joints leads to injury.
To make it harder:
Use a smaller hold.
Add some weight, a few kg will do at first.
Rest less between sets.
To make it easier:
Use a bigger hold.
Take weight off by either putting your foot on something in front of you (a chair?) or by using an elaborate pulley system.
Hang for less time and rest for more in each set (5 seconds hang with 5 seconds rest etc).
This issue's expert is Dave MacLeod. Dave is one of the best all-round climbers in the UK, well known for his first ascents of Rhapsody (E11), Echo Wall (E11) and Longhope Route (E11). He also climbs 9a, V14 and Scottish winter IX. He's currently working on a book about injuries from climbing training.
Q. Is there a minimum age for fingerboarding?
A. It's a little over simplistic to apply a blanket minimum. They can be dangerous if used badly, no matter what age, or if you haven't been training your fingers long enough. Overuse or poor form is a bigger worry. But it's certainly true that using very repetitive finger training before growth tails off, in late teens, has caused severe finger injuries.
Q. I've had a previous finger injury, should I still fingerboard?
A. If the injury is healed enough to deal with the fingerboarding without getting worse, it's OK. Finger injuries are extremely common in climbing, but, with good rehab, there's no reason why previously-injured tissue can't be much stronger than before.
Q. What grade should I be climbing before I get a fingerboard?
A. Grade is irrelevant; it's the circumstances that count. If you're climbing well and have a lot of time to devote to training then it's a good idea to supplement with some fingerboarding. But fingerboards are also really useful for people who can't access a climbing session several times a week. Busy people can find half an hour to do some hangs, and they're also very useful if you work away from home. In these situations, fingerboarding can suit even relative novices. The real question is: are you fingerboarding when you'd be better off doing more bouldering?
Q. How many fingerboard sessions do you do?
A. Two or three very short sessions a week in winter as part of a bouldering session. However, I do have a wall at home now. Before that, I did up to six sessions a week of 40 minutes. I also do more fingerboarding if I notice a particular grip strength is getting to be a weakness.
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