The Campus Board: training friend or foe of dedicated young climbers? What is the evidence?
By Audry Morrison BSc, RNutr, UIAA Medcom, and Dr. Volker Schöffl, MHBA, IFSC Medcom, UIAA Medcom.
Please also read the BMC guidance notes on campus boards.
The campus board has become a standard piece of training equipment at any climbing wall since the the late 1980’s. The cult and legend of the campus board’s invention have prompted its widespread acceptance to ‘improve performance’, especially among young adult male climbers. But there is still little informed scientific evidence to back its use or application. There is, however, much more evidence on the injuries it can lead onto.
Standard campus board advice usually acknowledges the Russian roulette aspect associated with this form of intensive training whereby there is a high probability of injury with ‘incorrect use’. Analysis of climbing injuries certainly supports this view, especially with missed or incorrectly caught moves or double dynos.
What is the ideal angle of the overhang, feet on/off? Which pattern of rungs should be used for climbers of different heights/weights/ages/gender, how many sets of using which rungs will definitely ‘improve climbing performance’ and on what route/s? Sport scientific analysis can answer some questions, but not all. That is for a separate article to address. Photo Audry Morrison
But even ‘correct use’ on the campus board with its repeated micro-traumas can also result in overuse injury over time. Small injuries can accumulate in the tendons, tendon sheaths, and joints, as these tissues don’t develop at the same speed as the muscles placing stress on them.
For example, a metoliusclimbing.com information sheet on campus board use is generic for any age/gender etc and ends by stating:
‘While we are not sports physiologists, we do have a lot of hand-on experience and have learned from some of the best climbers in the world. However, exercises that work for us may not work for you and vice-versa. Experiment with your own program and figure out what works best for you. Always remember to warm up thoroughly, start small, and take plenty of rest days.’
Campus board advice is generally informed by what elite men climbers say – so it reflects the physiology and training of elite adult male climbers with the right genetics, dedicated training, etc well in place.
There is rarely any advice, consideration or understanding addressing the very different physiology of female climbers or even younger, or older, male climbers. Physiology is the study of how the body works.
Most route setters are also adult males. Young climbers (shorter, less reach) by default automatically train more dynamic moves, dead points, and/or are at full reach just climbing normal routes.
Gender differences and the effect of sex hormones (ie testosterone, oestrogen) influence training outcomes, developmental growth, and injuries. Even the performances of motor tasks in sport performance are due to the effect of sex hormones on brain organisation during developmental growth.
In general, women tend to be superior on tasks involving fine motor coordination and speed of motor programming (ie climb technically); men are superior at target-directed motor skills. Maybe this too, in part, might help explain the apparent magnetic testosterone draw of a dyno move or campus board use by male climbers.
Nevertheless, many climbers swear campus board use improves their performance, while others actively avoid using a campus board and achieve equal success in climbing routes. This article is unlikely to sway such entrenched views either way.
However, young climbers are not mini-adults and are, therefore, not able to take a full adult elite training programme.
The central question of this article is, ‘Should climbers use the campus board under the age of 18?’ In a nutshell, the answer is no.
The following evidence is presented to help inform trainers, coaches, parents and young climbers to understand why the answer is ‘no’. It will summarise
The history of the campus board - section 2
Climbing injury analysis (including injuries on young climbers) - section 3
How the physiology of young climbers differs from adults - section 4
Bibliography - section 5
2. Background History of the Campus Board
The popular rise in sport climbing and bouldering participation began in the 1980’s. Global competitions soon followed. Legendary climbers pioneered new training techniques and equipment to push climbing to new levels of difficulty – ie John Bachar’s ladder, and gymnastic skills of Lynn Hill and John Gill, Kurt Albert and Wolfgang Gullich.
Wolfgang Gullich (1960-1992) remains one of the best free and sport climbers of all time. He was responsible for 4 consecutive increases in climbing grades with the world's first 8b (Kanal Im Rücken, 1984), 8b+ (Punks In The Gym, 1985), 8c (Wall street, 1987), and finally 9a (Action Directe, 1991). Ben Moon’s Hubble was first ever 8c+.
The ‘campus board’ was invented by two legendary German climbers - Wolfgang Gullich and Kurt Albert at the Nuremberg ‘Campus’ gym in the late 1980’s. Reflecting just on this, little wonder then that it took almost two decades before climbing sport scientists even dared to analyse it as a training tool objectively.
The campus board was developed to specifically train the extreme dynamic finger strength Wolfgang required for the epoch making first ascent of Action Directe (first 9a/5.14d) in Frankenjura, Germany 1991.
This route is characterised by long dynamic moves from one and two-finger pockets. Wolfgang trained different combinations of fingers doing double dyno’s on the campus board, both positive and negative.
Only 13 other male elite climbers have repeated Action Directe - a landmark overhanging 9a route. For a long time climbers thought that campusing was crucial for a repeat of Action Directe;
Alexander Adler was the first climber to repeat Action Directe without doing any such plyometric or negative dynoing exercises, and without campusing at all. Here are two links showing the route done in slow motion showing the overhanging aspect of it, and when climbed regular speed from the front of the route.
Alexander Adler climbs Action Directe
Adam Ondra climbs Action Directe
To recap Wolfgang’s accomplishments. He was a world elite climber in peak condition who co-developed and trained combinations of fingers on the campus board to climb a very specific route: Action Directe 9a. A route he climbed at the age of 31.
In fact, every climber’s achievements before late 1980’s were achieved without training on the newly developed campus board. Many elites still do not use this form of training. The demands of any route present different challenges that may require different training.
3. Climbing Injuries
There is an extensive body of scientific evidence analysing climbing injuries - both acute and as the result of overuse. These studies also analyse age, climbing ability/experience, gender, and favoured climbing subdiscipline (ie trad, sport, bouldering).
Climbing injury data shows the fingers, elbows and shoulders to be most affected. Inappropriate training can result in acute or overuse injuries. Getting the right training in the first place goes a long way to preventing overuse injuries in particular.
"Half of all sport climbers will have an injury to the fingers, hands, or arms that will require a long break from climbing. Only a few of those climbers will allow themselves to be in a physical therapy program for treatment, and even fewer are currently doing exercises that would prevent those injuries from happening in the first place."
From Thomas Hochholzer & Volker Schöffl – climbers/surgeons specialising in climbing injuries over 20 years and authors of ‘One Move too Many…’
In sport science literature, overuse and overload injuries were traditionally seen in middle-aged recreational athletes and were thought to be related to the aging process.
For example, its understood that exercise has a positive effect on the mechanical properties of tendons – increasing stiffness, ultimate force and weight – but that age alters these biomechanical properties. By around age 30, these biomechanical and material changes may contribute to chronic overuse tendon injuries by increasing collagen cross-linkage and other factors.
There are also gender differences observed in some sport injury analysis. The monthly fluctuations in female hormones is known to influence performance and susceptibility to certain injuries (ie ACL knee injuries), but world records and medals in the Olympics are won throughout the menstrual cycle. Ligament laxity is common in women. Female forearm blood varies with cyclical hormone levels. An 11-site flexibility test in 2000 male and female athletes from a variety of sports found women more flexible in every measurement. The most common flexibility test used in some climbing studies is limited to hip flexion – positive results are recorded in world elite climbers.
Leanness and/or amenorrhea (no menstruation) are also associated with more stress fractures during the adolescent growth spurt and later in life.
A growing number of studies are now investigating osteoarthritis as an outcome of sport-specific participation by youngsters. Such research on young climbers is limited.
Volker Schöffl’s 5-year longitudinal work with the National German Junior Team compared to recreational climbers found one climber in each group with early stage osteoarthritis. This study will be repeated again at 10 years.
Too much crimping can smoke our finger joints and tendons…if training on finger or campus boards, we use only holds that we can open hand. Open hand training greatly improves our contact strength, and eventually enables us to open hand what we’d normally crimp.
John Long ‘Advanced Rock Climbing’ 1996
John Long was not wrong. Elite climbers never over grip or crimp on anything if they can avoid doing so.
For example, recent scientific studies compared World cup elite and elite climbers on a World Cup competition route (and campus board) with an instrumented climbing holds. In a nutshell, world elite climbers spent less time, used less force and had more friction on the test hold compared to other elite climbers.
This, like similar studies using instrumented holds, again emphasises putting in the miles climbing to improve. You don’t always necessarily need to be stronger to climb/repeat a route when it is climbed efficiently and confidently. These are aspects that any young climbers are especially able to train towards.
Extensive scientific, biomechanical and injury studies have shown crimping to be to most strenuous finger position, and most likely to result in injury, unlike climbing open handed.
Across sporting participation, overuse injuries are now documented in virtually every age group, particularly young elite athletes exposed to high levels of repetitive load, and young athletes involved in programmes that emphasize an intense training schedule.
Based on Volker Schöffl’s extensive experience, research and analysis of treating climbing injuries, most of young climbers’ finger injuries occur while training, and not climbing. The campus board and crimping were the main culprits in these injuries. Amongst junior competition climbers studied, two-thirds who trained regularly on the campus board got fractured growth plates in a finger.
‘There is really no place for the campus board, the double dynamo, or the use of additional weights, in anyone under the age of roughly 18-20 years old.’
Volker Schöffl, co-author of ‘One Move too Many….’ and surgeon/researcher specialising in climbing injuries over 20yr
Crimping and intensive training are common findings in the medical histories of young climbers reporting finger pain. And remember that injury to young hands is not always acute (ie fracture).
In young climbers complaining of slow onset of what became chronic pain in their fingers at Volker Schöffl’s clinic, x-rays indicated some damage to the growth plates. They developed enough pain and swelling that they could not longer crimp. Even with treatment, there may be permanent damage at this stage as the fingers haven’t even achieved adult proportions yet.
Training Methods and Devices with a Devastating Effects on Bone and Cartilage:
• Campus board
• Additional weight
• Extreme bouldering
• Too many dynamic moves
• Constant use of the crimp position
Volker Schöffl, ‘One Move too Many…’
4. Growth and Development of Young Fingers
Fingers only finish growing to adult size at around biological age 17. Biological age can be different from chronological age.
The suggestion of no campus board use for those under age 18 (even perhaps up to age 20) is stating cut-off of a chronological age that allows a safe margin for ‘late maturers’ to complete developmental growth, without having to resort to other intrusive methods to figure out where a young climber’s developmental growth is at.
For example, in scientific studies developmental age before adulthood can be considered chronologically (ie age 8 years and 7 months), or biologically (age according to pubertal development). Biological age can be measured by the presence of new hormones and enzyme levels; using ‘Tanner’ stage pubertal development references; taking a hand and wrist x-ray to examine growth plate development (a ‘closed epiphysis’ in wrist bone shows the growth plate (disc shaped bone) and bone fused at age 17 as in diagram below).
The growth plate, also known as the epiphyseal plate or physis, is the area of growing tissue near the ends of the long bones in children and adolescents (shown here in young hand age 8 years 7months). Each long bone has at least two growth plates: one at each end. The growth plate determines the future length and shape of the mature bone. When growth is complete - sometime during adolescence - the growth plates close and are replaced by solid bone. Fingers complete growth around age 17.
Growth plate (or epipyseal) injuries are unique to growing children or adolescents. Injuries to the growth plates are generally, but not always, called fractures.
General information about growth plate injuries can be found here
Fifteen-year-old climber with a Salter-Harris III lesion. (copyright with permission Wilderness and Environmental Medicine (2005) 16, 139-142. It is important to be aware of Salter-Harris Type V injuries where there may be no fracture but a compression or crush injury of the epiphyseal plate, usually caused by a twisting or axial injury, this can have a poor functional prognosis.
The different ways of reporting developmental age in young athletes are important when understanding sporting performance, developmental growth, and susceptibility to injury.
Developmental growth before age 18 is full of windows of natural opportunities for any coach to adapt training to take advantage of a youngster’s enhanced ability to develop: speed, motor skill acquisition, isometric strength, aerobic/anaerobic capacity, etc. Such natural advantages in training all come together very nicely when an adolescent achieves puberty fully.
Those who ‘mature’ early, will be able to put on muscle earlier than those that don’t because the hormones and enzymes are finally present to do so.
Fingers stop growing around biological age 17, just after the final growth spurt in adolescence when 20% of final adult height is achieved during this time.
This growth spurt occurs from around age 12-13 for girls, and 13-15 for boys.
Connective structures need to be weaker to accommodate this developmental growth spurt, Stress fractures tend to coincide with the adolescent growth spurt, and more so in lean athletes.
In climbing these fractures tend to be in the fingers. Males around age 15 seem to be especially susceptible to finger fractures as the new levels of testosterone helps build significant muscle (which also makes it harder for them to resist intensive forms of training!). (see pic of x-ray above)
During this growth spurt, a few essential kilos of new bone growth, muscle development and fat (essential for female maturation) are put on. Young climbers must not wear any weights while climbing under the age of 18 as developmental growth has already made a provision for this.
Because the growth plates are the weakest areas of the growing skeleton - even weaker than the nearby ligaments and tendons that connect bones to other bones and muscles - they are vulnerable to injury.
A child who has persistent pain, or pain that affects athletic performance or the ability to move and put pressure on a limb, should never be expected, or allowed, to “work through the pain.” Whether an injury is acute or due to overuse, it should be evaluated by a doctor. That is because some injuries, if left untreated, can cause permanent damage and interfere with proper growth of the bone involved.
Unlike adults, the growth plates on adolescent bones are 2 to 5 times weaker than the surrounding connective tissue. So a force that results in a torn ligament in an adult, will do much more damage in a growing adolescent. The following Japanese study showed stunted growth in young climbers’ fingers.
2008 Shigeo Omori M.D. and Hajime M.D. (Medical Commission of Japan Mountaineering Association)
Over 3 years, 182 junior competition climbers aged 7 to 19 had their fingers medically examined, x-rayed, and surveyed using Bone and Joint Injury Function Table used by Japanese hand surgeons.
Findings: 77.6% of these climbers had abnormalities, mostly deformation and light flexion contracture (can’t place hand flat on table). Over 3 years, overuse of hands had stunted their longitudinal growth, and increased blood flow in fingers caused a traverse growth of the proximal diaphysis of middle phalanx.
National medical team doctors and coaches share such information. Volker Schöffl continuing longitudinal work on the German Junior Team did not reveal such a high percentage of affected elite young climbers as above Japanese study, but this may also reflect the German training methods as well.
In conclusion, there is a small but growing body of research on young climbers. Adolescent bone growth, especially of the fingers, can permanently be affected by an acute trauma, compressive forces, shearing etc. Such damage can affect their climbing ability, but more importantly, their future quality of life.
It is for all the above reasons that campus board use is not recommended for any climbers aged under 18.
Audry Morrison BSc, RNutr, UIAA Medcom,
Dr. Volker Schöffl, MHBA, IFSC Medcom, UIAA Medcom.
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3. Hochholzer T, Schoffl VR (2005). Epiphyseal fractures of the finger middle joints in young sport climbers. Wilderness and Environmental medicine. 16;139-42.
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6. Sylvester AD, Christensen AM, Kramer PA. Factors influencing osteological changes in the hands and fingers of rock climbers. J Anat;209:597-609.
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8. Drinkwater BL (Ed.) Women in Sport (2000) – Vol. VIII Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine in IOC Medical Commission publication in collaboration with International Federation of sports Medicine. Blackwell Sciences. Oxford, England.
9. Fuss FK, Niegl G (2008). Instrumented climbing holds and performance analysis in Sport Climbing. Sports Technol. 1(6);301-13.
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